Re: The #CNNAtheist Special

CNN aired a special all about atheism this evening, titled “Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers“.(1)Teaser linked for now This is surely the end product of activity last year when some reporters were asking around the atheist circles. They recorded a Georgia Tech Campus Freethinkers meeting and one of Atlanta’s Sunday Assemblies, both of which I was present for, and I sent them a long email about my journey to nonbelief. None of that is featured in the special, but it’s nice to see the project I saw in the works finally completed.

This airing seems to coincide with another feature of nonbelief for CNN. Just the other day they published a lengthy article called “The Friendly Atheists Next Door” highlighting a delightful, happy family that manages to also be nonreligious. To people in the atheism community for a while, this may seem mundane, but for the millions who believe we apostates to be evil, Harry Shaughnessy stands in stark, cheery contrast.

The special tonight moved between many different members of the larger atheism movement: Dawkins, Silverman, Dewitt, and some younger faces. There’s a lot within the community, and there are some differing opinions on the show’s quality. I’ll offer my opinions on the good and bad points.

Good: This Happened

It is undeniably a good thing that atheism is showcased in primetime on CNN with a sympathetic light. Coverage like this inches our acceptance in society forward, little by little, because the terrible extremes of opinion about nonbelievers are tempered against friendly, likeable people.

Bad: Whole Lotta White Dudes

It’s an easy mistake to make when entering the atheism movement from the outside to stick with the existing notable figures and assume the make-up is identical. That’s not an excuse, but a recognition of a persistent problem our movement needs to work harder to resolve.

Atheism is far more diverse than the special implied with its almost universally white representation. Gordon Maples of the Secular Student Alliance remembered specifically pointing CNN to other groups and individuals.

Mandisa Thomas, head of Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta, expressed some disappointment and hope going forward.

I know that in the making of this special, many efforts, interviews, and recordings were cut. It’s possible that most of the “best” stories for their special were from white men. More likely, however, is that more diverse voices were not a priority for CNN, and that needs to be expressed to them and demanded within our own community.

Good: Mention of the firebrand/friendly spectrum

Towards the end of the special, the fierce nature of David Silverman’s efforts to demand acceptance of atheism were strongly contrasted with the friendly tone of a North Georgia college student. He’s the president of his skeptic group and bookends the special with a calm, thoughtful attitude. A narrative is developed that the new, young atheists are more like him, rather than the Dawkins or Silverman-type.

I was very happy to see this. The loud atheists got to say their piece about the injustices in our country (and of course beyond) while Jerry Dewitt, the newly deconverted nonreligious preacher, says he’s the “good cop” to Silverman’s “bad cop”.

Bad: Everything was related to Christianity

Obviously Christianity is the predominant religion in the United States, but ex-Muslims also exist in our country, and their stories are different, compelling, and eye-opening to the unique challenges of that transition. Some ex-Mormons and secular Jews would have a different perspective. Maybe this Christianity fixation is a product of largely being filmed in the South, but it’s still a loss for the special and for awareness of atheism at large.

The Shaughnessys of “The Friendly Atheists Next Door” show a different side in their video, having a merry Christmas and talking about how they can just enjoy the holiday without the Jesus parts. I’m sure conflict and fear are driving motivators in a television special, which is perhaps why their story was relegated to a separate article. Still, the quietly nonreligious also matter.

Good: Sympathetic stories about atheists

Obviously when the North Georgia student’s father says his son’s “dead” because he’s an atheist, that’s horrible. Clearly when Jerry Dewitt’s life crumbles around him, or the anonymous Clergy Project member fears for his livelihood, that’s horrifying. Having that shown on television, though, for people to see, will make them think twice about whether atheists are the villain or the victim in our society.

Bad: Selective depth

This is more of a summary of other points and a lamentation of the limitations of the show’s format. 40 minutes will not explore every facet of atheism. I’ve been in the movement for a few years, and I still find new corners. CNN chose to cover a small subset that people are most likely to have some familiarity with. (Though I don’t think focusing on AtheistTV was very useful.)

Other potential subjects, off the top of my head:

  • Adoption of feminism, social justice, and emphasis on diversity
  • Relation of non-heterosexuality or non-cisgender to deconversion
  • Correlation with skepticism, secularism, critical thinking, and science advocacy
  • High-profile debates
  • History of atheism
  • Actual arguments for or against theism
  • Stats on the rise of nonbelievers, conflict with commonly assumed religiosity
  • Unique deconversion stories from certain sects or religions
  • Secular Judaism
  • Importance of the internet and online communities(2)Mentioned briefly by Silverman
  • Television, podcasting, blogging, vlogging about nonbelief
  • Local groups and their impact(3)Some inclusion of this with Jerry Dewitt’s congregation
  • Conferences and their importance
  • More severe challenges outside of the US
  • Atheism and death, meaning, purpose

I have the same hope as Mandisa: from this, more will come. There are so many other subjects within and around our movement that deserve to be brought to light. We don’t need television to do that for us, but it’s one strong mechanism that reaches audiences we don’t always touch and who might need to hear this the most.

Overall, I’m quite happy that this was shown in people’s homes. I’m happy that this exists. It’s a start, and it’s largely the status quo of the old white male guard, but there are other inclusions that say to me this is a sign of change.

Notes   [ + ]

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