SAN FRANCISCO — Few outside the atheist community — and even many inside it — would argue that atheism has an image problem.
Every challenge to the First Amendment seems to bring to the airwaves some version of an angry atheist versus a sputtering religious pundit. Cooler, calmer heads seldom make an appearance.
Now, a new feature-length documentary from a first-time filmmaker hopes to put a more human, middle-of-the-road face on American atheism. Called “Hug an Atheist,” the film will make its debut Saturday (Sept. 14) at the fifth annual San Francisco Atheist Film Festival before seeking wider distribution at other film festivals and on television.
The 90-minute film is the project of Sylvia Broeckx, a 35-year-old Belgian who lives in England and has been an atheist and humanist since her teens. She became interested in America’s perception of nonbelievers when some American friends and fellow atheists shared their own stories of feeling marginalized.
“I always assumed America was founded on freedom of religion and was very much like Europe where if you are an atheist it is no big deal,” she said. “When I discovered that in America being an atheist could be a big problem, that was really a shock to me.”
She was especially upset by the stories of Jessica Ahlquist and Damon Fowler, two teenage atheists who challenged prayer in their public schools. Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high schooler, received death threats and was belittled by local government officials, and Fowler’s family kicked him out of their Louisiana home before his high school graduation.
Broeckx, who normally tackles film and video projects for businesses and corporations, decided to make a documentary — her first fully independent one — about “real” American atheists. She took her idea to a crowd-funding website and raised the necessary $27,000 in 53 days.
Most donations were small, but one filmmaker gave her the last $10,000.
She then traveled to a dozen states, including Texas, Illinois, Kentucky and Pennsylvania to interview atheists. She was looking, she said, not for the talking heads of atheist organizations who are regulars on cable TV but rather, average people.
“I wanted people that could just be the people next door,” she said. “I wanted to put a face on atheism and the face is your neighbor, your friends and your co-workers who you might not expect to be an atheist, but you get along with them and you see them every day.”
That aspect of the film is what drew Dave Fitzgerald, organizer of the San Francisco Atheist Film Festival, to feature it in the prime evening spot of the daylong event.
“Sylvia has done a wonderful thing,” Fitzgerald said. “Her subjects aren’t caricatures. They’re real, ordinary people with something extraordinary to say.”
And they are dealing with real issues that every person, regardless of religious beliefs, must confront: morality, parenting, suffering and death. The only difference is that atheists approach such problems without a religious framework.
What is not included is any sort of diatribe or argument against religious belief or believers that’s become the common currency of the most visible atheist activists.
“I really wanted to make sure it was as upbeat as possible and that it really wasn’t a case of ‘us’ against ‘them,’” Broeckx said.
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