Atheist Talking Heads January 5, 2009

Atheist Talking Heads

Who should represent atheists on television?

There’s no one right answer to that question, but when you see an atheist on TV news, it tends to be for a short time and there’s a lot of arguing. Not always, but often. And that doesn’t bode well for us.

Usually, newspeople are going to go to leaders of atheist organizations, a person filing a lawsuit, or an author when they need a person to discuss the “atheist side” on some topic.

Paul Fidalgo at Bloc Raisonneur raised the question after seeing Michael Newdow (who is filing the inauguration lawsuit) appear on Neil Cavuto‘s show (with guest host Brian Sullivan):

Sullivan’s entire line of questioning revolves around the “who cares?” argument, insisting that atheists should just “cover their ears.” Meanwhile, Newdow is not the most compelling, telegenic presence on TV. Newdow tries to make a comparison between atheists’ second class status and that of African-Americans under Jim Crow. Whether you think that comparison is apt or not, rather than helping to make the point, such rhetorical choices usually only serve to induce eye rolls from already condescending interviewers.

I always flinch when I hear an atheist making comments that I think could come back to hurt us. It happens too often — especially when you’re trying to speak in soundbytes. Even when our reps do a good job, the interview can be edited or simply be in a tough format to make any solid points that make sense to a casual viewer. When the rep is a good one, the person can also have a notoriety that makes the casual viewer not want to watch (e.g. Richard Dawkins).

Paul says that Sam Harris always seems to do a good job when he’s on air (just check out the great clip of him on Bill O’Reilly‘s show). Certainly, he’s calm and smart. That helps.

But I don’t think he has the personality/presence that really *grabs* a viewer’s attention, though. He’s very monotone and doesn’t use a lot of facial gestures. He may make great points, but we know people aren’t always swayed by logic.

We need someone who is interesting to watch (eye candy, perhaps?), comfortable in front of a live camera, makes good points, and who doesn’t turn off viewers.

Who would you like to see representing atheists on TV?

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  • sc0tt

    Greg Epstein

  • Maybe Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or some other attractive atheist lady..?

  • I can see your point about Harris’s demeanor. But I wouldn’t underestimate the power of unflappability, especially in the usually-hostile contexts in which atheists on TV find themselves. There’s a lot to be gained from having folks who can’t be goaded into confirming “mean atheist” stereotypes. Inducing sleepiness, well, that’s a legitimate issue too, but for where we are, I’m happy with folks who just don’t blow it.

    If only Carl Sagan were still around to write a “New Athiest” book of his own! Who would yell at Carl?

  • We need somebody with charisma and presence, somebody that is videogenic, that can consistently appeal to a general audience, I think it must be an unsung hero. While I think that Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc… all have done a great job, I think the real problem is holding and keeping a presence alive. It it one thing to impress an audience once or twice, but it is extremely challenging to consistently be able to hold that presence. I do not know who that person is, but we need more then one person to represent, we need a multitude of characters, because there can be no one single character that can accurately represent all atheists. We we all have different personalities and beliefs, we just happen to share one thing we don’t believe in. So I think a variety of characters is good, but yes, I would like to see some with more charisma. But for what we have now, I think they have been doing a good job. The coming out has only just begun.

  • Richard Dawkins.

  • Shauna

    I think Lori Lipman Brown does a good job.

  • I vote for Amber Heard.

    Wait… what were we voting on again?

  • You ask me a question like this and I really miss Carl Sagan. The man had intelligence, charm and the kind of genuine human warmth that the current crop of atheist thinkers seem to have had bred out of them.

  • ungullible

    I was unimpressed with Lori Lipman Brown when I saw her on the Colbert Report.

    Although technically not atheist, I think Michael Shermer does a pretty good job representing secularists in general.

  • Jamie G.

    Richard Dawkins makes for great eye candy, he’s a pretty lady.

    My vote is for either PZ Myers, or Matt Dillahunty. Chris Hitchens ain’t too bad, either.

    I’ll do it for $20, or a free Subway sandwhich.

  • Siamang

    I was going to mention Shermer as well.

    I also think that Ron Reagan (Jr) would be really good.

