Atheism gets its own TV channel in the US – a shot in the dark or a sign of changing times?
It is a fact of American life that even though far fewer than half the adult population attend church on a weekly basis, atheism remains an outright taboo in many corners of the country.
As we discovered on a reporting trip to Virginia earlier, non-belief is something that many Americans are too afraid to even admit to their parents, friend and teachers. Many fear alienation from the communities they grew up in, or even active discrimination from employers and teachers for their non-belief.
But in what is a sign of changing times, perhaps, next week sees the launch of America’s first dedicated TV channel for non-believers. Atheist TV launches in New York and will broadcast 24 hours a day via Roku, the internet streaming service that allows people to watch internet-based channels on their TVs. Roku only has seven million subscribers, but anyone can watch it streamed online at http://www.atheists.tv
Free-thinkers, as atheists style themselves, remain almost bizarrely under-represented in American public life and discourse. There is not a single openly declared atheist among the 535 members of Congress, and it is conventional electoral wisdom that the President of the United States has to be a believer.
The profile of atheism is very slowly starting to change, with an increasingly vocal atheist community, including high-profile adherents like Brad Pitt and Mark Zuckerberg. Even so, non-belief, is still a very long way from acceptance.
You can see the bombastic trailer for the station here, which features Richard Dawkins among other prominent atheists, talking about striking a blow for free thought, casting off the “monkey” of religious belief and the joy of “coming out” as an atheist to the world.
The channel is backed by American Atheists, the civil rights organisation founded in 1963 that takes a pretty confrontational approach to defending separation of church and state, including fighting a legal battle against the “9/11 miracle cross” being placed in the museum commemorating the September 11 attacks – which, as I’ve written before, is not a fight I would have personally picked.
The organisers tell me the channel will broadcast 24 hours, mostly with licenses and pre-recorded content, such as documentaries by the Richard Dawkins Foundation as well as a talk show titled “Atheist Viewpoint” and a call-in show, “Atheist Experience”. There’s more here.
As I’ve written before, America is secularising faster than many people realise, with the latest data analysis by Mark Chaves at Duke University indicating that even the Evangelical movement – after two decades of bucking the secularisation trend – is starting to lose traction among young people at almost the same rate as traditional churches.
So will this channel make a difference? Not immediately, since the station will initially be preaching to the (unbelieving) choir. But if it catches on, it might yet play a role in breaking the unfair link in the American public mind between not believing in God and immorality and social irresponsibility.
Depending on where you draw the line between militant atheist and “fuzzy faithful”, about 20 per cent of Americans are practically speaking non-believers – that means there should, proportionally speaking, be 107 members of Congress to represent their beliefs, or lack of it.
By that measure, that America’s atheists have a long way to go. But as has been seen in attitudes to the gay and lesbian world over the last decade, things can change quickly, and in the case of non-belief there is a latent pressure out there just waiting for recognition.