At a time when the Republican right is attempting to use religion to push its pet issues - including opposition to birth control and the denigration of science - atheists, secularists, and free thinkers in general have decided to come the furthest out of the shadows they have ever been with a new project: The Reason Rally. Organizers claim the event, set for March 24 in Washington, will be the largest secular rally in the history of the world.
Giving a boost to the organizing efforts, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin has thrown his support behind the freethinkers, not in his religious views, but in defense of the American secular tradition.
Sen. Harkin will send a video greeting to the rally because, in the words of his spokesperson, "Just like the rest of his colleagues in Congress, Sen. Harkin, a lifelong Catholic, strongly endorses the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. It was out of this conviction that he agreed to the invitation to send a video welcome to those exercising their Constitutional right on the National Mall."
A diverse coalition of secular groups, ranging from the militant American Atheists to the more warm and fuzzy secular humanists, has been running advertising campaigns aimed at encouraging non-believers to come out of the shadows. But now they have turned their sites to the rally, a far more united and organized undertaking with the potential to be much bigger.
The rally's organizers argue that it will speak on behalf of the nation's largest growing demographic, non-believers. "Whether people call themselves atheists, agnostics, secular Humanists or any of the other terms used to describe their god-free lifestyle, secularism is coming out of the closet," reads the rally's website.
"According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey," the organizers continue, "the percentage of people with no religious affiliation grew in all fifty states. The purpose of this particular rally will be to advance secularism (in the broadest sense of the word) in society."
Organizers say the point of the rally is not to bash religion - which, incidentally, atheists know more about than believers, according to a poll - but to focus "on all non-theists have achieved in the past few years" and to motivate "those in attendance to become more active.
The rally has three goals: to encourage atheists and secularists to come "out of the closet," to show that atheists do not fit any particular model - they are all races, ages, and persuasions - and to demand "legislative equality," that is, the actual ability to run for office and be elected.
The first open atheist in Congress, Calif. Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, will also send a video message.
In terms of the diversity of atheists, organizers are hoping to show that secularism and non-belief are not simply, as the stereotype goes, for middle-class white people. Indeed, one of the groups mobilizing its members to go to the rally is the Black Atheists of America.
Soldiers who fight for America will also be at the rally, fighting this time for their own freedom to believe - or disbelieve - as they choose. There has been a long struggle by atheists in the military who are looking to break evangelical Christianity's hold over the American armed forces. Their efforts have so far been met with resistance by the top brass.
Additional speakers include scientist Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion); Tim Minchin; P. Z. Meyers, comedian Paul Provenza, James Randi, high school atheist Jessica Ahlquist, rock band Bad Religion, and others.