The news is old, but the message is not: Don’t make assumptions about people you don’t know. On May 21, 2013, CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer was in Moore, Oklahoma reporting on the damage that resulted from the previous day’s devastating tornado. As Blitzer was interviewing survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, whose home was completely destroyed, he asked her an interesting question.
The now-famous exchange went as follows:
Blitzer: “We're happy you're here. You guys did a great job... You've gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?”
Vitsmun: “I'm actually an atheist.”
Blizter: “You are. All right. But you made the right call.”
Vitsmun: “We are here, and I don't blame anyone for thanking the Lord.”
This moment, in all of its awkward glory, was pretty momentous for me and many other atheists in the United States, and it should serve as a call for people around the country to start to thinking before we speak.
As I watched this exchange for the first time, I could only laugh and shake my head. Growing up and living in the Midwest, I have encountered these assumptions a million times. People just automatically assume that I am Christian. Why? I’m not exactly sure. I don’t wear anything that symbolizes Christianity—no cross jewelry or tattoos— there is no “Jesus fish” on the back of my car, or any bumper stickers that would lead you to assume I am a Christian. I certainly don’t talk about God or Jesus or salvation when I meet people. But nonetheless, the assumption tends to be that I am Christian. Granted, I live in the Midwest, which is mostly Christian. But it’s not only Christian, and Omaha, in particular, is very religiously and spiritually diverse. Yet I have been asked countless times by strangers, “What church do you go to?” It seems to be as natural of a question to them as, “Where do you work?” or (a very “Omaha” question), “Which high school did you go to?”
For years, when people asked me which church I go to, my answer was simply, “None.” That sufficiently answered the question for most people and generally steered the conversation in another direction. For a long time, I wasn’t necessarily comfortable identifying myself (particularly to strangers) as an atheist. Since becoming involved in interfaith work, however, that has changed and now I, much like Rebecca Vitsmun, just go ahead and tell people that I am an atheist. Most people accept that I do not believe in God and we move on to another topic together (except in work-related situations where the conversation inevitably turns to how and why I got involved in interfaith work). Every now and then I run into someone who has a problem with atheists, and sometimes I even get someone who tries to redefine my own identity for me: “You’re really more of a non-theist than an atheist.” (What does that even mean?) But the reaction I usually get is similar to that of Wolf Blitzer’s—essentially an, “Oh, okay,” and moving on.
I loved this awkward TV news moment because it spoke to something much deeper than just Wolf Blitzer assuming this woman was a Christian. It speaks to every time someone unknowingly wishes a stranger “Merry Christmas,” or asks them what they are doing for Easter without the possibility even entering their mind that this person might be of a different faith or belief system. It speaks to every time an event for the public is organized and the food is ordered without any regard for the dietary restrictions of many religions. It speaks to us, in general, making assumptions about people that we don’t even know—people we haven’t met, or people we just met. I loved how Rebecca Vitsum handled this situation, and I commend her bravery in identifying on national TV with a belief system that many people still hold serious prejudice against.
Like Vitsmun, I don’t blame anyone for thanking the Lord. But I would appreciate it if they don’t automatically assume that I do as well.