Beliefs Culture

Atheist coalition wants you to know they are ‘Openly Secular’

Left to right, Todd Stiefel, founder and president of Stiefel Freethought Foundation, Lyz Liddell, director of campus organizing for Secular Student Alliance, and Robin Blumner, with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, pose for a photo after presenting during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga., on Sept. 20, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

DECATUR, Ga. (RNS) A new coalition of atheists, humanists and other nonreligious groups is taking a page from the gay rights movement and encouraging people to admit they are “openly secular.”

The coalition — unprecedented in its scope — is broadening a trend of reaching out to religious people and religious groups by making the secular label a catchall for people who are not religious.

“We wanted to rise above who is an atheist, who is an agnostic, who is a humanist, who is a secular Jew,” said Todd Stiefel, founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and a main force behind the coalition. “This needed to be about something everyone could rally behind so we intentionally used the word secular because it was one thing we could all agree on.”

The campaign, “Openly Secular: Opening Minds, Changing Hearts,” was unveiled at the 65th annual gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association here on Sept. 20. It includes a website, resources for families, employers and clergy, and a YouTube channel featuring both prominent and rank-and-file nonbelievers announcing their names followed by the declaration, “I am openly secular.”

To raise awareness of discrimination against nonbelievers, Openly Secular looked to the “It Gets Better” project launched several years ago by gay rights activists. In that campaign, openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people sat down in front of a video camera and told their stories of discrimination and bullying and encouraged closeted LGBT people to do the same. Many sociologists credit the “It Gets Better” project with the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships.

Founder and president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, Todd Stiefel, speaks to journalists during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga., on Sept. 20, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Founder and president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, Todd Stiefel, speaks to journalists during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga., on Sept. 20, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

 

Armed with a clip-on microphone and a PowerPoint presentation, Stiefel, a boyish 39-year-old, walked reporters through data he says shows a pattern of discrimination against nonbelievers:

“That is sad and impressive at the same time,” Stiefel said.

But as innovative as the campaign claims to be, it has a major hurdle. One of the main backers of the campaign is the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, headed by the famous evolutionary biologist who is one of the most outspoken critics of religion and religious people. Project Reason, founded by vocal anti-theist and New York Times best-seller Sam Harris, is also a supporter.

Openly Secular organizers are confident that hurdle can be overcome. Robyn Blumner, executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, told reporters the Oxford don has many friends who are religious.

“I don’t feel comfortable speaking for Richard,” Blumner said in an interview later. “But I can tell you the foundation is not against religious people. However, we have our differences with religion, especially when it interferes with science.”

Stiefel, who frequently works with religious people in his philanthropic work, said, “In this campaign we are not going to be critical of religious people or organizations. That does not mean there won’t be member organizations that continue to criticize religion.”

Indeed, some of the coalition’s almost 30 member groups seldom work together as many have different concerns and approaches. Some, like Freedom from Religion Foundation, focus on church-state breaches, while others, such as the Center for Inquiry, focus on education and advocacy. Member groups like FFRF and American Atheists are also vocal critics of religion.

A frequent criticism of the atheism movement is that it is not diverse enough, but Openly Secular’s coalition includes humanistic Jewish, African-American, Hispanic and ex-Muslim groups. The campaign also has an international component. Groups from Canada, England and the Philippines have signed on.

Todd Stiefel, center, founder and president of Stiefel Freethought Foundation, speaks to Lyz Liddell, left, director of campus organizing for Secular Student Alliance, and TK Barger, Toledo Blade religion editor, during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga. on Sept. 20, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Todd Stiefel, center, founder and president of Stiefel Freethought Foundation, speaks to Lyz Liddell, left, director of campus organizing for Secular Student Alliance, and TK Barger, Toledo Blade religion editor, during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga. on Sept. 20, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Some coalition members are critical of each other — at least behind the scenes. But Stiefel said Openly Secular managed to bring them together by focusing on a single issue that concerns them all: discrimination.

“I’ll freely admit the discrimination we face is not like the discrimination faced by gay or black people,” Stiefel said. “But the death threats are not a rarity. It is a part of the territory. You speak up and extremists try and silence you with fear of death.”

Such stories are chronicled in the videos on the Openly Secular website, some of which Stiefel screened for reporters. While famous atheists like former congressman Barney Frank and former NFL player Chris Kluwe were among the more recognizable people in the videos, it was the stories of workaday secularists that prompted Stiefel to start the campaign.

Among them was Joni Mars, an Oklahoma mother and nonbeliever whose two daughters were bullied by their peers and, in the case of her 6-year-old daughter, beaten while riding the school bus. When Mars demanded school officials take action, she and her children received death threats. They have since moved to another state.

“I know people who have to have bodyguards everywhere they go,” Stiefel said. “I know people who wear bulletproof vests.”

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

12 Comments

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  • We’d like to be listed in the Openly Secular database of atheism organizations (I read that you are maintaining such a database, but I couldn’t find it on your web site, so if you could send me the link I’d appreciate that as I’d like to share it with other atheists).

    Thank you.

