FFRF Is Complaining About the Wrong Thing December 21, 2010

FFRF Is Complaining About the Wrong Thing

The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued an “Action Alert” yesterday asking members to complain to the religion writer at USA Weekend magazine because of a cover story she wrote about how people perceive god.

Were they upset because she misunderstood the atheist position?

Did she make an offensive statement about non-religious people?

Did she treat the existence of god as a fact?


They’re upset because… there was an article and cover dedicated to how people perceive god.

The word “GOD,” against a yellow backdrop similar to rays of sun and topped with what looks like a halo, is written with the words readers supposedly submitted about who or what they think god is. The biggest words visible: love, creator, soul, universal.

Like usual, the article and the response from readers overwhelmingly gave “god” credit for all life’s good things — love, goodness, peace, “brotherhood.”

… It appears downright pandering to run this religion-promoting fluff piece before Christmas!

Well, guess what? People do perceive god that way whether we like it or not. They’re wrong, of course. But that’s how a ton of people see god: Happy and holy and hopeful.

So FFRF wants you to “Complain about [the] gratuitous religious cover story.”

Yes, right, let me complain.

Hey, USA Weekend, how *dare* you present the results of an unscientific poll you conducted and then pretty up the word GOD with some clever graphic design?!

It’s pandering, FFRF says. Well, no shit they’re pandering. Let’s not act like we’re shocked.

FFRF is also unhappy with the number of atheists cited in the survey:

The article’s writer, Cathy Lynn Grossman… claimed that 5% of those who chimed in were nonbelievers… However, 15% of Americans identify as nonreligious (ARIS 2008).

Those statements are not contradictory.

The ARIS results were scientifically accurate (within a margin of error). Approximately 15% of Americans are not religious. However, the USA Weekend survey was not scientific at all. If you responded with your view on god, they counted your stance. Simple as that.

The whole article is really a collection of anecdotes/quotations. There’s no substance there. They just designed a pretty cover hoping it would get your attention.

Had we Pharyngulated the survey, maybe the cover would’ve been different. But as it stands, more religious people responded and USA Weekend ran with it.

It’s not good journalism at all, but it’s also not an insult to atheists. If we start complaining about every single mention of god — especially in a magazine designed to appeal to the lower-common-denominator of readers– no one’s going to be paying any attention when we have something real to complain about.

You can let Grossman know you’re out there, too, but that would’ve been more useful during the time period in which this survey was conducted.

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  • I would like to point out a small inconsistency. The cover is “How Americans Imagine God” and not how Americans Perceive God. I don’t think the two words are synonyms.

  • Shawn

    It’s not good journalism at all, but it’s also not an insult to atheists.

    This is what Hemant’s argument boils down to for me. There are plenty of reasons to mourn responsible journalism. There are plenty of fights to be fought against myth and mis-education. Confusing the two gives our opponents a logical reason to ignore us.

  • It ought to serve as a big giveaway that the article uses the words “imagine” or “perceive” when talking about a god. If they had a real god, I don’t think they’d use those terms or concepts when discussing their real god. They can only imagine what it is they worship, having yet to find it.

  • Erp

    Also not religious is not the same as atheistic or not believing in god.

    In addition there are atheists who are religious (think some UUs) and plenty of non-religious who do believe in a god but don’t consider they belong to a particular religion.

  • FFRF’s complaining comes off the same as the fundie whining we hear about the so-called “War on Christmas”.

  • I wonder, if you look closely, if you can find a few choice adjectives from Richard Dawkins? Misogynistic, megalomaniacal, and the like. Maybe imaginary or mythical? Or did they only talk to sappy theists?

    On the other hand, I think FFRF should choose their battles and ignore this one.

  • Oh, yeah, I’ve got to admit that’s bad. They’re overreacting.

    I am not, however, inspired to buy this rag.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think the premise of the article is interesting even from an atheist perspective. Since we reject “God,” we have to know exactly what we are rejecting. I suspect there are a number of atheists who while rejecting a theistic view of God could be open to view of God as reality or “is-ness.”

  • Sure, Ron, but what would be the point of calling something like that God? What does “god” even mean when you use it as a label for something that already has a name (reality, existence, etc.)?

  • Tom

    Agreed – whining about a private publication using their own funds to research and print an article about something you disagree with is every bit as bad as whining about “Good Without God” on the side of a bus.

    Besides, how the people around you understand their concept of the divine is something that should interest any reasonable person. That sort of thing is going to impact every action they take and every choice they make, so wouldn’t you want to know where they’re coming from even if it’s a place you disagree with? I’m an atheist but I spend plenty of time asking the other guys in my platoon about their faith – not arguing, just asking – because it’s something I want to know.

