When Rebecca Vitsmun proclaimed herself an atheist on national TV, the Moore woman became a “hero” of sorts for many people in the state who also consider themselves nonbelievers.
“A lot of people don't realize we're here — it's such a rarity,” said Red McCall, president of Oklahoma Atheists.
McCall said he saw Vitsmun's interview with CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer shortly after a tornado destroyed her home. The reporter asked Vitsmun if God had helped her make the choice to leave her house ahead of the deadly storm bearing down on her suburban city.
“You've gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?” Blitzer asked.
Vitsmun replied: “I'm actually an atheist.”
“Everybody's really happy with her because a lot of people would have said ‘yes,'” McCall said. “She is seen as a hero because she didn't cave under pressure.”
He said Vitsmun's declaration was attention-getting.
“She was well-spoken, happy and put together and then she drops the ‘A word' and everybody is like ‘Wow!'”
McCall, an Oklahoma City electrical engineer, said he had contacted several national atheist groups to see if they were interested in organizing to send donations for disaster victims after the May 20 storm. He said once Vitsmun's interview aired, “they started to call and say, ‘Do you know this lady?'” They wanted to help.
‘Good without a god'
As it happened, Vitsmun is a member of McCall's Oklahoma Atheists group, a fellowship of like-minded Oklahomans who do not believe in God.
McCall said comedian Doug Stanhope, who is an atheist, along with several national atheist groups pledged their support for Vitsmun. To date, the organizations have raised about $122,600 for the metro woman who has told McCall that she will donate whatever she does not need to charity.
Several attempts by The Oklahoman to contact Vitsmun were unsuccessful.
“Rebecca Vitsmun's courage to speak forthrightly about her atheism inspired humanists and others who are good without a god across the country to help her through this difficult time,” Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said in a prepared statement.
“Natural disasters are a product of our environment, not supernatural forces, and we have a responsibility to help those affected by them.”
McCall said the organizations had pledged donations to Oklahoma tornado victims even before Vitsmun's CNN interview aired, so he is not surprised that a large amount has been raised on her behalf.
“Whether it's the black community, the gay community or even the atheist community, when anybody stands up, then the rest of the community stands behind them,” he said. “It's all about supporting each other.”
McCall, 32, said such support has played a key role in the growth of Oklahoma Atheists in recent years. As the group's president for the past four years, McCall said he has tried to develop a sense of community among individuals who, by virtue of their nonbelief, are the minority in a “Bible belt” state.
McCall said stereotypes about atheists abound, including that they all are angry loners looking for attention or rebels who hate God. He said he rejects all stereotypes and finds that the God-hater label does not make sense.
“It's kind of hard to hate something that you don't believe in. It's like us hating Moby Dick,” he said.
McCall said other stereotypes link atheism with Satanism or arrogant intellectualism. He said most of the atheists who attend his group's gatherings defy these stereotypes, and he dislikes being typecast with such negative and narrow-minded labels. He said many atheists are not looking to change the mindset of the faithful, but they won't shrink from a discussion about religion, either.
“We have atheists that are good people and we have atheists that are bad people,” in the same way that churches have all kinds of people, McCall said.
Several members of Oklahoma Atheists said they were drawn to the group because of the sense of connectedness McCall has fostered. While many others across Oklahoma may flock to their church, synagogue, Buddhist temple or mosque, the group members said their unbelief initially linked them but many now share bonds of friendship as well.
Belief to nonbelief
Michelle Ellis, 32, the group's outreach coordinator, said she met McCall at an Oklahoma Atheists' outreach booth at the Oklahoma City Peace Festival several years ago. She said she did not know such an organization existed locally before that.
Ellis said she was ready for such a group, having felt isolated in her journey from believer to nonbeliever. Ellis said she grew up in a Christian family in Texas in which both of her grandfathers were preachers. She said she had a lot of fear and guilt about God because of how He was portrayed at her church. She said she began to question her Christian faith after leaving home for college. She said she stopped attending church for a few years and when she returned, she found the biblical teaching contradictory. She said she began to ask Christian leaders questions.
“Adam and Eve did not make sense. The story of Noah's Ark definitely did not make sense. Why does the Bible talk negatively about women?” she said. “They just wanted me to go away. They didn't want me to ask questions.”
