This is a guest post by my friend Dan Linford about a rather unfortunate situation that took place last week after he appeared on HuffPo Live. Dan is, in my opinion, one of the most thoughtful voices in atheism and deserves much more attention and I’m happy to give him this platform to clear the air.
Forced Baptisms and Other Misadventures in Public Communication
“I’ve heard other stories from people who were effectively forcibly baptized.”
Those words will haunt me for several weeks to come.
I was recently asked to give an interview on HuffPost Live concerning atheism in the millennial generation. I agreed with the understanding that I would be representing myself as a graduate student working on atheism and secularity. I compiled a 5 page document summarizing scientific research on religious identifications in the millennial generation which I sent, a week in advance, to the reporter who had contacted me.
I should have known that something was wrong when the host contradicted that document within the first few minutes of their program: contrary to their statements, the 30% of those under 30 who claim no formal religious identification are not uniformly atheists or agnostics. Worse, I was introduced as hailing from a school “often in the news” for religion (it is not). While the school is located in the geographic region known as the Bible Belt, many of the people in Virginia Tech’s student body hail from DC and the surrounding suburbs. I was also introduced as a member of the executive board of Freethinkers at Virginia Tech. While I am the former president of that organization, I do not at present have any official title. While my choice not to correct those errors while on air was a mistake, I think a bigger mistake was to speak less clearly than I should have.
When asked about the experience of the atheist student on Virginia Tech’s campus, I had a few ideas that I wanted to convey.
First, that there is a tremendous diversity of students. Tech has an undergraduate population of approximately 30,000 students. This means that the experience of students will vary. Some interactions with religion will be deeply enriching and positive experiences but not all.
Second, I did not want those of my friends who have had negative experiences to go unmentioned. Two individuals have conveyed to me instances where they were baptized against their own will. Due to confidentiality concerns, I am not going to publicly reveal the details of those incidents. However, I do not see those incidents as common place occurrences nor are they representative of the behavior of Christians on my campus to those outside their faith communities. Unfortunately, my comment did not make it clear that this is a rare event.
Third, most of the problems I had heard about concerned conflicts between an atheist and their family and not with other students.
After the interview, the Huffington Post ran an article whose headline claimed that Virginia Tech students broadly face forced baptisms. I discovered the article when a leader of an on-campus Christian group sent me an e-mail asking me to explain myself. I could not have been more horrified. How could my words have been so twisted out of context?, I wondered.
But the fault does not lie entirely on the shoulders of the folks at the Huffington Post. In academic writing, it is the author’s responsibility to write clearly. If the audience is confused or misunderstands what has transpired, some of the fault lies with the author. My comments were not consistently clear. The charge that I have not successfully represented the situation at Virginia Tech is not without merit. I am sorry that I spoke unclearly.
More information can be found at the clarification I posted on Reddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/VirginiaTech/comments/21130v/dan_linford_here_offering_a_clarification_on_the/).