Atheists create a Facebook page

What do you need to do to get featured in the New York Times? Just get a Facebook group of about 800 people, apparently. The website Stuff Journalists Like noted a trend of journalists who love the social network.

There are two types of journalists – those who use Facebook and those who don’t get Facebook. Those of the latter often dismiss cell phones and power car windows.

Not since the phone book has there been a tool journalists used more than Facebook.

Facebook is a favorite tool for journalists to find stories, and it just takes is a page to attract some attention. Last week, Bobby noted what looks like an increased number of puff pieces on atheists. His post nicely prepared us for the Times profile of black atheists, a group the paper just discovered and found it best to fit in front of Sunday’s style section.

Ronnelle Adams came out to his mother twice, first about his homosexuality, then about his atheism.

“My mother is very devout,” said Mr. Adams, 30, a Washington resident who has published an atheist children’s book, “Aching and Praying,” but who in high school considered becoming a Baptist preacher. “She started telling me her issues with homosexuality, which were, of course, Biblical,” he said. “ ‘I just don’t care what the Bible says about that,’ I told her, and she asked why. ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ It got silent. She was distraught. She told me she was more bothered by that than the revelation I was gay.”

This is a fairly dramatic lead to the story that only serves as a mini anecdote with no further explanation. What was the path he took from considering being a Baptist preacher to becoming an atheist? From the opening, you might guess it has something to do with his sexuality, but the piece doesn’t flesh that out, making the lead anecdote a lazy way to get into a flat story.

In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like “Godless and Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.

Listen, a Facebook group of 879 members for something is basically nothing. I understand this is in the style section and may not need a hook, but framing the story with these numbers makes it seem like it’s some sort of trend, when 800 really isn’t that many for a place like Facebook.

While some black clergy members lament the loss of parishioners to mega-churches like Rick Warren’s and prosperity-gospel purveyors like Joel Osteen, it is often taken for granted that African-Americans go to religious services. Islam and other religions are represented in the black community, but with the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian.

This is stated with authority but with little to back it up. Why not attribute this to anyone?

Given the cultural pull toward religion, less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, according to Pew. Black atheists, then, find they are a minority within a minority.

I don’t doubt that this story is true. It would probably be difficult to be nonreligious–especially atheist–in a black community. It just annoys me that the Times would print something so obvious. If there were a mass trend towards atheism in the black community, I might find it more interesting. But nothing in the piece taught me anything new about faith, race or culture, and breaking new ground is where I would hope the paper would devote its resources.

Simple photo via Shutterstock.

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  • sari

    “But nothing in the piece taught me anything new about faith, race or culture, and breaking new ground is where I would hope the paper would devote its resources.”

    I disagree, Sarah. You may consider it a puff piece, but I see it as educating a broader base and forcing them to question their assumptions. The piece lacks data points to back up its assertions, but it’s also a stereotype-buster. The biggest problem I saw was with the first example, mainly because many of the GLBTQ people I know are irreligious as a result of being condemned by their respective faiths (and, sometimes, family). So it might have been better to lead off with someone whose journey has been a little more clear cut and not possibly influenced by sexual orientation.

    Those interviewed shared a perspective rarely heard, either inside or out of the African-American community. I have seen similar religious coercion among the Orthodox, especially those who live in enclaves, where deviance from the religious norm is the kiss of social death. Should the public be left unaware because the numbers are small? Does it matter that like-minded individuals are finding each other through social media?

    Fourteen years ago my eldest was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, somewhere between Autism proper and Aspergers. Living in an area with no resources, I turned to the Net and found a forum, then only a few years old and with probably a hundred members, mainly over-educated Moms whose kids were like mine. That forum now has hundreds of thousands of members. The diagnosis, once considered rare, has become quite common as such things go. The membership is much more varied (and the level of discourse lower), but small starts can blossom and should not be discounted by size or membership alone.

  • rob in williamson county

    Alhough Sari’s point and example is quite logical, I feel that we need to examine this story in the general context in which religion is presented in the NYT (usually superficial, sometimes with an outright mocking point of view). The NYT has a reputation(deserved, I think) of going out of its way to undermine religious faith–and I think highlighting a “trend” toward atheism falls into its usual pattern (although they present it from a more unconventional angle).

  • Jon in the Nati

    I actually feel much better about this piece than about the previous one detailed by Bobby (though I did disagree with some of his analysis). The other piece had a bit of a dog-bites-man feel to it: “This just in: some people, for various reasons, do not believe in a deity.”

    This piece at least has a hook, a kernel of a good story: atheists in a community which, at least more than most, a reputation for outspoken religiosity. Like Sari, I feel that it suffers primarily from two things: it does not cite any data points at all to back up its conclusions, and it leads off with someone whose religious views (or lack thereof) were probably influenced by his sexual orientation.

  • http://Norwegianshooter.blogspot.com Mark Erickson

    “making the lead anecdote a lazy way to get into a flat story.”
    Do you Get self-awareness? No, because you started your story with the fact that some people like Facebook, then wrote this: “It just annoys me that the Times would print something so obvious.” And then there’s this ” nothing in the piece taught me anything new about faith, race or culture” I already knew GR was dismissive of both the Times and atheists. Would you mind teaching me something I don’t already know?

  • http://Norwegianshooter.blogspot.com Mark Erickson

    And what’s with this homo-teleology? The gay causes atheism? The opening doesn’t suggest it. That’s your bias: “must be a reason he’s an atheist”. As if thinking the Bible is silly isn’t an easy conclusion to come to.

