Matt Dillahunty on religious news writing.

Matt Dillahunty gave a talk at the Religious Newswriters Convention this past weekend.  He was asked to give his perspective on the issues as a ten-minute opener.  He has sent me the text of his talk in case I wanted to post it on my blog.

How could I resist?  Here it is:


“When then-candidate Obama was accused of being a Muslim, Campbell Brown (working for CNN at that time) did a short segment pointing out that he wasn’t a Muslim and followed it up with “but so what if he was”. She “got it”. She understood that the Constitution prohibits any religious test for any public office or trust and that even if Obama had been a Muslim, that should not prevent him from running for – and winning office.

At least not in the ideal world – the voters can use whatever litmus test they like.

When Elizabeth Dole accused Kay Hagan of ‘palling around with atheists’ at a secret fundraiser and ran an ad suggesting that she took godless money which asked “what did she promise in return?”, Campbell Brown again took to the air. This time she pointed out that Kay Hagan was a Christian and a Sunday School teacher at her church.

But, for some reason – she didn’t follow it up with “but so what if she was an atheist” or “but so what if she was raising money with atheists…they’re citizens, too, right?”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she wasn’t willing to defend the minority group that had been shown, by polling, to be the least trusted minority, in the US. I also don’t think it was malice…I suspect that it just never occurred to her. We’ve been a somewhat overlooked minority, as well.

CNN also ran a special segment with a banner that read: “Why do atheists inspire such hatred”? The question is already more than a little problematic and should have read “Why is there hatred directed at atheists?” – because that question allows us to discuss the issue and perhaps conclude, rather than assuming or implying, that the reason is that atheists bring this upon themselves. Or perhaps we’d discover some other reason…it’s hard to tell because…

Who did they get to address this question? 2 Christians, 1 Jew and no atheists.

Things are getting a bit better. Some of you may have noticed the ‘exploregod.com’ billboards around town. KEYE interviewed the man behind the billboard funding as well as a local pastor and then they interviewed me. After 30 minutes of talking about the subject, I was asked something along the lines of “I guess what I’m really getting at is, don’t you think this is all a waste of money?” – And that’s when I knew what the story was going to be. Never-mind that I’d said that I support the initiative (I’m actually participating with a local church). Never-mind the actual subject they’re wanting to explore (and exploring god is one of the things that lead to my atheism). They had a story they wanted to tell.

So I explained that yes, it probably could be viewed as a waste of money – especially as that money could go toward the homeless problem in Austin or other endeavors, but that I didn’t really object on those grounds as atheists had also put up billboards and there are many things that I support which others might consider a waste of money. I believe I also noted that both churches and atheist are spending money to help the homeless.

They used that quote. Well, they used the first part of the quote, where I’d said it was a waste of money. The story they ran? Internet zillionaire puts up billboards, 325+ churches think it’s awesome, this atheist thinks it’s a waste of money.

Well, at least they’re asking for our comments now – though it probably has more to do with the fact that I’m friends with the pastor they interviewed than that they’re actually interested in what the non-believing community thinks about these subjects.

There’s a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn. Supreme Court Justice Breyer, acting as a swing vote, struck down a Ten Commandments display in a court room in Kentucky while allowing the one on our lawn to remain. Why? Well, in addition to claiming that it was part of a larger secular display (and one can only conclude that he’s counting the grass and the sidewalk as secular – seriously, grab a photo journalist and snap a wide-angle picture of it, finding the larger secular display is more difficult than finding Waldo) he basically invented a grandfather clause, noting that people complained about the one in Kentucky immediately but because no one complained about the one in Texas for 50 years, it can stay.

He should be ashamed. No one complained because there was risk and a clear bias against atheists. It’s a difficult fight to fight. This is secular nation, but it has a clear bias toward Christianity that makes it unpleasant to challenge religious favoritism. Our constitution serves to protect minorities from the whims of the majority and the Supreme Court should honor that.

I applaud Thomas Van Orten for bringing that case – which he should have won. I also applaud my friend Jessica Ahlquist who, at the age of 16, complained about a prayer banner in her public school (a case which she won). She endured – and continues to endure – mountains of hateful abuse, including being called an “evil little thing” by her elected State Representative Peter Palumbo.

But I also thank Justice Breyer for telling us what we needed to do – complain: early and often. For clarity, let me inject here that the complaints aren’t about offense, they’re about the law and about ensuring that all citizens are represented fairly and that they don’t walk into a court room or the legislature feeling like they’re second-class citizens merely because they don’t share the religious convictions of the majority.

