False Controversies, Factual Legends, and Sins of Omission:
an Atheist's Adventures with the Austin American Statesman
Posted: September 20, 2006
One of my roles in the Atheist Community of Austin is that
of media contact. This involves answering media questions and distributing
official press releases. I have also taken the opportunity to watch
the media in Austin for poor reporting on atheist and agnostic issues.
This essay chronicles my interaction with
the Austin American Statesman as my
role of ACA Media Contact.
Most atheists are aware that the media in general is heavily
slanted toward a Christian worldview and that the skeptical viewpoint is rarely
given airing. But if the issue isn't
raised, it's not going to change.In
raising the issue, however, it's not sufficient, to have a broad and vague
complaint. Newspapers are constantly
accused of bias one way or another. One
has to point out specific examples and gather evidence over long periods to
document bias. I've tried to ground my
interactions with the media in these sorts of terms, including my interactions
with the Statesman. I've divided this
essay into my evidence of errors and bias in the Statesman, some of which I've
already presented to them. Specifically, the errors and bias favor a
Let me make clear that I am not complaining about the op/ed
section of the Statesman, which I feel does represent the diversity of the
community, nor am I complaining about the various "faith" articles published
weekly that are clearly labeled as such. This essay concerns items published
in the Statesman as factual
news. Readers of this essay who which
to refer to the original articles will need to subscribe to the Statesman's
archive to read them there. All of the
articles mentioned in this essay are no longer freely available on the
As an aside, some people might wonder why an atheist might
care about religion reporting. While I
don't generally believe religious claims, the actions of believers have a big
effect on me and other atheists. Believers are shortening my life,
for example, by actively interfering
with stem cell research. The political
landscape has been dramatically changed in recent years by the rise of the
religious right. Christians believe in
a god who thinks it's just that I am to be tortured for all time for my "crime"
of not believing in such a sadistic monster. Other believers have flown
airplanes into national landmarks to kill and
maim "infidels" and to be rewarded with 72 black-eyed virgins for their
martyrdom. I harbor a grudge against
religious belief as the root cause of the vast majority of the harm in the
world. By giving these beliefs
favoritism in the media, the harm is perpetuated or even amplified.
In short, I care more about humanity than malignant fantasies.
Complaints concerning accuracy are the most effective way of
improving reporting in the media. It's
relatively easy to focus attention on the facts presented in a particular
article, address the author of the article, and give your evidence as to why
it's wrong. Ideally, over time, the
reporter improves and the media along with it. Most of my correspondence with
the Statesman has concerned the accuracy
of various articles.
Eileen E. Flynn's October 9, 2005 article titled The murky boundary
between church and state
provided my first opportunity for interacting with the Statesman concerning
accuracy. Ms. Flynn is the main
religion reporter for the Statesman. Her
article concerned differing views of church state separation within two Baptist
sub-sects. While the piece was well
written and covered the topic, it suffered from two problems, both of which I
pointed out to her. The first problem
was that the First Amendment of the US Constitution was misquoted as saying
"Congress shall make no law
respecting the establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ...," meaning barring a
state religion. The correct phrasing, which
completely changes the meaning of the clause, is "respecting an
establishment of religion," meaning
the barring of religious favoritism. [Italics are mine in both quotes.] While
the error may have been innocent on her part, the error played
well into the theme of her article that there is a controversy concerning
church-state separation and what it means. As atheists know, the "controversy"
is largely manufactured by
proponents of the majority religion (Christianity) to advance their religious
views. It's much the same strategy used
by the Intelligent Design movement. However, the Founding Fathers chose their
The text of the Constitution is quite clear
and a long history of legal rulings on church-state separation by the Supreme
Court has further clarified the establishment clause.
My second issue with the article was that comparing and
contrasting the views of two different Baptist groups hardly constitutes
balance. Eileen defended her position
by saying that she wanted to show that there "is a wide chasm between people of
faith" on the issue of church-state separation. Fair enough. It's
reasonable for the author of an article to limit its scope so that the article
stays focused an on point. Balance in a
newspaper can ultimately come from the breath of viewpoints given voice
there. In the case of the Statesman,
however, the opposing viewpoint is not given voice. We'll explore the issue
of balance later in this essay.