    Hell, I’d welcome more articles like this. Being informed, even of things you disagree with, is the root of rational thought.

  • Chas

    It’s a fluff news piece in what is just a sunday newspaper insert, and not worth the time to complain about.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    I gotta agree 100% with Hemant here. The FFRF is barking up the wrong tree, overreacting to a silly, light article.

    This is somewhat puzzling, since I have agreed with and supported almost everything the FFRF has done and said over the years.

    I see nothing outrageous in the article, and I wrote to the author to tell her that.

  • Marty

    My teenager was amused by the word imagine on the cover. He thought it summed up beliefs about god perfectly. Some of the quotes inside show how little real thought people give this concept: “god is love” what the hell does that mean? The rabbi said “god is more than he can imagine”. Maybe he should just stop trying

  • Claudia

    These are the current “Popular Topics” on the USA Today website:

    Pamela Anderson
    Elin Nordegren
    Shania Twain
    Lucy Lawless
    Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
    Kate Gosselin
    Minnesota Vikings
    Gisele Bundchen
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    Brett Favre
    Tech Gift Guide
    National Weather Service
    Philadelphia Eagles
    Chicago Bears
    Dallas Cowboys
    New England Patriots
    Kate Middleton
    Michael Vick
    Laura Hillenbrand

    I’m shocked, nay, outraged, that USA Today would subject it’s obviously highbrow and intellectually curious readers to a feel-good puff piece on religion.

    No wait, that’s wrong. I don’t care.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Yep – what Chas said. And fluff news pieces are a dime a dozen when it comes to USA Today.

    America is not a “Christian nation” per se, but I really don’t get offended when journalists occasionally acknowledge the fact that the majority of Americans self-identify as Christians. That’s just a simple fact.

  • Chas

    Might have been worth a letter to the editor if it was the front page of the actual USA Today in stead of their Sunday supplement, but as a member of FFRF I think their action alerts should focus on more serious concrete concerns.

  • Oh, FFRF, I love you so. But stick to the church-state violations. Wandering into cultural commentary isn’t your strong suit.

  • Adam

    They used a lot of the words over and over again. If fact, they used “like the wind” about three or four times… in each letter. The only negative one that I could see was “pantheistic” which is kind of throwing a bone.

  • Godless Lawyer

    The problem is really that the 5% of the survey that were atheists non-believers likely all responded differently. Thus having no influence on the word cloud that formed the image’.

    We should, as non-believers atheists, collectively decide on a buzz word and train ourselves to respond with that word, and only that word, immediately when we hear the word god. That’s what most religious people do, right?

    We could go with something like ‘myth’ – or something dirty, or funny. Just as long as we all go with one thing.

  • This wouldn’t be the first time the FFRF got their proverbial panties in a wad over the wrong thing. I think in the long run, they tend to do more harm than good. The magazine is privately owned and operated. They can put whatever they want on their cover. If they present something that is not factually correct, then we should call them on it. But fussing over a cover design? That’s just petty.

    Besides, as a graphic designer I have to say I like the cover. I may not like the message, but it is successful as a piece of typographical design. The only thing I might complain about is the Christo-centric nature of the design. There’s no mention of any non-Christian names for God.

  • Rob

    I rolled my eyes at the cover, but when I opened up to the article, there were more quotes from the surveys. I was pleasantly wuprised to see about 3 atheist quotes on there amoung the ~20 posted. At least they didn’t omit those.

    I threw mine away already and can’t recall the exact quotes.

  • ignoramus012

    If we start complaining about stuff like this, it won’t be long before we complain about “offensive” religious billboards.

    Double standard, much?

  • Rob

    Ah… looked at the website and found the quotes I liked. I thought Emerson’s was really interesting.

    “A kernel of positive electromagnetic power in each of us, a remnant of the origin of the universe that can occasionally flare up within us in the form of grace or inspiration, and which is inextinguishable.” — Actor Michael Emerson, New York City

    “Outsourcing responsibility for the universe and its behavior to a deity works for some, but not for me.” — Joseph Haran, Portland, Ore.

  • yawn…

    Maybe they will follow this up with how non-believers imagine or perceive the God concept. That would be interesting. There may be some “straw gods” that religious people don’t agree with.

    But I doubt it will happen. That would require too much courage and gumption on USA Weekend’s part.

  • Michelle

    After blowing up the picture a bit, for my small screen, I found “Motherly”, which is unusual for the Judeo-Christian concept, repeated frequently. Words like silent, unknowable and pantheistic were also easily found.

  • RJ

    people still read USA Today? Who knew?

