Sunday, November 22, 2009

AP news article slanted against atheist activism

The national religion reporter for Associated Press, Eric Gorski, apparently motivated by an increase in the number of campus affiliates of the Secular Student Alliance "from 80 in 2007 to 100 in 2008 and 174 this fall", authored a recently published article titled "Atheist student groups flower on college campuses". The news article is well written and presents facts about atheist campus clubs with a neutral, even sympathetic, tone. Yet the article's selection of quotations and focus also has a pronounced bias against non-establishment of monotheism activism. Mr. Eric Gorski selected quotes from atheists that promote the article's underlying theme that confrontational activism and anti-religion sentiment are positively correlated negatives, in contrast with a more cooperative, and therefore positive, example of activism disliked by anti-religion atheists that focuses on other general concerns of liberals (in this case more civic equality for gays).

Mr. Gorski asks "Should student atheist groups go it alone or build bridges with Christian groups? Organize political protests or quiet discussion groups? Adopt the militant posture of the new atheists? Or wave and smile?" If only because of time and resources constraints, these are some of the choices of focus and emphasis that atheist groups may, to some extent, confront. But Mr. Gorski over dramatizes these choices by presenting at least some of these choices as being in conflict with each other when, in fact, they are all mutually compatible and self-consistent.

The article cites one atheist campus club that decided to join a liberal religious group in supporting equal legal status for gays as exemplifying a controversy among atheists over whether to work with religious groups. Here the article focuses on an alleged conflict between such cooperative activism and the anti-religion sentiment of some atheists. It then cites that club's decision to avoid taking a position against a university chapel's religious symbols because some members "fear repercussions and don't think a fight is worth it." A club member who was identified at the start of the article as exemplifying the "wave and smile", "happy face of atheism" is quoted as supporting that decision on the grounds that she is uncomfortable with "calling out religion as wrong." That quote incorrectly conflates lobbying a secular educational institution to exhibit neutrality between various religious and non-religious viewpoints with "calling out religion as wrong".

The article then quotes an organizer for the Secular Student Alliance saying "college students can be a little more susceptible to the more reactionary anti-religion voices, partly because it's so new to them. My impression is after a couple of years, they mellow out." Maybe after a couple years a more pro-religion atheist will become more anti-religion in orientation? Like the question of atheism versus theism, answers to questions regarding the nature of the influences of religions on societies should not be regarded as predetermined, fixed conclusions, but subject to weight of the evidence evaluation and discussion. Either way, surely the sentiments for and against religion are separable, and indeed separate, from the sentiment for civic equality between different religions and between atheism and theism. Independently of how pro-religion or anti-religion we are individually, groups of atheists can be, and arguably we should be, willing to be a little confrontational, and even a little militant, on behalf of such civic equality while also waving and smiling and joining with theists of all religious orientations for debate and coalition politicking.

Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame and "a principal investigator on the youth and religion study" is quoted at the conclusion of this article. He is cited as asserting that campus atheist groups are better off without militancy. Young adults are taught their entire lives to be nonjudgmental, that different points of views are OK and that there is no one truth, he said. "If I were advising atheists and humanists, I would say their long-term prospects are much better if they can successfully create this space where people view them as happy, OK, cooperative, nice people."

Those atheists who appear to some people to be confrontational and militant on behalf of promoting more civic equality and/or who do think that what is true is sometimes singular and exclusive to multiple competing falsehoods are also happy, cooperative, nice people. Indeed, contrary to what Christian Smith says, most adults, young and old, including most religious adults and most theists, justifiably think truth is sometimes singular and exclusive to a competing multitude of falsehoods. Furthermore, most such adults justifiably prefer that others share their own insights regarding which is which. There should be no acceptable double standard here with regard to atheists. The real issue is not how firmly or exclusively one holds to any particular belief, but whether the belief is properly justified and held in proper proportion to the overall weight of the evidence.

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