A Sanctuary for Atheists Who Need a Place to Go

This is a guest post by Pete Marchetti, the founder of Atheist Havens.

The idea for Atheist Havens began when I was reading a post on Reddit about a young man who had been kicked out of his parent’s home after admitting to them that he no longer shared their religious beliefs.

I was struck by the injustice of it all. Over many months I had read similar stories. I remember reading stories of verbal and physical abuse endured by young atheists. I read stories of young adults having crosses burned into their flesh, beaten and berated for hours to ‘drive the devil out of their heart,’ kicked out with nothing and nowhere to go. It sickened me, over and over again.

Many Americans assume these sorts of things only happen in backward countries with explicitly theocratic governments and barbaric religious cultures. But these stories were taking place in America. And not just in the “Bible Belt.”

Something had to be done.

About three years ago, some of us who were subscribers to r/atheism had a conversation: Can’t we, as a community, do something to help our own in these situations?

Many people said they would be willing to take these young adults in their own homes if necessary — to help them break free from their religious families, or help them escape unwanted arranged marriages, or to help them get a real education. But how could they find each other?

Thus, r/AtheistHavens was born. The idea was to provide a central place where volunteers could advertise their offers to house, feed, and otherwise help young atheists who had nowhere else to turn.

The way it works is simple: If you want to make an offer to help someone, you create a post with only your location in the title, then explicitly state in the body of the message the help you are prepared to offer. Anyone who needs help can look through the list and message the people near them.

Obviously, privacy is a concern. Even the moderators cannot tell if anyone has been helped using the list of havens offered. Unfortunately, that leads to the biggest criticism of the forum, which is that the whole project is “at your own risk” for both parties.

For three years, r/AtheistHavens has been slowly growing, with hundreds of people around the world offering shelter and aid to those facing hardships just for being atheists. There are people all over North America, Europe, Australia and even the Middle East volunteering their homes and time.

Since the founding of the subreddit, every time a post appears in r/atheism telling the story of people in difficult situations because they don’t believe in God, someone inevitably posts a link to r/AtheistHavens. And every time the link is posted, more people post offers to help.

That’s what I love about our community. We’re good without God and we’ll do whatever we can to help those around us.

I am very proud of the kind-hearted people who have offered to help and I really do hope that people have been helped. I wish there was a way to quantify both of those things, but that isn’t possible right now.

When creating the subreddit, there was no shortage of potential issues we discussed:

What if someone’s family found out they were staying with a volunteer and came to the volunteer’s home with violence in mind?

What if a minor asked for help and the parents wanted to press kidnapping charges against the volunteer?

Were there any laws that would allow the Haven providers to protect themselves from lawsuits, arrests, harassment charges, and more?

What were the protections for those seeking safe havens?

No one involved has the requisite knowledge or experience to answer these questions. I have asked many times (in many venues) if there are lawyers willing to donate a little time to discuss these issues, but I have never been contacted by anyone.

Hopefully that will be changing. The atheist community beyond Reddit is beginning to take notice of our little project. Earlier this year, I did an interview with the hosts of the Ask An Atheist radio show.

As we get more attention and volunteers, I am hoping we can become a more potent force to help our fellow atheists in need. To this end, I am still looking for legal advice, and I am beginning to think it’s time to create a non-profit organization that can raise funds to buy time with a lawyer.

If you’d like to offer up your homes and other resources to those who may need them, please go to r/AtheistHavens and post your location and the help you can offer.

If you have additional ideas, experience with creating a non-profit, the ability to offer legal advice, or you wish to share your story of how someone from r/AtheistHavens helped you, please visit r/AHChat (a separate subreddit for meta-level discussions).

I think this project is worthwhile even if all those details have not been fully worked out yet, and it’ll only get better with time.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Does this program do any screening to keep out pedophiles?

    • Johnny Shagbot

      Unfortunately they do say ‘at your own risk’. There’s little you can do to prevent it–I mean, anyone can just lie. It’s not something you have to apply for and get approved to do. I for one would be glad to do this, had I more resources and the ability to care for other people.

    • PStryder

      It’s not a program so much as a place to advertise your willingness to help.

      I hope to make it more of a program in the future.

    • raerants

      Even if they did, that would be a highly imperfect system that could only flag known pedophiles who have been caught. You don’t always know who’s going to turn out to be a pedophile. (I recently learned the truth of “It’s often the last person you’d expect.”)

  • Gus Snarp

    It might be a good idea to talk to the people involved in the Clergy Project and work toward something similar to what they have: your own website with some kind of vetting process for those offering or requesting havens. Of course, this issue is quite a bit different from the Clergy Project and once you start hosting a site and vetting participants, you’re definitely going to need that lawyer.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    What happens when that wayward teen you take in borrows the family car and smashes it up?
    (This actually happened to someone I know, and it had nothing to do with atheism.)

