The Non-existence of Non-belief in American Media (Jan/Feb 2003)

Do you recall who was the only positive character on a prime time network TV series who was an atheist? [Answer will be found at the end.]

My point, of course, is that while thousands of characters have been portrayed in prime time over the past 50 years, only one was depicted as a confirmed non-believer!

While the United States has the highest percentage of believers in God of any Western nation–90% who identify themselves as such in most polls–this also means there are at least 30 million non-believers: a number probably closer to 40 million when we factor in those who are so fearful of admitting their non-belief, even to an anonymous poll taker, they feel forced to identify themselves as believing. (In Europe, similar polls show non-belief at about 40%–with a quarter in even the most religious nation, Ireland, counted among our ranks. In other words, the U.S. is up there with official, Third World Muslim theocracies in its percentage of believers!)

Think about this: Forty million non-believers are a group second in numbers only to the Catholic Church, and half-again as large as the Southern Baptists. Yet, we remain all but unrecognized by a media as fearful as are those secret atheists, of giving us the recognition our numbers should merit.

These are the same media which constantly reiterate that religion is never evil. Religion, they tell us, with all pandering sincerity, demands peaceful conduct. Yet, these also are the same media which report on religiously-induced war after religiously-induced war–and never seem to note the contradiction between what they report and what they espouse.

In fact, virtually all of the 100-plus conflicts since World War II–indeed, almost all of the wars throughout history–have had religion at their core. Yet, despite all this evidence to the contrary, our media keep on promulgating the myth of the bible as a pacifist treatise, ignoring in the process the deaths inflicted by its allegedly loving God on all those Egyptian first-borns, and all that righteous smiting of all those non-believers.

In a related vein, why is it that news reports will invariably dwell on those rare instances when a Satanic tract is found in the bedroom of some killer–but never report the bible’s presence in what must be the overwhelming majority of the homes lived in by those tens of thousands of Americans who also commit homicide each year? I know I’d have no problem about the media getting so riled up about that rare Satanic pamphlet, if they railed equally about that thousand-fold greater presence of The Good Book! Even more disturbing is the lack of media indignation over the literally hundreds of murderers each year who assert that the Bible or God or Jesus gave them direct instructions to go out and kill.

* * *

The most important thing to bear in mind in an examination of why the media do what they do, is found in the focus group research which has increasingly come to determine the content they carry. And what that research invariably shows is that those who are exposed to messages they disagree with and/or simply don’t want to hear, will tune out or stop supporting those media that tell them such things. Of all the areas which might engender such reactions, none will be reacted to more fiercely than expressions of religious non-belief.

Thus our media will ignore non-believers, or subject them to dismissal as irrelevant, evil or just plain weird in those instances where we can’t be ignored–such as when we serve as the plaintiffs in suits alleging violation of church/state separation.
There are now in the United States some 1200 radio stations that identify themselves as “Christian.” Also, some 100–mainly marginal UHF–TV outlets. The fastest growing commercial radio format today is so-called Christian rock. However, there’s not one station, radio or TV, which advances the beliefs–more accurately, the non-beliefs–held by those 40 million of us who, for all practical purposes, are not acknowledged to exist!

But at least when we’re talking about self-identified “Christian” stations, or stations which program a Christian music format, listeners and viewers know what they’re getting. Yet, there for a while, was Chicago’s WBBM, the CBS/Infinity-owned all-news radio station, carrying the daily commentary of the ultra-fundamentalist James Dobson, and billing it simply as “Focus on the Family.” While it serves as a platform for his biblically-inspired, rightwing social, sexual and sexist views, the program is presented without any identification of who Dobson really is, so that it comes across as if he were just another lifestyle advisor with no particular axe to grind. I’m not calling for any mainstream station to drop his commentaries. That would be censorship–and all censorship, whether of us by believers, or believers by us, is always wrong. What I am asking, rather, is that he be identified as the fundamentalist theologian he is.

One of the strangest bromides which our news media accept is that debate about religious belief is off-limits. Not its advocacy–just debate! The result is a granting of carte blanche access to those on one side of the issue, while denying any to those on the other. More and more newspapers are adding full-time religious writers. And the stories and weekly columns that they generate seldom acknowledge the faithless, except to denigrate us.