  • RRJr is a great one, actually. From what I understand, though, he’s pretty reluctant to get into the whole a-word. Not that he’s afraid to say he’s an atheist, but he doesn’t seem to find the topic of interest. Maybe I’m wrong?

  • Aaron

    I volunteer.

  • Grimalkin

    I think that getting level-headed and personable people on Fox News is exactly what we should be doing. We need to get the “Faux News” crowd accustomed to seeing really nice and likeable atheists who remain calm while O’Reilly screams (or, in the case of the example above, has an “off day”). It won’t work the first time, or the second, or maybe even the thousandth. But little by little, it will shape how the population thinks about atheists. We will go from being these “mysterious” creatures who are scene only when shrieking and attacking “cherished customs” to being pleasant people we may not agree with, but who are in other ways just like us.

    As for who should be shown, I don’t think that we need a spokesperson. We don’t need a single face because one person is just too easy to demonize. What we need is a whole lot of atheists, tons and tons of us. We need to convey the message that there are a lot of us, that we aren’t just some creepy fringe group. That being said, I don’t think Hitchens should be one of those people. I agree with a lot of what he says, but even I can’t stand to listen to him for very long. He’s just such a creep.

  • Margaret Downey

  • Ducklike

    Dr. Olivia Judson

  • bernarda

    Dawkins on O’Reilly was treated with uncommon respect for Billo. Hitchens showed Hannity to be a fool and he was treated rather well on a Fox program “Red Eye”. I’ll just give the last link.

    Hitchens has a sense of humor, maybe too acerbic for some.

  • Arnaud

    It’s funny you say that. I actually found out about this blog when other people were discussing this issue on the Richard Dawkins forum. Someone mentioned your name and I did a Google search. (I had seen the name Friendly Atheist on forums before but never knew about the blog.. :P)

    In my opinion, we just need a calm and knowledgeable speaker. For me, Dawkins fits these criteria quite well.

  • Phillip

    Natalie Portman. She’s smart AND pretty. Also calm. And former Queen of Naboo AND a senator in the Galactic Congress, so she must have some speaking ability.

  • Now Hemant, if you want the job just say so.

    Personality/presence: Check (insofar as I can tell)

    Make great points: Check

    Interesting to watch: Check

    Eye candy, perhaps?: Check (no disrespect intended)

    Comfortable in front of a live camera: Check

    Doesn’t turn off viewers: Check

    Yup, by those criteria, which I happen to agree with, I’d say you are the person for the job Hemant. Congratulations! I know you will do us all proud.

  • AxeGrrl

    My vote is for either PZ Myers, or Matt Dillahunty. Chris Hitchens ain’t too bad, either.

    Matt Dillahunty, hands down.

    he’s articulate, concise and the most ‘respectful’ (in demeanour) of those three (except in the case(s) of believers who sidestep questions and/or offer no evidence/justification for their beliefs:). If anyone HASN’T checked out ‘The Atheist Experience’ podcast/tv show, you’re really missing something…..Dillahunty is someone who should really get more visibility.

    Shelley, I think Margaret Downey is an excellent choice as well 🙂 have you guys ever listened to her speak? Her tone and communication skills make her one of the calmest, most intelligent and articulate voices of atheism out there ~ in short, just the kind of representation that would serve the community best imo.

  • I have found Matt Dillahunty to be extremely intelligent, but I am unsure as to whether or not he is a bit too abrasive for television’s sound bite culture.

    I agree with those who have said that we need tons of atheists, and not just one or two prominent individuals who would be easy to demonize. People need to realize that atheists are not a “fringe” group, indeed.

    I sympathize with Newdow, but most Americans have a phobia of people whom they view as “overly litigious”, and therefore he isn’t the ideal representative. That being said, I can’t really think of anyone specific to recommend.

  • SmilingAtheist

    If you’ve seen Richard Dawkins at all you’ll know that he’s great but he considers himself a voice for reason not for atheists. As for a good representative, what happened to Hemant Mehta? I’ve seen a video of him and I think he does very well personally. He’s a nice guy, rather hansom and speaks well, plus he’s a teacher. What more could you want? Just my two cents.

  • James Koran

    Eddie Tabash: Articulate and unapologetically Atheistic!

  • Renacier

    Barring Zombie-Sagan; I like Michael Shermer for rationalism in general. For atheism, Hitchens is clever enough to play the sound byte game, but he is brutal to say the least.

