Religious Intolerance on Paula Zahn's Show, 01/31/07

On 01/31/07, Paula Zahn's CNN show had a feature about discrimination against Atheists.  The video about the discrimination was followed by a discussion with three panelists.  Below, after my letter to Paula Zahn, is the short bio of the panelists followed by a transcript of the show.

- Mark W. Thomas

Dear Paula Zahn,

Thank you for showing the video on discrimination against Atheists in America, on your January 31st show.  If you or your panelists plan on discussing Atheism in the future, it would be good to have someone who can defend that point of view.  Also, most studies show that approximately 15% of Americans can be called non-believers, not the 1 to 3% that was stated.  The actual number is likely even higher, but many people are afraid to express their true beliefs because of the discrimination against Atheists.

I was astounded at the level of intolerance, religious chauvinism, and prejudice toward Atheists displayed by Karen Hunter and Debbie Schlussel.  It's especially egregious because these two are themselves members of minorities.  Would either of them tolerate similar statements against her minority group?  Karen Hunter should understand how Christianity has been used to endorse rascism and slavery.  Debbie Schlussel should understand how Christianity has been used (especially by fascism) to control the populace and deny rights to Jews and other minorities.  Apparently neither of them understood what I saw as the main point of the videos you showed -- that overt discrimination is still active in America, and it is wrong.

Karen Hunter said that schools should have religion, as long as it's her religion.  She obviously does not understand that public schools are for all students, no matter their religion or lack thereof.  Debbie Schlussel put forth the false idea that we have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.  Freedom of religion means the right to reject any religion, including all religions.  Only Stephen A. Smith understood the concept that freedom of speech is critical especially when one disagrees with what is said.

Debbie Schlussel grossly overstated the teaching of Islam in a California school, see  Her statement about Muslim prayers at football games and public high schools also seems to be overstated and intentionally inflamatory.  However, both these purported incidents should give her some idea of what it's like to have somebody else's religion foisted upon a captive crowd.

Karen Hunter said that Atheists believe nothing.  This is a common belief, and it is false.  Most Atheists are also Secular Humanists.  The philosophy of Secular Humanism declares that humans are most important, not any imaginary gods.  We have the power, thru love, reason, science, courage, and vision, to solve our problems.  We shape our destiny.  We are each capable of personal development and satisfaction.  Humanism holds as its highest goal the happiness, fulfillment, and freedom of all humankind.

All of your panelists agreed that the United States is a Christian nation.  Although most citizens are Christian, the Constitution mandates that the government takes a neutral stance on religion.  This was also expressed in the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated, "The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."  One other function of the Constitution is to protect the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority -- a concept that all your panelists should understand.

Mark W. Thomas
Mountain View, CA

California Assistant State Director for American Atheists

Advisory Board Member, Godless Americans Political Action Committee

Co-founder and President, Atheists of Silicon Valley

Steering Committee Member, San Francisco Atheists

"Out in the Open" panel.

Stephen A. Smith
Karen Hunter
Debbie Schlussel

Stephen A. Smith is an ESPN analyst and a sports columnist for "The Philadelphia Inquirer." Also with us tonight, attorney and conservative columnist Debbie Schlussel, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Hunter, who is a journalism professor at Hunter College in New York.

ZAHN: Imagine being chased out of your home, your neighborhood, even your community because of your beliefs.  You're about to meet a family who says it happened to them and we're bringing their story out into the open tonight because there are at least three million people in this country like them, people who may also face this kind of discrimination and persecution.  Here's faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was scared.  I was beyond upset.  I have never experienced such anger and hatred.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This couple, we're calling them John and Jane Smith, are so afraid they asked us not to identify them.  Two years ago they say the small Mississippi town where they lived turned against them after they complained to the principal of their son's public elementary school about class time devoted to bible study and prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were pariahs.  Nobody would speak to us.  It was, nobody would let their children play with my son.

GALLAGHER: The Smith's story made local headlines when it was revealed that they were atheists and soon after, tensions at the school escalated.  John says members of the community even called his boss at work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they called him to complain about the fact that he had brought an atheist to town.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were absolutely isolated.  People would drive the house, park in front of our house and stare like we were in a zoo.

GALLAGHER: Eventually they left town altogether.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... nice place to live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... nice place to raise them.

GALLAGHER: While some atheists try to hide their secular views, Jean and Mike Rice are atheists who have spoken out.

MIKE RICE, ATHEIST: As an atheist, I'm the last minority that it's OK to really bash or put down.

GALLAGHER: The Rice's say they frequently encountered intolerance.

JEAN RICE: We're regularly told that we're going to hell, that we're sending our children to hell.

GALLAGHER: In the last town they lived, Jean Rice says soon after confiding her atheism to a friend, her landlord told the Rices they would have to move.

JEAN RICE, ATHEIST: Within a few days of my telling her that we are atheist, she -- I started hearing from other people, oh, are you atheist?  And it was quite shocking and within a few weeks, my landlord, our landlord gave us notice.

GALLAGHER: The Rices say they can't prove that religious discrimination was the reason they were asked to leave, but they found the timing suspicious.

MIKE RICE: It's hard on the kids, because our daughter had no one to play with for a long time.

GALLAGHER: In the U.S., the number of atheists is estimated between 1 and 3 percent of the overall population.  That's at least three million people.  A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that atheists are the least trusted minority group in the United States and are less accepted than other marginalized groups, including Muslims and homosexuals.

LORI LIPMAN BROWN, SECULAR COALITION FOR AMERICA: I get calls from all over the United States from people who have been harassed, ostracized, sometimes lost their job because of discrimination against non-theistic Americans.

