As comedian Doug Stanhope watched CNN’s Wolf Blitzer insinuate that Rebecca Vitsmun must thank the Lord for saving her life, he jumped off the couch, high-fiving himself when she outed herself as an atheist. “For her to say she’s an atheist in that type of a crisis in front of her neighbors takes balls. So I thought we should start a fund as a reward to show there’s a spine of atheism that will support people who stand up. This is especially true in a state like Oklahoma where you’re dealing with snake-talking kind of Christians.”
On May 22, he set up Atheists Unite, an Indigogo fundraiser to help rebuild her home in Moore, Oklahoma which was devastated by the deadly tornadoes that killed 24 people. “I felt this was a way of giving where people could give the finger to Christian America. This was something people could do quickly to change a person’s life under the flag of atheism.”
Right after Stanhope called Emery (an atheist activist and co-host of the Ardent Atheist podcast) for assistance, Emery sent out 20 emails to key celebrities within the atheist movement. When Emery went to bed on May 22, the campaign had already raised $7,000 thanks to grassroots advocacy and a boost from the James Randi Foundation, an organization of skeptics led by D. J. Grothe. He woke up the next morning to find tweets from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science and Ricky Gervais, and considerable outpourings of support from individuals resulted in $46,000 in donations. On Sunday, magician and comedian Penn Jillette used the bullhorn of Penn’s Sunday School podcast to lend his support, though the Church of Bacon remains the single biggest donor with their contribution of $2,500.
National nontheist organizations quickly lent their voice to the effort, including American Atheists, whose president David Silverman pointed out that, “We don’t need the promise of cosmic reward to know this is the right thing to do; it’s simply what being good is all about.”
Also, the American Humanist Association documented via email that they’ve raised over $20,000 which they will donate directly to Vitsmun. Executive Director Roy Speckhardt stated that “Rebecca Vitsmun’s courage to speak forthrightly about her atheism inspired humanists and others who are good without a god across the country to help her through this difficult time.”
While contributions and publicity from nontheist organizations and celebrities enabled this campaign to double its goal in a matter of days, #AtheistsUnite remains a grassroots campaign. Stanhope does not plan on transforming this project into an institution, adding that all the money will go directly to Vitsmum for her to spend as she pleases. The success of the venture may require the comedian to revise about ten minutes of his act where he rants about the proclivity of atheists to talk about how much smarter they are than Christians without actually doing anything to improve the world.
When asked via Twitter why people chose to join over 3,700 funders in supporting this particular cause, the responses gave voice to a growing community of nontheists determined to prove that in the words of @STOOSHPR: “doing good isn’t just a christian trait but human :)”
Most of the funders seem to be adults, though @4partsvodka wrote “My 5yr old donated as ‘Rebecca is just like me & doesn’t believe in god’ (& her little boy needs a new teddy!)”
@DoublWideLounge summed up the views of many tweeters: “Rebecca was respectful of others’ views while firmly stating her own. All of us don’t hate people with opposing views. We all want a stable, healthy community regardless of what our neighbor’s views may be. It seems fat people and atheists are the last people we’re ‘allowed’ to make fun of. Whatever. We’re not going away.”
A few respondents echoed @grl_come_undone’s sentiments about the power of an atheist going public with their beliefs in “Christian” America. “It’s great to see someone comfortable enough with their beliefs to be honest about them with strangers. And I’m tired of mindless references to an imaginary being and a bastardized religious system, especially in disasters.” @spaghettified added, “I’m sick of the weird mix of God’s Munchausen By Proxy & the people’s Stockholm Syndrome after natural disasters,” with @doktorbuzzo chiming in, “If it makes Glenn Beck’s tiny little brain boil in conspiracy sauce, so much the better.”
To see the full range of these responses that demonstrate a positive side to nontheists seldom depicted in the mainstream media, go to @Becky_Garrison on twitter. (Scroll down to the entries posted on 5/27/13). At present, #AtheistsUnite has doubled its goal of $50,000 and will continue to accept donations until July 22 at 11:59 p.m.
Despite this outpouring of support from the nontheist community, Emery’s twitter feed contains vitriolic posts demanding to know why this campaign is being exclusionary by targeting one atheist instead of assisting the entire community. These commenters seem to be unconcerned with the myriad faith based campaigns geared toward helping an individual lost soul in need of soup and salvation.
Lest anyone feel #AtheistsUnite represents an isolated incident of atheist activism, RD reported last month that the Humanity Chaplaincy at Harvard, along with other nontheist organizations, raised significant funds to support two members of their community impacted by bombing during the Boston Marathon bombing, including one who lost both her legs. Also, according to Silverman, over 30,000 people showed up in person for the 2012 Reason Rally to present themselves as visible signs that nontheists do exist in a country where atheists and Muslims are deemed to be the most undesirable Presidential candidates.
Emery reflects on this shift in the American landscape where nearly 6% of the US population now self-identify as atheists or agnostics. “Wolf thought he was talking to a sheep who dressed and talked like all the others but she wasn’t a sheep. Vitsmun will be remembered—at least in the atheist moment—as the moment when the world has to face the fact we’re not this tiny percentage of people. I don’t think the numbers are growing. I think the numbers are now being counted right. Atheists aren’t afraid anymore to speak out.”
But what will Wolf do next time?