It was cold, and it was pouring rain for much of the afternoon, but the rally was a huge success nevertheless. The official estimate from the Park’s Department was 20,000, which seems about right to me. I’m not generally a real social person, and I’m not much of a joiner. But given that I live in a culturally conservative part of the country, and spend so much time reading and thinking about religious right propaganda, it was with a sense of physical relief that I spent the afternoon standing in solidarity with my fellow atheists.
And make no mistake, this was an atheist rally. A New Atheist rally in fact. Condemning religion was certainly high on the priority list for most of the speakers. The general attitude was well summed up by rally host Paul Provenza:
(who, let me add, was very funny and did a terrific job) in his introduction. He said, “We’re not here today to bash anyone’s religion, but, hey, if it happens it happens.”
I showed up a little before nine, even though the rally was set to begin at ten. Here’s how things looked:
The last time I was at a rally was when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert came to town, so at first I was disappointed. But by eleven it was people as far as the eye could see.
There were plenty of signs on hand:
This fellow asked me if I wanted him to photograph me holding his sign:
I smiled and said that my mother already knew. I could have added that in my family it would require more courage to come out as a Christian.
My favorite sign, though the person carrying it walked by too quickly for me to snap a picture, said, “No signs from God, so I had to make this one.”
Some people really got into it:
Jesus there could be seen dancing high above the crowd during some of the musical numbers.
Of course, there were also a few sour pusses. This fellow was preaching Hyde Park style:
The fellow in the jeans jacket on the right side of the photo was part of a group of three people who were performing a very funny rap in his general direction. Other protesters were there as well:
I certainly hope those folks were included in the official tally. There were a few heated confrontations between the protesters and the sane people, but for the most part it seemed that everyone just ignored them.
Some people traveled a lot further than I did. This item caught my eye. I used to live in Idaho, you see, but I don’t recall many license plates like this. Granted, I was six at the time, but still.
Plenty of godless doggies were on hand:
And here’s one for Jerry Coyne:
Of course, there were speakers. Lots of them! My personal favorite was probably Tim Minchin, who performed several songs that had the audience in stitches.
I especially liked his song “Thank You, God!” about how he felt compelled to convert because his friend Sam told him that his mother’s cataracts had been cured after her church group prayed for her. Here’s an excerpt. I’d quote more, but this is a family blog:
This story of Sam’s has but a single explanation:
A surgical God who digs on magic explanations.
It couldn’t be mistaken attribution of causation,
born of a coincidental temporal correlation,
exacerbated by a general lack of education,
vis-a-vis physics in Sam’s parish congregation.
And it couldn’t be that all these pious people are liars.
It couldn’t be an artifact of confirmation bias,
a product of groupthink, a mass delusion,
an Emperor’s New Clothes-style fear of exclusion.
No, it’s more likely to be an all-powerful magician
than the misdiagnosis of the initial condition,
or one of many cases of spontaneous remission,
or a record-keeping glitch by the local physician.
No, the only explanation for Sam’s mum’s seeing:
they prayed to an all-knowing superbeing,
to the omnipresent master of the universe,
and he liked the sound of their muttered verse.
It’s even better when it’s sung.
Another of my favorites was Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island teenager who successfully sued her city over a prayer banner in the local high school.
She had everyone choked up describing all the harassment that you inevitable face when you tell the religious they don’t get to use public buildings to force their faith on everyone else. If she was nervous to be speaking in front of twenty thousand people I saw no sign of it. She was presented with a check for 62,000 dollars that had been raised to help with her college education. I still say Brown University should step up and offer her a free ride.
Richard Dawkins was excellent as always:
Bill Maher delivered a well-received statement by video:
Adam Savage of Mythbusters was on hand:
And The Amazing Randi:
And Greta Christina:
Her talk was based on her new book: Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, which I am currently reading. “Atheists aren’t angry because there is something wrong with us. We’re angry because there’s something right with us,” she said, to well-deserved applause.
So all in all, a successful event. I was there from it’s beginning at 10:00 until a little before 4:00, when I decided I had had enough. I could certainly find things to criticize in some of the talks. One speaker went off on a ridiculous rant about Israel which, shall we say, could have benefited from a bit of nuance. And some of the speakers went a little overboard in exhorting the crowd to ridicule and belittle religious believers. In the end, though, these are small quibbles. The specifics of the talks hardly matter. What does matter is the visibility atheism received from the rally itself and from the extensive press coverage. That’s what people will remember. I’ve long argued at this blog that the key to mainstreaming atheism is to make it visible, and this was a huge step in the right direction.
I have no doubt that some will protest the nasty tone of some of the talks, and others will renew their annoying calls for extreme deference and politeness towards religion. Let me politely and deferentially suggest that you ignore those people. Let me also suggest that you ignore anyone who protests the casual equivalence drawn between “reason” and “hostility towards religion.” And you should definitely double-mega-ignore anyone who thinks it’s clever to observe that whipping a crowd into a frenzy hardly seems like the best way of promoting reason.
It is regrettable that rallies like this are necessary, but I have no regrets at all about having gone to so much trouble to be there.