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date: 29 January 2020

How the Media Got Secularism—With a Little Help from the New Atheists

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the increased coverage of atheism by newspapers, especially elite newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also looks at the role of the culture wars and church–state controversies in the coverage of atheism by analyzing the reporting and themes found in more conservative media coverage. The role played by the Internet in the atheist movement and its relationship with the mainstream press are discussed, along with the competition and cooperation between the print and electronic media in creating a public image for atheism. Textual analysis of the Times’ coverage of atheism in the 1960s and the 2000s and of the Washington Post from 1989 to 2013 reveals several trends in the media treatment of atheism. Finally, the article considers the atheists’ use of social media to create an alternative ethos and discourse by studying secularist websites, blogs, and YouTube sites.

Keywords: atheism, newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post, culture wars, media coverage, Internet, mainstream press, electronic media, social media

Anyone who doubted that Americans’ view of atheism was changing in the twenty-first century only had to look at the nation’s paper of record. In a 2013 opinion piece on how nonbelievers dealt with the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings the headline read, “The Blessings of Atheism: IT IS HERE & IT IS NOW!” The up-close and personal style of the piece argued that it is actually atheism rather than religion that best deals with tragedy and suffering.1 The piece represented a marked change in how atheists are represented and featured in the elite media from only two decades ago. While conservative critics regularly attacked the newspaper for being a bastion of liberal secularism, both the representation of atheist views and the reporting of atheist activity had been limited and low-key since the nineteenth century. Along with a greater atheist presence in op-eds, over the past decade the coverage of atheist subjects has also increased and changed in tone—a shift that has been propelled by atheists increasingly “coming out of the closet” to both affirm their identity as a stigmatized minority and to critique the foibles of religious America through their own forms of media, in popular books as well as online.

This chapter looks at newspaper coverage of atheism, focusing in large part on the coverage of elite newspapers as well as the more conservative and negative reporting and themes found in more general media coverage. It also briefly examines the role the Internet plays in the atheist movement and its relationship with the mainstream press and how the print and electronic media both compete and cooperate in creating a public image for a controversial social movement. The textual analysis employed in this chapter tease out several trends in the media treatment of atheism. A key finding is that the New York Times has shifted its coverage of atheism from being that of a Christian heresy to an independent social movement with its own identity and culture. To further explore this finding, the impact of the “new atheism,” which is often represented by such authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, is examined in the reporting on atheism in the Washington Post. In examining more conservative media, this chapter seeks to understand the role of the culture wars and church–state controversies in the coverage of atheism. It also examines how atheists are creating an alternative ethos and discourse, using social media to “talk back” to society while “speaking with” one another. It explores how such deliberations and activism have moved mainstream media toward more favorable treatment of this group on the one hand, while also exposing atheists to further misunderstanding and opposition on the other.

We conducted textual analysis of the Times’ coverage of atheism specifically in the 1960s and the 2000s, although articles in prior decades also were included for examination for the purpose of comparison. For the section on the Washington Post, 150 articles covering atheism were analyzed in the newspaper from 1989 to 2013. The coverage before and after the emergence of the new atheism, around the year of 2006, was given special attention. To understand how atheists created their own alternative media, secularist (the broad term we use to cover atheists and related groups, such as secular humanists) websites, blogs, and YouTube sites were studied.

The Elite Press and the Changing Face of Atheism

The New York Times’ coverage of atheist topics peaked in the 1920s (132 articles) and declined in the 1960s (86 articles) and the first decade of the new millennium (21 articles), although the reporting was quite different in style and substance for each period. In the 1920s, the coverage of atheism tended to be framed by nationwide controversies over theological liberalism in mainline Protestant churches, which critics often conflated with unbelief and atheism. Reportage on sermons delivered by prominent clergy was a regular part of early-twentieth-century journalism, and headlines such as one featuring a minister who “Assails Modernist as Aids (sic) to Atheists” was not uncommon.2 Often clergy or converts were used as sources about atheism in this and subsequent periods, as seen in an article headlined “Atheism Is Found to be on Decline,” although it was citing only a sermon in a Brooklyn congregation. 3 Religious leaders often cited atheism as a source of constant danger to believers, and their warnings were reported as an opportunity for recommitment to the faith. The most evenhanded account of atheism in 1925 reported on the oppression of atheist leaders and politicians in England and the United States yet concluded that atheism included a “nihilistic trait” that sought to repudiate the authority of state and church “and other human institutions.”4

