Words You Don’t See in the Media: ‘A Self-Proclaimed Christian’

Vjack at Atheist Revolution points out the obvious double standard in how the news media talks about atheists versus religion people. For example, atheists tend to be described with adjectives… “self-proclaimed,” “self-identified,” “avowed,” etc.

Can you imagine what would happen if some of these qualifiers were applied to Christians?

Ms. Roberts, who claims she’s a Christian, said that the city needs to invest more money in repairing potholes near Main St.

There would [be] considerable outrage, and for good reason. But that isn’t going to happen because we do not see these qualifiers applied to Christians. We’re generally content to take someone at their word that they are a Christian. We let them decide how to identify and label themselves.

Vjack adds that this is an example of Christian privilege at work. It’s to the point that most people probably don’t even notice it; clearly, reporters don’t seem to care. But one way to fix it is by raising awareness that it occurs so that you can call it out when you see it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Spencer

    Such asininity. ‘Self-proclaimed atheist’? As opposed to what? A Christian deep down inside who’s only pretending not to believe in god to have anal sex and watch movies with swear words?

    • Anonymous

      Yes the equivalent to ‘Self-proclaimed atheist’ might be ‘non-church going Christian’ or ‘self-proclaimed born again Christian’. How about putting them in arrest stories not just requests to fill pot-holes.

      Of course a real Christian would praying for the potholes to be removed not bothering with things like budgets.

    • Anonymous

      You scorn, and yet people such as Tim LaHaye believe exactly this — that deep down, ALL other religions (and non-religions) know that Christianity is the One True Path and that they are merely being stubborn, arrogant and petty by rejecting it, being insincere in their own beliefs because they know that they are ultimately wrong and choose not to care.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

         Yeah, see, that– that’s exactly why we scorn and mock them.

  • http://www.nowhere-fast.net Tom

    I honestly hadn’t noticed this before, but it makes a lot of sense.

    For one, it’s suggesting that atheism is a phase, a sort of teen-age rebellion.  “Oh yeah, Timmy keeps saying he’s an ‘atheist’ now.  Last week he said he was a Buddhist!”  

    It also denigrates atheism by suggesting that without some sort of signature authority it’s just an amateur, also-ran concept.  Religions are assumed to be membership organizations that have some form of authority to vet applicants whereas anyone can go out and just proclaim themselves an atheist.  Without any authority figure to grant approval, being an “atheist” can be seen as someone claiming to be an “artist,” and dismissed just as readily.

    • dustin53545

      As an artist and atheist I completely agree with your post!

  • Ben Dreidel

    Mr. Ratzinger, an avowed and militant Catholic, said…

    • http://conuly.dreamwidth.org/ Uly

      No, Catholics are either “devout” or “lapsed”, depending on whether or not they attend mass/confess/use birth control. Protestants get to be “staunch”, and Jews I think are “practicing”. (Or is that Hindus? I’m not sure.)

  • http://twitter.com/GRIMACHU James Desborough

    Ugh… do we have to use the term ‘privilege’? It’s so bloody tired and irrelevant. It’s proclaiming victim status rather than pointing out – simply – that this is unfair and presumptive.

    • Anonymous

      It’s “irrelevant” to you because you have the privilege of  it being irrelevant to you. This leads to you believing it is irrelevant to everybody.

      You are wrong.

    • Anonymous

      I think it’s very difficult to deny that the Christian majority is priviledged. They’re the ones whose beliefs are considered legitimate, honest, and a sign of great moral integrity. It’s the fact that everything else is considered illegitimate, dishonest and morally suspect which makes everyone else the victims.

    • http://conuly.dreamwidth.org/ Uly

       Thank you. I’m sure we’ve all been refreshed and enlightened by your unique point of view.

  • Fargofan1

    I just read a 2007 article on the Nightline debate between The Way of the Master and the Rational Response Squad.

    You see this in the very first sentence: “Why are Kirk Cameron, a preacher, and two self-proclaimed atheists coming together in a church this weekend?” Imagine “a self-proclaimed preacher and two atheists.”