I later criticized an October 24, 2005 article written by
Eileen E. Flynn titled Marriage vote
mixing faith, politics concerning the then upcoming Texas State
constitutional amendment vote on same-sex marriage. While the article gave
voice to religious opinions, it contained
very little in the way of facts about the amendment and its consequences for
religious institutions. The amendment
was to have no impact on the marriages that churches perform as it only
concerned marriage as a secular institution. The article failed to clarify
this basic issue, leading readers to
believe (or continue believing) that somehow religious marriage was under
attack. Again, another false
controversy was perpetuated. I made a
plea to her to focus on the real issues in her writing about marriage, which I
outlined in an extensive e-mail. Her
reply that she felt her job is to focus on faith issues--effectively whatever
the religious people were saying. Apparently, if believers have something to
say, whether or not the topic
affects them, the Statesman will gladly give them a forum.
I began to wonder more about where the voice
was, in the Statesman, from religious skeptics.
The next interaction I had with the Statesman centered on a
December 10, 2005 article by Monica Rivera concerning the Guadalupe myth.
Her article, published in the Life and Arts
section of the Statesman uncritically recounted the legend of the miraculous
appearance of Guadalupe in Mexico during the 1500s. It's one thing to report
on the phenomenon of the Guadalupe cult
and its pervasiveness among Latin Americans. It's another thing entirely to
print legend as fact, which is exactly
what the Statesman article did. The
article was even titled History.
Legends are not history, unless perhaps you live in a fantasy world.
I too, am very interested in the phenomenon
of Guadalupe. I have done two episodes
of The Atheist Experience on the topic, most recently on September 10, 2006
after returning from a trip to Spain where I visited the Guadalupe Monastery in
Extremadura region of Spain, the source of the Mexican Guadalupe.
In 1976, I have also visited the Basilica
Guadalupe in Mexico City where the "miraculous" cloak of Juan Diego is
displayed. It's likely that even as an
atheist, I know more about Guadalupe than the vast majority of her devotees.
I would wager that the author, Monica Rivera, is a devout
Catholic. It is not at all surprising
that a true believer would write an article supporting her religious belief and
nearly devoid of facts. I follow
religious issues, so I see this sort of thing all too frequently.
It is inappropriate, however, for a
newspaper to publish specific religious beliefs as anything more than personal
opinion. In response to the article, I
wrote to Rich Oppel, Managing Editor of the Statesman, and cc'd the
author. I gave a dozen or more reasons
why the myth was untrue and the real story behind Guadalupe and complained
about the newspaper effectively published a propaganda piece.
"Propaganda" is a word, which ironically has
its origins in the Latin name of the Catholic institution Congregation for
Propagating the Faith, so the word seemed
especially apt. I asked for
clarification of the editorial policies of the Statesman--in particular, what
was more important than the quality of truthfulness in the choice of articles
that were published in the Statesman. Generally, when people propagate
falsehoods, there is a hidden
agenda. I wanted to see if I could get
Mr. Oppel to name its source. I didn't
expect that he would, but I hoped that the line of questioning would encourage
him to think about what his paper was publishing and the implications of being
used in a deception. I accused the
Statesman of possibly accepting payment for publication of these pieces by the
Catholic Church since it seemed so clear how the church benefited at the
expense of the integrity of the paper and its readers.
I wrote that I felt the paper lacked the
balance of a skeptical viewpoint in religion reporting.
Finally, I offered the resource of the ACA
as a source of people who are experts on various topics of religion, who have a
skeptical bent, and who could help add a balanced perspective to the reporting
in the newspaper.
I never heard from Monica Rivera.
Rich Oppel and I had a handful of e-mail exchanges based on
my initial letter. It turns out, I had
hit a nerve, but not the one I expected. I got some mild pushback on the
propaganda claim, but ultimately he
ceded that ground as I had provided evidence of my claim.
He never once, in the whole correspondence
did he respond to the issue of the paper willfully publishing falsehoods, nor
did he ever clarify his editorial policies, either with me or on the Statesman
web site as I requested. He is the king
of his domain and it was apparently inappropriate of me to ask how such
decisions were made, or even proposed that those policies be clarified
publicly. The only real inkling I got
about editorial policies was his comment: "If you have a problem with us (and
that should be the rare issue of news coverage; not the routine debating the
efficacy of religion coverage), feel free to email me."
