Freshening atheism up

The-Atheist-monsterBarbara Bradley Hagerty, who inspired this young cub when I heard her speak at a college newspaper conference and often gets rave reviews from the GetReligionistas, is a bit of a religion reporting rockstar. And her reporting is usually spot on.

Her five-minute report for NPR on the war within the atheist movement was no exception. Lets start with what’s really, really good about it:

Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.

Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.

“I wouldn’t want this on my wall,” says Stuart Jordan, an atheist who advises the evidence-based group Center for Inquiry on policy issues. The Center for Inquiry hosted the art show.

The rift is one of philosophy and strategy: Do atheists want to be outspoken and abrasive, like the godless monster pictured, or do they want to be soft and cuddly and love the people they disagree with? Does this sound familiar to any other religious folks out there?

Bradley Hagerty talked with a volunteer at the Center for Inquiry, Stuart Jordan, who prefers the old model:

“It’s really a national debate among people with a secular orientation about how far do we want to go in promoting a secular society through emphasizing the ‘new atheism,’ ” Jordan says. “And some are very much for it, and some are opposed to it on the grounds that they feel this is largely a religious country, and if it’s pushed the wrong way, this is going to insult many of the religious people who should be shown respect even if we don’t agree with them on all issues.”

Before I move on, I should offer a quick disclaimer. Bradley Hagerty’s story was well-reported, as usual, and informative and in no way belied her own religious beliefs or opinions of atheism. In fact, it was a very good story, and, as a Christian and a religion reporter, I broke a smile the moment I heard NPR tease to it. Excellent religion reporting is too rare an occurrence, and, with how infrequently general media outlets look in on developments in the atheist community, excellent writing about atheism appears, maybe, every few months.

My only criticism is that this story, like so many of the stories that seem to get my GetReligion attention, was a bit past its best-buy date.

Looking back through The God Blog archives, I found this post from last year about an “atheist ‘coming out’ party” and this one from 2007 that refers to the growing pressure to be a “real atheist.” Again, this should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been part of a religious community.

When I went back even farther, to November 2006, I found no mention of this atheism schism in a lengthy Daily News feature I wrote about the explosion of evangelistic atheists.

It’s not clear when this “bitter rift,” as NPR calls it, pushed a chasm between two atheist camps. Bradley Hagerty, who resurrected this story by finding recently meaningful developments to fasten a big-picture piece to, pointed to PZ Myers’ recent desecration of a communion wafer and a coup last year within the Center for Inquiry that ousted founder Paul Kurtz, and to those de-baptism ceremonies and the atheist art show she opens the story with. (No mention of Mr. “Religious,” but the self-styled anti-religion pioneer probably doesn’t mind.)

Religion reporters and editors are always in need of evergreen stories. The lesson here, demonstrated by a veteran, is that even evergreen stories require the right timing. Though maybe NPR waited a few days/weeks/months too long on this one. Religion News Service is already reporting on the new New Atheists — “Atheism 3.0.”

Their belief? “There’s still no God, but maybe religion isn’t all that bad.”

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  • Molly

    Why all this undeserved praise for Hagerty’s hatchet job? It’s sloppy, unethical reporting that switches around quotes at her pleasure and gets simple facts wrong.


    She said Myers desecrated the Communion wafer for Blasphemy Day, Sept. 30. He actually did it on July 24, 2008. This is easy to find, and kind of important since she mentions the gravity of his act in the 15,000 hate mails he received.

    She gets the title of the painting wrong. It’s “does his nails,” not “paints.” Not a big deal, but this was also easily done right if she put in two seconds of effort, and it betrays her inattention to factual honesty.

    She builds up a dark mystery where there is none, and paints CFI as a shadowy organization that won’t let employees talk. Twice she does this, stating plainly that Jordan can talk freely because he’s only a volunteer, and alludes irresponsibly that interviews were canceled at the last minute by CFI management. The truth is that the artist and two employees elected to not be interviewed on their own.

    If you listen to the story and read along with it, you can easily see that her printed quotes have been reorganized to fit the story better. The problem is, when she writes “‘XYZ,’ so-and-so said, ‘ABC’,” that’s not what he said. The first rule you learn in J-school is when you write “he said” you make darned sure that that’s exactly what he said–or else you’re flat-out lying. She didn’t change (too many) directly quoted words, but she did alter the flow to say things how she wished the interviewees would have said things in a perfect world–and that’s ethically unacceptable by journalism purists.

    As for the direction of the segment, it was clear that she was trying to discredit the growing atheist movement by hyping an ongoing discussion as a “bitter rift.” She says herself that she is not objective, and that she writes through the lens of Christianity–and it shows.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Huh … I noticed the Myers discrepancy but thought she must have been referring to a second incident.

  • BlackSun

    The whole accommodationist debate is all about softening the blow against religion. It’s a fallback strategy for those who know they have no decent arguments. If in-your-face atheism is self-defeating, then stop worrying about it. It will fall on its own arse and religion will triumph.

    But that’s not what’s going to happen. Aggressive atheism has made huge inroads in the popular culture, and the accommodationists are trying to mount a political comeback. They’d like to make “Atheism 2.0″ seem passe.

    Sure, some people might continue to find safety in numbers and the cheap soporifics of majority belief. Some atheists will always prefer not to offend. Some high-profile atheists will even make public religious conversions.

    But for a growing number who prefer truth over comfort and intellectual integrity over popularity, the cat’s out of the bag.

  • michael


    I don’t think you were here for the protrcted discussion of Bradley Hagerty’s three part report on God and the Brain. Suffice it to say that not all of us think she’s a ‘rockstar’.

    Unless by rockstar you mean superficial, which I suppose is befitting of the New Atheism. It is anything but serious.

  • Ram Bansal, the Theosoph

    You are projecting Atheism as a work of some monster, while it is a philosophical issue, much beyond the head of monsters. I am a determined Atheist but never challenge anybody having faith in a religion.
    I only oppose public display of religious fervor.
    Ram Bansal

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  • FrGregACCA

    And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.

    And this is “atheistic”? How?

    Reminds me of the old painting depicting Christ’s blood being collected in the Holy Grail. All kinds of Eucharistic connotations.

  • Stoo

    Atheists vary in their views and tactics, but talk of schism suggests some kind of lost unified approach that was probably never there in the first place.

    Some atheists might have noticed this “blasphemy day”, lots didn’t care or even notice.

  • Patrick Oden

    I don’t see anything noteworthy in the current ideas or approach to atheism that looks New or ’2.0′ or ’3.0′ to me. There have always been the leave-me-alone-type atheists and the in-your-face-type atheists.

    I suspect the ‘explosion’ or recent popularity in outward atheism is more because of the great advances in technology over the past several years rather than any new ideas in atheism.

  • Dave

    What I don’t understand is how some atheists think they are advancing the cause by being as offensively confrontational as the worst examples of religious behavior they abhor. Some reporter should ask them the old question from third-grade metaphysics, “Would you jump off a cliff just because everyone else is doing it?”