    • Miko

      I’d start with “In an article by _____, a self-proclaimed reporter, …”

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

         As a former (self-proclaimed and actually paid as one) reporter, I bless you for this (though I’m also a self-proclaimed atheist.)

  • Miko

    The same thing happens with politics.  Every time I get quoted in a news article, I’m inevitably described as a “self-described anarchist.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

       Can’t you just show ‘em your Anarchy License?

      • Drew M.

        Isn’t that just a bootleg Black Flag cassette?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for bringing this up… it’s long been a pet peeve of mine, but I thought I was the only one who noticed.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting take on this. I’ve never interpreted this sort of thing as implying any doubt about a person’s atheism, anarchism etc, but rather as implying that to say one is an atheist is to confess to a failing. As in a self-confessed drug runner, self-proclaimed con artist and so on. Either way, it’s pretty insulting.

  • Anonymous

    I think it is partly due to the general public thinking “atheist” is a terrible thing to be. To them, to say someone is an atheist is an insult, and only by adding a qualifier that it is a self-given title can you avoid being accused of being slanderous.

    • Johann

      Except the only person who would have cause to accuse the writer is the person who identifies themselves as an atheist in the first place. Why would they challenge an identifier they themselves chose?

  • http://misterkel.wordpress.com/ Buddha is an Atheist

    Well, it’s true, but the issue is relatively trivial. I think atheism has a lot more serious concerns. I personally see a slavish devotion to materialist science and a blindness to immaterial realities (to which physics is pointing like a beacon).

    check out this post Natural Laws are Metaphysical – http://wp.me/p29kG3-F.
    Thanks to Richard for being a ‘friendly’ atheist – there’s too many arrogant and unpleasant ones. Gives us a bad name.

    • Joe Rawlinson

      404 error broskie.

    • Kenneth Dunlap

      lots of crap in those five sentences…

    • http://conuly.dreamwidth.org/ Uly

       I’m so glad we have you here as an arbitrator of what is and is not worthy of discussion! Thank you so very much! Now please shut up!

      • Thackerie

        “AMEN!”

  • WebHybrid

    The same sorts of things go on with “homosexual” – although this phenomenon does thankfully seem to be losing its grip as that particular paradigm shift gains momentum.

    You read “an avowed homosexual” or – my favorite- “an admitted homosexual” (i.e., a criminal who’s confessed).

    A dominant paradigm always denigrates/cast suspicion on/devalues/invalidates anything or anyone outside it.

    • Anonymous

      For the most part that’s a thing of the past. At least in mainstream media. It used to be extremely common in the 60s to the 80s though

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Not very long ago, I have seen in print and on TV news, the phrase “an admitted atheist.” It’s infuriating, and I have not failed to voice my well-expressed objection to such a clear implication that it’s a crime or a moral failing. Never let any form of these passive-aggressive insults go by unchallenged. The only way that journalists will get a clue is for people to constantly get in their faces with the clue.

      Using the comparison to Jews often gets through their thick skulls, by asking them if they don’t think saying “an admitted Jew” is acceptable, then why do they think it’s okay to say it with atheists?

  • Michael

    Don’t they like to describe themselves as confirmed christians?

  • Annie

    … but technically, aren’t we self-proclaimed atheists?  I understand the argument is on the double standard that other groups don’t get such adjectives thrown in front of  their belief/philosophical identities,  but that doesn’t make these statements untrue. 

    I agree with 00001000_bit.  I think this is simply reporters covering themselves, as they don’t want to be charged with calling someone an atheist, of all things. 

    • Anonymous

      Technically every identity label that isn’t immediately obvious (such as gender or skin color) is “self-proclaimed”. So the qualifier is really useless

      • Annie

        I agree that they are useless, but I’m not sure what we can really do about it.  You can’t sue a reporter for libel, because if you described yourself as an atheist, then technically, you are a self-proclaimed atheist.  Personally, I think we will slowly see these adjectives disappear from such reports.  I don’t know how to speed up the process… maybe just bringing the issue up for discussion (as this article did) is the only thing that can be done.

