I Went to the Debut of the World's First Atheist TV Channel
A group called American Atheists is bankrolling a fledgling streaming TV channel called Atheist TV, which intends to cater to what they refer to as the fastest-growing religious group in America. The only problem is, they don't even know what to...
You probably watch a lot of TV and say to yourself, "Hey, there are way too many references to God, too many supernatural occurrences, and far too many people hunting ghosts in my entertainment!" You are perturbed that everywhere you turn, someone is telling you there are aliens at Area 51, that a lady in Long Island can speak to the dead, and that a woman can have eight kids without her vagina ripping apart forever. You love bow ties and/or cell phone belt holsters as much as these guys.
The antidote for what ails you is here. Are you ready for a TV network whose programmers think you have so few critical thinking skills that you can't separate fact from fiction?
You're in luck, because Atheist TV launched this week, claiming to be the first-ever channel by and for atheists. In a world where cable channels exist solely for people who love Oprah, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, why not a channel just for people who love hearing the sound of their own voice?
American Atheists, one of the more organized atheist groups in the country, is backing Atheist TV and threw a party in New York City to usher in their venture. I arrived at the event in the Manhattan Penthouse on Fifth Avenue, and instead of the throng of eager God-haters I expected, I was greeted by a sleepy group of aging intellectuals casually sipping wine and staring intently at a TV showing the Roku home screen. Roku, the streaming device that's become so popular with cable TV-cord-cutters, is touted as the best way to access their online streaming service on an actual television.
I'm sure there are a lot of viewers who love Workaholics who will be captivated by the archives of the Richard Dawkins Institute, which is essentially all there is to watch on Atheist TV.
Tricia Mifsud, a spokesperson for Roku clarified for me that American Atheists and Roku have no special business relationship, despite how prominent Roku's name was in all my conversations with the channel's top brass. "Anyone can have a channel," she told me via email. "We usually only partner on channels that are truly mainstream like a traditional TV network."
"We are an open platform for streaming to the TV and have a wide appeal to content creators. For some content creators Roku is the only way to reach audiences on TV. For this reason many churches and religions have channels on Roku."
A countdown clock kept us abreast of how long it would be until the blessed event. For reasons I am still not quite clear on, their logo kept making me think of RedTube, an internet association that they may not want to make. From the smattering of crowd that had formed, I caught someone boldly declare that "having a theology degree is a disadvantage." One thing you can guarantee about atheists is that they are always on brand.
Liz Bronstein, who initially told me she was Atheist TV's President, was a producer on the Discovery Channel series, Whale Wars. I was excited to find out what cutting edge programming she had on the docket for this new channel. "You’re going to have to watch and find out," she sputtered out after a moment to ponder my hard-hitting question.
"A third of millennials are non-religious. So I think people who are looking toward the future of entertainment and the future of television are seeing Atheist TV and seeing that it can really be a player, because we are filling a niche that no one else has." As some one who is pretty non-religious, I wasn't sure what niche isn't currently being filled. Everyone I spoke to parroted the same line, that mainstream entertainment is not catering to people who don't believe in God and think critically.
It made sense that Bronstein wasn't really sure what her programming plan was, as she came up to me after the event had ended to tell me that she had yet to actually sign her contract with Atheist TV. Maybe after the first broadcast was over, she devloped second thoughts about programming a 24-hour, non-ad supported internet livestream that functions solely on donations. Her dreams of a lavish expense account and a chance to meet celebrity atheists like Ricky Gervais were fading with every second.
As Bronstein pushed forward with her vague answers, a woman squeezed into our conversation, nodding at appropriate times and frowning on cue when Bronstein said something about god-fearing theists. "Most people don’t know that they want something until you give it to them. I don’t think that Americans are sitting at home going, ‘I wish there was Atheist TV on,'" Bronstein said. The woman blurted out, "They don't know what they need!" Thankfully, we have Atheist TV to tell us what we need. During that part of the evening, all I needed was a drink.
I was shuttled by Atheist TV's PR people to speak to the head of American Atheists, David Silverman—a man with the kind of unfettered confidence that only comes from true believers, used car salesmen, Pick-Up Artists, politicians, and reality TV stars.
In contrast to Liz Bronstein, his talking points spilled from his mouth like a beer that's been punctured with a knife by an overeager frat boy. His rhetoric was almost exclusively about what they were going to do, rather than what they'd done to make the service viable at launch, which no one in the room seemed to give a damn about.
He was really taken with the idea of a "Veggie Tales for atheists, where you can learn life’s lessons and be a good person but without relying on an invisible man in the sky, or teaching your kids something that’s anti-skeptical." He didn't seem to see the irony of teaching a child to be a skeptic, while leading a group that dedicates itself to telling the world what to think.
