Keith Olbermann Puts Anonymous Atheist On List of Worst Persons June 30, 2009

Keith Olbermann Puts Anonymous Atheist On List of Worst Persons

Last night, the anonymous atheist who donated money for the New York City atheist bus campaign was named “Worse” (i.e. #3) on Keith Olbermann‘s list of Worst Persons in the World:

Olbermann said the following:

Tonight’s worst persons in the world. The bronze: To the person who donated the scratch for ten thousand dollars worth of ads on the sides of buses in New York City, promoting atheism. They read, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person.” The hope, from president Ken Bronstein of the group NYC Atheists, is to get people to stop hiding their non-belief — to stop hiding it. No complaint about the message — however, while Bronstein says, “We want to get atheists to come join us, to get out of the closet,” unfortunately the donor who made the ads possible is keeping his identity anonymous.

So I’m not all that upset with Olbermann. He treated it with sarcasm, like a joke, rather than anything evil.

I think the snark is uncalled for, though.

In most other cities, money for the ad campaigns came from hundreds of anonymous small donors.

In NYC, the money came from one large donor. (It’s not that they couldn’t get tons of small donors, but if someone wants to give you all the money for the ad, you take it.) Had the person *not* remained anonymous, I suspect much of the publicity they’ve received would’ve focused on the donor and why he/she wanted this message heard.

With the anonymity, the focus has been on the message itself. Just as it should be.

There’s also a possibility that the donor feared being associated with atheism (it could cost him/her a job or a spouse) but wanted the message to go out regardless. Some people don’t come out because of the stigma associated with the term “atheist.” You can still urge others to come out even if it may not be the right move for you personally.

Greta Christina takes this reason very seriously:

There are some realities about living as an atheist that you may not know about, Mr. Olbermann. Coming out as an atheist can have serious real-world consequences. Parents get denied custody of their children for being atheists. People get harassed and vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists. Teachers get suspended for being atheists. Teenagers get harassed and suspended from school for being atheists. Politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that’s just in the US. I’m not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime, punishable by imprisonment or death.)

I’m not calling for an apology from Olbermann. This isn’t all that serious, and at least he said he had no problem with the actual message. I do wonder, however, whether he ever considered the donor’s possible reasons for remaining anonymous.

(Thanks to Claudia for the link!)

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  • SarahH

    No, I’m sure it was just for cheap laughs. I’m a huge fan of the Daily Show and Colbert Report, and I’m sure they’d have a very similar joke in store for the situation.

    Honestly, I think it might be too late for most non-atheists to acknowledge or understand our reasons for staying closeted in so many situations. In my experience, most of the people who aren’t the bigots causing the problems simply don’t believe there is a problem. They simply see atheists as whiners who blow things out of proportion.

    I know differently, but I don’t think most people ever will. What we can hope for and strive for is future acceptance. Our struggles might be ignored for now, but if we can gain acceptance and be seen as normal human beings, it will become rarer and rarer in the future. And that’s part of what the bus ads are about, so kudos to the anonymous donor, even if people don’t understand why he might wish to stay anonymous.

  • Nodster

    Prior to this segment, while leading into a commercial break he bascially said: “How could such an inclusive message make it to Worst Persons…”

    Just wanted to reiterate the point that he wasn’t attacking the actual message.

  • It sounds like he was just pointing out that Bronstein was saying he wanted to bring non-believers out of the closet, but the donar was remaining in the closet. Hypocrisy humor, I suppose. 🙂

  • I do feel sorry for you atheists. Yer like the new gays. Next thing you know, we’ll need to protect marriage from you. God needs all the help he can get. Better stay anonymous or we will know where you live! (grin)

  • Even though I’m grateful for the donation, I agree with Olbermann in that this anonymous donor needs to grow a pair.

    Can you imagine where the Civil Rights movement would be if Rosa Parks said “I want everyone to know that I don’t want to sit at the back of the bus, but I don’t want my name revealed to the public”? How about the gay movement motto, ‘We’re Queer, and we’re… hiding in the closet because we’re scared”?

  • Freak
  • Infinite Monkey

    Playing religion’s advocate, this person obviously has a lot of disposable income. Its quite possible the man behind the curtain is someone well respected in the city. If he were to “come out”, then he could be seen in a new light. Imagine if this was a politician. Even if he were a democrat, that could be fodder for the religious right, saying all democrats are godless Americans.

