Mormon Media Observer: A take on the atheism debate

Published: Monday, Jan. 24 2011 4:30 a.m. MST

At the end of the Golden Globe Awards last week, host Ricky Gervais thanked various people for helping complete the program successfully, and he then concluded by thanking God for “making me an atheist.”

Gervais, the creator of the British television show, “The Office” and a creator of its American spin-off, has been in the news lately for his public atheism.

The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog ran an essay from Gervais before Christmas wherein he discussed his atheism, a blog that generated significant comment and discussion there.

Gervais says there is no “scientific evidence” for God. He also suggests that science “doesn’t hold onto medieval traditions because they are tradition.”

Gervais joins a growing list of people making their atheism known publicly. There is the renowned Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins who wrote of “The God Delusion,” as he called it. There is the glib, well-spoken intellectual Christopher Hitchens who made hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, by printing his tome, “God is not Great.”

Reporters have provided a great deal of attention to these atheists, stoking the controversy over the existence of God. Even if reporters had no purpose to question religious faith, doubts have become more mainstream, or so it seems to me.

While I have not undertaken a detailed analysis of the coverage of atheism in the news media, I did once look for a few days in 2007 at the news coverage of Rep. Pete Stark’s decision to become the first American politician to admit publicly that he was an atheist. My unscientific set of observations suggested that coverage of Stark’s beliefs was favorable toward his “coming out.” The decision was framed as a stand for free speech. One typical article in a Bay area started this way: “Rep. Pete Stark believes in democracy and free speech — but not in God.”

It seemed a far more favorable framing than I see of most religion coverage, frankly.

As disappointing as it is to say this, reporters may not be able to do much better than provide a balanced conduit for atheists in the modern world we live in. Journalism is a secular enterprise that reports “both sides” of a prominent issue. So as atheism becomes more prominent, journalism will write more about it. Journalism will therefore become a conduit for atheistic arguments as well as religious ones, I presume.

To be sure, if atheism gains increased public interest, then a news reporter, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should write about atheism in a fair way and allow its adherents a voice. I expect nothing less in journalism’s coverage of religion. I can’t have a different standard for the less religious among us.

So my point today, really, isn’t so much about reporters; my point is to use the opinion format of this blog to take a public stand because so few news reporters can or do so.

I can’t and don’t speak for Mormonism, but one of the things I love most about my faith is that my testimony, my knowledge of God, is independent of any other person. So, let me add my little piece to this discussion.

I would draw attention to Gervais’ phrase that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. I concede his point that science, as some people understand it, does not, indeed cannot, provide complete evidence for God.

But in drawing attention to his adjective, “scientific,” we miss the noun, “evidence.” Mormons believe there is evidence for the existence God for those willing to “experiment” upon the word of God. The beating heart of Mormonism is that evidence.

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