Being an atheist in America is, at least for now, to be a member of an unpopular minority. While atheism and conservatism are perfectly compatible philosophies, the combination can be poison for those who seek to be in good standing with the Republican party which currently is under the tight control of religious fanatics. An atheist Republican is an even greater endangered species than a gay Republican or Muslim Republican.
Take the case of S. E. Cupp, a Republican conservative who was recently given a talk show on MSNBC, because what the nation needs are more talk shows run by political talking heads. In a recent episode she had on the author of a book on religious tolerance.
She started by pointing out to the author that religions, by the very fact that they each claim to posses the unique truth about god, are at least implicitly saying that other religions are wrong and are thus intrinsically intolerant of each other. This is an uncomfortable truth that those who push for ecumenical harmony tend to gloss over and she was right to point it out.
But things started to go rapidly downhill for her when, during the ensuing discussion, one of her fellow hosts asked Cupp how she arrived at her own atheism given that most Americans found it hard to shake their belief in a higher power.
As Stephen “DarkSyde” Andrew at Zingularity colorfully describes it, it seemed to dawn on Cupp that her Republican credentials, not to mention her newly acquired TV gig, might be in jeopardy by her being an atheist and she proceeded to try and make amends with an almost stream-of-consciousness babble about how she desperately wants to be able to believe in a god but just cannot bring herself to cross that line, how she envies religious people for their faith, hates ‘militant atheists’ with a passion, and would never vote for an atheist for president because she wanted the occupant of the Oval Office to be constrained by a belief in a higher power and not think that he or she was the ultimate authority. (Tbogg has more.)
It was an extraordinary performance. The only things she could have done more as atonement for being a nonbeliever was rend her garments, put on sackcloth and ashes, drive nails into her body, and beat herself on the head with a plank. Watching her talk about being in the clutches of atheist beliefs she deplored reminded me of those people in films who wail desperately about how they are in the grip of some addiction like drugs or alcohol or sex that they desperately want to quit but cannot. It even led to her fellow panelist Steve Kornacki calling her a ‘self-loathing atheist’.
Her words could have been spoken by any religious nutcase and she was so self-absorbed that her guest, who seemed like a reasonable person and may have had some interesting things to say but had been shut out by this monologue, had to interject to remind her that he was still there.
As an aside, I hate talk show hosts of any stripe who talk more than their guests, and it seems that most of them nowadays do. In the above segment, instead of beginning by asking the author what his book’s thesis is, Cupp starts with a long, rambling description of what she thinks it is.
In my experience, the best interviewer was Bob Edwards, the former host of NPR’s Morning Edition who currently has a satellite radio show, who would ask a pointed question of just a few words, actually listen to the response, and then ask another brief pointed question that followed up or clarified the issue before moving on to another topic. Bill Moyers is pretty good too. You could tell that both of them had studied the issues under discussion but did not feel the need to show off their own knowledge by talking at length.
While talk show hosts should strive to be balanced, highly opinionated ones need not hide their own views but should get them across in more subtle ways without dominating the conversation. If the author is saying something they are sympathetic with, they could ask questions that would enable the guest to make the case better. If it is something they disagree with, they could ask questions that point out contradictions or introduce information and data that challenges it. The point is to let the guest succeed or fail to make their case largely on their own and not harangue them. With Edwards and Moyers it is not hard to figure out what they think about any topic even though they let their guests speak.
But it seems we have mostly hosts who think that the audience wants to listen to them even though they are so predictable that they could be replaced by those dolls that can be programmed to speak a set of recorded clips.