Discrimination by Neglect: The Chronic News and Opinion Media Bigotry Against Atheists
Theists Get All the Breaks – Really, They Do
There is currently, in these United States, a form of casual and pernicious bigotry that continues to be directed against the fastest growing portion of the population. It is the big bigotry that hardly any pay attention to, and to a great extent other minorities subject to their own levels of prejudice also ignore or even participate in. It is the discrimination of paying as little mind as possible to the existence and especially the opinions of those who commit the culturally inconvenient social crime of lacking belief in the supernatural deities that the substantial but shrinking American majority persist in believing in.
What does continue to enjoy endless attention and media coverage is theism. That occurs in a number of ways. The mainstream media that tends to be centrist to liberal in sociopolitical sensibilities, and mainline or alternative theist to varying degrees, persistently promotes center-left versions of religion. Especially of the Christian and Jewish varieties, with a good deal of attention paid to alternate versions of spirituality, and to Islam on occasion. Much of this coverage is favorable or neutral, but considerable and sometimes hard criticism does occur when it seems that the circumstances require it. The Catholic Church is particularly interesting when it comes to the massive reporting it receives. Its sex scandals, after decades of significant but not sufficient exposure, finally became perpetually major news just after the turn of the century. On the other hand, the equally outrageous financial criminal actions of the Roman church in league with mob elements have never been exposed to the degree that is necessary, leaving most Americans ignorant on the subject (Europeans are more knowledgeable). At the same time major church events, most especially the enormous public relations spectacles of papal replacements, garner fawning 24/7 coverage. The relatively liberal Francis is generally treated favorably, including by very liberal theists such as Catholic Steven Colbert, as well as well known atheist Bill Maher. Also getting extensive coverage is the large minority that is the religious right. Much of that attention is sharply critical. Except at FoxNews and its allies that lavish praise on Judeo-Christian theoconservatism while bashing the religious center-left as well as Muslims, and taking occasional potshots at the atheists that the mainstream press pretty much simply ignores.
MSNBC et al.
To get a better appreciation of the absurd and unacceptable state of the situation, let’s look at the evening lineup on that bastion of liberal reportage and opinion, MSNBC. It starts with Joy Reid, who enthusiastically wears her joyous Godly Methodism on her broadcasting sleeve. Next is Chris Hayes who grew up Catholic but is now irreligious, I do not think has stated he is an atheist or not. In 2012 he dedicated his hour to an episode on atheism featuring Dawkins, Pinker and Jacoby that was seen as ground breaking. It was not, there has been barely a breath about nontheism on the channel since then. Rachel Maddow is a praying Catholic despite being lesbian — that explains something that had me scratching my head, earlier this year when Francis made the first papal visit to Iraq she ran an oddly long segment on the unimportant story that was dull as it was egregiously credulous. More ambiguous is the yet another MSNBC Catholic raised — which may be why he once bashed Mormonism as an invented religion — anchor Lawrence O’Donnell who wraps up the primetime lineup. Over on CNN they once, that’s once, ran an hour show on atheism in 2015. Such has not yet appeared on Fox. Matters are not better on public television or radio where there are also no known atheists, although one suspects there must be some but who keep quiet about it. Where is that epic program on American atheism? They did baseball and jazz. On NPR’s Saturday EditionScott Simon is a well-known centrist-liberal Catholic. On the Templeton Foundation funded On Being(ex Speaking of Faith) host Krista Tibbett’s mission is to present pablum opinions further softened by bland mood music that never in any way seriously challenges or upsets her middle of the road theist audience. Ever. Occasionally atheists are allowed on, but only those who can be relied upon to not be perturbingly uppity about it. While most liberal theists tend to avoid directly dumping on atheists, socialist Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges has harshly denounced atheism, especially of the sort that dares to be assertive. When he hosted The Daily Showsecular Jewish Jon Stewart was sometimes snarky about what he considered overly atheistic atheists, especially about the placement of a cross shaped piece of the World Trade Towers at the memorial site (that Stewart has been involved in the memorial project means his comment on atheist critics was of dubious ethics). Current TDS host Trevor Noah is a liberal Christian. John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, rejected the Anglican Church he grew up in and may be an atheist, but has not said so – he critiqued the money grubbing of evangelicals by legally setting up the Lady of Perpetual Exemption to expose how easy it is to dodge taxes with a religious exemption.
