Reporting from Washington, DC: The Reason Rally 2016!

Main stage photo by Douglas Parfait

Four years ago, Reason Rally 2012 was promoted as the “largest secular event in world history,” a Woodstock for atheists and skeptics. Organized and produced by David Silverman, President of American Atheists, Inc., it was a momentous coming out party for 30,000 nonbelievers on the Mall in Washington, D.C. A long lineup of speakers from the scientific and entertainment fields were the main event.

Reason Rally 2016, held last month again in Washington, “had a greater variety of activities over the weekend, which reflects the happy fact that the secular movement has progressed beyond the need to merely show we exist,” said Beth Deitch, one of several NOSHA members from New Orleans who went. “The number of groups was so much larger than four years before. So many demographics and perspectives were represented.”


William Gautreaux & Beth Deitch

To be sure, over 30 groups were represented—from FFRF to Secular Media Network to Mythicists Milwaukee to Lady Parts Justice—almost all of them tabling in tents set up along the outer edge of the mall. The organizers set a decidedly more political slant to the speaking subjects and activities this year, probably in part due to it being an election year, and partly because so much legislative wrangling and a plethora of court opinions have been handed down over the last year. LGBTQ and other social justice issues were a recurring theme.

“The Reason Rally is absolutely a political event,” said executive director Lyz Liddell. “That’s the reason we’re holding this in an election year. We want to see reason taking precedence over religious-driven ideology.”

Traveling with Deitch was fellow NOSHA board member, William Gautreaux. NOSHA member John and Donna Williams and John’s sister, Darlene Reaves were in the crowd while also visiting their daughter during their trip to the city. Douglas and Yvette Parfait of Slidell came, said Doug, with one purpose: “I didn’t go this time to listen to speakers, and I didn’t. Not one. I went to mingle, to find as many people I’ve only known on Facebook as I could.” Taking pictures was another thing he managed to do, and do quite well—thanks to him for the photos included in this story.

THE VENUE. THE CROWD. A noticeably lower turnout from the 2012 event has been the topic of discussion for just about everyone associated with the event. Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist blogger, came up with several reasons for the low turnout, including: the late cancellation of Johnny Depp and Richard Dawkins; the novelty had worn off; it took place in the summer; etc., etc. A few observations, estimates, and a few explanations by our NOLA contingent:

Douglas P.  – “In 2012, the number was 30K-ish, I haven’t heard of any official estimate for 2016, however I would say 4K (but that’s just my estimation). The white chairs in front of the stage were VIP seating, and those chairs were never filled, sparse as well. I found that a little embarrassing.”

Beth D.  – “I do think the physical layout of the event made the crowd look somewhat smaller than it actually was. The stage was in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with the space in front of the stage taken up by the VIP seating. We had VIP seats, which was nice, for sure, but it kept the bulk of the crowd from being close to the stage — behind the chairs was the reflecting pool, so the crowd had to be split off on either side of the pool were still around 10,000 atheists gathered in one place for RR2016, which was exhilarating! I believe that growth may have contributed to the lower attendance in 2016 than in 2012: There are now atheist conventions and events and communities all over the country, all throughout the year….”

John W. – “I haven’t seen an official after-the-fact estimate of the turnout, but I’m guessing it didn’t reach the 30+K that was projected. [George] Whitfield was routinely delivering numbers like this throughout the colonies over 270 years ago, during the Great Awakening [the original American religious revival event], before there were planes or cars. So, for me the turnout was disappointing…We sat under a tree, in the shade, near the spot where, in the movie, Jenny spilled into the Reflecting Pool yelling for Forrest [Gump]. A few ducks with ducklings swam in the green water of the pond, shoveling algae up with their bills like a BP oil skimmer. A large egret flew overhead several times, and on each occasion was promptly mobbed by two crows. One of us sat in doggy doo. My impression is that D.C. is behind the times when it comes to curbing your dog. We even ran across it on our way out, in the airport, on the terminal floor.”


OBSERVATIONS IN THE PSEUDO-TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS. Public restrooms: almost every anti-theocrat and social justice advocate’s favorite issue this spring; and the management at the hotel where (ironically) the comedy program was presented was happy to accommodate; transforming, with a quick paper-over, the usually gender-specific WCs into New Age community toities.

Beth D. – “Friday night we went to a Reason Rally comedy show, which was so much fun! The emcee for the show was David Smalley, who is the host of the Dogma Debate radio show/podcast, and founder/president of the Secular Media Group. He has been a strong ally for trans people in this ridiculous focus on their right to pee in peace. So I was not at all surprised to find that the signs for the restrooms at the show venue had been covered with new paper signs reading “gender-neutral restroom.” And guess what? Not one person fainted away, or was overcome with a sudden desire to sexually assault someone! However, one of the comedians did comment on one behavioral change he noticed: with women being around, ALL of the men were actually washing their hands! William leaned over to me and said ‘yeah, that’s not usually the case.’”

