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Tomorrow, tens of thousands of people are expected to arrive on Washington's National Mall to celebrate not believing in God. They call it a Woodstock for Atheists. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, atheists see this weekend's Reason Rally as a chance to show their power in numbers and also, change their image.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: To David Silverman, the rally marks a coming of age for non-believers.

DAVID SILVERMAN: We'll look back on the Reason Rally as one of the game-changing events, when people started to look at atheism, and look at atheists, in a different light.

HAGERTY: It's a celebration, he says, with famous atheists, like Richard Dawkins; funny atheists, like Eddie Izzard; and singing atheists, like the rock group Bad Religion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOD'S LOVE" BY BAD RELIGION)

BAD RELIGION: (Singing) Tell me, tell me, tell me where is the love, in a careless creation when there's no above. There's no justice...

HAGERTY: But the main point of the rally, says Silverman, who's president of American Atheists, is not to tweak the faithful. It's to encourage closeted atheists to take heart.

SILVERMAN: The message is that if you can come out, you can come out. And if you can't come out, at least you'll know you're not alone. And maybe sometime soon, you'll be able to come out of the closet to your family.

HAGERTY: But fellow non-believer Hemant Mehta says it's not easy. Atheism has an image problem.

HEMANT MEHTA: Every time you hear the word atheist in the media, you know, there's always like, an adjective before it. It's always angry atheist, militant atheist, staunch atheist. It's never happy, smiling atheist.

HAGERTY: Mehta, who writes a blog called The Friendly Atheist, says that openly dismissing God in the most religious country in the West requires courage. You risk losing friends, family, even jobs because of your non-belief. In poll after poll, he says, people say they don't like atheists. One showed that people think an atheist is more likely to steal than a rapist.

MEHTA: People have this notion that atheists are immoral, not trustworthy, unelectable. How do you change that at such a huge level? It starts by people everywhere just coming out of the closet as atheists.

HAGERTY: Mehta helps run an atheist charity. He's been invited to mega-churches, such as Willow Creek near Chicago, to explain why he does not believe in God. He says atheists need to take a page from the gay rights movement. If people know and love an atheist, they'll be less likely to stigmatize them. But not everyone thinks that's the best approach.

GRETA CHRISTINA: First of all, I'm not sure that it is to atheists' benefit to always present a kinder, gentler face.

HAGERTY: Greta Christina is a prominent atheist blogger, and author of a new book, called "Why Are You Atheists so Angry?" Christina says there's a tension in the movement. On one side are what she calls firebrands - like Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who's called some believers, quote, staggeringly ignorant and insane.

On the other are the diplomats like Hemant Mehta, who deliver the same message of a godless universe but politely. She says every modern social movement - civil rights, feminism, gay rights - had the same tension, and you need both.

CHRISTINA: We certainly want to let people know - again, we're your friends; we're your neighbors; we're good people. But I think it's also to our benefit to let people know that we're to be reckoned with, that we're not going to let ourselves be doormats; and that we're mobilized, that we're organized, and when people get us angry, we're going to take action.

HAGERTY: For example, nearly 300 atheists will be meeting with staff and members of the House and Senate today; partly to lobby, and partly to show their numbers. Indeed, David Silverman says atheists have time and momentum on their side. He says the fastest-growing segment of religion in the U.S. is no religion, people who identify as atheist, agnostic or secular. Just look at Canada and parts of Europe, he says. Religion there is going extinct.

SILVERMAN: I believe America is not far behind. I believe in two decades, we will be in a position where secularism is the norm.

HAGERTY: That would be great, says Greta Christina, but in the meantime, she has a more immediate goal. She wants to go to the Reason Rally and have a good time.

CHRISTINA: This is going to be the event that you don't want to have missed out on. You don't want, 10 years from now, to say: I could have gone to the Reason Rally, and I didn't because I had to do my laundry.

HAGERTY: Just like Woodstock, she says. She only hopes it doesn't rain.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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