Joe Klein Offers a Pathetic Rebuttal in Response to Criticism of His Attack on Atheists in TIME Cover Story

A couple of days ago, I posted about the cover story in this week’s TIME magazine, written by Joe Klein:

In the process of writing about how volunteering and doing service projects could help curb the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on our veterans, Klein made this comment:

… there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon.

I argued that that statement was not just a lie; it perpetuated a nasty stereotype often leveled against atheists: that we’re immoral people, incapable of doing good things for other people.

Indeed, many non-theistic organizations and individuals helped out in the wake of the Oklahoma tornadoes. I’ll reprint my list here:

So why didn’t Klein mention any of these things? Maybe because we, as atheists, don’t always wear our godlessness on our sleeves so everyone can see. Maybe because we’re too busy helping people to publicize our efforts.

Or maybe Klein didn’t even bother looking for us.

After I posted about the article, a *lot* of you wrote letters to TIME magazine and sent tweets to the magazine and Klein. No word yet on whether TIME will issue an apology or retraction, but today, Klein issued a statement of his own.

In short, he tries to get off on a technicality… and still gets it wrong:

Well, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about my observation in this week’s cover story, that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals in disaster relief areas like Moore, Oklahoma, after the tornados.

There is, I know, something mealy-mouthed and uncommitted about my squishy spirituality. And that is part of what I was thinking about when I made the observation about organized groups of secular humanists not being present in disaster zones. As a society, we’ve lost a good deal of our sense of communitarian commitment… But the churches — disdained and sometimes ridiculed in my part of the world, Acela world — still have it. Many of their teachings are improbably literal and sometimes close-minded to the point of ugliness; but the church groups are always out there, in droves, when a disaster happens.

it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized. The effects of this post-modern atomization is something I’ve been trying to puzzle through for most of my career. That’s why I find the military, and the community values that are at the heart of military culture, so intriguing. That’s why I find the groups featured in my cover story about public service this week so inspiring. I believe that they sustain an essential part of citizenship that the rest of us have lost track of, the importance of being an active part of something larger than yourself.

Ohhh… Klein wasn’t criticizing atheists for not being generous. He was criticizing organized atheists for not being generous… even though, as I pointed out in the list above, there were organized groups of Secular Humanists on the ground helping out people who suffered because of the tornadoes. What more evidence does he want?!

Of course church groups are out there after a disaster, too. No one suggested otherwise, and given their incredible numbers, ample resources, and personal goodwill, it makes sense that they would be. The fact that non-religious groups (organized and otherwise) are also working to help people after disasters says more to me about how so many of us are willing to put aside our differences and help each other in times of need than anything else. Klein missed that entire storyline in his effort to cut down (or ignore) all those atheists who were out there doing amazing work.

The fact that Klein goes into a lengthy explanation of how he, too, is a Secular Humanist (despite actually being agnostic on God’s existence… which probably makes him a Humanist, but not a “Secular Humanist”) is a meaningless distraction.

He didn’t apologize.

He didn’t even use the word “sorry.”

He just doubled down on the awful thing he said in the first place.

It’s clear he didn’t even bother to look at the responses anyone sent him.

To make it worse, in his tangential comments, he argues that atheists hold on to some fictional “scientific certitude” — something that’s, again, completely untrue. Atheists don’t walk around saying “Science has all the answers!” We only believe science is the best method to arrive at answers, and that’s only if those answers are knowable at all.

And then, at the end of his lengthy pseudo-apology, he tells us he’s going away for a while to work on a book.

I’m going to be spending the next nine months on book leave, trying to drill down into this area. That means my presence here in the Swamp and the magazine will be limited…

Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out, Joe.

Since Klein won’t apologize for his cheap shot, TIME still owes its readers an apology — a real one — and an explanation for why they let that line make its way into the magazine.

***Update***: The Red Dirt Report responds to Klein’s non-pology.

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.

  • closetatheist

    oh lordy, it’s time to blow up Time’s comment section again…its clear that he STILL didn’t even research the claim he was making even after being called out.

  • Rodney Chlebek

    Joe takes a seat with the rest of the assholes.

  • Dave

    Joe Klein: I’m a stupid bumhole.

  • Gregory Shefler

    Seems that moving goalposts is the go-to response in these situations.

  • Richard Wade

    Equivocation is the last refuge of a liar.

