Putting the Secular Humanist Chair at the Table of Opinion in the Media

September 17, 2009

Why is it that when articles about religious skeptics appear in the newspapers they engender so many negative comments? Why is it that reporters feel a need to have "balance" in an article about secular humanists but not about churches? 

Our Indiana Institute: Religion Under Examination provided a stimulus for an article in the Saturday, September 12 edition of the Indianapolis Star titled, "Religious Skeptics Believe Their Voices Will be Heard" .  This article generated 125 comments many of which were critical.  One comment was, "I can see making a personal decision not to believe in God. Actively working to subvert another's faith is scary." So, how is a conference which is purely voluntary in attendance "actively working to subvert another's faith"?  What about all those church signs and billboards?   Why do they feel threatened by one atheist billboard? 

The same reporter wrote on his blog on Sunday, " Can Skeptics of Faith Do the Church a Favor ?" and on Monday, " Great Awakening of God Skeptics ".  All of this prompted two Letters to the Editor--" Atheists Decry Beliefs, But They Have Their Own " and " Faith at Center of Many Humanitarian Efforts" --which were published on Wednesday of the same week.   The comments (38 and 5) mostly came from our side of the fence. An article about a church's anniversary was published on the same Saturday to which there were no comments by readers. 

Also, in the article about religious skeptics, there was a counter opinion offered by Lee Strobel and a local minister .   No counter opinion in the article about the church.  One of our members commented to me, "Funny, how they don't get anti-religious letters every time they do a story on a church or something. Nor, I have noticed, do they interview a humanist every time they talk about a church event in the same way that Lee Strobel was interviewed when they did a story on us". I passed on this comment to the reporter and got this response:

As for consulting non-believers on every religion story, you are on my radar and I could see coming to you in the future on a story like the Terri Schiavo controversy or something related to stem cell research. But, frankly, your numbers and influence are still small enough that I don't feel the need to call you everytime I would consult a Catholic source or an evangelical leader or a Jewish rabbi. I don't call Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims on every story, either. And often times, I cover the perspective of the CFI crowd by talking to scientists or scholars. 

In this case, your group was specificially taking aim at faith, making it a story that begged for "the other side." It was a no brainer. Without Strobel in there (or someone like him), we would have been justifiably hammered by believing readers. Besides, it made for a more balanced and more credible story.

Well, granted the church story was just about their anniversary and our conference subject matter did more directly criticize faith.  However, there is a church story nearly every week.   Is studying religion from a scholarly point of view any more "taking aim at faith" than the church message given in nearly every religious service and the church stories in general "taking aim at nonbelief"?

I am not suggesting that I should be consulted every time he runs a church story.  However, I do question the fact that he felt it necessary to quote two religious people to make the story about our point of view "balanced."

Regardless, I thanked him for his excellent article.  I am happy for any positive press we get and it did generate a lot of exposure for our group which has already translated into some new contacts for our mailing list.  I view this as getting the secular humanist chair at the table of opinion. In the past that chair has not merely been empty but it has not even been at the table.

The local alternative newspaper, NUVO , ran a story on our program with Jeff Schweitzer, " Religious Morality as a Negative Force "  yesterday, September 16.  I don't expect as many negative comments on this one.   The extremely religious people probably don't even pick up this publication. 

At the school where I worked there was a religious person who would pick up copies of NUVO which were  left on the tables in the teachers' lounge by other faculty members and throw them in the trash.   I caught him once because he picked it up right in front of me.  I took it out of the trash can and said to him, "Terry, I wanted to read that, so may some other people."  Doubt it stopped him from censoring the reading material available to others when no one was watching.

So, why do religious folks feel so angry about another point of view being expressed?   Why do newspapers feel the need to pacify them by showing their side in a story about an alternative point of view?