The religiosity of National Public Radio

One of our readers, Thomas, has a website called Airbag Moments, which seems to be devoted to cogent critical review of the U.S.’s National Public Radio (NPR). For years I’ve been harping about the organization’s pro-religious stance (see some of the posts at this search), and not just from unctuous Krista Tippett, either.

In his latest post, “Yes, public radio is pro-religion“, Thomas makes a good case for that thesis, citing not only entire shows on NPR that are religious and pro-religion (as far as I know. there are no atheist shows); but also announcers that have religous belief or are soft on faith (a surprisingly large number); individual shows that are blatantly pro-faith; “religion unfriendly” events that are ignored or downplayed by NPR; and public statements or tw**ts by NPR announcers that give tongue to faith. He also inquired about this issue (and their faith) to several NPR announcers, some of whom actually answered him.

I recommend reading the whole thing if you think NPR is evenhanded about faith. Here’s something that surprised me (quotes from Thomas’s post are indented):

Shockingly I just heard the contributor credits at the end of Science Friday and was horrified to learn that the Templeton Foundation is a sponsor. The missions of that very wealthy foundation include trying to prove various religious notions like the efficacy of prayer, and to promulgate the misguided assertion that science and faith are compatible. I have not detected much bias in this direction on Science Friday, but I am not a regular listener. I don’t know when this unfortunate relationship began.

On the “objectivity” of NPR when it comes to reporting about religion:

Journalists are routinely required to disclose conflicts of interest and even recuse themselves from stories or even their jobs. Michelle Norris, for example, left her position as host of All Things Considered when her husband took a position with Obama’s reelection campaign. Yet religion gets something of a pass in this regard. It is routine for reporters not to discuss their personal beliefs and practices even when they are reporting on religion. This is an obvious double-standard. How can a Catholic reporter, who seriously believes in transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Ex-Cathedra utterances of the Pope, etc., possibly be objective when covering Catholicism if the assumption is that Norris can’t be objective about Obama because her husband works for the campaign? I mean I sort of get it about Norris, although I credit her with having a totally independent brain from that of her husband and personally think she needn’t have stepped down, but a person’s religion is a deep part of their personal identity – not just something their spouse does.

You may think this is a non-issue, but unless we keep calling attention to this kind of stuff, America will slide deeper into superstition. This station is, after all, funded in part by the American taxpayer, and thus should be secular in tone.

Here’s one religious show on NPR:

Interfaith Voices. Their treacly, obsequious-to-religion slogan on Twitter is “Approaching the world’s religions with an open, humble mind.” Hosted by a Catholic Nun. (I always find it ironic to approach religion with a “humble mind” given the unfathomable arrogance so many religious folks have involving their evidence-free certainties about reality and personal relationship to the infinite almighty.)

Do they have atheists and agnostics regularly on that show? If not, than this is non an even-handed treatment of religion.

And here’s an example of the ludicrous religious dissonance of someone who many of us probably listen to regularly, Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition:

UPDATE 4/30/29

Scott Simon went into some detail about his personal theology in an interview on today’s show:

NEVINS: Do you know where you’re going? I don’t believe in heaven or hell. So…
SIMON: No. I know what I tell myself, but do I know that for sure?
NEVINS: What do you tell – what do you say?
SIMON: Oh, I – you know, I believe in a heaven and I’ll be reunited…
NEVINS: You think that?
SIMON: I’ll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I’ve ever had and loved. And I’ll be up there waiting for my wife and children. Is that for real? Of course not. But that’s what I tell myself to get through the day.

Thomas added in an email to me:

I’m familiar with this sort of double-think from intelligent people, though I have never subscribed to the idiotic banality “genius is holding two opposing ideas in your head at once.

What kind of person tells themselves stuff they don’t think is “real” so they can “get through the day”?

NPR’s creeping religiosity not only surprises me, as always happens when smart or eloquent people profess faith in superstition, but also bothers me. Perhaps you have to be an atheist to notice this kind of airwave pollution, but I object to it.

Scott Simon. Will he see Fluffy in Heaven?