    • GubbaBumpkin

      What happens when that teen, who insisted he was clean, gets arrested for using drugs and the police seize your house?

      • wombat

        It’s very true that things can go wrong, and that there are risks involved for people on both sides of the arrangement. If that risk is more than you’re willing to take, then don’t volunteer your home/reach out for help to these people. Honestly though, if people prioritised worries about what might go wrong over their humanitarian impulses every time, then we would achieve so much less.

  • Mario Strada

    I have been thinking about a service like this one for some time and I am glad that someone took it from the level of idea to a reality, small as it may be.

    There are certainly legal issues to consider. Especially here in the US they would be a major concern.
    But I was thinking that in islamic countries it could be outright deadly. I could see some fanatic asking for help from the organization purely to find the infidels that shelter atheists and bring along a few of their taliban friends.

    The legal site is probably complex enough, but in some countries it may require a number of screening steps before these people can be relocated.

    It is a needed thing though. I hope they’ll be able to solve these problems and provide this much needed help.

  • Todd Baum

    Is there some way to ensure proper medical care for these kids that are disowned by their parents? For those kids under 18, parents have to be involved in the admitting process. How has this been handled?

    • gg

      There are ‘emancipated minor’ laws. They probably differ from state to state, but a child can petition for emancipation from their parents.

  • Cattleya1

    I feel so sorry for these kids (and the gay kids in the same straights). Where I live in S. Teabagistan (FL) you would have to be approved as a foster parent and I imagine that the minute one said anything about offering sanctuary to atheist kids, the application would get ‘lost’- permanently. The whole thing revolves around a religion whose holy book gives explicit instructions for when to stone your kids to death and how much to charge when you sell them into slavery.

  • Vicki

    Glad to finally find a place to comment on this topic without having to sign up for Reddit!

    I volunteer at a Seattle homeless youth shelter (YouthCare) so I know a little on the subject. It is against our state law to shelter a teen without alerting the parent or getting permission from a judge to not alert the parent. Obviously abuse is a good reason to not alert the parent, but a judge will have to sign off on that. If the kid was kicked out, it may be fine for the parent to know what city they are in, but kids fleeing abuse will want to avoid that. I expect other states to have similar laws and I would expect the time window you have to appeal calling a parent to vary by state. A law that gave us 3 days expired (who writes laws like this to expire?) which put us back to a default of 8 hours. I know people are trying to fix that and not sure if there has been progress there. I could look into it if you like. Obviously, 8 hours isn’t always enough so some kids that really need help bolt lest their parent find them. It doesn’t take long on the street here (usually within 2 days) for a kid to be approached by a pimp and Seattle is a major international hub for sex trafficking. So… until we fix the 8 hour law I’m not sure I’d recommend Seattle / Washington as a suggested destination.

    In principle, however, I would recommend working jointly with youth shelters and local atheist groups. Find cites / areas where you have people who have volunteered AND where there is a homeless youth shelter AND with some sort of local atheist meetup or something. I’ll use Seattle just as an example despite the 8 hour issue. You could have anyone in the Seattle area wanting to offer shelter contact Seattle Atheists as well. We aren’t prepared to do proper screening but I could at least call people I actually know first. It isn’t perfect, but “Someone in leadership of a local atheist group knows him and thinks he seems nice enough.” is slightly better / safer than “random Reddit user.” The instruction to the kids heading toward Seattle could be to go to YouthCare. They have trained staff who know all the legal stuff and can get everything squared away with the courts. That way, host families know that they aren’t doing anything illegal in taking in this kid. I might be able to set it up where YouthCare knows to call us (Seattle Atheists) to coordinate with an Atheist Haven or the instructions for kids going to Seattle could just include contacting Seattle Atheists once YouthCare has their case worked out.

    You definitely want to avoid aiding a juvenile in crossing state lines, but posting vague information about here are some cities with centers you could go to shouldn’t be problematic. (disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.)

    Pete – I would assume Hemant can see and give you my email (which he has permission to do) or you can look up / write me through the board of Seattle Atheists if you want to chat further.

    • wineandmeeples

      This is so ridiculously helpful. Is there a way to keep this at the top of the comments?

  • Yoav

    Many Americans assume these sorts of things only happen in backward
    countries with explicitly theocratic governments and barbaric religious
    cultures.

    But these stories were taking place in America.

    These two statements are not mutually exclusive.

  • BenFromCA

    My biggest concern with a program like this is that ,as rational, intelligent atheists, we know that ANY program designed to help young people, regardless of the purity of its intentions, is also going to attract sexual predators. While I’m sure that 99% of the people who participate in this program will be committed atheists with nothing more than a desire to help young people deal with the intolerance taught by religion, how will we guard against the 1% that see this as a source of young people to exploit?