Lisa Miller Is Wrong: Atheists Are Not Petty or Closed-Minded July 26, 2012

Lisa Miller Is Wrong: Atheists Are Not Petty or Closed-Minded

Atheists are in a lose-lose situation when it comes to complaining about what seem to be minor violations — but violations, nonetheless — of church/state separation.

If we complain about it, we’re deemed to be haters who want every mention of religion out of the public square. (e.g. A cross in a city’s logo.)

If we don’t complain about it, then years later, the same groups will say they’re entitled to have their faith promoted by the government because it’s “tradition.”

Take the Pledge of Allegiance. No one successfully complained about getting “Under God” out of the Pledge until Michael Newdow came along nearly 50 years later. When his case finally reached the Supreme Court, people acted as if Newdow was doing something wrong — Who cares if one guy is offended by it? No one else had a problem with it until now!

Same with the prayer banner in Jessica Ahlquist‘s school. People kept accusing Jessica of trying to ruin something that bothered nobody for 50 years. If it was really a big deal, wouldn’t someone have said something decades ago?

Religious groups have essentially forced us to take action on every instance of a potential violation of church/state separation. Or else, later on, they’re just going to ask why we never said anything up to that point.

Like Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack saying the other day that he regularly prays for rain:

“I get on my knees every day,” he said, “and I’m saying an extra prayer right now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance, I would do it.”

Of all the things that will fix a drought, prayer isn’t one of them. Neither is a rain dance. Even if Vilsack was joking about the latter, he wasn’t joking about the prayers.

Was it a big deal that he said that? No, not really. Is it ridiculous that he (and millions of other people) actually believe their prayers can change the weather? Absolutely.

And that’s precisely what the Council for Secular Humanism’s Tom Flynn did (emphasis his):

… praying for rain? That’s not just government entangling itself with religion, that’s government wallowing in superstition.

This summer’s prolonged drought, the worst in a quarter-century, is devastating crops and parching livestock. It may bring sharply higher food prices later this year. But it sends the wrong message to distraught farmers when the Agriculture Secretary suggests that the best response is to pray.

First, farmers need to keep doing whatever they can to mitigate the drought’s impact. Time spent praying is time they can’t devote to efforts to save their crops or livestock.

Second, for a Cabinet official to recommend prayer as a solution, or call attention to his own devotions, may violate the Constitution’s prohibition against establishment of religion.

Third and most important, prayer doesn’t work. Secular humanists think prayer doesn’t work because there’s nobody up there to answer those prayers. But if you want to do test the power of prayer yourself, consider this. Apparently Secretary Vilsack’s been praying for rain every day; how’s that working out?

He’s dead right with points 1 and 3. And with point 2, I think he raises a question of what government officials should or shouldn’t say, but it’s not like CSH was about to file a federal lawsuit against Vilsack. (Flynn even cautiously used the phrase “may violate.”)

I’m glad he spoke up about it. No one else seemed to be pointing out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. The media just smiled and nodded as Vilsack said something completely removed from reality. No one dared suggest that Vilsack was flat-out wrong.

Religion writer Lisa Miller thinks all of this is just a sign that atheists are becoming “petty” and “closed-minded”:

A decade ago, atheists were brave, fierce warriors bent on battling conventional wisdom and easy piety. These days, it seems, atheists are petty and small-minded ideologues who regard every expression of public religiosity as a personal affront — not to mention a possible violation of the First Amendment and a sign of rampant idiocy among their fellow citizens.

Take that, Jessica Ahlquist! How dare you fight to take down a banner that offended no one else…? Even though you were completely right to do what you did…?

I would love to see Miller point out the qualifications for when an atheist complaint is warranted and when it’s not.

Are prayers at government meetings ok?

What about Nativity scenes on government property?

What about “In God We Trust” as our national motto?

It’s not like most Christians groups are fighting these cases. Why would they? They’re the beneficiaries.

We have to fight these cases because no one else will. And every time an atheist files a lawsuit (or even complains about something), there’s a Christian or Christian group out there ready to say we’re wrong because we’re the only ones “offended” by it.

