AHA hosts first atheist pride parade and rally as part of their Free Though Festival.[/media-credit]

In conjunction with a campus festival this weekend, members of the Madison community gathered Saturday to raise awareness about atheism and highlight the need for a separation between church and state in a downtown parade.

The University of Wisconsin’s Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics student organization hosted their annual Free Thought Festival, a weekend-long atheist conference which included an Atheist Pride Parade on State Street.

The parade, which is a new addition to the annual festival, was meant to celebrate atheist pride, improve public perception of the belief and demonstrate the size of the atheist population, AHA Executive Director Chris Calvey said in an email to The Badger Herald. He added the event also emphasized the importance of the separation of church and state.

“We think that events like the Atheist Pride Parade will help to solve this public relations problem,” Calvey said. “Anyone who sees our parade will realize that atheists are a diverse group of friendly people, coming from all walks of life and not something to be afraid of.”

The march, which culminated in a rally on the Capitol steps, also highlighted the power of the atheist voting demographic, Calvey said.

The rally featured several speakers, including Greta Christine, an atheist activist, who echoed Calvey’s sentiment about the importance of spreading the word about atheism and being active within the community.

According to Calvey, atheists make up 5 to 10 percent of the population and are consistently ranked as one of the least-trusted groups in the country.

“The unfortunate reality is that it’s still considered political suicide for candidates to publicly embrace atheism,” he said. “We feel that the only way that will ever change is if atheists become more politically engaged.”

Dan Barker, a representative from Madison’s Freedom from Religion Foundation, encouraged rally attendees to be proud of their beliefs, a message Christine also emphasized as a key factor in mobilizing the community.

Christine urged participants to accept their anger and channel it positively in order to affect social change.

“When atheists are accused of being angry, we shouldn’t deny it. We should own it,” Christine said. “Anger has been a major driving force [behind] every social change movement in history. Anger motivates people to change the world.”

According to Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-president Annie Laurie, atheists are taking their cues from gay rights movements and called for atheists to “come out of the closet” and embrace their beliefs. She said she believes the fastest way to change the demonization of free thinkers is to identify more publicly, a goal afforded by the parade and rally.

Raising awareness is the first step in the right direction toward acceptance and social change, Laurie said.

Calvey said in addition to raising awareness, he hoped the parade incited activist groups at other universities to start their own pride events.

He said the parade was the first of its kind, as it does not appear anybody has attempted this sort of “Atheist Pride Parade.” Furthermore, Calvey added the event was unique as it was organized entirely by a few college students.