Atheism continued to be covered as a foil for Christianity up until the 1960s, as seen in a 1963 sermon article “Ex-Atheist Tells of Rewards of Faith.”5 Under the influence of the Cold War, the atheistic aspects of Communism had received new attention in several articles—for instance, “Pope Urges Russians to Fight Red Atheism.”6 But it was the more coordinated attempts to challenge the role of religion in public life that most often brought atheism into the spotlight. Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her successful bid to remove prayer from the public schools in 1963 siphoned media attention away from other secularist groups. By the late 1960s, however, atheism was increasingly portrayed apart from a critical or antagonistic religious context and viewed on its own merits in the Times. Atheist events and topics were covered more often by the newspaper’s religion editor, and a new effort was made to be objective and evenhanded. An example of this was an article by religion writer George Dugan reporting on a debate between an atheist philosopher and a Christian theologian in which equal space was given for each position, and, in fact, the last word went to the atheist participant.7 But such coverage was still infrequent and framed around church–state issues, largely because of O’Hair’s visibility in comparison with other atheist and free-thought groups.

O’Hair’s quest to secularize America began in the 1950s, an age when Communism was considered a threat under the Cold War, and the nation, led by President Eisenhower, treated religion as a moral necessity that preserved the American way. Atheism during this period was largely conflated with Communism, and though O’Hair was avid in defending her reputation from any association, she was still labeled a Communist. The anti-Communist movement in America, in fact, helped perpetuate the view that atheists were agents of anarchy and immorality, fueling the notion that atheism is fundamentally anti-American. O’Hair, though certainly one of the most influential atheists of the twentieth century, was not the only person to confront the strong religious presence in America. In fact, she was not the first person to challenge school prayer successfully. That credit goes to Lawrence Roth. Engel v. Vitale, a case Roth initiated, was a landmark US Supreme Court case in the separation of church and state in that it ruled it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools. Unlike Roth, however, O’Hair was outspoken. And due to the media’s habit of focusing on and gravitating toward outspoken personalities, she quickly became the standard by which all other atheists were judged.8

In the 1970s, news outlets devoted attention to the growing diversity in organized atheist ranks, largely because of unrest and dissent within O’Hair’s group, American Atheists. The coverage of these “schisms” was similar in tone and style to reports of any religious denomination suffering from conflict and scandals. A 1978 article reported on members challenging O’Hair’s leadership. They charged she had abused the group’s funds and made anti-Semitic remarks. Some members left for established organizations, such as Freedom from Religion Foundation, while others started their own regional groups that affiliated with larger bodies.9 But O’Hair’s personality and her organization continued to typify atheism for the Times, as it ignored a fairly wide range of nontheist and humanist groups existing at the time. In such articles, O’Hair was portrayed as a lone, eccentric crusader. Even if her most successful efforts were fairly covered, she could also be publicly ridiculed, as when an editorial in the Times poked fun at her crusade to stop astronauts from reading passages from the Bible in space.10

Since the mid-twentieth century, secularist or “free-thought” groups have included explicitly atheist movements such as American Atheists and Freedom from Religion Foundation, as well as humanist groups that are often considered nontheistic religions (i.e., they hold services, have clergy and claim tax-exempt status, and generally define religion in a naturalistic sense), such as Ethical Culture, a segment of Unitarian-Universalism, Humanistic Judaism, and the American Humanist Association. The humanistic groups, including the more recently formed secular humanists (the largest secularist movement today), tend to take a less polemical stance against all religions and stress positive values, such as ethics and social action, as well as a nontheistic approach.

