August 23, 2020

Delegitimizing Atheists in the Media

offer of respect

Back in 2012, Staks over at Dangerous Talk brought up a great point about how people - especially those in the news media - delegitimize atheism in a variety of subtle ways. He noted that atheists who are interviewed on TV or for print media are often referred to using labels like "a self-professed atheist" and that we never see these same labels affixed to religious believers. I have certainly seen "self-professed" and many similar examples like the following:

…a self-described atheist...
...identifies himself as an atheist
…who says he's an atheist
…who claims to be an atheist

Can you imagine what would happen if some of these qualifiers were applied to Christians? I am imagining something like this:

Ms. Roberts, who claims she's a Christian, said that the city needs to invest more money in repairing potholes near Main St.
There would considerable outrage in response to something like this, and it would be warranted. This would be recognized as being insulting to Ms. Roberts and probably to Christians in general.

Of course, this isn't going to happen because we do not consider such qualifiers necessary when it comes to Christians. We're generally content to take someone at their word that they are a Christian, and reporters would know better than to apply these delegitimizing labels in that context. In essence, we agree to let Christians decide how to identify and label themselves while refusing to extend the same courtesy to atheists. This strikes me as a basic issue of respect (or the lack thereof).

Like most people, I've grown so accustomed to some of these qualifiers being applied to atheists that I don't always notice them. But Staks is right. When we do notice them, we should point them out in order to expose the bigotry and Christian privilege they reflect. We should also demand better from our news media. It is doubtful that this sort of thing will change unless we do.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2012. It was revised and expanded in 2020 because this is an issue on which surprisingly little progress has been evident.