Saturday, April 21, 2007

Firebreathing or Soft-speaking?

It only takes a few minutes with a TV Guide to understand that much of American entertainment revolves around extremist views, violence, and misfortune. From Glenn Beck, to Criminal Minds, to Montel Williams with Sylvia Browne, our entertainment ranges from what awful thing is currently happening, to what awful things might happen, to what awful things have happened to other people. One would think we'd be experts at handling bad situations. But we're not, and that is one of the things that makes us human.

Every now and then a real tragedy happens to real people, and it affects us on a national or even global scale. The Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, 9/11, the D.C. snipers, the trapped West Virginia miners, and the recent shootings at Virginia Tech are a few American events in the last couple of decades that have stirred our collective hearts and welled our collective tears. Black, white, male, female, gay, straight, democrat, republican, rich, poor, religious, atheist -- our differences are obscured by grief.

Yet our melting pot of unity is marred by the slag of callous punditry and barbed blame from a few outspoken individuals. Perhaps these individuals are so mired in the machinery of public entertainment they have lost the ability to discern the national tragedies from the day-to-day news. Perhaps their heartless, shameless views are the very limits of their contribution to society, and they do not know how else to report on the events. Perhaps they are simply that: heartless. Whatever the reason, there are individuals that use times of tragedy to opportunistically inject hatred and discrimination into the vulnerable hearts of the nation.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, we witnessed this unfortunate phenomenon again. Within hours of the massacre, Debbie Schlussel was already blaming the horrors on Muslim terrorists. Jack Thompson and Dr. Phil blamed video games within a similar time period. Ken Ham blamed it on atheism and teaching evolution. Dinesh D'Souza does not specifically blame atheists, but used the tragedy to claim -- without a single supporting fact -- that atheists were not taking part in the mourning, and were not emotionally concerned for the victims. Daylight Atheism has collected a few more examples from the likes of Rod Parsley, Rush Limbaugh, and Grady McMurtry.

What defense do we have? Atheists are feeling, loving, caring human beings. We were also deeply affected by this tragedy. But many of our most prominent voices -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. -- have a reputation for passionate polemics. Not an appropriate tenor for these moments. I do not mean to suggest that these people would not be able to deliver a heartfelt defense, but they would need to overcome their existing reputation to be convincing.

As the entertainment industry demonstrates, the controversial, fire-breathing, extremist voices are the ones that America's attention-deficit public find most entertaining. The more extreme your view and the more controversy you can stir up, the longer you can stretch your fifteen minutes of fame. Who was the last person that became famous for just being nice? Fred Rogers?

Fortunately there are other ways to gain the public ear and still maintain an aura of kindness and goodwill, such as support for a sympathetic cause and philanthropy. Perhaps what we need to do is have outspoken atheists speak about - gasp! - other things. The public needs to understand that being an atheist is not all we are. I believe this is a misunderstanding that has left us particularly vulnerable to attack. But if the public is more aware of us as people, rather than atheists, they would be quicker to sympathize and slower to criticize and blame.


BlackSun said...

The problem we have is one of being in a minority. We have to speak out or we will be crushed and our rights trampled. It's like the gays when they first started making a big splash: "we're here, we're queer, get used to it." They dressed in leather and made a big deal about it.

They still do that of course in the Pride parades, but it's a smaller part of their image. And surprise, surprise, a lot of gay couples are just as conservative as straight ones.

So the same will be true with Atheists. With this current crop of polemics, we are demanding to be heard. I don't think the time for speaking out will be passed until people like Dinesh D'Souza feel the same consequences as Don Imus did for his bigotry.

The first time a major pundit gets fired for trashing atheists, I'll start thinking it's time to relax and tone down the message. Until then, we have work to do.

vjack said...

I thought you might be interested in this if you haven't seen it yet:

David W. said...

Being heard is important. Those people that openly push their atheism shouldn't stop doing what they're doing. They're getting other people to think, and encouraging other atheists to "come out."

But being felt is also important. The more theists that realize we are part of the same communities as them (everything from political parties, to book clubs, to PTA meetings) the more likely they will be to accept the factors that makes us different.

Coming out in numbers will help the most here -- and this is where we can use "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" as a role model. But we can also make more goodwill efforts. Things like the Katrina relief fund organized by the Atheist Community of Austin, or the similar fund organized by the Institute for Humanist Studies. I believe that if these efforts were more publicized, we would make good ground towards defending ourselves as moral, caring people.

vjack: I hadn't seen that yet, thanks for the link!

Losing My Religion said...

I have spent much of my writing time this weekend writing in my various spots on the net about somewhat of a similar topic. Part of it stemmed from being asked by a christian friend wherever could I get my morals from if I was no longer a "believer." As though christianity has ever had anything even remotely in common with morality, I still had to explain that my atheism had only to do with the fact that I do not believe in any type of supernatural deity (or, as one of my favorite blogs calls it, "the big daddy in the sky"), and nothing whatsoever to do with my morals.

The general public of religious believers, from the extremist zealots to the non-practicing and every faction in between, has this misinformed idea that atheism brings with it a connotation of immorality and some even believe that we are some type of satanic worshipers. That last part makes me laugh, honestly, because if they gave it any thought they'd have to realize that to believe in satan, I'd first have to believe in god.

But I digress.

Until we can become a vocal minority that shows our unity through our diversity, how will anyone ever take us seriously?

King Aardvark said...

Blacksun, are you suggesting that we should wear leather?

I mean, I will if it's required, but on a hot summer day it's not my first choice.

Sacred Slut said...

I looove leather. Can I wear my red boots? I'm ready to breathe fire and kick some ass. ;)

I think we need a combination (can I say "two-pronged"? ugh) approach. Militant outspokenness combined with humanist activism. Just being militant and demanding our rights without giving people something else to replace religion is not going to work.

Gordon said...

Does anyone know if Grady L McMurtry is the father of this person?

Dr Grady McMurtry

It seems possible, but if so, its an interesting juxtaposition.

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