Media coverage thrives on controversy. And while many stories involving O’Hair and atheism played up this angle, more serious and analytical articles appeared as well. One of the Times’ most positive articles on atheism appeared in the Sunday magazine. Editor Walter Goodman reported on a meeting of atheists sponsored by O’Hair’s Society of Separationists. Although the piece noted the gathering’s sparse attendance and languid pace, Goodman seemed to have a new appreciation of the atheists, viewing them as a beleaguered but admirable and courageous group of individuals. He came to the “disquieting” conclusion that “people who have historically done little harm compared with zealots operating under supernatural auspices, who can lay fair claim to having science and the Constitution on their side, who are entirely law abiding—that these people in a society we are pleased to think of as secular should nonetheless have such good reason to feel themselves to be pariahs.”11

The turmoil that engulfed O’Hair and her organizations at the turn of the millennium, eventually leading to her disappearance and murder by an associate, did not end the Times’ coverage of American Atheists. The paper reported on O’Hair’s successor Ellen Johnson and her more low-key approach to issues. In 2000, religion reporter Laurie Goodstein wrote a sympathetic portrayal of Johnson and how “these are hard days for atheists in America.”12 These controversies surrounding American Atheists did open the field to the other secularist groups and movements that had existed all along. Coverage in the first decade of the millennium also broadened to include atheism as a lifestyle and a personal and political identity as well as a movement. As if in counterpoint to the growing influence of the Christian right, several articles reported on the growing outspokenness of atheists. In another article, Goodstein reported on atheists and secular humanists in South Carolina, as well as in the nation as a whole, who were working together to counteract the influence of the religious right. The article compared the atheist strategy to the gay rights movement because proponents urged “closeted” members to go public with their identity.13

The rise of the new atheism, marked by books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens that aggressively attacked religion, also was noticed by the Times. Most of this coverage was critical, with religion commentator Peter Steinfels taking the lead in targeting the “dogmatism” of new atheist authors, reflecting the narrow stance of their religious antagonists and even the precarious state of the Enlightenment in meeting current challenges.14 In a 2009 column, Steinfels drew on recent intellectual atheist writings and authors to show how their deep philosophical and nonpolemical approach contrasted favorably with the “in-your-face” new atheist literature.15 Steinfels and other writers seemed to reflect a general stance of the Times and other elite newspapers that the new atheists were too extreme. It may have been that the aggressive attacks on religion launched by the new atheists were too radical for a newspaper that itself had used editorials to criticize the public role of religious institutions on such issues as abortion, gay rights, and politics in general. Traditionally, the Times draws on liberal and moderate religious allies in an editorial approach that favors a limited role for religion in politics—a strategy that would be jeopardized by associating itself with the new atheism and its antagonism for religion in general, whether liberal, moderate, or conservative.

Apparent in post-2000 feature pieces and op-eds, the Times’ treatment of atheism has extended to lifestyle and identity concerns. The fact that some Times editors and writers publicly identify with atheism is a marked change from just three decades ago. In a 2001 article “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” Times science writer Natalie Angier reviewed the still-prevalent animosity toward atheism in the United States at a time when public religiosity was prevalent and then “outed” herself as an atheist.16 In a 2007 “editorial observer” column, Eduardo Porter self-identified as an atheist and recounted how he felt excluded as an American when politicians claimed a renewed public role for religion.17 The assumption of both news and opinion articles in today’s Times is that atheism is an acceptable choice to be represented alongside religious belief.

