Mitch Albom Doesn’t Get It July 3, 2011

Mitch Albom Doesn’t Get It

Following their attention-getting billboard campaign, American Atheists recently purchased overhead ribbons — meaning that planes would fly banners with their messages in 26 states this weekend. The ribbons would read “God-LESS America” or “Atheism is patriotic” followed by AA’s website URL.

Mitch Albom, the columnist who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, doesn’t get why the group would do such a thing:

This is a classic example of an OK concept meeting a terrible idea. The group insists, on its Web site, that this “is not about … shoving our views down people’s throats.”

Really? Then why rent airplanes?

So finding a creative way to send out a short message is the same as shoving it down others’ throats? No one has to read it. No one has to pay it the least bit of attention. Certain religious people go door-to-door to proselytize, while some others use their faith to deny gay people equal rights, but no, we’re the ones shoving our beliefs down your throat. Why is Albom saving his ire for atheists merely stating their beliefs in a public place and not the religious nuts who make it their mission to convert others?

Albom eventually acknowledges that atheists are indeed looked down upon in America and mentions how religious groups can take things too far as well (e.g. Jesus billboards, Ten Commandments monuments). It sounds good, until he goes right back to the same mistake as before:

But doing your own version of what upsets you isn’t the answer. My sense is that most Americans are pretty tolerant of other faiths or even those who celebrate no faith — they just don’t want things shoved in their faces.

I’m sure that’s easy to say when you’re not an atheist. Ask the atheists living in the Bible Belt or who come from conservative Christian homes how tolerant everyone else is.

Again, having a plane fly your message in the skies — something any group is welcome to do — is hardly the same as pushing our beliefs on you. How does he not understand that?

Some would ask why a group united in what it doesn’t believe in even bothers to make a statement. But I’m sure atheists would counter that in a country where “God Bless America” is sung at events and hands are put on Bibles during courtroom procedures, that they are only fighting fire with fire.

The problem of fire with fire is that it produces a lot of smoke, and smoke gets in your eyes and you can’t see straight. Maybe, on Fourth of July weekend, we should leave the skies to bursts of red, white and blue and save our messages for another backdrop.

I’m sure that last paragraph sounds nice, but it means nothing. I can see perfectly straight. What I see is that advertising companies are always willing to take the money of religious groups to spread their messages. If that’s the case, they have no right to turn an atheist group down when we make the same request. When their policies change and they stop allowing religious messages completely, I won’t complain that they’re not letting atheists do the same thing.

Until then, all American Atheists is asking for is the same opportunity every religious group gets.

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  • JD

    I am getting tired of the double standard. Religious groups can and do buy billboards, religious people don’t complain. Atheist groups buy billboards, they think atheists are shoving their beliefs in their throats. Exactly how desensitized to you have to be to religious advertising to see it this way? Religious ads are all over, to have such a blatant double standard is really sad.

  • I’m one of those atheists from the Bible Belt and a devout Christian family. Trust me. It’s not a cakewalk. Even saying I’m an atheist will get people screaming, “Why do you want to push your beliefs on everyone?” My existence is offensive to people. Too bad for them then.

  • J Cole

    I live in Georgia. I see Jesus billboards all the time, as well as some truly disgusting anti-abortion pro life stuff. I would love to see some Atheist ads around here. If you think being an Atheist is hard other places try it here. When “he goes to my church” is considered a good qualification for a job, being openly Atheist is not a picnic.

  • Raven

    Some would ask why a group united in what it doesn’t believe in even bothers to make a statement.

    I’ve heard this even from other atheists. I responded that is promoting their organization, same as retail shops, businesses offering services or political activists.

    Is Mitch Albom questioning all other groups that use airplane banners? Or just atheist groups?

  • I have been abandoned and unofficially and unceremoniously tossed out of most everything around here.. They held a “Ride to Remember” here a few weeks ago to remember the fallen in the area. I used to ride with the group. They didn’t even call notify us this year. Because my son was an atheist and died in combat, my wife was told last week by a poster somewhere that they were sorry that our son was in hell. Before that they were telling us that God had taken him so we should basically be happy.. sheesh.

  • wright1

    Another missive from the comfortable majority, wondering why the minority just can’t see how well-off we are, and how magnanimous the majority are in permitting us to exist.

    They don’t enslave us, burn us alive or seize our property anymore, so where do we get off demanding equal treatment on TOP of that??

  • I absolutely LOVE that comic. Sums it up so well!

  • Besides Tuesdays with Morrie, he also wrote The Seven People You Meet in Heaven.

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    They will also have to stop stealing billions of tax dollars each year, in addition to accepting repeal of countless faith based laws denying freedoms.

