New Special Report: Apostles of Atheism

In all the brouhaha last week over the incendiary comments made by Barack Obama's pastor the media seemed to forget to partake in their traditional Holy Week Christian-bashing excercise.  There were a few entries in the "Easter Hit Parade," like the Comedy Central show "Root of All Evil" which my boss, Brent Bozell, wrote about in a column recently, and an episode of "Law and Order" which featured another Christian-stones-someone storyline. I suppose it's good news that there was less faith flagellation courtesy of the liberal media, and yet at the same time it's sad that I was expecting to find it at Easter time.  But the fact remains that Christmas and Easter are generally times when the media attacks on Christians are more pronounced.For atheists it's a different story.  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, including all news programs on the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), every 2007 issue of three leading weekly news magazines (Newsweek, Time, 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").  Analysis of 105 stories that either featured atheism or mentioned atheism in the context of reporting on culture, religion and politics found that the media did not scrutinize atheism the same way it scrutinizes Christianity.  In 2007 three books by atheism's trinity, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, topped the best seller lists.  The national 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, the treatment given the godless and their beliefs was uncritical and often promotional.  In other words, unlike Christianity and Christians, atheism and atheists got a free ride from journalists.An example from the study:

  • On a Sunday in September ABC's "Good Morning America Sunday" ran a feature on an atheist convention and used the event to proclaim that atheism was "unleashed," that "more and more" people were becoming atheists, and that the "stigma" of being an atheist "may be fading."

Key findings of the special report, Apostles of Atheism, show that 80 percent of the feature stories on atheism or atheists had a positive tone, like Time's December 3 write up on a Sunday school for atheists.  No feature stories were negative. Another finding was that journalists frequently introduced atheistic critiques into stories about Christianity but never into stories about other religious faiths. Further, journalists disproportionately favored atheists when it came to counterpoints.  In 71 percent of Christian themed stories, the national media studied in this report used an atheist counterpoint.  By contrast only 54 percent of atheism themed stories had a religious counterpoint. Some more examples:

  • Newsweek used Mother Teresa basher and atheist Christopher Hitchens to write a review of the book "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light," which detailed the revered nun's spiritual struggles.  He said the subtitle of the book was "slightly sickly," termed the handwritten notes contained in the book "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."
  • The reviewer for Hitchen's book "God is Not Great" was Newsweek reporter Jerry Adler who's bemused write up ended with this: "...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 the book by atheist author Philip Pullman, was released in December of 2007.  The Christian community was concerned about the movie because "The Golden Compass" is part of a trilogy, aimed at children, which ends with God being killed.  In the reporting on the movie the concerns of Christians were largely ignored or trivialized by the media outlets studied for this report. In fact only CBS's "Early Show" and NPR's "Morning Edition" gave the controversy serious attention, despite the fact that Pullman is on record saying his books are "about killing God."

Atheists argue that the existence of God cannot be proved and that it isn't necessary to believe in God to be moral.  Interestingly, according to State of the News Media, 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.  Is it a stretch to suggest that this convergence of beliefs is what led the press to give atheism a free ride in 2007? It appears that we may see more of the same in 2008.  As my colleague Tim Graham noted in his blog on March 12, atheists are still getting a better deal than God.