The nation’s largest-ever gathering of irreligious people, the Reason Rally, took place in Washington D.C. over the weekend, and it very nearly escaped popular notice. An unscientific survey of the media landscape suggests the Rally commanded only slightly more of the national attention span than Miami’s concurrent Ultra Music Festival, which is put on every year. You’d think atheists and skeptics and critical-thought advocates march on Washington all the time. They don’t.
The Reason Rally was something new under the American sun. Tens of thousands of nonbelievers gathering on a Saturday at the National Mall to listen to a glamorously ungodly roster of speakers; to chat; to coexist in happy agreement (for once!) with strangers on questions of life, the universe, and everything; to make friendly sport with the small assemblies of religious protestors at the gathering’s fringe. The gathering was organized and sponsored by 20 skeptical and atheistic organizations, and the speakers were very famous. Richard Dawkins, author Taslima Nasrin, Showtime’s Paul Provenza, Bill Maher, James “The Amazing” Randi, Mythbusters‘ Adam Savage, Eddie Izzard, songwriter Tim Minchin, the band Bad Religion. But it wasn’t the togetherness of the attendees, the number of sponsors, or the impressive speakers that made the Reason Rally unique. The speakers have spoken at, the sponsors have sponsored, and the attendees have attended other gatherings before — usually smaller, indoor affairs in places like Las Vegas, meant to be witnessed by initiates. The Reason Rally’s novelty was its grand scale and supremely public location.
For a century, to appear in the thousands on the National Mall has been to claim partial ownership of the nation. In 1913, 5,000 women showed up in advance of Woodrow Wilson’s swearing-in to demand suffrage. In 1932, veterans of the First World War took over the Mall to demand compensation for their service. The Mall was home to the largest-ever civil rights demonstrations in 1958 and 1963 (on the latter occasion, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech), and the Poor People’s Campaign swept through in 1968. In October 1969, 200,000 individuals showed up to protest the war in Vietnam; a demonstration a month later brought 600,000. To gather on the Mall is to summon this legacy of aspirational enfranchisement. (Sometimes the aspirants are misguided: In 2008, National Socialists took to the Mall to protest immigration.) It is to say, “Us, too.”
Atheists have never said, “Us, too” so publicly before, or in such numbers, or in any manner that so forcefully injects them into the American narrative. Maybe they didn’t think they could. When campaigning for the presidency, Vice President George H. W. Bush was asked by a reporter if he agreed that atheists could be respectable and patriotic citizens of the United States. “No,” replied the Veep, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” At the time, this was not considered a gaffe. Seventeen years later, in 2006, a rigorous study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that atheists were the most disliked minority in the nation, even more loathsome to their fellow citizens than Muslims and gays.
But acceptance follows visibility. It’s never the other way around. The number of self-identified irreligious people in the United States doubled to 15 percent between 1990 and 2008, and many of the irreligious were turned militant by the last decade’s flurry of anti-theist best-sellers (Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great; Dawkins’ The God Delusion), the networking opportunities offered by the Web (which, outside of expressly religious enclaves, has a decidedly atheistic bent), and lingering fury over the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (A popular atheist bumper-sticker: “Science Flies You To The Moon, Religion Flies You Into Buildings.”) Although the Reason Rally barely made the networks and barely made the papers beyond Washington, the attendees are jazzed. There will be a Reason Rally 2013.
I spoke briefly yesterday over the phone with one of the Reason Rally’s headliners, James “The Amazing” Randi: the 83-year-old conjurer, escape artist, activist, and author, who also happens to be a local boy. (He lives in Plantation.) Randi was ubiquitous on television and radio in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, but his life’s great work began only in the late ’60s, when he launched a crusade against psychics, faith healers, and other alleged purveyors of magic, whom he contended (and very often proved) performed their miracles using techniques no different from those found in the stage magician’s repertoire. Since 1996, Randi’s organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation, has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal ability under proper observing conditions. No one has won the money. Among atheist activists Randi’s regarded as a kind of godfather, if that word is permissible: the first public figure to popularize the cause of anti-supernaturalism in the modern age.
