Over on Freethought Blogs, at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson posted the following story about an atheist named Jerry DeWitt, of DeRidder, Louisiana. He is not very popular in his home town.
DeWitt is something of a reality check for many atheists, whose principles rarely cost them more than the price of “The God Delusion” in paperback. DeWitt refuses to leave DeRidder, a place where religion, politics and family pride are indivisible. Six months after he was “outed” as an atheist he lost his job and his wife — both, he says, as a direct consequence. Only a handful of his 100-plus relatives from DeRidder still speak to him. When I visited him, in late June, his house was in foreclosure, and he was contemplating moving into his 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser. This is the kind of environment where godlessness remains a real struggle and raises questions that could ramify across the rest of the country. Is the “new atheism” part of a much broader secularizing trend, like the one that started emptying out the churches in European towns and villages a century ago? Or is it just a ticket out of town?
This made me wonder… are there any programs set up specifically for reaching out to marginalized atheists?
Why aren’t there any charities/organizations devoted to aiding atheists in these situations? Something to send them a little money each month, or even (for those that want it), help to move to a new area where they might be more accepted?
There really should be resources for these people.
And yes, I’m fully aware that this is easier said than done. But billboards and blogs and websites can only to so much in reaching out to the closeted and marginalized. An organization that directly reaches out to them, offering support and assistance to those who need it, would be an amazing thing to have.
I got some great responses, too. For example, Blade had this to say:
Nate: I’m actually in the process of getting something similar started for queer and atheist college students at the University of Alabama. We have problems with members being vulnerable to being financially stranded due to their religious (non-)belief and sexuality–and have had a few members of both groups have to drop out thereby.
Depending on how it goes–getting revenue will be a problem, unless we can get enough donors–I’ll try to spread this to other universities.
Which is really good, though it’s limited to universities.
Good ideas. Maybe, besides financial help, create a registry of fellow atheists who would be willing to offer pro bono help. Anything from legal stuff to helping someone move to a new city, or just someone to hang out with and talk to. existing groups could create hotline help etc.
Both provide a great starting checklist for an organization whose mission would be to reach out to marginalized atheists in the US and, eventually, the world.
The reason why I say “eventually, the world” is because atheists are not just marginalized in the US. There are places in the world where being an atheist is actually against the law, sometimes on penalty of death. I would argue that, recognizing the danger, atheists in places like the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere need help just as much, or more. They need money, or perhaps even sanctuary.
My idea is simple, yet large in scope. It would be a charity organization first and foremost, reaching out to atheists who live in conditions where their atheism is a hindrance or even a danger to them and, maybe, their loved ones. The organization should have numerous different avenues to help atheists. Money, of course, would be the main thing offered, but there are times when that’s not enough, and also times when that is not what the atheist wants.
The organization should also offer a directory of atheists open to being pen pals with the marginalized atheist, by writing, email, Skype, etc. It should include a directory of atheist organizations, listed in such a way that the atheists in need can search their local areas to find fellow atheists. It should also provide hidden forums where marginalized atheists can meet online in secret simply to provide each other vocal support and ideas, and see that they aren’t alone.
This organization should provide a directory of atheists willing to offer their homes as temporary places of sanctuary for any atheists who are left homeless or are on the run because of their atheism, and the people offering their homes should note how many they can take at a time (families and such), and any other info thought to be important. The organization should be able to provide funds to help these atheists get to the offered sanctuary, even if it means helping an atheist flee from a place like the Middle East to wherever they wish to go.
It should also provide a directory of lawyers willing to work pro-bono to help atheists who find themselves in legal troubles because of their atheism (such as being fired from a job because of it).
And finally, while this organization should focus on atheists, they should not be the only people helped. An Afghani actress has been forced to flee Afghanistan after receiving death threats. An 11-year-old Christian Pakistani girl is in jail for alleged “blasphemy”. I don’t see why some help can’t be offered to them.
I realize that the scope of the idea is one that would be hard to create and maintain. But it is also something I feel is becoming necessary. As atheism is pushed into the spotlight and atheists become more vocal, it also means that, for some atheists, things become more dangerous (yes, even here in the States). I believe that such an organization, no matter how large in scope or expense, has become a necessity.
What are your thoughts on this? Let me know.