By James A. Haught
The modern freethought movement is gigantic. Thousands of skeptic organizations, magazines, websites, books, online blogs, student secular chapters, videos, podcasts and other voices spread the message that supernatural religion is absurd – that gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies, divine visitations and other church dogmas aren’t real. In other words, it’s a bunch of lies.
But America has a strange contradiction: Mainstream magazines, newspapers, television shows, radio programs and other general media rarely allow a direct challenge to supernatural faith. They cover demographic trends such as the decline of churchgoing, and sometimes they report about atheist groups, but usually they won’t publish frontal assaults saying religion is false.
I think it’s because they’re mostly for-profit commercial businesses dependent on advertising and/or subscribers. They have multitudes of Catholic and Protestant customers who would stop paying or listening if insulted, causing severe audience and ad revenue loss.
As a longtime newspaper editor in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, I know the dilemma first-hand. Years ago, a syndicate agent visited our newsroom. I told him I’d like to write a national atheist column. He choked on his coffee. I knew my proposal was impossible. No newspaper would print such a column. We couldn’t even print it in my own paper. We would lose thousands of subscribers, maybe sink into bankruptcy.
(Print media especially is an endangered species these days, barely clinging to life. Hazards must be avoided like the plague.)
Since for-profit mainstream outlets are forced into silence, our nonprofit freethought movement lives mostly within its own realm, greatly aided by the wide-open Internet. We have freedom to speak in our own domain, but aren’t fully welcome in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, etc.
However, religion is dying in the United States, in the same manner that a secular tsunami swept Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and elsewhere. American churches have lost 20 percent of their members in the past two decades. About one-fourth of adults now say their religion is “none” – and for young adults, it’s one-third. Eventually (I hope) “nones” may become the largest category.
In other words, we skeptics are winning the cultural struggle. Scientific-minded honesty is prevailing. Maybe this snowballing trend eventually will force mainstream media to open its doors.
As for now, commercial media doesn’t dare assert that religion is hokum. But our freethought community can. We don’t depend on religious subscribers or goods-selling advertisers. We can proceed full steam ahead to proclaim rational truths, without risking losses. We are free to act – driven by convictions, not by the profit motive – thus the “free” in freethought has multiple meanings.
A great social transformation is occurring in America. Supernaturalism is withering away. The Secular Age is blossoming. And our freethought movement is delivering the message, while for-profit public media cannot.
(Haught, longtime editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, is a weekly contributor to Daylight Atheism.)
Image credit: Willem van de Poll via Wikimedia Commons