This isn’t about offense – no one has a right to not be offended. This is about a proper separation of religion and government that attempts to rectify the marginalizing of non-Christian religious and secular citizens of this secular nation.

Our Governor doesn’t have to check his religion at the door when he takes office, no one does, but they do need to make an honest attempt to represent all of their constituents and that means that there are some limits on the potential entanglements between the person and the office.

When Gov. Perry wrote terrible things about secularists in his book about the Boy Scouts, I didn’t object on the grounds of church-state separation (which Amanda Knief has encouraged me to start referring to as separation of religion and government, and I concur), I merely objected as a voter who is saddened that our governor not only doesn’t care to fairly represent his secular constituents, but actively despises them. The same isn’t necessarily true when he declares a day of prayer and fasting for rain (on a side note, the prayers didn’t bring rain…but a massive atheist convention in Houston just a few months later, seemed to do the trick.)

It’s no surprise that he wrote this while supporting the Boy Scouts. As a private organization, they can – and do – discriminate against atheists and homosexuals. They have that right, though they shouldn’t be permitted public funds or favors for their Jamboree while exercising their constitutionally protected bigotry.

Regarding the proselytizing cheerleaders, I keep hearing that the claim is that they paid for the banner and the school has no right to encroach on their free speech rights. Well, those cheerleaders have school-sanctioned outfits that they have to wear when they’re cheering and I’ll bet the school would trample all over their free speech right to dye the skirt to the opposing team’s colors or to wear a bikini top and body paint that read, ‘our faculty sucks’. I’ll also bet that their free speech rights would be halted by the school if those banners had profanity and racist comments on them. I’m pretty sure I could pick some Bible verses that wouldn’t be implicitly improved by the school. So let’s stop pretending that this is about free speech or free expression. They’re representatives of their school and the school explicitly or implicitly approves the message they convey.

They’re free to bring their banner out on the street. They can stand here on the steps of the Capitol (provided they schedule the space) and raise their banner – no matter what it says – and preach until they’re blue in the face.

Students have to deal with bullying and ostracizing for everything from the way they look to who their friends are. The faculty shouldn’t further enable this by portraying the image that this public school is endorsing one religion over another or over none. The people wanting to proselytize in schools are counting on the fear of ‘othering’ to encourage kids to conform and play along with the religion of the majority.

Whether we’re talking about cheerleaders proselytizing at school-sponsored events, ten commandment monuments, prayer banners in schools or any other potential 1st Amendment case, I’d encourage reporters to do the following:

- If you’re going to talk to a minister. Consider talking to an atheist as well…or instead. (After all, we’ve been excluded when our comments would have been relevant).

- If the conversation is about the boundaries of church/state separation…talk to experts. And, for the record David Barton isn’t an expert, and neither are the people who parrot his views. There’s been far too much misinformation bandied about by armchair lawyers in clerical garb. This isn’t a Christian nation, it’s a secular nation…or at least it should be.

- Do some investigation. There’s a lot of talk about what the founders wanted and a lot of it is simply false. The Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by Congress in 1797, clearly states that the United States is “in no way founded upon the Christian religion”. But it’s also worth noting that the most important view of the founders is that we should not be bound to their views. They built a secular nation that permitted change and correction of the things that they got wrong – like slavery and denying women the right to vote.

I’d love it if more reporters were willing to inject some education into the news. I know it’s not the job you necessarily signed up for, but our schools need a little help.

Thank you.”

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • NotAProphet

    Awesome and inspiring!

  • Art_Vandelay

    I think that the biggest reason that we get such poor treatment from the media is that when you look at some of the other minorities, the distinct difference is that theists simply can’t grasp the idea that atheism isn’t a choice. They think that theism is the default position and we just decide to be atheists out of rebellion. If CNN ever wrote a headline, “Why Do Blacks Inspire So Much Hatred”…I think that would be a huge deal and they come out looking really bad. The reason of course is that having no control over the pigmentation in your skin…you can’t actually be consciously inspiring opposition to it. I even hear atheists talk about the time they decided to become atheist, citing some corruption in their church for example (as if the actions of a church have anything to do with whether or not a God exists). If people ever realize that we can’t just choose our beliefs and we have no control over what we observe about the universe…only then will it change. The ones that don’t change will come out looking like the bigots they are.