  • Ron in Houston

    I understand Olbermann mocking the irony of the situation, but I also understand the donor. Being identified as the donor for that campaign would be like painting a bulls-eye on your back.

  • TXatheist

    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Atheists sometimes get riddled with there are no atheist hospitals or soup kitchens but when we do things like donate money or hands on housing I do it anonymously until a xian says atheists don’t give or care.

  • Sandra

    Parents get denied custody of their children for being atheists.

    This is exactly the reason I remain semi-closeted. I am a single parent, and if my child’s father caught wind of my non-theism then he would file for full custody — even though he has made no attempt to see our child in the last 5 years — I am still scared because he professes himself to be christian, and that’s what many judges look for.
    I hope that in another 5 years, when my child should be old enough to be heard by the courts, then I can be fully out of the closet.

  • Aj

    Even if they are hypocritical should this really qualify as “worst persons in the world” material? Seems a pretty weak reason, especially in the context of doing a good thing.

  • marfita

    Ummm, has anyone considered that the donor might be “out” as an atheist, but makes a practice of anonymous donations? Large private donations like that are often anonymous to the public in order to protect the giver from being importuned right and left by people with causes. I’m just sayin’.

    Of course, it makes for a cheap laugh and I’m all for cheap laughs.

  • Luther

    Ummm, has anyone considered that the donor might be “out” as an atheist, but makes a practice of anonymous donations? Large private donations like that are often anonymous to the public in order to protect the giver from being importuned right and left by people with causes. I’m just sayin’.

    The donor could be trying to make up for past errors but does not want him/herself to become the issue. How about a former priest who was saddened by the abuse of his former religion.

    It could be a bus driver, afraid to lose a job, but proudly driving around NYC.

    Or maybe it is Madison Avenue profits guiltily derived from promoting religion?

    There are plenty of known and anonymous donors or corporations with misleading ads. They should occupy Oberman, not where truthful ads come from. Would he take on an ad for the Israel lobby?

  • Daniel

    I don’t think you’d give O’Reilly a pass if he were to call any atheist the ‘worst person in the world’.

  • schism

    Even if they are hypocritical should this really qualify as “worst persons in the world” material?

    Again, the Worst Persons segment is sarcastic as often as it is serious. Ditto the Best Persons bit, which often highlights particularly stupid criminals.

    I don’t think you’d give O’Reilly a pass if he were to call any atheist the ‘worst person in the world’.

    O’Reilly would mean that literally. Olbermann didn’t.

  • Infinite Monkey

    @ marfita You make a valid point. If scritinized, other organizations, perhaps xian groups, no matter how worthy the cause, might have dollar signs in their eyes if they found Person X had large amounts of disposable incomes, ready to share. If rebuked, this would again be fodder for the Right. Its a possible lose-lose situation.

  • valdemar

    I’m amazed by this, but then I’m a Brit. The very idea that the authorities might take a child from its mother because she’s an atheist is staggering. If I lived in such a society I would certainly be very reluctant to own up. Yes, I’m a bit of a wuss, but it’s easy to ask the other guy to do something brave. Always has been.

  • ATL-Apostate

    I was reading the riveting replies, when I was suddenly distracted by the commercial for MyPlanetX running along the sidebar.

    It’s about time Hemant started running porno / prostitution adds on his site. Apparently, my choice of escords from New York to Miami is only one click away.

  • Randy

    Hermant is just trying to help those without a partner find a date for the SSA Conference.

  • Notagod

    Does anyone have an email address for countdown? I just want to point out the obvious; The ad campaign is about being out as an atheist not about being out as a donor. I feel confident that Olbermann has made at least one anonymous donation in his life.

    I like Countdown a lot but, Keith did miss the point on this one. However, the air time is still good for atheism in general.

  • Richard Wade

    There is another possible motive for the donor remaining anonymous besides the whole stigma thing: He or she may not want to be mobbed by hundreds of other groups wanting donations too. If I had the money to make large donations, I’d seriously consider protecting my privacy just because of that.

  • Mitchell

    Olbermann is such a jackass. I’m liberal, and sometimes I find his show entertaining, but he’s just so full of himself and full of shit. Unlike Hemant, I do take this seriously, although of course I take nothing from Olbermann too seriously.