  • A comment I submitted to FFRF:

    “Generally I very much support the work you guys do, however this “Action Alert” in response to the “How Americans Imagine God” USA Weekend cover story is a little ridiculous. It’s shoddy journalism, but my understanding of USA Today/Weekend is that shoddy, pandering journalism is, more or less, its niche. The story is not, however, unfair to atheists, offensive to atheists, or even inaccurate: most Americans do believe in God, and most do conceive of God with many of the silly concepts enumerated by the graphic.

    “So what are you mad about? Having this type of reaction, and encouraging supporters to complain to the magazine, is really just as silly and egocentric as Christians who complain about our atheist billboards. Is the mere presence of a religiously-oriented article really something we need to get angry about? Seems to me that had the article been about atheists and why we don’t believe in God, we’d have laughed at and combatted the droves of angry Christians who’d write in to complain about our audacity in insisting that our views exist. Let’s not lower ourselves to the tactics of imagined persecution that religious groups employ.

    “USA Weekend did absolutely nothing wrong by publishing a junk story about people’s silly – but real – beliefs. Will I read the article, or buy the magazine? Certainly not. But do we need to get our panties in a bunch about it? No.”

  • Cortex

    Thanks for pointing this out, Hemant. This just makes atheists look bad. I hope FFRF is taking notice, because they’re flirting with Catholic League status by doing this kind of thing.

  • I respect Dan Barker and many of the FFRF’s previous endeavors. It was good leg work but it seems recently, between the fight against the post stamp, and now this, FFRF’s not really using logic in picking out their battles.

    There is really no reason why a publication can’t print as many pro-god or even Christian based articles as they want. It’s their prerogative. Our local paper lists a bible verse every day. It’s annoying, but it’s what the majority of subscribers like.

    They still print my ads, editorials, and have done positive stories on my group as well 🙂

  • Judith Bandsma

    My first reaction was ‘why is the FFRF upset about a phone book cover?’

    At first glance, that’s what I thought it was.

  • AWayfaringStrainer

    I will go out on a limb and support FFRF on this one. I think the USA article was biased and made assumptions about belief. For example, they wrote “So, we wondered, what do we see when we consult that higher power?”, not what do believers see (or even what to readers see) when they consult a higher power. Also the data is mixed up. First they say “nine in 10 Americans believe in God or some higher power” but later drop non-believers to about 5%. In both cases, it seems rather dismissive.

    FFRF is only asking readers to remind the paper through comments that there is a large section of non-believers. My guess is that USA Today would not have written an article titled JESUS and written “So, we wondered, what do we see when we consult Jesus?”, even though the number of non-Christians is smaller than the number of non-believers.

    The only downside I see with the FFRF action alert is that the commentators are not always the most tactful (!) in wording their criticism. At the same time, just like the ACLU is there watching violations of personal liberties, be it good or bad, I appreciate have FFRF watching over the media. I think it was Greta Christina who argued we need both the loud and the thoughtful voices. To have a cover story on God deserves some kind of response, even now.

  • Good common-sense article. Maybe I’ll re-blog it.
    I do however agree with Dave in the first comment: I can “imagine” any number of Gods – though not some of the more post-modern varieties – as easily as I can a unicorn, without claiming to “perceive” any of them.

  • “If we start complaining about every single mention of god … no one’s going to be paying any attention when we have something real to complain about.”

    Yes, we need to focus our energy on the real issue: Making certain no small town anywhere in America dares put a Christmas display on public property. The pain of my constitutional rights being leeched out of me when I pass near one is unbearable.

  • Certainly there are other things we could use the time and energy to protest…

  • Yeah, sorry, I’m not going to become the next Bill Donahue or Bill O’Reilly. I’ll save my wrath for something that actually deserves it.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    If we start complaining about every single mention of god — especially in a magazine designed to appeal to the lower-common-denominator of readers– no one’s going to be paying any attention when we have something real to complain about.

    In that vein, perhaps we should stop complaining about every creche on public property and lip-service mention of God on currency since they too are meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the general public.

    That way people might pay attention when we have something real to talk about – like whether there is any evidence for gods.

    Believe it or not, some Christians actually say there is evidence for their religion – so we would do well not to give them the last word on that.

    And if you want people to take us seriously maybe you should stop pushing for people to childishly ‘Pharyngulate’ online surveys.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    Oh, FFRF, I love you so. But stick to the church-state violations. Wandering into cultural commentary isn’t your strong suit.

    @Everyday Atheist: The FFRF complaint was a resounding success. It got us talking about FFRF. Mission accomplished.

  • It’s not good journalism at all, but it’s also not an insult to atheists.

    Bingo. USA Weekend is an insult to atheists only to the extent that there is large overlap between “atheists” and “people with half a brain.”

