So much happened in the three days of Reason Rally and the American Atheists convention that for the most part it's just a blur of emotions & memories floating around in this little head of mine. The first thing I noticed was how weird it was to be entirely surrounded by other people that believe similarly to me - I usually only get that in very near vicinity to colleges, and even then never in as great a number or concentration. The first person we really talked to on the bus described himself as agnostic-ish, but said he would never use the A-word because it would only cause him trouble. We talked with him a while, and at one point he said "Atheists really need to fix their image problem. If people knew there were atheists like you it would be a different story. You guys are just so happy, it's weird." We continued to run into our ilk, and it came to a wonderful peak when on the train someone said he liked my A pin, I called out "Atheist Roll Call!" and the car exploded in cheers. Quite a setting... I don't know if I'd get that enthusiasm dead in the middle of Oklahoma Atheists' largest meetup.
On to the day of the big event... Breakfast held some fun surprises, in that we were sharing a hotel with a large gathering of Tea Partiers in "Repeal Obamacare" t-shirts, some of them dressed in powdered wigs. We did not engage them; we had better things to do. The forecast had threatened rain for weeks, and that threat narrowed to promise. We anticipated the accusation that the rain was god weeping for our very souls, like only an abusive father could, asking why we'd make him condemn us to hell... On the other hand, DC was in full bloom for us, the scent of cherry blossoms on the wind that carried delicate petals past us as we walked. If you believe them messages, they're mixed at best.
Cherry Trees next to the train station.
We arrived early with what I didn't realize would be a sparse crowd in comparison, with people smiling at one another, introducing themselves, and hugging, and this would be the theme. Almost everywhere I looked I saw relief, love, and acceptance. I'm not sure what I was seeking when I booked the trip, but this is what sealed it for me - when I introduce myself to someone as an atheist I'm usually greeted with something between disgust and relief, but here I was greeted with smiles, hugs, and firm hand-clasps. People saw Sophia's Oklahoma Atheists shirt and ran up to tell us how happy they were to see people from Oklahoma. One man said he had family here unaware of our group, and said he was going to buy a half dozen of our shirts to send to them as a surprise gift to let them know they have friends here.
To the side were a number of protesters - again, we didn't engage them, we had better things to do. There was plenty of debate to be had if one wanted it, though, as the streets were littered with preachers armed with public address systems. As one shouted at me, threatening me with eternal torture, I merely shouted back a correction - "Irregardless is not a word!" There was no sense in letting ourselves get distracted. Even as one of the Phelps clan replied to my twitter post announcing their arrival with "...if the faithful servants of God turn up, at least U can get decent photo," I merely replied with "Today isn't about you."
It was futile to try to hear everything said by every speaker because so much was happening. I made a point to catch Tim Minchin and Eddie Izzard, but to my heart-wrenching dismay I missed Michael Shermer and James Randi, because if I didn't eat I'd have to start gnawing on friends or protesters. Throughout the day I ran into the heavy-hitter bloggers of the skeptic movement, like Jen McCreight (Awesome & friendly), Hemant Mehta (Speaking at FreeOK), Rebecca Watson (who interviewed us for Citizen Radio, and plenty of others just milling about the crowd. I had to go to the Secular Student Alliance table in the vendor tent to give high-fives and hugs to JT Eberhard (see below), one of my favorite people in the world, as well as tons of other cool folks. Really, the blurry photo below does a lot to describe what happened during the reason rally. It was people finding our people, offering encouragement and making connections.
It wasn't just good feelings for the sake of good feelings, though. Hemant presented Jessica Ahlquist with a $60k+ scholarship, plenty of speakers reminded us of the importance of staying motivated and involved, several reminded us of the importance of equality in other arenas. Nate Phelps, son of renowned bigot patriarch Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, spoke out against using faith as a shield; "Any person who retreats to faith bears some responsibility for others who do violence in its name." Several speakers reminded us that we needn't feel guilty or like we're imposing our ideas on others, reminding us that, after all, we're right. PZ Myers in his Calgary white hat encouraged us to stop being so damned cuddly and start making wrong people feel our wrath already, because it's high time people knew we're a force to reckon with.
Well, I'm hoping that as more people are out & proud about their godlessness, we will become more of a force, and to me, more than anything, this just reinforced what I already knew. Twenty thousand atheists in once place refueled me, and I know to all the people following the news on social media, and all the people who will read about it in the coming months, it will be a stark reminder that not only are we not alone, we are plentiful, motivated, and capable. I share the hope of most of the speakers I saw at Reason Rally and at the American Atheists convention, that this event will be a turning point in our social undercurrent, whereafter it will be just a little bit easier for people to come out atheist, and whereafter it will be just a little bit more feasible for the nonreligious to run for public office, find a partner, adopt a child, or be open in their workplaces without fear of ostracism.
Below: 360 view of the crowd during Nate Phelps' talk.