Last year, I was invited to appear on the Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor” to discuss a billboard put up by American Atheists that said, “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody.”
I was ready to politely decline—but in the spirit of Christmas I thought to ask my mom, a regular Fox viewer, what she thought.
“It’s an opportunity to show another side of atheism to an audience that may not otherwise be exposed to it,” she told me, so I said yes.
Though I got quite a few nasty messages from viewers about my piercings and sexual orientation, I was nonetheless happy with how it went. Many of the responses I got from Fox viewers were surprisingly encouraging, and I was pleased with the ensuing discussion.
That’s why earlier this month, when someone at Fox invited me back to discuss this year’s American Atheists Christmas billboard on O’Reilly, I decided that I would do it again.
A few hours later, though, I got a call saying they weren’t able to book a studio in time. Instead, they had a psychoanalyst on the show to “diagnose” the atheists behind the billboard as “sadistic.” (I felt this was particularly ironic since O’Reilly pressed me last year on why American Atheists puts up these billboards and I explicitly said we shouldn’t psychoanalyze. To emphasize what should be obvious: It’s professionally irresponsible and dangerous to psychoanalyze someone you haven’t met.)
If I had gone on the air again this year, I would have told O’Reilly that a study from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga suggested that less than 15 percent of atheists fall into the “anti-theist” category. I would have said that the message put out by American Atheists seems to reflect the views of only a minority of nonbelievers.
But I would have also been blunt about something that troubles me: If I was basing my impression on what I see reported on by Fox and other networks, I would not think that less than 15 percent of atheists are anti-theists. In fact, I would assume the opposite.
If I had gone on his show again this year, I would have asked O’Reilly why Fox dedicates so much time to talking about the perspective of such a small percentage of atheists. I still want to know the answer.
Year after year, these anti-Christmas billboards get a lot of attention. Voices of conflict rise to the top, and Fox and other networks sustain that culture by giving them a disproportionate level of attention and influence. I would have told O’Reilly that I think Fox has a responsibility to lift up different atheist perspectives, too. Because different voices aren’t being heard, and they need to be.
According to a 2014 Pew poll, atheists are statistically tied with Muslims for the least favorably viewed religious or ethical community in the U.S. Encouragingly, that same poll found that people who claimed to know an atheist rated atheists a full 21 points higher.
But here’s the problem: Because there are so few atheists in this country—only about 2 percent of Americans identify as atheists—most people don’t have many opportunities to meet an atheist. For those people, their perception of atheists and atheism is shaped almost entirely by the media, and what they see is likely to be negative.
We often see negative stories about Christians, too, since so much of our media is driven by stories of conflict. But most Americans are much more likely to know many different kinds of Christians. This means they have more than just conflict-driven media to base their understanding on. Many of these same people, though, may only have seen an atheist on TV—discussing an anti-religious billboard, perhaps.
I’ve only ever been invited to Fox News to talk about the so-called “War on Christmas,” and I’m surely not the only person with this experience. But there are so many other stories they and other networks could be covering.
Why aren’t they reporting on the positive contributions of atheists and agnostics, like the newly launching Humanist Service Corps, the growing number of Humanist communities and campus chaplaincies, or the surge of nonreligious congregations?
A great many atheists show deep compassion as a direct result of their Humanist principles. Many atheists are working to make the atheist community a safer place for people of all backgrounds, and the world a more accepting place for people of all faiths and beliefs. Many atheists are working with people of faith to save our planet, promote justice, and tackle systemic inequities.
I’d love to see Bill O’Reilly invite atheists on to talk about those things, instead of an imaginary “War on Christmas.” Until he does, the “War on Christmas” feels a lot more like a war on the voices of most atheists.
P.S. If Fox is looking for some ideas for different stories to cover, a group of atheist writers, activists, and scholars published a list of 14 big stories in atheism from 2014 right here earlier this week.