Since 2007, there has been a significant increase in young Americans, (Under the age of 30), identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated. For whatever the reason, almost 20% of those polled in the 2012 Pew Research Poll chose not to identify with any denomination, Protestant, Catholic, Judaism, or Islam. And of those 20%, nearly 13,000,000 fall proudly into the category of atheist or agnostic.
Given that, many people were surprised when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, during a story in May covering the disastrous tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, assumed his subject Rebecca Vitsum was a Christian. Standing with Vitsum and her young child in the midst of the rubble that once was her home, he asked her:
“I guess, you gotta thank the Lord, right?” Do you thank the Lord?”
To which Vitsum replied with a soft smile,
“I’m actually an atheist.”
Blitzer was caught off-guard and reflexively stammered, “Oh you are? Alright.” then stood there for a moment with the classic “deer in the headlights” blank stare on his face until the gentle Rebecca Vitsum came to his rescue. “We are here, and I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord,” she told Blitzer.
The story quickly took hold and dominated the blogs and political websites for about 15 minutes, then it was forgotten. Except by Doug Stanhope.
The moderately successful “shock-jock” stand-up comic, saw the CNN clip and began thinking not only about the plight of the Oklahoma residents, but particularly, the remarkable young woman standing amidst all that rubble holding her child, who felt comfortable enough to simply and clearly declare her lack of belief in God, on cable TV. One of the staples in Stanhope’s stand-up act are his frequent jokes about the zany Christian lifestyle, so his sense of camaraderie with her was immediate. Within minutes he decided he would set up a website under the indiegogo banner , calling it “Atheist Unite” His banner read:
[box type=”shadow”]It’s important that our community shows that we have your back when you come out publicly as an atheist. Let’s show the world that you don’t need to believe in a god to have human compassion nor does all charity fall under the banner of religion. Let’s get this courageous woman and her family back in their own home.[/box]
He arbitrarily set a fundraising deadline of July 22 and launched his site. Now admittedly, Stanhope did this on somewhat of a lark, and pulled a goal of $50K our of his tuckus, but was shocked when the real support started pouring in. People all across the country seemed to relate to this woman and her courage. There was a collective tug on the heart-sleeves of atheists, agnostics, and even people of faith.
As of today, Stanhope’s site has raised more than $125,000 for Rebecca Vitsum and her family. Roughly the median cost of a home in her neighborhood, and with nearly nine months left, the funds raised will really help this woman get her life back on track.
“Generous atheist” is not an oxymoron. Several research groups have noted a significant increase in non-believer charity over the last several years. Huffington Post did a piece on the subject in which they reported,
[box type=”shadow”]”There has been an absolute sea change,” said Dale McGowan, executive director of the Georgia-based Foundation Beyond Belief, one of several charities founded in the last five years by and for nonbelievers. “Giving has really become much more of a front-and-center concern for our community.”[/box]
What’s behind the change? Theories range from the influx of younger non-theists with a focus on global welfare, to images of natural disasters made ubiquitous by the Internet, to the growth in population of people who say they have no religion.” (20% in the previously cited Pew Poll.)
More non-religious, more atheists, more acceptance, fewer closed minds, and more money to charities. Sounds like a recipe for a new Age of Enlightenment to me! And it couldn’t come at a better time.