Liveblogging the Nightline Segment About Edwin Kagin July 16, 2010

Liveblogging the Nightline Segment About Edwin Kagin

I hate Nightline. I used to have big hopes for them — like when they said they would air a debate between atheists and Christians, but ended up airing nothing that was useful for further dialogue.

Now, they’re doing a piece on American Atheists’ former legal director Edwin Kagin. Edwin grows on you over time and he may come off brash at first, so I’m worried how this will go. They posted an article about the segment earlier today.

The show begins with a teaser that makes Edwin look like a cult leader who’s indoctrinating people into atheism — he’s nothing of the sort. He’s just having fun with atheists who are attending the annual American Atheists convention.

They showcase the “War On Religion” that’s apparently waged by some atheists and show Kagin performing a “Debaptism” — they don’t explain why they’re doing it. They just like the terminology:

… [Kagin’s] referred to Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker and he’s called the Holy Eucharist “Swallow the Leader.”

There’s no mention of the fact that many atheists were forced to be baptized at an age when they didn’t really know what was happening and that this is a purely symbolic, humorous way to “reverse” that.

Nightline also showed a clip of women singing “Back in Their Burkas Again.”

Cambridge Boxterman, one of the women singing the song, had the best soundbyte of the piece — and I’m paraphrasing — We’re doing this for fun. It’s the religious people who are taking it seriously.

The rest of the piece doesn’t get much better.

They seem to think it’s a big deal that Edwin’s son is a fundamentalist minister, but Edwin brushes that aside:

When asked if he is pained by their opposing views on this issue, Kagin chuckled. “Oh, one wonders where they went wrong,” he said. He and his son, Steven, have an excellent relationship, Kagin said, but they do have their limits.

“We just understand there are certain things we really can’t, at this point, talk about,” he said.

And they focus on why Edwin makes fun of religion:

Kagin has said he doesn’t particularly care who he’s offending with his actions, and that he is acting completely within his rights. “You can mock anything you want because you have the right to,” he said. “Humor is humor and what types of humor are you going to outlaw?” he said.

He conceded that although it may not be good manners to continually take a mocking stance toward religion, “in many cases, it is the only real response.”

Kagin said he thought some people might get overly offended by his poking fun at religion. “If someone is so secure in their faith, why are they the least bit concerned about some little atheist mocking them?” he asked. “I think the reason they are worried and concerned is the very deep fear that if everyone doesn’t believe it, maybe it isn’t so.”

I don’t disagree with Edwin that you have a right to mock faith.

But it’s a source if debate within our community. Should we mock religion or not? There are good arguments on both sides and we’re certainly not monolithic in that regard.

***Update***: And here’s the segment

Now that it’s over, here’s why this bothered me.

The American Atheists convention this year (which I didn’t attend) seemed to be a very positive one.

Check out the schedule. There were talks by Dan Barker, who left his faith, and Paul Kurtz, who advocates reaching out to religious people in very civil ways. Students were given scholarships. Sean Faircloth spoke about the future of atheism and politics. There were philosophical talks and serious speeches.

And one relatively brief debaptism ceremony to lighten the mood and have some fun.

Nightline ignored all the positive, important events that took place at the conference and focused on the anomaly.

While I like the debaptisms, they’re not a common occurrence. They’ve taken place only a handful of times in different parts of the country. Yet, Nightline acted as if Edwin was doing these ceremonies as part of some traveling roadshow and presented it as if this is what all atheists are doing.

And when the camera went back on the host, she referred to the “distinction between free speech and poor taste.”

Without more context as to what was going on, that’s not a fair statement. There’s a very important message in those Debaptism ceremonies that the show simply ignored.

***Update***: Paul Fidalgo didn’t like the segment, either:

But I didn’t know how bad it could get. Dan Harris and those responsible for his report on Edwin Kagan, in-your-face atheism and “de-baptism” should be ashamed. The entire piece is a seven-minute finger wagging at those mean atheists. The questions to Kagan pretty much never move beyond variations on “don’t you think you’re being really rude?” Kagan and those with him at the de-baptism ceremony are portrayed as nasty, callous jerks who are out to hurt feelings for the sheer joy of it. Plus, they drag out the subject of Kagan’s fundamentalist son, I suppose to serve as some kind of foil, as if you say, “How come your son is a man of God and you’re such a jerk?” Harris even pulls the “what about Stalin” canard.