      • Liz Heywood

        I like this. I used to self-proclaim that Christian Science healed me of a childhood bone disease…though I had a horrifically scarred and fused leg I dragged everywhere, evidence of survival rather than “healing”…So now can I call myself  a “self-proclaimed” above-knee amputee? Unless I’m wearing shorts, when I am an “admitted” amputee…Can I be a “self-aggrandizing” atheist?? “Self-styled” Atheist? Self-inflicted atheist?? :)

    • Johann

      I think the self-proclaimed author of this self-proclaimed comment makes a minor self-proclaimed point, but may be neglecting the self-proclaimed impact of the self-proclaimed social implications.

  • guest 42

    Calling
    somebody a “self-proclaimed” atheist insinuates that the person
    is not honest. This has nothing to do privilege. It is called framing
    and reporters do it either carelessly or on purpose.

  • Karol Stasiak

    I just used my google-fu to find out this almost never happens in Poland, except in some Catholic texts. Atheists are simply atheists. Not “self-proclaimed”, not “avowed”, even not “outspoken”. The phrase “militant atheists” is used mainly to describe Spanish atheists, and only in articles translated from foreign sources. That actually is accurate, because Spanish atheists love to actively piss Catholics off.

    Maybe there’s no such adjectives being used because of kind of recent deaths of many respected atheists, including Stanisław Lem and Zbigniew Religa, or political success of Janusz Palikot, who got >10% votes last year and about 40 seats in parliament using anticlerical, atheistic, liberal, pro-gay and pro-weed slogans. After the 2011 elections, 75 out of 460 MPs didn’t add “so help me God”
    in their oaths, but this number includes some theists, such as
    Nigerian-Polish former Pentecostal minister John Godson. It looks like in 21st century atheism became a significant part of Polish culture, atheists are no longer accused of Satanism and baby-eating (but of communism – but only by right-wingers, never by journalists). We’re no longer such a Bible belt as in 90s. We still have our own Bible belt on the east, but in the west and north atheists have pretty ok.

    The main problem with prominent Polish atheists is that they are less into science and philosophy, but more into politics. We need our own Dawkins or de Grasse-Tyson.

  • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

    Actually you will see the term ‘self-describe christian, when the subject has done something horrific  the name of  his “Christian” beliefs, so they can’t just ignore it. Example:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/norway/8656515/Norway-attacks-profile-of-suspect-Anders-Behring-Breivik.html

    “On the Facebook page attributed to him, Mr Breivik describes himself as a
    Christian and a conservative”

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

       Exactly. They’re “christians” when it’s something positive or neutral. They’re “self-proclaimed christians” when it’s something awful. They’re masters of the No True Scotsman.

      • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

         I agree, although this is more insidious because I don’t think most of them do it consciously. Its more that the ‘Christian as good’ identity has infused itself in our society.

        I do it too. I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece. Even now that I’ve been an atheist for years I sometimes catch myself objecting to Protestant or Catholic thought as not genuinely Christian (i.e G.O.C.) because to an extent I still identify with it. It helps me keep a check on my own preconceptions.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

           That’s because it’s kinda, erm… hammered in to you when you’re young. Even in cartoons, you’ll have shit like a miniature Angel and Devil perched on a character’s shoulders, arguing back and forth about what to do. Christian symbolism just… it’s everywhere, man!

          • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

            Interesting tangent: The greek word meaning ‘non-god-fearing’ (atheofovos) is used as an adjective meaning a ‘daredevil’, someone that might do anything. It is used both with positive or negative connotation but I had never noticed the etymology until recently.

          • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

            Those angels and devils in Disney cartoons were my first exposure to Christian symbolism. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. If a child is growing up in a secular home, he or she simply places angels and devils in the same magical category as fairies, ghosts, monsters, etc. I had no idea that people thought they were real!