A similar change can be observed in other elite newspapers, such as the Washington Post. In an examination of Washington Post articles on atheism between 1989 and 2013, we find a significant difference in the style of reporting before and after 2006 (when most of the new atheist books were published and the phenomenon was first dubbed the “new atheism”). First, there was an expansion of coverage: of the 150 articles examined, about two-thirds were published in 2006 and after. But it was the tone and style of the reportage and commentary that stood out. Pre-2006 articles tended to fall into the categories of church–state issues (reporting on atheist activism for stricter separation of church and state), events and incidents involving O’Hair or her successors, and 9/11, which ignited coverage of atheist attacks against religion. Most of these articles were hard news stories with little “color” in the way of personality profiles or first-person narratives. A 1992 article, “Many Nonbelievers Keep Their Views Quiet,” was an exception because it profiled Washington, D.C., secularists who remained “in the closet.”18

The post-2006 articles were similar to those of the New York Times in the same period: There was coverage of atheist diversity beyond O’Hair and her successors. Stories explored not only a variety of organizations but also the ways atheism was integrated into individuals’ everyday lives, dealing with family and identity issues. Coverage included a feature on an atheist camp, reporting on atheist parenting in the face of tragedies, stories on how atheists handle holidays, and an article on the innovation of “kosher atheism.” There also were more personal accounts of atheism from regular columnists, such as Herb Silverman, as well as a range of atheist spokespersons. Susan Jacoby exemplifies the newfound tolerance for nonbelievers who are offered space to express their opinions on religious issues. An author of best-selling nonfiction on secularism and atheism, Jacoby has written for the Washington Post since 2006. Her pieces appear in the On Faith section, which covers religion and faith-based activities and issues.

The burgeoning atheist activism and increased visibility of atheists has created a new market for such coverage and inclusion. Although the new atheism was an important driver of the news media’s diversification and personalization of atheist issues, the phenomenon itself was met with more criticism than sympathy in both papers. As noted previously, a critical attitude toward the “anger” and “dogmatism” of the new atheism has been evident in most news coverage from the beginning.19

Overall, there has been a shift in the Times (and most likely the Washington Post, although we did not look back that far) from the pre-1960s editorial stance that stigmatized atheism as a deviant position in the face of religious norms, to the post-1960s approach of reporting on atheism as an ideological movement alongside religion (evident in assigning religion reporters to cover atheist news). Finally, at the turn of the millennium, atheism was covered not only as a quasi-religious phenomenon but also as a political identity and lifestyle choice that is one among many voices in a pluralistic America. Before discussing the role of the Internet in media coverage, we discuss some of the types of negative coverage of atheists and atheism.

Culture War Controversies and the Critical Coverage of Atheism

In the past, many Americans may have learned about atheism and atheists through news stories about religious freedom controversies (such as school prayer) and church–state conflicts. As the previous analysis shows, newspapers such as the Times and the Washington Post present these conflicts and legal challenges in a matter-of-fact manner without any overt bias one way or the other (pushing a secular liberal notion of democracy that is, at least theoretically, neutral on matters of religion and atheism alike). More conservative, partisan venues, on the other hand, tend to frame such actions as an assault or “war” on Christian values. Fox News is the exemplar of such coverage. Bill O’Reilly, for example, gives an annual speech that targets anyone who challenges the public display of religious symbols or who expresses concern about religion being pressed on their children via Christmas plays, pageants, and music classes. O’Reilly casts these challenges as a battle between “secularists” and “traditionalists” and pays little attention to atheism as a movement or as a philosophical position.20 Since the advent of narrowcasting media such as cable or digital television and then the Internet, the number of news outlets has exploded, but they have also opened up the possibility of being more partisan and targeting a more specific audience, even as the nation remains an organizing principle and imagined audience for many news producers.