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  • Seymour Skinner

    Am I the only one who finds de-baptism kind of childish?

  • I find all of ABC News kind of childish. I am not surprised at all that they’re playing it off as some big mockery and a joke. They’re appealing to their religious viewers (the majority, sadly), and that’s how it will be for a long time.

    We cannot rely on mainstream media to help get our voices heard and get our points across to the public. They only pander to the Jesus-cracker-munching majority.

  • Richard P.


  • Nightline’s been dead to me since Ted Koppel left. The suits replaced him with a smarmy moron and turned the show into, essentially, something a whole lot like Maury Povich’s old piece of shit show, “A Current Affair”.

  • RPJ

    What distinction between free speech on poor taste? It’s hardly free speech if all that’s allowed is good taste (however that’s determined).

  • SickoftheUS

    Am I the only one who finds de-baptism kind of childish?

    They seem to me like a good way to dump some garbage from the past, if you’re into ceremonies. And baptisms are, literally, infantile.

  • Ben

    Should we mock religion or not? There are good arguments on both sides and we’re certainly not monolithic in that regard.

    It’s not even quite so black and white. The real debate should not be whether we should mock religion, but what exactly constitutes a mockable offence. There are people at both extremes — that almost nothing is mockable, or that everything is — but there must be some middle ground there somewhere.

    Of course, those who sit in the middle are attacked from both sides as simultaneously harsh and pathetic.

  • @Seymour Skinner,
    No. De-baptisms are not unlike goofy Satanist ceremonies, which are supposed to mirror and/or mock goofy Christian ceremonies. I find them to be reactive in nature and embarrassing to watch. If this is the best they can come up with to bring levity to an atheist gathering, then they need to get out more. Seriously.

  • “Should we mock religion or not?”

    If a specific behavior or belief is deserving of derision (it’s causing harm or has the potential to cause harm), then by all means mock it. Hell…attack it.
    If it’s not, then don’t.

  • fritzy

    I find those “depatisms” to be kind of infantile too. That said, it is not the fault of the people attending the American Atheist Convention, or Kagins fault for that matter that ABC chose to focus only on the depatisms–that only shows how infantile sensational and superficial our news media has become.

    As for the comment from the host:

    “distinction between free speech and poor taste.”

    Really? I think she was trying to say that “just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should” but that’s inane. It’s comparing apples and oranges. Free speech is an objectively measureable concept. Taste is entirely subjective. I mean, really, fuck you. He can say whatever he wants–he understands and expects that some will be offended. You don’t have a right to be free of offense. And are you and all other believers so insecure in your beliefs that you should really give a rats ass what some atheist says about your religious rituals? If you believe they are sacred, nothing anyone can say can take that away from you unless you let them.

  • Daws

    This reminds me of my anti-war activist days, wherein of the rally outside a senator’s window, all the media had a clip of was the impromptu “radical cheerleaders” >.<

    And about mocking: if you have to, do it intelligently in a way that makes people think. Think stand-up comedians like George Carlin, not grade school jerks.

    Being an a-hole just makes things harder for everyone else. If you really want to change a person you have to be respectful and understanding… and to show yourself as worthy of respect. Thus there's a vast difference between being simply an a-hole, and being blunt. People can respect bluntless, they can't respect being an a-hole.

  • Demonhype

    Hmm…I don’t know that the Comfort/Cameron vs. the Rational Response Squad debate brought absolutely nothing.

    First of all, remember how Comfort was the one to say that no one was supposed to bring up the bible, claiming that he could prove the Truth ™ of the Christian God without referencing the bible because the Christian God is Just So Inherently Obvious in the universe.

    Then he immediately started invoking that in his opening remarks, breaking his own damn rule.

    Well, if you look for the posting of the debate on the Way of the Master channel at Youtube, you’ll find that moment has been edited out–presumably by those ethical Christians we keep hearing about. In fact, most of the atheist arguments are edited out, and it has been set up to look as if the Christians just shit out apologetic after apologetic while the helpless, hapless, arrogant atheists just sat there speechless, unable to counter such dazzling faith-based brilliance.

