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On Target

by Conrad F. Goeringer
Nov. 29, 2005


"Everyone is willing to speak
evil of a stranger."
-- Aeschylus, "The Suppliants"

"If anyone tells you something strange
about the world, something you have never heard before, do not laugh
but listen attentively: make him repeat it, make
him explain it; no doubt there is something there worth taking hold
-- George Duhamel, "The Heart's Domain"

OK, it's "trash TV," another dose of low-brow "reality programming" for prime time; and more than a few might argue that if you wanted to present Atheism to the American public, the ABC hit show "Wife Swap" was not the appropriate vehicle.

On Monday night, however, millions of Americans may have learned a few things about Atheism and finally seen "real Atheists" in an evocative if somewhat heavily- scripted situation. The network finally aired the much-awaited "Wife Swap" installment featuring an Atheist family (Reginald and Amber Finley of Georgia) and their youngsters opposite the God-fearing Stonerocks of Flint, Michigan. Keeping to the format of the hit program, the wives traded residences and took over each other's respective families.

How did it go?

Surprisingly well... Monday's program fulfilled a prediction made back on March 8, 2020 in AANEWS that suggested this television event could be, for Atheists, "a positive reading on the cultural barometer, a sign of the times and a good one at that."

That is no small task considering that these over-hyped "reality" shows are the distilled residue of dozens of hours of video footage combined with Procrustean editing, sleazy formulated "ambushes" and promptings from directors busy catering to audience share ratings. Dave Silverman, Communications Director for American Atheists and a veteran media watchdog has suggested that programs like "Wife Swap" use "Frankensplicing" -- literally taking words from different sentence -- to create novel, contrived and more shocking narratives. "They also misinform and manipulate contestants to make them temporarily angry or emotional, and splice those bits at will."

The description of the "Wife Swap" program said it all: "An outdoors-loving mom whose pastor husband speaks to God 100 times a day swaps places with an outdoors-hating, computer-obsessed wife of an atheist disc jockey."

Through it all, however, Ms. Finley was gracious, composed, authentic and poised as she weathered the challenge of tolerating the preachy antics of Pastor Stonerock, who impulsively seized every opportunity to proselytize to the camera as well as his children and the infidel mom living under his roof. Mr. Finley came off as stressed, a bit sensitive, but a committed and informed Atheist. What was remarkable about the Finleys is that their family problems appeared so, well, mainstream. Reginald Finley was presented as a man who labors at his computer 60-80 hours a week to keep the web site on line. He may well be a "workaholic," but there is certainly nothing unusual or downright un-American here.

The Finley-Stonerock episode does not strike the tone of a Sunday morning public affairs program or a debate on creationism at the Ford Hall Forum; but for tens of millions of American television aficionados -- those people who faithfully watch NASCAR, wrestling and re-runs of Clint Eastwood films -- this was likely their first exposure to Atheism and, more importantly, Atheists.
The nation is in the midst of pandemic overwork and long hours on the job, with many people racking up 60 or more hours each week just to make ends meet. This may not be all bad, and in the case of Mr. Finley -- and indeed others who work in the "cause" and non-profit advocacy field -- it clearly contributes to a higher good.

Amber Finley is supposedly addicted to computer gaming, and rarely ventures into the family's spacious but relatively unused back yard. This may or may not be true, it may be exaggerated or even contrived to spice up the shock-value of the program. Look at the "average" American family, however, and you are likely to uncover something equally unusual or downright strange. The Finleys could allow the youngsters to roam free at all hours of the day or night. And their habits paled in contrast with the authoritarian behavior of Pastor Stonerock who washes his kids' mouths out with soap if they curse, disrespect or engage in other un-Biblical behaviors, and immerses them in a quasi-totalistic religious environment. The good preacher appears as a concerned, loving, but perhaps overly-controlling parent who under the rubric of "protecting" his children from pernicious influences deprives them of a balanced, scientific education and contact with peers.

An interesting sub-text of this program involved gender. Both Amber Finley and Ms. Stonerock appeared more focused on the welfare of the children than their respective husbands. Mr. Finley is like many breadwinners, though, putting in long hours and balancing that Herculean task with the stresses of family crises. Pastor Stonerock seemed determine to drag his religious beliefs into every conceivable situation and encounter even with his youngsters. Ever the Atheist, Ms. Finley exposed her newly-adopted television kids to a scientific presentation of how life and the universe came to be, a healthy and much-needed antidote to the home-schooling, creationist nonsense pushed by the religious family.

