What Did We Learn from CNN’s Special Report on Atheism?

Last night, CNN aired an hour-long special called “Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers“:

Since the documentary was clearly targeting an audience that knew nothing about atheism, let’s ask the only question that matters: What did those viewers learn when they stepped into our “world”?

  • In many places, it’s really hard to be an atheist: The story of David Gormley, an atheist living in Georgia with very religious parents, was both heartbreaking and inspiring. He talked about being the “black sheep” of his family for his views, with some relatives not even talking to him anymore, but he’s turned into a great leader for his campus atheist group. It was tough listening to his parents talk about how he’s destined for eternal torture when David’s worst crime is asking tough questions and following the evidence where it leads. His story is undoubtedly echoed in so many places.
  • There are clergy members who don’t believe what they’re preaching: One who spoke to CNN did so only behind a cloak of anonymity. That these atheist preachers exist isn’t news to readers of this site, but it may have come as a shock to casual viewers. (The Clergy Project got a nice shoutout during the special for providing a place for atheist pastors to anonymously share and discuss their doubts.)
  • Jerry DeWitt is one courageous guy: For admitting he was an atheist, he lost damn near everything great in his life. It was hard to watch his segment without feeling sympathy for what he went through.
  • Richard Dawkins isn’t as scary as I thought: I thought Dawkins came off especially likable during his interviews, offering blunt but honest reasons for why people are averse to the “A” word. If you went into the special thinking he was an awful, hateful person, you may have been surprised to see a “softer” Dawkins.
  • Atheists want to recreate a church environment: Between Jerry DeWitt and Greg Epstein, there was a lot of footage showing godless versions of church — but the people who attend those services represent such a small fraction of atheists. The vast majority of us are happy to have left church for good and we don’t need or want anything resembling that again.
  • Atheism is a white man’s game: You can count on one hand how many minutes of the program featured someone who wasn’t white or male. It wasn’t until well near the end of the program when Vanessa Zoltan was featured in a segment. (C’mon, CNN! My phone is permanently glued to my hands. Call me!)
  • A lot of misinformation: David Silverman said that about a third of Millennials were atheists. That’s just flat-out wrong. It’s true that about a third of people under 30 have no religious affiliation, but the bulk of them still believe in a higher power (including the Christian God) or at the very least something spiritual. Silverman also said later in the program that mainstream media would never allow him to talk about how religion is wrong… even though there are plenty of channels and programs where mocking religion is par for the course. Just look at the late night lineup on Comedy Central or Bill Maher on HBO. Finally, Jerry DeWitt also said that Silverman believes religious people are stupid, something Silverman doesn’t say or believe.

I’d love to say this was a comprehensive look at atheism, but it didn’t even come close to that. It was a peek into a few select towns, not a glimpse into our world.

That said, as far as portrayals of atheists on television go, host Kyra Phillips offered generally positive ones through this special. It could’ve been much worse. I guess they’ll just have to do a follow-up.

(Contact me, CNN.)

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