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Atheist TV: Who is the Richard Dawkins-endorsed channel really trying to reach?

The first channel specifically for atheists launched this week. But their decision to feature figures like Richard Dawkins and Jaclyn Glenn so prominently has guest columnist Sarah Jones wondering which atheists the channel is designed to attract.

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Mike Cornwell, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the last two weeks of July, Faitheist is being guest hosted by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The piece below is written by Jones; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Mike Cornwell, via Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Mike Cornwell, via Wikimedia Commons.

Atheist TV brands itself as “an idea whose time has come.”

But after its launch last night, it’s still unclear if the Roku channel—the first television channel specifically for atheists—will establish itself as a viable option for nontheists seeking serious, ideologically oriented programming.

The channel is a project of American Atheists, and the group says it’s intended to address an unexploited entertainment niche.

“We’re going to TV because it’s part of our strategy of going to where we are not,” American Atheists president, David Silverman explained in a statement. “There is a lot of potential here. From televangelists to Christmas specials, there is a plethora of religious TV programming to choose from. With Atheist TV, we’re filling a void: There are a lot of atheists and closeted atheists who are curious and want more. We have it, and the next step is bringing it to them.”

For atheists without a Roku player, the group provides a livestream on its website. And that’s how I spent my Tuesday evening.

Atheist TV christened its launch with a special message from Silverman. In it, Silverman claimed that atheists were “bombarded by religion at every turn.” He described the channel as “a place where we can focus on real history” and philosophy “without pandering to the pseudo-intellectual nonsense peddled by theologians.”

Arguing for a need for the channel, he also asserted that “atheism is the fastest growing religious demographic in all 50 states.”

Silverman didn’t cite a source for that claim, so it’s still unclear where he got the information.

It’s possible that he misspoke: Research shows that religiously unaffiliated Americans are increasing in number, but that’s a broad category incorporating agnostics, those with spiritual beliefs, and even some regular church-goers in addition to atheists.

And, as Politifact noted when it debunked a similar claim in 2012, it’s notably difficult to designate a specific, “fastest growing” belief group. By nature, belief is multi-faceted.  A person can disengage from organized religion without becoming an atheist.

That aside, the prospect of a channel offering programs that debunk Christian revisionist history is of definite interest. And while I likely have more respect for the study of theology than Silverman does, I’ll support any endeavour that promotes rigorous philosophical scholarship to new audiences.

Silverman’s speech was the only segment of original programming available on the night of the launch. There was, however, plenty of archived footage of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, which is somewhat understandable given her role as the founder of American Atheists.

It’s undeniable that O’Hair looms large in the atheist world even years after her death. But one of the segments broadcast last night featured O’Hair in full bore, decrying agnostics (she calls them “gutless atheists”), humanists, and even atheist Unitarians.

And then there’s Richard Dawkins.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation is a content partner with Atheist TV and Dawkins appears in a promo video produced for the channel. Dawkins is, of course, currently embroiled in an ethical controversy after he tweeted that violent stranger rape is “worse” than date rape. The video also features popular YouTube vlogger Jaclyn Glenn; earlier this month, bloggers reported that Glenn had plagiarized tweets and comments from her own YouTube channel.

The decision to feature figures like Dawkins, Glenn and even O’Hair so prominently leads me to wonder exactly which atheists Atheist TV is designed to attract. If Tuesday’s launch is a fair indication of where the channel is headed, secular humanists, agnostics, or even atheists who don’t align with “New Atheism” might not be “atheist enough” for the new channel.

There were some bright some spots in last night’s line up. I’m pleased the channel broadcast “Sophie Investigates The Good News Club,” a student documentary about an Evangelical children’s ministry that targets public schools. And if the channel follows through on its promise of promoting accurate history and philosophical rigor, it’ll certainly be worth watching.

Like any good freethinker, I’ll keep an open mind. For now, however, I’ve concluded that Atheist TV is not for me.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones. Photo courtesy Jones.

Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.