Here’s Looking at You, Atheists: Interview with Stacey Speer of “Faces of Atheists”
Along with not-so-loving “love” letters, the AHA recently received a note that simply stated, “This is great. I knew I wasn’t the only one.” The author was anonymous, but the words could easily be said by a number of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers or humanists who feel alone in a world where organized religion stills reigns supreme (though that’s on the decline in the U.S.).
Enter Faces of Atheists, a Tumblr that gives nonbelievers a space to submit their photo and some basic information to show that there’s nothing shameful about being an atheist. Past submitters include a 14-year-old science lover, a 23-year-old EMT and a 38-year-old punk rock fan.
The blog was started in February 2012 by Stacey Speer, a now 25-year-old salon coordinator living in San Francisco. Speer, who also volunteers as a blog manager “for a non-profit organization that works to educate young women and girls about harmful media messages that affect self-esteem and body image,” answered HNN’s questions about Faces of Atheists via email.
HNN: What caused you to start Faces of Atheists?
Speer: A Facebook argument. Seriously. A friend's husband posted a link to some article about Richard Dawkins and basically stated that atheists don't really exist because we can't prove that god does not exist. I know -- what the hell kind of argument is that, right? It simply makes no sense. I try to avoid these kinds of Facebook debates, but I [had to] say something to him. It led me to end up talking about atheists in general and how we are stereotyped and assumed to be these awful people, lacking in morals. I started thinking of all the atheists I know and how truly amazing all of these people are. I just suddenly felt genuinely passionate about making it known to people that atheists are all sorts of awesome people. I had just begun using Tumblr not too long before that and started Faces of Atheists in a fit of passionate anger and frustration. And then I left for work. I came home intending to delete it, thinking nothing would have come out of it, but I had submissions and I had followers. I was so excited. I just went with it.
HNN: Why do you think it's important for atheists to identify in a public way?
Speer: It challenges and counters the assumptions, stereotypes, and all the stupid myths there are about us. I think most people who feel uneasy about atheists are people who don't actually know any atheists (or don't realize that they know any atheists). Just a couple of weeks ago, I told a co-worker that I'm an atheist and I had to explain to her what that meant; she had no idea. So there's another important reason right –there—just our existence teaches others about what it means to live a godless life, and it shows others that it's not a bad thing at all—in fact, it's a wonderful thing.
HNN: It seems that most of the submitters are younger, which probably has a lot to do with Faces of Atheists being on Tumblr. But even with that taken into account, how does it feel to see young people declaring their atheism in an open space?
Speer: That was actually one of the first things I noticed when submissions started pouring in (and they poured in quickly in the beginning). I definitely think it's largely reflective of the Tumblr crowd for sure, as well as the prevalence of the internet in these kids' lives, but I find myself continually impressed by how many young people are thinking so critically at such young ages. I think the youngest I've had contribute was 13! What was I doing at 13?! Certainly not contemplating the existence of god and the relevancy of religion in my life. I was too busy trying to be cool enough to impress my crush. It feels great to see so many young people so openly declaring their atheism (as well as their interest in science, medicine, technology, social justice issues, education, volunteerism, and so many other important things). Honestly, this may sound incredibly cheesy, but it gives me hope for our future.
HNN: What has the reaction been to Faces of Atheists?
Speer: Nothing but positive. When it first started, I received so many words of encouragement via my inbox on Tumblr. Several people told me I should make the blog into a book (that would be rad!). Not only that, but people were thanking me. It still happens on occasion. People thank me for starting the blog and giving people this space where they can be like, "Hey, I'm an atheist, but I'm also all these other things too," and receive nothing but support and encouragement in return. They make friends with each other through the blog too. Believe it or not, there is actually a young couple that met through Faces of Atheists. I have no idea if they're still together, but I thought that was pretty cool.
HNN: Do you ever get mean, sarcastic or concerned Christian submissions? If so, how do you deal with that?
Speer: Nope! It could have something to do with the fact that I don't allow anonymous messages, but in the year I've been running this blog, I've only received one non-atheist message. It was just a person who identified as a Christian, thanking me for making the blog because, "now I know who to pray for by name." I found it condescending, but I had so much support that it didn't even faze me. I can't even remember if I replied to it or not.
HNN: What was your own journey to becoming a nonbeliever like?
Speer: I wasn't directly brought up with any particular religion, but I thought I believed in "god" when I was young, probably just because that's what everyone else around me was doing. When I was 15-years-old, my dad gave me a bible for Christmas and wrote in the cover that "all of life's answers" could be found in it. I must have been already on the road to not believing at that point, because I remember feeling pretty pissed off about it (or was that just because I was an angsty teen?). I know I was not into religion, and I'm sure by 16 or 17 I was aware that I didn't have any belief in god. I got into a relationship with an atheist when I was 18 and he kind of helped solidify my confidence in being an atheist, and not being afraid to say that I was one. Plus, I started reading Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins books; that'll always help!
HNN: Do you have any nonbeliever heroes?
Speer: My friends! It's so much fun and so much easier being an atheist when you're surrounded by like-minded people. All the nonbelievers who are super well-versed on the Bible and religion in general and can use that to completely turn religious arguments around are my heroes as well. I don't have the patience to read the Bible. I recently discovered the writing of Greta Christina [editor’s note: who will be receiving the AHA’s LGBT Humanist Pride Award at our conference this year] and I think she is amazing. And, of course, everyone who has contributed to Faces of Atheists.
HNN: Do you have any plans to stop Faces of Atheists? (Please say no!)
Speer: Not at all! I'll tell you the same thing I tell the readers who ask: Faces of Atheists will keep going as long as new people keep following the blog and sending in submissions. It runs on people sending in their faces, so as long as I keep receiving submissions, it's on! I've also recently contemplated the idea of photographing the atheists in my life and including those as well. I'll photograph strangers, too, if I can find them and they'll let me.
HNN: If any of our readers want to submit, can they email firstname.lastname@example.org?
Speer: Certainly! They can read the submission guidelines on the blog (facesofatheists.tumblr.com/submit) and submit through there if they are Tumblr users or through the email as well.
Photo by Mike Law
Sarah Anne Hughes is the communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.