< God No!

Transcript

Friday, August 17, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
After years of being ignored or hidden, atheists have begun to speak out, and they're making an impression, especially on the book world. The latest atheist blockbuster is Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great. But Hitchens' path to best-sellerdom was blazed in part by such incendiary writers as Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation.

When he wrote that since 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, God is, quote, "the most prolific abortionist of all," he made a lot of people very angry.

In the following piece, which ran in December, we noted that Harris is one of the so-called New Atheists, as is Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. They wield logic like a bludgeon, so much so that even Comedy Central's South Park, a series that has savaged Scientology, Christian Fundamentalism and the Mormons, got out the knives.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
[CLIP]
MAN:
Let us not forget the great Richard Dawkins, who finally freed the world of religion long ago. Dawkins knew that logic and reason were the way of the future, but it wasn't until he met his beautiful wife that he learned using logic and reason isn't enough. You have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Sam Harris concedes he's on a mission to make moderates less moderate.
SAM HARRIS:
Because moderates insist that we respect their religious faith, we can't criticize the role that religious faith is playing in dividing people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And Harris says moderates are mistaken if they believe the wall between church and state can protect us from extremists. They've already scaled it.
SAM HARRIS:
If you think the creator of the universe is letting people fly planes into our buildings because we are tolerating gay marriage, or he's whipping up hurricanes in the Gulf because we're tolerating gay marriage, you have to try to legislate against gay marriage.

