After the devastation brought upon the town of Moore, Oklahoma (and many other communities during “Tornado season”), it is not uncommon to see a reporter make a passing reference to “God’s will” or “God’s Grace” or “God’s mercy” or “God’s whatever”, nor is it uncommon to see a still shell shocked survivor of unimaginable carnage express thanks to God for his or her survival and protection. Playing the God card is probably as old as news itself. It’s an easy way to express gratitude and elicit support from an audience who doesn’t know anything about you. But as lovable goofball Wolf Blitzer learned this week, you can no longer take a person’s presupposed religiosity for granted.
There are a lot of things I love about that video. First, Wolf Blitzer’s shameless ploy of getting her to tell the camera that she is thankful to God for getting her through the ordeal is exposed as such and backfires spectacularly. I always enjoy seeing Wolf Blitzer publicly humiliated for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on but, I assure you, are deeply felt. His performance on Jeopardy was pure bliss.
But I also love how graceful her response was. She informs Wolf that she is “actually an atheist” and then they laugh off the misunderstanding and move on. She’s what an atheist looks like. Wolf Blitzer inadvertently stumbled on an average atheist that many of his viewers probably didn’t know existed. You mean they aren’t all devil worshipers? You mean they can be motivated by love of family, experience intrinsic joy of life, and raise a happy baby? Weren’t they all supposed to be untrustworthy haters of God?
Well of course not, but the stigma of atheists as suspect and contemptible or, even worse, sneering, arrogant fools remains deeply ingrained in our society. It’s why I suspect she qualified her nonbelief with “And I don’t blame anybody for thanking the lord.” Sometimes even announcing your atheism can be perceived as vaguely offensive to theists. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What this tornado survivor represents is a growing reality in this country that is largely underrepresented in the national conversation: Atheists are living among us and they are growing in number. A lot. According to the Huffington Post:
“[A] poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.
That 5 percent may not seem like a lot but consider that in 2005 it was 1 percent and you have a fairly massive shift taking place. I also think that the shift will mirror that of the gay rights movement that has experienced a renaissance in the last decade due to a complete transformation of public perception and you’ve got a recipe for that number to begin to rise even faster as people who were not religious but afraid of being perceived as not religious become more confident in their identity. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people like this Tornado survivor, in many ways, are the Jason Collins’ of Atheism. I know, I know, but hear me out. Where Collins proved there were gay people who played basketball and even more importantly it wouldn’t mean an end to your career if you told people, this video proves without a doubt that there are indeed atheists in foxholes. This woman experienced what was probably one of the most terrifying events in her life and she emerged as much an atheist as ever. The fact that she never once brought religion up until Wolf Blitzer tried to cram it into her mouth is testament to the fact that being an atheists doesn’t mean you have a malevolent agenda, you just don’t believe in a god.
This is all good news. We, as a society, are moving in the right direction. Even in the video Wolf recovers nicely from his misstep and the two parties are able to laugh it off. No one is being burned as a heretic. Her child isn’t being taken from her. She isn’t being persecuted (I hope). It all points to us living in an increasingly tolerant society that has largely moved passed the violence and enforced hegemony that plagued earlier days and continues to plague many societies around the globe. But there is a dark side to this video as well and I recognized it immediately because I’ve experience it myself.
In the video, Wolf tells her “You gotta thank the Lord, right?” and then “Do you thank the Lord?” and there she pauses, and then stumbles around a bit for words before saying “I’m actually an Atheist.” And I recognize that pause and it breaks my heart. I’ve done that pause, and that stumble for words. I’ve even been guilty of the qualifier “But I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord!” That’s because being an atheist is hard to admit. It really is hard. By saying you are an atheist, you are disappointing or angering a lot of people. Especially if you have to say it in public or, in this case, to a national audience who, for all you know, has been praying for you and your baby and until now assumed God was on your side. You are about to be judged. Even well meaning, tolerant, accepting people are about to judge you and make assumptions about you and possibly feel a pang of threat from you. Atheism is a strange identity because unlike many other – but by no means all – identities, its belief structure is enshrouded in the assumption that other people’s beliefs are wrong (as another example, see vegetarianism). That’s its whole point. It would cease to exist if religion did. It’s a identity comprised of a non-identity. And it is therefore offensive to people whose identity is comprised of adherence to religion.
That pause is really “Do I really want to do this?” And it’s a shame. It’s why I roll my eyes when I hear a pundit on Fox News declaring that there is a war on Christmas, or the persecution of Christians or that Tim Tebow is worse off in sports for his Christian beliefs than Jason Collins is because of his homosexuality. The language they use and the emotions they feel are NOT those of people who have known pervasive persecution, but of people who have never experienced anything but getting their way 100 percent of the time and now are afraid of losing that “God given” right. It’s a feeling of loss, not of never having had. As a Christian, you may have been ostracized at school for not being “cool”, or not invited to the neighborhood drug and baby sacrifice potluck because you’re too uptight (I kid), but you get to go home knowing that you are holier than thou (I mean that literally), and you live in a society that explicitly and implicitly supports that idea through the basic assumption that Christianity is morally superior to other viewpoints. It’s why the President swears the oath of office on the Bible, and why school boards want to put the Ten Commandments up in classrooms. We are a culture who has learned to “tolerate” other views but not give them equal moral footing.
A weary teenaged cashier telling you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not oppression. Letting gay couples marry each other does not impoverish your beliefs. Your god is still on money, in the Pledge of Allegiance and invoked at every presidential speech. Acknowledging that there are people that exist that don’t share your views does not somehow make them under attack, because in reality there have always been people who don’t share your views but until recently Wolf Blitzer hasn’t stumbled across one brave enough to think about the question “Do you thank the Lord?”, pause, and with courage, say “Actually, I’m an atheist.”
Maybe some day she won’t even have to pause.