RYAN ANDERSON, JUNIOR FELLOW, FIRST THINGS: We feel, to a certain extent, that atheists are very much on the attack.

GALLAGHER: Ryan Anderson with the religious journal "First Things" says atheists themselves contribute to the mistrust.

ANDERSON: Part of the public persona and the public image of atheism is what's presented by people suing to remove "In God We Trust" from the coins or God phrase in the pledge of allegiance.  And when that militant atheism becomes kind of like the public image of atheism, I think that gives rise to a lot of discontent with atheism.

JEAN RICE: When they can talk about religion and preach on the street corner but if we try to do the equal time, if we try to go out there and say as much about there is no God.

MIKE RICE: I'm the one being oppressed at that point.

GALLAGHER: Delia Gallagher, CNN, Colorado.


ZAHN: And when we come back, tonight's out in the open panel takes on the controversy over discrimination against atheists.  There they are lined up, ready to sound off.  We'll be right back.


ZAHN: And welcome back.  We're talking about whether there's widespread discrimination against atheists, folks who don't believe in God.  Let's check out with our out in the open panel now.  Stephen Smith, Debbie Schlussel and Karen Hunter.  Hey Debbie, it took me 10 times to say your name right.  (INAUDIBLE) So do you think atheists should keep their religious beliefs secret?  What's their beliefs, period?

HUNTER: What does an atheist believe?  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?

ZAHN: Are any of you going to defend them here tonight?

SCHLUSSEL: No, I agree with her 100 percent.  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.  And the problem is that, you have these atheists selectively I believe attacking Christianity.  You had a case in California where school children were forced to dress as Muslims and learn from the Koran.  In Michigan they're saying high school (INAUDIBLE) in high school where they say Muslim prayers at the football games, public high school, (INAUDIBLE) in high school.  You don't see atheists complaining about that.  I really believe that they are the ones who are the intolerant ones against Christians.

ZAHN: What happened to love thy neighbor, the idea that we should be able to practice free speech?

SMITH: That's nonexistent.  We all know that.  We talk about that in America, but that's pretty much nonexistent, especially in the red states, particularly in the south.  That's where the atheists are having the most trouble.  When they talk about violent acts that have been enacted them or (INAUDIBLE) exacted against them or what have you.  That's the kind of area they're talking about.  I think in New York City, I don't think people care too much about it.  We're a Christian country.  There's no question about that.  I love the Lord.  So does Karen, so does everybody that I know.  But the reality is that you're entitled to believe what you want as long as you're not imposing your beliefs on other people.

ZAHN: Is that what you think they're really doing?

HUNTER: They don't have a good - marketing.  If they had hallmark cards, maybe they wouldn't feel so left out.  We have Christmas cards.  We have Kwanza cards now.  Maybe they need to get some atheist cards and get that whole ball rolling so more people can get involved with what they're doing.  I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do.  No, I think they need to shut up about it.

SMITH: I don't think they need to shut up.  The reason why I don't think they need to shut up is because there's a whole bunch of people in this world that we can look at and say they need to shut up and they certainly don't.  You got everybody fighting for their own individual cause.  This is their cause.  We might not like it.  I don't agree with it at all, but they do have a right.

HUNTER: I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they're being imposed upon.  I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools.  I would rather there be some morality in schools.  But they did that because an atheist went to court and said their child -- don't pray (INAUDIBLE).

SCHLUSSEL: And what about this obnoxious Michael Newdow, who went all the way to the Supreme Court for his child, the child doesn't know what's going on, to try and get under God taken out of the pledge of allegiance.  They are on the attack.  It's obnoxious and they do need to shut up.

SMITH: They are going on the attack, but the reality, again, is everybody has their own cause.  The fact is there's a whole bunch of people in America who need to shut up and they don't.  So why should these people be any less.  We live in a nation.  We're supposed to be tolerant.  We're supposed to be accepting of other people's viewpoints, even when they are not our own and the fact is, if they're an atheist, that's their right.  They're not going to change my belief in God (INAUDIBLE).

ZAHN: What I find so interesting is when you look at the statistics, that they were the most hated of all the minorities, gays (INAUDIBLE).

SMITH: I'm not even willing to believe that.  That's news to me.  I heard that, I read that, I just don't believe it.

HUNTER: You can't pick an atheist out of a crowd.

ZAHN: Can you explain to me where you feel the assault?  When 97 percent of the folks in this country claim to worship some kind of God, the 1 to 3 percent of this population that doesn't believe in God, who are they hurting?

HUNTER: Eight to 12 percent.  (INAUDIBLE) They're not hurting anyone.  I personally don't have a problem with an atheist.  Believe or don't believe what you want.  Don't impose upon my right to want to have prayer in schools, to want to say the pledge of allegiance, to want to honor my God.  Don't infringe upon that right.

SMITH: When they want to take - when they want to take God out of the pledge of allegiance or whatever, this is what I'm saying.  They're saying, OK, that's Christian.  What if you're a Muslim?  What if you're someone of a different belief?

SCHLUSSEL: This is a Christian country.

SMITH: I understand that, but what they're saying is how can -- if we're inclusionary, why can't we include all that and we're not.  That's my point.

SCHLUSSEL: (INAUDIBLE) Look where there are more atheists and where they've lost God, where the church is not that strong.  Europe is becoming Islamist.  It's fast falling and intolerance is increasing.  That's the one reason our country has not become like Europe because we have strong Christians and because atheists are not strong.  And I think that's a good thing.

ZAHN: On that note, I've got to cut it off, except for a quick Super Bowl prediction.

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