WASHINGTON—No thunderbolts fell on the atheists gathered on the National Mall Saturday afternoon for the Reason Rally—just scattered showers that probably kept some otherwise loud-and-proud nonbelievers home. The thousands who did brave the drizzle were enough to loosely pack an area of the mall the size of a city block, where they were treated to the full range of what you might call the free-thinker movement: A poet delivered an obscenity-laced polemic that he wrote "in a fever dream, in all caps"; a former pastor played a few Mr. Rogers-style songs about how atheists are friendly; and biologist Richard Dawkins headlined. There was also a video tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens.
The crux of the message was similar to that of any disenfranchised group—that atheists are here, they vote, and they want respect. Many of the speakers borrowed language and ideas from the gay rights movement, describing how "coming out" as a nonbeliever can alienate one from one's family and provoke discrimination. One attendee even held a colorful a sign that read, "Atheism: It's like being gay in the 80's."
But the rally seemed to lack energy as an often incongruous procession of activists—with the Washington Monument as their backdrop—tried to fire up a sea of umbrellas. "Sometimes it's tough, since these are calm, reasonable people," observed Isaac Bowen, a freshman at the University of Michigan who had arrived by bus that morning with a few dozen other members of the secular student alliance.
But those speakers who did take a more aggressive, impassioned approach ("Welcome to Rick Santorum's worst God-damn nightmare," one speaker declared) rubbed other attendees the wrong way.
"We're not all vulgar," said Rachel Jaffe, a librarian at the University of Binghamton in town for a conference. Jaffe said she was pleased to see so many families in attendance, but was surprised some parents were letting their children listen.
Organizers had cordoned off a wide triangular area for protesters, but by 1 p.m., the only person in the protest pen was a young man promising that heretics would be devoured by Cthulhu, a fictional deity in H.P. Lovecraft novels.
Closer to the stage, a small group of Christian activists held a largely cordial counter-rally. Mark Sasse, a member of Buffalo's Bible Believer Baptist Church, carried a sign that read, "The wicked shall be turned into hell and all the nations that forget God." He soon found himself debating the meaning of a passage in Luke with one of the attendees. (Full disclosure: In a brief violation of reporting ethics, a Yahoo News reporter held Sasse's sign stable for him while he got his Bible out of his backpack.)
"Most people have been quite courteous," Sasse said. "I just want to let people know there's hope."
While organizers claimed a crowd of at least 20,000, it was difficult to estimate as people came and went, sometimes dipping into a museum or retreating to the long lines at the concession stand. For all the emphasis on free inquiry, few seemed to notice that the line across the Mall, by the merry-go-round, was much shorter.
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