New ‘Openly Secular’ group seeks to combat anti-atheist discrimination

May 2

A new coalition of secular organizations hopes to combat prejudice and discrimination against atheists, humanists and other nonbelievers.

Called “Openly Secular,” the coalition wants to draw attention to incidents of anti-atheist discrimination in hopes of making such bias socially unacceptable.

“Our goal is a world where there are no social costs for being secular, where people do not have to risk losing relationships, jobs and elections when they are open about their nonreligious beliefs,” said Todd Stiefel, chair of Openly Secular.

“By getting more people to be open about who they are, we will reduce the misunderstandings that lead to fear and distrust of secular people.”

Openly Secular is a project of four secular heavy-hitting organizations: the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance and the Secular Coalition for America. An additional 20 organizations have signed on as supporters.

Stiefel, whose foundation has funded a number of atheist projects, described Openly Secular as “the next step” of the Dawkins Foundation’s “Out Campaign,” an effort to encourage nonbelievers to “come out” that was started in 2007.

“We are broadening and expanding the (Out) campaign to make it easier for people to become open with fewer social consequences,” Stiefel said. “We are also expanding the open strategy beyond atheists by reaching out to agnostics, humanists and even the spiritual but not religious.”

They will also enlist religious and civil rights organizations in the effort, Stiefel said.

Openly Secular’s first project is to gather stories from nonbelievers who say they have faced discrimination. One of the first contributors is Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island teenager whose battle to remove a prayer banner from her public high school brought her national attention in 2012.

“After I spoke openly about being an atheist, I lost many friends and was threatened with rape and death,” Ahlquist said in testimony for Openly Secular. “My own (state) representative publicly called me an ‘evil little thing.’ All of this, simply because I did not believe in God.”

Polls back up the assertion that nonbelievers, as a group, are disliked. A 2012 Gallup poll found Americans were least likely to vote for an atheist for president, behind a gay, lesbian, Muslim or Mormon candidate. A 2011 Canadian poll found that atheists are as mistrusted as rapists, and a recent Saudi Arabian law classified atheists as terrorists.

Reaction to the new group has been mixed, even within the world of secular activism. Writing on his Friendly Atheist blog, activist Hemant Mehta said he thinks most cases of anti-atheist discrimination receive widespread media attention.

“The big question is this,” Mehta wrote. “Are there atheists who haven’t reported (possible) instances of discrimination against them . . . but they’ll report them now with this new coalition in place? I’m not sure, but I hope I’m wrong.”

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