By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist seminary president has added his blessing to a campaign advocating for atheists.
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., affirmed Openly Secular, a campaign fighting discrimination against people based upon their non-belief, in a two-minute video message posted online.
“You are probably wondering immediately: why would I be doing a video at the site of Openly Secular?” Akin said in the video. “The reason is that though we do disagree about some very important issues, we also agree about some important things as well.”
“For example, we do believe, together, that no one should be coerced when it comes to their particular religious beliefs,” Akin continued. “Whether they are religious or not religious, they should have the freedom to express what they believe and they should be able to do so without hatred, without discrimination. They should not be put down because they happen to disagree with another person in terms of what they believe.
“We also believe that all people are valuable and have dignity and worth, and therefore all people should be respected and should be allowed to express their beliefs openly according to the dictates of their conscience.
“Of course we also believe we can come together to try to help in areas like poverty, in the area of making sure our planet and environment is well cared for, and there are a number of other things that we can come together and work together with mutual love, mutual respect and understanding for one another.”
Chaired by Todd Stiefel, a philanthropist and activist who lives in Raleigh, N.C., Openly Secular is a campaign launched by a coalition of more than 20 secular groups seeking to sway public opinion toward becoming more accepting of the nonreligious in the same way Americans are becoming more accepting of gays. Contrasting from the confrontational strategy of infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the 1960s, Stiefel’s group hopes to change minds by urging atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and nonreligious people to be open about their beliefs.
“Discrimination is rampant against those who are secular,” according to the Openly Secular website. “Teens are made homeless after being thrown out of their homes; young activists receive death threats; people lose relationships with friends, family, and coworkers for not believing the same.”
A 2014 Pew research study found that Americans would more likely vote for a presidential candidate who has used marijuana, committed adultery or never held office than for one who is an atheist.
“We envision a world where there are no social costs for being secular, where families and communities remain whole when some members have moved away from religion or supernaturalism,” Openly Secular says.
Stiefel, president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, has donated more than $4.7 million dollars to nonprofit organizations in the secular movement. Founded after he stepped down as chief strategy officer of Stiefel Laboratories when the family business was sold for $2.9 billion, his foundation supports organizations including American Atheists, the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“What I am trying to accomplish is multifold,” Stiefel told CNN in 2013. “I consider myself working on the next civil equality movement, just like women’s rights, LGBT rights and African-American civil rights. We are still in the early stages of eliminating discrimination against atheists and humanists. That is something I really want to accomplish.”
Stiefel, a former Catholic who began doubting Christianity while in college, recently described the secularist experience to CBS News.
“Like a light switch, it’s, ‘You’re immoral, you’re gonna raise evil children, you’re a bad parent,'” he said. “They’re questioning your whole existence. I’d rather somebody assume I’m stupid than assume I’m wicked. It’s painful. It’s discrimination. It’s prejudice.”
Stiefel called Akin’s support of the mission “a significant statement.”
“I find it highly encouraging when Baptists and atheists speak out in support of one another,” Stiefel said in a press release. “Secular people and evangelicals alike should treat each other with love and kindness. We certainly disagree on some issues, but we have more in common than many realize — including respect for and acceptance of our fellow human beings, no matter their belief system. We look forward to welcoming more theist allies like Dr. Akin to join us in our mission to eliminate this insidious form of discrimination and bigotry.”
Stiefel told the Charlotte Observer he met Akin a few years ago through a mutual friend. He said he thought Akin would be amenable to the video request, because, “We have our areas of disagreement, to be sure, but he’s a good guy.”
“My friend Todd invited me to participate in this project, and I told him I would be glad to, because there are a number of things where we can come together and be not only friends but be good friends with one another,” Akin says in the video.
Others endorsing Openly Secular include former Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney, former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, illusionists Penn & Teller and Bill Maher, a comedian and host of the HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher.
Openly Secular partners include the Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The group sponsored its first Openly Secular Day on April 23, encouraging secular people to open up about their worldview with at least one person as a way to “help people realize they already know good and compassionate atheist, agnostic, humanist and nonreligious people.”