December 6, 2013

Around this time last year, atheist David Silverman turned in a memorable appearance on Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor.” The topic, of course, was the imaginary War on Christmas, and this particular staged battle, O’Reilly dubbed Christianity a “philosophy.” Silverman, president of American Atheists Inc., insisted that the government not grant special treatment to one religion by recognizing Christmas as a national holiday; O’Reilly called Silverman and his ilk a “merry band of fascists.” On it went.

Blogs everywhere, including this one, loved it.

A rematch could be in the works. Silverman today told the Erik Wemple Blog that O’Reilly’s people have reached out with the intent of scheduling a segment for the 2013 non-War on Christmas series. That would be a good thing for American Atheists.

“I will say that we get scores of donations on the day or two following an appearance on Bill O’Reilly or ‘Hannity,’” says Silverman, who says he has turned in about 25 Fox News appearances over the years. And since the segments tend to get passed around throughout the year, says Silverman, “they’re the gift that keeps on giving.” Following an O’Reilly appearance, says Silverman, his association receives “hundreds of e-mails,” most of them negative but some “very positive.”

Fundraising considerations aside, Silverman articulates broader reasons why it’s important for him to sit in front of the Fox News audience. “I think it’s important for atheists to watch Fox News,” he says. A lot of Fox News? “Not too much,” jokes Silverman. “Just get your fill and go watch real news. But to be aware, we have to see that side.”

According to Silverman, a good 20-25 percent of atheists are also conservative/libertarian in their politics, so when he goes on Fox News, he’s speaking to a considerable chunk of his target audience. “I don’t think Bill O’Reilly understands how many atheists are watching,” says Silverman. As for all those liberal atheists out there, Silverman says that watching O’Reilly’s show can serve to get them “energized.”

Silverman says he can’t pinpoint how much money his organization derives from War-on-Christmas-related appearances on Fox News, in large part because donations spike at the end of the year in any case.

American Atheists Inc. didn’t make O’Reilly’s list of all-star Christmas warriors, which he named on Monday night’s broadcast: “On the national front, there are three primary culprits seeking to diminish Christmas, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association. The most aggressive is the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which routinely threatens to sue small towns and school districts if they dare utter the word “Christmas” or allow choirs to sing carols in public schools.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), was delighted with those rankings. “We were very flattered,” says Gaylor, who penned a blog post rebutting O’Reilly’s version of events. The Bill O’Reilly War-on-Christmas Edition 2008, says Gaylor, was a particularly merry time. That year, O’Reilly shed light on FRFF’s campaign to get a sign celebrating the winter solstice in the Legislative Building in Olympia, Wash. “That was a big spike in membership,” recalls Gaylor. “Bill O’Reilly did us a favor that year.”

That said, Gaylor refuses to fundraise off of O’Reilly’s hatchetings: “We’re not as good at the religious right at fundraising on phony issues…,” she says. “No, we did not send out a fundraiser asking for money because Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like us.”

One group that didn’t grace O’Reilly’s top three this week is the Council for Secular Humanism, a group that promotes “nonreligious lifestance rooted in science, naturalistic philosophy, and humanist ethics and to serve and support adherents of that lifestance.” O’Reilly would have a field day with that description.

Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Integrity Inquiry, a group associated with the Council for Secular Humanism, says, “We’d like nothing more than to be personally called out” by O’Reilly. “Badge of honor.”

Let’s see here: Good TV for Fox News, donations and attention for atheist and humanist groups — all the makings of a media-industrial complex.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.