CNN must have felt the heat

That wretched excuse to bash atheists on the Paula Zahn program that I criticized must have generated some intense and voluminous correspondence, because right now they’re scrambling to do damage control. I just got word from Richard Dawkins that they are going to repeat the lead segment (the part with the ostracized atheist family), and then instead of showing the bumbling bigot panel, they’re planning to replace that debacle with a new interview with Richard Dawkins. That’s tonight, Thursday, at 8PM EST.

For symmetry, it would have been better to have a panel with Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris to talk about those darned obnoxious Christians…the asymmetry would have reemerged, though, when they discussed the issue with more class and thoughtfulness than Debbie Schlussel and Karen Hunter.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007

    Here’s hoping Dawkins will be in top form. . . . I wonder if they’ll say anything about why the program changed?

  2. #2 Chris
    February 8, 2007

    At least for a segment on how atheists are viewed/treated in the U.S., they could have picked an American atheist. Dawkins, with his heavy British accent, talking about how American atheists are treated is just odd. Hell, have ’em interview you, PZ.

  3. #3 simplicio
    February 8, 2007

    I first saw the youtube clips linked from this blog and then posted them on Daily Kos and emailed the Richard Dawkins site. I even got many of my religious family and friends to send in complaints to CNN. It seems we atheists are getting organized and active – a very good sign indeed. Thanks to everyone who took action on this!

  4. #4 rrt
    February 8, 2007

    Adrienne, look for the transcript for the Paula Zahn show on Jan. 31. It doesn’t mention atheism in the title, so it was considered one of those “minor” parts of the show. It was the last segment of the show, so it’s at the bottom of the transcript.

    As for Dawkins, I’m not really happy they’re using only him. I like him, sure, but I agree with PZ that a panel would have been better. That would demonstrate that there are many atheists out there, and that our views can differ somewhat. It may seem a silly point, but I think it actually matters, as does the three or four-to-one ratio of theists-vs-atheists this sets up between the two shows.

    Dawkins’ high profile is great in what it accomplishes, but his singular nature makes it easier for theists to portray and attack him as an outlier and outsider, and to narrow the definition of “atheist.” I half-seriously wonder when they’ll start calling us “Dawkinists.” Not that I’d mind the company.

  5. #5 Chris
    February 8, 2007

    Well, no American atheists have the visibility of Dawkins (Dennett, for example, isn’t even close to as widely known). But what’s the point of having a Brit on to discuss the plight of American atheists? Would it make sense to have Dennett go over and do an interview for the BBC on the plight of British atheists? Obviously not.

    Of course, as someone who’s been an atheist, and around atheists, for a long time, I’ve experienced no real discrimination, so I’m not exactly sure what all the hubbub is about. And I’ve spent most of that time firmly embedded in the Bible belt.

    Wait, I have lost a date or two for being an atheist. I suppose I’d have trouble if I ran for congress, too.

  6. #6 Chris
    February 8, 2007

    rrt, I’ve been calling you rationalist atheists Dawkinsians for some time now, but I guess that’s not really what you mean, since it’s meant to distinguish between types of atheists (my type being… I dunno, Nietzscheans? Ricoeurians? pomo sons of bitches?).

  7. #7 Richard Dawkins
    February 8, 2007

    Yes, I independently had the same thought yesterday, about the need for American voices rather than my English one. I suggested some names, including Michael Newdow who was actually slandered by one of the morons on the previous program. Unfortunately, however, CNN were adamant that they wanted a one-on-one between me and Paula Zahn. So I’ll just have to do the best I can, with apologies to those who could surely have done a better job. I think it is possible that CNN don’t want to concentrate on American attitudes to atheists this time, so much as on atheism more generaly (I was told that Paula Zahn is reading The God Delusion).

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007

    Richard Dawkins (if it truly be he) said:

    Unfortunately, however, CNN were adamant that they wanted a one-on-one between me and Paula Zahn.

    The linguist in me wants to discuss over tea the complications of singular they or plural CNN; however, I know I should be more concerned with the melancholy confirmation this provides of the horse-race mentality. It reminds me of Bill Watterson’s take on newspapers: “You can tell this is an in-depth story, because it has an article next to the chart.”

    Best of luck, sir.

  9. #9 PZ Myers
    February 8, 2007

    Yes, that really is Richard Dawkins. If some fraud comes along and tries to post something under his name (or anyone else’s), it will be denounced. Pseudonyms are OK, but impersonations are one of those things I will squash.

