NPR Evening Newscast Promotes Atheists With Message of Holiday Intolerance

December 19th, 2006 6:57 AM

As the religious holidays commence, people who preach tolerance worry that religious (or non-religious) minorities are left out. As Christmas approached and Hanukkah began on Friday night, National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" devoted a story to atheists, but not just any story. It was a story about atheists who feel that ridicule and intolerance of religion is just what this country needs. The message was simple: atheists look forward to when "religious tolerance is no longer tolerated."

Co-anchor Robert Siegel began: "Atheism has never gained much of a foothold in the United States. Barely one percent of Americans describe themselves as atheists. Now, a small group on nonbelievers has a new approach to getting their message out, challenging the faithful with a fiery rhetorical blend of reason and ridicule, especially ridicule..."

"New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written that this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is intolerant and mean toward conservative Christians. Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR's On the Media, reports on the new atheist offensive."

Gladstone’s report sympathetically argued that atheists are misrepresented in the media. She dug up quotes of CBS’s Bob Schieffer and Katie Couric, and even NPR’s own John Burnett saying versions of the claim there are "no atheists in foxholes." After the president of American Atheists, Ellen Johnson, complained that it’s just not true, NPR’s Burnett apologized. "I thought it was a good line for the tape...and I didn’t realize it was so offensive to atheists, and I learned that in spades after the story came out. They spammed me for weeks with e-mail saying we’re outraged. So now I know...I will think twice about using the phrase again."

Cyber Alert noted Schieffer’s apology back in 2003.

Gladstone also implied that TV entertainment programs are too nice to religion. "So if the news media aren't sensitive to atheists, Hollywood must be, right? I mean, the political right says it's so gay and liberal and irreligious." She suggested to David Shore, the producer of Fox’s medical show "House," that he wasn’t biased enough against religion as Dr. House picked faith healers apart in an episode: "I think you were pulling your punches there, weren’t you?" She added: "Hollywood usually pulls its punches on atheism. Mostly, TV atheists are lost souls." Her next example was the old series "Dawson’s Creek."

Atheist author Sam Harris expressed anger that "Dawson’s Creek" would have a dying unbeliever tell her daughter to have tolerance, that most people need religion to give their life meaning.

Harris: "The idea is that while I don't need religion and you don't need religion, everyone else does. Everyone else is still living in childhood in some sense and it lacks compassion to wake them up into adulthood. That is condescending."

Gladstone: "Harris says the only way to win is to keep up the pressure until religious tolerance is no longer tolerated."

Harris: "I think the criticism of irrationality just has to come from 100 sides all at once. In the entertainment community, maybe you'll just have people making jokes that are funny enough and true enough so as to put religious certainty in a bad light."

After a clip of Stephen Colbert joking that atheists are brave, since they’re willing to be roasted by Satan, Harris continued his sermon:

"One day someone in the White House press corps will hear the President of the United States express some certainty about being in dialogue with the creator of the universe and he or she will ask a question which should be on everybody's mind - you know, how is this any different from thinking you're in dialogue with Zeus?"

Gladstone: "That day is far off. But Harris has a great deal of faith in his fellow man."

Harris: "I'm hopeful that journalists and people in the entertainment industry are waiting for the permission to express their doubts, and I think that permission is coming. I mean I'm trying to do what I can to engineer it in my hardheaded and boorish way. And I feel, just from the contacts I have in both industries, that there's a profound sense of relief that comes with hearing somebody call a spade a spade."

Gladstone did include Gary Wolf of Wired magazine arguing that "the polemics of new atheism can be just as nasty as the fundamentalists." She also used a clip of "South Park" making fun of the atheists for being jerks to religious people. But she concluded with Stephen Colbert joking at the Emmy Awards with the line "Good evening, godless Sodomites." She concluded: "Harris may have no tolerance for the gospel, but as an atheist trying to enlist Hollywood in his crusade, Colbert's greeting has to sound like some kind of good news."

A longer version of Gladstone's story appeared on her own "On The Media" show over the weekend on NPR stations. The transcript is here. It added sociologist Penny Edgell discussing how surveys show parents hate the idea of their children marrying atheists, that poor, disrespected minority.

It's just sad that a show on the media allows the transcript to suggest that CBS has a reporter named "Bob Sheefer."