Atheist Representation on ‘This Week With George Stephanopoulos’

On Sunday’s edition of “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Susan Jacoby was a panelist to “discuss the role of religion in our civic debates.” (What should’ve been the fastest panel discussion *ever* — “Role?! Why should it have a role?!” — somehow became an actual conversation…)

Jacoby used her time wisely, making a number of points we rarely hear echoed in the mainstream media:

Stephanopoulos:… You wrote a fascinating article, Susan Jacoby, in the New York Times coming out of Newtown called “The Blessings of Atheism,” and one of the things you write about is that atheists and nonbelievers often feel intimidated from speaking out on public issues as atheists.

Jacoby: I think we heard almost nothing and no secular chaplain, a person representing a secular organization, asked to be at the Newtown ceremony. I asked several of them about it, and they felt they were kind of afraid to. They felt that it would be — it would be taken the wrong way, as if atheists were trying to horn in on this ceremony, which was basically religious.

Let me say, what Dr. Butts said is music to my ears. If all religious people trying to influence politics could separate what they teach and preach in church, and which of course every religious institution and person has the right to state their convictions, just as I do. But the problem is, Newtown was a perfect example of it. There were people sitting in that audience obviously, if we believe the polls, that 20 percent of people don’t belong to any church, and some of those people are atheists and some of them aren’t. It’s hard to tell because atheist is still quite a pejorative, but when President Obama, unlike some atheists who are sitting here, some will tell you that they objected to his mentioning religion at all at that service, which I think is ridiculous. There were a lot of religious people there. Religion is a solace for religious people in grief. But he could very easily have expanded that to say, whether we are religious or non-religious, he could have said that we are all united in our grief, and not made it exclusively, and he should not have been talking about Jesus Christ when some of the parents who lost children are people who don’t believe in Jesus.

And later:

Stephanopoulos: Do you feel the need to proselytize?

Jacoby: The need to proselytize in the sense that I want to convert people to atheism? No. The mission, the mission, if you could call it that, of the atheist is not to convert people. It is to put forward our ideas in the public square, and we have had some success. And I’m not talking only recently, but over 100 years, to talk about the importance of science and reason in public policy. And there are many religious people who believe in that, but there are many religious people who are opposed to fact and evidence based thinking.

And here is the point about the problem with religion and politics. It’s not that religious groups shouldn’t have an active role in presenting their viewpoints, as we all must. It’s that all public policy has to have a rationale that goes beyond the religious. Because saying, for example, gay marriage is wrong because my god tells me so, or a certain kind of immigration policy is wrong because my god tells me so, or as was in the past, slavery is right because the Bible upholds slavery. And as we well know, religion was just as much on the side of slavery in America as other — there is no such thing as religion. There are only certain kinds of religions, and how often it is when people say, well, you — this needs to be in public policy because God says so. How much God sounds like our own voice.

That was fantastic. That’s how you do it. That’s how you get unpopular ideas across to an audience that may otherwise not be receptive to them: You say it politely, calmly, respectfully, intelligently, and emphatically.

That’s hard to do when you have the time to write it out.

Jacoby did it off the cuff and did it beautifully.

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.

  • flyb

    I agree. She did a great job. I used to read a lot of her work on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blogs and she would occasionally come off as a sort of atheist apologist. But her performance, and even Mr. Aslan’s, was impressive. Very well spoken and civil and to the point.

  • Sandra Stott

    She did a good job at telling the theme of atheism, but I don’t think she was ‘off the cuff’ as you put it at the end. I imagine she came well prepared, with a general idea already in her mind what she was going to say.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)


    I would tweak one bit re: arguing against “this needs to be in public policy because God says so”.

    Many believers would be in favor of making “public policy because God says so”.

    But many would be opposed to “public policy imposed on you because some politician says their god told them to impose those rules upon you”.

  • Rain

    Why is it that “reverends” always look like they practice to be cartoon characters? Robert Schuller–now there was a good cartoon/humanoid/thingy.

  • Al Rodbell

    Just because the Religious argument for or against a policy is what makes the news, does not mean that there isn’t a secular one. I happen to know, first hand, how the New York Times as an opinion leader does not publish scientific evidence for positions that support positions they are against- or minimize its importance at the least. .

    I have an article on my own website,, that illustrates this on the marriage equality issue, yet it exists on others. Scientific evidence is often shamelessly politically incorrect, and those that let this distort reality are doing great harm to the enlightenment project.

  • Daniel_JM

    Oh boy, is your blog an April Fools joke? Your defense of the anti-gay NOM was lame, your comments on the ACA were uninformed, and your invented claim that “The New York Times” has long been trying to say there are absolutely no differences between the genders is just laughable. I especially enjoyed your uninformed and backwards talk about ‘intersex’ people, an inaccurate term that is offensive to many people with DSDs.

  • Freedom Fighter

    David Silverman could take lessons from Jacoby.

  • DougI

    Jacoby is one of the most intelligent, well-spoken representatives we have. I hope we see more of her.

  • RobMcCune

    Well that’s a flimsy excuse to promote your blog, even flimsier than the case you make for bias in the NY Times opinion section.

  • Tobias2772

    Ms. Jacoby was very good, but I would also direct people’s attention to Dr. Butts’ comments on the separation of religious belief from Constitutional protections and legal reasoning. It’s hard to imagine a religious person better stating the rationale for the separation of church and state. If only more myth-believers could see his point, I might be encouraged to leave them alone in their fantasy world.

  • Rich Wilson

    I loved it when she started with

    All public policy has to have a rational that goes beyond the religious.

    because she was saying something I often say almost word for word. But I think she tried to pull in too many examples, and George got nervous when she started on slavery, and she had to rush the end a bit. Minor quibble, (and I’d melt in the chair myself) but I think she was pacing it for one-on-one with Bill Moyers, not as part of a panel.

  • Georginafs

    I noticed that the usual muslim rant about the problem of islamophobia was not missing, despite being off topic.

  • Randay

    The black preacher doesn’t know his religious history. Paul didn’t go to the Mars Hill to defend the Gospel of Jesus. The Gospel(s) was written at least 20 to 40 years or more after Paul and his writings. If Paul preached anything, it was his own hallucinations.

  • Al Rodbell

    Yes, the term “intersex” is offensive. If you responded to my comment seriously, you would have read the Times article I criticized, where the oped writer, David Haskell used that exact word, and distorted its incidence. When one’s world is divided between friend and foe, it’s hard to accept that an enemy could have the stronger case. I suggest you actually read my comments, and my article on my website, and the links. It will take some time, and if you really want to do this, which entails a risk that you will then be out of step with the mass movement that is trampling over any reasonable argument, then I would welcome a real dialog.

  • Darrell Ross

    Your blog post is not so great. My primary two objections follow:
    1. You spend much time criticizing Haskell’s statistic about DSDs. Why? Why bother? The point is that DSDs. How does pointing out he was off by a few percentage points provide any direction to your argument. In fact, what *is* you argument?

    2. You spent most of the rest of your post burning a straw man. You claim that Haskell’s statement about “homosexual bonds” implies marriage. And then you go on to attempt to refute gay marriage among primates. Classic straw man.

    After burning the straw man, you don’t appear to go anywhere. What point are you trying to make?