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 editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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