Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Some concerns about "Atheist TV"

Immediate honesty: I've got a number of projects going on right now and have not had the time to properly investigate this "Atheist TV" thing, produced by American Atheists, that is supposed to start today. I will try to make my commentary general, then, and am asking not to be blasted in the comments for a lack of due diligence before saying something--I already know. I'm just voicing some concerns about the general concept.

More honesty: I don't enjoy watching television and haven't done so in any meaningful way in over a decade, so I will not be watching "Atheist TV" even as a "homework" assignment. I have no inclination to watch television, part of this being wrapped up in my concerns about Atheist TV. (And I know this puts me significantly out of touch with the TV-watching public.)

That said, let me point out that I have a few concerns about "Atheist TV," which starts broadcasting today, ostensibly with the goal of increasing visibility of atheists and their ideas while providing entertaining and informative programming for this growing demographic of people. Providing funding for American Atheists seems reasonable to guess is a goal of the channel as well, which if correct is a significant source of its own obvious concerns.

Religious TV

The first and most obvious one is about a worry that it will be done horribly, horribly wrong. I write this, to make an analogy, in full mind of my experiences growing up (late teens and early twenties) watching TBN/CBN (Trinity/Christian Broadcasting Network--the channel 700 Club (recognizable as Pat Robertson) comes on). I don't know how much that channel did to undermine my Christian beliefs, but it certainly made me realize how wingnut and awful Christian beliefs can be, and that right alongside the fact that it can be broadcast in a sense that constitutes a highly effective money-raking and propaganda machine. In short, I was horrified by that channel.

Given our ages, my brother and I would watch TBN, sometimes for hours at a stretch, in rather the same way that someone not indoctrinated to it might watch FOX News now. (I'd compare this to watching horror films, but that's not right because it is much more apparent that those films are fictional and don't usually make someone angry.) In fact, my brother and I would play "TBN Olympics," which involved watching TBN together until one of us lost it and started yelling at the television. Whoever yelled first lost and had to do some trivial favor for the other. The yelling, incidentally, almost always sprung up for us during the creationism shows that I think existed to fund the establishment of the Creation Museum Theme Park in Kentucky. The parallel to this will be discussed below and truly terrifies me.

At any rate, at its worst, Atheism TV could effectively be religious TV for the non-religious, with all the attendant problems. One of those is that instead of serving the goal of making atheists more visible and approachable to religious people, it could make us look like a cloistered bunch of something... (angry, science-promoting, religion-trashing, argumentative snobs, to lay out my biggest fear).

Echo Chamber

Another concern is that a television station dedicated purely to atheisty content--whatever that is--will set up an echo-chamber effect whereby what appears most is that which is self-congratulatory to ourselves. It also makes an open door to pushing the various ideologies--yes, ideologies--that are becoming more and more readily identifiable with brand "Atheism," which should not even be a brand.

This could be my ignorance, not really knowing the mission of the television station or how it will manifest, but I find it hard to imagine what would go on "Atheism TV" other than this kind of programming, which will mostly be interesting only to those who are already atheists (and considered like Heathen Broadcasting Network to those who aren't). The oft-repeated analogy that "atheism is a religion like 'off' is a television channel" springs to mind immediately and rather horrifyingly because Atheist TV is the opposite of off.

This raises the point about the audience, which is also a concern. Humans are very ideological beasts, and we're very keen on finding that which confirms what we already think. The natural audience for Atheist TV is exactly people looking for that kind of confirmation, something that careful and reflective people should be on guard for, not welcoming.

Guilt by Association

However well it is done, there are certain members of the community at large (meaning everyone, not the peculiar and misguided idea going by the horrible monicker "the atheist community") who absolutely see atheism as a religion and an ideology. This television channel will encourage that error, absolutely and undoubtedly, no matter how often or perfectly anyone, including the people on it, denies it. This, by the way, alone would distinguish Atheism TV from something aimed more broadly as secular and/or educational television in a way that I think can only be thought of as problematic.

