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May 22nd, 2013
06:20 PM ET

This Oklahoma atheist isn't thanking the Lord

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='JRavitzCNN']

(CNN) – Behind her were ruins, a tangled mess where structures once stood. Cradled in her arms, the mother’s 19-month-old son played with a snatched microphone, unfazed by the chaos swirling around him. And in front of Rebecca Vitsmun stood CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who – after asking her about the decision that saved her and her son's lives – had one more question:

“I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she mumbled, smiling and looking down.

“Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?” he continued.

“I, I, I,” the 30-year-old stay-at-home mom stammered before adding, “I’m actually an atheist.”

She laughed, Blitzer laughed, and the moment passed seamlessly on live TV. Except it also became a clip heard across the Internet and social media – one that pointed to a reality about faith in America that exists even where, and when, people might least expect it.

Vitsmun, who chronicled her decision to flee her house with her son on CNN iReport, is one of 13 million atheists or agnostics in America, according to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

See Rebecca Vitsmun discuss her decision with CNN's Wolf Blitzer

While only 2.4% of Americans are atheists, they fit into a broader category that is on the rise in the United States.

Nearly 20% of adults – and a third of those under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, the Pew report found.

This group, which has grown by roughly 5% in five years, is often referred to as the “nones.” It is a term that extends beyond atheists, who believe there is no God, and agnostics, who believe it’s impossible to prove or disprove God’s existence. It includes a greater proportion of people who see themselves as nothing in particular, which means they might be secular, spiritual or believers – but simply don’t identify with an organized religion, said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center

“When we ask people questions about their religious identity, when we ask them about their religious beliefs, there are relatively few who are atheists. But I’m speaking in percentage terms,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of them around. And they’re certainly all over.”

Oklahoma included.

In fact, when the Pew Research Center last drilled down to uncover the religious landscape of affiliations on a state level five years ago, 12% of Oklahomans were religiously unaffiliated. And just as the numbers ticked up nationally since then, it stands to reason that they did the same in Oklahoma.

We tried to reach Vitsmun by phone Wednesday but were unable to connect.

Her friend Waylon Flinn, however, shed some light on who she is. She and her husband, who Flinn said is also an atheist, aren’t the sorts who advertise their beliefs or throw them in people’s faces. When she agreed to go on camera, it wasn’t for that platform; she didn’t even see the Lord question coming.

But that she responded to Blitzer the way she did is no surprise to Flinn, who opened his home in nearby Norman to Vitsmun’s family after theirs was destroyed.

“She handled it in her style, which is very honest and true to herself,” he said.

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Atheism • iReport • News media

soundoff (2,486 Responses)
  1. Toby Cameron

    How refreshing. I am so tired of hearing people thank the Lord for surviving a disaster when others in their community have lost a child, etc. Wolf was an idiot to assume this woman believed in the supernatural.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  2. Brad

    Sadly, she will soon learn the true meaning of fear when God-fearing Christians will bring the wrath of Zeus down on her head.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  3. George Gray

    Good for her. I'm reminded of a famous saying of Bertrand Russell: 'The belief in a loving God increases in inverse proportion to the evidence for his existence.'

    May 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  4. Paul Wilson

    And what that tornado did to innocent people did NOT encourage anybody to believe in any personal loving caring God.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  5. kxd

    So if she had given an answer like expected of : "lordy yes, praise jesus for saving me and mine" or something equally idiotic would ANY of the religious people watching have the intelligence to question that if God saved her and her family that God also chose to injure and kill those who didn't fare so well.

    Do religious people have an ability to believe irrational things? you better believe they do!

    May 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  6. Ungodly Discipline

    Relative to the events we have just witnessed, knives kill people.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
  7. gluonspring

    Blitzer's question was forced and weird even before her response. Since when do reporters ask that question, twice? Did he know she was an atheist and just asked on air to generate a link-bait headline?

    May 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • madmanmoses

      yup... bingo... he already knew her response, she just finished saying the same thing to the previous asshat reporter!!

      May 23, 2013 at 1:22 am |
  8. carol

    Just a question...if you are an atheist, to whom and how do you give thanks?

    May 22, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Thanks for what? A sunny day.

      There's no problem with thanking people who help you.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • Grumpster

      Why give thanks to some apparently nasty god...who, if there is one, is not worthy of my butt scrapings.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • John

      Simple: I would thank whomever it was who was responsible for whatever it is that I am thankful for. For example, if you are asking who I would thank for being alive- I would thank my parents. If you are asking who I would thank for existence itself, I would thank physics.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • noa

      GIVING thanks is not necessary, but being appreciative and humble is always nice.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Just an answer. As an atheist I never feel grateful to God or the universe or fortune. Which leaves a question for what to do on Thanksgiving. What I do is take some time to focus my awareness on the good things in my life, because it's important to be fully aware as I go through my one and only life. Awareness can lag sometimes and you miss things.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Observer

      Carol,

      Does someone deserve thanks for letting this horrendous disaster occur? There are a couple of dozen dead people and maybe a million dollars in damage and you are looking for God to thank for watching this?