So he clearly thinks of religion coverage as
something other than real news. I
suggested (in a later correspondence) that if religion news were held to a
different editorial standard that perhaps religion news could be set off
graphically in the paper so as to give a clue to the reader that it is being
held to a different editorial standard than "real news."
The Statesman already does this, for
example, with its Op/Ed section and the inside front page that focuses more on
celebrity news. In the end, none of
these important editorial issues seemed to have an impact on the Statesman's
The nerve I struck was my baiting accusation that the
Statesman may have accepted payment for the propaganda piece.
He told me that 70% of his readers expressed
an interest in coverage of religion. Clearly, the economic health of the
paper depends on its readers buying
papers. The editorial policies of his
paper apparently place other factors above veracity as far as what gets
printed. He was unable to counter my
claim that the Guadalupe piece was propaganda. So, he seemed to admit that
the paper is willing to bend the truth in
some cases to make money. But my
accusation that the money might come from sources outside its readership
apparently struck at the professional integrity of the newspaper.
By analogy, it's ok to be called a slut, but
my whore accusation offended their professional sensibilities.
This distinction is such a big issue for
Rich Oppel that he demanded a retraction on my part, which I eventually give,
as I have no evidence for my accusation. He accepted the apology and praised
me for my willingness to admit my
mistake. Score one for the Editor.
Score zero for me and the Statesman's
readership for my not getting an admission of the Statesman editorial policies
or admission of any ethical problem in publishing myth as fact.
Unbeknownst to me, Rich Oppel was so annoyed by this
accusation that he wrote up an entry on his blog about "atheists lacking faith
in religion coverage." (His blog is no
longer on the Internet.) He quoted my
questions concerning the publishing of propaganda, but none of the context
concerning the Guadalupe piece. Of
course, there is no mention of any wrongdoing on the part of the Statesman.
(It's good to be king.)
He painted me as a self-promoter and he
compared atheists to flat earthers. According to him, we all have a
predictable viewpoint, which is not
newsworthy. He closed by quoting my
apology. He can say what he wants in
his blog, including misrepresenting the conversation and the core issues that I
raised. (And I can respond on the ACA
web site, as I'm doing here.)
What really warmed my heart was that a number of people
wrote comments to that blog entry to defend me. Four of the five total
commentators saw through Rich Oppel's
ploy. The fifth was neutral.
For the record, I don't know any of these
people, nor did I know about the blog until after the five people wrote their
comments. These people wrote of their
own volition. A military officer
stationed in Iraq wrote, "I emphathize [sic] with Don Baker in that I am amoung
[sic] one of the 30% of your readers that is tired of seeing religion getting
free rides in the media so much of the time at the expense of other points of
view." Another person who saw through
Mr. Oppel's ad hominem
argument wrote, "You are the ones who owe this atheist fella, and all atheists,
an apology. The Flat Earth Society is
nonsensical and unserious. Atheism has
and deserves the utmost respect and regard (despite a few snarky and harmless
questions from your atheist correspondent), and you should not only remedy your
breech of civility but also should think a bit more deeply about what you put
out there as your ‘thoughts.'" Score
one for my side.
Now, it wasn't my intention to develop an adversarial
relationship with the Statesman. I have
a blunt style and I have the ability to rub people the wrong way without trying
too hard. My goal was (and still is)
getting accurate and unbiased reporting in Austin's media.
I would think it would be the Statesman's
goal, as well. If my irritating them
helps them to see a point, then doing so might be a viable tactic for me to
take. Yes, I might have gotten my
points across without irritating them, and perhaps I could have taken a softer
approach. I have tried to adopt a more
respectful tone in my later correspondence with the Statesman.
My most recent interaction with the Statesman on the topic
of accuracy concerned a July 8, 2006, piece on Ben Franklin by Steve Gushee, a
reporter (or perhaps editorialist) for the Palm Beach Post, published
as news in the Statesman.
