Atheist Brigade Takes Arguments to the Tolerant

In response to the growing power of religious extremism, a small group of atheists has taken a new approach. Going on the offensive, they target the tolerant, with both reason - and ridicule. Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR's On the Media, reports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Atheism has never gained much of a foothold in the United States. Barely 1 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheists. Now, a small group of nonbelievers has a new approach to getting their message out: challenging the faithful with a fiery rhetorical blend of reason and ridicule, especially ridicule.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written that this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is intolerant and mean toward conservative Christians.

Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR's On the Media reports on the new atheist offensive.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Atheism already had a PR problem. Then came Sam Harris, author of "Letter to a Christian Nation." When he wrote that since 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, God is, quote, the most prolific abortionist of all, he really made people mad.

Harris is one of the most vocal spokesmen for the so-called new atheists. Along with Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion." They wield logic like a bludgeon. So much so, that even Comedy Central's "South Park," a series that has savaged Scientology, Christian fundamentalism, and the Mormons, got out the knives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH PARK")

TREY PARKER: (As character) Let us not forget the great Richard Dawkins, who finally freed the world of religion long ago. Dawkins knew that logic and reason were the way of the future. But it wasn't until he met his beautiful wife that he learned using logic and reason isn't enough. You have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you.

GLADSTONE: Sam Harris concedes he's on a mission to make moderates less moderate.

Mr. SAM HARRIS (Author, "Letter to a Christian Nation") Because moderates insist that we respect their religious faith, we can't criticize the role that religious faith is playing in dividing people.

GLADSTONE: And Harris says moderates are mistaken if they believe the wall between church and state can protect us from extremists. They've already scaled it.

HARRIS: If you think the creator of the universe is letting people fly planes into our buildings because we are tolerating gay marriage or he's whipping up hurricanes in the Gulf because we're tolerating gay marriage, you have to try to legislate against gay marriage. There's nothing intolerant or mean or fundamentalist or dogmatic about opposing this kind of delusion.

GARY WOLF: Real life differs from culture wars in the media.

GLADSTONE: Gary Wolf wrote about the new atheists in Wired magazine. He says that the blunt tactics used by the new atheists cannot be applied to personal arguments over faith, where delicate family and work relationships might hang in the balance. He says the polemics of new atheism can be just as nasty as the fundamentalists.

WOLF: So, while I don't accuse the atheists of being fundamentalists, the rhetoric they use resonates with the religious rhetoric that controls much of our cultural debate today.

GLADSTONE: Sam Harris.

HARRIS: There's nothing fundamentalist about rejecting the claim that the universe is 6,000 years old.

GLADSTONE: Yes, there is, says Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson speaking on "The 700 Club."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE 700 CLUB")

PAT ROBERTSON: What we've got to recognize just there in this case is that the evolutionists worship atheism. I mean that's their religion.

GLADSTONE: If, in fact, atheism were a religion it might get more respect.

ELLEN JOHNSON: We're all familiar with phrases like, you know, I hate to say it: Jews are cheap, Italians are in the mafia, blacks are on welfare, gays are promiscuous, and atheists are immoral.

GLADSTONE: Ellen Johnson is the president of American Atheists, but the phrase she hates most of all goes a little something like this -

KATIE COURIC: Perhaps you've heard the expression there are no atheists in foxholes.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Wartime, there are no atheists in foxholes.

JOHN BURNETT: To amend the old saying about foxholes, there are no atheists driving trucks in Iraq.

GLADSTONE: That was CBS's Katie Couric and Bob Schieffer and NPR's John Burnett. Those were just the three we got tape of. News people say it all the time. Ellen Johnson.

JOHNSON: It's demeaning to atheists. It's saying that under very dire circumstances or frightening situations, atheists will stop being atheists, they will start believing. And this is really just a wish on the part of the religious, because it's not based in fact.

BURNETT: I thought it was a good line for the tape.

GLADSTONE: NPR's John Burnett.

