Joe Klein’s Cheap Shot: Why it Was Wrong

June 24, 2013

As many in the freethought community are already aware, in a cover story about veterans and community service, Time Magazine's Joe Klein included, seemingly out of nowhere, a line denigrating secular humanists. Klein describes his personal experience working on Oklahoma tornado recovery with the members of Team Rubicon, a Los Angeles-based veterans group that works on disaster relief efforts, and writes (with my emphasis):

. . . there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon.

Naturally, nonbelievers -- particularly those who identify specifically as secular humanists -- were offended. Make that gobsmacked. Why, in the middle of this piece which highlights the good works done by those who have dedicated their lives to service, go out of your way to land a potshot at an already maligned minority?

The first reaction that many who were angered by this line had was to pile up examples of humanist-atheist organizations that do exactly the kind of work that Klein claims don't exist. Foundation Beyond Belief, Atheists Giving Aid, and myriad local freethought groups came immediately to the aid of Oklahoma tornado victims, both financially and with on the ground work. (See Hemant Mehta's post to get a fuller picture.) This doesn't even take into account the many, many other groups doing this kind of community service and disaster relief all over the country and the world. So firstly, Klein is just plain incorrect.

Now, our own Tom Flynn wrote today  that, in a way, Klein is right that often secular humanists as a specific group do not congregate as secular humanists in order to pitch in when help is needed. They don't bother worrying about flying a particular sectarian flag, or publicizing a worldview, they just help. As individual human beings.

It would be impossible to get an accurate number, but we all know that nonbelievers (and secular humanists specifically) put their humanist values of compassion into action, traveling to disaster areas to lend assistance, or sending money to charities unaligned with any religion like the Red Cross.

So I think the second thing that Klein got wrong -- badly wrong -- is that he used his platform at a major news outlet to take a cheap shot at secular humanists, implying that, as a collective, we don't have the fellow-feeling, the compassion that would spur us to help our fellow human beings in need. It's insulting, and it hurts.

And we can challenge it. We can challenge it by continuing the good works we have been doing -- as individuals or as groups -- because it is those works that matter, not the snarky opinion of one writer. It would have been nice to see Time's editors recognize the pettiness of Klein's parenthetical smear and have it removed, certainly. But I hope that both Klein and anyone who reads this piece can understand that it's not just that Klein got it factually wrong, but that he needlessly insulted and took a swipe at the reputation of a community still trying to be recognized as equal, as fully moral, as fully American. Klein's insult reminds us that we have much more work to do before no someone in such a position ever thinks to write something like that again.