    Now, I could definitely see the FFICF (Freedom From Inane Crap Foundation) suggesting a protest here…

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    I think the cover is fine, but it should say “How some Americans imagine.”

    If they want to say “How Americans imagine,” then they should also include words such as “nonexistent,” “fairy tale,” “brutal tyrant,” “psychopath,” and many others.

  • SeekerLancer

    When I saw this magazine in the paper I thought it was a little lame but it’s overreacting to call it anything beyond that.

  • A paper writing a fluff piece about God at Christmas time? I can’t see how that’s worth complaining about.

    The article’s writer, Cathy Lynn Grossman… claimed that 5% of those who chimed in were nonbelievers… However, 15% of Americans identify as nonreligious (ARIS 2008).

    It’s likely only 5% of the people who responded to Grossman’s survey identified as nonbelievers. Her sample was of USA Today readers, hardly scientific, and not representative of Americans as a whole.

  • Demonhype


    Religious displays on public property are a government endorsement of religion, which is a direct violation of the First Amendment, and in some (many?) cases they involve spending public money to create and maintain.

    No one has ever claimed that they feel some agonizing pain of their rights been taken away just from the sight of such a violation. But such violations have the effect of galvanizing the religious citizens under them and creating not only a sense of religious entitlement but also a reinforcement of the myth of the Christian origins and foundation of America, which leads to them feeling justified in perpetuating more obviously egregious violations of our civil rights. It lays the psychological groundwork on which to justify larger violations of the BoR, the ones that have much larger negative impact on the lives of various targets of Christianist hatred (atheists, homosexuals, feminists, etc.) And to oppose those violations is to prevent that groundwork from being laid in the first place and to keep the understanding of our First Amendment fresh in the minds of a population with an epic lack of focus, abysmally short memory, and an amazing malleability.

    Seriously, haven’t you ever had a religiotard tell you “well, God’s on our money and in our pledge because our founding fathers founded this country as a Christian Nation, so you’d just better shut up about (insert egregious C/S separation violation here) because we are totally justified because our Founding Fathers never intended for you to have rights if you don’t Love God/Jesus”? Or the various takes on that stance? If you don’t oppose those seemingly cosmetic violations, you allow the fundies to define the playing field and use it against you. And you allow them to disseminate their Christian-nation lies into the minds of other less-fundie Christians who, if better informed, might be allies in your cause to preserve C/S separation.

    Sorry to tell you this, but apathy is not a virtue. It’s a stupid move for lazy people.

    As for the USA Weekend article–sounds like a whole lot of nothing. From what I’m hearing, it’s basically the usual pandering fluff piece and the only thing notable about it is that it sounds as if atheists weren’t vilified for brownie points–in fact, someone mentioned that quotes from atheists were included in the actual article. If there was something in there about “no atheists in foxholes” or some other actively offensive piece of anti-atheist propaganda, I could see gathering together to tell them off and make our voices heard. Sure, that wouldn’t be a violation of our rights per se, but we have as much a right to contradict it as they have to print it in the first place, and public perception is, like cosmetic C/S violations, a way to lay the groundwork regarding larger violations.

    But this doesn’t really sound like it’s worth the time or the irritation. Believers are technically the majority in the country, but it sounds like atheists were neither ignored nor badmouthed. YAWN.

  • Yes, I can’t see what the big deal is. I think it’s ridiculous to complain about a private magazine running a fluff piece that will surely appeal to the vast majority of its readership. It would be like me going into a Hallmark store and making a fuss about all the silly religious items they have for sale. I might shake my head when I see it, but there’s nothing offensive about private companies writing/selling anything they want.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    @Demonhype: While my sympathies with Rooker are well known, and I’m not particularly convinced that there aren’t a million other things that are much more important than ‘cosmetic church/state violations’, I nevertheless appreciate you offering a rational argument for why we should care about them.

    That’s something I’ve never heard before – we’re usually just told that public creches are unacceptable and that we’re supposed to think so because public atheists who are oversensitive or politically correct find them offensive.

    That’s a terrible reason for other atheists to oppose them, and I appreciate your efforts to try to convince me with reasons instead of just preaching at me that I need to see things your way just because that’s the way you happen to see them.

    To the preachers I can only say ‘Sorry I didn’t consult you before forming my own opinion Your Majesty!’

    I don’t need someone else to tell me what to think like I’m some blind lemming that needs to be herded, so I’m grateful that you put in the time to give me actual reasons to allow me to come to my own conclusions. Authoritative pronouncements from the Department of Humanist Affairs do nothing for me, but when you give me reasons to think like you do, at least you give me something I can work with. Bravo!

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