My Old Kentucky Homesite

Am I My Godless Brother’s Keeper?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 08/16/2010

OK, gang. I’m going to throw a few philosophical questions out there into the ether, and I’m hoping that some of you will weigh in.

Please bear with me while I give you the background.

This past Saturday, for the fourth fucking time, our local silly atheist submitted an answer to a “Question of Faith” on the “Life + Faith” page of Lexington’s Daily Rag. His softball drivel appeared along with six responses by “representatives” of various Christian churches hereabouts. The editor’s poser was fraught with Christian assumptions: “Why does our society ignore our day of rest?” In other words: Watch for the Ten Commandments to be appearing soon in a courthouse or public school near you.

The LSA’s printed answer was kinda dumb, but that’s not the point. The fact that he began by saying, ‘As an atheist …” (thereby inplying that atheists had an official position on “the day of rest”) was really infuriating, but that’s not the point either.

The point is: What the fuck is he doing on the “Faith” page?

I wrote him a harsh email suggesting, among other things, that he tell the editor to take her slanted questions and shove them up her ass (although, I recommended that he not use my specific phraseology). I said that he was hurting Lexington’s freethinking community with his responses.

Today, he wrote back, telling me that I had made a “wildly unfounded accusation.” Wasn’t my reaction, he asked, based merely on a “dislike” of what he’d written?

I replied:

[T]o answer your question: The reason I think you’re doing harm to the freethinking community is that you’re inadvertently giving the newspaper an out as being “balanced.” Every time your responses appear on the “Faith” page, you give the editors a further opportunity to claim how “fair” they are to non-theists. Maybe we — all of us atheists, Humanists, skeptics, doubters, secularists, call us what you’d like — ought to make a concerted effort toward being given an occasional opportunity to state our views in a journal that’s heavily weighted toward religion, Christianity in particular. Many of the writers there push a Christian agenda: [I named a few columnists who are frequent cheerleaders for Jesus]. And if there’s any excuse whatsoever to include a church event on the front page as news, some reporter will jump at it. I think we should all get together to lobby for a “Reason” feature once in a while, or, at very least, a chance to appear on the Op/Ed page semi-regularly. Not on the “Faith” page. Maybe the H-L could start a monthly column called “Voices of Reason” (fat chance!) or something that gives a genuine nod to those of us who don’t believe in any gods. Then, you could write about whatever you choose to discuss, rather than answering questions that, essentially, push a religious agenda. That’s my main complaint: When you respond to [the editor’s] highly slanted questions, you appear to be buying into her assumptions. It doesn’t really matter what you write, because her smug “truth” is already contained in the way she couches each topic. It’s a lose-lose situation for an atheist.

You and I are part of a small community of reason here. Whether we like it or not, we do speak, somewhat, for one another. Since we’re vastly outnumbered, each of us has some responsibility to all the others. The majority tends to view a minority — particularly one it fears — as an entirety, judged through the words and actions of any member of that group. When you write for the “Faith” page, not only do we as a community gain nothing, but we are all genuinely hurt by appearing to sanction the Herald-Leader’s constant clarion call to espouse religion. That’s not your fault, because you’re only one person, as you do point out. But you’ve been thrown a poisoned bone by [the editor]. You don’t get to have any input in the topics under discussion; you’re always forced to react to her set of nonsensical “givens”. And you’ve been placed in the unenviable position of speaking for all of us.

Because there’s no other public atheist writing at that newspaper, you’ re its personification of Lexington atheism. And, as such, you’re giving a thumb’s-up to the perpetuation of the “Faith” page and, indirectly, the rest of the Herald-Leader’s superstition-soaked reporting.

Please don’t take this personally, because I’d write exactly the same note to any self-identified atheist who chose to write for a “Faith” page. Atheism isn’t a faith. It’s freedom from faith. Let’s not put ourselves into the position of seeming to agree that faith should be given any credence, whatsoever.

After I sent and reread (yeah, I did them in that order) what I’d written, I wondered if my opinions were really indicative of any godless consensus. So, I’d like to find out. Since you readers are clearly representatives of the best and the brightest among heathens, I’d like toask you:

1. Is there any circumstance under which it would be a good idea for an atheist to respond to a tendentious question on a newspaper’s “Faith” page? If so, what might that circumstance be?