BURNETT: And I didn't realize that it was so offensive to atheists, and I learned that in spades after the story came out. They spammed me for weeks with e-mail saying we're outraged. So now I know.

GLADSTONE: And did you sort of see their point?

BURNETT: I do see their point. I literally hadn't thought about it before, and frankly, I will think twice about using the phrase again.

GLADSTONE: So if the news media aren't sensitive to atheists, Hollywood must be, right? I mean the political right says it's so gay and liberal and irreligious.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE")

HUGH LAURIE: (As Dr. House) Faith, that's another for ignorance, isn't it?

GLADSTONE: That's Dr. Gregory House, a brilliant if antisocial diagnostician and the main character in the Fox medical drama "House." He's also an atheist. In a recent episode House comes up against a teenage faith healer who seems to be curing a patient with terminal cancer.

LAURIE: (As Dr. House) I fear for the human race. A teenager claims to be the voice of God and people with advanced degrees are listening.

GLADSTONE: In a hospital staff lounge, a colleague posts a scoreboard with two columns - House vs. God. Whenever House can't explain a medical result, says David Shore, creator of the series -

DAVID SHORE: God got a check mark. When House explained something, House got a check mark.

GLADSTONE: At the end of the show on that little tally board, you left it at a draw.

SHORE: Yes.

GLADSTONE: Put I think you were actually pulling your punches a little there, weren't you?

SHORE: I hope not. Maybe. I do it sometimes. I don't know.

GLADSTONE: Yes, he does, because House actually found a medical explanation for everything the faith healer claimed to be doing through God.

Hollywood usually pulls its punches on atheism. Mostly, TV atheists are lost souls. Like Jen in the teenage drama "Dawson's Creek," that ran from 1998 to 2003. Here was Jen in the series premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAWSON'S CREEK")

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Jen Lindley) You know, I don't do real well with church and the Bible and this prayer stuff.

MARY BETH PEIL: (As Grams) I beg your pardon?

WILLIAMS: (As Jen Lindley) I don't covet a religious god. Grams, I'm an atheist.

GLADSTONE: And here she is in the series finale, terminally ill taping a farewell message to her baby daughter.

WILLIAMS: (As Jen Lindley) The thing that I've come to realize sweetheart is that it just doesn't matter if God exists or not. The important thing is for you to believe in something.

GLADSTONE: Sam Harris.

HARRIS: The idea is that while I don't need religion and you don't need religion, everyone else does. Everyone else is still living in childhood in some sense, and it lacks compassion to wake them up into adulthood. That is condescending.

GLADSTONE: Harris says the only way to win is to keep up the pressure until religious tolerance is no longer tolerated.

HARRIS: I think the criticism of irrationality just has to come from 100 sides all at once. In the entertainment community, maybe you'll just have people making jokes that are funny enough and true enough so as to put religious certainty in a bad light.

STEPHEN COLBERT: We know atheists are brave.

GLADSTONE: Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

COLBERT: They're not afraid to go to hell and be tortured by Satan for all eternity, which is what's going to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: One day someone in the White House press corps will hear the president of the United States express some certainty about being in dialogue with the creator of the universe and he or she will ask a question which should be on everybody's mind - you know, how is this any different from thinking you're in dialogue with Zeus?

GLADSTONE: That day is far off. But Harris has a great deal of faith in his fellow man.

HARRIS: I'm hopeful that journalists and people in the entertainment industry are waiting for the permission to express their doubts, and I think that permission is coming. I mean I'm trying to do what I can to engineer it in my hardheaded and boorish way.

And I feel, just from the contacts I have in both industries, that there's a profound sense of relief that comes with hearing somebody call a spade a spade.

GLADSTONE: Was that what Stephen Colbert was doing when he addressed an audience of Hollywood elite at the Emmy's this year?

COLBERT: Good evening godless Sodamites.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GLADSTONE: Harris may have no tolerance for the Gospel, but as an atheist trying to enlist Hollywood in his crusade, Colbert's greeting has to sound like some kind of good news.

SIEGEL: Brooke Gladstone is a host of WNYC's On the Media.

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