Hey, good news everyone! The Atheist Experience got reviewed in Salon!
Well, okay, it was not the most complimentary review we’ve ever received.
Well, okay, it’s called “I spent a day watching AtheistTV — and it was horrifying”. The review was set up as a general overview of the new Roku channel from American Atheists, but it also devoted a plurality of its copy to describing scenes from our show, and the cover photo was of Matt and Jen.
According to author Daniel D’Addario, “AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.” Of AETV specifically, he complained that:
- “Matt Dillahunty… needed no prompting to begin his show with the Biblical story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.”
- “there was… no sense that Dillahunty was bothered by people following the Bible for any reason other than that he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance.”
- “‘If you know why your God is so stupid,’ he said, ‘feel free and call us.'”
- “[I]t’s worth noting that Dillahunty repeatedly suggested he was dealing with a prank caller but refused to disengage and make time for a caller who might have done a better job of representing himself; it was more important to score rhetorical points off someone clearly not equipped to play.”
- “…Don Baker pivoted from talking ‘Cosmos’ to introducing today’s topic: ‘…Christianity requires ignorance — and con games require ignorance too.’‘”
Then D’Addario shut the channel off, comparing it in the end to “a person shouting at you on the subway.”
Reading through these points again, I realize they are not so much direct criticisms of the show as they are (partly) accurate straight descriptions of interactions that do happen on a regular basis. Sure, a lot of it is out of context. I know what it takes to make Matt bring up the story of Abraham and Isaac, and I know why I would bring it up; I suspect it was done in the service of answering some question someone brought up about morality in the Bible. “Scoring rhetorical points off someone clearly not equipped to play?” We get constant accusations of this, no matter how many religious callers we receive, no matter how long they talk, no matter how good their credentials are as apologists. Many times people will email us to say that we obviously only take calls from Christians who don’t know what they are talking about… and then those same people will call in and become fodder for the next person with the same accusation. We take as many oppositional callers as we can get our hands on, and sometimes we hang onto dubious ones just because we don’t want to spend the whole show talking to people who agree with us.
Am I saying the show is beyond criticism? Of course not. Are we sometimes arrogant, gleeful, and smug? Oh yeah, definitely. I don’t say that with pride, I just acknowledge that it happens. Do we preach to the choir, as another viewer charged after reading this piece? That does happen.
Nevertheless, “horrifying” is an awfully melodramatic way to characterize a channel full of people expressing opinions in a way you don’t like.
D’Addario invokes Neil DeGrasse Tyson several times in this article. The subtitle of the piece is “The Atheist streaming network apparently learned nothing from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s success.” After a few paragraphs, he brings up Tyson in this way:
After the rally broadcast, in the final episode of “The Atheist Experience” I watched, both hosts recommended that viewers tune into “Cosmos,” on Fox. That show, starring the scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, made the argument that the religious right had deleterious effects on the world by using concrete examples from history. The show also inspired awe by presenting something in which to believe — the majesty of the universe, the wonders of science. It wasn’t reacting to any doctrine; it was doing something all its own.
And that’s great, because I agree with Daniel that Tyson is doing a fantastic job with Cosmos. He is indeed a very effective science popularizer, and I’m glad Cosmos is on the air. However, it’s not actually true that Tyson wasn’t reacting to any doctrine — his show is most definitely needed at this moment in time as a counterpoint to the pervasive anti-science and anti-intellectualism that exists around the country. As my friend and fellow public atheist Adam Lee pointed out in another Salon piece, religious fundamentalists hate Cosmos no matter how gentle, soft spoken, and enthusiastic Neil might be about his topic. But Cosmos doesn’t devote any airtime to those fundamentalists, or their other critics, even though a spokesman for Answers In Genesis demanded (unsuccessfully) that the network should give them equal time.
Neil’s got an utterly one sided soapbox for promoting his message, and I say good for him. He is attempting to educate viewers about settled science, without bogging it down in any kind of “controversy” or some phony “teach both sides” mentality. Cosmos doesn’t devote any time at all to creationists, flat earthers, or global warming deniers. Preaching to the choir? Sure, he’s educating people who are inclined to like science. People who think science is a trick straight from the pit of hell, aren’t going to watch it except to complain.