  • Cortex

    From the time I was a kid, I read his column in the Free Press every single week. About 5 or 6 years ago, I noticed just how incredibly shallow and pandering his opinion pieces were, and just couldn’t stand to read them anymore.

  • Heidi

    @Fozzy: I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m horrified that anyone would think that was an appropriate thing to say to a grieving parent.

  • Chris aka “Happy Cat”

    The privileged attitude of religion, and specifically Xtianity in this case, will be its undoing. Early Christians weren’t singled out in Rome until they became a nuisance. If you played by the rules of Roman society you could usually get a pass. If a group or individual made a point of living apart and balking at state authority you were seen as a threat.

    Some early Christians tried to get those suffering from Martyr Fever to quiet down and fit in with society. Unfortunately, many sought out martyrdom as a way of imitating Christ’s suffering. As soon as Xtians gained political power they became the oppressors (often of each other) but managed to cling to the martyr complex.

    Note to Christians: Leave others alone, stop demanding they act as you think your Invisible Friend demands, and learn to be a part of society at large. Maybe then, when your numbers dwindle and people refuse to put up with your demands there will less blowback and fewer lions.

  • Sorry. That was ‘the -5- people you meet in heaven’. Just seemed like 7 while I was reading it.

  • Really, it’s all about insecurity, and by extension, immaturity. Believers hold certain metaphysical notions that they view as obviously true, but only axiomatically and without any kind of objective verification. That there are non-believers out there … horrible people who insolently dare not to accept those metaphysical notions … suggests they aren’t as obviously true as these folks assume them to be. It’s unsettling to them to know there are non-believers, and it casts doubt on ideas they had always presumed are never to be doubted.

    Hence, the very existence of a non-believer, anywhere in their sight, constitutes a very real threat to them, personally. It amounts to an attack on their persons … and they can’t tolerate it. This in turn triggers a childish backlash.

    But that they’d react this way, only serves to demonstrate how truly weak their axioms are in the first place. If we were talking about something demonstrable and verifiable; say, the color of the sky; then there wouldn’t be this vehement, irrational reaction. If someone were to have sent up plane-banners saying, “The sky is not blue!” no one would be complaining that the guy was trying to “force” his belief that the sky isn’t blue on anyone. Instead, people would just pity the guy who wasted his money on plane-banners instead of spending it on an optometrist or psychiatrist.

    Just goes to show how religion infantilizes people in more ways than one.

  • Drew M.

    I enjoyed Tuesdays With Morrie. Even though it was chock full of religion, it had an uplifting message.

    The Five People You Meet in Heaven, on the other hand, was pure drivel. The glurge on Snopes is much better reading.

    I regret having purchased both.

  • This is only marginally related to the subject matter of this article, but I wanted to say I’m immensly happy with how civil, and well formed the arguments the FA comments section are. It’s a pleasant reprieve from most internet comment compendium — like the pit of voles that is Youtube’s comment section.

  • Richard Wade

    Many of the comments over at the Detroit Free press are skillfully cutting Mitch Albom a new rectal orifice. I left this contribution to the surgery:

    Mitch, imagine that you live in a country where most of the people treat anyone of the Albom family like dirt. Imagine that every day in thousands of churches, on television and radio, in newspapers, websites, in workplaces, and in neighborhoods, LIES are spread about how you and all the other Alboms are the scum of the earth. Most of the Albom family hide the fact of who they are because they can be beaten, have their property vandalized, be fired, and be shunned by their loved ones if they reveal their name. You don’t have to actually do anything bad, just being a Albom is assumed to be justification for this treatment.

    Now imagine that you get tired of it, and you speak out to show that those lies are not true, wanting nothing more than to be treated with common decency and the respect that everyone else expects for themselves. But whatever you say, no matter how tactfully you put it, in no matter what format, your statements are characterized as being “in your face,” inappropriate, antagonistic, and not the right time or place. Plenty of sky banners fly around saying that Albom haters are wonderful people, and columnists don’t write special articles clucking in protest, but a sky banner saying that Alboms are okay people, ohhh nooo that’s terrible.

  • Luther

    Taking a cue from Keith Olberman, lets do a little rewrite:

    Maybe, on Fourth of July weekend, we should leave the skies to bursts of red, white and blue and save our messages for another backdrop.


    Maybe, on Fourth of July weekend, we should not bother filling the the skies to bursts of red, white and blue and instead demonstrate that all are and by rights should be free to spread messages, even sometimes uncomfortable, free speech for ourselves and everyone on every backdrop.

  • Beauzeaux

    Mitch Albom is an idiot. I read Tuesdays with Morrie and found it obnoxious — really it was all about Mitch. And I didn’t find his dying professor all that uplifting.

