To the editors:

In response to the Reader’s recent [July 6] expose on Rob Sherman and his son Ricky, “Atheist & Son” I would like the opportunity to take the Reader to task on a few very important points concerning atheism in general and the Reader’s slant on this piece in particular: a slant which undoubtedly did more to create an amusing, colorful story than to responsibly inform its readership on atheism as a perspective and as a lifestyle choice. Especially given the rarity with which atheism is dealt in the public domain, one would have hoped you would have taken into account how impressionable your readers are likely to be on such a subject.

To begin with, the totality of cultural “history” and bias which the atheist viewpoint rejects outright as invalid and without basis is such that the average person may be ill-equipped to even take in what it means to be an atheist. Their notions about atheists and the sort of individuals they might be are based largely on distrust, ignorance, and a simple lack of information. As exhaustively as the gay community must still combat the most fundamental misconceptions of the average person on the street, that same person has probably accumulated ten to one hundred times as much valid information on homosexuality as she/he has about atheism.

It’s astonishing, for instance, how many people automatically assume that if you don’t believe in God, you must believe in the Devil. Their minds can’t even conceive of the notion that it’s possible to reject the entire mythical power structure of God & Satan/Heaven & Hell–not just the good half. Worse still are those who harbor this uneasy fear that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t have much of a sense of morality or ethics. Actually, given the way in which the Judeo-Christian tradition has relied for the entire length of its history on powerful metaphors of reward and punishment to enforce its own brand of morality (“If you’re good you’ll go to Heaven” / “If you’re bad you’ll go to Hell”), quite the opposite is true. An atheist who doesn’t lie or cheat or steal does so simply out of perceiving the validity of such behavior–not because he’s afraid of being punished or judged if he behaves differently.

Because of the many misconceptions people have of atheists, I found myself increasingly angered as I read through the Sherman piece, which seemed determined to lump Sherman in with, of all things, the fanatical, limelight-hogging televangelist set. The Reader’s portrayal of Sherman comes across as nothing so much as the Flip Side of Jimmy Bakker: a glib, media-mongering old hand who knows how to manipulate words and thoughts to further his cause. The photograph of Sherman as well is uncannily Bakkeresque–coincidence? Perhaps–but the Reader’s slant on the piece was unmistakably in the vein of the Religious Roadside Attraction, replete with verbal parlour tricks and ventriloquist dummy/son parroting the father’s words–albeit a bit timidly at times.

I knew I didn’t believe in God when I was five years old–though I certainly didn’t talk about it much, least of all with my parents. But for most people there’s something a bit chilling–a touch of evil–in the image of a six-year-old boy uttering the words “God is make-believe,” particularly if there’s enough uncertainty in his voice to suggest anything like an element of coercion being involved. Whether intentional or not, such a device seems calculated to play on the reader’s emotions, and to create sympathy for the boy and alienation toward the father. Ultimately, a lot of your readers probably came away with an image of a man who is something of a fanatic: a man who is at home with the limelight of the media and his own sensationalism–a man who unscrupulously uses his own child to “spread the gospel.” Is this an unfair assessment of Sherman? Quite possibly–I don’t know: I have no acquaintance with the man. But it is an accurate assessment of the Reader’s slant on the story, and the fact that such a slant made a more readable, a more sensational story than it might have been, is undeniable.

Your story not only did nothing to debunk the stereotypes already in place about atheists: it seemed to promote them. Some illuminating reporting could’ve come out of this piece. There could have been less focus on the showman trappings and Ricky’s parroting of his father, and more of the harder, tougher questions that fall to the good reporter when covering this kind of story: why someone chooses not to believe in God, how it influences one’s own values and actions. Questions about disaffection, about how one relates to believers, about the way one thinks about death–their own, or the death of a loved one.

Even if the Reader’s portrayal of Sherman is accurate (and I doubt it is), it’s vital for readers to know that in no way, shape or form is it representative of atheists in general, and that if atheism is to be understood at all in the coming years, it will have to be looked at in a far more reflective, sobering light from now on.

Patrick Andes

N. Mildred

Michael Glab replies:

I passed on responding to Sherman’s long-winded response [July 13] to my story. I figured I’d had my say, let him have his. His discomfort was understandable: most people don’t like seeing their own portraits under harsh light.

But it’s interesting that a guy who’s never met Sherman can be so certain that my portrayal of the man was inaccurate. Maybe Andes has some divine powers, but they don’t include the ability to read carefully. When recounting the God-is-make-believe anecdote, he overlooks the point of the whole story. When Sherman asked Ricky if he said those words just to please Daddy, Ricky said he didn’t know. “That’s right,” I quoted Sherman as saying. “He’s too young to know. He doesn’t have all the information yet.” That certainly is not an atheistic precept. It leaves room for doubt and alternatives–qualities more indicative of agnosticism. So if I were attempting to paint Sherman as a man who unscrupulously uses his son to spread the gospel of atheism, then I succeeded only in proving he’s doing a lousy job.

Speaking of the job he’s doing, if I were the head of American Atheists, Inc., and my guy in the Chicago area wasn’t a glib media monger who knows how to manipulate the press to further the cause, I’d fire him!

Finally, my less-than-flattering portrait of Sherman is no more an indictment of all atheists than a rip at John Cardinal O’Connor, the Ayatollah Khomeini, or Jesse Jackson would be of all Roman Catholics, Moslems, or African Americans. God only knows why you thought I was nailing atheists in general.