The article was titled
beliefs private, pragmatic." The
first paragraph of the article contained a bold assertion: "The
religion of the Founding Fathers was a complex canvas of beliefs. They
were Christian to be sure, but they shaped their Christianity, as many do,
through the lens of experience and culture." Of course, many of the
Founding Fathers were not Christians at all, but
Deists, and of other religious backgrounds. I recognized the author's
assertion as being part of the Christian
founding myth being propagated by the religious right, and most especially
Although the religious beliefs of Franklin,
Washington, and other Founders were quite private, the religious right has made
these Founders whores for their cause. Franklin's autobiography includes an
incident where he refused to be
pigeonholed as a Christian. He may have
been a Deist. I took the opportunity to
point out a much better article about the Founders' beliefs published in the
Christian Science Monitor about
the same time. Given that both articles were
available to the Statesman prior to publication, why would they favor the one
with propaganda from someone unknown over a factual and balanced piece from a
respectable outlet for religion reporting? I never got a satisfactory answer
from the Statesman.
To be fair to Rich Oppel, I understand he
was on vacation during this episode and the decision of what article to run was
made by one of his assistants. The
article is absent from the Statesman archives.
Why Accuracy Matters
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I'd like to make a
case here that propagating falsehoods in the media is a bad thing.
As a reader, there is the issue of trust one places in a
given media outlet. If a media outlet,
such as the Statesman, is printing items with clear falsehoods in them, then a
reader should be asking whether there are falsehoods in other articles that the
reader is unable to identify because he lacks expertise.
Thus, printing myths and falsehoods should
cause the reader's trust to erode. You
would think a newspaper would care about this issue, but I got no indication of
concern from the Statesman. To be fair,
I'm only commenting on a subset of the religion articles published in the
Statesman in which I found errors and problems.
Accuracy is a much bigger issue than just trust in the news
source, however. Our country has gone
to war with Iraq based on the strength of a series of lies.
There is the lie about Iraq having nuclear
weapons and the lie about ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
Both lies were propagated in the media prior
to the Iraq war and both were instrumental in swaying public opinion for a war
that, in hindsight, may be the biggest and most costly mistake made by the
United States in the last decade--perhaps even the last century.
Future historians will judge.
Again, to be fair, I'm not making any
specific accusation about the Statesman here. I am criticizing the US media
as a whole, however, who have allowed
these lies to be repeated and fester.
Without accurate information from the media, our very
democracy is at risk. An ignorant or
misguided electorate cannot use their individual voting power effectively to
guide the future of our country. The
Founding Fathers recognized the importance of the media as another form of
check and balance on the government. Lies propagated by the media are
therefore a form of treason.
Bergen Evans captured this idea eloquently
in his 1946 essay
A Tale of a Tub:
"Obscurantism and tyranny go together as
naturally as skepticism and democracy. It is very convenient for anyone who
profits by the docility of the masses to have them believe that they are not
the masters of their fate and that the evils they must endure are beyond human
control." The essay, which concerns "vulgar errors"
(common misperceptions), closes with the powerful line: "For in the last
analysis all tyranny rests on fraud, on getting someone to accept false assumptions,
and any man who for one moment abandons or suspends the questioning spirit has
for that moment betrayed humanity." Amen.
What about publishing falsehoods that support one's
religious beliefs? I would say that in
addition to betraying the trust of a newspaper's readership, our democracy,
and humanity, it also betrays the religion. If someone has to lie to convince
someone of the "truthfulness" of their religion, they effectively admit that
their religion is damaged goods that need the talents of a dishonest used car
salesman to make the sale.
If the religion had value, there would not
be any need for dishonesty to support it. Some people might even claim that
the Judeo-Christian god himself
disapproves of deception, according to the Ten Commandments.
For modern Christians, however, the
Decalogue seems to be some sort of magic
talisman of political power, with its quaint edicts being largely
Honest mistakes happen. They should be acknowledged and corrected.
We should have a zero tolerance policy toward all others.
Bias in the media is a much harder thing to prove than
errors, and bias is more insidious at the same time. Bias can show up as
favoritism for a particular viewpoint, which
can sometimes be excused in a single article, but which should balance out
across articles. The more difficult
form of bias to spot is the absence of articles for issues that would provide
an opposing view or contradictory evidence.
For the Statesman, we see bias in all three areas.
