Freshening atheism up

The-Atheist-monsterBarbara Bradley Hagerty, who inspired this young cub when I heard her speak at a college newspaper conference and often gets rave reviews from the GetReligionistas, is a bit of a religion reporting rockstar. And her reporting is usually spot on. Her five-minute report for NPR on the war within the atheist movement was no exception. Lets start with what's really, really good about it:

Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.

Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.

"I wouldn't want this on my wall," says Stuart Jordan, an atheist who advises the evidence-based group Center for Inquiry on policy issues. The Center for Inquiry hosted the art show.

The rift is one of philosophy and strategy: Do atheists want to be outspoken and abrasive, like the godless monster pictured, or do they want to be soft and cuddly and love the people they disagree with? Does this sound familiar to any other religious folks out there?

Bradley Hagerty talked with a volunteer at the Center for Inquiry, Stuart Jordan, who prefers the old model:

"It's really a national debate among people with a secular orientation about how far do we want to go in promoting a secular society through emphasizing the 'new atheism,' " Jordan says. "And some are very much for it, and some are opposed to it on the grounds that they feel this is largely a religious country, and if it's pushed the wrong way, this is going to insult many of the religious people who should be shown respect even if we don't agree with them on all issues."

Before I move on, I should offer a quick disclaimer. Bradley Hagerty's story was well-reported, as usual, and informative and in no way belied her own religious beliefs or opinions of atheism. In fact, it was a very good story, and, as a Christian and a religion reporter, I broke a smile the moment I heard NPR tease to it. Excellent religion reporting is too rare an occurrence, and, with how infrequently general media outlets look in on developments in the atheist community, excellent writing about atheism appears, maybe, every few months.

My only criticism is that this story, like so many of the stories that seem to get my GetReligion attention, was a bit past its best-buy date.

Looking back through The God Blog archives, I found this post from last year about an "atheist 'coming out' party" and this one from 2007 that refers to the growing pressure to be a "real atheist." Again, this should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been part of a religious community.

When I went back even farther, to November 2006, I found no mention of this atheism schism in a lengthy Daily News feature I wrote about the explosion of evangelistic atheists.

It's not clear when this "bitter rift," as NPR calls it, pushed a chasm between two atheist camps. Bradley Hagerty, who resurrected this story by finding recently meaningful developments to fasten a big-picture piece to, pointed to PZ Myers' recent desecration of a communion wafer and a coup last year within the Center for Inquiry that ousted founder Paul Kurtz, and to those de-baptism ceremonies and the atheist art show she opens the story with. (No mention of Mr. "Religious," but the self-styled anti-religion pioneer probably doesn't mind.)

Religion reporters and editors are always in need of evergreen stories. The lesson here, demonstrated by a veteran, is that even evergreen stories require the right timing. Though maybe NPR waited a few days/weeks/months too long on this one. Religion News Service is already reporting on the new New Atheists -- "Atheism 3.0."

Their belief? "There's still no God, but maybe religion isn't all that bad."

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