If you've watched the endless interviews with survivors of natural disasters, you may have noticed that the news media representatives, faced with someone who may be too shocked or nervous before the cameras to offer sufficiently compelling testimony, often do some gentle prompting. "When you saw your home destroyed, were you just devastated?" "You've never seen anything like this before, have you?" "Your whole life changed in that moment, didn't it?" Not everyone who survived a disaster is YouTube clip-ready, so some need to be coached. There was one such interview after the tornado ran through Moore, Oklahoma that got some attention. Interviewing a woman as they stood before the tangled pile of debris that used to be her home and discussed her family's narrow escape, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said, "You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?" When she hesitated, Blitzer pressed on. "Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?" She paused for a moment before responding, "I'm actually an atheist." Awkward laughs ensued.
Blitzer's assumption was understandable; most Americans profess a faith in God, and there is an awful lot of Lord-thanking after a natural disaster. Atheists find this puzzling, to say the least; if God deserves your thanks and praise for being so merciful as to allow you to live through the tornado, maybe He could have been kind enough not to destroy your home and kill 24 of your neighbors in the first place. But at times of crisis, everyone looks for comfort where they can find it.
It's often said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I suppose Wolf Blitzer thought the same would be true of tornadoes. But when you stop to think about that old expression, you realize how insulting it is, not just to those who don't believe in an almighty but also to those who do. It says that the primary basis for religious faith is fear of death, and one's beliefs are so superficial that they are a function only of the proximity of danger. If you believe only because there's an enemy army or a tornado bearing down on you, you don't believe.
Wolf Blitzer will no doubt be more careful next time. And perhaps he'll learn that those who hold to no religion are a fast-growing group, as many as one in six Americans in most polls, so there's at least a fair chance that the next disaster survivor he interviews will also be an atheist. Some of those secular folks are becoming more open about it as their numbers increase; for instance, when last week it came Arizona state representative Juan Mendez's turn to open the legislative session with a prayer, he instead chose an eloquent invocation of "my secular humanist tradition," including a quote from Carl Sagan. Afterward, Mendez said, "I hope today marks the beginning of a new era in which Arizona's non-believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers."
It's a nice thought, but it may take a while. There are signs of progress, though. Last week, Pope Francis made news around the world when in a homily, he delivered to his flock the shocking news that atheists are capable of doing good. They may not get to heaven, but on this planet they are not necessarily gripped by evil. This was certainly a step in the direction of mutual understanding that his predecessor was not inclined to make; Pope Benedict was aggressively hostile to those who don't believe in God, essentially blaming the crimes of the Third Reich on atheism.
But I was surely not the only atheist who was a little underwhelmed by Francis' generosity of spirit. Atheists are capable of goodness? How kind of him to say. If you heard a man say, "You may not believe it, but women can be intelligent," you probably wouldn't respond, "What an admirable statement of his commitment to equality—thanks, Mr. Feminist!" But the bar is pretty low for religious leaders; we expect them to hold that all who do not share their particular beliefs are doomed to an eternity of the cruelest punishments the divine mind can devise. We speak of religious "tolerance" as the most we can expect when it comes to the treatment of other people's religions. But we "tolerate" not that which we love or respect but that which is unpleasant, painful, or worthy of mild contempt. We tolerate things which we'd just as soon see disappear. You tolerate a hangnail.
Nevertheless, we can give the Pope credit for making a start, even if in public life the most vapid expressions of faith will continue to be the norm. Singers will thank the Lord for delivering unto them a Grammy, smiting the hopes of the other nominees, who are plainly vile in His sight. Football players will gather to pray before a last-second field goal, in the hopes that God will alter his divine plan in their favor and push the ball through the goalposts. And presidents Democratic and Republican will end every speech with "And may God bless the United States of America." As The Atlantic's James Fallows has noted many times, this utterly content-free bit of religiosity means nothing more than "This speech is now over."
I don't know if hearing that at the end of a speech makes anyone feel more reassured or hopeful about our country's future. Perhaps it does. But that woman Wolf Blitzer interviewed? The group Atheists Unite put out a call to help her family rebuild their house, setting a goal of raising $50,000. They're already approaching $100,000. She no doubt feels thankful, but she'll be thanking her fellow human beings.