CNN Special Report - Why Atheism is Newsworthy

CNN recently published a very nice, very long, article about The Friendly Atheists Next Door. It was nice in the sense that it showed a pleasant once-Catholic, now-atheist family in a positive light. It was long due to its detailed coverage of their journey through questioning, coming-out and finding acceptance. And it ties into a CNN Special Report titled Atheists: Inside the World of Non-Believers.

The special airs tonight, Tuesday, March 24, at 9pm. You can watch the trailer below:


I have some problems with this trailer.

In an ominous tone, the announcer says that many Americans are "losing their faith," but they "haven't stopped searching for answers." Which is a bit contradictory to the later statement that atheism can "bring peace to the soul." You know, despite devastating families and causing atheists to lose "it all."

I don't like the whisperingly-urgent narration, the take-me-seriously scoring, the melodramatic overtones or the general look-at-the-zoo-animals vibe. But this is only the trailer.

I don't know how CNN will slant this special report. I don't know who they're trying to reach. Will they show that atheists are simply people, like everyone else? Will the entire special be a cringe-filled parade of tropes about atheists being bitter, cynical, unfulfilled, angry or logical to the point of lacking emotion?

Will anyone who watches it actually learn anything or change their opinion of atheists?

Let's go back to that friendly atheist family from the CNN article, the Shaughnessys. The husband/father, Harry, was raised Catholic. The wife/mother, Charlotte, was raised Episcopalian, but she converted to Catholicism to marry Harry. Their atheism came later, when their daughter had questions during her own First Communion.

Their story is familiar. Like many atheist coming-out stories it differs in its details, but covers many of the same points:
  • Raised in a religious or somewhat religious family
  • Had questions that couldn't be answered
  • Explored other religions to see if they were a better fit
  • Realized that the world makes more sense without religion
  • Had "devastated" family members praying for their return to faith
  • Created their own rituals for holidays
  • Reached out to other atheists and non-believers
  • Reached some kind of acceptance with estranged family
Of course, that last one often doesn't happen. Some atheists are never accepted by some members of their families or some former friends.

In fact, the whole list may not apply to some atheists. We're a wide, diverse group. There are those who were raised without religion. There are those who simply drifted out of their church-life and into atheism without much fuss. There are those who took entirely different paths. But, in general, this is a pretty typical atheist journey.

So why does a rather run-of-the-mill story get such in-depth coverage?

Because, in this country, religion is viewed as the default. It is assumed that everyone has a religion and--even if they don't go to church--that they believe in god. At the very least, they must be "spiritual" in some way.

Those who are not religious are "different" and, despite our claims of embracing diversity, our society is deeply suspicious of different.

Atheism is also newsworthy because it is on the rise. A growing number of people are identifying as unaffiliated with religion, whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics or non-believers.

Some people also feel threatened by atheism. Maybe because it raises questions or maybe because it simply presents an alternative to their faith.

Studies have shown that heterosexual people tend to have less sexual prejudice and more positive feelings toward gays, when they have personal relationships with them. Having gay friends and relatives helps people see past the stereotypes and fear-mongering to realize that they are simply people like themselves.

Atheists can likely benefit from more exposure as well. I've heard some variation of "you're too nice to be an atheist!" often enough to know that many people have negative images of atheists. Perhaps tonight's special report will help dispel some of those myths. Or not, because ratings.

Whatever happens, I'll be watching and hoping for a day when atheism gains enough acceptance to no longer be newsworthy.


1 comment:

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