Why is a Praying Atheist Newsworthy?

This week, several media outlets (Washington Post and Huffington Post) have highlighted an atheist who advocates prayer. The man has blogged that when he started a twelve step program he began praying regularly to a being he created (without believing in the existence of a deity), which changed his life for the better. Last summer, I pondered a somewhat similar hypothetical scenario in which a self-identified atheist maintained a belief in god in order to illustrate, as my colleagues here at Culture on the Edge have been saying, that identifications are strategic, not intrinsic. That blog post received pushback from some friends asserting that atheists, by definition, cannot believe in god.

What makes the existence of a praying atheist newsworthy is similar to what generated the pushback to my earlier post. The assumption that an identification equates (or should equate) with specific practices and beliefs creates an assumed norm that makes anomalies interesting and worth engaging or even correcting. Both articles on the praying atheist directly connected their stories to the findings in the Pew Forum’s report “The Rise of the Nones,” referring to those who do not report a religious affiliation in surveys. The Pew report, among other things, analyzes the persistence of religion/spirituality among the “nones” surveyed and, as a follow-up article in the Washington Post noted, 14% who identified as atheist reported that they believe in “God or a universal spirit” and 5% pray daily, findings that the article author cited as “interesting”. The statistical basis of the Pew report, as I have suggested previously here and here, assumed that the constructed category nones reflects an inherent similarity, even when the survey data suggests significant dissimilarities.

Clearly, assumptions about how identifications work frame not only what people consider newsworthy but also how people report on a survey, even when looking at evidence to the contrary.

7 Replies to “Why is a Praying Atheist Newsworthy?”

  1. I’m going to have to think more about this. Now that you raise the question, I’m not sure I’ve articulated my sense of what makes my experience newsworthy — beyond the fact that I may be the first atheist to invent an imaginary God and pray to Her seriously. But, besides being new, and finding a new path in such a heavily travelled field is something — but I suspect that you are right. People don’t care that it’s new so much as that it offends certain conceptions of identity in a somewhat new way. Did I get that right?

    Anyway, would love to chat with you about it sometime.

    1. The issue that I see is the assumption that this is new. I doubt that you are the first atheist to invent a deity to pray to, and you certainly are not the only self-identified atheist who prays. You have, though, articulated your approach more publicly and clearly than most, with a compelling story of personal change.

  2. “Clearly, assumptions about how identifications work frame not only what people consider newsworthy but also how people report on a survey, even when looking at evidence to the contrary.”

    I’m endlessly fascinated by the commentary generated by any reportage taking its cues from the manufacture of identity, particularly that of the nones.

    I went back to your HuffPo piece and read through a few of the last comments. It’s extraordinary that, no less than with respect to ‘newsworthy’ accounts, swathes of responses to analyses like yours reinforce the assumptions about identity, in general and specific ones, you take pains to unveil. Opinion, personal experience, anecdote, criticism of quantitative methods, etc. are all marshaled to contest labels and their imagined contents.

    This unseeing is such a powerful demonstration of the very arguments you (all of CotE) are making. That the nonreligious, in so many flavours, nevermind the religious, can’t meet such argumentation itself testifies to the power of those “assumptions.”

    1. Thanks for commenting. Even many commenters who said that they agreed with that HuffPo piece often overlooked the larger point about the constructed nature of identifications. Of course, we always have to work to find our own blind spots and labels that we use to maintain our own distinctiveness and superiority, since no one is free of systems of classification.

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