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Sylvia Broeckx: Hug An Atheist

Sheffield-based filmmaker Sylvia Broeckx is on a mission - to persuade the people of America that her fellow atheists aren't terrifying, amoral Satanists, and are just as huggable as everyone else. Sylvia admits that both the UK and her native Belgium are pretty easy places to be a non-believer. "You say you're an Atheist [in the UK] and people say, 'Yeah, so?'" she admits. It was stories coming from the US that persuaded her to begin her debut documentary, Hug an Atheist. "I have a bunch of friends in America who are atheists and they quite often post about atheism on Facebook," she says. "The more they posted, the more I learned about atheism in America being quite different to how it is over here." These stories included that of Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island teen who was ostracised and threatened with violence after successfully campaigning that the presence of a prayer banner at her High School was unconstitutional in a public school. "She gets death threats," says Sylvia, "They said she should get raped. She needs police escorts to school, the community goes against her, even her congressman turns against her. And you think that's Bible Belt. No it isn't, it's Rhode Island!" This and a number of other stories made Sylvia realise the fear, misunderstanding and hostility atheists face in America. She decided to do something about it and found a way to make it happen. "Sometimes you think 'I'd like to do something,'" she says, "and being a filmmaker, my husband said, 'You know what, do this'. And he had just heard about crowdfunding from another filmmaker who had been successful in doing that." Through social networking and the support of like-minded bloggers, the project was crowdfunded by contributions from around the world, with the funds for the film raised in 53 days. A month later Sylvia was in the States to begin filming. Although she's been told she's destined for hell on a couple of occasions, she's found a mostly positive response. "Within the atheist community it's been mainly a very positive reaction, because the thing I'm trying to do is not to set one up against the other. It's about portraying atheists as regular people. Stating the very obvious like: 'We cry when somebody dies'". So far Sylvia has filmed a Humanist wedding and atheist groups raising money for cancer charities. While it may seem strange to British eyes to have to portray non-believers as ordinary, caring people, there seems to be a need in the US, with one of the pervasive attitudes being that atheists are incapable of having morals. "'How can you have morals if you don't believe in God?' I don't like that one," she says. "It says a lot about the person who asks it too. Do you really need God to be good? If there wasn't a God would you go and kill somebody?" Sylvia points out that America was founded on secularist principles, and that in the 19th century atheist thinkers like Mark Twain and Robert G Ingersoll were feted by society. Things changed rapidly in the mid-20th century with the rise of Communism, which made Americans associate atheism with evil. "At that time America changed its motto from 'Out Of Many One' to 'In God We Trust"'. That's when they put it on their money too. Then in the 70s there was Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court ruling on abortion. That's when they decided to identify themselves as a Christian nation. Before that a President would always call themselves a Catholic, like Kennedy, or an Episcopalian, or a Baptist, or whatever. It wasn't until then that the word 'Christian' became so popular." Sylvia is back to the USA in a few weeks to finish filming, travelling to an atheist film festival in San Francisco, before heading to Austin, Texas, which won't be as scary as it may sound. "Austin's like a sanctuary for liberal and normal people, and the hippies. It's this little area of Texas that's different, and there's the American Atheists Convention, with about 2,000 atheists coming there, so it will be good to see them all get together." Then it's to the edit suite, finishing the film in time to show in San Francisco in September, and to distribute to some of the Atheist and Humanist groups she's met along the way. "A lot of people have been in touch because they wanted to show it, for example, to their mum, to say 'Mum! I'm not a Satanist!'" One of the criticisms leveled at atheist literature is that it's preaching to the converted - that only other atheists read it as a kind of mutual backslapping. Is she worried this will happen with her film? "I don't think it's going to the Westboro Baptist Church", she laughs, "and if it does I know what's going to happen at my funeral!" "But it's about creating awareness. This is not about making you an atheist. This is just about creating understanding. So if it gets to people who can show their families and communities then that's where I'm happy. This won't be a project that wins major awards or anything like that, but that was never the intention. It's about creating something that will help some atheists in small town Alabama." )

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