I am pretty sure that everyone has seen the video clip that has gone viral of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asking Rebecca Vitsum who, with her husband Brian and infant son Anders, narrowly escaped the tornado though their home was destroyed, whether she ‘thanked the Lord’ for her narrow escape. When she mumbles her reply, he presses her to answer at which point she says that she is an atheist. For the two people who haven’t seen the clip yet, here it is.
Although Blitzer has been at the receiving end of some criticism for his ‘blunder’, I am actually glad he asked the question. For one thing, Vitsum’s response contradicts the common belief that in times of crisis, we all become religious. The second is because it reveals how easily we make unwarranted blanket generalizations. Blitzer may have thought that Oklahoma being a generally conservative part of the country, all the people there must be religious. Other journalists may learn from his embarrassment to be more careful in the future.
I remember back in 2008 correspondent John Burnett, in an NPR report on Iraq, casually dropping the cliché that there are no atheists in foxholes. As Ellen Johnson, former president of American Atheists, said in response about that phrase, “It’s demeaning to atheists. It’s saying that under very dire circumstances or frightening situations, atheists will stop being atheists; they will start believing. And this is really just a wish on the part of the religious, because it’s not based in fact.” Burnett said later that “I didn’t realize that it was so offensive to atheists. And I learned that in spades after the story came out. They spammed me for weeks with email, saying, we’re outraged. So now I know…. I do see their point. I literally hadn’t thought about it before. And, frankly, I will think twice about using the phrase again.”
What is even more telling is that there does not seem to have been a backlash against Vitsum, with the usual nutcases saying that it was all her fault that the tornado struck them because god was angry at her apostasy.
However, there has been some pushback in the case of the Arizona state representative who used the opening prayer time to talk about his secular humanism. The next day another representative said that what he did was not a prayer and demanded a ‘do-over’ and offered a second prayer that day to make up for the lack of one the previous day. So it looks like there is a Law of Conservation of Prayer Number and that what god is looking for is that the total number of prayers equals the number of days the legislature is in session. This actually makes it easy, since then can say the required number of prayers on the first day and then forget about it. They could also install one of those Tibetan prayer wheels and save even more time.