  10. #10 ERV
    February 8, 2007

    Of course no offense, Dr. Dawkins, but Atheism in America has the stereotype of either being an older educated white male, or young teenage ‘rebellion’ and the major news stations are happy to reinforce that stereotype. For example, irritating segments on the Blasphemy Challenge were in fashion the past few weeks, and now you are being booked you to talk about Atheism in America (kind of strange…)

    Im sure theyd rather show nothing than to have a panel of atheists whos diversity mirrored their original panel. Especially ones who directly contradict every stereotype about atheists that uninformed theists can think of, like myself or any of my classmates.

    –Pissed off young female atheist

  11. #11 BigHeathenMike
    February 8, 2007

    Yeah, I got the “thanks for commenting on the Steve Irwin tribute” email as well, Carlie. Didn’t exactly make me confident in CNN, to say the least.

    Wow, that Schlussel blog *is* a trainwreck, eh? Holy crap. I hope Prof. Dawkins does well with Zahn tonight and can be both respectful and biting.

  12. #12 mothworm
    February 8, 2007

    I don’t have the reputation of a Debbie Schlussel, Stephen Smith, or Karen Hunter, so I don’t expect to get invited to these things.

    I’ve never heard of any of those people before. I doubt most Americans are familiar with any atheists, even the fine Mr. Dawkins. I think interviewing “unknowns” would make it a much better piece.

  13. #13 Glen Davidson
    February 8, 2007

    Dawkins is probably the best for the show, actually. This isn’t the time for nuance and concern about accents, it’s time for aggressive, confident pressure to end the double standard (like others have said I hardly feel persecuted, yet the sense that we should be “in the closet” is real).

    And I don’t know, there’s something a bit nerdy about American proponents of atheism in my experience. The sort of dreary, ‘we’ve been down this path before’ issue hits, as well. I’m all for a British accent and someone with more of a cutting-edge reputation, principally in the hopes that people will actually take notice.

    That’s my opinion, anyhow, but then I don’t even claim to be an atheist (don’t worry, though, I easily fit the other side’s definition of “atheist”).

    Glen D

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007

    The pendant in me wishes to point out that the linguist in you may not be aware that the singular they has a long and respectable history as proper usage, as well as that in British English, a group gets a plural (“Oliver’s Army are on their way”).

    I apologize for giving the wrong impression, for you see I like the singular they. After all, I am large, I contain multitudes — don’t you? My (incidental) point was just that one could use they with antecedent CNN either by regarding CNN as a singular entity with neutral or unspecifiable gender, or by regarding CNN as a group of people (“them”) with some collective desire shared by the group members. Dawkins, I might argue, was doing the latter:

    Unfortunately, however, CNN were adamant that they wanted a one-on-one between me and Paula Zahn.

    It could only matter, of course, if considering CNN as a population of people bearing varying views makes us more likely to think that other mouths of the many-headed beast will say more insightful things than Paula Zahn has to date.

  15. #15 Steve_C
    February 8, 2007

    Although a panel would be good. I have not seen any indepth interviews with Richard Dawkins in the mainstream american media. The Colbert Repor was fun no doubt, but I don’t recall him being on the Today show or 60 minutes. Charlie Rose? CNN really is a good place for him to defend atheists everywhere. Also, Dawkins is a very engaging speaker and I have no problem with him representing us, he does take our plight to heart.

  16. #16 Glen Davidson
    February 8, 2007

    Let me tell you something, this current fad of the U.S. going absolutely bananas over Jesus (walk your dog with Jesus, eat breakfast with Jesus, teach math in a Christian way, prayer meetings at work, etc.) more resembles Theosophy in my opinion than traditional Christianity, and it is not going to last.

    Orthopraxy, to cover the shambles of orthodoxy. Not going to last, true, but probably not going to lead to anything very intelligent either.

    There’s vision in religion, while not much has remained in secularism, atheism, or whatever you want to promote against religion. Science isn’t as exciting or awe-inspiring to most people as it used to be, which is a real problem for replacing religion with sense. Social utopias are the gods that failed, a reason why the people invited the crows back again.

    It might do well if some enthusiasm for the capabilities of reason and sensuality (in the broader sense) were kindled once more. Especially the “magic” of what we perceive and know, a la Romanticism or some such thing, might sell a whole lot better than the rationality promoted by Dawkins, and yes, PZ. There’s a kind of “spirituality” that pays heed to the world and revels in its processes that is much more satisfying than the thin mysticism of having Jesus along to walk your dog. But it isn’t, and probably never will be, organized. Plus it takes the actual work of learning to effect very well.

