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In times of tragedy, why don’t the media get atheists’ perspective?

The aftermath of our all too regular mass homicides follows a familiar pattern. “Thoughts and prayers” are with survivors, victims’ families and the affected city. There are defiant assertions from the horror­struck that, “We will not tolerate this any longer.”

Some politicians call for an end to hate and better coordination between law enforcement agencies. And others, when there’s a whiff of Islamic heritage involved, play the “enemy is here” card, recklessly injecting accelerant into the roiling emotions of the moment.

For the media, standard reaction reporting involves transcribing pretty much all of the above. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Ft. Hood shooting, Paris, San Bernardino and now Orlando, it’s also standard practice to log the response from leaders of various religious faiths, most of whom encourage restraint and emphasize that Muslims themselves are collateral victims of these atrocities. The good, dutiful notion being to develop a body of sympathy that reflects solidarity among the broader local religious community.

While the Strib and the PiPress haven’t gone the latter route yet, at least when I called Monday, National Public Radio was hitting all the customary notes.

And all that is fine insofar as the objective is to register the solidarity of the community at large. But if the intention is ever to discuss the “perversion of religion,” a common enough refrain today and in past incidents involving radicalized Muslims, there’s at least one group, silent but no longer all that small or irrelevant, that the media rarely draws into these discussions, such as they are: atheists.  

“I think we were called once, some time after 9/11,” says August Berkshire. “And no, no one else has called today.” 

Berkshire is the founder and past president of ​Minnesota Atheists​. He’s been active in the cause of challenging the belief systems of organized religions since the mid­-1980s and jokes that current membership in the state is “probably around 250,000, although most haven’t paid their dues yet.” 

Humor aside, Berkshire, a local delivery truck driver by day, is serious about the value of inserting an atheist perspective into conversations about religiously inspired violence. “Look, prayer didn’t do anything to stop this latest attack and prayer won’t do anything to stop this kind of violence from happening again. All it may do is make some people feel good for a while.”

August Berkshire
August Berkshire

The underlying point of his organization, and that of international atheist figures like ​Richard Dawkins ​and ​Sam Harris​, is that a submissive dedication to the tenets of an organized religion has the downside of people outsourcing their critical thinking to a third party.

Dawkins and Harris are both problematic personalities, offering conventional thinkers no end of opportunities to paint them as Islamophobes for their view that even conventional Islam imbues irrational, counter­productive, anti­-science attitudes toward women and homosexuals.

But if the point is to engender an honest debate, you’d expect the atheist view to at least have a seat at the media table in moments like this. “Look,” says Berkshire, “at their origin, all three of the Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — preach and warn against homosexuality. They’re anti­gay. A lot of their followers today may be cafeteria Christians, Jews and Muslims, picking and choosing what they want. But I’m talking at their scriptural origins. We reject that. Atheists reject the teachings of religions for a lot of reasons, but among them is the lack of respect for science. Atheists, if I have to point it out, are very accepting of gay equality and other minority issues. We understand that.”

With ​23 percent of Americans in 2014 ​describing themselves as “nones,” which is to say having no religious affiliation, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2007, the atheist, or agnostic or “nothing in particular” perspective would seem to warrant at least as much regular reporting as what we get on priests, ministers and rabbis, certainly more than the “almost never” Berkshire describes. 

Eric Wieffering, the Strib’s assistant managing editor for news, said his paper had no plans to do the usual roundup of clergy reaction to the Orlando massacre, and Jean Hopfensperger, the paper’s designated religion reporter, begged off comment in order to hit a deadline. A call to the Pioneer Press was not returned before this column was filed.

Perhaps the problem with pulling atheists into a conversation about the “perversion of religion” is that spokespeople like Berkshire lack the curriculum vitae of traditional religious leaders. I mean, a guy who drives a truck cheek by jowl in a discussion with a priest, a minister and a rabbi?

But maybe the real issue is that the taint of taboo that still hangs to word “atheist.” Conventional journalism is partial to conventional wisdom and despite the steadily slumping numbers in church/synagogue/mosque attendance — and the rapid increase in those tuning out traditional religious messages — conventional journalistic wisdom has not yet reached a comfort point with overt atheism. Until that point is reached, speculation here is that mainstream news organizations will continue to treat it like a semi-­reputable curiosity.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 06/14/2016 - 10:50 am.

    Answer to the question

    The media doesn’t ask for the atheists’ perspective in such times, because the atheists aren’t going to come back with a bland and meaningless, yet comforting, pat phrase about the victims and their families “being in our prayers” — which is what passes for “doing something about it” in Congressland.

  2. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 06/14/2016 - 11:14 am.

    I take issue with the “Berkshire lack the curriculum vitae of traditional religious leaders.” He’s been a very active member of the atheist community longer than most ministers have been trained in their profession. There’s no way to be ordained as an atheist, one just is, and he is an absolutely excellent spokesman for the non-religious and could easily go head-to-head with those “experts” in the religious community. And like the previous commenter, atheists aren’t going to spout out meaningless phrases like “thoughts & prayers”. It’s so easy to say and is standard fare for congressmen, but means absolutely nothing. Words don’t matter, actions do.