Four articles with factual errors supporting
Christianity have already been described. Next, we'll take a look at one
article that looks balanced, but
isn't. Later, we'll list a number of
religious news stories that went unreported.
Perhaps the most cunningly biased article I've seen in the
Statesman was Eileen E. Flynn's What the
Bible says about homosexuality depends on how you read it, published
November 6, 2005, again just prior to the Texas State Constitutional amendment
vote concerning same-sex marriage. Her
article contained a number of Bible quotes concerning homosexuality and
appeared to present both sides of a debate about what the Bible scholars claim
it says about homosexuality. Again, her
article takes a "teach the controversy" approach. This time through the
choice of her quotes she sabotages the side
she disagrees with. She completely
omits any discussion about what Biblical scholars might say about Jonathan and
David or Ruth and Naomi. The fact that
Jesus uttered not a single word about homosexuality was not mentioned.
Jesus did, by contrast, condone slavery and
encourage children to disobey their parents (to leave them and follow him), so
his moral radar must have been quite faulty. The true controversy concerning
homosexuality in the Bible is not
reported in Ms. Flynn's article, nor is the proper context given.
It is also important for the reader to
understand that the apostle Paul thought that all sexual contact was hopelessly
dirty. Women throughout the Bible are
considered chattel. Lesbian
relationships are never explicitly mentioned in the Bible although women's
"natural use" seems to be bearing children. A balanced article on Biblical
views of homosexuality should mention
Presumably, Eileen Flynn's article was relevant to the
same-sex marriage debate, but the topic of marriage was conspicuously absent
from her article. The reason, of
course, was that there is little in the Bible about marriage to support her
not-so-hidden agenda. Men in the Bible
had multiple wives and concubines, all of whom were their disposable
property. To marry, apparently one needed
only to have sex (and perhaps pay a dowry). The sin of adultery is mostly a
property crime; the victim is the
property owner--the father or the husband of the adulterous woman.
The Apostle Paul is quoted as saying that
the natural use of a woman is for the function of bearing children.
Paul was against marriage as it detracted from
a man's love of God. Jesus never
married. Finally, Paul was certain that
Jesus return was so imminent that he advised believers to stop having children.
Would the only person claiming to be an eye
witness to Jesus' aura lie? Sadly, the
Christian right is embarrassed enough about their own holy book to avoid
bringing it up when they want to promote their own notion of "traditional"
family, which has little basis in scripture. Through her omissions,
Ms. Flynn danced around all those landmines to
achieve her goal while giving the illusion of balance--quite a feat, indeed.
Since the Statesman cares so much about their Christian
audience and since Christians generally consider the Bible as the definitive
moral guide, perhaps the Statesman should run more articles like Eileen Flynn's
in the Statesman. I'll even help by
giving the list of Bible quotes over which her Biblical scholars can disagree
on the following issues:
- According to Bush, we're at war with the "Axis of
Evil." The god of the Bible clearly takes
sides in various holy wars. How about
publishing an article enumerating all of the people that He has killed directly
or indirectly and by what means. Genocide must be an ideal of human morality if the Author does it.
With the right Bible verse, nuclear
annihilation is justified.
- For next year's Juneteenth celebration, the Statesman
can run an article giving all the Biblical quotes where slavery is condoned by
both Yahweh and Jesus. An article can
clarify under what conditions it's acceptable for a man to kill his slave.
- Knowledge is rarely promoted and often denigrated in
the Bible. Education must be a bad
thing. Running an article about Bible
quotes on education would certainly be relevant when the legislature is
debating school finance.
- According to the Bible, incest and inbreeding must be a
good thing. All the great patriarchs
are somehow involved in incest or inbreeding. There is no prohibition
in the Bible against a man fathering a child
with his daughter. In the Sodom and
Gomorrah story, a favorite of conservative Christians, the hero Lot winds up
impregnating both of his daughters. God
goes out of his way to save this favored holy man from one of His destructive
- Causing a miscarriage is considered a property crime in
the Bible, not murder. Abortion is
never mentioned. The father can dispose
of his children any way he wants, as they are his property alone.
Disobedient children are to be taken to the
public square and stoned to death. God
himself ruthlessly murders vast numbers of cute little unborn babies in the
flood (to use the emotionally twisted language of the religious right).
