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Atheism on the Rise in America; Ethics Debate on Drones Use; Three Dead in Courthouse Shooting

Aired February 11, 2013 - 10:30   ET



CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: At 30 minutes past the hour, something new in the NEWSROOM.

"Talk Back" for 30 minutes, three topics, great guests and your input so let's go. "Talk Back" question.

First question. "Why is atheism on the rise in America?" What did Kathy Griffin, Julianne Moore and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have in common? All are atheist and they're proud of it. And why not? One in five Americans claim no religious affiliation at all.

We ask this question in light of Pope Benedict's resignation. He's stepping down because of age, but no one can dismiss the fact his tenure has been marred by sexual abuse involving Catholic priests.

Let's not just pick on the Catholic Church. What about the extremist men of God who provide fodder for YouTube sensations like the amazing atheist guy? Here is the debate over whether godless schools caused Newtown.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God didn't save the kids because he's not allowed in school. So all of a sudden God just respects the law of man? Isn't he an all-powerful being?


COSTELLO: So the "Talk Back" question today, at least, the first one: "Why is atheism on the rise in America?"

Joining me now to discuss this are William Lane Craig, the founder of; Reverend Markel Hutchins, a civil and human rights activist; and T.J. Kirk, who calls himself "The Amazing Atheist". Welcome to all of you.



COSTELLO: OK, I'm going to address the first question to you, Will, because the Pope is resigning at the end of the month, and you say that this resignation comes at a time when the Catholic Church was trying to combat atheism.

CRAIG: Yes. The rise in the non-religious, or the rise in secularism, in Western society has been one of the concerns of the current Pope. He faces tremendous challenges to Christianity from both the left and the right. And this Pope has stood like a bulwark against the challenge of secularism on the left and then the challenge of militant Islam on the right.

And I have tremendous respect for him for his resignation today because it shows that this Pope is not content to be a mere figurehead. He wants to be an activist in combating these challenges to Christian faith, and that takes an enormous amount of energy which I think he believes now requires a younger man.

COSTELLO: And I'm sure T.J. would say that something about the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church has caused a lot of people to lose faith in religion. T.J., are you with me?

KIRK: Yes, I am. Well, bigger than the sex abuse scandal, if you just look at the history of Christianity, Jesus grew up in a time where people were impoverished and he created a religion that gave people hope in very desperate time. But I think that now we live in a world where science has alleviated a lot of those problems, so it's -- it's really not that strange that people would start to turn away from religion.

And it's not really necessarily a turn to atheism. Of the 19 percent of Americans who have -- no longer have a religious affiliation of any kind, many of them still believe in God. It's the social institution of religion that they're really rejecting.

COSTELLO: So -- so Reverend Hutchins, address that. Why are people loath to say they're any one religion?

HUTCHINS: Well, I think that he's right. T.J. is right in one real sense and that is just because we don't identify -- or some don't identify themselves as having a particular religious persuasion does not mean that they're atheists. Religion is an expression of spirituality. So I think there is a major difference in whether or not people are actually non-religious and whether they don't believe in God or the existence of God overall.

I think a growing number of Americans are struggling and grappling with this issue of is there a God that really exists. When we look at our starving economy, when we look at the fact that people are still losing their homes to foreclosure, mass shootings in school, so many things that are really challenging to our nation and our world, it causes people who may not be faith oriented anyway to question the existence of this God that we talk about and we preach about in Christian pulpits across the country. COSTELLO: So you're the theologian, Bill. So, you know, people do wonder why God allows these things to happen.

CRAIG: Yes, and I appreciate T.J.'s honesty in saying that we shouldn't equate non-religious with atheism. In fact, atheism is not on the rise in this country; it's around two percent to three percent of the population. And the reason people identify often --


KIRK: It's five.

COSTELLO: It's five percent.

CRAIG: -- I think it's two percent to three percent from the studies I've seen. But the reason people often identify as non-religious is because denominational labels have become so much less important. People don't self-identify as a Presbyterian, a Catholic, a Methodist, an Episcopalian. And so as Markel says very often these people do believe in God, they have a prayer life, they have a spiritual life, but denominational labels are a lot less important.

And the second point, that if I --


COSTELLO: Well, I want T.J. to get in here.

CRAIG: -- well, I mean, the thing that --

KIRK: The thing that is really kind of important about that, though, too, is five percent of people self identify as atheists. It's also kind of disingenuous to say that people who don't believe in God yet don't identify as atheists aren't atheists. They're still atheists because atheism is by definition not believing in God or in any sort of particular deity.

So there are a lot of people out there who don't identify as atheists but really they are atheists. So I think it's actually probably higher than five percent, but five percent is the number of people that self identify as atheists.

COSTELLO: OK sadly we're going to have to wrap this up, but it was fascinating. We have to move to question number two this morning. "Is the use of drones moral?" if you'd like to join the conversation.

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Welcome back to an expanded edition of "Talk Back". Another question for you this morning: "Is the use of drones moral?"

The Obama administration under scrutiny for using drones to kill U.S. terror suspects abroad sparking criticism from both sides of the aisle. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul telling this to CNN's Candy Crowley.


