WASHINGTON – Thousands of atheists showed up at the National Mall Saturday for what they believe will be a game-changing event for secularists. Though the Reason Rally was billed as a celebration of reason and a "coming out" event for atheists, as opposed to an anti-religion one, some viewed it as the latter.
"They said it wasn't going to be anti-God but all the signs are. So it doesn't fit because they're really not rallying for reason. They just say they are," said Tom Gilson, a writer and missions strategist.
Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling The God Delusion, was the most anticipated and well-known speaker at the rally.
In his brief address, Dawkins encouraged fellow atheists to ridicule those who claim to be religious.
Exemplifying how he would approach religious persons, Dawkins said, "Do you really believe, for example if they're Catholic, that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ?"
"Mock them, ridicule them in public," he urged. "Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion."
Gilson, who blogs at thinkingchristian.net, believes the rally was inappropriately titled. Participants were rallying not for reason, he argued, but against religion and for secularism and the separation of church and state.
He also argued that atheists "have no business claiming the brand of reason" because "they don't reason very well."
"For them (atheists), reason means 'don't believe anything that doesn't have empirical evidence.' But reason also means being able to start with a premise or some evidence, move through a line of thinking and arrive at a conclusion without stumbling upon fallacies that lead you to a wrong conclusion.
"Over and over ... again, you'll find fallacies in their thinking."
"Why are they calling themselves the reasonable one? It's that they have their own definition of reason and it's not a good enough one," he added.
The Christian blogger believes atheists can "get away" with saying "it's unreasonable to be a Christian" because of how Christianity is portrayed in the media.
"I don't think the message of Jesus Christ in its truth, in its sensibility is getting into the media very effectively. I think that the vast majority of Christianity in the media is distorted."
Gilson was among a group of Christians who were passing out free bottled water and summarized versions of True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism.
He wasn't there to protest or counter-demonstrate, he emphasized. Rather, he wanted to offer a humble and non-disruptive response to the rally and engage with anyone who wanted to converse.
Separate from Gilson, several other Christians were present at the rally and took a different approach from the "True Reason" team who were advised to walk away from any heated conversations. Around half a dozen people identifying as Christians held large signs telling people to trust in Jesus and actively debated with atheists individually.
Meanwhile, a few members from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church reportedly showed up to protest but were run off by a large group of rally participants, according to one observer.
Philip Ness-Thomas, one of the Christians holding a large Jesus sign, acknowledged that Westboro is not part of real Christendom. "They forgot the love, the mercy, and hope," he said of the Topeka, Kansas, church.
Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, recounted his conversion to atheism at the rally.
"When I left that place (Westboro Church) on the night of my 18th birthday, I left with a mind trained to judge and hate. I left with a certainty that I had displeased God and would be punished for it," Phelps recalled.
Though he tried returning to religion and sought the God of the evangelical Christians, he still had doubts. He fully embraced atheism when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred.
"All around us today is the evidence that we're not alone in our convictions, that the supernatural need not be invoked for humans to have morality and purpose," he said.
Dawkins believes they are reaching a "tipping point" when closeted atheists will all "come out."
"There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists or secularists or agnostics," he noted. "We are far more numerous than anybody realizes."