Well, no, actually, I got a great deal more than that. But you try coming up with catchy blog headlines late at night.
I certainly didn’t fly out to the thing with no intention of writing about it, so allow me to add a brief recap of my trip that you can add to the accounts you may have been reading all day. I flew into the DC area on Thursday afternoon, intending to spend the Friday before the Rally doing the whole tourist thing, which I did indeed do. Flying always takes it out of me, but Dulles promptly proved itself the greatest airport anywhere by presenting me with the sight of a Five Guys hamburger stall right as I disembarked my plane.
The Washington Metro is refreshingly easy to navigate, and one $20 pass pretty much got me everywhere I needed to go all weekend. Considering I was staying way the frack out in Bethesda, that really helped. Friday was a lovely, hot and sunny day on the Washington Mall. I did the Air & Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art, mostly, with a brief detour down to the World War II Memorial to dip my feet in the pool to cool off. Less than 24 hours later it would be so cold and rainy that doing that would be inconceivable.
On Saturday morning I had the first of the AXP breakfast meetups at Kramer Books in Dupont Circle. This is a wonderful little bookstore (if you’re more into nonfiction than fiction, though) with an equally good, but small, cafe attached. And our hostess was a little horrified when I turned up and informed her I might be joined by a half-dozen people or so. As it happened, about 20 of us ended up packing one whole end of the cafe. But it was a quiet Saturday morning and between two sets of tables, they managed us all just fine. Several Canadians, one fellow from London, and just about all the gang from Mid-Ohio Atheists were there, plus several others. (The aforementioned hostess also let me know on the d.l. that she was One Of Us.) It was fantastic to meet so many folks, and I felt a renewed sense of pride to be involved with a show that’s had an impact on so many viewers from so many parts of the world.
By the time I made it down to the Mall, the drizzle was still light but everyone could tell the rain was coming. The Mall just kept filling up. Though estimates were announced that the crowd was up to 22,000, it seems likelier that while it might have peaked very early on at close to that, by the time the skies opened up, it probably thinned to around 10,000 or so. But still, a 10,000-atheist gathering is a thing that, a decade ago, would have seemed unimaginable. The Godless Americans March on Washington, which happened in 2002 if memory serves (and which Jeff Dee attended along with a small cohort of ACAers; at Reason Rally I was the only one representing, it appears, though I did run into the ACA’s former president Michelle Gadush), drew only an estimated 2,500. But however the crowd may have been overestimated or underestimated, it’s still easily the most significant gathering of the godless in history. One can only hope it’s the pebble that starts the mighty snowball rolling down the mountainside.
Anyway, I wandered around a bit to get my bearings. Bumped into fans of the show here and there, took some photos, some of which have been sent to me on Facebook. Here I am with Jarod Harris, a viewer from Maryland.
I finally settled towards stage left (if you’re looking towards the stage, that is, so I guess it’d be stage right if you’re on it), near the front, with a friend from Penn State, Chelsey Culbert, and her traveling companion Alex Hill. I won’t go into an exhaustive recap of each and every speaker, but I will mention the ones who had the biggest impact on me. Let’s start with Jessica Ahlquist.
Everybody’s favorite evil little thing. It’s hard to convey just how impressive and genuine she is. I met her briefly at the Marriott later that night, and one thing strikes you: how she is just such a Normal Teenage Girl in so many ways. She’s bright, pretty, articulate, outgoing, probably likes all the stuff teenage girls like…but suddenly, somehow, she is Other to her community. Because she happened to look at a religion-flogging poster in her school one day and thought to herself, “Self, somehow I don’t think that’s entirely legal.” And she did something about it that, lo and behold, the courts agreed with. Because of this, she’s branded as evil, and shunned, and vilified by politicians, who presumably would have you believe they practice a religion that’s all about love and support the message of a poster that asks God to help them smile when they lose. They must have read over that part.
For 16, Jessica is handling the onslaught of pressure and sudden celebrity with astonishing poise. When Jason Russell felt the same pressure, he had a public meltdown on a street corner. You do get the impression, meeting Jess, that she’s a little punch-drunk from it all and ready for a break. But I don’t think I’ve ever met a poster child for Character quite so remarkable as this girl. Young woman, I mean.
I’ll give a nod to the other speakers/performers who stood out: Greta Christina, Jamie Kilstein, Tim Minchin, Hemant Mehta, Adam Savage, Eddie Izzard. I missed PZ. Paul Provenza was having a fantastic time being emcee, and regaled the crowd with the tweets he was getting from atheist groups all over the world (including as far away as South Africa) all day. There was some controversy before the Rally about a planned video message from Bill Maher (some folks just won’t let Maher live down the fact that he fell for anti-vax bullshit, and I can’t imagine why). But it turned out that Maher’s message, disappointingly, was a brief hello and a few words of support, followed by a clip of his routine from Real Time where he put on a wizard’s hat and de-baptized Mitt Romney’s father. It’s a funny bit, but I think everyone was expecting a more personal touch. For this we could have just watched YouTube. Tech problems also plagued a video tribute to Hitch, which kept freezing up until they had to stop it.
I echo Ed Brayton’s criticisms that there were too many speakers on the roster overall (though they did keep them brief), and that the ones who were weak were weak indeed. (Ditto the eye-rolling at the folks who led the crowd in chants.)
After a certain point, we got a little tired of standing around being exposed to the heartless elements — the rain wasn’t the problem so much as the wind — and so Chelsey, Alex and I sloshed over to the Smithsonian Castle to grab a bite in the little cafe they have there. Then we went to the rather dark, but windless and warm, exhibit tent, because James Randi was in there and Alex simply had to get a photo with him. Finally, we decided to skip Bad Religion’s set entirely at the end in favor of wandering through the Natural History Museum’s amazing Human Origins exhibit. By 7:30, the museum was closed, the Rally had wrapped up, and Chelsey and Alex were wheeling back to Pennsylvania while I rode the Metro back to Bethesda.
I was too pooped to party, but when I ran into God Virus author Darrel Ray in my hotel lobby (there are apparently three Marriotts in and around Bethesda, and mine was not the AA convention hotel), I hopped the shuttle with them to the main con hotel anyway. Bumped into AronRa and met Jessica there. Hung out with the Mid-Ohio crew some more. Finally just got tired and went back. Sunday brunch at Kramer’s once again, and this time there were only six of us. (One of these was a very cool young woman named Alexis studying law at Georgetown, and so we talked quite a bit about the flap surrounding her classmate, Sandra Fluke.) It was a perfect wind-down from an amazing, busy weekend, and by the time my tired feet dragged me into Dulles Airport that afternoon, I was well and truly ready to be home.
So, overall impression? An incredible, inspiring weekend. Imperfect, but bound to be, as it’s the nature of these things that you’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants. No, I didn’t engage with any Christians (most of the ones who turned up were on the opposite side of the Mall, but I wasn’t there for them anyway). It was inspiring, in that it made me doubly proud of the admittedly tiny effort I contribute to atheist activism in my role as cohost of our show. More than ever, the message “You are not alone and you have a voice” has gotten out to the godless around the world. With this kind of momentum, one can feel confident the only way from here is up.