An article on abortion would clarify the
fact that religious conservatives have little Biblical justification for their
- Most people seem to think that pedophilia is wrong, but
the Bible doesn't seem to say much about it. According to the Bible,
children are the property of the father.
Perhaps pedophile priests are Biblically justified.
- On the issue of marriage, there are plenty of cultural
norms from Biblical times that most people would consider reprehensible
today. I have already given a number of
examples, but there are dozens more.
Most Christians instinctively know that the Bible is a moral
morass so they downplay most of it. They skip over and forget the parts that
they don't like.
Perhaps psychology can explain why
Christians work so hard to promote the idea that the Bible is a good source of
moral teachings when they actively ignore so much of it.
But the Statesman will never publish any
truly balanced articles about Biblical morality on any of these issues.
This is because the Statesman has no
interest in educating the public as to what the Bible says about current
issues. The Statesman does appear to be
interested in promoting a modern Christian worldview,
however detached it may be from scripture. Yet, Christians will gleefully
dig out the scripture if it provides an
opportunity to persecute a minority of Americans. Promoting hatred of
gays is big business for many Christian
Another subtle source of bias in the Statesman and other
news sources is the use of alternate religious viewpoints to attempt to create
balance in an article. I have already
complained about Eileen Flynn's use of two different Baptist sects to balance
each other, but even Protestants and Catholics share a religious heritage of
over a millennium. The great religions
of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are cut from the same cloth.
Consider the following:
- All three religions are monotheistic and all worship a
god that interacts with humanity. By
contrast, there are billions of people in the world with multiple gods, distant
gods, or no god at all.
- All three religions have their own holy books.
In 1795, Deist Thomas Paine in his Age
of Reason argued that the creator of the universe would never use a
holy book to communicate to mankind. Language evolves and there is just too
much potential for miscommunication.
His argument is still rock solid today.
An omnipotent god with complete control over
the sender (himself), receiver (his created creatures), and transmission
media (the universe) could not fail in delivering his message and having
it be understood.
Yet all three religions have large numbers
of sects, all of which disagree with each other about the meaning of their holy
book, adding practical confirmation of Paine's assertion.
- The holy books of all three religions are loaded with
atrocities and divine directives for all manner of harm.
- All three religions have long histories of ruthlessly
killing each other in holy wars. In
fact, these three religions are responsible for the vast majority of pain and
suffering in areas of the world where they have influence.
All three religions are actively promoting
genocidal movements today.
- Ironically, all three religions worship the same god,
the god of Abraham, and so they are called Abrahamic religions.
Abraham is famous for loving his god so much
that he was willing to murder his own son to prove his devotion.
He was then rewarded for his treason to his
own flesh and blood. Thus, the moral
foundation of these three religions is the selling out of one's fellow man to
curry favor with a thug god. This insight
explains much of the behavior of this god's believers, such as their
willingness to lie and kill for their faith.
- All three religions can provide no evidence for their
god, but instead promote faith. Faith
is nothing more than gullibility about religious claims.
Gullibility makes a terrible moral
foundation. Gullibility only makes a
person more likely to be manipulated by the unscrupulous.
Religious and political leaders alike adore
faith for this reason. Just look at
Martin Luther's writing or ask Carl Rove.
- All three religions seem to take no responsibility for
the acts of their believers. My
"tolerance" for these religions is proportional to their willing to take
- Christianity and Islam promote belief in the afterlife,
which they view as the ultimate goal of each individual's "soul."
The belief denigrates the value of human
life as the religions consider the human body as little more than a ghost
trap. Both religions trade in
martyrdom. Both believe that their god
will reward them for killing infidels, which include believers in their sister
- Versions of all three religions actively sow distrust
in science. Empiricism is deemed a
competitor to faith that must be suppressed. Yet, science and technology,
the fruits of empiricism, have provided far more charity and practical
benefit to humanity than religious efforts, even if you ignore all the harm
propagated by religions. Believers do their best to steal the credit for
There are many other
similarities. Again, the Abrahamic
religions are far more alike than dislike and therefore contrasting two
Abrahamic viewpoints cannot be the basis of a balanced perspective on an
Contrast these Abrahamic faiths with atheism, which is
simply the lack of a belief in gods. Atheism is the conservative,
skeptical stance that demands evidence for
all claims and withholds belief until such evidence is provided.
