In 1995, devout Catholic Todd Stiefel rejected his faith and became an agnostic.
At the time Stiefel was enrolled in an Old Testament history course at the Duke University Divinity School. “It was the first time in my life where I started getting answers that made sense—that resonated from a historical and cultural perspective,” Stiefel recalls. “It just dawned on me that my beliefs weren’t really different than the ones I thought were fictional…Once I realized that the god I believed in was just this ancient Mesopotamian deity, and one of many ancient Mesopotamian deities, [my Catholic] belief was gone. It wasn’t coming back.”
After reading books on atheism by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, Stiefel says he changed his self-identity from agnostic to atheist. He also became increasingly troubled by the efforts of the religious right to control politics and by their discrimination against minorities, especially gay people and atheists, who they cast as “the boogie man of the world.”
Around that time, Stiefel left his position as chief strategy officer at Stiefel Laboratories (maker of skin care products) to pursue secular activism and philanthropy. His first act was sponsoring billboards during the 2008 Republican and Democratic national conventions that read: “Keep Religion Out of Politics.”
In 2013, Stiefel was inspired by the Out Campaign of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which sought to create more openness about being an atheist, to organize a similar campaign in the United States to stand up for the integrity and rights of secular people. In September of 2014 he officially launched Openly Secular, with the stated mission “to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people—including atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and nonreligious people—to be open about their beliefs.”
I recently interviewed Stiefel, 40, about the campaign he chairs, which is now in its second year. “People who are not religious are equally capable of being moral, ethical people, and we deserve a voice as well,” he says. “The way to do that is to get us out there and have people recognize us as just your friends, your neighbors, and be open about our beliefs.”
Stiefel brought together four well-known secular organizations as principal sponsors of the Openly Secular campaign: the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the Secular Coalition for America, the Secular Student Alliance, and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. Another twenty-plus secular organizations are partners in the campaign.
In Stiefel’s view, “social shunning” is one of the most common forms of discrimination against atheists. “It’s family members who stop talking to you or treat you differently as soon as they find out,” he explains, “the grandmother who suddenly doesn’t talk to you anymore.”
Another big area of discrimination, according to Stiefel, is in politics. “Good luck getting elected to public office if you’re openly nonreligious,” he laments. “One member of the US Congress is listed as nonreligious. One person. Not one percent.” Stiefel complains that because the openly nonreligious are rarely elected, the nonreligious are underrepresented, and their ideas do not enter into public discourse.
A June 2015 Gallup poll indicated that 40 percent of Americans would not vote for an atheist candidate. Atheists are viewed more unfavorably than Muslims candidates, which scored 38 percent.
Stiefel, whose family made a fortune in the dermatology products business, says he’s had trouble as an atheist giving his money away to worthy causes, including leading civil liberties, gay rights, and cancer research organizations. They’re only willing to accept anonymous donations from him. “They’re afraid of the public backlash,” he notes.
When the cancer research organization rejected his donation, it hurt Stiefel. “I have a lot of family and friends with cancer, and my father and wife are both survivors. It was really painful to be barred from openly helping such a great cause simply because my beliefs are secular.” This refusal by worthy causes to take his money was a principal motivator for Stiefel to organize the Openly Secular campaign.
Neil Carter, 41, a popular Jackson, Mississippi, blogger (Godless in Dixie), is an active spokesman for Openly Secular, appearing in OS promotional videos. Carter says he is a prime example of someone blatantly discriminated against simply for being an atheist. When his teaching contract with a Mississippi school system wasn’t renewed, the principal at the middle school where he taught admitted it was because Carter is an atheist. But because the principal never said it in writing, Carter had little legal basis to sue for his job back.
“Because so many in Mississippi value religious devotion as a key component of a person’s character, it affects everything you want to do,” Carter told me. “No school would want me on their staff, no matter how good of a teacher I am…parents are afraid that I am trying to get all of their children to become atheists.”
Besides losing his job, Carter says that a primary cause for his marriage ending was his wife’s lack of acceptance of his atheism. It also caused difficulties with his family. “My family, it’s a very good family, they love me, they’re very accepting of me, but it’s also very hard on them.”
