As comedian Doug Stanhope watched CNNâs 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. âFor her to say sheâs 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 thereâs a spine of atheism that will support people who stand up. This is especially true in a state like Oklahoma where youâre dealing with snake-talking kind of Christians.â
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. âI 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 personâs life under the flag of atheism.â
Right after Stanhope called Emery (an atheist activist and co-host of the Ardent Atheistpodcast) 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 Pennâs 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, âWe donât need the promise of cosmic reward to know this is the right thing to do; itâs simply what being good is all about.â
Also, the American Humanist Association documented via email that theyâve raised over $20,000 which they will donate directly to Vitsmun. Executive Director Roy Speckhardt stated that âRebecca Vitsmunâs 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.â
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: âdoing good isn't just a christian trait but human :)â
Most of the funders seem to be adults, though @4partsvodka wrote âMy 5yr old donated as âRebecca is just like me & doesnât believe in godâ (& her little boy needs a new teddy!)â
@DoublWideLounge summed up the views of many tweeters: âRebecca was respectful of othersâ views while firmly stating her own. All of us donât hate people with opposing views. We all want a stable, healthy community regardless of what our neighborâs views may be. It seems fat people and atheists are the last people weâre âallowedâ to make fun of. Whatever. Weâre not going away.â
A few respondents echoed @grl_come_undoneâs sentiments about the power of an atheist going public with their beliefs in âChristianâ America. âItâs great to see someone comfortable enough with their beliefs to be honest about them with strangers. And Iâm tired of mindless references to an imaginary being and a bastardized religious system, especially in disasters.â @spaghettified added, âIâm sick of the weird mix of Godâs Munchausen By Proxy & the peopleâs Stockholm Syndrome after natural disasters,â with @doktorbuzzo chiming in, âIf it makes Glenn Beckâs tiny little brain boil in conspiracy sauce, so much the better.â
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, Emeryâs 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 2012Reason 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. âWolf thought he was talking to a sheep who dressed and talked like all the others but she wasnât a sheep. Vitsmun will be rememberedâat least in the atheist momentâas the moment when the world has to face the fact weâre not this tiny percentage of people. I donât think the numbers are growing. I think the numbers are now being counted right. Atheists arenât afraid anymore to speak out.â
But what will Wolf do next time?