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.”