    Of course, there are others on Youtube who have posted the debate in its entirety, though I doubt any of Comfort’s fans will step foot out of The Master’s territory to see it–or perhaps if they do, they’ll just believe that the extra footage is an illusion sent by the devil to obscure a clear Christian victory. Just like the dinosaur bones. *sigh*

    Also, I was kind of encouraged at the time by the fact that they seemed to have seeded the audience with a fairly even amount of believers and non-believers. I would expect them to have an overwhelming number of believers so they can just cheer Comfort’s apologetics mindlessly while drowning out the atheist villains with vaudevillian boos.

    This new Nightline piece, however, sounds like it stinks out loud.

  • colin

    As long as they spell your name right, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

    Who said that? Mark Twain, maybe?

    Anyways, I’m glad they showed a debaptism. I think many people will be shocked into realizing that a religion is something that you can choose to leave.

    UNRELATED UPDATE: wooooh! I’m being presented with 4 minutes to edit or delete my comment. FAR OUT! what an awesome idea.

  • *snicker*

    “Swallow the Leader”

  • Fantastic.
    I agree that a huge part of Buddhism is woo.
    But then, I think most Atheists’ notion of “self” is highly delusional.

  • Claudia

    I’m long past the point where I expect “news” outlets to be fair in their coverage. Two factors are at work here:

    1. The vast majority of Nightlines audience is religious. The program is interested in keeping their audience watching, not telling them the truth. So they have incentive to pander to their audiences prejudices.

    2. Balance doesn’t sell, exageration does. Pretty much every “novelty” or minority group portrayed on tv is portrayed in a wildly exagerated light. Go ask American Muslims if they think their community is portrayed fairly in the media. I remember one black comedian saying in his stand up that whenever anything happened in the black neighborhood the tv crew would go find the silliest looking, dumbest black person (he used a different word) with golden teeth to ask them what they thought. I’ve heard from gay friends often complaining that when the gay pride parade is covered, the extravagant drag queens and leather-clad bears get all the airtime and the regular gays in regular clothes, sometimes with their families, get nothing. We’re simply suffering the same phenomenon, unfortunately.

    What really gets under my skin is that I’ll bet that a fair proportion of the people who work at Nightline are atheists themselves. Just like we all know that a fair proportion of politicians are atheists (maybe even including our president) but they lie and pander to religion and avoid us like the plague, most of the time.

  • Having attended the AA convention and seen the Nightline segment, I think you are totally spot on. The interviewers seemed hostile to me and intent on making atheists look like a bunch of silly kooks. It took me a while to get used to Edwin Kagin’s humor, and I know the majority of people who watch Nightline won’t get it. And there was a lot more that went on at the convention than blasphemous iconoclasm. Same for Camp Quest (though I didn’t attend there). Sad that the only thing they show of Camp Quest is Edwin in that monk outfit.

  • littlejohn

    He can’t even get his facts right. It’s Catholic dogma that Mary was a prostitute, but the Bible doesn’t say she was.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    and he’s called the Holy Eucharist “Swallow the Leader.”

    Catchy. Spread the meme.

  • muggle

    Reginald, that’s so catchy, it’ll be impossible not to. Freaking hilarious. And that’s what Kagin’s doing, using humor aka mockery to make a point and doing so quite well. I am impressed.

    Edwin Kagin is a huge improvement over Ellen Johnson, frankly.

    Look they keep saying falsehoods about nonbelievers and casting us as something we’re not and mocking us then they have the nerve to say we shouldn’t mock them? Like hell we shouldn’t. They want respect earn it and the first step to earning it is giving it. For 2,000 damned years they had every chance to do this. What the hell took us so long to get around to mocking them? Oh, yeah, it’s because they’d kill us before.

    Yep, let’s mock, let’s blaspheme, let’s call them out for proof of preposterous claims. All of it.

  • Ursula

    The UC Berkeley atheist group was contacted, through the Secular Student Alliance, about doing a debaptism to be filmed. Our group had already planned our events for the fall semester, and debaptism was not one of them.

