Sally Quinn Follows Up on Her ‘American Citizenship Requires Belief in God’ Piece

Last week, Sally Quinn of the Washington Post made a statement so mind-blogging, I couldn’t believe a mainstream journalist could say it:

This is a religious country. Part of claiming your citizenship is claiming a belief in God, even if you are not Christian. We’ve got the Creator in our Declaration of Independence. We’ve got “In God We Trust” on our coins. We’ve got “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance. And we say prayers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to God.

Like I said before, if she was implying that mentioning God could help a candidate get more votes because our country is still made up of mostly Christian people, I would’ve been fine with it — because she would be right.

But that’s not how I read her passage. She seemed to be suggesting that those things were true and should be that way, not just a rhetorical device suggesting that America only seems that way sometimes.

Yesterday, she responded to the backlash from the piece:

I ended [that controversial passage] by saying. “An atheist could never get elected dogcatcher much less President.”

To represent my true beliefs, I should have begun that last paragraph with the word, unfortunately. I do not believe that religion should play any role in politics. But that is not the world we live in.

So far, I’m in total agreement. An atheist would have a hard time running for higher office in America. That’s unfortunate, but that’s reality. Had she written that, I would’ve sighed to myself, then nodded in agreement.

Quinn continued:

I thought that by saying that the Republicans were trying to hijack God I made that clear. “The Republicans,” I wrote, “have claimed God as their own in this campaign, each candidate trying to out-Christian the other. Even Obama, though 17 percent of registered voters think he is a Muslim, has talked about being a Christian as often as he can.”

To me, my position was clear.It was obviously not to certain readers.

I believe, sadly, that religion plays a huge [role] in political campaigns. Republicans use the dog whistle of God every chance they get… But depressing and un-American as it may be, one’s faith continues to make a big difference in how people view candidates.

Again, she’s right. Obama would be doing himself a favor by pandering to the religious. Sucks, but it’s true.

Finally, Quinn talked about the kind of responses she received to that last column from non-religious people. It’s not pretty:

The response I received from atheists, agnostics and humanists rivaled some of the most hateful, vicious and ad hominem mail I receive when Christians are inflamed by my comments. They don’t just say they disagree with me. They say they hope I burn in hell. One of the more imaginative ones said he hoped my car turned over, the gas tank exploded and I would burn up and go to hell.

But atheists! Agnostics! Humanists! Where did all this rage come from? They’ve taken a page from the Christians.

My favorite e-mail after the column about the debate was this: “You disgust me! This is about the most un-American thing I have ever seen written. I hope you burn in the “hell” that you believe in. [Blank] you!”

That’s awful. I certainly don’t condone that behavior and I wish I knew what the hell was wrong with people who make those kinds of threats (even imaginary ones). I’m sorry that she had to go through that.

Here’s my problem with all of this.

Based on the headline of the article — “The God vote meets the rage of atheists, agnostics, and humanists” — you get the feeling that Quinn just wanted to find some way to deflect the focus off of her and onto the “evil atheists.” Yes, the people who said nasty things to her are abominable. But they in no way represent how most atheists think or act. To suggest that “atheists, agnostics, and humanists” are all full of rage is completely misguided.

The whole piece can be paraphrased as this: “Look! Everything I wrote was totally clear to everyone else, but the atheists misinterpreted me! Then they sent me hatemail and threats!”

But that’s not what happened.

Quinn wrote a confusing article which, if taken at face value, said that atheists had no claim to American citizenship (symbolically, anyway). When we pointed out how wrong that was, Quinn took a few admittedly awful messages from her inbox and heralded them as representative of all of us.

Take a look at that passage from her post again, this time highlighting who she’s referring to. It’s not some atheists. It’s all of us:

The response I received from atheists, agnostics and humanists rivaled some of the most hateful, vicious and ad hominem mail I receive when Christians are inflamed by my comments. They don’t just say they disagree with me. They say they hope I burn in hell. One of the more imaginative ones said he hoped my car turned over, the gas tank exploded and I would burn up and go to hell.

But atheists! Agnostics! Humanists! Where did all this rage come from? They’ve taken a page from the Christians.

“They” implies all of us and not just the work of a few despicable individuals.

If I said Christians were jerks because they hold “God Hates Fags” signs outside funerals, I’d be criticized harshly — and rightfully so. It’s completely unfair to malign an entire group of people for something that only a vocal few of them ever do.

This whole issue could have been avoided if Quinn had just taken enough precaution in her original article to clarify that her comments about America as a Christian nation were only how things seem to be, not how they ought to be.