We’re not offended.

We’re patriotic.

We’re the ones who want to follow the Constitution and prevent a government establishment of religion, large or small.

Miller then spends paragraphs (plural!) explaining how rain dances are — wait for it — a time-honored tradition:

The God of the Hebrew Bible is a cousin, historically, of the Canaanite deity Baal, a sky god who controlled the weather, especially rain. When in the Book of Kings, Elijah proposes a rain-making competition between Baal and the God of Abraham, God wins when he shoots fire down to earth, causing the assembled party to fall on their faces. In celebration of his victory, God makes the sky “black with clouds and winds, and there was a great rain.”

Rain prayers are especially potent among desert dwellers; in the arid Southwest, Native Americans have for thousands of years made prayers, songs, and dances for rain and they continue to do so today.

“Thence throw you misty water,” goes the “Rain Magic Song,” of the Pueblo Indians, “all round about us here.”

I’m reading all that and only one thought crosses my mind:


Yes, it’s tradition, but it still doesn’t work! (wWhich one of us is the journalist here?!) No credible study has ever correlated rain dances with actual rain. And at no point does Miller ever say, “Rain dances don’t work.” (But, you know, it’s tradition. So who cares, right?)

Later, Miller points out that atheists overreacted about Pastor Rick Warren‘s tweet, made several hours after the Colorado shooter killed people in a movie theater:

(You won’t find that tweet online anymore — Warren deleted it.)

Miller writes that Warren said his tweet had nothing to do with the shooting — It was actually “anti-pre-marital sex,” she writes — as if that settles it.

I find it hard to believe that someone as tapped into popular culture as Warren is — and someone who’s an avid Twitter user — had no idea the shooting was occurring, hours after the news was everywhere.

By the way, we “attack” Rick Warren because he has a habit of saying stupid things, then deleting them, then saying “I didn’t mean what you thought I meant.” Like with this tweet (which you won’t find online anymore because — shocker — Warren deleted it):

Warren’s response to that one?

I clearly was hacked.”

How convenient.

By the way, I’ll be the first to point out that atheists can be dicks about all this. After the Colorado shootings, President Obama said to the victims’ families: “May the lord bring them comfort and healing in hard days to come.”

The CSH’s Tom Flynn responded that Obama shouldn’t have said that.

I found Flynn’s comment to be particularly insensitive and I said as much on this site.

There can be a fine line between personal belief in God — which no atheist organization wants to ban — and government endorsement of it. Is it possible that what some people see as the former, atheists sometimes take as the latter? Maybe.

But I’d rather we play it safe by calling out politicians who use religious rhetoric, no matter how mild it may seem.

We can be insensitive sometimes, but it doesn’t mean we should shut up.

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  • vexorian

    Miller writes that Warren said his tweet had nothing to do with the shooting

    They actually believe that quote looks any less stupid and bigoted with a different context?

  • Ah, Lisa Miller. I remember her from when she wrote that credulous article on how, just maybe, Barrack Obama is the antichrist.

    But it’s atheists who are petty and closed-minded.

  • NewAtheist

    I fail to understand how asking our country to follow the bloody document it was founded on is wrong! How that makes us, what did she say? Petty and close-minded? Atheists simply want the Constitution to be The Law, the final say. The 1st Amendment, the Establishment Clause, how are these things wrong? And you know what? I’d also like to hear from Hindus, Jews, etc. on how they feel about American Christianity being forced on them every which way they turn…

    Atheists, by nature, are not anti-Christian. We’re anti-government-sponsored-religion; anti-hate; anti-discriminatory; anti-close-mindedness; free-thinkers; believers in science and facts. How are any of these things wrong?

  • I didn’t realize Rick Warren was so slippery.  Or, perhaps, the word is “childish”.  After all, a child is someone who has not yet learned to take responsibility for his or her words and actions.

  • Well done, Hemant.

