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Panelists criticize media portrayal of atheism

by Melissa Kansky,

Cecil Bothwell, Cecile Holmes and Yonat Shimron shared anecedotes and experiences pertaining to the portrayal of atheism in the media Monday for the second annual Religion and Media Conference. Tom Arcaro, sociology professor, moderated the conversation.

Bothwell, Asheville city councilman, represented atheism while Holmes, University of South Carolina journalism professor, and Shimron, News & Observer religious reporter, voiced the media perspective.

"When I vote for someone I don't think about what they believe in faith," Bothwell said. "I think about what they believe in terms of public policy."

Nevertheless, North Carolina's State Constitution indicates in Article 6, Section 8 that denial of there being an Almighty God provides reason for disqualification from public office. Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland and South Carolina State Constitutions have similar clauses as well.

Bothwell became the subject of a national news story because of his refusal to say "so help me God" when sworn in as city councilman. He replaced the famous saying with the phrase "solemn affirmation."

"I've looked long and hard now by how much our public policy is dictated by religious beliefs," he said.

Religious language asserts the nation's international position as well, Bothwell said. "Under God" was inserted into the pledge of allegiance as a way to position the United States opposite those considered godless communists.

Cold War policies contributed to a negative stigma concerning atheists, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined school prayer unconstitutional in the 1960s, further developing the negative connotation, Holmes said.

"Again you see the position of atheists having to go against so many trends and defend themselves," she said.

The Supreme Court ruling suggests that atheists challenge American traditions, Holmes said.

"The nation is struggling to accommodate non-believers in a respectful way when living in a culture that is religious," Shimron said.

Accommodating non-believers includes providing adequate media coverage for atheist organizations, she said.

Atheists rarely appeared in newspaper stories prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, Shimron said, but now she reports on atheist activity frequently. News & Observer's front-page story described The Triangle Free Thoughts Society's plight to construct 12 billboards throughout the Triangle area that contain positive messages about free thinkers.

Free thinkers include atheists, agnostics and groups of non-believers, Shimron said.

"I see atheists becoming much more aggressive, much more bolder, sometimes even brazen in their efforts to seek public attention," she said.

Bothwell attributes the popularity of social media to an increase in acceptance of atheism.

"I don't know if the media can encourage the shift," she said. "I don't know if that is the media's role. I think the media can do a better job uncovering what might solidify and underscore the trend."

Religious Writers Association developed a website to provide religious reporters with historical documentation and information about atheists.

The website helps reporters frame stories with nuance and intelligence, Holmes said.

Although journalists remain more neutral in their portrayal of atheists, according to Shimron, she predicts that over time pop culture will cultivate a greater acceptance of non-believers.

Bothwell identified a similarity between the changing portrayal of atheists and the media's presentation of gays.

"There is a parallel, a good connection at least, in coming out as a homosexual and coming out as an atheist," Bothwell said.

He reflected on the level of prejudice toward non-believers and expressed a level of hope despite the criticism he received as an atheist city councilman.

"When I was your age I was optimist that things would change by now," he said. "But looking back things have changed. They just go very slowly."

The Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, School of Communications and "Better Together" sponsored the event.