2. Do you agree or disagree that the vast majority of religionists generally judge all atheists by the words and actions of any publicly recognized atheist? If you agree: Do we have some kind of responsibility to one another not to say or do things that make us look like idiots? Or is that too much of a burden for us individualists to place on ourselves?

3. In an area dominated by crypto-Christian newspapers, radio stations, and television channels, how can we atheists get ourselves a booth in the marketplace of ideas? Do we have to wait for the freethinkers’ equivalent of the Stonewall raids before we’re given an opportunity to state our case in the mainstream media, or is there some more reasonable way to coax news publishers and broadcasters into granting coverage to our ideas?

29 Responses to “Am I My Godless Brother’s Keeper?”

  1. As a barbecuer, I think…

    1. To use the opportunity to attack the value of faith.

    2. Only if the atheist says anything they can use, otherwise no, which means an atheist shouldn’t say or do stupid shit or else they’ll hold it over all our heads.

    3. Hitchens has the right idea, be outspoken and controversial. That’s what gets attention. Friendly atheists rarely get press, unless it’s to be used by Christians (see #2).

  2. Philly:
    1. Sounds good, but at the H-L, the responses are edited. Not only is the question itself loaded, but the answers can be tampered with.

    2. I agree. Maybe I should have phrased my objection differently: “[E]ach of us has some responsibility to all the others not to say anything dumb.”

    3. I’ve been trying to get the local atheists to do something slightly controversial, like holding a March for Reason. No takers. One friend, who’s kind of a rabble-rouser herself, wants to get some of us around the state to ask Frankfort to declare an Atheist Day. I’m all for it, but I’ll bet dollars to Entenmann’s donuts that a large proportion of freethinkers in Kentucky will say “that’s too confrontational.”

  3. cl said

    You make me wonder sometimes:

    1) Sure; to point out that one’s interlocutor has offered a tendentious argument as opposed to an actual hamburger.

    2) I can’t speak on how “the vast majority of religionists” reacts to “all atheists.” The question itself is absurd. Regarding responsibility to others, if you have it, you have it. If not, you don’t. End of story. There is no “should” or implied social contract amidst a band of rogues.

    3) DIY. Instead of bitching at other atheists who don’t handle the cause the way you think they should, be the change you want to see in the world. The “March for Reason” idea you mentioned seems like a step in that direction.

  4. I don’t see any point in writing responses for publication which are subject to prepress editing. That fact alone nips this whole thing in the bud. As for your Kentucky fellows, they time and time again sound pretty sackless. I’ve seen the same thing from gays. It comes from fear, which is born from a long time of being held down. Imo, there are three reactions to that, sit and take it, humbly request some small “favor” from your oppressor, or outright defiance. In the gay community, all of those who’ve argued for civil unions (and a lot of that arguing has been with those who fight for same-sex marriage) are indicative of the second option. The so-called friendly atheists are like that as well. It’s clear where you and I fall.

    The jackass is right about one thing, we don’t know what the vast majority of religionists think, we only know they’re generally pretty sackless too because you rarely hear objections to the rantings of the extremists. We’re left to assume those ranting are speaking and acting on behalf of the vast majority.

  5. 1. No, because who even reads newspapers now?

    2. Religionists will judge all atheists by the actions of one just as atheists do of believers. Every non-believer voice should be heard. It’s the cummulative effect of all the voices of a cause that affects change.

    3. What you’re alluding to as mainstream media (newspapers, radio, TV) are fading as the ultimate news sources. Few people under 45 or 50 are getting information from those media outlets. You’re wasting your time pursuing coverage there. Any message you want to send to others needs to be done through blogs and social media and other Internet sources. That’s where people are getting today’s information and that’s where all the dialogues are taking place. That’s the same advice I give to businesses who want to get their marketing messages to the right people.

  6. To a certain extent, you’re tilting at windmills, especially in Kentucky-ville. I would bet that most people at the paper consider it a true advance in their idea of civilization to even include and atheist on the Faith page. Not long ago we would have been simply ignored, so I understand the inclination to take whatever hand is offered to the atheist and run with it, refusing to bite that hand in the process.

    But, to answer your questions, seriatim:

    1.Given the above, I’d say every opportunity should be taken, prefacing every answer with your objection about being on the Faith page in the first place, and the underlying assumptions of the question. If they edit that out, stop responding when they ask, and start your own paper. (the problem is, they’ll always find someone somewhere who’ll be willing to answer.)

    2. Yes. But again, qualify your response with something along the lines of “I can’t speak for all atheists…” etc.

    3. You might try a direct approach. On behalf of a purported organization, or even just yourself, ask to meet the editor or local publisher face to face. Most editors come out of schools of journalism, and might be receptive to a free speech argument in which you offer to do a column on reason. Bring facts and figures showing that people “of reason” are a sizable percentage, and the paper is not addressing their concerns. Don’t call it an “atheists column”, but don’t be shy about making atheism a natural result of the use of reason. Address non-religious issues of the day, and slowly build religious angles into it. Hell, I know you, of all people, could write a subversive column that doesn’t even mention the word “atheism”, but gets the point across anyway. You’ll have Christians deconverting en masse, and not even knowing why.

    If that doesn’t work, start your own paper.

  7. the chaplain said

    SI may be on to something. Charles Chilton Moore and the Blue Grass Blade need a worthy successor.

  8. Now that looks like an interesting paper. On $1 per year, and “Edited by a Heathen in the Interest of Good Morals”. A paper I could subscribe to.

    Mainly because I’m cheap, and a buck a year is irresistible.

  9. 1. In answering the question, the respondent should profess outrage at the absence of a licensed Völva officiating over the Blót held at the public hörgr.

    2. As in so many situations, the individual most likely to proffer his opinion is desirous of the title of “reasonable” attached to whatever group name he wishes to represent. In this case, he wants to be a “reasonable atheist.” This implies that the non-accomodationists are unreasonble.

    3. In a way, it’s like selling fresh fruit in the red light district. The kind of people who shop there will not be interested in your wares. As far as Stonewall raids, it seems to me that the only place it is illegal to be an atheist is in any of the three branches of the national government.

    at the H-L, the responses are edited.

    I’m no journalist, but taking things out of context can dramatically alter the meaning.

  10. cl said

    …we only know [the vast majority of religionists] are generally pretty sackless too because you rarely hear objections to the rantings of the extremists.

    Uh, where’s the logic in that? We know “the vast majority of religionists” are “generally pretty sackless” because [PhillyChief and whoever else he was mysteriously alluding to with his vague pronoun] rarely hear objections to fundie loons?

    Gimme a break.


    …qualify your response with something along the lines of “I can’t speak for all atheists…” [to Larry]

    Yes, I agree, and would also suggesting omitting pronouns and out-of-scope quantifiers.

  11. Yeah, I hear Christian voices speaking out against discrimination of gays all the time, as well as objecting to blocking stem cell research, stunting science education, oh, and they’re incredibly vocal now defending the Manhattan mosque. And let’s not forget the word was religionist, not Christian, so let’s see what the masses of Muslims are saying about honor killing and murdering cartoonists….

    You’re really struggling. Out of practice, perhaps? Not that you were really very good before, but you usually could do better than this.

  12. Cl:
    1. Pointing out the tendentiousness of the question is probably not an option, because the questioner is also the editor of the page. But, judging from the LSA’s responses to my emails, I doubt that he ever attempted to do so. Maybe it would be effective.

    2. There’s an atheist community here, as manifested through several groups that hold regularly scheduled meetings. I think that when people organize for any purpose, there is an implied social contract. Yes, it’s a loose contract. But among non-theists who belong to any of the groups here in Lexington, there’s some implicit acknowledgement that we have a common cause. I’m not just talking in the abstract; the Bluegrass Coalition of Reason (a blanket organization) has made plans to put up billboards.

    3. If two or three people could be called a “March,” we could have one tomorrow. But to get even as many as fifty, more of our local non-theists would have to be willing to come out of the closet. Lexington seems to be unlike many other midsize cities: there are relatively few non-theists, even among those who are vocal at meetings, who are willing to publicly commit themselves about their freedom from faith. So, although those people do seek out others who are similarly skeptical about religion, and although they sometimes even sign their real names to emails, they don’t want to be “photographed at an event.” So the prospect of a march or a rally seems highly unlikely.