  1. Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Michelle Martin is another Christian ideologue/apologist on NPR that reacted with hostility and incredulity against Sam Harris’ in this interview about Letter to a Christian Nation:

    • sensorrhea
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Hi folks. Airbagmoments is my blog and I will happily add any other examples of explicit religiosity or confessions of faith by NPR staff you can provide. I update the post Jerry references as often as possible.

      My topic is generally limited to public media (not just NPR but also PRI, APM, & sometimes PBS) because they are taxpayer funded and because, in spite of their flaws (which I spend too much of my time enumerating) and until the Trump campaign, they were/are some of the best news organizations remaining in America.

      This is because, unlike the rest, their mission is still essentially to prioritize news over ratings/ad dollars. (This is of course, complicated by implicitly not angering large donors, some of whom are Koch brothers.)

      • ploubere
        Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Thanks for compiling that information, Thomas. I still think that on the whole NPR is a decent news organization and I contribute to it, but this aspect troubles me.
        My sense is that management is worried about losing listeners and funding, so they try to avoid offending the religious and the conservatives. Perhaps not a good strategy, if they end up losing the progressives.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know Michelle Martin’s religious views, but I didn’t see her interview of Sam Harris as particularly ideological. Maybe devil’s advocate. She posed challenges to Sam’s positions on many issues which led to a stimulating discussion. She brought out the best in Sam. After listening to the interview I couldn’t say Martin was being an apologist and not just a challenging interviewer. It wouldn’t matter if she was a fundamentalist as long as it doesn’t show.

  2. alexandra Moffat
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I have written NPR and VPR in the past about its unequal treatment of religion and a-religion, its neglect of secular, atheist concerns. And will continue. For all the good it does….never any admission that its POV needs balance and that its tax payer support demands neutral discussion.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I lived in Vermont until recently and was amazed by this considering Vermont constantly vies for least religious state in the country.

  3. GBJames
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:15 am | Permalink


  4. Tom Czarny
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    A few years ago around the Christmas holidays I was working on my snowblower in the garage and couldn’t get to the radio to change stations when “Interfaith Voices” came on. A segment of the program was reviewing new holiday music when Maureen Fiedler, the unctuous host smarmily quipped “I wonder what atheists listen to during the holidays.” Predictably, my email to the website informing them that Handel, Michael Praetorius, Bach and Jon Fahey, et al., were just fine with us went unanswered.

  5. Kevin
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Rainbow cuteness and dew on spring grass. If heaven’s on the radio…it’s got to be true.

    Demographics of NPR? Maybe 60+; mostly liberal Protestants. They want, no, they need, reassurance life is bigger than life.

    • eric
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I always considered it to have a rural, Midwest/heartland kind of focus. Which would at least partially explain all the religious focus – the audience may be more religious than the overall population.

      Of course, my view is probably skewed, as I only listened to whatever shows my dad would put on the radio when we were doing yard work or something similar.

  6. Ken Phelps
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    ” Is that for real? Of course not. But that’s what I tell myself to get through the day.”

    Could there be a more succinct definition of intellectual dishonesty? When knowingly lying to yourself actually helps, you have a problem.

    • Michiel van Haren
      Posted May 2, 2017 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      Indeed, and if you need to tell this to yourself to deal with loss and to just “get through the day”, you’d probably do best to talk to a psychiatrist.

  7. Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    “Yes, public radio is pro-religion“,

    But evidently its not religious enough because the Republicans still want to completely cut funding for it because of its “liberal agenda”

    • eric
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Bashing atheism is a necessary but not sufficient intolerance for modern conservativism.

    • Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I think public radio is more pro keeping-its-funding than it is pro-religion.

      • Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        I agree. But it seems they’ve sold their soul for nothing.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted May 1, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Ha ha! That’s just what they’ve done.

      • Posted May 1, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Or pro-what-it-thinks-most-of-its-listeners-want.

        (Doesn’t justify the behavior, though, just perhaps explain it.)

    • Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      My working hypothesis is that NPR has become pro-religious specifically as an attempt to get the Republicans to maybe not cut off funding. But I have seen no hint that it has changed the Republican view, which is hard-wired to think that NPR liberal and therefore biased and therefore… gone.