    • Aaron Arm

      I think you’re making some pretty large generalizations by equating a believe system to race, and labeling it as something “we have no control over.” Race, gender, sexual orientation, and similar labels are indeed innate traits that one simply cannot change.

      However, a belief system is not some superficial characteristic that society ascribes to us. On the contrary, it is something to which people subscribe. Granted, a genuine belief is not something that is easily changed. Given enough experience and conviction, a belief can become permanently embedded in one’s ideology. And yet, I’m still hesitant to say that “we can’t just choose our beliefs.” People DO formulate their own beliefs. That’s how they come to be believed. Maybe you, along with many others, have realized that there is no possible way you could ever change some of your beliefs… and that’s fine. But I’d also caution against referring to a belief as something fixed and unalterable–is that not the cause of many of the world’s ills?

      • The_Physeter

        I think the biggest deal here is that so many Christians think atheists don’t really exist. All people actually know in their heart that God is real, you see, and anyone who says otherwise is lying because they want to sin or is mad at God for some reason. So Christians don’t just think we can choose our beliefs, they think we MUST have chosen our beliefs to deliberately rebel against them and their god.

        • Gehennah

          That and “you only are an atheist because you love to sin,” arguments are two of the more lazy ones out there. Closely followed by the whole “if you don’t believe in god then you can’t know anything.”

          • Zinc Avenger

            My response to “you only are an atheist because you love to sin,” is “you only are a Christian because you love to sin and want to tell yourself you’re forgiven afterwards”.

      • Aaron Wilkerson

        So, Aaron, you subscribe to direct doxastic voluntarism and accept the proposition that people can believe something at will?

        http://www.iep.utm.edu/doxa-vol/#H3

        I’m curious regarding your focus on one changing their mind when the issue is more about choosing a belief, regardless of what antecedent beliefs may exist.

        I do not think the comparison of belief to race/sexuality hinges on the notion of whether or not it is provisional, but whether it is *by choice*.

        • Aaron Arm

          I do not subscribe to the notion that genuine belief is a matter of preference, which is why I consider Pascal’s Wager (for instance) fallacious.

          If I seemed to argue that beliefs can be frivolously chosen or changed, then perhaps I didn’t articulate my thoughts very well. I would contend, though, that one’s beliefs are affected by choice to some degree. I’ll clarify:

          When it comes to beliefs of the philosophical, ethical, metaphysical, or even scientific, there is a certain logical progression one must undergo. These progressions often occur or are refined over time, during which conscious (and subconscious) decisions affect the outcome. For instance, when evaluating the evidence (or lack thereof) for a deity, people may choose to accept or reject certain evidence; they may cherry-pick some notions over others; they can choose when to stop looking into the issue and settle upon a conclusion. Again, these are not always conscious, but there are choices that guide us in our convictions.

          Now, I also understand that once someone has strong, genuine convictions in a belief, that belief is not a choice. It is, in a sense, a personal truth that is not willfully changed. I absolutely agree on this point.

          My issue with equating it to race is probably more a matter of social implications. Race is a social construct; the color of one’s skin does not carry any inherent meaning outside of what we assign to it. Beliefs, on the other hand, ARE intrinsically meaningful. They are the impetus behind social constructs and values. So I’m just not sure I can get behind using race (gender, sex, etc.) as an analogy for belief within the context of social justice. The best way I can verbalize it (sorry to repeat myself) is that one is ascribed unto us, while the other is what we subscribe to.

          For the record, I COMPLETELY agree with Matt Dillahunty. Theistic and atheistic views should be a non-issue in U.S. politics, and I’m ashamed at how atheists are arbitrarily dismissed. My contention is more semantic and philosophical than anything.

      • Art_Vandelay

        Yeah…it’s definitely not as simple as saying “You can’t choose your beliefs.” The word belief to me has no meaning if it doesn’t equate to what you actually think. Our brains are engines that take in observations and experiences about the material world. I think that most people’s brains work in such a way that what they think is dictated by those observations and experiences and they can’t just flick a switch to make themselves think things that don’t stand up to empirical or logical evidence. All they can do is practice wishful thinking. So religious beliefs are mostly a product of childhood indoctrination with a little fear mixed in but what exactly keeps those beliefs intact as you grow up and view things about the world that don’t mesh with your inherited beliefs? Mainly, it’s confirmation bias…emperor’s new clothes type shit. Basically, you can chose to say what you believe and you can also trick your brain into believing certain things about the universe by ignoring things like evolution by NS, the vastness of space and time, the consistency of natural laws, etc. I don’t see the atheists doing any of that though. I also don’t think that a belief is something fixed and unalterable…not even close. However, until a god-like thing makes an appearance and proves that it created a 950 trillion light-year sized universe, my atheism is indeed as fixed as someone’s skin color, gender, or sexuality.