Atheists would rather understand the world
as it is than succumb to wishful thinking for how one might like it to be.
Atheism is ultimately grounded in
reality. Atheists have actively
examined religious claims and apologetics and found them nonsensical at best,
or harmful, at worst. Atheists value
reason, evidence, and scientific thinking. Atheist Americans, by and large,
are upstanding citizens who contribute
to society and value constitutional liberties, especially church-state
separation. We differ from Abrahamic
religions on all points mentioned above. We have no holy book, but
instead value the ability for each person to
become educated and reach his own informed conclusions.
Instead of killing each other for being
infidels, we debate each other over the merits of a case.
We worship no god and have no conflict of
interest in promoting a worldview at odds with reality.
We feel no need to deceive or threaten
people to gain adherents. We take
responsibility for our actions. Our
morals derive from our humanity, compassion, understanding the consequences of
our actions, and the need for education to make informed choices.
We value human life, as we don't believe in
Not only can atheism provide a balanced perspective on an
issue, I would assert that it should provide the default perspective to which
any religious claim should be compared. Whenever a religious claim or belief
is discussed, it should be weighed
against reality. If it can't measure up
to reality and reason, perhaps it's not worthy of ink.
But if one feels it's his job to sell that
lemon, he's likely to resort to the oldest trick in the book:
hiding the fatal flaws as a means of
deception. One way that newspapers do
that is by simply not reporting things that should be reported.
The Statesman has used this strategy in its
choice of what to report in religious news. Consider the following news
stories not published in the Statesman that
would cast Christianity or religious belief in a bad light.
- In March 2006, the results of a well designed,
multimillion dollar study of intercessory prayer funded by the Templeton
Foundation were released. The study
found that intercessory prayer had no positive effect on the recovery of heart
bypass patients. See the original AP
newswire report, Prayer Does
Not Help Heart Bypass Patients. I know of no well-designed and implemented prayer study that has found
evidence for the efficacy of prayer.
- In October 2005, a
study published in the Journal of Religion and Society compared
religious belief and various measurable social
ills in various countries. The study
found that religious belief is correlated with a number of social ills
including higher abortion and teen pregnancy rates, higher homicide and suicide
rates, higher child mortality, and lower life expectancy.
This is a study about correlations and the
author calls for additional research to determine causality.
The article by Gregory S. Paul is titled
Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and
Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.
This study dismantles the claim that
religious belief is somehow a necessary ingredient for a moral society.
It is simply a myth that religious belief is
- The President's faith-based initiatives idea has been
credited to Austinite Marvin Olasky. The Statesman can be credited with
giving Olasky a frequent column to
popularize the idea. Perhaps it is time
for the Statesman to given an honest assessment of the faith-based initiatives
idea. If they do so, they will find
- Religious charities had a "level playing field" before
the program. They were required to
provide accountability and not use government money for their religious
programs. The faith-based charities
initiative does away with these sensible restrictions.
- Nearly all of the money has flowed to Christian
charities, a clear case of religious favoritism. It is true that fewer
minority faiths have applied for
funding. Perhaps minority faiths have a
greater respect for the Constitutional separation of church and state.
- Most implementations of the program do not past Constitutional muster.
They are illegal. Many have been successfully
challenged in court. Think of the money
wasted on this terrible idea that could have been used for legally implemented
public services to help the needy.
- Many implementations of the program lack oversight and,
as such, there have been many cases of fraud.
- The claim that people of faith are somehow better at
charity work is still being given without proof. Is helping others really
charity, if you believe you are going to
be rewarded in heaven for your efforts?
- The program is rife with conflict of interest problems
at every level. It ultimately trades
the religious liberties of the poor for political power of the President and
other politicians who are happy to exploit the Constitution.
Many of the fund recipients are outspoken
supporters of politicians, such as Bush, who have created faith-based programs.
- A study of the Texas implementation of Bush's
faith-based initiatives published by the Texas Freedom Network found many of
these problems and others. See TFN's Web site for
their 2002 study.
