It was two days before the "Reason Rally" — a gathering of nonbelievers, secular humanists and agnostics on the Mall — and celebrity activist for atheism Richard Dawkins still didn't know what he was going to talk about.
"Well, I'll probably say something to the effect that the secular Constitution of this country is the envy of the world," Mr. Dawkins said. "It would be a tragedy if it were let down."
Mr. Dawkins is the kind of person Reason Rally Coalition co-chair David Silverman wants. He said the event, which organizers have suggested could draw some 30,000 people Saturday, is tailored to a young generation that he sees as a rising secular force.
The rally has a political message: "We vote. We live here. We buy things. We matter," organizer and journalist Jamilia Bey said Thursday at a briefing ahead at the National Press Club.
Mr. Dawkins, comedian Eddie Izzard and Adam Savage, co-host of Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters," are on the speakers' list. The rally was timed for maximum political impact, with Congress in session, the Republican presidential battle in full swing, and the general election just over seven months away.
Jesse Galef, director of publicity for the Reason Rally Coalition, said the numbers suggest the unchurched and unbelieving are an underrated force in the American electorate, despite the fact that just one member of Congress, Rep. Fortney Pete Stark, California Democrat, has publicly proclaimed himself an atheist.
A 2008 survey by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture found that 15 percent of Americans considers themselves religious skeptics, while 22 percent of high school and college-age youth are skeptical of faith or openly atheistic.
"That's a huge difference and, we think, a sign of things to come," Mr. Galef said.
Mr. Silverman said that secular American voters have long been belittled and ignored, and they have failed to come together as a voting bloc. The coalition, which plans a lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill for Friday ahead of the rally, backs a greater separation of church and state and the repeal of laws granting special privileges to religious groups, Mr. Galef said.
The coalition says society and the law discriminate against atheists.
"This I believe is a civil rights issue," Ms. Bey said. She told the story of a former boss, a Christian, who pressed her on her faith. When she told him she had no religion, he fired her. She declined to say where she worked.
Rally speakers also say the evangelical conservatives and right-wing religious groups have too much power in the current American political debate.
"Part of what this rally is about is to show that there is an audience and a base for those willing to stand up against the religious right forcing their beliefs on everyone," said comedian Paul Provenza, who will emcee the event.
At least one Christian group is planning a counterdemonstration. Rick Schenker, president of Ratio Christi, a student apologetics group, is part of True Reason, a group of Christians formed in response to the Reason Rally.
About 40 students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro will walk through the crowd, handing out water and a booklet explaining how Christianity is a rational faith.
"If you are truly here for reason, we're here to say 'Christianity is reasonable, rational and it's true,' " he said.
Mr. Silverman calls the effort by True Reason "pathetic."
He said about 17 groups have registered to protest the event.
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