During the covid pandemic it has been one person of openly divine opinion after another who have again and again and again and again been asked to please offer divinely inspired advice, thoughts and comfort to a beleaguered world. Noting the irony inherent to doing so in view of the obvious truth that if a creator deity exists it has not done anything to put a stop to the deadly disaster, doing something so rational seems taboo. An especially egregious example has been on NPR’s weekend version of All Things Considered, with a repeat set of clerics explicitly asked to offer words of wisdom to listeners. Offering the usual theo clichés and platitudes, the existence of God and its goodness was not challenged as the NPR audience was allowed to hear only their biased worldview. Never asked for a more objective and cogent viewpoint on how mindless evolution is biting us, and how humanity can best deal with the dire situation, have been the godless.
The weekend edition of All Things Considereddid cover the accession of Greg Epstein to head chaplain at Harvard, and the interview was entirely respectful and intelligent. That is a case of the very rare exception proving the rule of discrimination. Very likely show host Michel Martin has no idea of the casual bias she is exhibiting in her subtly slanted programming, and she might be willing to change her ways if made aware of the issue. Coverage of and seeking the views of atheists should be the norm, not something done just when a once every few years head-turning breaking news story pops up.
Pundit panels are a news media norm. You know, the never ending lineups of experts and commentators and politicians who opine on this that and everything. How often do you see an open atheist on one of those? Including those discussing religious matters? A screamingly outrageous example of this particular atheists need not apply policy was in 2010 when Pew reported that it looked like nontheists knew more about the facts of theism than did theists. The seemingly startling result garnered lots of coverage, and so the programming staffs running on their automatic booking pilots rolled out panel after panel of ministers, rabbis and the like to pontificate about atheists whom they painfully knew nothing about, while nary a nonbeliever who actually knew the atheoscore was asked what was really going down. Perhaps even more discouraging is that when Pew got much the same results in 2019 the media paid it no mind to the theological acumen of atheists at all. News old and forgotten by then.
A Little “Balance”
Here’s another form of bigotry that is as subtle as it is invidious. Something I have noticed when doing on air interviews on nonatheist broadcasts. Very often, a theist of some sort is brought on the bring “balance” to the discourse. And who could be opposed to both views being presented? That would be more than fine if religious viewpoints were as often countered with those of atheists, but of course that never happens. They get to pontificate endlessly without counter argument. The “balance” line is really saying atheist views are so automatically controversial and potentially defective and/or offensive, that they need to be countered with the supernaturalistic perspective lest the delicate ears of theist listeners be afflicted. Now, sometimes having a theist to play off of can be an advantage if one knows how to deal with and exploit them. On the other hand, that cuts down on the time the nontheist has to directly present the rationalist case. If an atheist interviewee does not want opposition on a program that does not saddle theists with such, then they are free to put the producers on the fairness spot by asking if they have a consistent policy of balance which they never do, and protest the presence of the theist. If they insist on the latter then you can decline the interview, or try to use the arrangement to your advantage — perhaps by mentioning the issue during the program;)
The More Atheists There Are the Less Respect We Get
Statistical tracking is not on hand, but I get the strong sense that mainstream media interest in the irreligious has declined over the last decade plus, after having peaked if that is the correct term for what was at best a small hill in the post 9/11 brief era of the “New Atheism” and it’s then attention getting novel opposition to the religious extremism that was a hot topic of the time (until the secular financial collapse pushed all else aside, rather like the Beatles did to pop music), bolstered by the fleeting appearance of atheist best-selling books that went away almost as soon as they appeared. The atheism versus theism story was intense enough that PAX TV in 2004/5 ran Faith Under Fire, hosted by once atheist converted to bombastic theocon Lee Strobel. It was one of those theist items that while claiming to be fair and balanced definitely had its slant, but for a short while it was a forum via which a prominent American nontheists could have their say and be taken seriously. If I recall correctly, as time wore on it became increasingly theocon themed which is the evolutionary norm for such ventures, and it was canceled. Nothing has replaced it, leaving atheists with no wide broadcast channel forum at all.