Were it up to us, I suspect, here’s the way the most common media scenario advancing religious belief would play out: Let’s say a plane crashes. Two-hundred-fifty die, but two survive. When interviewed, those two survivors will almost invariably credit their escapes to God–and will thank Him for their survival. But wouldn’t it be a really neat exercise of unbiased journalistic responsibility, if the reporter then asked: Since He has used His Almighty power to save you but didn’t do so to save the 250 others, then can I assume you’ll also be blaming Him for their deaths?

Yeah. Right. Or, as we would say back in the Brooklyn of my youth, “Fuhgeddaboudid!”

Let’s look at one of the most common feature stories which ran in the aftermath of 9/11: the large-scale increase in attendance at houses of worship. I mean, just think of the absurdity. Millions of people rushing into churches and synagogues to show their deepening faith in order to thank an almighty and merciful Lord God–who, almighty as He is, Let It Happen!

However, can anyone recall any news story, any column of commentary, or any interview, where the logical questions screaming to be asked, were ever put to a worshipper or cleric–questions such as, what is it you have faith in, what good do you expect your prayers to have with a God who is all-knowing, or what exactly, given the 3,000 deaths on 9/11, are you thanking Him for?

But, I can recall local newscasts where the anchors reporting about such religious services–as on the National Day of Prayer that George Bush proclaimed–were quite literally ordering their viewers to go to some house of worship! (None, of course, ever pointed out that the proclamation of a government-sanctioned prayer day might be deemed as coercive by those 40 million of us they refuse to recognize even exist!)

In my nearly 20 years in Milwaukee, I can recall only one instance in which a mainstream medium argued the absurdity of such religious illogic.

That occurred eight years ago, when a truck crashed into a van driven by a fundamentalist minister killing six of his children. In various interviews following the accident, the minister proclaimed that their deaths only increased his belief.

The irrationality of this profession of faith was actually questioned in the old morning newspaper, the Milwaukee Sentinel. Crocker Stephenson, now a regular columnist for the merged Journal Sentinel, but back then a reporter who was filling in for a regular columnist, wrote about how he handled it when his son asked him how anyone could thank God after seeing his family wiped out. Stephenson couldn’t see it either–and that was the tone of the column. Keith Spore, now the publisher of the merged paper, but then the editor of the Sentinel, was out of town when the Stephenson column appeared. When he finally read it a few days later, he reamed out the paper’s managing editor for having permitted it to run.

Don’t think there isn’t a lesson here that everyone writing or editing at the Journal Sentinel will remain forever aware of!

But then, how often have we heard federal office holders–the President, cabinet members, senators and members of Congress–ask (make that “insist!”) that we pray while throwing in a command to the Almighty to bless America? Yet, have you ever heard or read any print or broadcast journalist reporting these pandering calls for piety, point out that the Constitution explicitly requires that no person occupying a federal office be required to pass a religious test?

Despite this, however, there recently was George W., sounding more like a bishop than the chief executive of a nation whose constitution forbids imposition of religious tests, insisting that while “government can write checks, it can’t put a sense of purpose in people’s lives. That is done by people who have heard a call and who act on faith. We ought to welcome it into governmental programs.” Steam may have been coming out of our ears–but not a peep of protest was there from the press!

Then there was the abominable coverage in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco Federal Court of Appeals decision declaring unconstitutional requirements that the Pledge of Allegiance, with its insistence that we are a “nation under God,” be recited in our public schools. With a very few notable exceptions on the print side–e.g., Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn–and in everything I saw on TV, the focus was on the outrage of those who opposed it.

I mean, can any of us forget the endless repetitions of that assemblage of Republican House members amassing on the steps of the Capitol to shout out the Pledge? And let’s not forget the threat by the Orthodox Jewish Senator, Joseph Lieberman, that if the Supreme Court does not overturn this decision–as you’ve got to be na•ve not to believe it almost certainly will–he would introduce an amendment to the Constitution asserting it is our belief in God that unites us as a nation. If he did, does anyone doubt it would sail through both houses of Congress and virtually every state legislature? Did it occur to no one reporting or commenting on this to note that that declaration of unity would exclude 40 million of us?