An underlying assumption of such portrayals is that atheists are angry outsiders. Coverage of atheism in such articles is connected to disturbances in the status quo, and atheists are represented as outliers looking to challenge social conventions or to cause trouble where none previously existed. A New York Post piece written by Andrea Peyser on the controversy around the cross at Ground Zero opens with, “These atheists can go straight to hell.” It continues, “Whatever one sees in it—from the face of survival to the face of God—it’s unlikely to be what the atheists see” and accuses “the organized army of atheists” who oppose the cross of striking “when the country is at its most vulnerable.”21

Social and cultural conflicts get public attention. Billboards are mundane, but when atheists are involved, outdoor advertising becomes newsworthy. As a Baptist pastor quoted in an AP piece on atheist billboards in Oklahoma put it, “If liberalism, if the Devil himself, can make inroads in Oklahoma, that would be a great victory [for atheists] to be trumpeted across the land.”22 Besides quoting a religious leader who seemingly considers liberalism synonymous with not only atheism but “the Devil himself,” the AP story also mentions that a local Satanist group is planning an event, an odd addition that serves to conflate atheism with another marginal and misunderstood group. Another AP article mentions that “[i]n rural Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an ‘Imagine No Religion’ billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking, ‘Why Do Atheists Hate America?’”23 And in discussing David Silverman, president of American Atheists, and the billboard the group paid to erect in Times Square, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights remarked:

This year Silverman wanted to make a big splash, so he decided to draw blood. It shows what he is made of. He and his supporters do not want to be left alone—they want to inflame the passions of those with whom they disagree. Unlike Christians who do not provoke, harass or otherwise mock atheists, Silverman and his ilk want nothing more than to stick it to Christians at Christmastime. It’s who they are.24

The news media’s past coverage of atheism revolved around O’Hair and contemporary coverage gravitates toward conflicts and “schisms” around the new atheism. Although adjectives like “militant” have been appropriated by some atheists, news outlets generally use them as pejorative shorthand to label secularists as combative, aggressive, and undemocratic. This makes it easier, in turn, to dismiss atheistic discourse from the public sphere insofar as it does not conform to norms of civility. Some examples of articles positioning atheists as extremists include the AP noting, “Militant, atheist writers are making an all-out assault on religious faith and reaching the top of the best-seller list, a sign of widespread resentment over the influence of religion in the world among nonbelievers.”25

Stories often portray these new atheist authors as threatening and militant, even in the New York Times and the Washington Post, 26 while other groups such as secular and religious humanists are portrayed as relatively benign and eager to reach across the aisle to collaborate with religious interests.27 An AP article titled “A New Fundamentalism? Some Decry Strident Tone of Fellow Atheist,” for example, starts with: “Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant…. And who’s leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.” Defining humanism as “stressing principles such as dignity of the individual, equality and social justice,” the piece continues:

Among the millions of Americans who don’t believe God exists, there’s a split between people such as Greg Epstein…. [and] New Atheists…. including best-selling authors Richard Dawkins, who has called the God of the Old Testament “a psychotic delinquent,” and Sam Harris, who foresees global catastrophe unless faith is renounced. 28

Beyond this simplified distinction between “good,” accommodating atheists and “bad,” angry ones, coverage of atheism in the mainstream media rarely distinguishes one group of atheists from another. Instead, coverage tends to conflate the varieties of atheistic thought and individuals and speak of atheists in general. In fact there is a broad spectrum of atheism, which was confirmed in a 2011 Internet survey of nonbelievers. Asked how they self-identify, their answers were far-ranging: “I find it difficult to choose between secular humanist and atheist. The first defines how I relate to humanity, the second defines how I relate to the universe”; “I prefer to self-identify as an atheist, despite the explaining and debate that sometimes requires (which I welcome), but I also consider myself a humanist and a freethinker”; “I’m a Unitarian…. and somewhat quiet about my atheism, even among my friends”; “I say that I have no belief in the supernatural. Lately there has existed a group of persons who share my beliefs; they call themselves ‘Brights.’” These examples confirm that the atheist landscape is highly pluralistic, made up of multiple groups and subgroups, consisting of individuals holding diverse ideas, philosophies, and political stances as well as divergent definitions of secularity even as they share some level of consciousness. As Hitchens, referring to nonbelievers has stated: “We’re not a unified group. But we’re of one mind on this: The only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason, irony, humor, and literature, things of this kind.” 29 On the one hand, when the press conflates atheism with the “new atheists” it misses the variety of atheistic thought. Such labeling also works to disconnect such thought from its historical and cultural lineage in the United States. On the other hand, in playing up the schisms the press downplays the fact that there are substantial and fundamental points on which all nonbelievers agree.

