Insight after the storm—Rebecca Vitsmun, Humanist Crisis Responders


Given a choice, few atheists would probably choose to be “outed” to family and friends on national television, just hours after your home was shredded around you by an F-5 tornado. But that was the surreal situation Rebecca Vitsmun faced in 2013 when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, standing with her in the ruins of her home in Moore, Oklahoma, asked if she thanked the Lord for her survival.

“Actually,” she said with calm grace, “I’m an atheist.”

That kind of honesty was nothing new for Rebecca. The daughter of a golf pro and a teacher, she moved 15 times with her family by the time she was in 10th grade, mostly throughout the South. “Because I was always the new kid, I figured out pretty early that everywhere that I went had some different idea of what it meant to be cool,” she recalls. “It was exhausting to try to keep up with their definitions, so I just decided I would be myself and have whatever friends would have me that way. I still have friends who remember me from brief stays at these schools because I viewed the world this way.”

She was raised Catholic, and in 11th grade tied with a friend in votes for “Most Likely to Become a Nun.” But her path was already aimed decidedly elsewhere. “I started to doubt my religion when I was 14 and noticed that the Nicene Creed we recited each week said, ‘We believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic church.’ It didn’t make sense that people of other denominations were doing anything wrong, so I stopped saying that line. I didn’t think it was actually a good thing to condemn another good person because they weren’t raised in the same religion as you were. Line by line, things didn’t feel like they added up with the Christian that I wanted to be. I didn’t understand why I would ever pray to a saint because they were dead people, and why should I pray to a dead person instead of god? My religion set the stage for my eventual quest to find out what I really did believe since it clearly wasn’t what I had been taught.”

Her quest led her to major in Comparative Religion in college. By the time she graduated, she says, “I walked away an atheist.”

After getting married and moving to Oklahoma, Rebecca joined Oklahoma Atheists, but remained in the closet to work colleagues, family, and friends—until the tornado and Wolf Blitzer dragged her out of it.

Her experience as a disaster victim was a light-bulb moment for her. “I could see the difference between the infrastructure the religious community already has in place and that of the atheist community,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like our community is prepared to handle something like this should the religious institutions disappear overnight. Since then, I’ve been trying to talk to whomever I can to help them realize this lack in our own community.”

At the FreeOK conference just three weeks after the tornado, Rebecca met Dale McGowan and learned about Foundation Beyond Belief, including the Humanist Crisis Response program. Before the year was out, she was helping FBB expand the capacity of that program from fund drives to coordinating direct response on the ground to domestic disaster events.

“Right now, we are trying to work on two different aspects of Crisis Response,” she explains. “One aspect will be having teams of trained individuals who are ready to go and work in areas to help rebuild after a crisis and the second is a more individual response. The individual response, which is the part I feel most connected to, focuses on victims’ advocates who can be there for a victim after a crisis and ensure that they have someone to be a voice for them in a time of vulnerability and need.”

Rebecca sees good and bad in her 15 minutes in the spotlight. “I was a private person. As someone who spent over a decade hiding who I was, to suddenly be out and see my name and picture everywhere was hard to take in, especially with everything else I was dealing with at the time. Some people I knew would give me the 10-foot-pole treatment.” But she also sees a positive transformation in herself. “It was hard at first, but I feel so much more free. I feel comfortable in my own skin. There have been times when I’ve thought, for a moment, to revert back to old bad habits. When I was raising money for St. Baldrick’s this year, I had a moment where I thought that maybe I shouldn’t post my page in my neighborhood’s Facebook page because that would out me to my neighbors. But then I thought No, I’m past this. I’m not going back into hiding. I posted it and a couple of neighbors donated, and no one treats me like I have done anything wrong. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Rebecca will speak about the current development of the Humanist Crisis Responders program at the Humanism At Work conference on July 19.