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.

  • Ewan

    It’s striking how even this only ‘rivalled’ the abuse she routinely gets from christians.

  • DougI

    She writes a column insulting every Atheist on the planet and she gets backlash with insults in return.  What would she expect?  However, I wonder what she wrote that got hateful responses from Christians.  Was it that she insulted every one of them by suggesting that they should have their citizenship removed and expelled from the nation or was it something less akin to someone in Nazi Germany suggesting all the Jews should be expelled from the country?

    It’s quite obvious from her response that she doesn’t hold a very favorable view from Atheists since they quickly finds them all guilty for the responses of some individuals.  Sorry bub, if you don’t want to be hated then don’t advertise yourself as such a hateful bigot.

  • Martin James Bridges

    So she’s a professional writer that somehow managed to misrepresent her position to the degree she had to write a follow-up to explain it again?  Most impressive.

  • Sindigo

    And in her follow-up piece managed to further insult all those whose views she was hoping to represent with the first one. It is certainly a teachable moment for students of journalism everywhere.

  • Aaron Scoggin

     Wait, Christian’s don’t hold up signs that say “God Hates Fags” on them? Weird, cause I saw this one Christian doing it, and was thoroughly convinced that every single one of them on the planet earth did it. It’s so weird.

  • wf

    Tell me when I get to call “no true Scotsman” on this page.

  • George Wiman

    I registered an account to leave this comment:

    “It’s nice that you know what you meant and that some people understood it. But that’s the problem every writer, every artist, every designer faces: it was clear to you because you wrote it. The back story is in your brain while you type.

    All demographics contain jerks, and I can’t apologize for the jerks in mine – they need to do that themselves. But Sally, we’re constantly told that we aren’t real Americans, that we don’t have morals, can’t be trusted, etc. We can’t turn around without being compared to Hitler and Pol Pot. And it isn’t just a few bad apples either; the big evangelical associations are spending millions sent in by large numbers of Christians who believe what they are saying. We’re tired of it.”

  • J Myers

    I’m sure she received some awful messages, which is unfortunate, but I’m curious as to what percent of total responses they constituted.  My guess would be considerably less than half, which, if the case, would make her subsequent characterizations  not just inaccurate, but hugely dishonest.  I’m also skeptical that the specific example she gave came from an atheist, agnostic, or humanist; neither an atheist nor an agnostic would be very likely to invoke hell, and a humanist would not be very likely to wish such suffering on another (though I suppose it is possible).  Her generalization that “they” say they hope she burns in hell is, however, plainly absurd.

  • primenumbers

    Quinn is in the wrong here. Upon reading her original piece I never thought for one moment she was incompetent at getting her message across. I thought she conveyed the message that atheists have no place in the USA quite clearly and she deserved to be taken to task for that opinion.

    Indeed, an ounce of forethought on her part would have saved her a bundle of grief. I’d hope she’d take this a as a learning experience.

  • ortcutt

     Shorter Sally Quinn:  I can’t believe how angry people got when I questioned their citizenship and their right to participate in our body politic.

  • MG

    Talk about taking a page from the Christians–any misunderstanding arising from the article isn the fault of the reader, not the author. The classic non-apology: I’m so sorry that YOU are incapable of understanding me.

  • mike

    Does she not know that the original article with comments is still posted?  There are many perfectly normal comments from level headed people that she could have responded to.  I’m sure that some vile comments were deleted and the crazies love to email directly, but still.  What about all of us regular commenters?

  • Kenny

    When this broke, it seemed every atheist blogger I read jumped on it, which sent a lot of people who don’t regularly read her articles to the Washington Post site armed with one offensive article. However, one commenter on one site provided a link to another Quinn article which expressed views that at least showed she probably did not fully agree with the things written in this article that sent some into a rage. I think we do ourselves a disfavor by taking any single article or posting by a columnist or blogger and acting on it without a working knowledge of the author’s general postings. Sure, she didn’t express herself as clearly as she should have, but I don’t think it is totally unreasonable of her to expect that readers of her article would have read some of her other articles to know that, if not an atheist herself, she did not give religion or Christianity a free pass either.

  • busterggi

    She claims atheists told her she would buen in Hell?

    Why not claim she was told she would be queen of the Emerald City in Oz – atheists don’t believe in either.

  • Luther

     Are you saying nobody should take any posting on this site or any other at face value, unless they first read all the author’s other posts first, and then if they find an inconsistency they should not comment?

  • TooManyJens

    But atheists! Agnostics! Humanists! Where did all this rage come from?