Mark Silk’s study of the press’s use of religious topoi also helps explain the tendency to focus on conventional religious themes that would preclude in-depth treatment of the philosophical and religious questions surrounding the new atheism. Silk finds that the media follow a limited number of storylines or topoi that include such religious and quasi-religious values as tolerance, inclusiveness, opposition to hypocrisy, “good works,” exposing “false prophets” and unconventional religions, and even a sympathy (at least in tabloids and newsweeklies) for the supernatural.30 Such a repertoire applied toward atheism might limit the media’s sensitivity toward secularist issues (and provide animus toward such a contentious phenomenon as the new atheism). At the same time, however, these storylines of inclusiveness and tolerance are broad enough to reach outside of mainstream religion to include atheism, at least in its gentler forms.

An Internet survey of atheists found similar tensions in their views of the media. For example, when asked, “Do you feel that the media—particularly popular media—is supportive of your secularism/atheism?” one respondent answered, “I do feel that the media takes a fairly open view of beliefs…. Although biased ‘reporters’ such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly make things difficult with their bigoted attempts to turn all things un-Christian into evil incarnate in the public eye.” Another stated that the media provide “mixed support depending on the conservative/liberal bias of the media source.”

On the one hand, mainstream newspapers and professional journalism are understood as neutral forums for public debate; on the other, they are understood as partisan and biased. Understanding these contradictory and overlapping views of the press and media more generally helps explain the ambivalence as well as the growing discontent with “the media,” especially among minority groups such as atheists and evangelicals—both of whom often argue that the media is biased (and both of whom would disagree with a notion of public discourse that demands neutrality with respect to religious belief or lack thereof). “Atheism has always been cast in the lowest regard by the media and most everyone in America,” asserted one atheist surveyed. “I tend to be more outspoken now.”

In considering this last quote, one role the mainstream media may play in the formation of a sense of community among a dispersed population of atheists is by excluding them from the dominant discourse, therein articulating their outsider status and pushing them to form a counter-public with one another. In perceiving themselves to be excluded and communicating about it, they help constitute a discursive arena. This communication may take place in physical spaces, but it may also take place through dispersed, asynchronous communication online. The term “counter-public” signifies, first, that not all significant speech occurs in officially sanctioned manners or forums and, second, that there are always multiple publics and varied forms of publicity operating within a general or more dominate notion of “the public.”

From “The Press” to Presentation

Atheists, like many underrepresented groups, are not content to merely be represented by others; they desire to represent themselves. Following Walter Benjamin, this desire to self-represent is intensified when atheists appear as a spectacle to themselves in the center of a representation that they themselves would like to produce, a representation that also constitutes a common space. The Internet does not only transmit information and representations to a public “out there” but also functions as a source of publicity itself insofar as being public today increasingly means being online. Part of the Internet’s power and appeal for historically underrepresented groups is that it provides them with the material means and space to speak out

in public, as themselves, unscripted and unrehearsed, as writers of their own texts and producers of their own public pronouncements and utterances…. Informal, emotional, gossipy, trivial, entertaining as they may be (and they are), these discursive practices represent an unprecedented intrusion of [atheists] into the discursive apparatus of the media. And this intrusion accounts, to a great degree, for the very visible shift in the direction of the private, the intimate, in public debate.31

