Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

If there is a God, he must be smiling on the New York Times.

The newspaper beat everyone else in announcing a planned chair for the study of atheism at the University of Miami -- said to be the first in the nation.

The 1,000-word article suffers, however, from a lack of secular-style skepticism. But let's look at the good stuff first:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics."
The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes -- though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.
"I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

The article notes a rise of interest in atheism, including conferences, courses and even a journal -- and names names, like the American Humanist Association and Pitzer College's "Secularism and Skepticism" class. Another coup is a phone talk with uber-atheist Richard Dawkins in Britain.

Dawkins voices hope that such steps can help "shake off the shackles of religion from the study of morality." That's not as odd as it may seem: As the Times says, he has spoken twice at UM, bankrolled by Appignani.

This academic chair has been in the making for more than 15 years, the article says. The university was reluctant to allow a chair with the word "atheism," as if the school were advocating it, explains Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost:

"We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist," he said. "Our religion department isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly, we’re not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism or secular ethics."
Asked whether he anticipated any backlash, Mr. LeBlanc said: "This is an area where people can get overly excited if they don’t actually look carefully at what’s happening. The idea that there are nondeity approaches to explaining our surroundings is not controversial in the academy."

Even that shopworn "Rise of the Nones" Pew Forum research is freshened up here.

The Times notes that non-religious Americans rose from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. One bobble is when the story says that 35 percent of millennials "identify as atheist, agnostic or with no religion in particular." A better comparison would be where Pew says that 33 percent of millennials said in 2014 that they don’t believe in God, up 11 points from 2007.

By quoting Appignani himself, the Times landed this story even ahead of the official announcement from UM.  The newspaper also beat local media.: The Miami Herald had nothing as of this writing, and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale ran a mere three paragraphs, based purely on the Times story.

Miami New Times, a scrappy alternative publication, largely copies from the New York Times piece except for local numbers. Those numbers turn up interesting paradoxes, though:

Miami has the 7th most Catholic population of any city in the nation. 31 percent of the population claims to be Catholic.
Though, according to a recent analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute, Miami is also one of the most irreligious cities in the country as well. 24 percent of Miamians claim no affiliation with a church the study found, making us the 12th "most Godless" city in America.
Most of the rest of the city is some form of protestant. Though, just 5 percent consider themselves Evangelical protestants (i.e. the born-again crowd), slightly less than the 6 percent of the city that is Jewish.

Worse was the inter-school University Herald, which patched five paragraphs from New Times and the New York Times. The only lazier "coverage" was in Politico, which had a lone paragraph with a link to the Times story. Why it was there at all, I can't see. The co-authors, Mark Caputo and Kristen East, raised no political issues over it. No religious ones, either.

But the Times is too passive as atheists talk like an oppressed minority. As you saw, Appignani, the big donor, decried "discrimination against atheists."

Logical follow-up questions would have been, "How do atheists suffer discrimination? How prevalent is it? And is it rising or falling?" But no, the paper itself says that atheists are "still often stigmatized and disparaged in this country." This despite the quote by LeBlanc that "nondeity approaches to explaining our surroundings is not controversial in the academy" (emphasis mine).

Also deficient is telling how "secular Americans" -- not identical with atheists, BTW -- are heading to Washington, D.C. June 2-5 for a "Reason Rally" at the Lincoln Memorial to "showcase their numbers and promote the separation of church and state." Sounds impressive, but so did the "National Day of Reason" on May 5. And as I wrote, only three events were announced, versus 15 last year.

Finally, how about reaction from religion professors at UM? I'll bet one or more of those 14 scholars would have an opinion on a new chair of atheism. I would especially recommend Catherine Newell, who has studied development of both religion and science.

Skepticism and critical thinking are good for everyone, atheists and the religious alike. Even the Bible says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." But reporters need to level skepticism not just at the religious, but also atheists.

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