A rally organizers have billed as the "largest secular event in world history" will be held on the National Mall today.
The Reason Rally will bring atheists and nonbelievers together in a hallowed American place.
But Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, one of the organizations involved, says, "It's not a march on Washington where we're picketing anything. It's a celebration of the fact that the secular movement is really starting to come into its own."
The rally will feature a tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great. His friend, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist who wrote his own best-selling The God Delusion, is the marquee speaker, along with comedian Eddie Izzard and the punk group, Bad Religion.
Those folks can be sharp-tongued. But rally organizers say they don't want to mock religion.
A lot of nonbelievers I know and hear from are eager for atheists to be seen as more than just scolds, who point out absurdities and inconsistencies in religion, or the kind of grumps who file lawsuits against shopping mall Santa Clauses.
The rally will express some of the alarm atheists can feel at seeing religious creeds on U.S. currency or hearing politicians pay respects to "people of all faiths," but not those who have none.
It sometimes seems easier to think you know what's in the mind of an atheist than in their hearts.
Religions, after all, proclaim morals — however imperfectly, insincerely and sometimes even scandalously. Yet as a reporter, I've seen people working for religious groups give selfless, unsung service in places around the world that have been forsaken. It is hard not to see the power of faith in them.
Ever since the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited Bible readings in public schools, atheists have won recognition and standing under U.S. law. But a new generation of young atheists wants human understanding, too. "We want you to know we're your neighbors," says Paul Fidalgo, "and we're not scary."
Christopher Hitchens once wrote that the certainty of atheists that we have just one life means that "Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more," he said, "but I want nothing more."
Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance says more young atheists are forming service projects to help stock food banks and rebuild houses in hurricane zones — not to fulfill faith, but follow their hearts.
"We want people to know," he says, "that you don't have to believe in God to care about others."
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.