Hey Bible Belt believer: Why do YOU persecute atheists?

Confession: I live in the Bible Belt. Even worse, I’m a — gulp — conservative Christian.

But here’s the good news: I haven’t persecuted any atheists today!

Of course, it’s still early, and I haven’t left my house yet. There’s still time for me to track down a nonbeliever, give ‘em hell and chase ‘em into the baptistery.

That’s what we do in (how dare they believe in) God’s country, right?

In case you’re wondering the reason for my sarcasm, CNN’s Belief Blog (which I generally love and praise often … but not this time) just published a piece with this provocative headline:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

I guess this possible headline was too long:

Atheists gather to make fun of religion, lament constant mistreatment by everyone in the Bible Belt

Let’s start at the top:

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.

The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.

They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.

“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.

The Godbeat pro who produced this feature is one of the best at his craft and does an excellent job of presenting the atheists’ side of the story.

I just wish CNN had considered that there might be another perspective. This “survival guide” assumes that the atheists’ assumptions are based in fact. Maybe they are. Maybe not. Or maybe, like a lot of things in life, the truth is complicated.

What’s missing from this story? Any real context or feedback from believers in the Bible Belt on how they actually view atheists.

Instead, we get broad generalizations like this:

[Read more...]

Porn no more: Secular students inviting religious discussion

Gone is the “low-hanging fruit” of years past when the media converged on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus each year to produce titillating stories on students exchanging Bibles and Qurans for porn.

The annual “Smut for Smut” event is no more. In its place are kinder, gentler atheists, in the form of the Secular Student Alliance. The group says it wants conversation, not provocation, and will not revert to its old ways.

Replacing the saucier stories and the reporters behind them is San Antonio Express-News Godbeat pro Abe Levy. He revisited the topic for a Sunday piece on a topic that has gained a lot of headlines — much of them sensational – in recent years.

Kudos to the Express-News for telling a real news story as opposed to the tabloid stuff. Three years ago, that wasn’t exactly the case. From this week’s story:
But times have changed.

This semester, Atheist Agenda renamed itself the Secular Student Alliance, one of 402 groups affiliated with an Ohio-based umbrella organization of the same name. The makeover underscores a national trend in which secular humanist groups have been dropping edgy, insult-minded strategies for more welcoming ones.

The change wasn’t just conscience-based, however. The story quotes one former member who said the old approach would entice people to the group’s meetings only to turn them off.

The strategy is now paying off for the Secular Student Alliance, apparently:

Meetings now attract people of diverse interests, including those affiliated with a religion but seeking a place to question or doubt without conditions, leaders said.

The new group is awaiting approval as a registered UTSA student organization. But weekly recruiting efforts already reflect a kinder bunch of people.

At a small table in the central campus this week, they passed out fliers challenging the ideologies of major world religions. Alliance president Charles Duncan smiled pleasantly and, in an even-handed tone, spoke of how science and reason was a suitable basis for human charity.

“We’re out here just promoting the values of humanism. You can be moral in the absence of religion,” said Duncan, 24, who in 1997 prayed for Christian salvation during a Billy Graham sermon at the Alamodome and officially came out as an atheist two years ago. “Our goal now is to, instead of inciting hostility, we want to engage in civil dialogue.”

Since we’re going there, the story could have been improved with some input from religious folks. This section at the end offered a perfect opportunity:

When Bible Belt atheists go to church

A church service for atheists?

Really!?

Here in my home own state of Oklahoma, that’s the basis for a religion story in today’s Tulsa World. The headline grabs readers’ attention this way:

All souls welcome at church’s morning service for atheists

OK, I’m curious.

The top of the story:

Why would atheists go to church?

Wouldn’t that be like someone going to a movie theater, staring at a blank screen for an hour, and then going home?

Not at all, says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, who this fall started a special service for non-theists at All Souls Unitarian Church.

“These are people who are not inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by Scripture but who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death,” he said.

Lavanhar said the church started the humanist service in September, partly in response to the rapid growth of atheism in society.

“The fastest growing religious segment of our society are those who call themselves non-religious,” he said.

“If I can’t make my case for loving your neighbor without reference to God and Scripture, then I am truly going to miss a huge segment of the population who may find themselves permanently outside the walls of organized religion,” he said.

Keep reading, and the World provides insight into the pastor’s theology and beliefs:

He said he prays regularly and experiences God’s help in his ministry, especially when he is counseling people facing illness or the loss of loved ones.