John W. – “We all attended the Friday night comedy show. The comics were Leighann Lord, Ian Harris, and Keith Jensen, and they were all very funny, as good as any New York comedy show I’ve been to. After the comedy show, off of the hotel’s lobby, I used my first gender-neutral public toilet. I’m not sure it was sanctioned by the hotel. There were several women waiting for stalls in the bathroom; and I’ve never seen men belly-up so close to the urinals, which is actually a good thing. The guys also all washed their hands when they left, just like one of the comics had just joked about. There is a lot of truth in good comedy.”

ON THE PROSELYTIZERS. No gathering of heretics, secular activists, or misguided souls debauching on Bourbon Street escapes their notice and compulsion to share God’s word. No one expected a reversal of this trend at the Reason Rally.

Beth D. – “There were a few bothersome protesters and proselytizers about, but the occasional individual ranter was easy to ignore, and any protesting groups were small and on the periphery. (I know Ray Comfort had wished to bring a large contingent of harassers, but was informed that any sizable protest would require a permit and a designated location).”

William G. – “The Christian protesters were not allowed to organize within our rally to harass us, but they were sometimes alone or in groups of two or three within the rally proselytizing. Of course, we completely ignored them.

However, there was one guy handing out little cards with the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), symbol on them. It has a dark blue background with a yellow equal sign. Since I was a volunteer with HRC for 10 years, I wanted to support them, so Beth and I each took a card. We flipped the card over, and there were Bible verses denouncing gay people. We went to give the cards back to the guy and told him that this was dishonest and intentionally deceptive. I asked him why Christians needed to use lies and deception to get people to listen to their message. He did not have an answer. It’s just like when Christians go into schools and bribe kids with pizza and other kinds of treats in exchange for listening to the Christian message.”

John W. – “…A little further down, at 17th and Constitution, my sister and I ran into an aggressive preacher with a bullhorn. I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage him, but again, like many times before,I did anyway. In an amplified voice he told us that we were going to live in Hell for eternity. We said we would be amongst friends and started dancing like it was Mardi Gras. With this he became unhinged. As we danced away the bullhorn quoted bible verses and called us fools. We were fools for reason.”


Many thanks to everyone who contributed by sharing your observations, thoughts, and photos; and your permission to edit them as needed.

~Marty Bankson


  • Anonymous

    Too bad it isn't about atheism, or humanism anymore. Even the report is dishonest in not mentioning that the very well known and published reason for the small turnout was the SJW takeover. BTW SJW is not reasonable.

    Latest thinking comfirm Evolution is invalid or false .SOMETHING over writes Time. (Destiny)
    “I am in your individuality but you do not observe” ( sura dahriyat.Quran 51:21) EVOLUTION is An attempt to change humen thinking in wrong direction based on Time. Humen or Water (h2o) is not product of Time, Time will not change water (h2o). Atomic and molecular weight of all elements or compounds will remain same on earth or distant planets in universe. There is SOMETHING permanent in universe.
    Evolution Theory succumb in concept of Time. Time is relative standard…..(Einstein). In reality Time does not Exist. Time is illusion or 4th Dimension. What will be definite proof that Evolution Theory is invalid or False….?? It is water H2O … In billion years Water H2O remained unaffected by Time…… Water H2O is not a product of Time..Whooooo created water ??No Water, no life, No evolution, No natural selection..Water is a phenomena out of time, a rule over nature. When Time fails Evolution fails. An instant knock out of whole Evolution theory, so called Darwinism.

    If life is an accident Then every incident happening in this world will demand an accident. Even existance of a piece of Bullshit cannot be confirmed without a Bull…So from where two cars will come to cause an Accident. What will be definite proof that life is not an accident, Just throw a bag of rice mixed with vinegar in a dark warm place, within 48 hours you will see bag of rice turned into full of life, ( worms) Throw it again if it happens again then this incident ( life ) is not an accident, example is silly but it points out a big mistake in evolution history. is not an Accident but conditional (Confirmed)

    H20 ( water) is a permanent condition in nature which caused diversity of life on earth. Scriptures says life is created not evolved from water" And God created every animal from water " ( Quran 24:45 ) . What will be definite proof that life is created and not evolved ?? It is water H2O. Water suffered no evolution from another source as a product of time thus Water lack co ordination and stability with time to aid a billion years evolutionery process . If water is found in another planet, still water cannot be designated as product of Time, H2O is A permanent law or command written by PEN in nature (destiny) which will contnue to display any where in universe where oxygen and hydrogen is available. If life is an Accident then Life may be found in another planet even that planet is made of copper. For An accident cannot be dependent on another factor like water..if a Pre-condition like water is a requirement for an accident (life) to happen,then this life must be A divine plan.