  • Madscot

    It seems to me that since atheism is the default position, all others should be “self proclaimed”. IMO

  • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

    I’m too lazy to look it up again, but anyone with the time, try looking up recent articles about Jessica Ahlquist and see how many times she was referred to as a ‘self-professed’ or ‘self-described’ atheist. I commented about it somewhere,

    • Johann

      I counted eight from a local news agency – more than half of all their coverage of the banner case. I reposted the e-mail I sent them about this, but it looks like all the links made it end up in the spam filter.

  • Anonymous

    To quote a very wise man who was making an observation much along these lines (only he was referring to UFO sighting reports versus Christianity):

    [T]he marginal people in these two groups don’t matter in thisargument.
    What matters is the prejudice and superstition built intothe media coverage
    of the two sets of beliefs. One is treatedreverently and accepted as
    received truth, the other is treatedlaughingly and dismissed out of
    hand.
    As evidence of the above premise, I offer one version of a
    typicaltelevision news story heard each year on the final Friday of
    Lent:
    “Today is Good Friday, observed by Christians worldwide as a
    daythat commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Son of
    God,whose death redeemed the sins of mankind.”
    Here is the way it
    should be written:
    “Today is Good Friday, observed worldwide by Jesus
    buffs as the dayon which the popular, bearded cultural figure, sometimes
    referred toas The Messiah, was allegedly crucified and according to legend
    diedfor mankind’s so-called sins. Today kicks off a `holy’ weekend
    thatculminates on Easter Sunday, when, it is widely believed, thisdead
    ‘savior’ who also, by the way, claimed to be the son of a sky-dwelling,
    invisible being known as God mysteriously `rose from
    thedead.’
    “According to the legend, by volunteering to be killed and
    actuallygoing through with it, Jesus saved every person who has ever
    livedand every person who ever will live from an eternity of suffering
    ina fiery region popularly known as hell, providing so the story
    goesthat the person to be ‘saved’ firmly believes this rather
    fancifultale.”

    Thank self-professed God for allegedly providing us with that self-confessed comedian George Carlin.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    I wonder if this is for historical reasons. Historically, accusations of atheism against historical groups who weren’t atheists per se were not uncommon. This is discussed in detail in this Wikipedia article- 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism_in_the_Age_of_the_Enlightenment . So in that context it might make sense to be clear when someone has used the term themselves. It is possible that I’m giving too much credit to the media here… 

    • Anonymous

      I’m a reporter. I think you’re exactly right: since atheism has historically been a negative charge hurled at people, the “self-proclaimed” identification probably started as the shortest way of saying “this isn’t the person’s critics calling them this.”

  • http://twitter.com/DangerousTalk Staks Rosch

    Thanks for the shout-out VJack. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RZ5VEXJ3IYNGQBHI5APT4DETJI FSq

    George Carlin did a great bit about just this thing. He wrote a newspaper article that is done the way they do it with atheists, only with xians. It is in his “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops”.

    • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

       I think it was posted a few comments above.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

        It was, yes.

  • Anonymous

    I imagine the press would or could use the term ‘self proclaimed christian’ when they refer to a christian committing a horrible act. Or maybe use ‘former christian turned atheist’.

    • Anonymous

       When Christians do horrible things, others usually express shock at it and say things like “But he always attended church” as if that makes people good persons

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    It’s not just Christians who perform heinous acts, but also Christians who practice a “heinous” form of the faith.  Like Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists.  “Well, they claim to be Christian, but they believe all those weird things, so….”

  • Nolamama

    FYI – the Oxford dictionary to which my Kindle touch refers actually uses ‘avowed atheist’ as an example under the entry for ‘avowed’.  Hmmmm….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-A-Anderson/100000016895400 John A. Anderson

    The Rock Hill, SC, newspaper, back in the early 90′s, interviewed M.M. Ohair’s psycho son, the atheist turned evangelist (and psychotic alcoholic and drug addict). The headline called him a “reformed atheist.” They didn’t understand when I phoned in my complaint.

