Richard Dawkins Preaches to Nonbelievers at Reason Rally

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The famed scientist attracted thousands of devoted fans. But atheist leaders say the movement still has a long way to go.

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Benjamin Fearnow & Mickey Woods

The 2012 Reason Rally, held yesterday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was advertised as "the world's largest secular event," and despite the inclement weather, it drew more than 20,000 people. Big name anti-religion advocates including Adam Savage, co-host of the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters, and the world-renowned Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins addressed the crowd of nonbelievers, some of whom had trekked from as far as Wisconsin and Mississippi.

After a rousing ovation, Dawkins praised the group for having braved the day's varying rain showers -- from drizzle to downpour - saying, "I expected a great turnout should the weather have been nice, but here you all are. I've not yet seen a more beautiful sight."

He later offered a contrarian take on the event: "How could anyone really rally against reason? Conversely, how could anyone have a rally for reason?", which won him another round of applause from supporters.

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Upon the conclusion of his approximately 10-minute speech, in which he covered familiar arguments surrounding natural selection and evolution, Dawkins exited stage right. A legion of fans clamored for his attention as he walked briskly toward the Washington Monument, flanked by a bodyguard and the Richard Dawkins Foundation's chief financial officer, Dr. J. Anderson Thomson Jr. Fans clutched camera phones and yet-to-be-signed Dawkins books, only to be fanned away by the bodyguard.

Later, Thomson Jr. and Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell, the Richard Dawkins Foundation's U.S. executive director who'd spoken to the crowd about the war on women's bodies, opened up further about the challenges of gathering nonbelievers and moving them to action.

What role do social media and the Richard Dawkins website play in your activism?

Elisabeth Cornwell: We have gotten about 1 million hits a month, which opens up a whole new window for people to see what's going on. Social media really is the only way that something like this is possible. And not only possible here but everywhere. The fact that we can, with very little money, share and exchange ideas with people we may never even see means we're breaking down walls that would be impossible to break down without social media.

Do you think that can also be a hindrance to the movement? A lot of people say they're activists because they click the "like" button on Facebook. That's different than what people did today, physically coming here from places like Wisconsin and Mississippi.

Elisabeth Cornwell: One of the problems with the Internet is that people can remain anonymous. So they don't really have to follow through with action, and they're not accountable. But as people become more accustomed to it, they realize they have to do the activism. They can't just push the "like" button; it's not going to get things done. On the Richard Dawkins website, we encourage people: go out and do this. Don't just sit there and read articles and complain about the world being unfair -- "Those darn Christians, and those darn radicals." No. You have do something: run for your school board; become politically active.

Why do you think people are starting to use social media to organize physical activism now, as opposed to five or ten years ago?

J. Anderson Thomson Jr.: Today's young people are more conversant in the technology. It's harder for the older people to use it. Social media has become part of the natural language of young individuals.

What about today's political climate? Does that have anything to do with why people are finally coming out in droves now?

Elisabeth Cornwell: I think a lot of things came together and this is just the tipping point. We had eight years of George W. Bush; we had 9/11; we had a series of books to come out: The God Delusion, God Is Not Great.

J. Anderson Thomson Jr. (to Cornwell): You basically coined the title "The Four Horsemen" [Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett].

Elisabeth Cornwell: I don't know how I came up with that; it was just in my head as I saw these people writing tremendous books that became bestsellers. People were starting to using the Internet to communicate these ideas, and when Richard Dawkins's book came out, it was natural for us to start making use of that right away. I think it was just a matter of people becoming more and more intolerant of intolerance, especially with the rise of fundamentalism in this country.

Do you think fundamentalism has peaked?

Elisabeth Cornwell: I think what's happening is there's a real visceral reaction from the religious Right: they are in trouble and losing ground. But they've built up their base in a 30-year period. We've got a lot of catching up to do. We've got to be smart about it. As Richard said, we need scientists standing up. Religion to them is boring, but they've got to stand up and speak out. Everyone plays a role.

Compared to the Baby Boomer generation, the liberal Left today seems to be experiencing a lot of disconnection. As one guy here said, "The only thing we technically have in common is that we don't believe in God." What do you think about political apathy from the youth?

Elisabeth Cornwell: Apathy is the worst thing that can happen to this country.

Elisabeth Cornwell: And people are becoming more pious -- 30 years, 20 years ago, there would've never been presidential candidates standing up in front of a crowd saying, "I'm more pious than he is! No, I'm more pious than he is!" It's nutty!

J. Anderson Thomson Jr.: It's a poisonous meme that's run away, where people think they need to do this to get votes. But I think underneath, there's not that much tolerance for it. A recent Pew Poll said the population is getting sick of this.

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Benjamin Fearnow & Mickey Woods

Benjamin Fearnow and Mickey Woods are freelance journalists living in New York.

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