I’ve been wondering for a while—and I’m not alone—why venues like The New York Times and The New Yorker, the newspaper and magazine that have the highest reputation for quality and sophistication in the U.S., are so wonky about atheism. They either ignore it (the NYT sporadically gives it a tiny nod), or, when they mention it, do so in a mealymouthed way, equating it with faith. In contrast, the Times regularly gives space to religious philosophers in its philosophy website The Stone, and has a true “believer in belief,” Tanya Luhrmann, regularly osculating the rump of faith in the op-ed section. What you’ll never see, among all the defenses of religion, is a hard-hitting attack on faith, the kind that Jeffrey Tayler publishes weekly in Salon. And when people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins (or even Steve Pinker) are mentioned, it’s invariably something negative.
This is also true of NPR (National Public Radio), which broadcasts a lot of faith-y stuff (e.g., Krista Tippett), yet I’ve never seen a thing on their site or on the radio about atheism. You will find instead the faith-stroking of people like Tania Lombrozo.
Yet nonbelief is a big story in the U.S.: it’s the fastest growing category of “belief”, if you lump atheists and agnostics together with people who don’t identify with a church: the so-called “nones”. Religion is on the wane in America, and yet the most visible and influential magazines ignore this. Or, they may point out the trend, but ignore the reasons for it. Yet the import of this trend, and its causes, are huge, for, given America’s religiosity, it has the potential to affect nearly every aspect of American life, from how science is regarded to the nature of politics and policy.
I don’t have an answer, but a friend recently suggested that since most of the recent cogent attacks on religion come from science, these venues, which aren’t particularly science-friendly (especially The New Yorker, which publishes mostly “soft” science like medical stories or compilations of anecdotes) prefer to ignore those attacks, leaving discussions of atheism embedded in pieces on the humanities, which they consider the proper arbiter of religious belief. It’s obvious to everyone with eyes that The New Yorker is simply soft on faith.
It’s frustrating to see these major venues deliberately overlook something that’s not just of concern to readers here, but should be important to the U.S. as a whole. Perhaps readers can give their theories below.
As for The NY Times‘s column “The Stone”, which regularly infuriates me with its pro-religion stance and forgettable interviews and articles (see here), Greg Mayer pointed me to a piece by Brian Leiter (a colleague at Chicago who is a liberal philosopher and legal scholar) on his widely-read website, “Leiter Reports.” Leiter pulls no punches in his piece “What is the NY Times thinking?”
What is the NY Times Thinking?
They create a blog forum related to philosophy (“The Stone”), and then choose a complete hack as its moderator. Simon Critchley? Even among scholars of Continental philosophy (his purported area of expertise), he’s not taken seriously, let alone among philosophers in any other part of the discipline. (When Michael Rosen [Harvard] and I edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, the idea of inviting Critchley never came up–how could it?) If the APA weren’t fatally compromised by its need to pander to everyone, it would launch a formal protest. Unbelievable.
I would urge readers to send a short note to the public editor, Clark Hoyt, stating, roughly, that you are pleased to see increased attention to philosophy in the NY Times, but are concerned that someone who is not taken seriously as a philosopher or scholar has been invited to serve as “moderator.” Keep it short and sweet. If they get a couple thousand e-mails to that effect, maybe they will wake up to the spectacular mistake they’ve made.
Leiter wrote that in May, 2010, and Critchley is still editor of “The Stone.” And the site continues to be a real embarrassment to the newspaper.
At any rate, I suspect some writers for both The Times and The New Yorker read this site, and I’d ask them this: “Why are you so soft on the insupportable superstitions of religion?” and “What are you afraid of?” Or “Are you going to continue supporting faith as opposed to reason?”