  • http://twitter.com/arensb arensb

    For what it’s worth, a while back I googled a bunch of phrases of the form “avowed X”. Turns out that, just as you might expect, it mostly applies to X=atheist, with “humanist”, “deist”, and “Scientologist” distant runners-up:  http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/2011/08/19/avowed/

  • Trickster Goddess

    Whenever I read the word ‘avowed’ my mind always wants to picture someone making a Scarlette-O’Hara-like declaration such as: “As God is my witness, I swear I will never believe in God again!”

  • m6wg4bxw

    I’m a self-identified atheist, and this doesn’t bother me.

    I think this way of writing about atheists stems from knowing that the term, “atheist,” has negative connotations among the general public. Using a qualifier helps to clarify that the subject uses the label for himself, and thus isn’t being insulted or misrepresented by the writer.

    Imagine someone who refers to himself as an asshole. To write about such a person, simply referring to him as an asshole, might lead to confusion for the reader. Clarifying that he’s a self-identified asshole helps the reader know that it wasn’t the result the author’s judgment.

    • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

       The problem with that is precisely that it perpetuates the negative connotation, which doesn’t cause confusion for the reader if it reinforces already existing false preconceptions.

      • m6wg4bxw

        Interestingly, someone at Atheist Revolution expressed nearly the same idea I offered above, including using an asshole for example.

        You are correct. Technically speaking, what I described would perpetuate negative connotation. I think it’s worth noting that it’s passive perpetuation—not active. The writer should mindfully write to the likely audience, including phrasing to avoid potential confusions. Whether the writer should make attempts to quell misconceptions about a particular subject is, I think, dependent upon circumstance, but certainly not obligatory.

        I disagree that such passive treatment necessarily reinforces false preconceptions, though it might. The mere mention of a subject could remind the reader of his thoughts about it. Does this reminder constitute reinforcement? Whatever the case, any inaccuracies the reader associates with a subject are imbued by the reader, unless otherwise provided by the writer. Any resulting reinforcement is therefore derived from the reader himself.

        • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

           I agree that it is mostly passive, as I mentioned something to that effect in a previous comment. The problem is that the authors and the readers are not independent. We have a cycle of reinforcement that perpetuates itself because people don’t recognize the subtle implications of their language.

          • m6wg4bxw

            I haven’t thought of any practical direct solutions. Correcting misunderstandings about atheism each time the subject arises seems rather onerous to me. A writer on an atheist blog, for example, has the time and space to do this, whereas a newspaper journalist writing tangentially about the subject probably doesn’t. 

            Indirectly, the atheist and atheist-friendly community can work to change the culture by correcting misconceptions about atheism. More informed readers means less need for clarification.

            What would you propose? Any ideas?

  • Adam Lewis

    I can imagine the conversation about being an “admitted” atheist going something like if you were asked “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

    Reporter:  So John here, who is an admitted atheist…

    Interviewee:  Wait a minute, why did you say “admitted?”

    Reporter:  So you don’t admit to being an atheist?

    Interviewee:  No, I didn’t say that…

    Reporter:  So you do admit to being one?

    Interviewee:  Yes, but…

    • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

       The correct response to the last question is “No, I do not ‘admit’ to it.  You admit to faults or crimes. Atheism is neither.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Anyone viewing a reporter’s work could be suspicious that the reporter
    is being slanderous. In North American society atheist is seen more as
    an insult than a proudly worn label. I don’t think this is necessarily reporters casting atheists as illegitimate or dishonest. Almost all news reports or articles involving atheists will describe us as “self-identified” or “self-described”, including unbiased reports and ones in favor of our view. To paint them with a large brush stroke of Christian privilege isn’t fair. Some of them just want the viewer to know that atheist is how the subject chooses to be identified.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    Thanks for the mention! I think you are absolutely right about calling it out when we see it. We have to start somewhere, and this may help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

    Christianity is the GOOD one. People have no reason to be ashamed about it. Right?


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