So I’m sitting in the airport yesterday, heading back from Oklahoma, and CNN is on the TV.
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to see Leah Libresco getting interviewed, but that’s what I saw when I sat down at my gate:
I think they’re putting it in there because they don’t have a story if she’s not “prominent.” People change their religious beliefs all the time. That’s not unique. Religious people become atheists all the time. That’s not unique, either. (Hell, I just met hundreds of people over the weekend who fall in that category.) Occasionally, atheists become religious. That’s a little unique, but it’s not really a story.
The media is pushing the whole “she’s prominent!” angle as if other atheists are suddenly going to jump off the cliff with her, swayed by her reasoning.
Trust me when I say she hasn’t convinced anybody the cracker is actually Jesus.
A story about people changing their religious faith is interesting if the person was well-known for his/her beliefs. (I’m going to put it out there that most atheists, even in the blogosphere, hadn’t heard of Leah before last week.)
A story about people changing their religious faith is interesting if the person was a leader in that community. It’s an even bigger story when that’s part of a trend, like all those ex-pastors in The Clergy Project. (Jerry DeWitt and Teresa MacBain were not well-known Christians but they were religious leaders and that’s why they deserved the coverage they got.)
It’s just not a major story when one person changes her mind and no one else follows suit. It’s interesting, no doubt, but it’s not a major story.
And what makes someone “prominent”? Is it the number of hits on their site? What’s the dividing line between not prominent and prominent? (Journalists, please fill us in.)
Is it how long you’ve been blogging? It’s been two years for Leah. There are tons of atheists who have been doing this longer than that.
Is it how many atheist conferences you speak at? I can’t recall Leah speaking at any. (If I’m wrong, please tell me.)
Is it your leadership in atheist groups? I can’t recall any national atheist organizations that had Leah on their staff or board.
Was it the number of books she wrote on atheism? Nope.
The number of media appearances she made talking about her atheism? Nope.
So what makes her a “prominent” blogger? That’s not a knock on Leah, who no doubt was an atheist for a long time. That’s a knock on lazy journalists (and headline writers) who are sensationalizing a story that doesn’t deserve it.
That’s my first issue with the coverage. The second is that they’re covering this at all.
Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia thinks she knows why the media is fascinated with this story (emphases hers):
Why so much coverage on Leah? Perhaps the answer is this: Leah’s conversion goes against all of the prevailing narratives that dominate secularist thinking. Religion — or at least religion that goes beyond affirming oneself and actually costs something of one — is the “opiate of the masses” suited only to “bitter clingers” and intellectually-dim peasants (except it isn’t and never was); Leah is a brainy, sophisticated Yalie who is neither bitter, clingy nor dim. Catholicism “hates women” (except it doesn’t and never did) and Leah is a strongly self-possessed, forward-thinking woman. Catholicism “hates homosexual persons” (except it doesn’t and never has although a new apostolic letter might help make that clear) and Leah identifies as bi-sexual.
There’s so much wrong with that paragraph, that we should pick it all apart.
Atheists are well aware that smart people can believe stupid things for silly reasons. (Scientist Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian, after all.) It’d be ignorant for any atheist to claim that only dumb, “unsophisticated” people are religious. Smart people can be fooled, too.
“Catholicism hates women” and Leah’s a woman? That’s not why the media cares. Her Catholicism is incidental to the coverage. If Leah had announced that she was becoming a Deist, they would have made a big deal about that, too. The story is that an atheist now believes in God. No one cares what label she’s actually using.
Leah’s bi-sexual? That makes for an interesting footnote (because she’ll have to reconcile that with her new faith), but it’s irrelevant to the story. Which, again, is that an atheist now believes in God.
So back to what I was saying. Why is the media covering this story at all? They shouldn’t. It’s a one-off thing that shows no sign of a trend. She’s not an atheist whose conversion is now making the rest of the blogosphere reconsider our views. (On the other hand, if PZ Myers said he believed in God, those ripples would be felt for a long time…)
Leah’s conversion is worthy of a few blog posts’ worth of coverage. Not much more than that. The fact that so many reporters are talking about it with long profiles only tells us how rare something like this actually it. It’s like a comet you see once every several years. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you try to trump up how important it really is.
Meanwhile, if the same reporters covered religious people who became atheists with the same zeal, it’d be like covering the rising sun — it happens so frequently, it’s just not that interesting anymore.