  • To be fair, there is a consistency issue in taking Flynn to task for one instance of upbraiding a powerful member of the executive branch for offering prayer instead of real help, but applauding him for doing the same thing when a less-powerful official in the same branch of government does the same thing.

    I realize there’s a difference of timing, and I know that people are feeling a greater emotional impact from the theater shooting than most (other than farmers) are feeling from the drought. But at the root, the problem is the same.  Flynn is being consistent.  And people like Miller see that, and from their point of view, the fact that we vacillate and only support Flynn when it’s politically easy to do so makes their point for them: we are being petty, otherwise we’d have the courage of our convictions.

    The problem is actually very similar to the one in the last post:  they force you to nitpick the little things, the way Flynn did, because if you don’t draw attention to the little things when they’re little, then later on they fall back on the argument that you never spoke up before.  In their minds and their arguments, your choice to criticize the Secretary of Agriculture for declaring that he’s praying for rain (or the Governor of Texas for organizing statewide pray-ins for rain, like he did last year?) is rendered illegitimate because it’s tradition, and no one has complained before.  

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I would love to see Miller point out the qualifications for when an atheist complaint is warranted and when it’s not.

    If you personally pray for rain in the privacy of your own home: no lawsuit.
    If you use your position as a government official to organize a public rain prayer rally, and especially if you use public money to fund that rally: lawsuit.

  • Well-said, Hemant. One contention, though, on your statement, “It’s not like Christians groups are fighting these cases. Why would they? They’re the beneficiaries.”

    There are some of us Christians who are. And not just individuals. Look at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (

  • This IS a petty and stupid thing for us to be criticizing.  I couldn’t find much in the way of context for what Vilsack said, so I’ll just respond to Flynn’s points based on what you have here:

    1.)  Where exactly did Vilsack say the “best response” is to pray for rain?  Oh, right…it doesn’t seem that he did.  “I’m praying for rain every night” does not translate into an endorsement of abandoning all other approaches, or even a suggestion that everyone else should join him.

    2.)  This is just stupid.  Government officials don’t give up their rights to free exercise and speech when they assume office.  As long as they’re not basing policy on faith or coercing people, legally it’s pretty much fine for them to discuss their personal faith in public.  It’s definitely a fine line to walk, but it doesn’t seem to me like Vilsack has crossed over into illegal endorsement with this statement.

    3.)  Duh.  But again…I seriously doubt the Secretary is basing any of the Department’s actions on what he’s doing before bed every night.

    Also, I’m very disappointed in the way you framed this piece, Hemant.  Nowhere in her article does Ms. Miller mention anything resembling the Pledge, crosses in city logos, or school prayer.  The way you wrote this, it is most definitely petty.

  •  THANK you.

  • You’re right. Qualifier added. Thanks!

  • Here’s the thing: Lisa Miller isn’t just wrong, she’s ignorant. Most religious writers are ignorant. Most religious people are ignorant. It simply goes with the territory. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Stupid is as stupid does. So why worry? Personally, I don’t care what ignorant people think of me- especially those with no interest in reducing their ignorance.

    The right thing for us to do is just what we’re doing. Challenge everything. Don’t let any infraction of state/church separation slip by, no matter how small. Continue to be vocal when any public policy is derived from religious thinking, even when it’s legal. Continue to point out inanities when we see them. Because activism works. Our message is getting out there, for the first time ever. It’s sinking in- which is why we see more open attacks on atheism in the media. The religious are running scared. So we keep pushing. We let the ignorant spew their silliness, and call them on it. In the long run, it will be seen for what it is.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Prayer as a solution to real-world problems is akin to sacrificing virgins to the sky god to ensure a bountiful harvest.

  • RobMcCune

    All she is doing is repeating the christian narrative that atheists are trying to ban people from expressing their religion in public because “we’re offended”. A large part of this hinges them playing word games with the word public, which they use to mean “in front of others”, but in context (public officials, public land, public funds, etc.) means official actions by the government. Changing the meaning to the former is one of the many ways they strawman atheists.