    As soon as I read the request from ABC, I could see the piece in my mind, and it was exactly like the one that actually occurred. My exact words were:

    To me, at best, assuming that atheists would care to do [a debaptism] is a complete misunderstanding of what it is to be an atheist. At worst, [our conducting a debaptism] could be taken as an insult [to religion] and an attempt by ABC to portray our growing community in a “negative” light. …the whole prospect of ABC singling out this ONE activity to cover and contacting atheist groups to try to get footage REALLY sets off some alarms.

    Some people in our group were interested in doing the event, but I think laziness prevailed in our planning and we all forgot about it as the school year went by.

    I understand wanting to add some levity to conferences, but I think debaptisms are meaningless. My own baptism means no more to me than my 1st birthday party – I don’t remember it and don’t care about the significance of it. I also wonder if this debaptism thing at the conference would have happened without ABC being involved. After all, the idea didn’t even cross my group’s radar until we heard about it through ABC.

  • Ursula

    Our group was contacted in July, 2009

  • Dan W

    I watched most of that segment of Nightline, and read the article about it beforehand, and I found it too be terrible. It focused too much on the “rude” tone of atheists like Edwin Kagin and not so much on content. There was definitely less effort to understand why atheists were doing this funny de-baptism ritual, and the segment seemed fairly unfocused in general, jumping back-and-forth too much. They made Kagin seem like some crazy cult leader, rather than just a guy having a bit of fun mocking ridiculous theistic rituals with a silly ritual of his own.

    All in all, a pretty pathetic news segment for Nightline, a show I’ve generally liked watching until this point.

  • Matt

    I suppose that I have to cast my vote as a person who thinks everything should be allowed to be mocked, without exception.

    You may be labeled a jerk for doing so, but it’s not illegal to be a jerk and speak freely.

    On a personal level, there are certainly limits to what *I* would mock, but those are self imposed limits.

    So what if something is in poor taste. You can’t throw someone in jail for having poor taste. However, it is within *your* rights to say that you consider it to be in “poor taste”.

  • Seymour Skinner

    I think the greater danger is that de-baptisms make the rest of us – who have no desire to participate in such childish activities – look like a bunch of kooks.

  • Brian Macker

    Religion is in poor taste, but it’s free speech (when they aren’t advocating the murder of unbelievers, in which case it is incitement to violence) so I let it go.

  • Ken Geringer

    The mocking serves no good. Who will change if you call them a fool? Just leave the others alone. Take care of yourself and yours. Real Christians are good people, and our neighbors. Why give them reason to think you are less?

  • pastol

    Am I the only one who finds de-baptism kind of childish?


    It was a setback, and we will all hear about the de-baptism shtick for a long time. I thought Kagin was creepy, but maybe Hemant is right about him growing on you. It was all very disappointing.

    The host’s words were, for lack of a better word, inflammatory. A cheap shot at ratings.

  • Alan

    Ok, just to chime in with a vote… yeah, mock away. Recent history tells us that humor is one of the great introducers… so many examples are out there of the downtrodden penetrating the majority’s conscious by first making them laugh. And a lot of that humor was first found to be “offensive” and in “poor taste” but is now quite mainstream. However, let us expect the road to be much longer (and much more populated with IED’s) for the atheist than it was for minorities like blacks and jews… atheists are FAR more despised. The jokes had better be very, very funny.

    A second point I’d like to make is that I see a lot of “groupism” sentiment in some of the comments… a lot of concern that the behavior or comments of one atheist will make “the rest of us” look like “kooks”. That doesn’t pass the sniff test for me. “Groupism” and seeing groups of humans as somehow homogenous or monolithic is the stuff of religious people… as an atheist, I see myself as an individual figuring out the universe ON MY OWN… NOT under the tutelage or guidance of any self-appointed leadership or prophetic shepherd, and certainly not one who needs the agreement or approval of others to validate what reason tells me is so. And, I DON’T want the non-atheists to see atheists as monolithic or homogenous… we are not. We are diverse, and therefore our actions, in good taste or otherwise, will be as well. So stop worrying about whether “they” think you are a kook due to someone else’s actions. Just take action of your own. Random acts of kindness, for instance.

    Oh, yeah, and if you think the days of being killed for your lack of an acceptable faith are over, please rethink. Historically, this ebbs and flows, but has never gone away.

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