James A. Haught: Mainstream silence about freethinkers

James A. Haught

By James A. Haught

The modern freethought movement is gigantic. Numerous skeptic organizations, magazines, websites, books, online blogs, student secular chapters, videos, podcasts and other voices spread the message that supernatural religion is absurd. But America has a strange contradiction: Mainstream magazines, newspapers, television shows, radio programs and other general media rarely allow a direct challenge to supernatural faith.

I think it’s because they’re mostly for-profit commercial businesses dependent on advertising and/or subscribers. They have multitudes of religious customers who would stop paying or listening if insulted, causing severe audience and ad revenue loss. Print media is an especially endangered species these days, barely clinging to life. Hazards must be avoided like the plague.

As a longtime newspaper editor in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, I have known the dilemma firsthand. Years ago, a column syndication agent visited our newsroom. I told him I’d like to write a national atheist column. He choked on his coffee. I knew my proposal was impossible. No newspaper would print such a column. We couldn’t even print it in my own paper. We would lose thousands of subscribers, maybe sink into bankruptcy.

Since for-profit mainstream outlets are forced into silence, our nonprofit freethought movement lives mostly within its own realm, greatly aided by the wide-open internet. We have freedom to speak in our own domain, but aren’t fully welcome outside it.

However, religion is dying in the United States. American churches have lost 20 percent of their members in the past two decades. About one-fourth of adults now say their religion is “none” — and for young adults, it’s one-third. Eventually, I hope, “Nones” will become the largest category.

In other words, we skeptics are winning the cultural struggle. Scientific-minded honesty is prevailing. Maybe this snowballing trend will eventually force mainstream media to open their doors.

As for now, commercial media outlets don’t dare assert that religion is hokum. But our freethought community can. We don’t depend on religious subscribers or advertisers. We can proceed full steam ahead to proclaim rational truths without risking losses. We are free to act — driven by convictions, not by the profit motive — and thus the “free” in freethought has multiple meanings.

A great social transformation is occurring in America. Supernaturalism is withering away. The Secular Age is blossoming. Our freethought movement is delivering the message because for-profit media cannot.

FFRF Member James A. Haught was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. This column is adapted from a piece originally published on July 22, 2019, at Daylight Atheism/Patheos.