    This is just another example of theists making crap up when they argue.

  • Blacksheep

    maybe not by nature, but with all due respect, spend some time on this site and you’ll see pretty clear evidence that many, many atheists are indeed anti-Christian. Some of them can barely contain their hatred. 

  • Ray

    “I get on my knees every day,” he said, “and I’m saying an extra prayer
    right now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance, I would do it.”

    He clearly forgot to handle the proper serpents. 

  • rlrose328

    I had a discussion with my Very Catholic Mother about who is pushing their beliefs on whom last month.  I made the comment that Christians are pushing their beliefs on everyone whenever they can.  She asked, “What about nonbelievers?”  I said, “What are THEY pushing?” 

    She said, “Non belief,” and sat there with a very satisfied smile.

    Keep in mind she sits in front of Fox News 24/7.  It’s on even while she sleeps in front of the TV.  (Okay, she also watches home improvement shows and crime procedurals, but 90% of the time, Fox News is on.)

    I told her that the overwhelming majority of atheists are not interested in making other people nonbelievers.  We just want believers to stop trying to pass laws based on their beliefs that the rest of the country, regardless of belief, have to follow.  That is probably our #1 goal.  I also want them to stop trying to push nonscience into science classes and stop discriminating based on their ancient text.

    Needless to say, it was a heated discussion that left both of us upset.  We normally try to avoid this type of discussion but with a 3-week visit, it’s inevitable.

  • k.w

    You seem to be confusing disagreement and wanting governments to respect the constitution with hatred.

  • 3lemenope

    I don’t think ignorance really tells the story. It’s certainly not as though she’s ignorant of the legal situation or the arguments of atheists on the subject. To me it looks and smells much more like Miller just being unaccustomed to her (undoubtedly mostly unconscious) privilege being challenged. She’s happy with the status quo, and upset with those who would change it, because it just so happens (what a coincidence!) that the status quo supports her intuitions of what is proper. 

    From the point of view of a privileged section of a population, the complaints of the unprivileged are always going to sound piffling and petty, because the privileged  (without explicit effort) generally do not experience or even notice the types of problems that plague those people who weren’t fortunate enough to have society designed for their benefit. When a society automatically assumes you hold a certain belief, or speak a certain language, or have particular cultural experiences, you never really ever have to worry about being excluded.

  • Mike

    I agree. Lisa Miller comments about how it is petty to attack Tom Vilsack’s expression of his personal (dumb) religious beliefs. Hemant responds with, “oh, so we’re not supposed to fight against [list of blatant gov’t endorsements of religion]?”

    To put it plainly, there is a huge difference between “personal expression of religiosity by a politician”  [what Lisa Miller is talking about] and “government endorsement of religion” [what Hemant is talking about].

  • It’s true that some people speak against atheism and atheists out of a lack of intellectual honesty.

    All I can say is that I have no respect for what an ignorant person says, and I have no respect for what a dishonest person says.

  • Blacksheep

    You seem to be ignoring the post that I’m responding to. The reponse boxes decrease in size as the conversation continues.

  • JohnK

    The constitution is not static. When enough people in our country feel that change is needed, we add an amendment. That’s how civil rights, women’s rights, etc. became law. We can’t always just blindly “Follow the bloody document…” which, by the way, is what every neo conservative recites.

  • 3lemenope

    But I don’t think it’s ignorance or dishonestly. Not really. I think it really is driven by these peoples’ genuinely felt perplexity about us caring about stuff that to them seems picayune. Their perspective is informed by their position–Christians in a profoundly Christian-majority nation–which insulates them from understanding what it is like to be marginalized in this manner. They just don’t get it

    If that is ignorance, it is not a factual sort, but rather a peculiar sort of existential ignorance, an inability to experience the world the way someone in a profoundly different situation experiences it. Empathy failure, I guess.

  • If you personally pray for rain in the privacy of your own home: no lawsuit.