    Europe has a better sense of what I’m talking about than the Anglo-American world does, which is likely one reason why it is more secular. I know I said that Dawkins is probably best for the program, however I doubt his approach is best in the long run for actually displacing religion with the sort of “pagan” spirituality that cares about the world.

    Glen D

  17. #17 Kristine
    February 8, 2007

    Look, the whole thing with this is, as I’ve said to others, being an atheist is not as important to me as being a Jew/Christian/Hindu/Muslim/whatever seems to be to other people. Because it’s not a religion. It’s just a thing, you know? Like not believing in luck, or not caring about Friday the 13th.

    I’m myself first, an opinionated little heretic about everything, and as it is I freak out fellow atheists too with the things I say. So there. As Liz Taylor said, I’m not “like” anyone, I’m me.

    So I am happy and grateful to have Richard Dawkins represent “us,” but for pity’s sake CNN is framing the discussion and I’m not comfortable with that. “We” are going to be made into the kind of monolithic group that “we” truly are not, because not believing in something is like not playing volleyball–there’s a million other things to do instead. But CNN is going to make “us” look like a cult (with the requisite “charismatic leader,” Dawkins, who is charismatic) and that’s just unfair.

    (And has it occurred to anyone that that mainstream media wants to portray this as a foreign “atheist invasion”? My goodness, if those pointy-headed Brits/French/Commies would just leave Americans alone…)

    The less I watch television, the less I can stand to watch television.

    And the more I read Richard Dawkins the more things I find, along with the things I agree with, to debate with/question him about. (And hi, Mr. Dawkins!)

    Duh. We’re individuals!

  18. #18 pbg
    February 8, 2007

    The only worry I have with Dawkins’s arguments is his apparent emphasis on the harmfulness of religion, when really faith is the culprit. I suspect that for many (most?) people, religion is about social events and culture and friends, and faith is only maybe 50% or 10% or 2% of the whole.

    My impression is that Dawkins agrees that those other parts of religion are good and useful, but I think he would do well to make that point up front. I suspect that he looses a lot of people just due to the confusion between “faith” and “religion”.

  19. #19 Glen Davidson
    February 8, 2007

    But CNN is going to make “us” look like a cult (with the requisite “charismatic leader,” Dawkins, who is charismatic) and that’s just unfair.

    Only to the stupid, and they already think we’re a cult that just hates Jesus and unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) works for the devil.

    Dawkins is too fractious to really appear as some cult leader, plus he doesn’t have the sorts of followers that comprise cults. He’s too negative to rally around, poking, provoking, and acting all cussed about religion. He doesn’t like religion, but beyond that he lacks a counter-utopia or even a positive replacement for the needs that religious people feel (as per one of my previous posts).

    No, he’s just a provocateur and an advocate, not at all exhibiting the characteristics of someone wanting to lead, to rule, or to build a beautiful new society. That’s a good combination at this point. Anyone amenable to understanding will recognize that he’s just supporting a viewpoint, not the new atheist-dictator-in-waiting, and the other dullards deserve his biting tongue.

    It isn’t the yahoos that we need to address. They can’t imagine that we’re not following somebody, yes, but let them imagine that Dawkins is it at the present time. There’s not much downside in their supposing that Dawkins is all that they have to counter. I think it’s been helpful in fighting ID for Dawkins to be making other “evolutionists” look moderate, and it won’t be likely to hurt secularism either for Dawkins’ non-subtle approach appear to be the real threat.

    Glen D

  20. #20 Poseidon
    February 8, 2007

    I just got word from Richard Dawkins

    How must it feel to be able to use that phrase?

    Sadly, I sort of agree with some of the other commenters. Won’t this just reinforce the stereotype that a) all atheists are middle-aged scholars and b) Dawkins is somehow the Atheist Professor X?

  21. #21 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007

    Dawkins has already gone on the record saying, “[O]rganized atheists have, until recently, been noticeably and discouragingly grey-headed.” He’s aware of the image problem, and with luck he’ll have the opportunity to mention it. You know, “You didn’t have to go to the trouble of finding a British professor like me, when you could have found an American teenager on the Internet.”

  22. #22 Blake Stacey
    February 8, 2007


    Thanks for the clarification. I do still wonder about the different impressions one gets of the whole kerfluffle depending on whether one learns of it from TV or from the Blagnet, but you make a very valid point.

    Oh, and Poseidon, if Dawkins is the atheist Professor X, does that mean he can transfer his mind into a comatose brain — say, any of the Discovery Institute leadership? Coo-ool.

