Category Archives: Atheism

“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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7 Things You Don’t Have to Do to Be an Atheist

Courtesy of Bustle.com. And I won’t judge you if you go on to read “7 Weird Signs You’re Not Sleeping Well” or “The 10 Worst Cities for People with Allergies.” As long as you start by clicking on this link . . .

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The Radical Fairness of Opting In

swearing inThe week before Adam’s official swearing in, the other members of the Town Board fondly ribbed him about taking the oath. They knew his wife was an atheist, and someone quipped that when I held the Bible for him to swear on it would burst into flames.

Adam doesn’t mind being teased, but the joking did introduce an uncomfortable prospect: Would he feel comfortable swearing on a Bible? He was neither a Christian nor a fan of mixing church with state. Could he use a different book, like maybe the U.S. Constitution?

We had only the flimsy paperback copy that the ACLU sends in its fundraising appeals: it could easily be palmed for a magic trick. On New Year’s Day, preparing to leave for Town Hall, I slipped it into my coat pocket.

It was my dress-up coat; hung-over but game, I had cleaned the mascara smudges from my eyelids, re-curled my hair, and donned my pearls in an effort to look wifely. I wanted to show respect for the occasion. And in this respect, I had my doubts about the bendy founding document in my pocket. It didn’t look as important as a Bible (or a TV Guide. Or that little “start here” manual that comes with your new cell phone). So although I thought it was unlikely Adam would be required to swear on a Bible, I feared that his opting out would turn into a thing, perhaps even a story for the local paper. Should that really be Adam’s first public act as an elected official?

All of which is why I, your friendly outspoken atheist, said to my besuited husband on our way out the door, “Oh just use the damn Bible. Who cares?”

Do you make a point or do you stay quiet? On the drive over I thought about a friend of ours who grew up in our upstate New York town but now lives in Texas. He coaches youth football in his spare time, and he emailed me after the first scrimmage of the season this fall. “Before I knew what was happening,” he wrote, “one of the coaches starting leading the team in prayer.” Our friend is not a crusading atheist; he’s just an extremely logical, fair-minded person. Also, apparently, he is brave. He sent me the text he wrote to the prayer-leading coach:

. . . no offense to you or the other coaches, but I think we’ll leave the prayers to the privacy of each player, out of respect to players of all creeds. Guys can do whatever they choose before or after we gather as a team. Yeah, I know, I’m one of the few footballers who thinks that prayer and football aren’t a good mix.

A big strong guy with a voice that carries, an impressive job, and no lack of confidence, our friend is the head coach of this team. But I bet he put a lot of thought into exactly what level of explanation, supplication, and self-deprecation should go into that text. Results were mixed. Although the other coach, the prayer leader, bowed to my friend’s authority as head coach, said the request was offensive: “prayer is always optional,” and people “have the freedom not to bow their heads.”

Prayer is always optional. True: in this country, there’s almost always a way to opt out. In a well-publicized case last year, Air Force higher-ups at first refused to let an airman reenlist because he crossed “so help me God” off his re-enlistment form; eventually, they relented. Most states let you affirm rather than swear an oath; a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Torcaso v. Watkins) guaranteed the right to oath-related conscientious objection. States that still have “religious test” oaths on their books tend not to make a fuss if someone opts out: they know they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.

We arrived, shook some hands, and took our seats. Just as I started to get anxious, the first oath was administered: to a town Justice, who would then administer the rest of the oaths. His wife stood beside him, chic and smiling, one hand clasping . . . the other. The Judge raised his right hand, put his left hand by his side, and repeated:

I, ______, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of _________, according to the best of my ability.

Wait! What? No Bible? No “so help me God”? Just a promise to uphold the federal and state constitutions and do your job as well as you can?

Shortly thereafter, the Judge swore in the Town Supervisor. He brought his own Bible, hefty and worn, festooned with post-its. His wife held it as he swore the same oath everyone else did, except when his was over, he added “so help me God” at the end, unprompted.

That’s it! I thought: opt in, not opt out. Of course! It’s so simple, so  . . . fair. If you want to express your religious devotion, if you want to bring God in as a witness, go right ahead. The believer—specifically, the believer who want his beliefs to be a part of the civic occasion—should be the one who stands out. God would probably approve:

“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Timothy 1:8)

And, on the off chance that such public declaration invites judgment, ridicule, or worse:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Opting in wouldn’t keep my friend’s football players from praying; it would just keep non-Christian kids from having to make the awkward—and, on a Texas football field, possibly even risky—decision to opt out. In fact that’s what he suggested to his fellow coach in a follow-up text:

No one is standing in the way of anyone on the team worshiping as they wish. But . . . it won’t be a part of team activities. I think an “opt in” system is much more respectful to all than an “opt out” system. No one could realistically walk away from the team once the prayer started, but nothing would stop anyone who wants to pray from gathering privately to do it before team activities.

I wasn’t rereading my email at Town Hall, I swear. I looked up his exact words later. But I was thinking of him as I silently thanked his native and my adoptive state of New York, which afforded me the pleasure of standing by my husband as he swore an unambiguously heartfelt oath. Good old, rational New York State.

Then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and I had to decide whether to say the “under God” part or opt out.

 

 

 

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