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Atheists bill big names for 'coming out' party in capital

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Evolutionary biologist, author and atheist Richard Dawkins appears at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India on Jan. 23. He read his statement lashing out at the idea of faith at the forum.

The National Mall in Washington has hosted its share of rallies — some massive and iconic, like the famed civil rights march of 1963, which featured Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Nonetheless, a scrappy coalition of atheists say they will make history on the Mall next month by pulling together what they say is the first nationwide celebration of secular values — what one of the organizers called a "Woodstock for non-belief."

"The intent is to unify, energize and embolden secular people nationwide, while dispelling the negative opinions held by so much of American society … and having a damn good time doing it!" according to the website for the March 24 Reason Rally, sponsored by "free thinkers" organizations.

Headliner for the Reason Rally is Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and author who has been an especially scathing critic of creationism and the "intelligent design" theory embraced by some Christians.


Other speakers scheduled to appear include Taslima Nasrin— a physician, writer and secular humanist who has tangled with Islamic extremists in her home country of Bangladesh — and Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old in Rhode Island who led the successful crusade against a prayer banner in her high school.

But the "damn good time" promised on the Reason Rally site surely refers to entertainers billed for the event — including "MythBusters" co-host Adam Savage, known for his propensity for blowing up various things, including conventional wisdom, on the weekly Discovery Channel program.

Also billed as appearing is musician-comedian Tim Minchin, a self-described atheist and skeptic, and Bad Religion, a punk rock band that has been performing since the 1980s and is known for their "Crossbuster" logo, created by band members when they were still teens practicing in a garage.

Just how many atheists will make the trek to the DC rally is unclear since it doesn’t require any registration.

"There’s electricity in our movement," said Dan Barker, co-president of the Madison, Wis.-based non-profit Freedom from Religion Foundation, a principal sponsor of the Reason Rally. "From what we feel… there’s going to be a huge turnout, but who knows?"

Easier to quantify is the growing number of Americans who say they do not identify with any god-centric religion — people who call themselves a lot of different things, including atheists, agnostics, religious skeptics and secular humanists.

The American Religious Identification Survey, carried out by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, showed growth in this "no-religion" portion of the population since 1990. The so-called "nones" made up 15 percent of the U.S. population in 2008, up from 8 percent in 1990, according to the survey. The survey showed the "nones" skew young, with about 30 percent between 18 and 30 years of age.

"Non-religion is the fastest-growing 'religion,' while Christianity is shrinking," said Barker, once a Protestant minister. "There is something happening. The Reason Rally seems to be riding that wave."

One of the goals of the gathering is "to encourage attendees … to come out of the closet as secular Americans, or supporters of secular equality," according to the website.

To that end, organizers have arranged for a video address by Rep. Peter Stark, the only member of Congress who has declared himself a "nontheist." Last year, Stark introduced a resolution calling for the designation of Feb. 12 as Darwin Day to honor evolutionary science pioneer Charles Darwin.

The rally will weigh in with messages aimed at blunting the influence of the religious right in this election year: "God fixation won’t fix this nation" and "I’m secular and I vote."

Will the atheists face counter-protests on the Mall?

"We would be flattered if there were," said Barker. "It would mean we were noticed."

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