Following the January 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed federal judge John Roll along with five others and injured fourteen people, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I found myself, like many other Americans, ruminating on how remarkably strong our republican traditions truly are. Strong enough to withstand violence that claimed a conservative jurist and nearly claimed a Democratic legislator. Even now I am struck by the unity and compassion displayed by our public figures in the wake of the tragedy. Say what you want about the broad appeal to civility, for a couple of days it really felt like we were one nation.
Of course it wasn’t long before the carnival began barking again. Erick Erickson, one of CNN’s many commentators on the gutter press beat, had this to say regarding President Obama’s moment of silence for the victims at Tucson:
In yesterday’s “moment of silence” he wanted prayer or reflection. Here’s the problem—when conservatives push for school prayer and advocate for a “National Day of Prayer,” they include “or reflection” to get around namby-pamby atheist objectors. But the left uses it too. The left uses it to accommodate atheists.
Upon hearing this bizarre (and plainly stupid) utterance, I wondered how this could honestly be a person’s first thoughts after a ceremony like that. Moreover, how could Erickson believe his moronic observation was worth writing down? Little did I know his clumsy canard was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather rough month for the nonbelieving set.
Indeed it was rodeo clown Glenn Beck’s contention that accused shooter Jared Loughner’s unconfirmed atheism was partly to blame for the tragedy. On his January 10 show Beck observed: “He was an atheist…cited the Communist Manifesto as one of his favorite books, and thought the Mars rover landing was staged. These are not the opinions of a coherent individual.”
This point is somewhat more insidious than Erickson’s. By claiming that atheism is evidence of a disordered mind, Beck paints all nontheists with a fabulously broad brush as deranged and potentially violent nut jobs. Even if Loughner is discovered to be an atheist, claiming that his irreligious beliefs precipitated violence is plainly risible. If the shoe was on the other foot, and Loughner was discovered to be a devout Jehovah’s Witness, one imagines the Christian community would wail in protest at being lumped in with this lunatic, and folks like Beck would not find fault with the religious influence but rather with the individual’s assumed fall off its righteous path. Sadly, the atheists and humanists of our country have long become inured to this kind of double standard.
For evidence of this inequity, one need look no further than the reaction British comedian Ricky Gervais engendered for his innocuous closing comment as host of the 2011 Golden Globe awards on January 16. “And thank you to God, for making me an atheist,” he said while the credits rolled and freshly chastened A-listers shuffled out of the hall. This final aside, the most innocent of the evening, still managed to cause a minor furor among the chattering classes. Asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan (what is it about CNN?) to defend the statement, Gervais was understandably puzzled. “How many people thank God every time?… I don’t get offended, do I?” I have searched in vain for an example of when a celebrity thanked God and was as roundly criticized as Ricky Gervais.
But wait—there’s more. Alabama’s freshly minted governor Robert Bentley wasted no time preparing the usual salad of religious bigotry. Speaking after his January 17 inauguration, Bentley told a gathering of the faithful: “If we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” (Tell us how you really feel, Governor.)
The comments led to a national dust-up and Bentley’s own ill-crafted non-apology two days later: “If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry.” The astute reader will easily note that one group has been disenfranchised twice now by Governor Bentley’s comments: yes, those of us who claim no religion whatever. The American Humanist Association was quick to ensure that Bentley didn’t escape criticism for this fetid cloud of ignorance. “When you look at the numbers, the governor’s weak apology only covered about a quarter of those he maligned,” said AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. We’ll be following with considerable interest the governor’s future career as the only contortionist able to simultaneously insert his foot into his mouth and step into it.
But even in as strong a field as this, one ignorant remark stands out as perhaps the most baffling. In a January 6 conversation with Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly defended his belief in God with this rejoinder: “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam in my opinion, alright? Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.”
Something this stupid wouldn’t pass for an intelligible reply in seventeenth-century London, let alone New York City today. (I saw one anonymous wag online ponder if the disastrous flooding in Australia was “a miscommunication.”) Still, one can’t be too surprised, particularly considering the source. O’Reilly’s comments don’t just suggest a willful ignorance of basic science, they also imply a very real contempt for actual study. “You can’t explain that,” he burbles, staggering Silverman into momentary confusion. Even if the movement of the tides remained as inexplicable to us as O’Reilly’s inner psyche this would still in no way prove the existence of any sort of deity, and obviously would provide no evidence for a deity who answers prayers and contrives miracles. But the mere fact that we’re debating in the twenty-first century the origin of tidal flows—an aquatic phenomenon first explained accurately by Isaac Newton in an era profoundly more impoverished, both intellectually and materially, than ours—suggests a new kind of poverty, this of a rhetorical kind.
In the final analysis, perhaps we should be heartened by the recent spate of defamatory (or otherwise bizarre) language. Yes, there is still far too much prejudice against freethinkers of all stripes. But the mere fact that spinmeisters like Erickson and O’Reilly feel the need to contend with atheism at all suggests a higher profile for the nontheist movement as a whole. I believe the AHA’s own “Consider Humanism” campaign, launched nationwide in November, played a significant part in raising this kind of awareness. More advertising, advocacy, and public support for humanism is clearly what we need to keep the dialogue lively and informed. As they say—“there’s no such thing as bad press.”
Sean Mulligan is a first year master’s candidate, studying Law and Society, at American University. His primary focus is an interdisciplinary examination of the intersections between religion and law. He is currently the editorial intern for the Humanist.