Bias in Reporting about Atheism in the United States

Florida University

Bible Verse etched above the entrance to the new Heavener Hall (Source: College Fix)

I see reports like this frequently in the US media, and they annoy me intensely. The latest is called Pro-Atheism Group Harasses University Over Bible Verse etched on it’s ‘Heavener Hall’. It’s in a publication called College Fix, which describes itself as “Your Daily Dose of Right-Minded Campus News from Across the Nation” (their emphasis).

I probably shouldn’t have read the story, but I did, and there were too many irritations to fit into a tweet, and I had to let some of it out, so here goes.

To start with, I wondered who this “pro-atheist group” was. That question was answered in the first paragraph – they’re talking about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Most of you probably already know who they are, and dismissing them as some “pro-atheist group” gives you some idea of of the tenor of the article. The FFRF is an United States non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting and maintaining the constitutional principle of separation of church and state in that country.

Following a request by two student groups at the University of Florida, (Gator Freethought and Humanists on Campus), the FFRF wrote to the university’s president on 13 April requesting the Bible verse inscribed over the door of a new building on their campus be removed. They pointed out that to display religious material in such a way on a government building is illegal in America, and provided the legal precedents concerned. Apparently, in the eyes of College Fix, asking the university to follow the law is considered “harassment”.

The new building, Heavener Hall (named after a local businessman Bill Heavener), is a state of the art business school built, built in what College Fix called the “Collegiate-Gothic style at the Gainseville campus. The Bible verse displayed is:

He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

As the FFRF points out in their letter, this verse is a particularly ill-chosen one:

Setting aside the inscription’s illegality, its selection is in poor taste. Chapter 6 of Micah is a scathing indictment of the tribe of Israel. God declares that neither animal sacrifice nor human sacrifice will appease him, promises Israel to “make you ill and destroy you”, and swears to kill infants: “what you bring to birth I will give to the sword.” The very passage before the inscription, Micah 6:7, contemplates killing one’s own child to obtain absolution: “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The president of the university, Dr Kent Fuchs, is not responding as if it’s harassment, at least publicly. A spokesperson for the university told College Fix:

 … the University of Florida is committed to complying with the laws that apply to public institutions. We are carefully reviewing the letter received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable response. College Fix couldn’t leave it there though. This was another example of how atheists are all terrible people, so they had to attempt to show the FFRF was wrong and unreasonable. After making a few comments that the Supreme Court hasn’t always interpreted the law consistently but unable to come up with any precedents to counter those provided by the FFRF, they checked out the University of Florida campus newspaper the Alligator. The Alligator had a comment from a campus minister:

… that the verse is “something that’s motivational, inspirational, and it’s probably something that we hear every day and don’t realize it comes from the Bible”

Well, it sounds like the minister, Jarvis Henderson, didn’t even know what the verse was when he commented on it, and as FFRF pointed out, “motivational” and “inspirational” are not the first two words that come to mind when you’re reading about one of the Bible’s many episodes of genocide.

The FFRF states there have been more and more instances of people and groups trying to force Christianity and the Bible into American public life in recent years. They’re all illegal. But, it seems that in much of America, it is the group on the side of the law that is consistently demonized instead of the one committing the crime.

This is not just about atheists either. As the student groups who originally wrote to FFRF stated:

We, as students and staff of the University of Florida, feel that the quote promotes Judeo-Christian beliefs over all other beliefs on campus, and that this alienates members of the University of Florida community, such as ourselves, who do not hold the same beliefs and encourages discrimination against ourselves and other individuals of different faiths, creeds, and beliefs.

All students should be able to feel welcome at their university, whatever their background, but every time a student who does not accept what is written above the entrance to the new Business School, there’s a chance they will feel fundamentally excluded. That’s simply not on. To then attack the group that calls the university out on this, especially when what the university has done is illegal, is another example of the behaviour of those promoting America’s imaginary War on Christianity.


11 Responses to “Bias in Reporting about Atheism in the United States”

  1. Diane G. says:

    Love the way the FFRF called the context of the quotation to attention!

    Does no one vet these things? Speaking of which, there must be someone behind the Biblical inscription–Heavener himself, I suppose. And universities must bow to the sacredness of their deep-pockets alumni.

    • I love hoe FFRF put the quotation in context too – really pwnd them!

      There’s a bit in FFRF’s letter that refers to sponsor requirements:

      The fact that the building was funded by donations does not cure the constitutional violation.

      And goes on to cite a SCOTUS ruling for that stance too, so the university can quote that to the no doubt demanding-of-Biblical-reference sponsor. In short, they can’t get around it that way, if they want to try.

  2. Diane G. says:


  3. AU says:

    All students should be able to feel welcome at their university, whatever their background, but every time a student who does not accept what is written above the entrance to the new Business School, there’s a chance they will feel fundamentally excluded. That’s simply not on.

    I couldn’t give a sh*t if there was a verse from someone’s holy book over some door and I walked under it each day. There are way too many other things going on in the world for me to be worried about than something like this #FirstWorldProblems

    • I think similarly AU. It is definitely in the #FirstWorldProblems realm. If it was me, I wouldn’t like the verse, but it would make absolutely no difference to how I felt about myself or my education. There are some it would affect though. I feel like I should make an effort to see their point of view, even if I personally think they’re being a bit precious.

      Of course, the point is it’s illegal, so at the end of the day how anybody feels is irrelevant.

      • Diane G. says:

        I feel the same way as you and AU.