Carter says he believes it is important to be open about his atheist beliefs. “Just the sheer act of self-identifying broadens people’s impression of what a person in that category looks like…If somebody already liked me as a person and felt that I was a good father and a kind person, when they find out that I’m a non-Christian it helps populate their minds [about] what [such] person is like.”
The Openly Secular campaign freely imitates the highly successful LGBT campaign to change public acceptance of gay people, says Stiefel. “We’re copying directly a lot of their tactics and strategies, because they’ve been so successful. You look at things that that movement has done and the progress that’s been made over even the last ten years. It’s mindboggling and fantastic.”
Among the strategies borrowed: videos of prominent atheists are promoted on the OS campaign’s website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. These videos include Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Barney Frank, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, plus dozens of ordinary people from every walk of life. The OS website also includes a resources section with toolkits and brochures to help educate the religious and support the nonreligious.
“I don’t really care about persuading people to leave their faith,” Stiefel says. “I just want to be friends with everybody and get along with people. It’s not about persuading religious people of anything other than, we’re OK, too.”
Openly Secular is not without its critics. David Silverman, president of American Atheists (one of the more than twenty secular organizations that support Openly Secular), criticizes the campaign’s choice of the word “secular.” An advocate for a more strident, in-your-face form of atheism, Silverman says he would have much preferred “Openly Atheist.”
“This country is nearly 30 percent atheist today, but 90 percent of us don’t use the word atheist, instead calling ourselves any number of euphemisms and lies,” says Silverman. “As a result, the polls make a huge segment look tiny, and we have no power. We will gain and maintain power not by converting theists to atheists, but by converting atheists who don’t call themselves atheists, into atheists who do.”
Stiefel says the word “secular” was chosen for its breadth— that most people recognize “secular” as a concept that includes all aspects of nonreligion.
Two senior staff members with the Harvard Humanist Hub, a campus organization for secular people, expressed a favorable opinion of the Openly Secular campaign. Vanessa Zoltan is assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and at the Humanist Hub. “People are not able to live their lives out in the light, so I think that creating [the campaign] and speaking your own truth is a good thing,” she says.
Zoltan, 33, talks about her grandparents who were Holocaust survivors: “All four of them were orthodox before the camps, and all four of them were atheists after the camps. I was raised by them and by my parents. I was very much raised in the theology of the Holocaust.”
In spite of her atheism, Zoltan still observes the Jewish holidays. “I love Judaism. I will go to Yom Kippur services on Tuesday night, and I will love it.” Asked how she labels herself, Zoltan replied, “I call myself an atheist and a Jew and a humanist. Depends on the room, but I think I’m all three.”
Nick Bohl, the program coordinator and a teacher at the Humanist Hub, supports the goals of Openly Secular, although he feels that interactions with religiously minded people should be handled delicately. “I think that compassion is really important in this conversation, because religion is so important to so many people,” he tells me. “I am passionate about opening a dialog and trying to understand those beliefs in an open, equal plane rather than insulting [believers].”
Bohl, 28, avoids using the word atheist. “Most of time, if I were to use the word ‘atheist,’ it would immediately put up a defensive wall…I feel that, so many times, the conversation gets muddled with the labels.”
When he first acknowledged his own religious doubts, Bohl says found the subject difficult to discuss with family and friends. One of his outlets was an anonymous YouTube channel, where he talked openly about his nonbelief and where he found an online community. But he also experienced a negative backlash: “I experienced a lot of hateful things, and violent words, too, about the ideas I was expressing. In real life, because of the experience I had online, I tended to avoid that conversation.”
One year since its launch, Stiefel is pleased with how the Openly Secular campaign is progressing. “I think it’s going incredibly well,” he says, pointing to the expanding number of videos and toolkits available at the OS website. “We’re really trying to reach mainstream America… those religious people who believe you have to believe in God to be a moral person,” Stiefel explains. “We just want them to accept us for who we are.”