    • enl
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      On the limited data based on those people I know, most of whom are conservative republican– despite being in the accursed ‘liberal’ mecca of the northeast, we have had a horrible, nasty, spiteful conservative governor and one of the highest densities of hard line conservatives in the country– the hatred for NPR is in large part due to the ‘liberal bias’, which I also see, but do think is very large compared to the conservative bias of much commercial media, but also because they aren’t christian enough, and certainly not in the right way. That the religion related content is not expressly critical of non-christians, and expressly supportive of conservative protestantism is also a big part of the offense.

      I tend to collect this data without any intervention on my part, as I generally have the radio on to the local NPR station, which is the best music station that can be received in my area.

  8. Christopher
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Disappointed but not surprised. NPR has also drank greedily from the befouled fountain of identity politics Kool-Aid. I can’t stomach listening to it for any length of time anymore. I rely on the BBC for news, though they too have a less than stellar record on religion and have taken of few droughts of stupid juice themselves.

    • Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

      During the 2008 Democratic primaries, NPR was so blatantly, uniformly, and shamelessly pro-obama, it was a yellow journalism travesty.

  9. Historian
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Simon admits that his conception of heaven is not real; it is a coping mechanism to get through the day. A certain percentage of people (I do not know the number) find the daily grind of life painful to bear. Simon uses a theological concept to provide him with psychological relief even if it means suspending reality and he is fully aware of doing so. Other people attempt to find relief through the manifestation of various neuroses. I don’t blame Simon for his coping mechanism as long as he does not attempt to impose it on others. The danger of religion is not personal belief. It is a danger when the religious unite in an organized movement in an attempt to foist its fantasies on the public at large.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      While organized fantasy is worse than personal fantasy, the former is built on the latter. It is a short step from private belief in gods to what we both agree is worse. But that’s no excuse, IMO, for willful make-believe. Private faith justifies and excuses public faith, time and again.

      • Kevin
        Posted May 1, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        Very important point.

        The paradox of organized faith is that personal faith is stronger. Organized faith is always going to have disagreement, inevitably between members of the same faith (same church, sharing the same pew!).

      • darrelle
        Posted May 1, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Agree completely. It is impossible for private belief to not have some impact on the rest of society. Perhaps tiny, but in aggregate and or under the right (wrong?) circumstances it can have a significant negative impact.

        And yes, we all are imperfect but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize the imperfections we can identify.

    • Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree. Human foibles. It is odd though to take comfort in something you know to be false, although I can’t swear I haven’t. Almost time for breakfast–I had better get those six impossible things out of the way.

    • Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      If he’s able to ‘believe’ things he knows aren’t true why does limit himself with heaven? Why not just believe that neither himself nor any of his family members will ever die? Then theres no need for heaven.
      It works very well actually. Right now I’m not worried about my looming bills because of the $85 million I have in the bank.

      • Kevin
        Posted May 1, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        I’ve got a pair of underwear that gets me a whole planet. 😊

    • Bruce Gorton
      Posted May 2, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      If his life is so dreadful he has to tell himself lies in order to get through it, then maybe he should see about improving his life.

      I mean rather than lying to himself in order to better cope with the horrors of his daily grind, wouldn’t it make sense to find a daily grind that is less horrible?

      That is the primary problem I have with religion, it makes people endure shit, rather than solving it.

  10. Posted May 1, 2017 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I find it odd that there are so many posts here that attack left wingers for being so “inclusive” that they end up excluding folks and/or demand a certain way of thinking/acting and yet, this post is vilifying NPR hosts for daring to be religious in America.

    I’m not sure which world you want to live in. Do we tell people what they can or cannot think or is everyone free to do their own thing? There is no such thing as true objectivity, but from what I’ve heard on NPR, they do a damn good job remaining as objective as they can.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      “they do a damn good job remaining as objective as they can”

      Except, as we see here, when it comes to matters of faith, or more specifically, the absence there-of. Why is it OK for public broadcasting to be pushing religion?

    • darrelle
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      You have misinterpreted the OP. I recommend re-reading the article.