    Klein has now shown that he’s not only a bigot, he’s also a coward. It would seem that he didn’t have the courage to get close enough to the “bit of a kerfuffle” to actually read the several lists of facts that show his remark to be dead wrong, and his mealy-mouthed rationalization to still be wrong. It would seem that he only heard about the deluge of outrage from a safe distance, probably from his editors. I would not be surprised if they suggested that he take his “book leave” early, in hope that their angry subscribers cool off and decide not to follow through with their threats to cancel their subscriptions. Too late for me. I wrote them telling them not only to cancel my paper version subscription, but also to immediately stop delivery of it.

    Conscientious and honest people make thorough, unequivocal, and unconditional amends and reparations for their screw-ups. Funny how we don’t see Joe Klein doing that.

  • C Peterson

    He’s pretty clueless about his terminology. A secular humanist is an atheist. That’s what “secular” means in that context. Klein is either an atheist or he isn’t. There are no other alternatives. He need not be an atheist to be a humanist, but he can’t claim some bogus “the jury’s still out” position and argue he’s a secular humanist without also claiming to be an atheist.

  • Houndentenor

    There is ample evidence of organization, so his apology again is full of false information. This, sadly, is what passes for journalism today. No facts. Just whatever narrative the writer wants to tell. Shame on the publishers and broadcasters who have abdicated their responsibility for accuracy.

  • corhen

    Joe Klein went from being wrong… which is understandable and, as long as you correct yourself, not a BAD thing… to Lying which IS a bad thing.

  • Gerry

    ‘Kay, I wrote a letter to Time!

  • eric

    I agree that that’s what the term ‘secular humanist’ has come to mean. But I disagree with you where you say the ‘secular’ is the link to atheist. IMO secular describes those who support separation of church and state. That group can include people of any religion (and none). In fact some of the most vocal secularists in US history have been religious.

    In my mind, the ‘humanist’ part is the link to atheism, but it identifies the person as drawing their moral or ethical position from a consideraton of other people rather than from a consideration of a scripture.

  • Scottd

    You can be agnostic, atheist, secular humanist, or ANY combination thereof. None of those groups are mutually exclusive or wholly inclusive. Hemant, I expect a little more from you.

  • eric

    But, you see, when he said “organized” he didn’t mean the help was performed by any old organization. He meant that it was performed through a church organization. Checkmate!

  • Scottd

    A theist that doesn’t arrive at his humanism via religion is a secular humanist.

  • Scottd

    … not that Klein’s position is relevant to his asshattitude in this case.

  • TCC

    Scottd is correct – secular just means “non-religious.”

  • James Sweet

    Sad. He had an opportunity for a gracious mea culpa, but instead he doubled-down. Now there really isn’t any way for him to not look like an ass.

    He could have even made his point AND admitted he was wrong — saying something about how the visibility is low, etc. I dunno… just sad.

  • James Jackson

    Hemant, your original post is largely the reason for the backlash against TIME and Klein. I saw it quoted everywhere! Thank you for continuing the fight.

  • Sillycaitlin

    I know of one organized secular group that I’m pretty sure helped out in the aftermath of the tornado, they’re called THE AMERICAN RED CROSS. (OK, they’re not exclusively an Atheist group, but I’m sure plenty of secular humanists gave them their time and money because it’s more efficient to help out an organization that already has such a huge infrastructure, rather than trying to form your own from scratch.) Mealymouthed, indeed.

  • Jason Hinchliffe

    “Equivocation is the last refuge of a liar.”

    Best line of the month. Simple and profoundly true.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    My interpretation: “This is the thesis of my forthcoming book, and I’m gonna stick with it in spite of any evidence to the contrary.”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Churches who help out in such situations are not motivated exclusively by altruism. They’re out there marketing their brand. They wear shirts and plant signs advertising their religious affiliation. They get interviewed by Joe Klein. This gives them good publicity to anyone who might be looking to join a church, and also justifies their collecting money from their members.

  • Rain

    Ahhh so he is a secular humanist himself and he was merely lamenting the supposed fact that there aren’t more organized secular humanist organizations today like there were back in the olden days. Okay! (Citation needed though. Citation would be nice, lol.)

  • Cylon

    First rule of holes: stop digging.

  • CodeMonkeys

    Tell that to Shia LaBeouf.