    I work for hospice and deal with dying people every day. Some are atheists and have to struggle to prevent god-shit from polluting their last days.

  • Marguerite

    “My sense is that most Americans are pretty tolerant of other faiths or even those who celebrate no faith — they just don’t want things shoved in their faces.”

    This sounds very much like “most Americans are tolerant of gays– they just don’t want homosexuality shoved in their faces.” The problem being, of course, is that ANY indication that you’re gay is defined as being “shoved in faces.” If you’re gay, you can’t kiss, hold hands, or god forbid, MARRY– but gosh, we’re all so darn tolerant otherwise! Of course, it’s fine for straight people to do all those things, and that never constitutes shoving THEIR lifestyle in people’s faces.

    Similarly, what it sounds like he’s saying here is that Americans are perfectly okay with atheists– they just don’t want them to be able to express their opinions, to join together in groups, or even say they’re atheist, because that’s getting in people’s faces about it. But all those things are okay for Christians, who can put their beliefs up on billboards, hire skywriters, and go door-to-door and try to convert people without ever shoving THEIR beliefs in someone’s face.

    It’s just the same old double standard.

  • Jon Peterson

    All I’m left wondering here is…. who looks up?
    Like… I’m sure planes with banners were once a pretty nifty thing that people noticed. That’s cool, and fun. But I’ve not seen too many people looking at the sky in recent days. As I go down the street, everyone’s eyes are earthbound.

    I’m not sure I like the phrasing of the banners because it does seem a bit antagonistic, but I’m rather sure I don’t care because I don’t think too many people are even going to notice in order to be offended by it. Heck, I think more people are going to read those words in various blogs and news articles about it than in the sky over their heads. :/

  • Meyekael

    But doing your own version of what upsets you isn’t the answer. My sense is that most Americans are pretty tolerant of other faiths or even those who celebrate no faith — they just don’t want things shoved in their faces.

    If we’re shoving anything in believers’ faces its not our beliefs but their own bigotry and prejudice.

    Apparently Albom doesn’t mind us defending ourselves as long as we do it in a way that can be easily ignored.

  • Colin Goudie

    What I find annoying is assuming that the main issue atheists have with xtians is that their message is shoved down our throat!!

    It isn’t. It’s that their message is utter crap!

    I am quite happy to have messages shoved down my throat if they are backed up by evidence.

    I’m happy if the message that smoking causes cancer is shoved down my throat
    I’m happy if the message that we’re not spending enough on educating is shoved down my throat
    etc.. etc..

    And yes, atheists have a message, backed by evidence, and you bet we should be shoving it down people’s throats

  • Larry Meredith

    I don’t think those flying banners are about getting shoving atheism down people’s throats or about getting the same opportunities that religious groups get. It’s just about showing some atheist pride and saying atheists are good just as good and patriotic as anyone else.

  • brian

    As an atheist I think renting the plane is a good idea, but the content was disappointing. “God-LESS America?” C’mon. That’s just confrontational and negative. That won’t win any allies or counteract any stereotypes.

  • fett101

    My sense is that most Americans are pretty tolerant of other faiths or even those who celebrate no faith —

    The fact that a number of states were not able to get pilots says otherwise.

  • AteoAbsurdo

    No one has to read it. No one has to pay it the least bit of attention.

    You cannot be serious.

    Yes, you can ignore it, but you cannot prevent yourself from reading it, especially without knowing what it says.

    I think this is just a bit too much in-your-face for me. I wouldn’t like it if a church did it. And I don’t like it when we do it.

  • RusWJ

    I’m surrounded by pro-faith billboards all the time on the highways, from ads for Christian radio stations to the “I Am Second” campaign. I don’t raise a fuss cause it’s America & we all have the right to free speech. A few banners & people are up in arms? Sad to think that one of our basic freedoms in the county is selective according to ignorant, close minded people.

  • Brother Gilburt

    He’s taking the “fire with fire” metaphor way too far. American Atheists is not using the “fire” that hateful, intrusive Christian extremists would use; they are using the “fire” that moderate Christians would use, and it isn’t “fire” at all.

  • Ben

    I think that religious people often think that we are shoving our views down their throats because when they are confronted by an atheist they are reminded that some people have the courage to face the universe without believing in fairy tales. They feel a sense of compulsion to adopt our beliefs that arises from what is left of their own rational instincts. The human mind is fundamentally uncomfortable with incongruous beliefs, and these can only be maintained with strong social support. The presence of open dissent reminds them of how stupid they are being. They perceive the pressure as originating from without, but it is essentially derived from their own compulsion to self-correct.

  • Rachel

    How about WWJD bracelets? Don’t ask don’t tell right? We can be atheist as long as we keep it to ourselves.

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