Ms. Stonerock seemed to genuinely care about improving the daily circumstances of the Finley youngsters -- getting them out and about and relieving the relentless cycle of daily "chores" in the Finley home, although these improvements were undermined by her inability to compartmentalize and moderate her effusive religious zeal. She was no match for Reginald Finley during their all-too-brief exchanges on religion and Atheism, and the Infidel Guy artfully conveyed thoughts and emotions about what it is like to be a victim of discrimination simply because you do not believe in a deity. Ms. Stonerock's statements, especially during her tenure as substitute on "The Infidel Guy" were rote, automatic and shallow. Reginald Finley was more forceful and a tad defensive, but displayed more reasoning and insight with his responses.

Another sub textual message in Monday's "Wife Swap" involved race. The Finleys are black, which is a departure from the stereotypical racial demographic we find at most Atheist, freethought, Humanist or other non-believer gatherings. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (2001), "Blacks are least likely to describe themselves as secular..." Indeed, of the approximately 30 million Americans who consider themselves to be of "no religion," 73% are white, and only 8% black. There are myriad reasons for this, including the fact that much of the modern civil rights movement was nurtured in one of the few sanctuaries black people enjoyed, particularly in the Jim Crow South -- churches. Unfortunately today, elements of the black church movement are signing on to the religious right agenda rendering the tasks of black nonbelievers more urgent and daunting.

Neither Reginald nor Amber Finley touched on this point, at least in the video that aired. The Finleys undoubtedly have experienced not only the discrimination and opprobrium of being Atheists, but of being African-American as well. It is a credit to them that they have survived this type of ostracism, and indeed Mr. Finley is the intellectual successor to a long line of black Atheist scholars and activists like John G. Jackson, Hubert H. Harrison, J.A. Rogers, Richard B. Moore and A. Philip Randolph. (See: "The Black Atheists of the Harlem Renaissance, 1917-1928" by John G. Jackson ). Harrison was a journalist, speaker and scholar of astonishing erudition who wrote extensively, and promoted the classic works of freethought such as Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason and Andrew Dickson White's seminal "Warfare of Science sand Theology." What the Atheists of the "Harlem Renaissance" faced in their era, though, were the formidable obstacles of institutionalized racism and clericalism. Those barriers linger today, especially for the Finleys.

We may ask if the phenomena of real live Atheists being on a show like "Wife Swap" indicates that, finally, nonbelievers are breaking into the cultural mainstream. The verdict is mixed here.

Representatives of Atheist and other nonbelievers groups are enjoying success by appearing on programs like C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," Nightline," and even the sideshow-tabloid style offerings of the FoxNews network. Ellen Johnson, for instance, will be the guest next month of interview maven Barbara Walters during a program on "heaven" and the afterlife. The Finley-Stonerock episode does not strike the tone of a Sunday morning public affairs program or a debate on creationism at the Ford Hall Forum; but for tens of millions of American television aficionados -- those people who faithfully watch NASCAR, wrestling and re-runs of Clint Eastwood films -- this was likely their first exposure to Atheism and, more importantly, Atheists. Reginald and Amber Finley were "real," they were flawed, they displayed many of the same difficulties in copying with everyday life as the viewers. Mr. Finley, eloquent as he is on philosophical topics, is as bamboozled as the rest of us when it comes to finding leisure time, or navigating those bewildering assembly instructions that accompany "do it yourself" backyard toys for the kids. He displayed emotional stress -- don't we all at some time or another? He and Amber and his youngsters come off, to this great and often over-looked audience of "average Americans," as just another family.

Isn't that at least part of the message we have been trying to convey for years?

Atheists don't have horns, we are often the folks next door with the same types of difficulties, goals, sensitivities, jobs, family problems and joys as everyone else. It's just that, well, we don't believe in a deity, and we are liberated intellectually from the constricting ties of religion. We have to reason ourselves to a humane, person-centered ethical standard. When it comes to conveying that message to the pop-culture America, this episode of "Wife Swap" succeeded. The Finley family managed to do what no Great Debate or weighty philosophical tome can do -- they put a distinct and largely pleasant "human face" on Atheism. Bravo!


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.