    Randolf Richardson of the Atheist Frontier
    Beautiful British Columbia, Canada
    http://www.atheistfrontier.com/

  • Bravo.
    As a humanist and atheist, I believe that it is up to us to care for others and make the world a better place.

  • I live in France, a country where there is no theist/atheist debate. You can be openly-anything as long as you remember to grumble and complain about everything.
    However, I feel for people in the USA who are victims of this very surprising discrimination against those who think.
    As far away as I am, I would love to be able to support in some way. Any suggestions?

  • Hi, Richard. The difference in attitudes towards atheism in Europe and the US is fascinating. I have sent your comment on to the Openly Secular organizers.

    Hey, I recognize your picture – I think you follow me on Twitter. HI!

  • Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your thoughts and offer to help. I think the best way to get involved would be to join with one or more of the freethought groups based in France. They will know best how to get involved outside of France itself. This page is to international organization that may also be interesting to you. On it, you can see four French groups. Thanks!
    Todd Stiefel
    http://iheu.org/membership/our-members/?page=CiviCRM&q=civicrm/profile&page=CiviCRM&gid=4&force=1&crmSID=3_u

  • I love this approach. Bigger tent, bigger umbrella, and a more inclusive message for a coalition to build around. Bravo. Interesting to read the brief reference to Richard Dawkins’ recent “challenges” for lack of a better word. With his penchant for misusing Twitter, and his lack of communication skills outside of evolutionary biology, I think this movement would do well to give him a seat in the spectator’s box, off the playing field.

  • The best advice or philosophy of living is to give up any and all supernatural beliefs and endorse science and rationality. Some would say morals come to us through religion. I say poppycock! Dame Jane Goodall, George Schaller and Frans de Waal ALL have evidence PROVING that altruism evolved in the animal kingdom long before mankind or ANY religions existed. Religion only knows retreat, as science advances. Failed televangelists, burning of “heretics” and witches at the stake, defrocked priests, pedophilia scandals and an ever increasing exodus FROM religion in our 21st century, all spell doom for the gullible, indoctrinated folks who cling to outmoded supernatural beliefs. True happiness comes from a thorough understanding of man’s real place in nature through scientific knowledge and reasoning.
    Look up the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” on wikipedia to see religious sarcasm at its best.
    Then Google “the Clergy Project” to see how countless pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and ministers have recanted their religion and turned instead to reality, i.e. science!
    Religions are so paranoid, they put Galileo under house arrest, trying to get him to recant reality! They’re still doing similarly incomprehensible and reprehensible acts to this day.
    There is ZERO place in the 21st century for those who thump their Bibles and state that “you cannot escape GOD!” That is their personal shortfall, an outmoded belief system, steeped in ancient myths and too long-held coercion and brainwashing that rules their gullible minds. Want a genuinely majestic and real view of man’s true place in nature? Cast off your lifelong indoctrination from “those religious folks” and read Dr. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” for a rational, scientific and beautifully poetic orientation to the marvels and truths of the scientific, yes EVOLUTIONARY development of mankind.
    Look up “List of Deities” on wikipedia to see THOUSANDS of former gods, idols, talismans and other “supernatural” entities that are no longer worshiped and have been cast into the dustbin of history, myth and fable. I believe in one less “god” than you do… YOURS! When one frees their mind of such false idols and the Dark Ages thinking of religion, true enlightenment will follow.
    “… the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this
    respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good.
    Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” ~Dr. Carl Sagan quote.
    RELIGION FAILS, SCIENCE PREVAILS!

  • I admire your effort and believe you are doing what you think is best to make others who may be leaning secular to make the leap into open, welcoming arms. Just beware of the company you keep, and NEVER EVER allow a clergyman of any stripe (or his kin) to babysit your kids. That’s not a joke.
    I couldn’t care less what those polls say, they’re all wrong anyway because people are afraid to report themselves as freethinkers. We need to stop being a minority and continue to ATTACK the most destructive, violent, brutal, bestial, mind-numbing force in the history of the Western World, Christianity. Why be friends with someone who will stop the conversation before it even begins? Why be partners with wishful-thinkers who live in a fantasy world of sin, guilt, Armageddon and delusion? Why let your kids learn in a school that teaches the universe is only 6008 years old? Well, like I said, if it works for you, that’s great. Good luck to you.

  • Where is A.Max? come on dude! Some support for your peeps, putting it all out there, takin one for the team, bustin a line with the keyboard! All due respect AM. 🙂

  • When I was about 8 years old I realized that my parents had lied to me. They didn’t mean any harm but they told me about Santa, the Easter Bunny, The Sandman, the stork etc. I feel that God fits into this category. If there were one God, I might go along with it, but there are thousands of different religions, and every one claims to be the right one. How can that be? And there are some real strange ones, like the Mormons with their holy, blessed underpants?? Christians believe that there is the old person in the clouds who listens to the babbling (praying) of individuals. Just think of the trillions of people doing it. A six year old might be talked into believing it but grown men and women? Hard to believe, isn’t it? And if you don’t believe like I do, you get killed in some societies. Well I guess you know where I stand.

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