SEN. RAND PAUL, (R), KENTUCKY: I think you should be tried for treason. If you're an American citizen, you go overseas and you take up arms. I'm probably for executing you, but I would want to hear the evidence, I would want to have a judge and a jury. It can be fairly swift but there needs to be a trial for treason.

The President, a politician, Republican or Democrat, should never get to decide someone's death by flipping through some flash cards and saying do you want to kill him. I don't know, yes let's go ahead and kill him.



COSTELLO: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls himself a, quote, "big advocate of drones, but agrees there is a valid argument about checking presidential power as in who should decide who we target and who we kill?"

"Talk Back" question today: "Is the use of drones moral?"

Let's bring in William Lane Craig, the founder of Reasonable, and Reverend Markel Hutchins, a civil and human rights activist. And in Washington, Molly Dedham and Christine Eads, host of the daily talk show,"Broad-Minded" on Sirius XM satellite radio. Welcome to all of you.


COSTELLO: Hi. I'd like to take this question outside of the realm of experts right now and I don't mean that in a disparaging way, Molly, but what are people saying about this. Is this a talker?

DEDHAM: I'm sorry, I just lost you.

COSTELLO: Molly, can you hear me?

DEDHAM: I can hear you now, I'm sorry.

COSTELLO: Oh good. I just wanted to --

DEDHAM: I just lost you. Go ahead.

COSTELLO: I wanted to take the subject of drones out of hands of experts for just a minute and talk to you about how people out there are discussing this issue?

DEDHAM: Well, I think that I had the opportunity to interview Moray, Joe Moray (ph). And he did the film about the shin bet (ph) and he talked about drones and it's all about collateral damage and we know and studies are out that 95 percent of people that basically if they -- when they go in, that 95 percent of the people that are being killed are civilians and innocent people. And the facts are out.

So I think that that is -- I think that's wrong. So what do you do about collateral damage?

COSTELLO: And collateral damage, you're talking about someone who may be killed in the initial drone attack, and of course the Obama administration would argue with your statistics there.

But -- but Reverend Hutchins, you know, in light of what Molly just said, I mean can you justify the use of drones?

HUTCHINS: I think there has to be a balance between protecting people's civil liberties and civil rights, whether they're American citizens domestically or they're living abroad. I think the real question is are we willing to live in a nation, in a society where we deny people due process and we cannot as a nation tout the need for due process and democracy around the world and are unwilling to provide the very same for U.S. citizens whether they be here in America or are around the world?

So I think the issue of whether or not these drones are moral is one that is pretty simple for me. And the answer is no, it's not.

COSTELLO: No, it's not.

And Bill, I'll ask you, you're the theologian, right? I mean, who decides who to kill and when? That's kind of cloudy right now because we don't know.

CRAIG: Well, it seems to me that so long as significant collateral damage is avoided, there's nothing immoral in using drones to kill terrorist enemies of the United States.


COSTELLO: Well, if it's just one casualty, it's OK as opposed to three or four?

CRAIG: Yes, that's right. If you're not killing innocents along with the targeted individual who poses a signature threat to the safety of American people, I think that makes it moral. But, Carol, that isn't to say it's constitutional. Not everything that is moral is legal. Not everything that is illegal is immoral. So the constitutional question of the rights of American citizens is quite a separate question than the ethical or moral question.

COSTELLO: Yes, and, Christine, he's talking about of course that every American has the right to a fair trial, a speedy trial. And that's certainly not happening in this case, right?

CHRISTINE EADS, HOST, "BROAD-MINDED": No. And just listening to that, my thing and you asked to take it outside of Washington and what real people and real people are asking questions and what we're saying, our question is did they know that their lives were at risk when they went and took these jobs? Did they know the possibility of these drone attacks were happening? And I think that this is something that they should have known and this would be my question.

And so I kind of -- I'm sorry, I disagree. I don't think it's moral.

HUTCHINS: I think, Carol, that there are two other perspectives. If we are living as American citizens under the Constitution, I think if it is unconstitutional, it is also immoral, at least on my view. And the second aspect of that is we're not just killing foreign threats to America. We're also killing Americans who are suspected of engaging in terroristic activity. So not only is it unconstitutional but as such -- as such, I think it's also immoral.

COSTELLO: All right. So "Talk Back" question: "Is the use of drones moral?"

I wanted to get some of our Facebook friends in.

This from Sheldon, "Not only is it moral, it's cheaper temperature. It doesn't cost tons of money or American lives."

And this from Nathan, "The fact we're questioning the morality of using drones to kill people instead of humans to kill humans just shows how stupid our species is."

Next "Talk Back" topic: "Did movie critic Rex Reed go too far in criticizing actress Melissa McCarthy's weight?" He called her a tank.

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Forty-seven minutes past the hour. Time for a quick check on our top stories.

The Catholic Church will soon have to begin the process of finding a new Pope. Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world this morning with news that he's resigning because of his advanced age. He's the first Pope in nearly 600 years to resign.

