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'Woodstock For Atheists': A Moment For Nonbelievers

Thousands of people are expect to descend on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to celebrate not believing in God. It's being called a sort of "Woodstock for Atheists," a chance for atheists to show their power in numbers and change their image.

Every time you hear the word atheist in the media, there's always an adjective before it.

The "Reason Rally" could attract up to 30,000 people; organizer David Silverman says it marks a coming-of-age for nonbelievers.

"We'll look back at the Reason Rally as one of the game-changing events when people started to look at atheism and look at atheists in a different light," Silverman says.

Silverman, president of American Atheists, says this is a celebration, with famous atheists like Richard Dawkins, funny atheists like Eddie Izzard, and musical atheists like the rock group Bad Religion, who sings about "a careless creation where there's no above ..."

But the main point of the rally, Silverman says, is not to tweak the faithful. It's to encourage closeted atheists to take heart.

"The message is that if you can come out, you can out come out," he says. "And if you can't come out, at least you'll know you're not alone, and maybe sometime soon you'll be able to come out of the closet to your family."

'Coming Out Of The Closet'

Silverman says this is their moment, as important to atheists as the Stonewall riots were to the gay-rights movement four decades ago. But fellow nonbeliever Hemant Mehta says it's not easy to reveal your nonbelief. Atheism has an image problem.

"Every time you hear the word atheist in the media, there's always an adjective before it," he says. "It's always angry atheist, militant atheist, staunch atheist. It's never happy, smiling atheist."

Mehta, who writes a blog called The Friendly Atheist, says openly dismissing God in the most religious country in the West requires courage: You risk losing friends, family and even jobs because of your nonbelief. In poll after poll, he says, people say they don't like atheists; one showed that people think an atheist is more likely to steal than a rapist.

"People have this notion that atheists are immoral, not trustworthy, unelectable," Mehta says. "How do you change that at such a huge level? It starts by people everywhere just coming out of the closet as atheists."

Mehta helps run an atheist charity, and he's been invited to megachurches, such as Willow Creek near Chicago, to explain why he doesn't believe in God. He says atheists need to take a page from the gay-rights movement: If people know and love an atheist, they'll be less likely to stigmatize them.

Tension Within Movement

But not everyone thinks that's the best approach.

"I'm not sure it is to atheists' benefit to always present a kinder, gentler face," says Greta Christina, a prominent atheist blogger and author of a new book called Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless.

Christina says there's a tension in the movement. On one side are what she calls "firebrands," such as Oxford biologist Dawkins, who has called some believers "staggeringly ignorant" and "insane." On the other are the "diplomats," such as Mehta, who deliver the same message of a Godless universe — but politely. Christina says every modern social movement — civil rights, feminism, gay rights — had the same tension, and you need both.

"We certainly want to let people know, again, we're your friends, we're your neighbors, we're good people," she says. "But I think it's also to our benefit to let people know that we're to be reckoned with, that we're not going to let ourselves be doormats, and that we're mobilized, we're organized, and when people get us angry, we're going to take action."

For example, nearly 300 atheists will meet with staffers at the House and Senate this week, partly to lobby and partly to show their numbers.

Silverman, of American Atheists, says atheists have time and momentum on their side. He says the fastest-growing segment of religion in the U.S. is no religion — people who identify as atheist, agnostic or secular. Just look at Canada and parts of Europe, Silverman says; religion there is going "extinct."

"I believe America is not far behind," he says. "I believe in two decades, we will be in a position where secularism is the norm."

That would be great, says Christina. But in the meantime, she has a more immediate goal. She wants to go to the Reason Rally and have a good time.

"This is going to be the event that you don't want to have missed out on," she says. "You don't want 10 years from now to say, 'I could have gone to the Reason Rally and I didn't because I had to do my laundry.' "

Just like Woodstock, she says. She only hopes it doesn't rain.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.