He does not like to be labeled, which is not helpful, he said, but when pushed, he says he is a theistic naturalist. He believes in God but does not believe in miracles.

He said he does not believe in the Christian orthodoxy that Jesus Christ was truly God in the flesh, but said he has no dispute with people who say they have found a life-changing relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

He said developing a relationship with God is at the heart of what All Souls is about, but he believes Jesus is only one of many paths to that relationship.

Many people who come to All Souls as atheists have not rejected God but their fourth-grade concept of God, he said.

“I say to them, ‘Tell me what God you don’t believe in, and I’ll probably tell you I don’t believe in that God either.’”

That’s all interesting and relevant. But what about the atheists themselves? According to the pastor, the non-theist service has drawn as many as 280 people. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear from some of them?

This is basic Journalism 101 stuff: In a story about atheists going to church, the reporter needs to interview some atheists who go to church, right? Maybe ask them why they wake up extra early on Sunday if they don’t believe in God?

Otherwise, you end up not with an intriguing news story but with a blasé one-source sermon that fails to answer the key question raised.

Image via Shutterstock

Pod people: Digging for old news on ‘Nones’

Friends and neighbors, the whole media world continues to buzz with news (me too, of course) about the “Nones,” that growing coalition of religiously unaffiliated voters that showed up big time in that recent survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This was an important survey, don’t get me wrong. It was also a survey that was packed with interesting angles — many of which get dissected in some depth in this week’s GetReligion podcast — so click here to go listen to that!

One one level, the whole Nones thing isn’t that big of a change in the landscape of American religious practice. The action, it seems, is taking place on the left-to-secular side of things. The bottom line: Lots of people who used to describe the state of their souls by saying things like, “I was raised Southern Baptist (Catholic, Mormon, Episcopal, United Methodist, etc.), but I don’t really go to church much, ’cause I really don’t belief most of that stuff anymore” are now being more honest and saying, “I have no religious affiliation at all” (or less wonky words to that effect).

Is this a new trend? Yes and no.

Four years ago, scholar John Green of the University of Akron, and the Pew Forum team, spoke to a Media Project seminar for journalists from around the world — focusing on religion in the 2008 election. He wrote all kinds of data on the board, but what it came down to was this. People who truly practice their faith make up about 20 percent of the population. People who are religiously unaffiliated (including the slowly rising camp of atheists/agnostics) have been around 10 percent of the population, but their ranks are rising toward 20 percent.

In the middle, the territory I have always called “Oprah America,” are lots of mushy believers who have little institutional commitment to practicing a specific faith. They come and go and their beliefs blow with the cultural winds. What’s the big news? That percentage is down from about 70 percent to 60 percent — because lots of “Nones” are hitting the exit doors.

That’s the news: There is a growing candor on the religious/secular left.

The other angle that fascinated me, since it’s election crunch time, is that this whole “Nones” coalition — secular, plus the spiritual-but-not-religious folks — has become the largest religion-related group in the modern Democratic Party, larger than African-American Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal white Protestants, etc., etc. What unites this crowd? Well, to be blunt, what unites them is the Sexual Revolution and their opposition to cultural traditionalists.

The more I thought about that, the more I had a nagging sense of deja vu. Where had I heard this before?

Well, join me in this flashback to 2004, via one of my old Scripps Howard News Service columns. Here’s a major chunk of two of that:

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include “Curb your dogma” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” … George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They’re not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them “anti-fundamentalist voters” and their rise has been a crucial — yet untold — story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none” when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

“This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics,” said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York. “That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That’s where the real animus is.”

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices — battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and “blue laws” — to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Where was this data coming from?

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the “thermometer scale” used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, “anti-fundamentalist voters” are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating “strong liberals” gave to “strong conservatives” was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as “anti-fundamentalist voters,” along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of “moral liberals,” 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of “pro-choice” voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero. …

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

How did the press handle this trend, back in 2000 or thereabouts?

Surprise! The elite, mainstream press ignored it. Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists and religious liberals. They checked the major television newscasts between 2000 and 2004 and found zero stories on the political rise of the, well, “Nones” and the religious left.

So are the “Nones” new? Not really.

So what now? Someone should interview pollsters in Democratic Party offices. That’s where reporters will find lots and lots of detailed info about this rising force in American politics.

Enjoy the podcast.


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