New CNN “Belief” blogger says he’ll give voice to atheist and nonbeliever issues

It’s been more than two years since CNN’s Paula Zahn Now showed “Beliefs Under Attack,” a segment featuring a Mississippi couple who had been ostracized from their community because of their disbelief in God. Following the segment, Zahn hosted a panel that included two Christians and Jewish conservative columnist Debbie Schlussel but no actual atheists. “What does an atheist believe?” one of the panelists asked. “Nothing. I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take ‘In God We Trust’ off of our dollars? Are we going to not say ‘one nation under God’ When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want? … I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do. No, I think they need to shut up about it.” Schlussel followed with an equally anti-atheist diatribe: “I think that the real discrimination is atheists against Americans who are religious. Listen, we are a Christian nation. I’m not a Christian. I’m Jewish, but I recognize we’re a Christian country and freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

After the clips were posted to YouTube the subsequent outrage from atheist bloggers and communities — which caused a flood of angry emails to CNN — led to a follow-up panel several days later that included an actual atheist. After the panel Zahn interviewed the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. “It strikes me that the atheist message is particularly threatening to some Christians because they believe in some way you’re trying to compromise their ability to have this stuff out there on the public stage,” she told him during the interview.

I was reminded of this exchange when I saw the announcement recently that CNN would be launching a “Belief” blog, described in its press release as “[fostering] a global conversation about the role of religion and faith in the news, and in users’ lives.” It’s common criticism among atheists to accuse religion columnists and newspaper sections of asserting a “pro religion” perspective that’s absent of the traditional skepticism that is needed in an objective newsroom. Would this new Belief blog give voice to not only criticisms of specific religions, but to the very notion of God’s existence?

I spoke on the phone to Dan Gilgoff, the co-editor of Belief who previously wrote columns for both U.S. News & World Report and beliefnet and the book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War. “We’re not being pro religion, we’re not being anti religion,” he said. “We’re acknowledging that faith plays a huge part of the news and a lot of news organizations don’t have the will power or the man power to do this.”

Gilgoff pointed to posts by Greg Epstein, described in his bio as an “ordained Humanist rabbi,” as early evidence that the blog will lend exposure to atheists. Interestingly, Epstein’s CNN writing has already been criticized by one of the most popular atheist bloggers, PZ Meyers. After Epstein wrote a post criticizing Draw Mohammed Day — created to fight back at extremists who launch death threats at cartoonists — Meyers seemed to dismiss his post as religious pandering.

“Epstein completely misses the boat on this one,” he blogged. “No, it isn’t like those crazy campus preachers who shout hellfire at passing students; it’s more like the students who are amused at the bombast and use it as an opportunity to point and laugh, which is an entertaining and productive response. Would Mr Epstein have been irked at the students who mocked and made fun, shushing them and telling them their reaction to being told they’re degenerates who are going to hell was totally inappropriate, and that they should simply listen quietly and respectfully?”

The reaction from atheists to the Belief blog has not escaped Gilgoff. He said that atheists had questioned CNN’s decision to launch the blog and claimed that it was promoting the Religious Right’s notion that religion should be promoted by the government, “which is not something we’re doing whatsoever.”

“What kind of struck me about the experience this week is that the sacred ground I think folks said we were invading or offending, that [backlash] was created by atheists, and that was something we weren’t anticipating,” he said.

I asked Gilgoff if he agreed with the thesis put forth by Richard Dawkins and others that religion is protected in a special shield not afforded to other belief systems, from Capitalism to Marxism to everything in between. “I do think that we have to be respectful, and I think when you see writings in certain parts of the world that are perceived offensive, we have to be responsible in how we cover religion for that reason,” he replied.

Obviously CNN is an American-based news organization and Gilgoff is an American journalist. Given that America is overwhelmingly Christian, many editors have been torn by the desire to have a “balanced” approach to all religions while also recognizing that the dominant religion has a disproportionate influence on local news events. But Gilgoff said that CNN’s larger-than-average news staff helps solve this problem. “I used to live in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s entire religion section has just disappeared,” he said. “I think CNN is in a different situation where we have an international news gathering team, and that allows us to cover world religions in a way that other news organizations can’t. So this week we have posts coming in from our Jerusalem bureau. We have a handful of posts on the Muslim world … So I think some of these unusual perspectives, these perspectives from non Christians, are something we’re going to be able to do very well. Because frankly we’re going to have a lot of people in the Muslim world and the Buddhist world, and various people in the Christian world stationed all over the planet, and we’re not going to stick to just one religion and we’re not going to just be examining Christianity.”