Within one hour of the time the Pledge decision came down, the Senate stopped all business to vote on a resolution demanding it be overturned. It passed 99 to nothing–with even such good guys as the late Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold voting for it. Over in the House, only three out of 435 members voted against condemning the decision. Here in Milwaukee, listeners could hear one of our highest-rated FM stations pimping for God with its request that listeners e-mail in a “Pledge for the pledge!”

Let me quote from the opening of one of my media commentary columns which I write for Milwaukee’s alternative weekly, the Shepherd Express, shortly after the Pledge decision. It concerned the way Jay Leno dealt with it in his monologues:

“Jay Leno has got to be one BFI–the ‘I stands for ‘Idiot’–with his endless jokes about the Court of Appeals decision declaring public school recitation of a phrase within the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. Forget his basic ignorance of the facts–it was a federal, not a California Court; it was a 2:1 decision, not one made by a single judge; it did not ban school recitation of the pledge, but only the words, ‘under God.’ His references to the judge as a ‘moron,’ elicited shrieks of audience approval similar to those he gets when he jokes about the sufferings of those facing execution.

“Jay: Polls show at least 30 million Americans are non-believers–probably 40 million what with those afraid to admit non-belief even to an anonymous poll taker for fear of ridicule from people like you. Should students who find belief in God irrational, be forced to recite an oath that talks about liberty, and then denies them their liberty to deny their belief? If atheists were the majority, would it be right to force believing kids to take a pledge denying the existence of the Almighty? Isn’t that what we hated them Godless Commies for?

“Teaching acceptance of God, Jay, is the job of believing parents, churches, mosques, synagogues and religious schools. It’s not the job of public schools supported by taxes paid by believers and non-believers. That’s all those ‘moron’ judges were saying. Not to mention that other ‘moron,’ Thomas Jefferson.”

Incidentally, if we look at what polling data show, we’re not just fighting against the respectable superstition we call religion, because we’re fighting against folks who believe that belief in the deity is such an axiomatic truism, that when asked by pollsters if the phrase, “One nation under God” is a religious endorsement, 80% say it isn’t. But, if a statement acknowledging the existence of God is not an expression of religion, then what do those folks think religion is?

The answer is that for the overwhelming majority of Americans, it means being Catholic, or Jewish, or Baptist. But since nobody could possibly doubt the existence of God, acknowledging His existence is not religious. Thus, the situation so many of us non-believers have experienced when admitting our atheistic views: “But,” the response will invariably be, “you have to believe in something.” Thus, it’s not just that those folks disagree with us, they deny us even the possibility that we could not believe in God.
Let’s look briefly at how three recent stories–each involving religion–are playing out: the debate on stem cell research; the fight over taxpayer support of religious schools; and the imposition in defiance of federal court orders in at least a few Bible Belt states, of requirements that the Ten Commandments be posted in public schools, courtrooms and in other public buildings.

Has anyone in our media, in writing or reporting on the stem cell controversy, dared to label the argument that a clump of undifferentiated cells is a human being, for the absurdity which it is?

Why is it that whenever the religious school voucher issue came up, the image we invariably saw is one of a bunch of cute little, poor black kids, with their parents demanding to know why anyone would want to deprive their children of fine religious schooling? What I saw in Milwaukee on the local evening newscasts the day the Supreme Court decision accepting the constitutionality of using tax-paid vouchers came down, was exactly that. Can you think of a more effective image to drive away guilt-ridden white liberals, many of whom would otherwise be up in arms about such a violation of church/state separation?

And whether we’re talking newspapers, local or national TV reports, or late night comics, when it comes to the Ten Commandments, the overwhelming take is to wonder how anyone could ever object to public display of something as noncontroversial as what’s called for in those 10 rules–with virtually no one noting that four of them require belief, or condemn non-belief, in God.

The media have, at best, been trepidatious about the role which religious believers have played in reinforcing our pro-Israeli stand in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I’m not talking about the support of most Jews, who in their religious beliefs run the gamut from secular to Ultra-Orthodox–but, rather, Fundamentalist, Evangelical Christians. Some 60 million Americans hold apocalyptic beliefs. But, according to Scripture, before Jesus can make his second visit, the Jews must first return to the whole of the Biblical Israel–meaning they must seize all Palestinian lands. In other words, we must support Israel, according to those who, ironically, have traditionally held the most strongly anti-Semitic views, in order that the world can be destroyed. Whatever the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby, its influence is multiplied when its positions are backed without question by those who dominate Bible Belt politics. But the coverage and analysis of this phenomenon by a mainstream media afraid to offend 60 million Born

Again readers, viewers and listeners have been, at most, tentative and obscure.

