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The Godless Americans March on Washington—A Lesson in Godless Cooperation

The Godless Americans March on Washington of November 2, 2002 might prove to be a historical event. Atheists, agnostics and humanists have longed for their own “Stonewall,” the rebellion in New York in 1969 which is said to have begun the gay-rights movement. Time will tell if the Godless March will serve to benefit the standing and visibility of nonbelievers in the US.

The first question on everyone’s mind, both before and after the event, was attendance. While it was entirely impossible to predict attendance before the event, attendance is not much clearer even after the event. The exact count is still unknown, but most estimates range from 2,000 to 2,500 attendees. Regardless of the number of attendees, the Godless March was easily the largest organized gathering of nonbelievers in recent US history–and virtually everyone in attendance found it an extremely positive event.

The success of the Godless March is a result of the collaboration of the various groups that participated. Ellen Johnson and American Atheists were the primary organizers and deserve a lot of accolades for pulling it together. No single organization, however, could have made the event a success. Various organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism, the Secular Student Alliance, the Internet Infidels, the Atheist Alliance and dozens of local organizations rallied their troops to attend and participate.

The one thing Ellen Johnson stressed, both before and during the rally, was a spirit of cooperation. There are many godless groups in the US, and they have historically not been good at working together. Through the Godless March, as well as the Coalition for the Community of Reason, a new spirit of cooperation is hopefully here. Most of the national organizations share many members and they do not advance by criticizing each other. Each has their own style and their own goals, but the vast majority of these goals are shared. As the leaders of the civil rights groups learned during the late fifties and early sixties, it isn’t until groups learn to cooperate that real strides are made. There was no evident infighting at the Godless March: no atheists called agnostics “coward,” no agnostics called atheists “arrogant,” and religious and secular humanists at least gave the appearance of accepting each other as allies. Ellen Johnson deserves tremendous praise for promoting cooperation at such a public level.

There were many highlights during the rally. Ellen Johnson’s opening remarks showing the “faces of godlessness” were excellent. Ellen demonstrated that atheists and agnostics come from all walks of life and serve in any employment field imaginable. The most-moving moment of the event came when Kathleen Johnson of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers gave her presentation. She asked that any active service military person or veteran come on stage to show what an atheist-in-a-foxhole looks like. The number of veterans could not fit on the stage and the old bigoted maxim that there are no atheists in foxholes was demonstrated false.

The comic relief came from two sources, one intentional and one not. First, about 50 or 60 Christian protesters lined the marching path and walked around the perimeter of the rally area. Some came from as far away as Los Angeles and bemused many attendees. Many attendees joked that the protesters gave an air of legitimacy to the Godless March. The second source was from Reverend Deacon Fred of the satirical Landover Baptist Church, as played by Chris Harper. Harper does a dead-on Southern preacher and had the crowd in stitches. He even compared himself with the protesters, with humorous results.

Other speakers were good, too. Taslima Nasrin and Parvin Darabi, both victims of Muslim-inspired violence in their native countries, poignantly illustrated the harm that results when religious extremists control the government. Dr. Michael Newdow discussed his recent circuit court victory where “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was declared unconstitutional. Many other speakers discussed important issues related to the acceptance of atheists by society. Attorney Eddie Tabash discussed the necessity of getting nonbelievers elected to public office. Margaret Downey of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network discussed discrimination against nonbelievers by the Boy Scouts and others. Edwin Kagin of Camp Quest and August Brunsman of the Secular Student Alliance explained how freethought is growing among younger people. Larry Darby, Michael Rivers, Harry Greenberger and Shelley Hattan told of their struggles in their respective theocracies: Alabama, Utah, Louisiana and Texas. Ed Buckner of the Council for Secular Humanism explained the historical and legal distortions used by the religious right. Frank Zindler explained the threats to science and medical research posed by the current administration. Other speakers discussed other topics of interest to nonbelievers.

There were a few minor glitches. The event went quite long, either due to having too many speakers or the lack of time limits on speeches. The two musical performers, while good, probably played too many songs for an event of that length. The crowd thinned noticeably toward the end of the rally. As a minor personal pet peeve, the song playing repeatedly before the rally began was Pink’s “Get the Party Started,” which was a bit ironic as her appearance on Politically Incorrect indicated that she is very pious. A mix of great atheistic songs probably would have been more appropriate, assuming the rights to play them publicly could be obtained. A few of the speakers and many of the signs in the audience were antireligious, as opposed to proatheism or prosecularism. Most of the speakers kept to the positive, as the Godless March guidelines wisely suggested. There is a place for criticism of religions, but not at an “atheist coming out rally” where nonbelievers are striving for societal acceptance. Gays did not progress in their quest for acceptance by being “anti-straight.” Overall, however, glitches were minimal for an inaugural event of this scope.

Two problems with the March that were outside the control of the organizers had to do with media coverage and high-profile speakers. Media coverage was only fair. Both Washington daily newspapers did stories, but there was no coverage on TV. ABCNews.com did a piece beforehand, tying the Godless March in with a story about Darrell Lambert, the Eagle Scout expelled from the Boy Scouts due to his lack of belief in a god. C-Span filmed the rally and showed it after the midterm elections. Various local and campus newspapers did stories on people attending the March, but there was a lack of coverage by the wire services. There are many celebrities who are atheists or agnostics, as shown in the Celebrity Atheist List. Additionally, most noted scientists, especially at the Academy of Science or Nobel level, are nonbelievers. None of these were at the Godless March. It is critical that high-profile atheists “come out” to encourage noncelebrity atheists to be accepted.

Most people I have talked with who were at the March feel it was a good beginning. It is hoped that future marches will take place with more attendees, more media coverage and more of a societal impact. As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “the future lies ahead.”