At the Reason Rally

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.


  1. #1 Elipson
    March 28, 2012


    I’m not sure I can ignore that much, my resolution only goes to kilo-ignore 😉

  2. #2 Valhar2000
    March 28, 2012

    Ed Brayton already complained about the chanting (I probably would have agreed with him, had I been there), but he still thought the event was a success.

    I’ve seen recordings of the event, showing people saying very clever things, or silly things, sometimes both form the same person, and it’s fine!

  3. #3 Lenoxus
    March 28, 2012

    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.

    Well, that seems like a good way to promote other things, no?

    Oh, that’s right, rationality and strong emotion are always diametrically opposed. I keep forgetting.

    I wonder if that’s part of why “New Atheism” as we know it sort of took its time getting here. Besides the general zeitgeist of deference toward faith, obviously. Having strong emotions about atheism is just so gauche.

  4. #4 couchmar
    March 29, 2012

    I think it’s very good that this rally was held, and I’m very thankful for the increased visibility atheists are receiving from this issue. So I want to say that, in general, I think the rally was a good thing. But I would like to mention one issue that strikes me as slightly odd. I noticed the speakers at this rally inclulded scientists Dawkins and Krauss, but no philosophers (did I miss them?). Shouldn’t the tent be a little wider than this? After all, philosophers were writing books about atheism for years before these individuals came along and jumped on the bandwaggon. It’s not like there’s a dearth of people to choose from:

    George Smith (Atheism: The Case Against God, 1979)
    Kai Nielsen, (Philosophy and Atheism, 1985)
    Michael Martin, (Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 1992)
    Philip Kitcher (Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, 1983)
    Julian Baggini (Atheism, 2003)
    Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, 2006)
    A.C. Grayling (Against all Gods, 2007)
    etc. etc……

  5. #5 Grammar is My God
    March 29, 2012

    Thirds to last paragraph – its not it’s

  6. #6 Greg Peterson
    March 30, 2012

    Congratulations. Of all the photos I’ve seen of the event, you have the only one I have seen yet that I am in. Sort of. The dude with the cat? Those are my knees coming out of his face.

    That one was one good kitty.

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 30, 2012

    Hi Greg. My cat freaks out any time she’s sees someone who isn’t me, so I was very impressed that yours did not seem phased at all by all the people. As you say, that’s one good kitty!

  8. #8 Rieux
    April 2, 2012

    I think Greg’s saying that he’s the guy (with the jeans and water bottles) to the cat owner’s right, not that he’s the cat owner.

    Wish I’d seen you in the crowd to say “Hi,” Jason.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 2, 2012

    Ah, good point about the cat. Considering how many people there were, it’s asking a bit much of chance that we would have run into each other.

  10. #10 Rieux
    April 3, 2012

    Chance, schmance: clearly you haven’t been trying the Hoyle Method for manufacturing jumbo jets.

  11. #11 Anthony McCarthy
    April 4, 2012

    “Atheists aren’t angry because there is something wrong with us. We’re angry because there’s something right with us,”

    Let me guess, Greta C. I did actually figure it out before I peeked. And this was at the “Reason Rally”.

    Remind me what these self-appointed great figures in “reason” have that Godel, Whitehead, and MLK lacked.

    The new atheist movement is headed for the futility that usually afflicts a movement as the “most radical in the room” grab the microphone from the rational among them, it might be a rare example of the MRITR grabbing it from the start. Next phase is the “I’m more radical than you are” internal bloodletting.

  12. #12 Wow
    April 4, 2012

    “Remind me what these self-appointed great figures in “reason” have that Godel, Whitehead, and MLK lacked.”

    A troll following them?

    Or was that a rhetorical question?

  13. #13 Anthony McCarthy
    April 4, 2012

    Wow, that was a question for any rational people in the assembly. I’m perpetually ignoring you.

  14. #14 Wow
    April 4, 2012

    Yes, I realise it wasn’t a question for you.

    In fact, the rest of the post wasn’t even a question, just a statement of your personal worldview projecting on to people you don’t like to ensure that you are superior to their caricature you have of them in your head.

  15. #15 Anthony McCarthy
    April 4, 2012

    I’ve been to a skeptics convention and an exorcism and the exorcism was way more fun.
    John Safran

  16. #16 Wow
    April 4, 2012

    And what does that have to do with atheists?


  17. #17 ildi
    April 4, 2012

    What do Gödel and Whitehead have in common with MLK?

  18. #18 Anthony McCarthy
    April 4, 2012

    ildi, none of them were atheists, I assume that Greta Christina would be angry with them because of that. Though if she wants to clarify, it could probably be called “high time to do that”.

    I looked for Agnes Angst video but could only find imitators.

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 4, 2012

    Anthony —

    I think I’ve been more than generous about letting you comment here, even though you simply repeat yourself endlessly and never, not even by accident, say anything interesting. But at this point you’re really abusing my patience. Your opening comment here was just pure dickishness. I have asked you before not to comment excessively. For a while you seemed to be respecting that, but lately you are back into full spam mode. So this is your last warning. No more than one comment a day. You have to learn to let things drop.

    Wow —

    You do know that you’re not helping, in even the slightest way, by egging Anthony on, right? Don’t feed the troll.

    Both of you —

    I’m sick of having to close threads because you two seem to have nothing else going on in your lives beyond an excessive need to comment on blogs. Control yourselves or I’ll just ban both of you.

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