The 20,000 people who showed up in Washington this past weekend for the Reason Rally were indeed patriots, fighting for the defense of a very American tradition, and should be supported not only by their fellow atheists and secularists, but by everyone interested in strengthening this country and its democratic system.
The explicit goal of the rally was secularism - freedom from religion - but the implicit goal was also religious freedom and democracy.
A small counterdemonstration by a group calling themselves "Reasonable Christians" actually showed a lack of the reasonability inscribed on that group's moniker.
The secularists demanded their rights as atheists and non-believers, or even as spiritual people unhappy with the domination of certain religious ideas over politics. The demonstrators are unhappy, for example, that no one can really become president of the United States without avowing his or her Christianity.
Is this an atheist thing only? It shouldn't be. There can be no religious freedom without freedom from religion, freedom from having to follow the precepts of any particular religious group.
Religions are almost always contradictory to one another. The ideas pushed by the rulers of one religious group often do not mesh with the ideas put forward by another group.
This by itself makes a strong argument for a secular, not a religion-based government. Any government based on religion leaves not only non-believers but every other religious group following rules alien to their beliefs, not to mention following rules that may have no basis whatsoever in either science or reality itself.
Obviously atheists don't want to follow certain Christian dictates. Nor would Muslims want to be forced to follow rules based on the teachings of Christ. In a secular state, neither group would have to obey the dictates of the Christians in power.
To strengthen the case that a country based on religious principles would by its nature discriminate against many of its citizens, one doesn't need to look just at the rift between atheists and believers, or even at the rift, let's say, between two religions like those of Jews and Muslims.
A secular state would be beneficial even if every single person proclaimed him- or herself "Christian," because among Christians themselves there are rifts over which people have long fought and even died. The Catholic Church, which claims somewhere near one in four Americans as adherents, is the largest Christian denomination in this country. However, some evangelical Protestants consider the Catholic Church to be a non-Christian institution, or worse - the phrase "whore of Babylon" has been used not infrequently in Protestant descriptions of those who follow the pope's dictates.
This division within Christianity is not without its political side. It isn't necessary to delve deep into history to find the animosity originally shown towards John F. Kennedy when he was running for president. Extreme evangelicals, of which there were many, took to drawing a red cardinal's cap over Washington's countenance on quarters. The implication was that the U.S. would, if the Catholic Kennedy were elected, come under the domination of the Vatican, that the cardinals, now the princes of the church, would become princes of America.
While Rick Santorum, a Catholic, seems to be doing well among evangelicals, and not so well among Catholics, the point still stands: the divisions between Catholics and Protestants, not to mention Orthodox and, if you consider them Christians, the Mormons, are big enough that none would want to be ruled by the other. Santorum's adherents are pleased with his adherence to the more extreme social doctrines of the Catholic Church, but would surely chafe if, as in a fantasy situation in which Santorum became president, he began to trumpet some relationship with the Vatican, or if he instituted Catholic rules on divorce, which stipulate that dissolving a marriage is only allowable with the blessing of a bishop.
That the U.S. is not now and never has been a "Christian nation" is something for which all of us, including Christians, should be thankful. Because, as we see, there can be no Christian nation anywhere; the concept is too broad. There could be a Protestant nation, an evangelical nation, a Catholic nation, a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Hindu nation - the list goes on until you reach "secular nation."
And we should keep in mind that these groups can be divided as well: there are many kinds of Protestants, and many kinds of Muslims - would there be a Shiite or a Sunni nation?
Examples abound: England is Christian in that it is Anglican, officially; Iran is Shiite, officially; and Denmark is officially Lutheran. What that means for other religious groups varies from country to country, but they are certainly disfavored - at best - at the expense of the ruling group in each of these societies.
Evangelicals want freedom from every religion aside from their own version of Christianity. Catholics would like freedom from them, and the Orthodox wish to be free of both these groups. Muslims would like to be free from Christian domination, and Jews from all of the above. Secularists desire the same thing as each of these religious groups; they only go one denomination further. (Apologies to Richard Dawkins for the adaptation of his argument on atheists only going "one god further.")
The founders of this country knew this, and didn't want the nation breaking down along sectarian lines. Jefferson, himself a Deist, and many of the other founding fathers, atheists and other Deists among them, set up the world's first secular democracy, where people are free of all religions except whichever they choose to follow, if they decide to do so.
The desire of the non-religious to be free of religion is something for which they are ready to fight, as shown at the Reason Rally. That's good, because a fight is required. Witness Rick Santorum's desire to legislate his religious beliefs; witness the Roman Catholic hierarchy's attempt to impose its view on all of the United States.
As America's fastest growing religious demographic group, the "religious nones" have a right to be heard and a right to organize - and they do, in fact, recognize that religions minorities also have the right to exist and be free of interference with their religion (so long as the religious minority groups do not violate the rights of others, as with anti-gay laws or "honor" killings).
Richard Dawkins says he wants to "ridicule" religious beliefs. So what? One simply cannot imagine Dawkins, an affable liberal scientist, ever condoning a law that limits the speech of the religious, and that's what matters: freedom of the individual - and that's what the secularists are fighting for.
The rights of atheists are bound inextricably to the rights of all people, including the most devout.
Photo: An atheist demonstrator holds a sign during a rally in Idaho. Dianne Humble/AP