  23. #23 Chris
    February 8, 2007

    Sadly, I sort of agree with some of the other commenters. Won’t this just reinforce the stereotype that a) all atheists are middle-aged scholars and b) Dawkins is somehow the Atheist Professor X?

    I thought they had already cast him as the Atheist Magneto, anyway. :)

    Seriously, though, let’s actually see the segment before we judge it. If they sandbag Dawkins, well, we can’t exactly give them hell since we haven’t got one, but the next best thing. But maybe they really are trying to repair their mistake.

    As for the faith vs. religion-as-social-club issue, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dawkins or PZ unleash their vitriol against the Unitarians or anything like them. They do make that distinction even if they don’t always do it explicitly. If your church really is just a social get-together and doesn’t try to impose doctrine or non-reality-based beliefs on anyone, well, I can’t speak for Dawkins or PZ, but I personally wouldn’t have a problem with it (although I think it’s a bit misleading to call it a “church” given what that term historically implies).

  24. #24 Gerard Harbison
    February 8, 2007

    Alas, while I don’t have email from Richard Dawkins, I do have email from Debbie Schlussel. She linked to my blog after I wrote a piece called ‘Ten Reasons not to Vote for Tom Osborne’ (Nebraska gubernatorial GOP primary; long story). What I find curious is that my blog clearly says I’m an atheist, and I’m quite often mean to fundies on it. So evidently atheists aren’t always icky to Debbie; we have our occasonal uses.

    Or maybe she didn’t read too far past ‘Right Wing Professor’ :-)

  25. #25 Richard Dawkins
    February 8, 2007

    I just learned that CNN’s plan for this evening has changed. My 20 minute interview will be edited down to about 4 minutes, and it will be followed by a panel discussion involving Christopher Hitchens (representing atheists) and two religious spokesmen.

  26. #26 Steve LaBonne
    February 8, 2007

    Professor Dawkins brings discouraging news. Christopher Hitchens is not fit to “represent” anyone except, perhaps, drunkards. And even granting CNN’s premise, why is he to be outnumbered?

  27. #27 Butch
    February 8, 2007

    For what it’s worth, this atheist digs both Dawkins and Hitch. I was planning to watch tonight, but now I’m making a note so I’ll be sure to not miss it.

    Thanks Doc, for letting us know.

  28. #28 Glen Davidson
    February 8, 2007

    For what it’s worth, this atheist digs both Dawkins and Hitch.

    I don’t know if I “dig” either one (yes I like you Richard, but what would it mean to dig you?), but, whatever one thinks of Hitchens, he’s no slouch at defending atheism. He should be able to speak to the more humanistically-educated viewers, and might suggest a less political gloss to “atheism”, in conjunction with Dawkins.

    On the whole, the appearance of both ought to be good for secularism per se.

    Glen D

  29. #29 Poseidon
    February 8, 2007

    Oh, and Poseidon, if Dawkins is the atheist Professor X, does that mean he can transfer his mind into a comatose brain — say, any of the Discovery Institute leadership? Coo-ool.

    I first came up with the idea when people like Dembski started calling Dawkins out and essentially asking him to “do something” about various things the atheist community is doing. Apparently he has Atheist , and can instantly contact and change the minds of millions of atheists all over the world!

    “Professor Dawkins, no! These children must be stopped from denying the holy spirit on YouTube!”

  30. #30 Brian
    February 9, 2007

    I’m actually a bit disappointed that they chose Dawkins as their token atheist, given that he is not American. Still, I hope Dawkins can move beyond the faith vs reason argument, and make it clear that this is an issue of intolerance. What Paula Zahn did was to condone bigotry on her show. It happened to be directed against atheists, but could just as easily been directed against Muslims or “illegals”.

  31. #31 Steven Sullivan
    February 12, 2007

    It’s so tiresome to see people referring to Hitchens as a ‘boob’. Whatever he is, it’s not a ‘boob’. The guy is more articulate and intelligent than most people here, I’d wager, and comes from the long British tradition of being able to speak well ex tempore (and hold his liquor). He’s seems to me better read than Dawkins too, and more adept at juggling philosophical concepts. He’s also shown no qualms at all in the past about eviscerating religious icons (e.g, Mother Teresa). One could hardly ask for a better spokesman for the atheist side…*and*, as a vigorous supporter of the war against what he called ‘Islamo-fascism, he’s a living refutation of people like Schlussel, who’ve tried to co-opt the term.

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