    Absolutely. But if a government official admits to praying at all, I’m going to take the position they are demonstrating a behavior that is inappropriate in our leaders, and encourage people to chalk up a negative point against them. Just because it isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t stupid, and therefore something worthwhile for us to complain about.

  • Religion has crept into the state one inch at a time.  If you complain “you’re petty” if you don’t, those inches turn into feet, and the feet into yards, suddenly science textbooks are getting “edited” into creationism. We have to fight every ‘inch’.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Yeah, I am anti-Christian. I spent a couple years in therapy after how I was raised. My grandparents disowned me after I refused to be sold off to the husband they had chosen for me. And for coming out of the closet. 

    Christians are out there daily saying people like me should die. They actively campaign for me to be denied basic rights. They attempt to implement their beliefs as law.

    But we’re hating on them for trying to stop this?

  • You can’t generalize about atheists with any accuracy. But certainly, many are anti-Christianity. I certainly am. What’s wrong with that?

  • Kodie

     In what way can it be explained to them any clearer? I get what you’re saying, but it’s easy to say they’re ignorant because they’re actively avoiding understanding. Simple explanations and demonstrations abound. Metaphors, comparisons, and very patient people laying it out step by step in front of them. People have drawn diagrams, cartoons, and what is there not getting through? How does their perspective or framework exempt them from the accusations of ignorance? Or dishonesty.

  • Kodie

    These are the same people who believe natural disasters are created by an angered god. When these disasters strike areas like, say, New Orleans, they’d come right out and say because it’s a sinful place, even if some sinners survived and some non-sinners died. But when it happens in the Bible Belt, where floods, droughts, and tornadoes are common, they’re afflicted with prayer to spare them, and I notice they never credit an angered god, not out loud; they’re victims of some other sin as a warning to others, not a punishment directed at them for theirs. 

    I do think it’s strange how some religious people will, in an emergency, be willing to try anything. If prayer isn’t answered, perhaps a dance. Indiscriminately worshipping whichever god might end the drought, doesn’t have to be the big guy.

  • Kodie

    I think it’s called ‘working the defense’. 

  • 3lemenope

    I don’t think it exempts them from their general obligations as human beings to try to see things from someone else’s point of view. It’s not an excuse. I just think that describing it as ignorance or intellectual dishonesty is inaccurate and leads to misdiagnosing the underlying problem. 

    I think in the US in particular the problem is compounded in that the people generally perpetuating it are themselves privileged not just when it comes to religion, but in many other ways as well; often white, often male, almost always heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class-to-wealthy, English-speaking as a first language.  Privilege is one of those things that, unless you yourself has experienced its sustained absence, is nearly impossible to grok. So, while I get that we have talked about Christian privilege till we’re blue in the face, with very small words and easily comprehended diagrams, it is not going to mean much in a way that would make such a person understand what it is like to live as an atheist in a Christian-dominated nation. It’s also the reason why Christians in the US often unironically attempt to claim oppression; never having actually experienced oppression for the most part themselves, they are entirely lacking in a sense of scale that would be able to distinguish a simple breach of long-held privilege from actual oppression.

    Like I said at the top, it is still their duty as human beings to try. But it is hard (not, like, Nintendo hard, but still) as it requires a person to go way outside their comfort zone and put in a lot of sincere effort. So I understand why it doesn’t happen all that often. I do believe that this disconnect (about privilege) causes more misunderstandings and frustrations than willful ignorance and sloppy thinking combined.

  • Keulan

    Tom Vilsack was my state’s governor for eight years. I like him, but he said something really silly there. Prayer doesn’t work. We have studies that demonstrate that it doesn’t work. Like this one:

  • Savoy47

    Going after these small infractions is equivalent to the way New
    York went after crime using the broken windows


    Under the broken windows theory, an ordered and
    clean environment – one which is maintained – sends the signal that the area is
    monitored and that criminal behavior will not be tolerated. Conversely, a
    disordered environment – one which is not maintained (broken windows, graffiti,
    excessive litter) – sends the signal that the area is not monitored and that
    one can engage in criminal behavior with little risk of detection.

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