by Eoin O’Mahony
After the nightmarish tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma earlier this month, CNN did the usual “what effect does it have on the real people on the ground” news mop-up which worked so well for Anderson Cooper in Ohio. They sent Wolf Blitzer, a presenter from this side of the Atlantic who is seemingly bound to the studio, to talk with people whose property was destroyed by the tornado. The interview has spawned quite a lot of secondary media content over the last few days including a call of “set up” from Glenn Beck.
What interests me in this short clip is that Blitzer does the best job he can with the material he has and tries to round up the interview with “well, we are happy you’re here, you guys did a great job” and then gets two final questions in:
“I guess you got to thank the Lord right? Do you thank the Lord, for that split second decision?”
Rebecca, the woman interviewed, holds her son in her arms and squirms a little, hesitatingly replying that “actually I’m an atheist.” Blitzer is awkward in his response to this announcement:
“Well you made the right call” (referring to her decision to seek shelter with her son in the tub).
Blitzer’s initial question is significant because he assumes that people who have gone through such a terrible thing would be sending prayers to the Lord. Because he’s, like, in Oklahoma, right? Okie gonna pray to the Lord, right? Blitzer’s insistence that she must be thanking the Lord tells me about a postcolonial religious narrative within the United States where the geographies of Mason-Dixon continue to reverberate. It also points to the representation of specific groups of people affected by crisis. A follow up Slate article by MJ Stern criticised the interview by Blitzer because it was condescending (it is) but also an argument that Stern plucks straight out of the new atheism playbook:
If you believe your god could ensure that Briarwood (though not Plaza Towers) would have a relatively tornado-safe design, shouldn’t you also believe that your god had the power to make tornadoes skip over schools?
Nevermind that FEMA’s budget gets cut in this sequester or that the federal government will not be able to assist Rebecca and her community as much as a few years back. Or you can ignore that extreme weather events like this might be caused by continuing escalation in human-caused carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. Your god (sky-fairy, FSM, whatevs) couldn’t help you so why should we? goes the argument. Our self-referential atheism is far more important than your social security. As Justin Tse remarked in an interaction I had with him on Facebook:
[The Stern article is] saying: you God people are stupid. You’re the reason FEMA couldn’t get its act together after Katrina. You’re the reason why Congress stalled on Sandy. And now we’re going to make an example of Wolf to make sure you can’t do stupid things with Oklahoma.
And thus we see further evidence of the alliance between new atheism and a neoliberal politics and a certain weaponisation of atheism which erodes a solidarity so badly needed in times of crisis.
* This post originally appeared on the authors blog, which can be found here.
“Your god (sky-fairy, FSM, whatevs) couldn’t help you so why should we? goes the argument.”
I’m sorry, but I just don’t see that argument being made. Stern goes on to say, “Politicians should work on fully funding the National Weather Service, NOAA, and FEMA instead [of praying].” That seems to me to be the more conventional message found in New Atheism.
Perhaps you can give a clearer example of the “alliance between new atheism and a neoliberal politics” that relates to disaster relief? I’m just not finding it in Stern or Justin Tse’s intemperate comment.