* * *
There’s little I’ve written to this point, I suspect, that any reader will disagree with. But, at the risk of upsetting more than a few, let me give my answer to the question about what can be done to change how our media treat religious matters. And that answer is, virtually nothing! (We did have a brief chance about 300 years ago during the Age of Enlightenment–but we blew it.)

Science may be advancing. But as every survey shows, our ignorance of its most basic aspects is increasing. We’re talking, after all, of an America where not only do at least 85% accept belief in God, but over half deny evolution, two-thirds believe in literal angels–Time magazine actually ran a cover story seriously exploring whether they exist–and where we split about 50/50 on astrology and alien visitations. That’s why most newspapers run astrology columns–and even PBS once lent credence to the anti-evolutionists with a documentary purporting to present the scientific case for creationism!

We’re also talking about an America where, despite those Constitutional barriers to imposition of religious tests, any candidate admitting non-belief is dead in the political water. But then, remember that 99-0 Senate vote! After all, any senators who saw the logic of what the Court of Appeals ruled, could also foresee what their opponents’ campaign spots would say when they come up for re-election, if they’d voted “No.”

And that’s the kind of thing that convinces me nothing can be done to change the media’s carte blanche acceptance of religion as valid.

Where, I’ve got to wonder, are those stories following the voucher decision, about the precedents it sets for a whole range of state-supported religious activities? There, after all, was George W. in a speech the next week, proudly proclaiming that the door has now sprung wide for what will become a host of state-sponsored and financed, faith-based initiatives.

Where are the stories pointing up, for example, how those caught up in the criminal justice system might well find themselves facing a choice of prison time or placement in programs where they can retain their liberty only by professing belief in religious doctrine? This, proponents of such programs will insist, does not forcibly impose religious belief since, as a felon, you have the choice of enrolling or of going to jail. That, after all, was the tortured logic at the core of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the voucher case! Therefore, as bad as things are, with George Bush at the head of the religious tub-thumpers, things will get a lot worse!

O.K.–if only to save our sanity, let me suggest how we can, maybe, register a small impression upon our media. E-mail, mail or call them when you encounter something you find unbalanced. But a couple of caveats, please!
First, if it’s the same handful of folks responding over and over again, they’ll quickly be dismissed as those “atheist nutcases.” Try to marshall a large number of responders and keep them varied.

Second, keep the responses relatively brief. Impassioned non-believers have a penchant for engaging in tedious epistemological treatises. Logic–if not God–may be on our side. But what you have to say ain’t gonna get read or listened to, if it goes on interminably.

In any such communication you should concede that, yes, you are aware that only a small number will register protests. But then stress to the gatekeepers–that is, the editors or news directors–with whom you’re communicating, that they shouldn’t be dismissive of our numbers. Point out that there are, after all, 40 million of us who reject religious belief–two-thirds as many as there are Catholics–and that we’re deeply concerned over the lack of representation given our views. Point out also, that it doesn’t serve the newspaper’s or the radio or television station’s interest to ignore such numbers, since non-believers buy cars, soap and hemorrhoid remedies, too.

On a positive note, I have to concede that it was a pleasant surprise when, in response to his diatribe condemning the judges who wrote the Pledge decision, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass–Mike Royko’s successor–found himself quoting from what he seemed clearly surprised were the protest letters he did receive in response to that column.

Having said this, however, I must say again that I’m sadly convinced that the major benefit of any protests we register will be to provide us the opportunity to vent some of our frustration. It won’t change anything!

Them other folks, after all, have us coming and going.

Indeed, we don’t even get the last laugh. That’s because were they right, that would mean that when we die, they’d lord it–no pun intended–all over us. Whereas, if we’re right–as we certainly are–we’ll never have the chance to say, “See, I told you so!”
Answer to the question at the opening: Ruth Ann, the elderly shopkeeper on the CBS series, “Northern Exposure.” The late Peg Phillips, the actress who portrayed her, was, in real life, an atheist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation