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.