        Although there is the chance of it someday being used as a precedent for something more weighty–as the carving of Moses (along with other figures of different faiths) on the frieze of the Supreme Court Building is used to “prove” that the US was founded as a Christian nation..

  4. paxton marshall says:

    Heather, I have to quarrel with you on many points. First, the title suggests that the source you cite is representative of how atheism is reported in the US, but the single publication cited is hardly representative and largely unknown.

    Second, the Bible, like the holy books of other religions, are precious resources of human thought. Are you going to ban Homer or Shakespeare quotes from buildings? I’m as opposed to religious privilege as any atheist, but to try to exclude the Ten Commandments, for example, from courthouses, seems counterproductive and simply wrong.

    In spite of the unpleasant context, it would be hard to find better advice for business students (or to anyone) than “to act justly and to love mercy” Moreover, though the literal interpretation is theistic, the verse itself can take on a humanistic interpretation: “walk humbly with your god” is an implicit recognition that “your god” is unique to every individual. And that’s not bad advice either.

    In any case, as a raging leftie, I am totally opposed to the view of the college Fix, but as an atheist American, I hope you are not right that it is illegal to put a quotation from the Bible (or the Quran or…) in the public space. Wouldn’t that be a violation of free speech?

    Finally, to atheists everywhere, I suggest that to deny that much of the wisdom of the human experience is framed in religious imagery, is to deny the rationality you claim to embrace.

    • Hi Paxton. I’ve written about bias against atheists in the media before and I will again. I read stuff like this every day in the US media (no exaggeration) and most of it is actually far worse than this. If you’re going to condemn me because of the way you interpret a headline, go ahead, but that’s a bit unreasonable imo.

      I don’t condemn the Bible as a book, I condemn those who use it as their primary source of knowledge and morality. How you could get that I take any other stance from anything I have written here or before bemuses me.

      Acting justly and loving mercy is, of course, good advice. Walking “humbly with your god” is not precisely what it says, and is not good advice anyway. It capitalizes God, and provides the Biblical reference, thus is specifically referring to the Christian God. To say that the quote:

      … is an implicit recognition that “your god” is unique to every individual.

      is completely inaccurate. Besides, I find it both offensive and inaccurate that my particular set of ethics and morals should be referred to as my “god”. Being humble is good; prostrating yourself to any god is not imo.

      My statement that it is illegal in AMerica to to put a Biblical quote on a state building is accurate. You can check it by checking the precedents in the FFRF letter. It violates the US constitutional principle of separation of religion and the state.

      I don’t think we should deny the good things that are said in religious texts, and have said that before. Also, as an historian I recognize the great importance of having a knowledge of religion in understanding our history and culture.

      The point of this article is that the University of Florida has done something illegal, but it is the group that pointed it out that is being criticized instead of the one doing something illegal. This is typical in America when it is an atheist group doing the pointing out because of the animus towards atheists in your country. Usually it’s much worse than this. Check out this appalling article from earlier in the week for example:

  5. paxton marshall says:

    Hi Heather. I’m not condemning you, just disagreeing with you. I’m opposed to “In God we Trust” on our money and “under God” in our pledge, but regard these as minor issues compared with tax and other exemptions for religious groups. I’m ambivalent about Biblical inscriptions and images on public buildings, but we have plenty of them on existing public buildings, e.g. the supreme court building, so I don’t get bent out of shape about it.

    I get much more upset at Christian hatred of other religions, and demonization of their followers as less than fully human. This was certainly a big factor in western imperialism from the 16th through the 20th centuries, and a much bigger factor than is recognized in the west, in the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq. It’s very disheartening to see atheists joining with Christian zealots in this activity. Israel too proclaims itself a secular state, but it is largely religious zealots, proclaiming that God gave them all of Canaan, that is driving the settlement movement appropriating Palestinian land.

    As for bias in reporting about atheism in the US, you chose a right-wing evangelical rag as your example. There are plenty of atheists denouncing Christians in the US also. It’s called freedom of speech, of which you and I are both proponents.

    My country does many things wrong, for example: and Putting biblical passages on public buildings and bias against atheists are among the less pressing concerns of atheist Americans who are more concerned about acting justly and loving mercy than trying to eliminate ancient myths. I guess that makes me a Social Justice Warrior. It wasn’t my term, and it seems to be used as a term of opprobrium, but it seems apt, so I’ll adopt it.

    I’ve started to read the “appalling” article you linked on social Darwinism and will respond later. There is no doubt that social Darwinism was disastrous perversion of Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection, just as Christian religions have been disastrous perversions of the teachings of Jesus.

    Peace Heather. Thanks again for raising these issues and offering me and others a chance to discuss them with you. Argue yes, condemn not.

  6. paxton marshall says:

    Hi Heather, me again. I have just read the article on social Darwinism by Ellis Washington. While I agree that it is poorly done, and I am opposed to Washington’s points of view on evolution, atheism, and Darwin, I think it is incontrovertible that Darwin’s revelations were used to justify the horrors of racism, imperialism, eugenics and the Nazi racial theories. I don’t for a moment think that Darwin foresaw or would have approved of this misuse of his science. But when we atheists and evolutionists focus on the horrors done in the name of religion. it is only fair to recognize the horrors done in the name of evolution by natural selection. I find that our leading atheist evolutionists seldom if ever acknowledge this.

    I’m currently reading this account of a discussion on morality between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. I’d be interested in your take on it.

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