    • eric
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Do we tell people what they can or cannot think or is everyone free to do their own thing?

      The government is not free to do its own thing; the constitution restricts the government from establishing a religion or even establishing religion above nonreligion. To the extent that NPR is a government “agency,” they cannot endorse religion.

      However, Wikipedia tells me that the era in which NPR was substantively funded by either the federal or state governments ended in the ’80s; as of 2012 only something like 10% of its funding came from public monies. So perhaps we are being too harsh on them; while the “P” in NPR should ostensibly require no endorsement, it appears that “P” is something of a misnomer at this point.

      I would say, though, that legal doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Whether it’s legal for the station to wholeheartedly endorse religion, it still, in my opinion, makes for shoddier programming than having a range of shows. (“Present a range of opinions” is not always the wise or quality choice, but IMO in this case it is).

    • Posted May 2, 2017 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      I find it odd that you don’t understand that a publicly funded radio station is pushing religion and not nontheism, in violation of the First Amendment And as for objectivity, the post documents that they are NOT “as objective as they can be”.

      You seem to have missed the point of this entire website.

      • Posted May 2, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        I disagree with this (cc help me) For NPR, which is partially funded by the gov’t to do news,human interest stories and even opinion pieces on religion is not quite the same thing as promoting relgion. Its certainly not the same as teaching it in a public school. Especially if they have an atheist on occassionally. Is Ira Flatow still on?

        As for Simon, I think his comment was about as obvious a back-handed endorsement of atheism as you can make. But its more than an endorsement. Its almost like he was trying to sympathise with believers as a first step to get them to give up their beliefs.

  11. J.Baldwin
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I think Simon’s statement reveals something more fundamental to the human brain; it has an evolved predisposition favoring the instrumental over the true. This makes sense evolutionarily because if believing an untruth is “good enough” to lead to adaptive outcomes, it’ll be favored by natural selection. Of course the instrumental value of a belief often may coincide with truth, but in those circumstances where what’s needed is a good enough belief, I think our brains are wired to use it and move on. Absolute truth in all things is a luxury natural selection would have not paid the price to acquire. As a cultural value it should indeed be pursued, recognizing it’s a hard (wired) problem to overcome.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely. I call the “good enough” untruths and implicit assumptions “packing material,” and the human brain is limited enough in the totality of its perception that there will always be some.

  12. KD33
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Pretty harsh on Scott Simon, I think. “Is that for real? Of course not.” But then you throw Fluffy at him. I’m with you in that I don’t have any such dual-belief tendencies, but I guess I have more tolerance for those trying to accommodate both a rational viewpoint with a lifelong exposure to their family religion. To bring them along will require a more gentle persuasion.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Some of us prefer the more direct approach preferring honesty to “tolerance”.

      (I’m not sure “tolerance” is a good synonym for “pretending a white lie isn’t a lie”.)

    • Posted May 2, 2017 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      I’d glad to see that you’re proud to be more tolerant than the rest of us.

  13. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m from the UK so probably I’m making a fundamental error here but isn’t NPR a state funded radio station? If so, isn’t it unconstitutional for it to be promoting religion (separation of church/state)?

    • eric
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      It used to be. Now it’s mostly funded through donations, licensing fees, and (somewhat non-standard) advertising.

      Even the public money it does get now is, if Wikipedia is right, via winning competitive grants offered by other agencies – there is no direct, line-item funding by Congress for NPR.

      So it’s complicated. Maybe the name NPR is no longer appropriate. But it does certainly give the impression of a government radio station endorsing religion.

      • Posted May 2, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        I’ve never really listened to NPR, but as a kid growing up in Montreal we got *two* PBS stations (even before my parents got cable). I was encouraged to watch these and the CBC, and not commercial filled ABC, CTV, etc. Eventually I noticed that PBS *did* have commercials: they just were at the beginning of a show, not during it. Curiously enough, the CBC-localized Sesame Street also had no internal commercials – it was a while before I noticed that this was unique amongst their programming.