  3. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 06/14/2016 - 03:49 pm.

    Atheists Are Not Immune From “Spouting Out Meaningless Phrases”

    In my experience, atheists are quite as able to “spout out meaningless phrases” as people of religious faith. While atheists are unlikely to say “thoughts & prayers” “or praying for you” they do use expressions like “thinking good thoughts” or “sending positive energy” which are as meaningless – or meaningful – depending on your point of view as those used by people of faith.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/15/2016 - 11:08 am.


    Not that I prefer to left out or anything but I think that the mistake is assuming that either religious people or Atheists have something pertinent to say simply by virtue of being religious or Atheists.

    The truth is neither of these attributes in-and-of themselves qualify anyone to issue a meaningful comment on any given tragedy. All we’re really doing here is asking why we don’t extend the same bizarre assumption that a religious person has something to say about tragedy to Atheists?

    The question isn’t so much why the media don’t talk to Atheists, the question is why ARE they talking to religious figures? Religious leaders may be able to issue words of comfort to fellow believers but since broadcasting religious words of comfort isn’t really a “news” media function what’s the point?

    Even if we want to discuss religiously motivated violence the religious have little insight to offer because religion is just ONE of many motivations for violence and like any other motivation, some people support that violence and others don’t. It’s not “religion” per se that promotes violence, it’s a specific interpretation of some religious scripture that some will endorse and others will condemn. Whatever.

    The insight an Atheist might offer is that the problem with religious scripture is that there is no final arbiter that can definitively settle scriptural disputes. The Pope doesn’t speak for all Christians for instance. So one group will say that their scripture endorses their violence and another group will disagree, there’s actually no way to resolve the dispute which is why religions splinter into sects rather than resolve into single entities.

    The difference between an Atheist looking at a religiously motivated massacre and a religious person is that the Atheist isn’t interested in arguing about scripture, and doesn’t for the most care what scripture says or doesn’t say. For Atheists it’s a non issue because no mater what scripture says it cannot condone or morally authorize a massacre. Atheists don’t recognize moral authority derived from scripture alone. Some Atheists may complain that religious people are the only ones on the planet who can think that their massacre and violence is condoned or even commanded by religious scripture, but since religion is just one of many possible excuses for violence, oppression, massacre, and murder, it’s just another complaint to toss in the bucket.

    I guess one way of looking at the morality of scripture is to point out that while no Atheist would endorse violence based on scripture, in theory any religious person could endorse violence IF they believed scripture supported it.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/15/2016 - 02:37 pm.


    Atheists by definition are people who do not believe in any God or gods. But look at what people do and how they live and you will be able to tell what rules their lives, what idols they worship. We all submit throughout our lives to worshiping idols of one kind or another: money, power, guns, fame, fortune, celebrity. Even false images of God. Atheists fool themselves I think into believing they are above that because they don’t ascribe to believe in an invisible old man with white hair who lives in the sky. But look at Communism, an economic doctrine based on materialism and atheism. Communism preached liberation but no sooner than after gaining power in Russia did it fragment into hostile camps and internecene warfare between Bukarinites, Stalinists, Leninists and Trotskyites only to lapse into the horror of Soviet Russia.

    Religion has failed to live up to the promises of its founders of peace and good will to all people. But there’s hardly any organized society on earth that hasn’t succumbed to other idolatries and whether fear, hatred, greed, also succumbed to the abuse of other people. Atheism hasn’t exempted anyone from that either.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/21/2016 - 08:28 am.

      Actually no…

      I’ve noticed over the years that religious people can have a really really really hard time accepting the fact that Atheists actually exist. Jon’s “idol” observation is basically a way of denying that Atheist exist by claiming we’re all religious in one way or another whether we admit it or not. This is simply not true. To say that we have different priorities, passions, or interests is not the same as concluding that we all “worship” something.

      It’s an important distinction because some religious go as far as to claim that Atheism itself is a actually a religion. This is a fundamentally incoherent proposition that essentially demolishes the concepts of religion AND Atheism in one fell swoop.

      Religious people can have a really really really hard time understanding how completely irrelevant religion can be for an Atheist. Speaking for myself I can absolutely tell you that I don’t worship anything and I have no idols. I care about a lot of things, nature, people, my dogs, climate change etc. I admire elephants and polar bears and eagles but I don’t worship them. I admire my wife, and Francis Ford Coppola but I don’t worship them. I care about paying our bills but I don’t worship money.

      The “worship” claim destroys the concept of worship the same way the religion claim about Atheism destroys religion in that it makes worship impossible to recognize. If you tell me that taking my dogs for a walk around Lake of the Isles is a form of “worship” equivalent to praying or a sacrament of some kind, your not expanding the definition of “worship”, your demolishing the concept of worship and making it impossible to recognize. If taking a shower is: “body worship” comparable to a pilgrimage as a form of worship than worship is a meaningless endeavor.

      I don’t think the absence of idols and worship in my life makes a better person than anyone else, I’m just completely and totally uninterested in having any idols or worshiping anything. More importantly the presence of idols and worship in someone’s life in and of itself doesn’t confer any moral or spiritual superiority upon such people, that’s a fact that religious people can have real difficulty with.

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