    Um, from being considered non-citizens by a hell of a lot of our fellow Americans, as she noted? It’s not a mystery.

  • Kelley1946

    Are we sure that those “horrible” comments were by Atheists or by those who want us to think they were by Atheists? That’s not to say that there aren’t people who make “horrible”  comments on both sides of the Theism Divide. I have heard Theists make threats against Atheist comments too.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    The two “theys” in the first paragraph you quote seem to be referring to the Christians who respond in anger when inflamed.  Thus the two unsurprising references to burning in hell.  Then she says, But now I’m getting the same from atheists, agnostics and humanists!  She should have included “some” but I think one has to assume the worst to read her as implicating all atheists, agnostics and humanists.  She doesn’t say “I receive from *some* Christians” or “taken a page from *some* Christians.”  Isn’t it fair to assume that “some” is implied?  When we hear a broadcaster say, a man was beaten by basketball players, we know that he doesn’t mean that all basketball players beat him, right?

    Not surprisingly, perhaps, I find what she’s written here more insulting to Christians than to atheists.  It’s not as though Christians invented hate mail, or are even the primary owners of the franchise.  As someone who writes things that conservative Christians frequently dislike, she gets more than her fair share from the right.  As someone who writes things that more liberal-leaning folks dislike, I’ve always gotten an awful lot of vitriol from the Left, whether they’re progressive Christians or atheists or liberal Jews, for that matter.

  • Dwayne_Windham

    I think the only real way to combat people going to that level of hatefulness is to publish their emails. Prove these items really happened, shame them for being a$$holes. All submissions become the property of the paper – right? :)

  • Richard Wade

    Here’s my comment over at On Faith:

    So let me get this straight, because I wouldn’t want to misinterpret your confusing writing again and get yet another insult. You wrote a confusing article where you wanted to decry the situation about religion being exploited in politics and the “unfortunate” bigotry against nonbelievers in this country, but that view was not at all clear by the way you wrote it, so it came across as you making a statement that that bigotry is the view you hold.

    Then you got a thunderstorm of understandable outrage from atheists, which included some very thoughtful comments, and some over-the-top crazy comments. Now you have written this article wherein you take only a teeny weeny amount of responsibility for the mess, saying that it all would have been okay if you had only prefaced one sentence with the world, “unfortunately.”  (I don’t think that would have been enough to clear it up. “It’s not “unfortunate.” It’s painful, destructive, and widespread.)

    But then you go on to glean from the understandably angry comments only the most-over the-top crazy ones you can find, and smugly use them to portray their remarks as representative of ALL the comments, and therefore misrepresent ALL atheists as being insane with rage.

    So let me get this straight: LAST time it was an inadvertant insult, but THIS time it’s a deliberate, carefully considered insult?  Have I got that right?

  • C Peterson

    I just walked through all 182 responses to the discussion on this forum last week. There were almost no ad hominem attacks on Sally Quinn- maybe five cases of calling her something mild (idiot, Taliban) without any supporting qualification. One unkind comment about her weight (which other commenters jumped on immediately). A “death threat” (“Off with her head. LOL!”) which was pretty obviously intended as a joke. And all of the lamest comments, which failed to make any substantive argument, floated down to the bottom and probably went largely unseen.

    Quinn may be feeling “atheist, agnostic, and humanist” hate coming her way, but it sure isn’t apparent- even remotely- in this forum. Here, she was taken to task for saying something that appeared to reveal a deep ignorance about the foundations of this country, and which many atheists found offensive (and humanists even more, I’d think, since many are theists… I wonder how she distinguished between the three groups she lumped together). If she felt her words were misunderstood, she had the opportunity to correct that. An opportunity that she blew by taking a second shot at offending people with different philosophical views than her own.

    If Quinn wants to see ad hominem, she should have a look at the illiterate filth that shows up daily in FFRF’s mailbox. That sort of vitriol seems to be of an entirely different character and magnitude than any of the responses she describes. And it represents a large fraction of the negative mail FFRF receives; in Quinn’s case, I suspect only a tiny fraction of the “hate” mail she received was pure ad hominem. A writer with a large audience can probably not publish anything without drawing out a few fringe nutcases.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “…rivaled some of the most hateful, vicious and ad hominem mail I receive when Christians are inflamed…”

    “They’ve taken a page from the Christians.”

    LOL. Assholes exist everywhere, at least she admits how common it is in the christian community. On the bright side no one appears to have offered to “curb stomp” her as they did for the  “Evil Little Thing” in Rhode Island.  

  • Baal

    I think a fair tl;dr for Kenny is; do some due diligence to avoid knee-jerk responses. 

    Also – when writing to journalists, threats and putting them in hypothetical suffering or humiliating positions only serve to stroke your ego.  As a class, they are more likely to internalize our messages if they are strong, clear and explicitly say what our problem is.  In this case, the problem is that her first article paints us a second class not-even citizens.  The problem with the second article’s problem is one where she over applies the vitriol from part of the class to the whole class (and that’s a very human (but wrong) thing to do). 

  • Octoberfurst

     I wondered about that too. What atheist says, “I hope you burn in Hell”?  I have no doubt she recieved hatemail—after all, she basically said that atheists were non-citizens– but it just seems weird to me that she claims that many told her to burn in Hell. Hmmm.  As the robot from Lost in Space would say, “That does not compute.”  So I don’t know what to make of it.  

  • Tainda

    I’m the exact opposite of most everything the christians think an atheist is.  I am smiling all the time and respect other people regardless of their beliefs.  That is until you cross me or my family and then you have to deal with the bitch beast.

    One thing that turns my normal happy-go-lucky attitude sour is ignorance and in this world that is in the majority.

  • Matt O’Neal

    Well said, George! I read your comment on her piece this morning and said to myself, “Bravo, you nailed it.”

    And you are so unequivocably right in that it isn’t just their few bad apples. We are ostracized by a very large proportion of the Christians. Again, well said. You need your own blog..

  • Cale Meeks

    “They say they hope I burn in hell.”

    Why would an atheist say that?

  • amycas

    If you’re implying that we are employing the “no true Scotsman” fallacy then you would be wrong. Nobody here (so far as I’ve read) has said these people were not atheists, agnostics or humanists. The only thing people have said is that she should not have generalized.

  • amycas

     I agree with this. She has every right to call out those who spam her with hateful and violent rhetoric.

  • compl3x

     Right? I always say “I hope you’re Sautéed in hell”. Much more pleasant sounding. :D

    “When we pointed out how wrong that was, Quinn took a few admittedly
    awful messages from her inbox and heralded them as representative of all
    of us.”

    Shouldn’t there be a “supposedly” in there somewhere. Or perhaps an “allegedly”.

    Like “Quinn took a few supposedly awful messages”? or “Quinn took a few allegedly awful meessages…”

    I don’t mean to seem overly sceptical; I have no doubt atheists can be jerks sometimes, hell, downright assholes in some cases, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone has tried to shift the blame when they’ve recieved considerable criticism for writting or saying something stupid.

     People called her out, she paniced and became embarrassed, she invents a barrage of abuse to change the subject and put us on the defensive.

    Just something to consider. It’s a rather old trick.

  • Archaeopteryx1861

    I was very amused by her comment that an atheist couldn’t even get elected as a dog catcher…because I’M an atheist dog catcher.

  • anon101

    If atheists
    say nasty things to a Christian it’s a small minority and not
    representative of atheists. If atheists harass other atheists it’s
    representative of that group of atheists and a huge problem that has
    to be dealt with.
    The double standard. It hurts.

  • John O’Brien

    If believing in a god(s) was required to be a citizen I would gladly renounce my citizenship.

  • TerranRich

    You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?

  • LesterBallard

    My comment was not about her weight. It was about how she said something on par with Coulter’s comments and that they are alike except that Quinn appears to weigh a little more. That you can’t tell them apart except for that. I don’t give a fuck how much Quinn weighs. Or Coulter, for that matter. 

  • coyotenose

     I’m sorry that you aren’t competent enough to tell the difference between these two things:

    A. A handful of comments on one article and directed at one person, going so far as to say ‘I hope you burn in Hell’, and inspired by that person insulting millions without provocation”

    B. Hundreds of harassing comments directed at each of several people over the course of over a year, with “You need to be raped you Bitch/Slut/Cunt” being far from the worst, and inspired by the suggestion that people should criticize the rape-wishers. Oh, and the targets’ families and jobs were harassed also.

    And no, your thinking is not very interesting.

  • kaydenpat

    So she’s wrong!

  • kaydenpat

    “she invents a barrage of abuse”

    Can’t you just concede that she may have received some hateful comments from a few atheists and leave it at that? 

  • Baby_Raptor

    I have no idea who you’re trying to insult, but you failed. Find some other way to stroke your ego, please.

  • Heidi

    I think you’re right about her use of “they.” And yes, one can assume the things she omitted were unintentional.  But shouldn’t her meaning be clear, and easily understood?  It makes me wonder how in the world this woman is employed as a professional writer.

  • Randy

    There is simply no moral equivalence between condemning someone to eternity in hell, as Christians appear to do with certainty, and wishing one’s opponents beliefs were true so she could suffer the fate her deity condemns others to.

    One is taking serious glee in certain and unending torment.

    The other is simply rubbing an idiot’s nose in her own waste.

  • Sean

    False dichotomy. I agree with Baal: “due diligence” ain’t so bad. A lot of people might profitably give it a whirl.

  • Sean

    No, we’re not sure. But assuming that some portion of the comments were made in bad faith (heehee…”faith”) doesn’t impeach all of the spiteful comments as the work of trolls and posers.

  • C Peterson

     Fine. I just skimmed through the comments quickly. So there was one less ad hominem in an already short list.

  • compl3x

     Re-read what I read. I said it was entirely possible it happened, but at the same time we’re taking her at her word “atheists agnostics and humanists” told her to “burn in hell”. Doesn’t that make you raise your eyebrow even a little bit? Doesn’t it make you think it absolutely could have been people trolling her? Considering how criticised her article initially was, isn’t it entirely possible she completely exaggerrated a few hateful comments in order to put her critics on the defensive?

  • Bryan Gillis

    It’s worth noting: Headlines aren’t typically chosen by the writers of articles, but by the editors. That particular point shouldn’t be used to extrapolate too much.

  • Robert Leonardo

    So whats up with saying what the corresponding facts tell us. Mrs. Quinn did not say anything that should wrangle anyone who has read the Founders writings or frankly up to about 1960.

    The Post modern view (Relativism = truth=there is no truth) is the “grounding ” for guys like Hemant Mehta. They want and expect people to understand them in Aristotelian logic (common sense) then they FLIP to relativism-speak, and tell us that nothing is true.

    For someone who teaches math it’s rather odd that the most basic equation eludes his thinking. Mr. Mehta, I don’t know you other then your article and your position. It appears you do not understand the Law of Non-contradiction. For your position violates this law, and is even seen by the the system you use to evaluate the article you are citing

  • Deven Kale

    Hmmmm. You could be one of two people here: Either Evertonian Calvinist our favorite presuppositionalist, or J.K. King with his confusion of the terms logic and philosophy. I’m just going to sit back and find out this time. I can’t wait to find out which troll you really are.

  • Robert Leonardo

    Hey Deven , 

    Good morning, just reading your reply. A few questions on the Presuppositional comment: How would you discern who I am, and how did you come to the conclusion that I was a presupp…what method of thinking would you use to determine these things…?

    I would simply say go back to Aristotle’s 3 laws of thought. I would say to you, that you are using the method in which you seem to be critiquing me for using. What you will find is that there is no way around it.

    This, and many other things are reasons (well thought out one’s) that you should question in any philosophy. The requirements needed to be a true Atheist deny your ability to to communicate to me without using a pressup methodology–you just can’t–when you communicate you will inevitably violate this principal. I don’t need to rely on my Christian faith to make that claim either…But Christian theism rests in these principals.

    Atheists/Naturalist’s have to Co-op principals from theism to attempt to make sense…and yet they turn on themselves, cannibalizing their own philosophy. Just think this over.

  • J. K. King


    I gave a full response to your comments on the thread that went bad, on another thread. However, it looks like those comments were erased. I did however, answer your challenges on my computer hard-drive. They will appear in an updated edition of my website next year.

    If my posts won’t be erased, I’ll happily give a thorough answer to any and all challenges.

    You provided interesting intellectual challenges. But then you devolve to calling people trolls.  I don’t call people trolls, gnomes, gremlins, or other such childish nonsense.

    Yes, J. K. King is my pen name and not my real name (which is nobody’s business).

    And NO, I am NOT Robert Leonardo. And NO, I am NOT Evertonian Calvinist.

  • J. K. King

     Never EVER in my entire life has anyone told me, a social outcast to boot, that they hope I burn in Hell.  Hoping that someone burns in Hell doesn’t even make sense in Christian theology; one’s final destination isn’t considered a crap shoot, it’s considered perfect justice by a righteous God.

    And I have never EVER heard a Christian believer use the C word against anybody or promote rape. NEVER.  And I have been around.

    These points sound like a straw man (a phony representation of believers)

    I want to know where these posts are found on the web so I can rebuke the posters.

    I believe one of two things will happen:
    A) I won’t be told where to find these posts (because they don’t exist) or
    B) I will find that they are written by non-Christians