        • Posted May 2, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          Actually, no, not unique – the kids stuff generally, now that I remember better. “Mr. Dressup” also was ad free.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    NPR could do better by noting that at least observing that some religions promote violence ,bigotry, sexism etc. and that there is a problem (and has been damage done) with any type of aggressive missionary work.

    They seem to like peace-loving religions (and religions which don’t make easily disconfirmable truth claims) like Buddhism, Sufi-ism, Quakerism, and Baha’i.
    This to me is all well and good, but heck there are actual white supremacist churches in the US, and NPR is just ignoring them.

    They would do well to host some sort of interchange between a definite skeptic (like Michael Shermer) and a liberal believer. (Actually PBS’s 4 hour program on Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis done in the early 2000s was IMO quite good. Shermer was on a few of the panel discussions.)

    My take would be: talk about the damage done my missionaries to indigenous cultures, the sexism of traditional religion, etc.- give Shermer a bit of airtime, and then have all the Krista Tippett you want.

    However, I suspect that in terms of preserving their federal funding, PBS may politically be doing just the right thing at this moment.


    P.S. The nun who hosts Interfaith Voices is a brave soul, having co-authored the pro-choice document “A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion” and founder of “Catholics Act for ERA”.
    Faith has enormous potential for arrogance, but I don’t regard her as an example thereof.

  15. Randy schenck
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I agree that NPR should stop this religious direction but no doubt it is due to the people who run it and work there and nobody is holding the journalistic standard. However, I watch the News Hour on PBS and I do not see that type of thing there, at least not much. What really gets me is having a Vice President of this country that eats, sleeps and drinks religion 24 hours a day. He is sickening and dangerous. To him, evolution is blasphemy.

  16. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    PBS isn’t much better. I recorded Africa’s Great Civilizations but after watching two hours of nonsense, I deleted it. The show spent almost an hour on Christianity. Very sad.

    • eric
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      PBS is like NPR in that it’s funding stream is a mix of federal, state, and private funding (including funding from donation drives). But PBS is even more complicated, because a lot of PBS stations are merely local affiliates that control their own content and includes stuff that ‘official’ PBS does not.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

        That is true, there is a lot of state control in their programming but most of them carry the shows that come from the BBC. That is their best feature and it has nothing to do with journalism. Also, the series on Africa has nothing to do with journalism. If you want to see some of the best in investigative journalism, that would be Front line, also on PBS.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted May 1, 2017 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      Would love to hear what TV you think is better or even comes close. Most of the things I get from TV comes from PBS. The republicans would love to kill PBS funding so you are in good company.

  17. Posted May 1, 2017 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Scott Simon is one of the greatest morons of all History. He wouldn’t last 15 minutes in the wild.

  18. Aroup Chatterjee
    Posted May 2, 2017 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    HiCan you send me your post on NPR’s broadcast during Mother Teresa’s canonisation.Much ThanksAroup

    From: Why Evolution Is True To: Sent: Monday, 1 May 2017, 15:01 Subject: [New post] The religiosity of National Public Radio #yiv6847798565 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv6847798565 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv6847798565 a.yiv6847798565primaryactionlink:link, #yiv6847798565 a.yiv6847798565primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv6847798565 a.yiv6847798565primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv6847798565 a.yiv6847798565primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv6847798565 | whyevolutionistrue posted: “One of our readers, Thomas, has a website called Airbag Moments, which seems to be devoted to cogent critical review of the U.S.’s National Public Radio (NPR). For years I’ve been harping about the organization’s pro-religious stance (see some of the post” | |

  19. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted May 2, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    SIMON: I’ll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I’ve ever had and loved.

    Isn’t there a lake of spilled theologian’s blood somewhere on the very question of whether animals can go to heaven or not?
    Just a useful way of setting the god-squaddies off on a self-destructive feeding frenzy.

  20. somer
    Posted May 2, 2017 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    SIMON: I’ll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I’ve ever had and loved. And I’ll be up there waiting for my wife and children.

    Ha. Ha. And what about the people who annoy the heck out of you but god likes? And wont it be boring hanging around in the clouds like, forever? What about unhappy marriages? Violent spouses? and why would god do all that killing and dying and suffering in the first place?

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