    I can’t speak authoritatively about the prepress editing specifically here at the Herald-Leader. There’s no generic “rule.” I’ve written for newspapers and magazines that have checked with me even for small changes (like a period instead of a semicolon). I’ve written for other publications that have made changes to reflect “house style” or address “space considerations” without doing any damage to my content. And I’ve written (usually only once) for others that have edited so as to misrepresent my original. (I had one idiot editor who cut and pasted from an extremely negative review I wrote, so that the printed version seemed to say that I was merely neutral about the performance.) I’m not prepared to cast any aspersions on the prepress editing here because I have no evidence one way or the other.

    I agree with the rest of your comment. But sociologically speaking, majorities do tend to “demonize” minorities. A quick glance at U.S. history provides plenty of examples.

    1. You’re right.

    2. You’re right.

    3. You’re dead wrong. Look at the impact of Fox News on the national dialogue.

    1. If a persom writes for the Faith page and begins by pointing out his or her objection to being on the Faith page, isn’t that hypocrisy of the very kind you usually attack?

    2. I’ve repeatedly written to our LSA asking him to preface his comments with essentially the very language you recommend. His reponse: essentially, “fuck you.” He’s operating under the illusion that being the “organizer” of the Atheist Meetup (usually attended by no more than fifteen) makes him a “spokesman” for the free-thinking community. I could probably gather more than fifteen people in my house. Maybe I should try to get myself elected president of the KCG, the Kentucky Center for Godlessness.

    3. I don’t know that I’m interested in writing a “reason” column for the Herald-Leader. It would depend on what they’d pay. Writing’s my bread-and-butter, not just a hobby. (Yes, Cl, I know you’re out there looking for a “gotcha”. So, yeah, I do blog for “free” But that’s for fun, and also to keep my writing “chops” sharp. Producing a column for little or no fee, to help fill newshole in a paper that I don’t even support, is not my thing.

    SI and Chappy: Here’s what I wrote to a local friend who suggested that I contact the H-L with a similar idea to yours:

    The week I first blew into town, months before I decided to join the atheist community here or even started blogging again, I did try a number of times to contact the Herald-Leader with a proposal that I do a humor (not an atheist) column. I listed my credentials and said I’d be happy to send clips, but no one responded to my numerous phone calls and emails. As far as I can tell, my background and/or writing were not checked, so the editors probably had no legitimate criteria (e.g., “we don’t think your material is appropriate for Lexingtonians” or “we don’t find your stuff funny”) for not following up. My wife and I finally came to the conclusion that the editors either (1) weren’t interested in a column written by a newcomer to Kentucky, or (2) weren’t enthusiastic about publishing humor, or (3) didn’t have the money to pay an additional columnist. Although it’s nearly a year later, I’m still reluctant to bang my head against the H-L wall again. Anyway, I don’t know if I’d be interested in writing a specifically atheist column. Even here on my blog, I try to cover a wide variety of topics.

    Did you mean “Völva” or “vulva”?

    I concur with everything you said, particularly your answer to 2, which was stated very nicely.

  13. Regarding my #3 that you said I’m dead wrong. Although Fox News ranks #1 in TV news, the average Fox News’ viewer last season was aged 65, according to a survey released by media analyst Steve Sternberg. CNN average age is 63. So keep on preaching to the old folks, if you want, but if you want to change the world, you need to be selling it to the kids.

  14. Catch:
    In principle, I’d like you to be correct, because in order for government to stay vibrant, we need youthful voters. But the sad truth is that there’s a much smaller percentage of younger people who vote than of older people who do. Don’t take my word for that, though: here’s some info from the U.S. Census Bureau. Look at Table 1 (page 4) under the “Age” category. You’ll find, among other statistics, that American citizens from 18-24 vote at a much smaller rate than those who are over 44. Not even half of the youngest crowd bothered to cast ballots in the 2008 election. The group with the largest percentage of voters is the old fart crowd from 65-74; the second largest percentage is those from 55-64 (my group: more old farts), and the third largest percentage is for people a whopping 75 and older.

    There’s no way of telling how many of those geezers get their news from CNN, from Fox, from newspapers, or from random stops on the Internet. But if Sternberg’s statistics are correct, and CNN’s average viewer age really is 63, I’d say that TV news is still a force to be reckoned with.

  15. Catch:
    Ummmm … that should be “Table 2” (still on page 4).

  16. I thought this post was simply about getting free thinking ideas exposed to the believers and hopefully converting them.

    If your post was about getting people to vote out religion then you are right about the age of voters, but old people are less likely to change their opinions than younger people and they indeed vote their opinions regularly.

    I stand by my belief that fighting the battle in your idea of mainstream media will be a losing battle, even though I am chronologically an old person. As for my battle strategy, I have lengthy discussions with teens and young adults, in person and through social media and the Internet. And just to make you feel better, I forwarded your inspiring “If I only had a god” video to those young people.

  17. Catch:
    Yeah, you’re right. Voting was a leap off-topic.

  18. Catch:
    I wanted to correct one misconception that you seem to have. Some atheists may be interested in “converting” believers. But I’m not one of them.

    As far as atheism in the public square, I’m interested in three things only:
    (1) Working to oppose any candidate for office who does not completely endorse, explicitly, separation of church and state in all circumstances;
    (2) Advocating actively for critical thinking; and
    (3) Letting fearful doubters know that it is possible to lead a moral, fulfilling, and interesting life without god-belief, and that there are plenty of us who do. They don’t have to succumb to intellectual bullying or emotional blackmail. There are lots of people whose ideas about religion are similar to theirs, and they can find support if they choose to seek it out.

    But I, personally, have no interest in deconverting the religious. I just want the freedom not to be accountable to their imaginary god. I don’t want their ancient screeds influencing governmental policy, public education, or medical research. And I don’t want them infringing on Constitutional rights because of their superstitious prejudices. (Some of them call those prejudices “beliefs,” but they’re full of shit. So-called sacred texts can be — and are — interpreted in many different ways, only some of which are hateful. Unfortunately, it’s primarily the most odious among religionists who make the news, in both traditional media and through blogs and other Internet sources.)

  19. Ralph said

    I won’t add to the comments. Everything that I would say has been said.

    If you do organize a march in Frankfort or Lexington I would attend. It’s
    a long drive from far western Kentucky, but it be more than worth the time
    and expense of the trip.

  20. ralph said

    ” … but it would be.”
    Typing and thinking after ten hours at work can be difficult.

  21. Ralph:
    OK! Counting you, we’re up to four people.

    Seriously, I’ll drop you an email if such is march is ever going to take place. But between you and me, I don’t think there’s any big hurry to polish your walkin’ shoes.

  22. The three things you listed as your working interests in atheism are very much the same things that I as a libertarian (not political affiliation)endorse. As with your interest #1, I oppose candidates who do not support freedom (although I include every aspect of it) and for me that generally encompasses almost all politicians.

  23. Catch:
    I used to call myself a “libertarian,” too. Now, with decidedly anti-libertarians having taken over the word and making a mockery of it, I avoid using it — although I still sometimes refer to myself as a “civil libertarian.” When I ask today’s “libertarians” how they could conceivably claim they’re for liberty when they espouse a rights-denying agenda (anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-free speech, anti-freedom of religion, anti-separation of church and state, anti-just about everything that makes Americans free), I’m greeted with a blank stare and a vehement “I’m for returning to the Constitution!” I guess they must be referring to a different Constitution than the one I know.

    Here’s an H.L. Mencken quote for you:

    If experience teaches us anything at all, it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.

  24. Larry:
    If you call yourself a “civil libertarian,” most people will think you mean that you are a Teabagger that resists the urge to refer to Obama as “the nigger” in public.

  25. Des:
    Actually, I resist the urge to call most people “the morons” in public.

  26. I know that quote well. That’s why I don’t vote. I refuse to voluntarily vote away my liberty to any authority here or in heaven as well.

  27. Catch:
    I guess you haven’t heard: No votes in heaven. It’s a crucifocracy up there.

    Hey, I just coined a useful word for the Tea Bagger’s desired form of government!

  28. You think they’ll be ok with the middle part sounding like fuck?

  29. Philly:
    I say “fock ’em.”

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