A decline in coverage of atheism would make some sense if the opinion was on the way down, but as is well known that the opposite is true as America undergoes a remarkably radical shift towards nonreligion. That has been growing at the expense of theism by a stunning 10% of the American population per decade, leaving those who lack religion somewhere in the area of 40-50% of the population, with the latter value at least applying to young adults. Gallup has tracked church membership that was 80% in the 1950s and still 70% circa 2000 having nosedived to 50% as Amerofaith sharply contracts as it has done in the rest of the west. But this brings us to a polling problem that may help explain the lack of media interest in Ameroatheism. When the major organizations directly ask respondents whether they are atheists or agnostics only a few percent do so, misleading the news media into thinking there are not enough disbelievers to cover and reach out to as more than a fringe group (even though those low numbers exceed those of Jews or of Mormons or of Muslims). This is a serious polling, and coverage thereof, mistake. Although the bigotry is not as bad as it was, many and probably most who dare not believe in the supernatural fear the social including familial downsides of openly admitting such. And many nonbelievers do not like the term atheist, considering it a hardcore term of absolute nonbelief that does not describe their own more ambiguous opinion, or casual disinterest, concerning the mysterious gods. I do not know how many times I have met folks who clearly meet the broad and etymologically correct definition of atheist as a person who is not a theist (which includes most agnostics), adamantly deny being an atheist, even at atheist meetups. Others are startled to learn they are an atheist. Polls that ask the less denial inducing question of whether respondents believe in the existence of a god get substantially higher percentages of deity skeptics, and some sociodemographic studies estimate that atheists may make up 15-25+% of the nation. (I cover these issues in depth at http://americanhumanist.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/art-1-Paul-The-Great-and-Amazingly-Rapid-Secularization-of-the-Increasingly-Proevolution-United-States.pdf.) By this point, having achieved a level of popular opinion even the most optimistic of us did not expect circa 2000 – remember when many thought the USA would always be a religious nation? – atheism which in total easily outsizes Judaism, Islam and Mormonism combined should be a major influencer in the national zeitgeist. All the more so as it is becoming increasingly apparent that faith-based religion does not appear to offer practical solutions to the troubles of the real world.
One cause of the problem is simply that organized religion has vast resources to deploy in its chronic search for PR, and it is just so easy for a mass media on let’s keep doing what we always have autopilot to tap into that. Atheosecularism has nothing comparable and never will – although the situation can be improved as I note below. But it is the responsibility of the media to keep up with and change with the times, and there are plenty pf atheist voices more than happy to express themselves, so the media is slacking off.
My Beef is a Small Part of the Big Beef
I have a personal concern in these issues that helps illuminate the problem. Realizing that researchers were not systematically investigating the truth behind the common claim that religion must be popular for societies being successful, I published the first test of that hypothesis in the Journal of Religion and Societyin 2005. That was enough of a stunner that it got conservable press attention, including MSNBC labeling me the churches public enemy No. 1, and an appearance on FoxNews. I followed with a more thorough analysis in Evolutionary Psychologyin 2009 that got some coverage, and I placed a couple of online op-eds with the Los Angeles Timesand Wall St. J. Those studies, along with efforts by others, have dented the automatic assumption that religion is good for societies, but not to the degree they should. In part because of a lack of more recent, more extensive work, due in part to a shocking lack of funding for atheistic scientific research via a secular think tank that gamers coverage and discussion. My 2009 paper in Philosophy and Theologythat was the first to calculate the natural deaths of 50 billion children and how that disproves the existence of a moral creator got absolutely no attention despite my extensive efforts at PR.
What did get considerable attention is an op-ed I senior authored with Phil Zuckerman who runs the only secular studies department at a university (Pitzer) in 2011 in the Washington Post. Condemning the chronic bigotry against atheists it was very pleasing to see it receive 1500 comments before those were timed out, and 85K likes. Now, for all the rise of social media in recent decades, the importance of opinion venues such as the Post,The New York Times, and major magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harpers, New Republic, etc., remains paramount. Covering a vast variety of subjects, they have broad readership, and can present issues that their nonatheist readers might otherwise not be aware of. And the elite publications are critical in reaching the media elites that drive a lot of the coverage that receives that broad attention. A reason Ameroatheism remains in the shadows is because the atheosecular genre publications print and digital, and all the many blogs and posts and podcasts online, are largely preaching to the limited dedicated irreligious choir that reads them, and to the fairly small number of theists curious about nontheism. The vast majority of Americans will always be unaware of them.
Despite their responsibility to regularly cover the entire national scene, the Washington Postis typical of major news venues in its chronic casual bigotry against atheism via neglect. I know that because I am a regularly reader of their print paper, and their coverage of nontheism is nearly zero. Since the piece a decade ago by myself and Zuckerman, they have carried just one other opinion piece concerning atheism in the last ten years. That being in 2019 by one of their regular columnists, the atheist libertarian Max Boot. In a recent piece occasional columnist Kate Cohn noted her nonbelief in relation to the religious forced birth movement. Maybe because it is based in perhaps the most atheist city in the nation, the NYTimeshas run a few more atheist op-eds, albeit not a lot.
It is not the fault of atheists not sending in op-eds. Again personal experience illustrates the trouble. A standard way to become a regular in being able to place items in influential venues is to simply do it once, which gives one some leverage to get editors attention and publish more pieces in a feedback loop. All the more so if the initial piece attracts lots of attention which the WPop-ed did. So I have been regularly sending off essays and articles, many, many dozens of them, the leading opinion outlets that allow submissions on aspects related to nontheism – always being certain to note my past works academic and popular, and the coverage of my research. I have sometimes had professionals edit the pieces. But I stopped doing that because it made no difference. Not a single bite. That has included pieces noting the lack of coverage of atheism and suppression of our voices in the mainstream national discourse. They don’t run them. Also futile have been efforts to get a major trade publisher (not a university press, or something like the no longer sechum Prometheus Press whose sales were too limited to have major cultural impact) to contract a book in which I discuss my extensive scholarly work.
A Big Anniversary
This year it occurred to me. The 10th anniversary of the piece Phil & I placed was coming up. Surely the WP people would be interested in running an update on the situation of Ameroatheism, both its demographic rise, and the continuing societal bigotry against it. No reason the think the new piece would not be as popular as the last one what with atheists being all the more numerous now. Right?
Nope, they paid neither the shorter daily or longer Sunday section suitable versions I sent any mind. My complaints are not just personal. No doubt others have been sending in proatheist articles to mainstream venues and with very rare exceptions not getting them published, even as theists have far less trouble getting their prosupernaturalism items into the public eye — and getting onto those pundit panels. And anchor positions, etc.
Why the Bigotry
Is this occurring because those on position to choose what goes onto the pages of major publications or programming are inexcusably ignorant about the problem and their own casual biases and would change their attitudes and actions if they knew better, are indifferent to atheism that they see as a fringe element of no import and would pay more attention if informed otherwise, are afraid of being denounced as anti-religion if they OK presentations of atheist thinking, are concerned they will be tagged as the village atheist if they are an atheist who dares regularly cover atheism the same way other minority personalities do concerning their world view all the time, or are outright hostile? All are involved.
Then there is the trope of the “angry atheist” who harshly critiques theism. That is a bigoted stereotype, there being no statistical evidence that atheists are more angry than theists, there being many on both sides who are in a bad mood. As for those rationalists who are angry what is the big problem? Minority advocacy often has a hard edged component to it.
An example of directly suppressing, with clear cut prejudice, coverage of atheist viewpoints is Religious News Service, whose mission statement goes to lengths to claim its neutral objectivity to the news outlets it is paid to provide services to. One can for a modest fee post press releases on the RNS website. Most are little more than promotional ditties for various theists. When I tried to place a PR concerning my recent academic analysis on the theological implications of mass juvenile mortality in Essays on the Philosophy of Humanismit was not accepted.
Whatever the causes, the way atheists are being treated has parallels to how blacks were once largely limited to publishing their views in the black press that few whites read. Nowadays LGTBQ have a far better ability to appear in the mainstream press and media and influence the culture and alter politics in their favor than do atheists. That is not a complaint against the LGTBQ more power to them, it is a complaint about the media at large. Consider how it is well known and widely discussed that much of racism is unrecognized by those who are not as nonracist as they think they are and want to be, the same is often true of all bigotries including those directed towards nonsupernaturalists. And just as under the radar racism must be overcome, so must casual anti-atheism. It is a probable irony that blacks in the media are incidentally discriminating against atheists more than whites for the simply because the former tend to be more religious than the latter. Until atheists have the same access to prominent venues as pretty much all other minorities we will remain very limited in our ability to be a the normal, frequent contributor to the national discourse that we rationalists should be. And we will continue to be the targets of bigotry.
The Maher Exception
Currently there is only one major, nationally known American who is an open atheist, and hosts a widely recognized and viewed program, Real Time‘s Bill Maher. Although not shy about being ungodly, and more than willing to have prominent atheists on RT, Maher’s program is not a dedicated atheist promotional venue, it covering a wide range of political and cultural topics. That makes sense, but the program could do more to address the atheist movement, with some emphasis on how it is being ignored, all the more so since no one else is doing so via such a widely viewed show. In particular, to date RT, and for that matter Maher’s Religulous, has failed to persistently present to the public the sociological science showing the societal advantages of atheism, and help make that a part of the public consciousness.