  • JET

    Absolutely. The Red Cross is always the recipient of my donations (money or blood) whenever disaster strikes. I’m sure this is true for many atheists (and many theists) who depend on the Red Cross to get the right kind of help to where it is needed most.

  • Drew M.

    ” What more evidence does he want?!”

    Given his stance, I honestly doubt he understands the concept of “evidence.”

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I disagree that a secular humanist is necessarily an atheist, but Klein doesn’t seem to understand the atheistic epistemology of the last century either, in spite of professing to be an agnostic Jew.

  • Artor

    Joke Line has been writing for a while now. It’s been a long time since there was a way to look at him as anything but an ass.

  • Tobias2772

    You know, Joe’s a dick and I wrote several long letters to him, and TIME citing Hemant’s evidence to help put his feet to the fire but . . .
    Part of the battle that we atheists / secularists / humanists are fighting is a public relations battle. As such, our fierce individuality sometimes hampers our efforts to bring about a world based more on evidence and rational thinking than emotional tradition and unexamined mythology. I wish we could all find more ways of forming organizations that would help us with that PR battle without becoming mindless followers. It is a difficult task, but one that I think would significantly accelerate the growth of the number of secularists in this country and around the world. I am not a big joiner either, but I would be OK with being associated with groups that did not perfectly reflect my views if I thought (and I do) that it would expedite our progress.

  • poliltimmy


  • Free

    The comments by Klein were irresponsible in making sweeping asessments of groups that help in times of crisis. He should apologize for being misleading in painting a picture that secular groups really don’t help much. He should not apologize for inferring that religious organizations carry most of the weight. Studies show accordingly. Ironically, The American Red Cross founded by Florence Nightingale was motivated and established by her Christian roots and the following is her pledge:

    The Florence Nightingale Pledge
    I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.

    This is the pulse of religion and it is needed. If the work of the religious ceases, the world would be in chaos at this time.

  • MD

    Do you like to pull things our of thin air?
    Florence Nightingale was a British nurse that became famous first of her work tending the injured in the Crimean War. She was Christian, but disliked organised religion and respected other faiths.
    The Red Cross was founded by Swiss gentlemen in the 1850′s.
    The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton about 30 years later. She was informally a member of the Universalist church.

  • SeekerLancer

    Stop trying to worm your way out of it Klein. You’re wrong. Own up to it or we’ll keep pestering you until you do.

  • SeekerLancer

    The pledge was written by Lystra E. Gretter and was named in honor of Florence Nightengale.

    Florence Nightengale didn’t say it or have anything to do with it and I have no clue where you got the idea that she founded the Red Cross.

    Also it’s really just a modified Hippocratic Oath for nurses. There are modern versions of the pledge that leave the religious parts out.

  • Cattleya1

    He made a mistake which he is trying to weasel out of… That is bad enough and he needs to be called out on it. However, I cannot believe there were not a couple of editors who let this get into print. Maybe we should point out to the publisher that making snarky comments about a sizable and growing demographic group is not going to win them more readers.

  • Ian Reide

    Coward and buffoon. I would also question the assertion of his article that volunteer work will substantially help people with serious psychological problems. Reads like a puff piece.

  • Houndentenor

    Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes a real scumbag to continue insisting he didn’t even after shown the evidence that he was wrong.

  • Dan Marshall

    “Sure, I was wrong, but let me tell you why I *wasn’t really* wrong.”


  • DougI

    Ahh, so the individual doesn’t matter, it only matters if a group does it. So when Time took the article did they refuse Klein a paycheck because only Klein wrote the article, not an organized group of Kleins?

    His response makes no sense whatsoever.

  • C Peterson

    I disagree that the “secular” in “secular humanist” has much at all to do with “secular” in the sense of state/church separation. They are different uses of the same word.

    Secular humanism is about understanding morals as a human invention, not something given by a god. While you might find a few “nones” who are non-religious theists, I still think that you’re going to find very, very few people who meet the standard definition of secular humanist who are not atheists.

    In his comments, Klein is clearly waffling, and I’m not buying that he’s a secular humanist at all, or that he really understands what that even means.

    And frankly, given that his behavior, both in the original article and in the subsequent “apology” are viewed has highly unethical by most humanists, he’s a pretty poor example of humanism, secular or not.

  • Kiwi Dave

    Yes, he is equivocating. It makes no sense at all to describe the absence of organised groups of secular humanists as funny (i.e. something unusual demanding our attention) and then defend his observation later by saying, but of course we all know they are never organised.

