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Freethought in the Religion Pages

by Pat Kelley


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 14, Number 2.


"I read your article last Saturday, and I just wanted to tell you - I agree with you!" I most often hear this from co-workers the Monday after my commentary hits the newsstands. Fans - you gotta love em. Sometimes their faces beam with a sort of sheepish grin that comes when a religious person admits to agreeing with, liking or downright admiring what an atheist has to say. It just goes against everything they were taught, but they just can't help themselves - they gotta say it!

Last Saturday the Sacramento Bee printed a letter from a local fundamentalist who accused me of being a Christian - why? Because he thought my answer was the better one. Apparently his logic is such that because he is not an atheist, I must be a Christian! (I love it when their little brains explode like that.)

April 1998 marks my third anniversary as a panel member representing the atheist perspective in the Sacramento Bee's Religious/Ethics section, Right and Wrong commentary. This assignment has been especially satisfying for me as I had spent many years prevailing upon the editors of local newspapers to make room for reason in their religion pages. Like many freethinkers, I was motivated by frustration over excessive news coverage of religious events and trepidation over the rise in religious extremism. On more than one occasion I was told "No," "absolutely no," and "unequivocally NO!"

So I did what any normal, red-blooded American would do - I continued complaining! I formed a writers group to represent the Humanist Association of the Greater Sacramento Area. Roughly 13 freethinkers took part in this effort. For over a year we whined, we blustered, we cajoled, and we criticized over the lackadaisical coverage of religious issues.

Then, on January 14, 1991, Bee Managing Editor, Peter Bhatia, told me "While the humanist philosophy is well known and established, I don't feel a column laying out that philosophy is appropriate to our religious commentary column. The page is devoted to issues of religion. It is not focused on philosophies counter to traditional religion."

Sigh.

Frankly, at this point I was experiencing much disillusionment and considered quitting my efforts. Then the Freedom Forum, a non-partisan, international organization, dedicated to free press, free speech, published "Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media." Re-energized, I was quick to obtain a copy - fully expecting their study results to be skewed toward religion. I was pleasantly surprised to find the study reported that "people who call themselves agnostics, atheists, secular humanists or some variation are not well-represented in news stories" and that "... the news media tend to treat atheists as extremists."

Not long afterwards, the Sacramento Bee made drastic changes to their religion page and to their coverage of religion in general. Ironically, the first Non-Christian to be published in this new-and-improved religion page (thanks to our efforts) was a local Muslim who hated atheists with a passion!

Then Paul Clegg, religion/ethics editor, called the newly formed, Atheists and Other Freethinkers organization, to invite a writer to participate in the Bee's Religion/Ethics panel. I was thrilled to accept the assignment! Since then, approximately every eight to ten weeks I receive a question concerning a human predicament to which I am expected to offer an ethical, atheistic point of view. The usual deadline is two weeks, and, because I represent the voice of atheism (in the public's eye) I generally take the entire two weeks to carefully formulate my answers. Some questions are fairly easy to answer, others are quite tough. Upon several occasions, after researching the issue, I've arrived at answers which were totally opposite my initial reaction.

The greatest compliment I have received so far, however, happened just the other day when a couple of co-workers and I were talking about an episode in the movie "The Crow," when the star transforms into a bird. One co-worker said, "I really, truly believe things like that happen." I responded, "It happens in books, the movies and in your dreams. Find me proof and I'll go along." To which the other co-worker replied, "I'm with Pat. I'm an atheist." The impressive part of the incident was that when I first met the fellow three years ago, he wore Christian theme tee-shirts and regularly attended Pentecostal church prayer sessions - in the same building where Atheists and Other Freethinkers hold their general meetings!

When I first started writing for the commentary I was a bit apprehensive about the reception I would receive especially from co-workers. However as it turns out a couple of people have shown up at the AOF meetings - after they've retired from work, and I have received two promotions since beginning the commentary. If nothing else, writing for this column, and having my picture prominently displayed with the title "atheist/humanist," has led me to the point where I am impatient with people who claim to be atheists or humanists but hide in the closet in fear. I ask them - what are you so ashamed of, and what is the point of being an atheist or humanist and not wanting your ideas known?


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