What to Do
The question is what to do about this unacceptable situation. I am not sure myself, here are some options.
The task is complex and multi-faceted. A lot of media people, mainly seculars of various flavors, as well as open minded theists, may become more open to presented atheist viewpoints if simply alerted to the sheer existence and scale of the problem. Others need more persuading, and in some cases shaming. At the same time, atheists need to do what we can to get our ideas out to the general public outside of our own preaching to the choir venues.
Concerning the situation at the WP, A set of leading atheosecular persons could collaborate to send a letter to the WP opinion editors (there are two sets, one for the daily paper in which op-eds are limited to 800 words, and another for the Sunday Outlook section which runs longer items) alerting them to and protesting the virtual exclusion of items from an explicitly atheist perspectives, and how and why this is discriminatory and adverse to their readers who are missing out on a major and fast growing perspective of American opinion. This can be done in the context of urging publication of my 10thanniversary piece (with editing as necessary), or of another related item.
Or, collaborate on a multi-author essay op-ed decrying the near exclusion of atheists from the American scene, signed by prominent nontheists, and submit that to the WP. If they fail to publish it then try the NYTimes, if they do not move on from there.
If either of the above are not successful – or even if they are — go public with a protest both concerning the attitude of the WP specifically, and the news media in general. That can include press releases to religion reporters, and wide distribution to media personalities in all news and opinion venues. Perhaps place an ad in the WP.
The failure of Religion News Service to meet its own criteria of objectivity needs to be exposed as the scandal it is and challenged, which would have the side advantage of further bringing atheism to the attention of the public.
In conducting the above it is necessary to take the mainstream media to task for the errors of their ways. But being critical should not be the sole tactic. Alerting media personalities that they are discriminating against atheists while perhaps not even realizing it might be appreciated by a number of them, opening their eyes to new possibilities. That brings us to how it is important to present the positive side of regularly covering atheism, and including atheist opinions on a regular basis. Not doing so is a major and self-injurious mistake. Much of media coverage is formulaic and standardized, rendering it we-have-heard-and-seen-that-before dull. Yet anothertheists prattling on about this and that? Snore. How about an atheist commenting on that matter from the nontheist perspective. Now thatcan generate some what did that person just say attention and controversy that gets the viewers tuning in. Media personalities and programmers are often looking for novel and in some cases controversial ways to cover the news to boost those all-important ratings, so tapping the atheist perspective to do so can be a selling point when doing outreach to the news and opinion community.
Approaching Real Timeto better cover the issue could be effective, as well as other liberal venues. Chris Hayes could be a likely person to approach and alert regarding the scope of the problem. There is John Oliver. Worthy of consideration is a joint effort by entertainment/opinion atheists that have popular mainstream followings to mount a professional Pay Due Attention to Nonbelievers Please PR campaign – names aside from those above I have come up with include Aziz Ansari, Jodie Foster, Ricky Gervais, Amber Heard, Penn Jillette, Hugh Laurie, Seth MacFarlene, Abby Martin, Sean Murphy, Brad Pitt, Ron Reagan, Keanu Reeves, Adam Savage, Dan Savage, Julia Sweeney.
Most ambitious would be to see if an explicitly atheist broadcast program can be produced, or one that gives truly balanced coverage to both nontheism and theism, hosted by a person from each side. Could be on telly and/or radio. Not sure how feasible that is, would probably require the efforts of at least one of the major atheosecular organizations, and perhaps a collaboration between two or more of them.
The Urgent Need for a Secular Think Tank and News Service
Whether or not any of the above works, that is just a start. To get persistent attention and coverage in the press requires a major change in the way atheosecular institutions reach out to the rest of society via the mainstream media. Doing that will probably require the establishment of an explicitly atheosecular think tank that constantly puts out the science based research and position papers that the atheosecular community should obviously be doing as a matter of course, and that the press can then pick up on. And/or a Secular News Service to compete with the highly successful Religion News Service by directly feeding nontheist news and opinion to the news media.
It’s a Wrap
Wish to aid the above effort or have any ideas on how to get them achieved? All would be appreciated. If a collaborative effort can be mounted, then a more formal proposal and outline of possibilities and needs can be produced.
One way or another something needs to be done. The perpetual casual dismissal of atheists from the national discourse has got to end, and that is not likely to happen unless strong action is taken by the atheosecular community to break out of the media bubble we have been stuck in. The largely theistic media is not going to just up and do it on their own.
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