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Godless Transmissions: Atheist TV Hits the Airwaves
The skeptical channel's ideological commitments won't appeal to conservative atheists.


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Atheist TV, the skeptical rejoinder to hundreds of religion-themed television stations, went on air Tuesday at 7 p.m.

The first-ever TV channel devoted to unbelievers is the brainchild of David Silverman, president of American Atheists. The support of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, the Atheist Community of Austin, and other atheist organizations and volunteers helped make it a reality.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, Atheist TV is an idea whose time has come,” Silverman said, addressing a crowd of about 40 fervent non-believers who were assembled in the seventeenth floor of Manhattan Penthouse to celebrate the channel’s launch. “It is a movement-wide tool to promote our breadth, our positions and of course our existence. Atheist TV will help the movement and help America.”

The channel is available to 7 million viewers via Roku. The company sells set-top boxes to provide access to online programming. (Those who don’t have a Roku player can still watch Atheist TV live online.) The programming includes the show Atheist Viewpoint, which American Atheists have been producing for years and distributing through mailed tapes and DVDs.

Atheist TV does not have original programming, but Liz Bronstein, the producer of hit shows Joe Millionaire and Whale Wars, hopes to change that. Upon hearing about Atheist TV in April, Bronstein, an atheist, called Silverman and was quickly brought on board.

Bronstein tells National Review Online that she was unable to provide specific programming ideas until she has a better idea about budget constraints — Atheist TV is entirely dependent on donations — but hopes to develop a wide range of programs which would be “funny, irreverent, loud, and unexpected.”

“My mandate is that first and foremost it must be entertaining,” she said, later adding that her productions advance social goals as well. “Ultimately, I’d like to rebrand the word ‘atheism’ because it has some really bad connotations for no reason,” she said.

Dave Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, said he hopes religious people will watch Atheist TV but that the channel primarily targets atheists. Viewers who are reserved about their non-belief are encouraged to be more active and outspoken about atheism.

 “There are people who are simply non-believers, they just don’t have a belief in God and it’s not really a part of their [lives],” Muscato tells National Review Online. “Then there are people who are part of what we call the atheist community . . . and part of what we are doing with this is making that community available to the wider range of people who simply don’t believe, and helping them understand that there is a community they can belong to if they want to.”

The trouble is, the members of what Muscato calls “the atheist community” are often not merely atheists who are more involved. Many of them see their atheism as a part of a bigger ideological package. In the atheist community, religion is seen as invariably pernicious, and Charles Darwin is elevated to the status of secular saint. The words “reason” and “science” are used as interchangeable synonyms.

Materialism, the philosophical view that the world science unveils to us is the sum total of what exists, is essentially taken as a given. The American Atheists web page not only endorses materialism, but takes it to mean “that our potential for good and more fulfilling cultural development is, for all practical purposes, unlimited.”

The symbol of American Atheists, which was founded in 1963 by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, is a capital letter ‘A’ with electrons swirling around it. One of the orbital loops is left open in what we are told is a statement of epistemic humility:

You may notice that one of the orbitals in our symbol is broken, or open-ended. This demonstrates that while Atheists rely on the scientific method for learning about the cosmos and increasing our knowledge about nature, we know that not all of the answers are in. We recognize that with new knowledge come new questions and areas for human inquiry and exploration.

This is an interesting kind of modesty. The single open loop shows only that a few details of a settled-upon materialist philosophy remain to be filled in — by science, no doubt — not that there is any fundamental skepticism or openness to re-evaluating the commitment to materialism. In a similar vein, the promotional clip for the launch of Atheist TV admonishes prospective viewers to “take part in the righteous fight for our reasonable future.” This is enough to make a Jacobin blush on Bastille Day.

As Charles Cooke has pointed out, conservatism is compatible with atheism. It is not, however, compatible with unlimited optimism about human reason, especially when it comes to using that reason to remake society. Skepticism about rationality in this domain is at the heart of Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. It is also central to conservatives’ rejection of economic planning in the twentieth century.

Atheist TV is supposed to bring together skeptics of many different stripes. It cannot achieve this objective if it is tethered to such specific — and immodest — ideological commitments.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado and a National Review intern. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.



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