So this single-message soapbox tone works for Cosmos. But you know what other show I love, that is also very effective? The Rachel Maddow Show appeals to my political opinions, and Maddow is totally confrontational. Her heated interview with Rand Paul on the civil rights bill was one of the best damn pieces of journalism I’ve seen in a while. When somebody is full of it, you take them down. It’s fine if you can deconstruct their claims with a polite yet geeky speech, cool graphics, some introductory math and pithy history lessons; but openly confronting those people works well too. Another of my favorite show hosts, Jon Stewart, makes his living by regularly confronting and ridiculing public assertions that don’t make sense. There is room in my entertainment schedule for both Cosmos and The Daily Show.
Here’s the thing: However much I may love Neil DeGrasse Tyson, he has stated on several occasions that he is not an atheist. And that’s fine! He doesn’t have to like the label, and I have no wish to make him produce content that educates, entertains, and enriches people in a way that explicitly mentions atheism. But I personally am someone who embraces the label atheist. Therefore, Tyson can never fully represent me or my interests. I never expected him to, and I don’t require that of him. After all, I have a lot of different interests. I’m a left leaning political enthusiast, so I like watching Maddow and The Daily Show. I’m a gamer and a Starcraft fan, so I enjoy watching Day get all enthusiastic and geeky about games I play. I’m interested in finance, which is why I listen to Planet Money and Freakonomics Radio. I loves me some science, so I watch Cosmos. And I like talking about atheism, so I’m glad there are atheist shows out there, and I feel privileged to get to host one sometimes.
You see, I don’t need all my entertainment to cover all my interests, but I want choices. Not everyone has the same taste as I do. I don’t watch football or other professional sports, but ESPN exists without giving equal time to people like me who might simply talk about our complete lack of interest in sports. I don’t listen to Christian talk shows, and I don’t agree with Christian talk shows, but I’m absolutely fine with the idea that there are extensive choices out there for Christians who want to listen to them. And they are extensive — Wikipedia informs me that there are at least thirty separate television stations which are devoted exclusively to round the clock religious programming. That’s actual broadcast TV, not some experimental new technological platform like Roku, that’s still just getting started trying to grab market share.
So: American Atheists has an atheist channel, the first of its kind. We’re on it. Daniel D’Addario seems to object to the fact that we directly invite and respond to claims that we find ridiculous, and we’re not always perfectly polite about it. Sorry. As a public atheist, I feel like there are legitimate problems with religious extremism that too often get swept under the rug by a general notion that you should smile and nod at everyone’s beliefs, whether they are justified or not. So I defend The Atheist Experience’s approach to religious dialogue, while still acknowledging that we could always improve.
I don’t necessarily think there is anything either wrong or horrifying about preaching to the choir from time to time. We hear all the time from atheists who feel like they just don’t have a voice in their day to day lives — they can’t tell their families about their opinions, they can’t speak up at work. Our religious neighbors feel free to promote their beliefs without a second thought, while offended outrage explodes any time atheists use even the most inoffensive possible means of expressing an opposing viewpoint. Atheist students who stand up for themselves are attacked and abused regularly. People who live in the Bible Belt often express their relief and gratitude that we talk about these issues candidly, so that they don’t feel like a lone voice in the wilderness anymore.
Our show is a special interest show. We have a point of view and we promote it. There are countless religious shows. There are very few atheist shows on any mainstream channel, even after the creation of Atheist TV. Yet even though we have a slanted show, it is by no means a one-sided one — we take callers precisely so that we do not present a program where atheists pat ourselves on the back about how much we agree, but instead can directly engage with people who disagree with us. There aren’t many other shows that will sit down and have a conversation over a disagreement for 15, 30, or occasionally even 60 minutes without hanging up and monologuing instead.
On balance, I’m glad this article appeared in Salon, because I do think that our show is small enough that the benefit of being mentioned on Salon greatly outweighs the harm that we’ll be perceived as rude. I’m not saying that to be snotty, as in “Ha ha, thanks for helping us, Daniel! Take that!” I’d like to think that we at The Atheist Experience do take criticism seriously and listen to suggestions. Sometimes we follow those suggestions and sometimes we don’t. But I don’t resent Salon for publishing this piece at all, because open dialogue is what we’re all about.
Also, Daniel, please feel free to call in any time and set a good example for those underequipped callers you mentioned.