Writing about atheism here at GetReligion would seem somewhat oxymoronic since we are well, a blog about the media's coverage of religion. But even atheists have a degree of faith since it takes faith to believe that there is in fact no God out there. Generally, coverage of the growth of an evangelistic, media-friendly atheism has been fairly solid. First there was The Washington Post's review of Sam Harris' new book Letter to a Christian Nation, and then there was Time's wonderful cover piece involving a debate between the atheist Richard Dawkins and Christian Francis Collins.
Now comes National Public Radio's On the Media with a clever report on atheists' attempts to change people's perspective on religion. Here is Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, being interviewed by Brooke Gladstone:
ELLEN JOHNSON: Until the atheists start voting their atheism and be identified as a voting [bloc] in America, the politicians aren't going to listen to us. We're not going to have any influence in the public schools. We're not going to have any influence in the media or anywhere else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But even she concedes that organizing atheists is like herding cats. Sam Harris says the only way to win is to keep up the pressure until religious tolerance is no longer tolerated.
SAM HARRIS: I think the criticism of irrationality just has to come from a hundred sides all at once. In the entertainment community, maybe it will just have people making jokes that are funny enough[,] and true enough, so as to put religious certainty in a bad light.
Should we tolerate the intolerant? It's a tricky subject for journalists covering atheists. It reminds me of the debates over global warming and evolution vs. intelligent design. How do you cover a minority voice that demands to be heard despite the overwhelming sentiment against that voice? Of course, people on one side can scream that they have all reason and knowledge on their side and eventually journalists will come to see their perspective, right?
Harris is on that mission to change the way people perceive religion. As brilliantly portrayed in South Park (reviewed here by our friends at The Revealer), he soldiers on in the beliefs that maybe someday people will come to accept the faith of the atheist:
SAM HARRIS: One day, someone in the White House press corps will hear the President of the United States express some certainty about being in dialogue with the creator of the universe, and he or she will ask a question, which should be on everybody's mind: you know, how is this any different from thinking you're in dialogue with Zeus?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That day is far off. But Harris has a great deal of faith in his fellow man.
SAM HARRIS: I'm hopeful that journalists and people in the entertainment industry are waiting for the permission to express their doubts. And I think that permission is coming. I mean I'm trying to do what I can to engineer it in my hardheaded and boorish way. And I feel, just from the contacts I have in both industries, that there's a profound sense of relief that comes with hearing somebody call a spade a spade.
On the Media's broadcast is brilliant and I highly recommend you listen to it, if not read the transcript. One of my favorite sections is the analysis of the phrase that journalists overuse: "There are no atheists in foxholes." Everyone from Katie Couric to Bob Schieffer uses it, but NPR's John Burnett confesses that he will think twice before using the word because the everyday atheist would not appreciate it.
As a parting note, how different do you think a journalist who happens to be an atheist would cover something like an atheist convention compared to a journalist who happens to be a Muslim, or a Christian? It's just a thought to consider. There is that age-old question of whether journalists should reveal their theological affiliation, but let's save that discussion for another day. Just tell us what you think about how the coverage would be different.