    Think about it: an atheist makes his list of “worst people” because he promotes a message saying atheists aren’t necessarily bad people?? Not only is it patently absurd to believe otherwise, but it’s depressing to think that no real argument needs to be made on Olbermann’s part (or anyone who claims all atheists are immoral). He will not be held accountable, and few other figures in the media will have the courage to defend atheism. It’s simply assumed that atheism and immorality are identical. There must not even be room for debate in their minds, since the very act of donating to this ad campaign apparently makes this person immoral.

    Believe me, I get the irony of an anonymous donor and what the spokesperson said about getting people to stop hiding their atheism. I suppose I just didn’t realize irony qualified one for being a terrible person. Nor did I realize privacy wasn’t actually a right in this country; instead it’s apparently a sign of immorality.

  • Notagod


    Olbermann’s only point was that the person that paid for the ads was anonymous, which was odd because the spokesman said part of the purpose of the ad was to get atheists out of the closet. Olbermann simply made an error of associating anonymous donating with being a closet atheist. He simply didn’t think it through completely.

    He did state that he had no complaint with the ad.

  • Jen

    Alright, I would like to go ahead and take credit for the donation. It was wrong to pretend it wasn’t me, when I could have been showing off and letting everyone know how much better than them I am because I have a lot of money.

    Just kidding (if only…)

    I wouldn’t tell, though, even if I did have the money, because I don’t think people should know what kind of money you have. I think if I were to be publicly associated with huge donations, all rounds would be on me forevermore. Further, in college I knew a girl whose parents always donated hugely to our department, which we knew about, and there were always rumors going around that her achievements were based on that fact. She was talented, but the doubt was always there.

  • I work at a place where my manager has a bible on his desk and can’t go two sentences without mentioning his god’s plan for him. If he were to discover I were an Atheist I might very easily lose my job. So instead I just smile and nod because I like feeding my family and keeping a roof over their heads.

  • There’s also the possibility that the donor isn’t even an atheist.

    Imagine someone donating a large sum of money to an “out” campaign for gays. Would Olbermann criticize the donor for remaining anonymous then? Some people can’t afford to come out to their families, coworkers, and town. They donate to these causes to help change that fact, to change the world to such a place where, in the future, they can come out in the open without fearing any social repurcussions.

  • Revyloution

    What I found quite telling is not the segment about the bus add, but the segment following concerning Rush Limbaugh. Oberman, offering advice that he might be nearing another delusional crisis, suggested that he seek counsel from a clergy man.

    I might be trying to read too much between the lines, but this seemed to me to be a dig at atheism. First, calling a charitable atheist a ‘worst’ then suggesting that a bit o’ churchin up might benefit Limbaugh doesn’t seem that friendly to the godless movement.

  • matt

    its to promote atheists coming out yet the person unwilling to identify themselves is the worse person…the anonymous atheist keeps us all in the closet, or shadows, and as long as they remain there then the rest of us are to some degree “unseen” in the closet or hiding.

    coming out i know for some may be a big choice and a life changing one but for me its the best thing that i could have ever done! remaining anonymouse for me, my life was miserable… i encourage all anonymous atheists to come out

  • Earl Newton

    Come on, people. I think it’s clear what’s going on here.

    Keith Olbermann IS THE ANONYMOUS DONATOR, and Keith Olbermann is just his secret identity!

    Think about it. Hiding in plain sight. It’s like when Bruce Wayne scoffs at the “vigilante” Batman.

    I’m onto you, Keith Olbermann…


    On a more serious note, I have to congratulate the person who devised the ad. It might have gotten a lot of press, but it’s not really as shocking as it could have been. Wallpapering “THERE IS NO GOD” would have been a lot more offensive (just as offensive as “WITHOUT JESUS YOU ARE GOING TO HELL”). It was a very pro-atheist message, not an anti-theist message, and I think there needs to be more of that.

    When you live in a society that is afraid of you, the answer isn’t to scream in their faces, it’s to compassionately explain that you aren’t evil, you’re just different.

  • I like the comments from everyone here that mentions for various reasons, they remain neutral to their families. Deep rooted religious beliefs are used as a wedge, very much an “US vs. THEM” and creates nothing but division. But it’s a division that’s hard to “come out” to others to, disrupting normalcy and daily life for some.

    Most of my family doesn’t know I’m atheist, but they know I don’t believe in any organized religion, so I’m partially out, which is a step.

    I wish we didn’t have to hide our non-beliefs, but this is dealing with centuries of discrimination from the religious against anything remotely different.

    Someday it will change.

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