    Time is not a cause Time is not a real entity or quantity. Time is nooothing.. Null…00.. Nada (void of self). To validate evolution theory you must establish A definition of Time, it is not possible. Did you ever think or ask yourself a question WHAT IS TIME ??? your mind will go blank, Time will create a delusion in your psyco, beacuse Time itself is illusion, In mathematical term time is variable,Relative and unstable .To understand Einstiens space time theory you need to grow wrinkles on your forhead likeEinstein.

    1 Kg, 1 Lbs, 1 Km, 1 Mile, 1 Minute, 1 Hour, 1 Year ,100 Years, Million years, Billion years, Time is a relative standard (Einstein) Water is not a product of time, Atomic and Molecular weight of all elements and componds will remain same unaffected and unchanged by Time until eternity. Even number of smallest praticle electrons and protons, will remain same on this earth or another planet. . TIME FAILED HERE AS ETERNAL CAUSE………. Evolution is invalid or false (confirmed).

  • Social justice has significant standing as a worthy issue within humanism. There are anti-humanist atheists out there, and they may have chosen to stay away because of the programming, but I don't think that, by itself was the primary reason for the lower turnout. That would be hard to prove.

  • Just a few scientific points here. A) time is an observable, measurable reality. If you doubt this, try stopping it or reversing it. Relativistic effects are not significant between objects or organisms that are together on earth, and even if they did occur, would be mathematically predictable. To claim, then, that time is unreal is simply irrational. B) Water molecules are NOT unchanging. Water frequently splits into hydrogen and oxygen, and vice versa. C) Evolution is a process that takes place at a level of complexity several magnitudes larger than atoms or molecules. From the molecule you must move up to complex systems of organic chemistry, from there to living organisms (organic chemical systems that can reproduce), and from a living organism to a breeding population of organisms. Populations evolve. Things that don't evolve (in the Darwinian sense of the word) include individual organisms, molecules, atoms, quarks, galaxies, solar systems, etc.

  • It is possible that the absence of more "atheist stars" may have meant that the lineup was less enticing to some people than it could have been. That's a conversation to have, but I honestly don't know anyone who made their decision to go or not based on the speaker lineup. But I don't think that's what this comment is about. The fact that this poster uses SJW as some kind of slur suggests to me he's one of the people who were so offended by the fact that there was a harassment policy in place that he refused to go, with a straw-man argument of "but then we can't even criticize religion!" That he's someone who is apparently unable to understand the difference between criticizing ideas and attacking people (or is being deliberately obtuse enough to pretend there is no difference). Someone who had ZERO evidence that the policy would be applied unreasonably, yet assumed it would be, before the event even happened. This despite the fact that it was more or less identical to policies that have been used for years by atheist groups and events, where religion is criticized and ideas are hotly debated all the time. Or maybe he's just someone who DOES want to be able to freely abuse individual human beings with no repercussions. In any case, I think the people who flounced out of the RR (and would have otherwise gone) based on paranoid predictions of impending persecution were few, and as far as I'm concerned: good riddance.

  • Regarding the appropriateness of a concern with social justice in general, I'm going to paraphrase Callie Wright, who pointed out that she can only think of two reasons why a person would be an active, involved atheist at all. The first is that you figured something out that most people seemingly haven't, and you want make youself feel better about it and pat yourself/each other on the back for being so much smarter than others. The other reason is because you recognize that religion is harmful, that it hurts people. And how can you meaningfully talk about that or fight it, if any attempt to focus on the *specific* harms being caused to *specific* groups of people is dismissed as "SJW mission drift?" I don't know how to fight the harm that religion does to women without talking about misogyny. What's the point of railing against religion's restrictive views on sexuality and gender if you won't take the next step to actually examining gay or trans people's real problems?

    A lot of active atheists may go through an initial stage of wanting reassurance and validation just for being right, but most eventually move on, to dealing with religion's real repercussions in the real world for real people. And those things can be some sort of academic theoretical discussion only for the type of people most favored by religion and our culture. For those who were not so fortunately born, these issues can literally be matters of life and death.

    I'm all for widely using the word "atheist" to make our numbers felt and understood. But people like this poster show why we *also* need a word like "humanist," a declaration of positive philosophy. For the sad truth is that there are atheists who seem to lack any empathy for people whose lives differ from their own, despite the fact that those differences are linked to problems that are rooted in religion. So we need "secular humanist" to describe us atheists who actually give a damn about our fellow human beings. There is an exception to that for me though: I don't give any damns at all for those who actively fight *against* humanism, who complain about how wronged they are by having their cold atheistic superiority contaminated by my icky empathy for other people. They can go and, again: they are not missed. Since they're not actively helping, it really is best if they just get out of the way.