Ellis said she was 26 when she determined that she did not believe in God. She said initially she had a hard time expressing her nonbelief out loud or even writing it on paper. “The fear of hell was constant. It was really, really hard,” she said.
One day, however, she had an experience in which her life was in jeopardy. Ellis said she tried to pray — but couldn't.
“That's the moment when I knew that it was done, because even when faced with my own mortality, I wanted to believe that someone would hear me, that someone would care, and I absolutely couldn't do it,” she said.
She said she considers herself an agnostic atheist because she does not believe in a deity, but “I am not certain that it's not possible. It could be one day that we have proof of something.”
‘Seed of doubt'
McCall, a Norman native, said his journey to unbelief began as a child living in a Christian home with a devout father who had a deeply spiritual experience as a military serviceman in Vietnam. “I really was really a believer,” he said.
McCall said he was in sixth grade when he learned about the Egyptian god Horus and was struck by the similarities between the stories of Horus and Jesus, the Christian Messiah.
“We learned about some gods that basically directly paralleled Jesus — born of a virgin, died and was resurrected, was the son of God, came back to save people. That was my first seed of doubt,” he said.
McCall said he was in seventh grade when his older brother committed suicide. The cruelty that Christianity seemed to impose on people who take their own lives did not correspond to the God that McCall had believed in thus far. He said this reinforced the doubts he had begun having about the existence of the divine.
“It just didn't make sense that my all-loving God of Christianity would sentence my brother, who made a really quick mistake, to sit next to Hitler in hell. That didn't make sense at all. Likewise, heaven didn't make sense to me, either,” he said.
“A lot of people insert God whenever they don't understand something. Anytime there's a gap in scientific knowledge, people insert God. I'm not going to do that,” McCall said.
He said he was about 18 when he “lost all religion,” but he was 23 when he finally admitted to others that he was an atheist. He said his parents still believe that his atheism is a phase, and he doesn't take their spirituality lightly.
Other members of Oklahoma Atheists who met with The Oklahoman were Sean Braddy, 41, of Norman; Melissa Walkup, 33, a Del City librarian, and Shelley Rees, 44, of Edmond, a professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.
Braddy, Rees and McCall said they are trying to protect their children from the religious culture around them so they can become free thinkers.
“It's like the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny — if you don't get that belief structure in early, it's not there,” McCall said.
Rees said living in Oklahoma, the mission to keep young people in the family away from religious indoctrination, is not easy.
She said one of her son's teachers once contacted her to tell her that her child had professed to be an atheist.
“It was told to us with gravity — as something we should be concerned about,” Rees said, shaking her head.
All said they feel fortunate to work in jobs where their atheism is not seen as a problem. Other atheists, they said, are not so lucky.
“That's why our community is private,” he said.
He said before the group's efforts to keep their gatherings confidential, one member was fired from a prominent company that promotes its Christian ideals. McCall said it's hard to prove that people are being terminated under such circumstances, and perhaps it would be difficult for a business to do so without drawing opposition. However, he said there is enough of a threat of harassment or termination at some workplaces that some unbelievers prefer keeping their atheism to themselves.
‘Oklahoma needs ... us'
Ellis said while atheists may be in the minority in Oklahoma, they are a valuable asset to the state.
“Oklahoma needs people like us. It needs people to say there are other world views. There are all these people out there who don't believe in any particular thing,” she said.
Walkup agreed. “Why not say ‘I'm different and it's OK?”
Ellis said she knows her mother and sisters love her dearly, but they don't like to talk about her atheism.
Rees, the adviser for the Secular Student Alliance on her college campus, said different generations see atheism through a different lens. She said older generations may be shocked when people identify themselves as atheists, but younger generations aren't as shocked.
Still, she said there is plenty of prejudice and superstition about atheists in Oklahoma, and this can be isolating to nonbelievers.
McCall said that is why he tries to build community through Oklahoma Atheists gatherings, which he considers a “safe haven” for nonbelievers. McCall said the group mans booths at various festivals and large gatherings like the recent SoonerCon in Midwest City and the Peace Festival where he met Ellis. He said his group also participates in community service projects like those at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and other nonprofit agencies. He said his group is different from many atheist groups that seem to exist mostly as online networks.
Ellis said the in-person gatherings help reduce the sense of isolation some nonbelievers may feel in the faith culture predominant in Oklahoma. “We accept you, which is not always the case here,” she said.