Fog crept over the National Mall in the early morning hours of Saturday. Low clouds shrouded the Washington Monument's peak, but they did not affect the steady stream of poncho wearing non-believers that filled the lawn across from the famous obelisk. A sturdy stage flanked by two gigantic video monitors held up by cranes was the centerpiece of what was to be the largest gathering of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and other non-believers in history.
The event started slow, with videos and music. The first performer was Andy Shernoff, one of the founding members of the punk rock band, The Dictators. He was followed by Ronelle Adams, the founder of Black Atheists. The pre-show was concluded by Australian singer and songwriter Shelley Segal, who sang a few godlessly inspired songs from her album entitled, "An Atheist Album."
To officially start the rally, current and former members of the Armed Forces presented the colors, and the National Anthem was sung by Bad Religion front man, Dr. Greg Graffin. Graffin holds a Ph.D in zoology and has been a major member of the atheist movement for most of his life.
The entire Reason Rally was emceed by comedian Paul Provenza. Provenza welcomed everyone to the rally, stating the rally was for atheists "celebrating and making it clear and known to the world that we are no longer going to be apologizing for being the ones who don't believe in the talking snakes." He stated that the weather would be used as fuel for believers to say that God did not want the rally to take place, but the atheist community should counter that statement with photos of churches being washed away by hurricanes.
Provenza then introduced David Silverman, the president of American Atheists and the chair of the Reason Rally. Silverman's rousing and inspiring speech focused on encouraging closeted atheists to "come out" to their friends and loved ones. "Lend your voice to this movement and be heard. Make sure nobody who knows you thinks they don't know any atheists," Silverman said.
The next speaker was Hement Mehta, better known to the Internet as The Friendly Atheist. Before he began his speech, he assisted in presenting a $62,618 check from the American Humanist Association to 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, the student who sued her school and her city for hanging a prayer banner in her school's auditorium and won. The check was a collection for her college tuition.
Mehta pointed out in his speech that atheists were among the least trusted minority groups in America, just under rapists. He suggested several ways to improve the image of the atheist and getting secular ideas into everyday life, including running for public office. " Run for city council, run for your local school board. Run for class president if you're in college or high school. If your city has a dog catcher election, do that," he suggested. "We need more rational thinkers in public office, people who know how to tell truth from fiction and can ask good questions, and think critically."
Jessica Ahlquist took the stage again, after Provenza introduced her as "the Joan of Arc of secularism." Ahlquist began, "I have a confession to make: I am an evil little thing," in reference to U.S. House Respresentative Peter Palumbo's comments about her that he made on a national radio show. Ahlquist focused her speech on encouraging students to stand up for their secular rights, citing her court case as proof that anyone can succeed. "I'm here not because I'm an accomplished biologist, or a famous writer. I'm here because I'm a student and I'm here to tell you (the students in the crowd) that what I did can be done by anybody."
Adam Savage, from TV's Mythbusters, then spoke about how he treats his own kids, stating "I try to culcate them with a sense of logic about the world, which means most of the time I'm pointing out things that are absurd and ridiculous as a counterpoint, and right now there is plenty to point to." Savage concluded his speech commenting on who ultimately has control over his life instead of God. "I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me for when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I'm capable of. I believe they know everything that I do and think, and they still love me, and I've concluded, after careful consideration, that this person keeping score is me."
Writer and blogger Greta Christina was the next to speak, addressing the question a lot of atheists get, "why are atheists so angry?" saying that atheists might be angry because "we have legitimate things to be angry about." She went on to talk about why she was angry, as she felt she couldn't speak for all atheists. She cited facts such as atheists are frequently denied custody of their children in divorce cases simply because they're atheists, an atheist blogger in Iran must blog anonymously in order to avoid execution, and preachers who encourage battered women to submit to their abusive partners.
Author Taslima Nasrin came to the stage and talked about her banishment from her home country of Bangladesh due to her atheism. She spoke of gender equality and the importance of standing up for women's rights.
Nasrin was followed by an energetic and fun performance by musician and comedian Tim Minchin, who performed his hits, "If I Didn't Have You" (a song dedicated to his wife, whom he met in college and has been with since, in which he explains that their meeting could've never happened thanks to mathematical probability), and "Thank You God", a sarcastic response to a man who told him God existed because his mother's cataracts disappeared after an intense prayer session.
The most anticipated speech of the day was from Dr. Richard Dawkins, one of the "Four Horsemen of Atheism." After a lengthy standing ovation, Dawkins touted the U.S. as having the "model for secular constitutions the world over and deserves to be imitated." He commented that it would be sad if the birthplace of secular constitutions would fall under a theocracy. Dawkins stated that he couldn't really understand why there was a need for a Reason Rally, as he put it, "How could anyone rally against reason?"
Other highlights of the rally included:
Comedian Jamie Killstein filled the stage with his rage and unique comedic style by reading his anger filled and unedited rant he had prepared for the rally.
Youtube star and activist Cristina Rad spoke about her struggle with atheism in her home country of Romania. She noted that if an event such as the Reason Rally were to take place in her country, "five people rally, and maybe two of them would be very enthusiastic and three of them would be there hoping they would get free stuff."
Famed illusionist and debunker James Randi talked about how sometimes he is not received well due to his reputation for being a skeptic. He also spoke about how religious oppression of free thought and skepticism brought about the end to the Enlightenment.
Penn Jillette, Bill Maher, and Pete Stark, the only openly atheist member of the U.S. Congress, all sent video messages, as they couldn't attend the rally due to previous engagements.
The day did not go entirely as planned, as a video tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens failed to play due to technical difficulties.
Nate Phelps, son of Westboro Baptist Church preacher Fred Phelps, detailed his escape from his family's infamous grasp and his work with the Canadian Center For Inquiry.
Comedian and open transvestite Eddie Izzard also performed, doing bits about how dinosaurs were rubbish and why God stopped interacting with the world after the Creation.
The event was capped off by an electric performance by Bad Religion, who played an entire 15 song set. Most of the rally goers stayed to the very end, braving the sometimes heavy rain and chilly wind. Overall, the event was considered a massive success, but the true measure of the impact of the rally will be in the reaction of the U.S. government and the loosening of the grip on it by the religious right.