A Coast Guard cutter has arrived to help tow a cruise ship stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. A weekend fire left the Carnival Triumph with no propulsion and running on emergency power. 4,200 passengers and crew are on board that ship.

We have new details on that courthouse shooting in Wilmington, Delaware. Just minutes ago, police said two women are dead in addition to the shooter. Two capitol police officers were injured. The shootings took place at the New Castle County Court of Common Pleas.

People in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, will be cleaning up today from a huge tornado that tore through the town. You can see it here, thanks to one of our iReporters. Today, schools are closed, including the University of Southern Mississippi. The storm left more than a dozen people injured, two of them critically. All lanes of the Long Island Expressway open this morning in New York, but it was a slow process clearing all that snow. Side roads, however, still pretty slushy, so be careful out there.

Now back to "Talk Back". Third question for you this morning: "Did movie critic Rex Reed go too far in criticizing Melissa McCarthy's weight?"

Well, the laugh is on him because Melissa McCarthy's new movie, "Identity Thief", was tops at the box office this weekend, raking in $36.5 million.


JASON BATEMAN, ACTOR: You can do it the hard way or the easy way.

MELISSA MCCARTHY, ACTRESS: I'd like to pick about the easy way.

I love that guitar.


COSTELLO: The movie a hit despite the blizzard that clobbered the northeast. But the distaste over Reed's comments linger. In his review for the "New York Observer", Reed called McCarthy, quote, "cacophonous, tractor sized, a screeching humongous creep, and a female hippo." Whoa. That unleashed a flood of vitriol from McCarthy fans on social media.

But Reed is not backing down and although most would call his remarks offensive, it's also true that McCarthy sometimes uses her weight as a punch line. So "Talk Back" today: did Rex Reed go too far in criticizing Melissa McCarthy's weight?

Joining me again from Washington are Molly Dedham and Christine Eads, hosts of the daily talk show "Broad-Minded" on Sirius XM satellite radio, and Reverend Markel, you're going to stick around because he has some interesting input, as well.

But let's start with you, Molly, aAnd just your reaction when you heard Rex Reed's comments about Melissa McCarthy.

DEDHAM: So he goes after her weight and he's a total jerk. But the thing is, she has the talent. She is -- all the female comics getting all the movies, they're all romcoms and now we finally have someone new that is different and we're going back to sketch comedy.

So for him to say something so stupid is ridiculous. And I think that Paul Fig, who directed "Bridesmaids", he got on Twitter yesterday and lambasted him and I'm glad because he just looks bad.

COSTELLO: Well, Christine, you have to admit Melissa McCarthy uses her weight as foil for her comedy.

EADS: It's true and I watch her every Monday night on "Mike and Molly" and I love her. But I had no idea that it took very little to be a film critic because then I would be one. He's not critiquing the film. He's critiquing aesthetics. He's critiquing her weight. And he did the same thing with Sarah Jessica Parker's and her mole -- what he called a wart on her chin and it had nothing to do with the film itself.

So is he a film critic or is he something from a bad reality show on what looks good, what doesn't look good? She's a great actress. When I watch "Mike and Molly", never does it come across that -- her schtick has anything to -- you forget. If you're a Melissa McCarthy fan, you forget at all that that's the situation. She is just a talented actress. That's all there is to it.

COSTELLO: And for people who have had a weight problem, and Reverend Hutchins, you are one, these comments from Rex Reed were difficult to hear.

HUTCHINS: I think Rex is being a small-minded cantankerous old man. As one who has lost 135 pounds myself, I recognize how so often those who are heavier poke fun at themselves as a way of dealing with emotional stresses that come with carrying that much weight.

Look, Melissa should be judged based on the quality of her skills as an actress and she's great at it. And Rex judging her or criticizing her based upon her weight is just totally out of the realm of appropriateness and reasonability. And he really should be ashamed of himself.

COSTELLO: All right. Thanks to all of you for making this new "Talk Back" thing we're doing a success. We appreciate it.

We want to hear from you, too. Did Rex Reed go too far in criticizing Melissa McCarthy?

This from David, "Rex Reed has been a jerk for decades, not that I'm particularly a fan of McCarthy. Would he have said it about a guy?"

And this from Sandy, "I love her. She's adorable and I think she's gorgeous. Rex is a critic. That's what he does."

From Debra, "He has freedom of speech, but whatever happened for manners? How is this any different than bullying?"

We're back in a minute.


COSTELLO: I apologize for not getting your responses in on our question about atheism, so I'd like to do that right now. Our "Talk Back" question: "Why is atheism on the rise in America?"

This from Stephen, "Because the nation is losing its heart for God and we like our sin more than our savior."

This from Tom, "If a real God exists, he would strike down dead those who were pedophiles, rapists, murderers. He would never tolerate wars in his name and the death they bring. That's why I am an atheist." And on the question, "Are drones moral?"

This from Lamar, "Yes, because it saves American lives. When you become a terrorist, you don't respect the rights of others and therefore you have no rights. Why aren't you asking if it was moral to drop an atomic bomb on Japan?"

I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Much more on the Pope's resignation on NEWSROOM with Ashleigh Banfield after a short break.