    And you don’t even know your newspapering! A style section piece needs a hook, but not a lead. And this hook is good, btw. Really good. Get A Clue.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks, Jon in the Nati. I think this is important:

    it does not cite any data points at all to back up its conclusions, and it leads off with someone whose religious views (or lack thereof) were probably influenced by his sexual orientation.

    Those are pretty crucial parts of the story.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    What about Bobby’s contention in his previous story? Does this story need a religious counterpoint to keep it in perspective?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Ray,

    The previous story had a very strong contention that atheists suffer persecution and harassment from religious people. My point was that there needed to be other perspectives (religious sources, experts, etc.) rather than just quote “victims” telling us they’re “victims.” At the same time, there needed to be some concrete evidence (poll data, stats, etc.) to back up the anecdotal claims.

    This story, at least, cites some actual data concerning African-Americans’ religious leanings, and quotes at least one expert discussing this (it seems) from outside the perspective of atheists themselves.

    At the same time, even the Baptist mother in the lede seems to be portrayed in a fair light: she believes what she does and this is why. The atheist in the lede does not seem to be portraying her as a bad person, but rather as a person who believes the Bible teaches certain things. Would quoting the mother have been nice? Sure. Was it essential? Probably not.

    Sorry to ramble, but I fear you misinterpreted (and maybe that’s my fault) my point in the last post.

  • Ted Olsen

    You need to fix your kerning in that lead image.

  • Dave

    I don’t dispute the journalist shortcomings of the piece, but non-theistic African Americans are nonetheless news. And if organized Black Atheism becomes a force in the religious spectrum, the Times has been present at the creation.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Bobby… you didn’t just ask for “concrete evidence (poll data, stats, etc.) to back up the anecdotal claims.”

    You complained that “No one who believes in a higher power get to react to the atheists… No traditional theologians are enlisted to discuss whether, in fact, the atheists are becoming a religious group.”

    So, in this case, should they have brought in a traditional theologian to ask if the Facebook pages represent the beginnings of a new religious group?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Ray,

    Sure, ask a traditional theologian: Is this a support group or a quasi-religious body? Would the term “evangelical atheists” apply?:

    In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like “Godless and Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.

  • http://www.nature.com Agnikan

    Black atheists aren’t all that new. They go back to slavery times, when some slaves rejected Christianity, and religion in general, due to the fact that the slave-master’s Christianity seemed so unjust.

  • Stan

    Echoing Sara, Jon complains that the story “leads off with someone whose religious views (or lack thereof) were probably influenced by his sexual orientation.” So? What is wrong with that?

    The journalist probably should have explained the connection between sexual orientation and rejection by religion (or at least by Baptists), but the lead with the anecdote by the gay man who had to come out to his devout mother twice (first as gay, then as an atheist) is a great lead.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Bobby –

    Sure, ask a traditional theologian: Is this a support group or a quasi-religious body?

    Why not an expert on support groups?

    What makes you suspect that this is a ‘quasi-religious body’, anyway? What specific traits raise that question in your mind?

    (Or is any group of atheists ‘quasi-religious’ until ‘proven innocent’?)

  • sari

    Ray,

    “Why not an expert on support groups?”

    I agree. Why not a sociologist (or anthropologist) of religion? Or a professor of religion? Any of these should be conversant on the characteristics and dynamics of an emerging belief system. Few theologians can stand outside the confines of their own faiths to render an impartial analysis.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I agree. Why not a sociologist (or anthropologist) of religion? Or a professor of religion? Any of these should be conversant on the characteristics and dynamics of an emerging belief system. Few theologians can stand outside the confines of their own faiths to render an impartial analysis.

    Again, I say, “Sure.” Interview some experts. Ask some questions. Include some more voices beyond victims telling us they’re victims. Show some journalistic skepticism. Write a news story, not a puff piece. That was, and remains, my point.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Bobby –

    more voices beyond victims telling us they’re victims

    Just curious – is there ever a case when the word of a ‘victim’ can be taken at face value?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Just curious – is there ever a case when the word of a ‘victim’ can be taken at face value?

    Probably. But in most cases, a journalist will want some evidence to back up or put in proper context claims of victimization.

  • sari

    Bobby,
    How does the reporter quantify prejudice and persecution, especially when it’s applied to the individual and perpetrated by his or her own co-religionists? This is a serious question, because, growing, up I heard majority person after majority person downplay the consequences of others’ behaviors, especially as regarded people’s treatment of African-Americans. I saw it at when, three days after my wedding, our central Florida synagogue and a half dozen others were covered in the most hateful graffiti, actions which local law enforcement refused to designate as a hate crime. I saw and continue to see it at my kids’ schools, where a teacher must witness the event before the tormented is taken seriously.

    Why bother interviewing people if you refuse to take what’s said at face value? Must an objective observer be present to testify to the veracity of the allegations? I have no doubt that the “victims’” stories are true, simply because I’ve been on the receiving end -and- because I’ve seen members of other minority groups treated in similar fashion by “Christians”. In the end, interviewing experts boils down to interviewing people who gathered lots of little histories. The person who documents case histories assumes that the truth is being told.

    I could be wrong, but it feels like many here believe that Christians are simply incapable of bad behavior and that the interviewed are outliers looking to profit somehow from a little free publicity from a religion-hating reporter. Another perspective might be that many Christians do indeed act inappropriately when they encounter non-believers and that these behaviors should be addressed.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Mark Erickson

    The “hidden due to low comment rating” is hilarious. I’ll wear it as a badge of honor.