      May 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Rational person

      Carol, when things go right, do you thank Zeus? Why not? I feel the same about Yahweh. When I lose something, I don't complain about mischievous leprechauns hiding them, either.

      You'd think "god" would have killed the atheists and spared the kids. It's simply random chance; there's nothing mythical about it.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Observer

      Ooops. BILLION not million.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • Me

      In that instance, my insurance agent when I get the check to rebuild.

      May 22, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • EvinAR

      Give thanks for what? I usually look into the causes of things and thank LOTS of things, but even that's futile. If you actually were to find the reasons things happened, ALL of the reasons, it would just blow your mind, I'm sure. God is just a simple explanation, you DON'T need to be satisfied with how dumbed down a god explanation makes things.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  9. Sean

    Leave it to CNN to get the distinction and definitions wrong.

    (A)theism – relates to the lack of belief, or belief, in the existence of a god or gods.
    (A)gnosticism – relates to knowledge of something, positive or negative, commonly related to a god or gods.

    Most atheists reject the claims that a god exists because of a lack of evidence or proof of existence. This doesn't mean they believe there is no god, but that they don't believe there is a god. It is a fine distinction, but it is there.

    Agnostics are people who don't know if there is a god, but this says nothing about their belief. Gnostics are people who claim to know something. (again, commonly referring to the existence of a god or gods), It is possible for someone to proclaim themselves as an agnostic theist (they don't know if there is a god, but they believe there is), or a gnostic atheist (someone who claims to know there is no god and they don't believe there is one).

    It is commonplace for people to identify themselves as agnostic, intending to state that they don't know if there is a god, or that it isn't possible to know if there is a god, but this falls short of explaining what they believe.

    What do you KNOW? What do you BELIEVE? They are two separate things. You can believe that 2 + 2 = 50, but you know that isn't true and no amount of wanting to believe it will change the truth.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • Nathan

      That was a great comment, thank you.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • John

      CNN aren't the only ones to get that wrong. Many people, including people who identify themselves as "agnostic" (whatever that means) do so as well. "Agnostic" is an adjective, and an adjective by itself is meaningless without a noun (such as atheist or theist) to place it into some sort of context. People are so loose with their words and definitions that it makes debate on this topic even more complicated. See: theological noncognitivism.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • Angus MacDudde, The Only True Scotsman™

      Nicely said, Sean. You're a clever lad. We'll keep ye around at any rate, I guess.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  10. Amron

    I do not consider myself religious in the sense of what religion stands for. If I worship anything it's life itself and all that surrounds it. Living things. The earth, the sky and all it's beauty. I do not need some invisiable sky God telling me how I shoudl live my life. I live my life to the fullest. I'm kind toward other and all animals. I do not kill in the name of some deity or religion. All the powers that be in this universe are nature related. The feel of the wind, the smell of the sunshine, the sounds of life. What has religion and/or any God gotten us but wars trying to make everyone believe in their beliefs.
    There really is no peaceful religion. And funny how the wind, sun, sky or the earth doesn't try to tell me how I shoudl live my life!!!

    May 22, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  11. John

    This woman wasn't intent on advertising her beliefs until she was asked about them (twice), and the headline is "This Oklahoma atheist isn't thanking God..."??? She never said she wasn't thanking God (which would be ridicule); she simply stated her belief. And yet the headline, while being grammatically correct, implies judgement on her behalf as if that was her purpose all along: to throw her doubt right in the faces of all the believers. And now we are left with comment boards with people generalizing people's opinions and placing them in separate corners as if that is where they wish to be as well as where they belong. True, not all atheists are quiet about their beliefs. Not all theists are either. Both groups have their loud-mouths complete with superiority complexes and hate speeches. However, there are countless more atheists and theists who quietly sit at home content with both their own beliefs and the fact that others may not share in them. Where are their stories? Here is a woman who does exactly what we wish for someone to do: she said what she said (hesitatingly so) without pride or judgement, and then the moment passed. And yet now because of this headline we are expected to pass judgement on her, or judgement on those who disagree with her? What hypocrisy is this!

    May 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Me

      5 stars

      May 22, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
  12. Christian

    Disgusting! we make whatever happen to us OURSELVES! dont blame others for mistakes or natural disasters!

    May 22, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • Observer

      lol. Get serious.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • Rational person

      WE are to blame if we get wiped out in a natural disaster? Seriously?