Salty Eggs: How was it?
James Randi: It was just incredible, Brandon. When I walked out on that stage — first of all, it was pouring rain, I got thoroughly soaked — I couldn’t see the end of the crowd. It was all over the Mall! It was fantastic. Even though it was raining.
An interesting note — some time ago, when Texas was going through a drought, Gov. Rick Perry said, “Pray for rain!” And people did. Thousands of people prayed for rain, and they didn’t get any. And now we come out here and we certainly didn’t pray for rain, and there it was. Makes you wonder.
How many people would you say were there?
Oh, I couldn’t guess. Many, many thousands.
Was it the biggest crowd you’ve played for?
I’ve played for bigger crowds on television. But in person –
I suppose the Alice Cooper crowds might have been bigger. [Note: Randi joined Alice Cooper on the "Billion Dollars Babies" tour.]
Yes. When we played in Brazil, there might have been a crowd that big.
What was the vibe like? Were these angry atheists? Happy atheists?
No, it wasn’t an angry crowd. They were very interested, very gracious, very happy to be there. There were some religious types there, who used the usual specious arguments — don’t you believe anything’s true? Do you think scientists know everything?
You spoke for how long?
I spoke for nine minutes. But I was out there from 8 a.m. in the morning ’til past 8 p.m. at night. They had a tent where all the organizations were set up, and I was there, talking to everyone, listening. The speakers were outstanding. Tim Minchin was at the rally — he’s sensational! He’s a great, great entertainer. Definitely a win for our side.
[Note: Tim Minchin really is sensational. For proof, click here and listen carefully.]
What’d you talk about?
Well — since it was specified that this was a secular humanist meeting, I thought I’d take a different approach. There were a lot of atheists speaking, people who identify primarily as atheists — some angry ones! — and I went to the more fundamental problem, which is this: The Age of Enlightenment started in 1790 and it’s pretty well banished by now. We had to put up with the Bush administration, for example, which was absolutely anti-science, absolutely obsessed with God. And if you look at the current Republican candidates polluting the airwaves, the situation’s even worse. They speak such incredible nonsense, they see no value or virtue in reason — they think it’s a handicap. And if you like reason, if you like to assess a situation empirically, you simply aren’t trusted. I find it very discouraging that atheists and skeptics are given such a low profile, that if you like science, listen to scientists, and try to use your reasoning faculties, you’re suspect.
There is this feeling in America, that if you’re too reliant upon your reasoning faculties that you’re some kind of fringe … This is reflected in how, say, the media responded to the Reason Rally. It was unbelievable. It got so little space in the newspapers, it astonishes me. Even in the Washington newspapers, it got maybe an inch.
Pardon me, but given your advanced age, I’d imagine you’ve got a different perspective on the Reason Rally than a lot of the other attendees. When you began working in the ’40s and ’50s, could you have imagined something like this taking place?
Oh, my — it would have been pretty unimaginable. I should say, I was booked for the Reason Rally some months ago, and I gladly accepted of course, but as we got closer to the date it seemed that the thing might be a little disorganized. I was nervous for the outcome. But really, it was just that the organizers were so assailed. Everyone was bothering them, everyone wanted to get involved, to get on the program, everyone wanted to be there … By the time the thing took wing, and we saw the crowd and we got on the stage and started to speak, all of us were saying we’d never seen anything like it. Never in our lives. It’s certainly the biggest gathering of atheists in skeptics to ever take place. Especially in Washington. Certainly in Washington. I was blown away.
Will it have an impact?
It’s an historical event, an unprecedented event, and I think it’ll be remembered a very long time. Certainly, it’s made a very large noise. And if the noise isn’t heard in Washington — if they don’t hear that, if they don’t hear the noise that we made — we’ll just have to come back next year. I’ll certainly be back. Reason shouldn’t hide away. We need as much of it as we can get.
Full disclosure: Randi is a close friend and the former employer of author Brandon K. Thorp.