“I’m Actually An Atheist”: Revisiting Rebecca Vitsmun’s CNN Surprise

Five years ago this week marked a victory for atheists.

It wasn’t a group of newly elected politicians affirming that they didn’t believe in God; those representatives are still few and far between. It wasn’t a handful of states finally purging anti-atheist rhetoric from their constitutions; we still have seven to go. And it had nothing to do with the Supreme Court; Greece v. Galloway would be decided the following year.

This victory came in the form of approximately 12 seconds of incredible television.
A tornado had just ravaged Moore, Oklahoma — 24 dead, more than 200 injured — and CNN had dispatched anchor Wolf Blitzer to the scene. In an interview with survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, Blitzer congratulated her on her decision to grab her child and evacuate her home before the twister came.

“You gotta thank the Lord, right?” he asked. Vitsmun inclined her head down toward the toddler in her arms and said nothing. Blitzer pushed: “Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?”

“I’m actually an atheist,” she responded.

 

That little clip of post-disaster footage has been viewed more than 2.6 million times — and that’s just one version of it. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist to have watched it more than once. It was thrilling. The assumption of belief upended! The nice Oklahoma lady who isn’t a Christian! The glib reporter thrown off his game! The ritualized post-disaster piety popped like a balloon by one sharp-edged word!

When I first saw it back then it made me yelp in triumph.

When I watch it today, however, it makes me a little sad.

Vitsmun said later in an interview with Seth Andrews (a.k.a. The Thinking Atheist), “I had this moment where I just stopped for a second and I realized, you either lie or tell the truth. And I, just, I’m not a liar.” But it doesn’t look that simple in the clip. When the big moment comes — “Do you thank the Lord…?” — she pauses, smiles, and shrugs apologetically. “I–I’m–I [laughs], I’m actually an atheist,” she finally manages to say. She and Blitzer share an uncomfortable laugh. And then Vitsmun immediately seeks to reassure the television audience that she’s still a nice person. “We are here,” she concedes (meaning her and her son) “and you know I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”

I still thrill at Vitsmun’s honesty, but almost exactly five years later, I find myself focusing on the way she seems to have to apologize for it. Maybe it’s because, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’ve been thinking about the pressure women face to play along. To avoid saying “no” out of concern for other people’s feelings. Maybe it’s because I have felt my own cheeks burn when saying the A-word (in Upstate New York, no less), or more often, chosen not to say it at all.

Because it’s easy not to. The comments following the clip include really helpful post-interview advice on how Vitsmun should have responded, snarky comebacks along the lines of “Yes, I thank the Lord he killed 24 neighbors and destroyed my home.” But I keep thinking what most of us would have said. What I probably would have said to deflect the question so as not to offend.

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“We’re so, so thankful to be safe.”

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“Right now I’m just worried about my friends and neighbors.”

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“Honestly, Wolf, I’m just in shock.”

That’s how many of us avoid the uncomfortable truth, all the time. And, maybe, that’s why there are so many more atheists in America than people think. It’s surprisingly hard to brave the awkward moment, to overturn the easy assumption, to stop a friendly conversation in its tracks.

But Vitsmun did. She managed to stammer out the truth about herself on national television, embarrassing a celebrity (male) reporter in the process. Despite the fact that her parents didn’t know that she was an atheist. Despite the fact that, as she has said, she’d been “in the closet” for 10 years and didn’t intend to come out.

Watch that clip above. Marvel at how little it takes to be an atheist hero — and how much it clearly took. Resolve that if you’re ever asked, “Do you thank the Lord…?” you find the courage to say, “No.”

***

Many thanks to Hemant Mehta for allowing me to join him at The Friendly Atheist his blog at Patheos.com.

 

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5 thoughts on ““I’m Actually An Atheist”: Revisiting Rebecca Vitsmun’s CNN Surprise

  1. Risa Scranton says:

    When our then 13-year-old daughter fell off of a 30-foot cliff, and did NOT die, people kept coming up to me and saying things like, “Oh, THANK GOD she wasn’t more badly injured!” and “THANK GOD she’s going to be all right!” and I found myself a bit surprised to realize that it hadn’t even occurred to me to “thank god” at all. I thanked the paramedics and helicopter pilots and nurses and hospital technicians and doctors and so on — but “god” never even entered into my thinking. That’s when I realized that I really WAS an Atheist, all the way down, foxhole and all.

  2. Norman says:

    Great to see your blog again. It’s nice realize the number of rational humans is on the increase. I agree with the concept that if God existed and is all good and all powerful, he/she/it wouldn’t murder all those God fearing folk, or any folk at all. It’s like if someone hits you in the gut and you say, thanks for not hitting me over the head. Absurd how believers continue to believe and rationalize. BTW: often “thank God” is just a reflex figure of speech and doesn’t denote belief. The word “God” is really a shorthand term for “that which we can’t explain or control” or simply just for expressing that we feel fate has been kind or not. So if I say, “I’ll see you next week, God willing,” it means “assuming I’m still alive” not that I think God, even if he/she/it even existed, gives a good “god”dam. A friend of mine asserts that Einstein said, “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist.”

  3. John says:

    I read this on the Friendly Atheist earlier today; nice.

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