Spreading the Gospel of Godlessness

As usual, Lenten season was time to cue up the media attacks on Christianity and faith. 

One of the most offensive blows in the annual Easter faith-flagellation fest came from Comedy Central on a show called Root of All Evil.  Comedian-prosecutors were tasked with making the case as to which defendant was the “root of all evil.”  The choices were Oprah and the Catholic Church.

Said the Catholic Church “prosecutor”: “Then there's the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary! God impregnated Mary. We have a whole religion based on one woman who reeeeeeally stuck to her story.”

Then there was NBC's Holy Week Law and Order episode about a college student, trained in a Christian version of a madrassa, who stones his mother to death for committing adultery.

Sadly, most Christians are not surprised by this kind of invective.  The media – entertainment and news – often treat Christianity and faith in God with indifference if not outright hostility.

For atheists it's a different story.

In 2007 three books by atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens— made the bestseller lists.  The news media used this fact to shine the spotlight on atheism and atheists throughout the year.  And while there is nothing wrong with reporting a trend, media coverage of the godless and their beliefs was virtually uncritical. Unlike Christianity and Christians, atheism and atheists got a free ride.

At times, the media blatantly promoted atheism.  In September, ABC's Good Morning America Sunday ran a feature on an atheist convention.  ABC proclaimed that atheism was “unleashed,” that “more and more” people were becoming atheists, and that the “stigma” of being an atheist “may be fading.”

Apostles of Atheism, a just-released special report from the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute, examines the 2007 coverage of atheism by several national news outlets.  CMI reviewed all news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC, every 2007 issue of Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report, and four news programs aired on taxpayer-funded National Public Radio (All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and Talk of the Nation).  CMI found 105 stories that either featured atheism or mentioned atheism in the context of reporting on culture, religion and politics.

The study finds that 80 percent of the feature stories on atheism or atheists had a positive tone, like Time's December 3 story about a Sunday school for atheists.  No feature stories were negative. Another finding: journalists frequently introduced atheistic critiques into stories about Christianity but never into stories about other religious faiths.

For example, Newsweek chose atheist Christopher Hitchens, an infamous Mother Teresa basher, to review a book about the revered nun's spiritual struggles, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.  Hitchens said the subtitle of the book was “slightly sickly,” described the handwritten notes contained in the book as “scrawled” and “desperate,” called Mother Teresa a “confused old lady” and wrote that her letters and what he presumes to be her loss of faith was “the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.”

In contrast, Newsweek reporter Jerry Adler reviewed Hitchens' book God is Not Great with unconcealed delight:  “…he has been known to give the middle finger to audiences who disagree with him.  They get off lightly, compared to God.”

The Golden Compass, a movie based on a book by atheist author Philip Pullman, was released in December of 2007.  The Golden Compass is part of a trilogy aimed at children that disparages religion and, in the end, kills God. The media outlets studied in this report largely ignored or trivialized the concerns of Christians about the movie. In fact, only CBS's The Early Show and NPR's Morning Edition gave the controversy serious attention, even though Pullman is on record saying his books are “about killing God.”

Atheists argue that the existence of God cannot be proved and that religious faith is not required to be a good person.  Interestingly, according to State of the News Media 2007, a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 91 percent of journalists working for national news organizations say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.  Did this convergence of beliefs lead the press to give atheism a free ride in 2007?

As millions of Christians celebrate Easter, the holiest day of the year, there is no doubt that atheism's high priests will be ready to offer their opinions on the folly of believing in the Resurrection.  The question is whether the media will give them an unchallenged platform once again. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute and author of the special report Apostles of Atheism.