- Faith-based programs are now an integral part of much
of the government, including, for example, the Department of Homeland Security
and the Department of Agriculture. I
personally can't imagine what belief in the supernatural has to do with
agriculture, unless perhaps the government is going to fund rain dances to
improve crop yields.
- Ultimately, the Bush administration has cut back
dramatically on the overall funding of social programs, which indicates that
his "compassion" is largely self-serving.
- The Statesman has failed to report on the take-over of
much of the US foreign policy by conservative Christians.
The Bush administration largely traded this
control for the political support of these groups. What have Christians done with the new power at their
disposal? With respect to AIDS funding,
they did two things. First, they
sabotaged many of the existing AIDS relief programs that worked.
Epidemic Failure by Geraldine Sealy.
Christians have consistently worked to hinder the use of condoms as a
preventative measure. James Dobson of
Focus on the Family has been the leader on this front.
Franklin Graham looked at the AIDS crisis
and saw a captive audience of people who could be converted to
Christianity. He has managed to get a
share of the AIDS funding for his organization, Samaritan's Purse, to go to
Africa to convert the heathens. Together, these two efforts have turned
US AIDS funding into a
convert-or-die mechanism to gain new Christian converts.
In hijacking AIDS funding, these groups have
also harmed the effectiveness of the programs, in terms of raw numbers--
effectively orchestrating the deaths of large number of Africans.
While Americans may be ignorant of this American
Christian zeal and activity, nearly everyone involved with AIDS relief around
the world judges America by these policies. Americans, by contrast, are ignorant of the "pro death" agenda of these
groups and only hear about how caring and loving they supposedly are.
America takes the blame for the behavior of
these sociopaths. The world's animosity
toward Americans is largely due to the horrible things that Americans do around
the world. Just maybe if Americans had
a clue about these atrocities, the people orchestrating them could be stopped
and brought to justice, and terrorism could be reduced.
The Statesman did report about the April
2006 GAO study finding that AIDS prevention efforts had been sabotaged by the
Bush Administration's PEPFAR plan, but to my knowledge, few media outlets have
reported directly on its Christian orchestrators.
I could list at least a dozen more
religious news items in the last year or so that the Statesman neglected to
The usual response for a newspaper to not to publish things
is to declare them not "newsworthy." Statesman Editor Rich Oppel did a
preemptive strike on that very issue
in his correspondence with me by claiming that atheism is predictable, and
predictable things are not worthy news. Well, what about the above items?
Given that most Americans believe in prayer, could it possibly be
newsworthy that their beliefs are false? Or that their cherished idea that
religious belief is correlated to
morality, is actually a lie? What about
fraud and vote-buying in the name of America's favorite religion?
Is that predictable? Sadly, perhaps it is. How about Christians using their
collective power to orchestrate the deaths of Africans? That must be so boring
and predictable that it's just not worthy of printing.
No news there. Right, Rich.
I think by now I've made my case that the Statesman, like
many other news outlets in the United States, is biased toward the Christian
viewpoint. The Statesman's bias exists
in bald errors, spin, and suppression of stories antithetical to Christian
beliefs. To my knowledge, the Statesman
has yet to print anything in its news that is critical of faith, though they
have drawn attention to several questionable religious groups and
practices. There is no good reason for
this bias. It is unethical and
un-American. It is also an admission
that Christianity cannot flourish without being propped up by deception.
I am reminded of a newspaper editorial code to avoid
publication of anything about Santa Claus not existing.
Presumably, if they did, some unsuspecting
child would have the potential to find out that their parents lied to them and
lose their innocence. Perhaps, by
analogy, Christian believers are temperamental children who will throw a
tantrum if their cherished but nonsensical beliefs are held up to the
light. It does seem that they, like
their Islamic counterparts, are holding the media hostage under threat of
thuggery. Perhaps it's time for the
followers of the god of Abraham to grow up and take responsibility for the harm
their religions do. And instead of
playing hostage, perhaps the media can educate us as to where there is work to
do in making the world a better place.
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From the officers:
The ACA Lecture Series returns Sunday, March 9th with Vic Cornell giving us an update on ACLU activities. The lecture starts at 12:15pm at the Austin History Center, 9th and Guadalupe. The building opens at noon.
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