Sunday, April 24, 2011

Social Stigma Keeps Many Atheists Quiet

Inside and outside the American Atheists national convention Saturday, people wanted to make sure their message was heard.

A panel discussion about local activism efforts that included members of Iowa atheist groups kicked off the convention's second full day.

"It is amazing what billboards can do to simply have people realize you exist," said Jason Kelley of Des Moines, referring to a pre-convention Des Moines advertising campaign declaring the absence of God.
Randy Henderson, president of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, estimated that Iowa has 300,000 people who identify as atheists. He said those people have the potential to bring about - or prevent - an array of changes in the state. Whether participating in charity events or lobbying against laws they perceive as threatening religious freedom, Henderson said Iowa atheists have an underappreciated strength in numbers.

A stigma attached with being an atheist keeps people quiet, Henderson said. As a result, even some active members of the Iowa atheists group have not disclosed their beliefs to co-workers, bosses, friends or even family.

While atheists gathered inside the Embassy Suites hotel in Des Moines, a dozen people from various Christian groups lingered outside in the chilly wind. Brian Sargent, 46, of Iowa City's Open Air Baptist Church held a black and white sign that read "Jesus Christ is Lord and King."

"When you do open-air ministry it isn't about a single event, its an ongoing mission," Sargent said. While he acknowledges the atheists' hope to contribute to their communities, Sargent said "activity minus God leads to a state of downward-spiraling events."

Alycen Vance, a member of Siouxland Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers, said that in western Iowa the political and social climate is less welcoming to alternative beliefs.

"I've talked via Facebook with very interested, very supportive people that don't want to go out in public when people can recognize them and firebomb their car," Vance said. "And I mean I have literally heard that phrase 'I don't want people firebombing my house' or 'killing my dogs' or 'beating up my children at school.' There is definitely a big fear of stigma."

Daniel Sitzmann said that the Siouxland group has been denied opportunities to participate in charity fundraisers and that plaques noting its contributions to public spaces have been defaced.

Tyler Smidt, 26, of Wellman stood on the sidewalk west of the hotel handing out pamphlets titled "The ABCs of the Gospel." Smidt said people in his church would deplore the acts of harassment some atheists inside the hotel described.

There should be a separation between church and state in the United States, and faith should not be a part of politics, Smidt agreed. So what brought him to the convention?

"The reception (of the pamphlet) isn't what matters. It's about sharing the word of God," Smidt said.

There is some room for common ground when it comes to voicing viewpoints, Vance said.

"Our goal is not world domination," Vance said. "And their goal isn't world domination either."


  1. "Our goal is not world domination," Vance said. "And their goal isn't world domination either."

    World domination is very MUCH my goal as an atheist. Imagine a world with no religion! Imagine society's getting along instead of killing each other over fiction. Vance is selling us short and lying to himself if he thinks christianity or islam is not about world domination.

  2. Yah, it reminds me of something you would say if you were loosing. Like, "My intent wasn't to beat you..."

    I too hope for a world with no religion!

  3. I think a scary number of religious people would forcibly convert atheists or dominate them in some other way. I was a Christian when I was a kid, but as I got older, doubt began to take hold. There is NOTHING anyone could SAY to get me to believe. A psycho mind event (that part of your brain that makes you 'perceive' spirits) could get activated, but even personal loss didn't budge me toward belief. I talk about it openly with my two older kids, but my youngest, almost 7, loves God, like Santa and the Easter Bunny. Slowly, I'm explaining the differences that exist in worldviews but I don't come out and say "We're ATHEISTS" out of concern the article reflected.

  4. It is frustrating that not believing in something can alienate you from other people so much. Of all the things that define me as a person, being an atheist is probably the most insignificant one. However, everyone else ignores all the other good qualities about atheists and just focuses on the fact that they don't believe something.

  5. I will pray for you all. We as Christians don't want to dominate or control you...we want to be with you in Heaven and not see you burn in eternal hell. But you have free will and choice as do I. God Bless