Atheists coming out on a scale and in a manner heretofore unseen “as writers of their own [blogs] and producers of their own [videos]” is opening up an active space for atheists to construct and share mutual concerns about their situation at a time when American public life is still largely functioning under a norm of religiosity. Such media—which are public spaces by virtue of being electronically reproduced and disseminated—challenge the private/public distinction in allowing personal, intimate, and issue-based concerns a more public airing. Atheist blogs, sites, and videos derive at least part of their significance from promoting the nontrivial nature and importance of secular concerns and issues in public discourse. At a minimum, then, these media expand secular discussion and create news and forums for debate. In addition, as means for empowering atheists to speak out and represent themselves to the public “in public,” these media create new forms of virtual association around political issues concerned with inclusion and the separation of church and state, as well as cultural issues concerned with identities, norms, and alternative values. Part of the novelty of such media, in fact, is that they are making the personal more public. Just as feminists have focused on creating political identities from previously private concerns, atheists are bringing their expressions of nonbelief and atheist concerns into the public sphere as well. In doing so, they are also challenging the liberal norm that religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should be a private as opposed to a political matter. Looking at atheists’ efforts online, they are finding opportunities to present their own stories and narratives, engaging in the specific and substantive issues that the elite or mainstream media would prefer to leave to the private sphere, even as they draw on such media and articles within this electronic medium.

Not only have atheists gone online; newspapers have as well. One consequence of this is a “doubling,” wherein stories are reposted, embedded, and hyperlinked to other spaces and sites. Additionally, there is an ongoing revision and extending of the pieces, with commentary, critiques, and so on. For example, a 2011 New York Times article on African-American atheists highlights how “YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like ‘Godless and Black’ have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance to share their struggles with ‘coming out’” as atheists.32 In turn, the blogs The Friendly Atheist and Black Skeptics both published posts on the Times story. The article was also reposted on In all three cases, the content of the initial article was never merely duplicated but broadened and taken in various directions by the “co-authors” and commentators. In this media environment, where everyone is a potential journalist and “the center is everywhere,” newspaper content becomes an invitation to further communication and the source of additional content, and mediation becomes a precondition for further information, communication, and connection. In short, to paraphrase a famous passage by Clifford Geertz, “it’s mediation all the way down.” From this perspective, the journalistic practice, the newspaper format, the print medium, and notions of publicity itself are coevolving cultural forms within a broader, open-ended, sociotechnological evolution in which we all participate.


This chapter has looked at the upsurge and growth of atheist coverage in the news. Such growth is especially significant given that American political discourse is still largely sympathetic to religious interests and, by extension, at least implicitly indifferent and in some cases hostile to the notion of nonbelief and nonbelievers as a group. Indeed, in assessing American attitudes since O’Hair, it is apparent that the pro-atheist discourse online and the new atheist discourse, driven by Dawkins et al., has provided the main source of criticism of American religiosity. And that still, more often than not, atheism is positioned in opposition to religiosity whenever it is discussed or covered in the press. In spite of the fact that there is a socially liberal orientation and tone within the leading institutions of journalism in the United States, the long-standing and prevailing stereotype and image of the “atheist as outsider” has not been completely effaced and indeed has been reinforced in some ways with the increased publicity surrounding atheism. In short, misunderstandings persist, with the very word atheist still evoking fears of a threat to religious values in some geographic regions and media outlets. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of atheists “talking back” online provides nonbelievers with the means to dissent and represent themselves within this pluralistic, if still largely religious, society.


Carpignano, Paolo. “The Shape of the Sphere: The Public Sphere and the Materiality of Communication.” Constellations 6 (1999): 177–189.Find this resource:

Dierenfield, Bruce. “The Most Hated Woman in America.” The Journal of Supreme Court History 32 (2007): 62–84.Find this resource:

Goldberg, Rachel Tillie. “Counterpublics and Media Policy: Atheism and the Challenge to Public Sphere Boundaries.” Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, 2009.Find this resource:

Gregory, Todd. “After Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas’ Rant, Fox Wishes Viewers ‘Happy Holidays.“ Media Matters, December 13, 2012:

Lightman, Bernard. “Beating Up on the New Atheists.” Religion in the News (Summer/Fall) 2007:,2/newatheists.htm.