  • Keulan

    So, Joe Klein continues to be a lying sack of shit. Also, he doesn’t seem to understand what the term “secular humanist” means. Fortunately I don’t have a subscription to Time, but if I did this would be grounds to cancel it.

  • Ewan

    “The American Red Cross founded by Florence Nightingale”

    That raises the bar for sheer mind-boggling wrongness, which is quite an achievement on this site. Well done.

  • Ewan

    I’d be interested to know what terms you’d each apply to the Red Cross – is it both ‘secular’ and ‘humanist’, or ‘secular humanist’? Or not one or the other of those things?

  • Goape

    This seems worse than just the shifty back-peddling that I can understand from someone who makes a living selling his own confidence and insight on topics that he simply dabbles in (a journalist). It’s worse because it’s both offensive and largely unchecked by society—it elucidates the ease, and thoroughness with which the non-religious are misrepresented.

    Also, Klein’s rebuttal is simply annoying. It is, indeed, mealy-mouthed (indirect, tentative and possibly deceitful) and Klein seems to admit a need for something spiritual to explain mundane actions. Apparently, to Klein, his belief in some ambiguos but “essential part of citizenship” is all the excuse he needs to defame the actual citizens.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    that is part of what I was thinking about when I made the observation about organized groups of secular humanists not being present in disaster zones

    Ummmm, almost any organized disaster relief group is secular by definition: CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) volunteers, all city, state and county EMT and USAR teams, sheriff’s civilian posses, forest fire fighters, etc.

    Rather than duplicate effort and divide resources by having the “Atheism+ Disaster Recovery Team”, it makes more sense to join an existing group. You show up, declare your skills and resources and the scene commander tells you what they need you to do. This is what small low-resource rescue groups do – Mexico’s “Los Topos” hand-diggers and Argentina’s rubble search dogs often end up supplementing LA county’s heavy equipment squad after earthquakes.

    I didn’t see any Jewish groups out there dishing up the gefiltefish, either. That does not mean Jews were not there, they were just not wearing t-shirts that said “I’m, a Jew and I’m here to help you”.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    That pledge is what Nightingale had her nursing staff recite … before they went to the Crimean war.

    Nurses in her day had a reputation for being slatternly, drunken, and unreliable. She did her best to keep her staff from being see that way.

  • Space Cadet

    Shorter Joe: I’m completely blind to actions. For me to be aware of a groups presence they must sport matching shirts, preferably with an uplifting message on them, neon signs pointing the way to the groups staging area and, if possible, a plane flying overhead dragging a banner with the groups name. Otherwise, you don’t exist.

  • C Peterson

    I’d call the Red Cross secular (in contrast, say, to the Salvation Army), because it has no religious element in its mission.

    I’d not call it a humanist organization at all, since it isn’t about humanism. It’s about providing aid.

  • Erin Moeloa

    I think that Klein–and that pastor mentioned in the Red Dirt article–have a valid point. Should they have truly apologized and not just equivocated around it? Definitely. However, humanists and other non-Christian groups who are participating in community building activities do need to start advertising. Marketing is very important, even if it is something as simple as–yes–a tee-shirt. If the organized groups of atheists and humanists go out into the community for events, maybe they do need tee-shirts and a support van/bus/whatever with a logo, a support tent with signs up. Anyway, do I think it should be necessary for people to ‘toot their own horns’ or have to wear their religious-less-ness on their sleeves? No. However, in the real world, if people don’t see in a five-second sound bite that humanists are getting out and about, they don’t believe that it’s happening.

  • Lenoxus

    Whenever atheists do anything along the lines of marketing, the result is a shitstorm about how the Fundamentalist Atheists are Shoving Things Down Our Throats, coupled with smug reactions along the lines of “See, they’re just as bad as the Jehova’s Witnesses going door to door!” So the whole thing is kind damned it you do, damned if you don’t (which is appropriate given the number of people who assume we’re literally damned).

    Sure, Christian missionaries can take advantage of people in hard times to show them the Good News, but if atheists tried actually telling disaster survivors that they should become atheists too, it would (rightly, I think) be seen as a bad thing. Wearing T-shirts is obviously fine, but even then, folks would start saying “What, you can’t just help people? You gotta be helping people as-an-atheist?” Hopefully said folks could be shown the hypocrisy with respect to Christianity, but I dunno.