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.
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:
- A 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center showed 53 percent of Americans say a belief in God is necessary for morality.
- Another 2014 Pew poll found almost half of Americans would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist.
- Also from Pew: Atheism ranked as the least desirable quality in a presidential candidate.
"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.
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.”