Silk, Mark. Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.Find this resource:


(2) “Assails Modernist As Aids to Atheists,” New York Times (May 4, 1925).

(3) “Atheism is Found to be on Decline,” New York Times (August 24, 1942).

(4) “Atheists Seek New Support,” New York Times (December 27, 1925).

(5) “Ex-Atheist Tells of Rewards of the Faith,” New York Times (August 1963).

(6) “Pope Urges Russians to Resist Red Atheism,” New York Times (July 24, 1952).

(7) George Dugan, “Ancient Debate of Theism vs. Atheism Is Taken Up at Conference in Brockport.” New York Times (October 21, 1967).

(8) Bruce Dierenfield, “The Most Hated Woman in America” The Journal of Supreme Court History 32 (2007): 62–84.

(9) George Vecsey, “Some in Atheist Movement Are Challenging Madalyn O’Hair,” New York Times (May 17, 1978).

(10) “Faith in Space,” New York Times (August 20, 1969).

(11) Walter Goodman, “‘There Are No Churches for Atheists,’” New York Times (May 16, 1976).

(12) Laurie Goodstein, “It’s a Harsh Political Climate for a Believer in Nonbelief,” New York Times (September 16, 2000).

(13) Laurie Goodstein, “More Atheists Are Shouting It From Rooftops,” New York Times (April 29, 2009).

(14) Richard A. Shweder, “Atheists Agonistes,” New York Times (November 27, 2006).

(15) Peter Steinfels, “The New Atheism and Something More,” New York Times (February 14, 2009).

(16) Natalie Angier, “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” New York Times (January 14, 2001).

(17) Eduardo Porter, “Campaigns Like These Make It Hard to Find a Reason to Believe,” New York Times (December 14, 2007).

(18) Barbara J. Saffir, “Many Nonbelievers Keep Their Views Quiet,” Washington Post (May 30, 1992).

(19) Bernard Lightman, “Beating Up on the New Atheists,” Religion in the News (Summer/Fall 2007),,2/newatheists.htm.

(20) Todd Gregory, “After Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas’ Rant, Fox Wishes Viewers ‘Happy Holidays,’” Media Matters (December 13, 2012),

(21) Andrea Peyser, “The Cross They Just Can’t Bear,” New York Post (August 1, 2011),

(22) Charles Ray, “Atheist Billboard Provokes Oklahoma Christians,” Associated Press (September 10, 2010),

(23) Stephanie Simon, “Atheists Reach Out; Don’t Call It Proselytizing,” Associated Press (November 18, 2008).

(24) Bill Donahue, “Atheists Exploit Jesus Crucified,” Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (December 11, 2012),

(25) Rachel Zoll, “Angry Atheist Books Sell, Revealing New Intensity to Public Angst Over Faith,” Associated Press (November 18, 2008).

(26) Jacqueline L. Salmon, “Sparring Over Things Unseen; Hitchens vs. McGrath: A Matchup Made in Heaven? Good Question,” Washington Post (October 13, 2007).

(27) Rachel Tillie Goldberg, “Counterpublics and Media Policy: Atheism and the Challenge to Public Sphere Boundaries,” Doctoral dissertation (University of Washington, 2009), 141–146.

(28) Jay Lindsay, “A New Fundamentalism? Some Decry Strident Tone of Fellow Atheists,” Associated Press (March 31, 2007).

(29) Benedicta Cipolla, “Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?” The Washington Post (May 26, 2007).

(30) Mark Silk, Unsecular Media (Chicago: University of Illinois Press: 1995), 49–56.

(31) Paolo Carpignano, “The Shape of the Sphere: The Public Sphere and the Materiality of Communication,” Constellations 6 (1999): 177–189.

(32) Emily Brennan, “The Unbelievers,” New York Times (November 25, 2011).