Particularly, what this will lead to, almost completely reliably, is that whatever kind of programming ends up on Atheist TV will be seen as a part of the "atheist ideology," one that not only competes with, say, Christianity, but that is anathema to it. This runs a serious risk, particularly in the vein of science programming (which people seem to hope runs on Atheist TV), of widening and deepening the gorge between people of faith and their acceptance science. If they see science even more plainly as being associated with atheism, which they already associate with evil, that's not a win for Atheist TV or for humanity.

A plain and simple unintended consequence of promoting science under the banner of atheism is that it will make those who distrust atheists (both as people and as a "religion") distrust science even more than they already do. This is the parallel to my youthful rage at creationism television shows being on TBN. Imagine young Christians watching actual science programming on Atheist TV and raging at it, as a game even. I don't know if it will happen, but the potential is there for this to be part of the fallout of Atheist TV.

I don't know how this needle can be threaded, if it can be at all. This one is pretty substantial, and it extends beyond just science denialism among the conservative factions of evangelical Christianity (and the rest of it where it threatens belief directly). It extends into the political as well, particularly since we have many outspoken atheists (some of whom will be all-but-certain regular faces on the channel) who are overtly identifiable with liberalism (or worse, progressive leftism, which often gets mistaken for liberalism). This runs a serious risk of creating a greater political rift in the United States between the conservative religious and everyone else and will fuel--not harm--their fundraising campaigns while providing them with ample fodder for candidates to whip up a heady froth in their base.

(Of note, not all atheists are anything like enlightened in their political views, though they often think otherwise. As atheism utterly lacks any substance of its own--it is a position marked only be disbelief in one kind of thing--the gap is always, always filled with other actual things, science, "reason," politics, and whatever else. It's inextricable from pushing atheism as a thing because atheism is not a thing.)

Star power 

Star power is already a huge problem within "the atheism movement," one serious enough to make us all pause to reconsider if having an organized "atheism movement" is a good idea at all (I think it is not). It's also a problem that shouldn't exist, in the ideal, but must because we're still humans and still use reputation as a major source of social valuation. Star power translates directly into jockeying for fame and position, which is awesome for encouraging pettiness, among other more serious social problems.

I find it hard to talk about this without being potentially unfair and harsh to particular individuals, though, so I will not say more about it.

Television and Greed in General

I have a friend that works in television for one of the "educational" channels that frequently gets mocked now for being nothing like educational. Whatever the intentions of Atheist TV, it will be competing for attention with everything else out there. Since programming costs money, this competition can get both pretty fierce and, in the financial sense, necessary at some point or on some level, and that's where my friend's perspective really comes out to play.

My friend once explained to me the priorities in television programming decisions, among other things, while asking me questions for a show they were planning to make (and did make, as it turns out) because I happened to be quite knowledgeable about the particular topic that he was assigned to "do research" upon for the show (scare quotes to imply the usual plus a reason to be scared, truth be told). To summarize his point, "sexy" is the only word that matters, taking that to be construed broadly--beautiful locations, beautiful people, exotic, boundary-pushing, risky, and so on. Other things of seemingly relevant value like quality, accuracy, and truthfulness were, on his radar, almost immaterial when it came to what goes on television. They are, in the television business, he explained, selling images.

This leads us to see (combined also with what will constitute a swath of "star power"--beautiful, edgy, flippant, over-the-top, figureheaded, etc.) that if Atheist TV ends up (by greed or necessity) going the way of much of television, we can expect something not too far from a caricature of "atheism," as if it is a thing, though the caricature definitely will be, being publicly passed off and broadcast for what actually represents people who don't believe in any gods. This is another narrow ledge for Atheist TV to tread, and whatever they think, they don't have Gandalf pulling any strings for them in the quest.

Could Be Done

I don't say this all in gloom and doom. It could be done. It could work. It might be only of enough interest to attract people who are seeking exactly this kind of material on the Internet anyway, in which case it is hardly different from what's already going on except that it's put into a single stream with some program direction behind it. My mom tells me that one of my peculiar talents is in finding lots of possible ways things could go wrong and then over-thinking them, after all, so I may be speaking far too soon.

I'm saying, to be clear, though, that I have some pretty serious concerns with the concept of "Atheist TV" in general, and I personally cannot imagine any way for them to thread the needle and walk the tightrope in front of them without falling into the chasm of unintended consequences.

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