March 24th, 2012
05:44 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN)– Billed as a watershed moment in the atheism movement, a gathering of atheists, agnostics and humanists drew large numbers of non-theists to the Washington Mall Saturday despite bad weather.
Put on by a coalition of atheist and humanist organizations, the rally was touted as the largest gathering of non-theists in the history of the world. Headlined by a number of high-profile speakers, including Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” organizers said the event shows that atheism is a powerful minority in American life.
“We will never be closeted again,” said David Silverman, the rally’s head organizer. “In years to come, the Reason Rally will be seen as the beginning of the end to the religious right’s grip” on American life.
With thunderstorms moving through the area, rain had threatened to dampen the event. However, Silverman and other organizers said they were elated by the turnout, especially in light of the rain.
The idea of thousands of atheists gathering drew the ire of religious groups. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a controversial group known for picketing and protesting at funerals of U.S. service members, were in attendance and chanted at the rally-goers.
In large part however, protests were rare and not aggressive.
Silverman had said prior to the event that the rally would not be an exercise in “religion bashing,” but in a number of instances, religion and the belief in God was, in fact, denounced.
Taslima Nasrin, the author of “Shame,” categorized the Muslim prophet Mohammed as a charlatan, a pedophile and a rapist. A wooden cross was constructed in the middle of the crowd and a sign that read “Banish the 10 Commandments to the dustbin of history,” was hung from it.
Under umbrellas and ponchos, college insignia and fresh faces dotted the rally crowd.
For many of the students in attendance, the event was more than just a large gathering; for them, it was a coming-out party.
“The reason why events like this help is because of the confidence people get in seeing other people that think like you,” said Mark D. Hatcher, founder of the Secular Student Alliance at Howard University in Washington. “It is important to realize you are not alone.”
Hatcher and other atheists have co-opted much of the same lingo used in the gay rights movement. “Coming out” and “in the closest” are both terms regularly used because, according to Hatcher, telling people you are an atheist is comparable to telling people you are gay.
“Being younger, you are especially exposed to being labeled a pariah when you come out of the closet,” Hatcher said.
Rebecca Cunningham, a graduate of the University of Michigan, said that her freshman year at college was that moment for her. Cunningham was raised in a Christian family, but a few months before leaving for school, she started to doubt her belief in God.
Shortly after arriving at Michigan, Cunningham went to a Secular Student Alliance meeting.
“It helped me come out,” Cunningham said. “It was the first group of people that I met who weren’t religious in some form. They taught me that it was OK; they taught me that I was OK.”
Jesse Galef, the alliance’s communications director, said stories such as Cunningham’s show why his group tries to mobilize on campuses.
“One of the biggest things we do at the Secular Student Alliance is connect them [local groups] with a larger movement that is supporting them and giving them a grass-roots presence,” said Galef.
Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old high school student who won a lawsuit against her city for a prayer banner that was displayed in her high school, was also a speaker at the event.
She touched upon the need for more student groups in high schools and colleges during her remarks. After the speech, she told CNN that students are a critical place for the atheism movement to focus its efforts.
“This community is all about bringing people together and talking about a secular future,” Ahlquist said. “I think that future comes from the students.”
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