    I gotta say I like the Atheist Experience crew. They’ve got plenty of real-time, hands-on experience with presenting the atheist case to the (often hostile) public. Granted, they’re not professionals, but look what the ‘regular guy’ image did for Dubya.

  • Tony

    I’d like to see more mainline scientists like Bill Nye ( I believe he’s atheist…) and the guys from CFI step up to the plate more often. Harris is good, but I’d like to see a multitude of faces and voices and genders and ethnic backgrounds represented. It would be a lot harder to pigeon-hole us atheists as “weird” and “abnormal”.

  • Lori Lipman Brown!
    or Richard Dawkins.

  • llewelly

    The most telegenic atheists alive today are Ann Druyan and Julia Sweeney. (Although neither is a good a talking head as Carl Sagan.) Next most is probably James Randi, or maybe Penn and Teller (although Penn Gillette has some weirdly non-skeptical beliefs). If they got more experience being on camera, I think Annie Lori Galyor and Rebbecca would be good talking heads as well.

  • John Nernoff

    Bill Maher?

  • House.

  • Caroline

    I’d like to see someone who looks “normal”. Someone who isn’t intimidating or scary. If we’re talking about the general public seeing this person, I think it’d be better to have someone not very different from themselves. But still knowledgeable and knows what they’re doing of course.

  • JT

    Dr Steven Novella

  • Vincent

    JT beat me to it. I too would like to see the good doctor.

  • AxeGrrl

    The most telegenic atheists alive today are Ann Druyan and Julia Sweeney.

    of course! i don’t know why i didn’t think of them right away…..both are wonderful….

    if you haven’t seen/heard “Letting Go Of God“, it’s now out on DVD ~ i’d highly recommend it. Sweeney is a really engaging performer and the points she makes are spot on 🙂 it’s the kind of performance that would appeal to almost anyone I think…not just atheists 🙂

  • My vote is for Michael Shermer. He is extremely personable and with his wit and humour, a very entertaining chap. And after all, when it comes to TV, entertainment is everything.

    And I am hosting him next month in the UK. BIG name drop…..but if you are in the Bristol region, book now!



  • bernarda

    Natalie Angier. She doesn’t do sound bites well, but given time she is clear and sympathetic.

    She describes herself as a “radical die-hard atheist”, and she is very science-based.

  • bernarda

    Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson is good and enthusiastic. “10 Questions for …”

    In a different style, you might want comic Lewis Black.

  • Sorry to disagree bernarda, but having just watched Natalie on the clip you posted, I think she would not win many over… far too awkward.

  • Seconding Neil deGrasse Tyson. Think he wants the job?

  • Emily

    wow some of these responses make me laugh. House and Natalie Portman are my faves so far XD

    course I’ve no clue, I don’t follow atheist culture enough >_>

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson works for me as well. He’s already the heir to Sagan in ‘explaining science to the masses’.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    I think Hemant and Harris are great talking heads for atheism. They know how to keep their cool. And Edward Current wouldn’t be so bad (if we could only bring him over to “our” side, y’know).

    However, I still enjoy watching Dawkins, Hitchens, Maher, et al, tear it up. Sometimes, the willfully ignorant out there just need a harsh punch of reason.

    As for relating science & skepticism to the public, Tyson, Plait and Nye, hands down. I’ve seen Neil Tyson speak on science at a church in the Deep South, of all places, and it was absolutely amazing to watch him relate science/reality to the public.

    She’s also dead. Didn’t you see Ep.III?

  • «bønez_brigade»

    BTW, Ariane Sherine is quite a nice talking head for atheism in the UK, and I’d say she meets all of Scott Andersen’s aforementioned criteria. She’s the one that organized the Atheist Bus Campaign over there, FWIW.

  • “If you’ve seen Richard Dawkins at all you’ll know that he’s great but he considers himself a voice for reason not for atheists.”

    I have seen Dawkins (in person) and have read his books and seen his DVDs.

    Yes, I know that he considers himself a voice for reason (as the commenter says), which is exactly why I’d want him, even if atheism isn’t exactly his cause.

  • Ziggy

    Angelina Jolie

  • Barnacle Bill

    Christopher Hitchens

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