      May 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  13. Lisa

    Good for her. She didnt lie in fear of what people might think of her. She said what many of us believe. He should never have assumed she was a christian and put her on the spot like that. Regardless of peoples religious beliefs our thoughts go out to everyone in OK.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Nathan

      I agree, the reporter wasn't being professional at all by asking that. He should get a line of work reporting for the christian times or some other garbage.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  14. BrittanyX

    I don't believe in god but I don't go around pushing it on others.I see a lot of religious people push belief's onto others,I've also met some that were very judgemental which is why I try to stay clear of people who are judgemental and very close minded.I'm fine if someone is religious and doesn't push their belief's onto others. At the end of the day your allowed to believe what you want to believe,and love who you want to love.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • Rational person

      Brittany – she didn't push it on others. She actually avoided the question until Wolf asked her for a SECOND time. He was the one pushing. Her only choice was to lie or to tell the truth. She told the truth, and also graciously replied that others DO have their own beliefs. She did this in front of her demolished home. Pretty classy if you ask me.

      //I don't believe in god but I don't go around pushing it on others//

      May 22, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  15. JMEF

    Wolf..."Are you furious at Satan for bringing this disaster down upon you and thank God for giving you the sense to save yourself and your child?" Should have been the question after all an all loving god would suck if HE allowed this to happen?
    Rebecca....Well, I can't really believe any supernatural being controls what happens for good or evil, but I am glad I used my reason and logic to survive this natural tornado.
    No hocus pocus just dealing with reality, the ones that died and their families are supposed to thank some god, ridiculous.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
  16. Jarvis

    hmm i dont know how to take this, she didn't blame the Lord and she doesn't blame anyone for thanking Him, and she called Him the Lord.. scripture say" if you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." NOT! saying she is SAVED! but saying she does have an opportunity to be. no one call Him the Lord if they are atheist even not believing you would simply just say there is no GOD.. not make the statement she just did. but i pray that she does believe one day and i thank her for not blaming Him..

    May 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • Moron

      Fvck off, idiot.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Steve

      Uh, what?

      May 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • Rational person

      Jarvis I doubt she's interested in being "saved" by YOUR god any more than YOU are interested in being saved by Zeus. Why do you just grow up and accept the fact that other people can believe whatever they wish and it's NONE of your business. NONE. It's between an individual and the deity, if one exists. "God" doesn't need you playing god.....

      May 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
    • exlonghorn

      Jarvis is a CNC robot with a fire extinguisher for a snout...don't expect too much.

      May 22, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
  17. IslandAtheist

    God must have missed that one.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  18. sami

    Funniest, most ridiculous thing I ever saw. As soon as she said she and her husband did not have cell phones I felt something was different. Then Wolf kept pushing the God thing and I thought, stop now, but he didn't! Hilarious!

    May 22, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  19. Ted Jones the crusader not for khrist

    God spared the atheist....and smited the children

    May 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  20. Kip Wendell

    God is Santa Claus for adults.

    May 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      So be good, for goodness' sake. Woah ah ohh.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • thomas643

      Kip, couldn't you come up with something more original? "God is Santa Claus for adults" is a statement any confused teenager aspiring to be an atheist could say. It's been said a million times. Please, when you speak, do so with originality, or else spare people your derivative, thoughtless statements.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • VoodooMike

      Santa Claus is a good analogy, really. From his throne far above you in (the north pole/heaven) among the white (snow/clouds) a bearded guy with a legion of (elves/angels) watches you all (year/your life) to make a laundry list of your good and bad deeds such that at the end of your (year/life) he can decide if you should be rewarded or punished.

      May 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • QS

      As Christmas and more specifically Santa are, for all intents and purposes, guilt-inducing tools to use on children to elicit a desired behavior; and as Christmas is simply a more childish version of the religion that spawned it, it stands to reason that religion is simply a guilt-inducing tool to use on adults to elicit a desired behavior.

      To use guilt in such a way, at least with me, has always had the opposite effect. It is a weapon wielded by those who typically hold the most shame, against those who are generally good people but are weak-minded enough to allow that person's shame to become their own.

      More than anything else, religion raises my sense of non-conformity to its highest level.

      Just thought I'd extrapolate upon your comment a bit! 🙂

      May 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • Kip Wendell

      I'm glad my statement, which was made in the effort of simplicity and being to the point, wasn't lost on some people. I do agree that it os the perfect analogy VoodooMike and QS. And yes, it is indeed something I have heard before, but I wasn't trying to be original, just trying to make a point witha spot on analogy to those with insight enough to get it.

      May 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
    • Me

      Yes!!!

      May 22, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
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