The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 9, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Can We Change the Way We Talk to Each Other?

There has been pretty much only one news story in the last 24-hour cycle—the shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, along with 19 others, at a Congress on Your Corner event at a Safeway in northern Tucson.  I was in my car, listening to the news summary before Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, when I first heard the story.  I felt stricken.  Was this some type of coordinated political assassination, or the rage of a lone looney?  Thankfully, it appears more likely to be the latter.  (

Was I paranoid to entertain the former as a possibility?  I don’t think so.  We have seen an escalation of violence-tinged rhetoric, unusually unruly public meetings with Congressional representatives (think, out-of-control health care reform town halls), and vandalism of Democratic Congressmembers’ offices, including Ms. Giffords’.  In our prevailing political climate, a fear of organized violence on the basis of political belief is not unreasonable. That what happened does not appear to be a coordinated political attack is a welcome relief. 

Like many others, when I heard of Ms. Giffords’ shooting, I immediately thought of Sarah Palin’s map of crosshairs targeting Congressional candidates.  It turns out that Giffords was indeed a target on Palin’s map.  But presently there is no evidence that this map, or any other specific recent on-the-edge-of-advocating-violence expression, influenced the shooter. 

In response to the linking of the right’s heated rhetoric with the attack, the Tea Party Nation has stepped out front and characterized the shooter as a “leftist lunatic.”  (  The right’s incipient effort to pin the shooting on “leftist” thinking could be seen on FoxNews yesterday when Shepard Smith pointed out the “ irony” in Giffords having this last week read on the House floor the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom and the shooter’s apparent hostility to belief in God, purportedly demonstrated by his anger at having received a Bible from a military recruiter and his refusal to “trust in God,” as expressed in his near-incomprehensible internet rants.

For its attack on the left, the Tea Party Nation leadership is blaming the “liberal” Pima County Sheriff, who asked that this tragic shooting cause Americans to do some “soul searching” about “the vitriolic rhetoric we hear day in and day out.” (  He went on to discuss two other specific “vitriolic” incidents that had occurred against Giffords.  He decried the impact “vitriol” about “tearing down the government” has on “unbalanced minds” and said, “the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”  The Sheriff did not name names and did not single out any particular party or affiliation for criticism.  When asked if Representative Giffords had received death threats, the Sheriff said he did not know a public official who had not.

The state of our public discourse is indeed sad.  It is often rude, insulting, and even threatening.  We don’t know whether its deteriorated state had anything to do with Giffords’ shooting.  But it is ironic that calls for civility are treated as an antagonism.

I hope that Gabrielle Giffords survives and recovers some semblance of normal functioning, and I hope that we can change the way we talk to each other about the things we disagree on.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson



  1. How can there ever be a civil discourse when the people whom we are supposed to look up to are the ones out there spewing vitriol?

    Comment by renxkyoko — January 9, 2011 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

    • There is no question that prominent public figures spew vitriol. There is a question whether they would do it if there wasn’t such a large and lucrative market for vitriol. You only have to look at the comments on some mildly provocative internet post to see the contempt with which regular people address each other. I don’t think the vitriol-for-profit industry is a case of manufactured demand, but more a case of supply to meet a pent-up demand. As individuals, I think the place to start is to keep our own houses in order, to be careful of how we think of and talk to those we disagree with, to refuse to engage in the toxic exchanges rife in our society.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 10, 2011 @ 8:43 am | Reply

  2. […] Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Can We Change the Way We Talk to Each Other? ( […]

    Pingback by Leftists Attack Parents Of Murdered 9-Year-Old | Illusion of Power — January 25, 2011 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

    • My policy is to publish all legitimate and relevant comments (pretty much everything but spam and bare obscenity). My publication of a comment does not equal approval of its content. I have no knowledge of the appearance of the 9-year-old Christina’s parents on TV nor of the complained of responding blog. My own research into the facts suggests that the characterization of the shooter as a “liberal” or “leftist” is false. Also, the author of this link accuses the left of being “vultures.” So, the language of the link does not actually join in the attempt to change the way we talk to each other, in my opinion. But here is the link and you can judge for yourself.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 26, 2011 @ 8:17 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: