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HAD TO BE THERE

Atheists gather for a holiday they can believe in: Independence Day

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

This story is part of an occasional series in which Post writers take you on a tour of original places and happenings around the region.

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The trouble with most major holidays in the United States, if you're an atheist, is that it's difficult to ignore the "holy day" etymology, what with Christmas (obvious), Easter (obvious) and Thanksgiving (whom do you think most people are giving thanks to?). But not the Fourth of July. The Fourth is a little deity-free celebration stationed in the middle of summer for believers and nonbelievers alike.

"Especially now, when atheists are vilified for not being patriotic enough," Maggie Ardiente says, balancing her paper plate of cookout food, "this is a really important holiday."

So here we are in Lorton, at the year's largest social assembly of Washington area atheist groups, the fourth annual Independence Day Celebration -- or, as the e-mailed news release read, "Ungodly Leaders to Gather at Potomac Picnic."

Surrounding the flagstone patio, there is a food table, a drink table and a literature table, on which have been placed pamphlets about organizations like the atheist nonprofit Center for Inquiry or Camp Quest, a secular summer camp "for children of freethinking parents."

On the food table, there is a get-well card for "God Is Not Great" author Christopher Hitchens -- who recently learned he has cancer -- which the picnickers are encouraged to sign.

"Does everyone have their raffle tickets?" one man asks, rattling a red ticket box.

And the door prizes of an atheist raffle are . . . Richard Dawkins DVDs!

This is the biggest turnout the atheists have ever had for the event, with about 100 representatives from 14 different groups, including the American Humanist Association (Ardiente is its director of development), the Northern Virginia Ethical Society and the Gay Atheists of Washington, D.C. (GAWD). The party is being held at a sprawling stone house owned by the parents of George Mason University student Shelley Mountjoy, who heads the university's Secular Student Alliance. Her parents are Catholic, but they're not home.

"I like your shirt," someone is saying to a guy whose T-shirt depicts a Jesus fish going through evolution.

"Oh, we're deeeep in Falwell-land," the president of the Lynchburg Area Secular Humanists is saying to two interested women.

Atheists self-identify in all kinds of ways: Humanists. Freethinkers. Darwinists. Unitarians -- though some of them do believe in a higher power. Agnostics -- though they are withholding judgment until all the facts are in. You have those who push for the optimistic-sounding "Brights," and those who fret that "Brights" is too smug, like calling everyone else "Dims."


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