Sadly, I did not have time to pitch my idea for a Saturday morning cartoon where a graying man in a tweed jacket helps 9-year-olds unpack the meaning of Plato's Euthyphro, while periodically interrupting the lessons to thwart the evil schemes of Ken Ham. The show will be called "Professor Sparklepatch." I'm hoping to get a soft commitment from Ricky Gervais to do the voice. It's going to be great.
Once Silverman commenced hocking expensive destination conferences and soliciting donations to keep the channel afloat, I started to feel an odd kinship with him. It was like being back at my synagogue, listening to the president of my congregation histrionically begging for people to give them money every Jewish New Year. A particularly handsy attendee saw on my business card that my last name was "Schilling," and asked if I was Jewish. According to her, 90 percent of members in the New York City Atheists club are Jewish. I can neither confirm nor deny her assertion about the club, but the general tone of the event was very semitic.
At the point where Silverman began displaying literature and flyers as though they were holy text, it took on a more clearly religious tone. Atheists always purport to not believe in doctrine, but adherence and loyalty to their cause is paramount. I was asked on more than one occasion if I was a "theist," which would be like saying you're Japanese at a convention of American World War II veterans. It might not cause them to hate crime you, but they'll definitely think twice about sharing a cab with you on the way home.
"The History Channel treats the Bible like history. How can we trust what the History Channel says if they tell us that Jesus walked on water? the Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they are real. How can we believe that Mythbusters is telling the truth, if we have alien abductions coming up next," he asked. OK, interesting point, but can we trust Atheist TV? Only one way to find out: consume their cutting edge content!
The visibly impatient, frothy throng commenced their audible countdown in the middle of Silverman's remarks. At last, the moment had arrived. Entertainment would never be the same after this. Befitting my skeptical, clear-minded surroundings, the heavens did not part and angels did not appear blaring their trumpets. Instead, we were once again blessed to see the beatific visage and slicked back hair of David Silverman. His message to the viewers—likely, most of them were in the room at the time—wasn't much different than his previous remarks.
With the pride of a single man who just made a grilled cheese sandwich without setting off the fire alarm in his studio apartment, Silverman watched himself delivering these historic words: "If we want to talk about the fact that religion harms people, we can and we will. If we want to show Mohammed on the screen, we will."
The broadcast quickly flashed an image of a depiction of Mohammad, and the crowd roared its approval at the illicit drawing, comforted by the fact that no one would declare a fatwah against them, or try to behead their family in a public square as long as they were safely in the penthouse on 5th Avenue.
"This is a place where we can be as honest as we want, without worrying about offending religious sensibilities," he continued. "Soon, we will launch original programming geared toward entertaining the expanding and flourishing atheist audience." Truly, a comforting notion that I could get behind. This isn't just for the hardcores. This is for everyone!
And then, they showed video of a woman burning what appeared to be pages from the Bible or other religious text. The woman was American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was murdered by a convicted felon who was previously in her employ. I can't think of a more alienating, transgressive choice for an entertainment venture that vehemently declares mainstream aspirations. I suppose they could have had Ricky Gervais punch an altar boy repeatedly in the balls, but maybe they didn't have the budget for that.
After the book burning portion of the evening's festivities ended, the stream broke down, freezing on the above text card. At least it wasn't an embarrassing screenshot of David Silverman making a constipated face or something. At least nothing awkward happened. The crowd begged Silverman and his team of broadcasting experts to fix the stream, to continue the program, and to solidify their commitment to this bold venture.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. The stream kicked back in, and the montage of Madalyn Murray O'Hair continued, except, as is often the case with unexplained, spiritual events, there was a catch.
There was no sound.
The congregation parted, and one brave soul bellowed, "We wanna hear it! Put the mic up to the TV!" Yes, put the mic up to the TV, indeed. If there's one thing you can expect from a group of rational thinking problem solvers pushing 70, it's the kind of low-tech, illogical troubleshooting tips that only dads think of. This is the equivalent of telling someone to blow on a Nintendo cartridge.
The dream of the atheist community is, in many ways, a noble one. I also yearn for a world where the human race can band together to use their shared intellect to overcome the numerous obstacles we collectively face. Nothing would make me happier than for science and reason to guide our cultural and political development. Reason is a wonderful thing. For American Atheists, and Atheist TV though, their dream also includes just as much intolerance, unwanted "guidance," and cult of personality as any religion I've ever seen.
That dream is being held together by a lonely laptop shoved into a corner behind a black sheet, and a broken internet connection. I'd tell them to pray, but what's the point?
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