        • Aaron Arm

          Very fair.

      • Matt Dillahunty

        First, Atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s a position on the assertion, “some god exists”. Second, belief is the result of becoming convinced (for good or bad reasons) and simply isn’t a “choice” or “something that is adopted” in any simple sense.

        I’ll agree that beliefs aren’t fixed and unalterable – that’s just flatly wrong. As someone who believe in a god for more than 25 years and who regularly hears from people who have stopped believing, in part because of the efforts of our show, I have plenty of evidence that the various assertions about the uselessness of engaging believers is simply unjustified pessimism which, I suspect, is the result of small sample sizes and confirmation bias.

        • Aaron Arm

          I know that atheism is a non-belief, or as I like to think of it, a default position. I wasn’t using the word in regard to a theistic system of belief, but as a more general term for one’s convictions. Moreover, I was responded to Art’s comment.

          And I’m glad to see you’ve retained optimism over the years. I imagine that’s what continues to keep you motivated!

    • Domush

      “theists simply can’t grasp the idea that atheism isn’t a choice.”

      Where do you get this notion? Do you honestly think atheism is genetic? Of course it’s a choice. Asserting that belief is a result of prior choices and is therefore not a choice is utterly narrow thinking.

      An analogy would be the claim, “Drunk driver deaths aren’t a choice because the drunks are impaired and can’t choose to be unimpaired.” While technically accurate in the most narrow scope imaginable, if you back up a single step, the choice of driving while drunk, you have _chosen_ what precipitates the result.

      The choice to employ critical thinking or not is what leads to belief or non-belief in God claims. That choice is utterly conscious and not an inescapable inevitability.

      When asked if you believe in a supernatural controlling being, you weight the factors and make a decision. How you choose to analyze the world and the claims of people determines what you believe and what you do not. The choice is always there.

      Seeing as your initial premise is flawed, responding to the rest of your post is made moot.

      • Art_Vandelay

        Sorry but you’re wrong. I don’t “choose” to apply critical thinking. It’s just the way my brain works. It is indeed genetic. I can’t trick it into interpreting the observations and experiences that I’ve had in a different way. I can lie and say that I believe something that I don’t but I have no control over the conclusion or the variables which have led me to it.

        • Domush

          Are you being funny?

          I must be unique, seeing as I have changed my beliefs on a great many things since birth. I must have really malleable genetics. I hope I don’t change my beliefs one day and become an alligator. That would be awkward.

          Changing your beliefs doesn’t require genetic manipulation. To assert that is just absurdity. When theists become atheists there is no gene-splicing or radiation involved.

          Non-critical thinkers don’t require gene therapy to become critical thinkers. And what of cognitive dissonance? Is that like an internal incredible-hulk-like transformation?

          When you watch a fantasy movie and suspend disbelief in order to get into the storyline, is genetic manipulation required then, too?

          Are you going to require gene therapy to figure out genetics have nothing to do with changing your beliefs? Come, now.

          • Art_Vandelay

            Again, I don’t think beliefs are unalterable and can’t be changed. If what I observe about reality changes, than my beliefs can certainly change and they have. I hold my beliefs to constant examination.

            Let me use an example that JT uses a lot. Let’s say that I’m standing on the roof of a tall building looking down and I’m confronted with the choice to jump or not. From what I’ve perceived about reality, my brain has been convinced that gravity works consistently in a fashion that I will be pulled down towards the earth at a rate which would probably kill me. I can’t just choose not to believe that gravity works that way because I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe the contrary. It’s not my fault that I’ve never seen people walk off of buildings and just flutter innocuously to the ground. I have no control over that whatsoever. However, if I do start seeing people defying gravity like that, I would happily consider that the laws of the universe may have been altered in some way and change my beliefs about gravity.

      • Derrik Pates

        Atheism isn’t a choice. It’s a conclusion one reaches upon observing that the world around us works basically as one would expect if there were no deity running things.

  • bob84123

    Has this site been compromised? I just visited it and an alert box came up saying “you just won an Apple product!” (or similar) then I was redirected to another page.

  • David

    The animosity against atheists comes from the fact that the religious are TERRIFIED by the fact that there is no immortal life after death.


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