Then if you think the creator of the universe is going to be scandalized by the mere depiction of Mohammad, you have to take to the streets and start rioting. There's nothing intolerant or mean or fundamentalist or dogmatic about opposing this kind of delusion.
GARY WOLF:
Real life differs from culture wars in the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Gary Wolf wrote about the New Atheists in Wired magazine. He says that the blunt tactics used by the New Atheists cannot be applied to personal arguments over faith, where delicate family and work relationships might hang in the balance. He says the polemics of New Atheism can be just as nasty as the fundamentalists.
SAM HARRIS:
So while I don't accuse the atheists of being fundamentalist, the rhetoric they use resonates with the religious rhetoric that controls much of our cultural debate today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Sam Harris.
SAM HARRIS:
There's nothing fundamentalist about rejecting the claim that the universe is 6,000 years old.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Yes, there is, says Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, speaking on The 700 Club.
PAT ROBERTSON:
What we've got to recognize just there in this case is that the evolutionists worship atheism. I mean, that's their religion. So this is an establishment of religion contrary to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
If, in fact, atheism were a religion, it might get more respect.
PENNY EDGELL:
That label evokes a strong negative response in American life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Penny Edgell is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. In 2003, she and her colleagues, Doug Hartmann and Joe Gerteis, conducted a national poll to determine which of 10 ethnic and religious groups the average American would least like their children to marry.
PENNY EDGELL:
We had included atheists on the list as a group that we expected would have low levels of disapproval, and therefore we thought, well, that will be a good yardstick against which to measure other kinds of attitudes. We were really very surprised.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Atheists were deemed the least desirable. Muslims did better in 2003, and gays and lesbians, maybe because most respondents had at least seen one or two. But research suggests avowed atheists are few and far between.
PENNY EDGELL:
Just do the numbers, right? If they're only seven percent of the American population, odds are most people don't know one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
People fear what they don't know, and so they tend to be suspicious of the absence of a presence in the lives of atheists.
PENNY EDGELL:
It is religion, having a faith that makes people, in the American context, seem trustworthy, like good citizens and good neighbors. So if you don't have that as a moral boundary, you're an outsider, an other, and, perhaps, a dangerous other.
ELLEN JOHNSON:
We're all familiar with phrases, like – you know, I have to say it – Jews are cheap, Italians are in the Mafia, Blacks are on welfare, gays are promiscuous, and atheists are immoral.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Ellen Johnson is the president of American Atheists. But the phrase she hates most of all goes a little something like this.
KATIE COURIC:
Perhaps you've heard the expression, "There are no atheists in foxholes."
BOB SCHIEFFER:
Wartime, there are no atheists in foxholes.
JOHN BURNETT:
To amend the old saying about foxholes, there are no atheists driving trucks in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
That was CBS's Katie Couric and Bob Schieffer, and NPR's John Burnett. Those were just the three we got tape of. News people say it all the time. Ellen Johnson.
ELLEN JOHNSON:
It's demeaning to atheists. It's saying that under very dire circumstances or frightening situations, atheists will stop being atheists. They will start believing. And this is really just a wish on the part of the religious, because it's not based in fact.
JOHN BURNETT:
I thought it was a good line for the tape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
NPR's John Burnett.
JOHN BURNETT:
And I didn't realize that it was so offensive to atheists. And I learned that in spades after this story came out. They spammed me for weeks with e-mail, saying, we're outraged. So now I know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And did you sort of see their point?
JOHN BURNETT:
I do see their point. I literally hadn't thought about it before. And, frankly, I will think twice about using the phrase again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So if the news media aren't sensitive to atheists, Hollywood must be, right? I mean, the political right says it's so gay and liberal and irreligious.
HUGH LAURIE AS HOUSE:
Faith. That's another word for ignorance, isn't it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
That's Dr. Gregory House, a brilliant, if antisocial, diagnostician and the main character in the Fox medical drama, House. He's also an atheist. In a recent episode, House comes up against a teenaged faith healer who seems to be curing a patient with terminal cancer.
HUGH LAURIE AS HOUSE:
I fear for the human race. A teenager claims to be the voice of God, and people with advanced degrees are listening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
In a hospital staff lounge, a colleague posts a scoreboard with two columns – House versus God. Whenever House can't explain a medical result, says David Shore, creator of the series –
DAVID SHORE:
God got a checkmark. When House did find something, House got a checkmark.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
At the end of the show, on that little tally board, you left it at a draw.
DAVID SHORE:
Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But I think you were actually pulling your punches a little there, weren't you?
DAVID SHORE:
I, I hope not. Maybe. I do it sometimes. I don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Yes, he does, because House actually found a medical explanation for everything the faith healer claimed to be doing through God. Hollywood usually pulls its punches on atheism. Mostly, TV atheists are lost souls, like Jen in the teenage drama Dawson's Creek that ran from 1998 to 2003. Here was Jen in the series premiere.
[CLIP]
JEN:
And I, I don't do real well with church and the Bible and this prayer stuff.
WOMAN:
I beg your pardon?
JEN:
I don't covet a religious God. Grams, I'm an atheist.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And here she is in the series finale, terminally ill, taping a farewell message to her baby daughter.
JEN:
I've never really believed in God. But I hope that you are able to believe in God, because the thing that I've come to realize, Sweetheart, is that it just doesn't matter if God exists or not. The important thing is for you to believe in something.
DAVID SHORE:
There's very few openly atheistic people on television, and I find that a little surprising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
House creator and writer, David Shore.
DAVID SHORE:
Atheists, to me, fall in the same category, to some extent, as lawyers, in the sense that people hate them, in general but like their own. They know House. They like House. They don't care he's an atheist – I don't think.
HUGH LAURIE AS HOUSE:
You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!
DAVID SHORE:
I like that one. I like that one a lot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But even Shore is inclined to believe there are no atheists in foxholes, or at least hospitals.
DAVID SHORE:
To ignore issues of faith is to ignore a pretty fundamental part of all people's lives when they're in the hospital, facing death. I'm not saying all people find God, but they certainly do ask those questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
What's an atheist to do? American Atheist President Ellen Johnson says they have to organize.
ELLEN JOHNSON:
Until the atheists start voting their atheism and be identified as a voting block in America, the politicians aren't going to listen to us. We're not going to have any influence in the public schools. We're not going to have any influence in the media or anywhere else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But even she concedes that organizing atheists is like herding cats. Sam Harris says the only way to win is to keep up the pressure until religious tolerance is no longer tolerated.
SAM HARRIS:
I think the criticism of irrationality just has to come from a hundred sides all at once. In the entertainment community, maybe it will just have people making jokes that are funny enough and true enough, so as to put religious certainty in a bad light.
STEPHEN COLBERT:
We know atheists are brave.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.
STEPHEN COLBERT:
They're not afraid to go to hell and be tortured by Satan for all eternity which is what's going to happen.
SAM HARRIS:
One day, someone in the White House press corps will hear the President of the United States express some certainty about being in dialogue with the creator of the universe, and he or she will ask a question, which should be on everybody's mind: you know, how is this any different from thinking you're in dialogue with Zeus?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
That day is far off. But Harris has a great deal of faith in his fellow man.
SAM HARRIS:
I'm hopeful that journalists and people in the entertainment industry are waiting for the permission to express their doubts. And I think that permission is coming. I mean I'm trying to do what I can to engineer it in my hardheaded and boorish way. And I feel, just from the contacts I have in both industries, that there's a profound sense of relief that comes with hearing somebody call a spade a spade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Was that what Stephen Colbert was doing when he addressed an audience of Hollywood elite at the Emmys this year?
STEPHEN COLBERT:
Good evening, godless sodomites.
[LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Harris may have no tolerance for the gospel, but as an atheist trying to enlist Hollywood in his crusade, Colbert's greeting has to sound like some kind of good news.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GARFIELD:
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer, with help from Rob Christensen. We also had help from Andrya Ambro and Madeleine Elish. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and email us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Bob will be back next week.