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Thousands of Atheists in DC for Reason Rally

Credit: SIPPL Sipa USA via AP

Over the weekend, an expected 30,000 atheists descended onto the National Mall in DC to rally for reason. Though estimates have it that roughly 15,000 at best participated, the Reason Rally sought to celebrate the secular movement in America and give voice to their desire for more reason and less religion in government. Hosted by the United Secular Americans organization, the rally featured speakers such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, comedian Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, and Method Man from Wu-Tang Clan.

"If you know that you can be a good person without believing in a god . . . If you think public policy should be based on scientific evidence, not religious beliefs . . . If you support the separation of church and state . . . then join us for the biggest gathering of nonreligious people in history!"

Signs dotted the landscape at the rally. As CNN reported, such signs included "I think therefore I am an atheist." Theoretical physicist and atheist activist Lawrence Krauss said, "I have a dream that some day children are encouraged to reach their full potential by providing them with the tools they need to learn and encouraging them to question everything."

Executive director Lyz Liddell said it was absolutely a political event. The issues highlighted included climate change, reproductive rights and LGBT equality. US Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said, "A pluralistic, secular government is the only way to ensure that all individuals have the freedom to follow the religious path of their choice." She is the first openly Hindu elected to Congress.

Twenty-two percent of the American populace is religiously unaffiliated. Three percent considers themselves atheists. This number has doubled in the past seven years. Sixty-eight percent of atheists are men, and the median age is thirty-four. Sixty-five percent reported seldom or never discussing their views on religion with religious people.

But in an American context, where democracy and republicanism create a conducive and necessary atmosphere for the discussion of ideas, why is this the case? Could a discussion and better understanding between atheists and religious people help solve this problem?

Throughout history, reason has been a welcomed and necessary companion on the Christian faith journey. Isaiah extended the invitation to "come and let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18)." The writer of Proverbs encouraged the utilization of reason in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, comparing it to gold and silver (Proverbs 2:4–5). The apostle Paul admonished Christians to renew their minds (Romans 12:1–2) and to repair the mind that was broken by sin (Colossians 3:10, Philippians 2:5).

There have always been doubts on this intellectual journey for the Christian, most notably exemplified in Thomas. But as Jamie Smith notes, doubt does not indicate lack of faith; rather, it is a symptom of faith.

Religion and reason are not oil and water, but peanut butter and jelly.

As for the claim that a pluralistic, secular government is the only way to ensure all religions have freedom, how is that working out in China? The People's Republic, which has a secular government, is also a place where Christian pastors are frequently jailed and crosses were just recently taken down.

A secular government may be a way, but it is not the only way. In this great American experiment, a hybrid mixture of democracy and republic, the Founders were deeply influenced by Christian principles—among many other principles—and acknowledged that our rights come from our Creator.

We were not founded as a Christian nation, but rather as a nation rife with Christians. Government is our shared project to protect and ensure those rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of your beliefs or unbelief.

They are not given by the government but protected, regardless of whether you believe in the Creator or not. You, the atheist or the believer, have the right to believe whatsoever you will. In the infancy of our country, the Founding Fathers sowed seeds of liberty which now have reaped a harvest of plurality. You can believe or choose not to believe; that is your prerogative.

But the Founding Fathers knew that religion could be a positive good for the country. They did not favor one over another, nor allow a test for entrance or employment, but they saw the practice of religion producing virtue, serving as an ally to government.

Consider George Washington:

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens . . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles."

The Constitution guaranteed the free exercise of religion while equally prohibiting the state sponsorship of it. This mutually beneficial relationship was never intended to have a wall to separate the two from interacting one with another. Rather, the faux Jeffersonian wall was meant to allow the state to benefit from the church relative to virtue, and keep the church free from the burdensome entanglements of the state.

Granted, there have been instances in the past where Christians have failed to live up to their standards. But the same can be said of all. So instead of rallying against one another, maybe we can talk with each other. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

For Alexis de Tocqueville, greatness did not equate to flawlessness but to the pursuit of perfection—a more perfect union, one might say. Implicit within this pursuit is the realization that we have yet to arrive. The trail of tears that stretches back to the genesis of America testifies that we have never been perfect. We have devalued individuals, sequestered tribes, and silenced groups. But the supreme ideal of liberty and justice for all allowed us to rectify our wrongs, celebrate when we were right, and be open to conversation in between.

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