Why Do Atheists Read the Religion Section?

(This piece originally ran on The Hufington Post in January of 2011. Although the tone of the article is “tongue in cheek”, it provoked some ire among the site’s readership then. Before you scroll on, realize that I was trying to have some fun, which is why I had comedians weigh in on the subject of “why atheists read the Religion section.” I’m actually the least judgmental – and the most lax – person when it comes to Theology. Also, at the time of publication, a rabbi who I interviewed for this piece had not yet embarked on some controversial campaigns that he would carry out in 2016-2018, activism that I do not condone in the least. It’s noteworthy that this was written when the concept of “Donald Trump as U.S. President” was completely unfathomable. With this intro and those disclaimers, you may now read on.)

ESH atheist cartoon

Cartoon by Elie Shmuel Hirschman, AKA “ESH”

Some of the most interesting people I’ve met are atheists. It’s no wonder; Psychologist Daniel Crosby, PhD pointed me to a recent Pew poll which found that atheists and agnostics score highest, compared to the religiously affiliated, on a measure of religious knowledge. After publishing my first Huffington Post article, numerous atheists posted comments to opine on the religious views I expressed (if the name hasn’t clued you in, I’m Jewish). While reading those comments, a friend asked “Why do atheists read the religion section?” In the same breath, that person said “Well, why the hell not!” Those ruminations inspired this piece.

I decided to open the floor to this discussion because the Religion section was looking a lot like Howard Stern. Let me explain: In the ‘97 biopic Private Parts, a researcher states that the average listener tunes in to Stern for just 15 minutes — and the answer most commonly given as to why?

“To see what he’ll say next.”

“But what about those who hate Stern?” asks “Pig Vomit,” Howard’s boss.

“Two and a half hours per day,” says the Researcher.

“What? How can that be?”

“To see what he’ll say next.”

In my opinion, Atheists want to be well-informed. They want to know what others are saying, and then what they’re saying next. They wish to keep up with all that they’re contesting, not to change their minds. Others who I’ve spoken with speculate that some self-professed atheists may actually be agnostics who are seeking answers to address internal doubts.

Bram Kleppner is a “a fifth-generation atheist” with iron-clad convictions. He reads religion articles because he’s always hoping small bits of sanity will insist on working their way into religious doctrine. “It was very heartening to hear the Pope suggest that condom use may be OK in certain circumstances,” he told me. He views the religion section as entertaining: “It’s fun watching grown, educated people tying themselves in knots trying to reconcile their beliefs to a world that demonstrates daily that those beliefs are false. I’m also looking for (and almost always find) positive reinforcement for my beliefs about our godless universe and the fact that there’s no afterlife.”

Tonight Show regular and comedian Elon Gold, who is performing his one-man show Half Jewish, Half Very Jewish, offered this perspective: “Just as believers sometimes doubt the existence of God, the Atheist will often doubt the non-existence of God! That’s why they’re always checking the religious section for breaking news. … ‘Has the Messiah come today? No? Oh good, I’m still right, it’s all BS!’ Who’s more worried about God’s existence than an atheist? Especially the atheist who lives a life of debauchery and sin — If there is a God, there’ll be no red carpet treatment for him in the afterlife. So he’s got to keep up with religious news. The consequences are enormous if he’s wrong!”

But as staunch atheist Bill Maher said in his documentary Religulous, “We need God to decide not to kill each other?”

Atheist comedian Frank King told me he reads the religion section in self defense: “Hardcore Christians tell me the Bible calls homosexuality ‘an abomination.’ What they fail to mention is that it’s only one of several HUNDRED abominations, including wearing clothes made of more than one material. Better send all those blends to Goodwill. When I point that out, they change gears and ask why I’m endorsing the gay agenda. Gays have an agenda? Ever watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? You can’t get 5 gay guys to agree on drapes, much less an agenda!”

Joking aside, I spoke with clergy members, theologians and psychologists who agreed with my thoughts about the atheist’s thirst for knowledge, the need to say abreast of what believers are saying.

“Deep down within every person is a yearning for belief in God,” explained Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, Associate Director of the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP). “Even avowed atheists may still be searching for a reason to believe and where better to find that (without going to church or synagogue) than on the religion page.”

When pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt started blogging for The Huffington Post, she initially read comments and responded to them, just as she does on her personal blog. While she maintains close friendships with atheists, she encountered what she refers to as “extreme atheism” while reading angry comments to her posts: “It felt like I was volunteering to put my hand in the meat grinder. I noticed quickly that I slacked off in my writing, and I began to lose my voice. You know, I’m smarter than Pavlov’s dogs, and if I get hurt every time I do something, then I stop doing it.”

But the pastor persevered and continues to write articles today. “It made me curious. I mean, there are a myriad of things that I don’t believe. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but I don’t feel compelled to hang out on horoscope sites and tell the readers how foolish they are. I decided I needed to get tougher.”

She had great things to say about Alex Wilhelm, an atheist who also blogs for the religion section of The Huffington Post, so I contacted him.

“I must admit that I read the religion section partially for a laugh,” Wilhelm wrote to me, “Why else? To keep an eye on things that I am wary of: anti-intellectualism, pseudo-science, lying to children, extremism, scriptural literalism, anti-blasphemy laws and the like. If you don’t know what you are up against, you can’t fight it as well as you could or should. I am for a free and secular society where the individual is protected from not just the majority, but from the moral laws of the religious. And so while I do read the oddest articles for a cheap chuckle, I tend to read to gird myself to protect individual liberty.”

Clinical psychologist David Sabine, Ph.D., first joked to me that atheists read the religion section for the same reason the CIA listens to Al Jazeera, but then he gave me the more professional response: “The late theologian Paul Tillich views atheism as a legitimate way to express one’s ‘ultimate concern.’ This refers to seeking answers to depth and mystery in life. Atheism, far from being faithless, is a powerful expression of some people’s view about ‘what it’s all about.’ So it makes sense for one with ‘ultimate concern’ to read the religion section and know how others are addressing the question, albeit in different ways.”

From a personal standpoint, I look forward to comments from those who challenge me. I look forward to answering questions and I’ll willingly admit there are some I can not answer. You could say there’s an agnostic in me — I don’t always know what to make of what I was taught. Of course, it is easier to welcome opposition when it’s delivered in a “with all due respect” tone.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (The Michael Jackson Tapes, Kosher Sex) says there are two kinds of atheists. One kind is what he refers to as “an atheist out of complacency; they can’t be bothered to believe in God and so are atheists out of convenience.” The second, he explains, is the professional atheist. Rabbi Boteach says that the latter “maintains a deep dislike for religion. ‘Professional atheism’ is far more about attacking religion than it is about non-belief in God. So they follow religion sections, obsess over them, joke about them, put them down and mock them.”

My feeling: anger does not discriminate. While some atheists read the religion section to keep current, some do so because religion incenses them and they feel the need to let people know. And that’s OK. Jews get angry, Christians get angry. Humans get angry. It’s an individual’s right.

If a priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a bar, there’s no telling who will be the first to lose their cool (…or who’ll go on to pen the joke)!


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