The Friendly Atheist’s Reaction to Tracy Morgan Interview Really Irked Me (With a Response from Hemant Mehta)

Yesterday I read a post by Hemant Mehta, or, as most people know him, the Friendly Atheist, and I’m surprised to say this is the first atheist article I’ve ever read that I’m offended by.

The article reflects on Tracy Morgan’s very recent first interview since his accident that left him brain damaged and severely injured. I’m a big fan of Morgan’s comedy, so I’ve been following this case since it first developed. I watched the interview on Yahoo News, and when Mehta’s article popped up in my news feed, I eagerly clicked it, assuming Mehta was merely writing an article to express heartfelt relief that an icon such as Morgan was—at least—recovered enough to make a media appearance. Despite Mehta’s atheist blog handle, this was not merely wishful thinking. Mehta has made other non-atheist-related posts in the past.

Instead I was upset to learn that Mehta did indeed make an atheist-themed post.

He writes:

During the segment with Matt Lauer, Morgan thanked lots of people involved in his recovery: The doctor, the nurses, his family, the police, the passers-by on the side of the road who stopped to help him out, his drivers, the people piloting the helicopter that took him to the hospital, etc.

Never once did he mention God.

This is true. I’ve watched the interview, but I’ve also shed a tear or two after watching it. Unfortunately, Mehta’s post focussed entirely on the absence of god in Morgan’s statement, instead of what the interview was truly about.

Morgan becomes visually shaken from the mere mention of his good friend James McNair, AKA Uncle Jimmy Mack, who died during the collision. The interview is very difficult to watch. You can tell he’s trying in vain to get past the tragedy of losing a friend and get back to his one true love in life—being a comedian.

The fact that god is never mentioned is irrelevant to me. Even if he had thanked god for his (presently) partial recovery, to me that would’ve had no impact on the meaning of this interview. Tracy Morgan, with or without god, is opening himself to us—scars, cain and all—for the first time in a year to give us hope, even in the face of personal tragedy. I really don’t see how we should—or even could—take Morgan’s interview and put it into any other context than the way Morgan himself presented it.

Prior to publishing this article I contacted Mehta to express my grievance. He wrote back with permission to quote him. I think his response is remarkable and redeeming so I’m publishing it in its entirety.

Thanks for the email and opportunity to respond. (Most people don’t do that, so I really appreciate it.) Feel free to quote me however you see fit.

I’m sorry if the post came across as insensitive or callous. I definitely didn’t mean it that way. When I first saw the interview, I think I felt the same way you did. I was thrilled to see Morgan back in front of a camera and on his way to recovery.

I don’t usually get emotional during these kind of things, but as he spoke, I stopped everything else I was doing and just listened. Hearing him talk about the loss of his friend, the people who gave him strength, and how he hopes to get back into comedy soon was very encouraging. (Heck, even his lawyer seemed like a decent guy instead of just some paid mouthpiece!)

It wasn’t until hours later, when a reader pointed out the lack of God in his statement, that the omission even registered. I’ve seen a lot of interviews with people following really heartbreaking tragedies and it’s almost commonplace for them to mention/thank God. Following the tornado in Oklahoma a couple of years ago, Wolf Blitzer asked Rebecca Vitsmun if she attributed her family’s survival to God… her response of “I’m actually an atheist” went viral, I believe, precisely because she didn’t give the answer we’ve come to expect.

That’s why it seemed worth mentioning that Morgan did something similar. He thanked so many people — rightfully so — and left out God, which a lot of others in his situation wouldn’t have done. I’m not sure what his religious background is, but I thought others might appreciate that bit of information.

So I completely understand why you’d say his omission is irrelevant. It honestly wouldn’t have bothered me if he did thank God, maybe because that what I just expect people in his situation to do. It’s kind of like the President not wearing a flag pin — it’s really not a big deal if he doesn’t wear it, but you know people are going to notice. Perhaps in the rush of the moment, I just wanted to be among the first to point it out, and in the process, I neglected to share a lot of the more serious things about the interview that I’m telling you now. Those things didn’t go unnoticed, but they didn’t get mentioned in the post. Sometimes, I’m guilty of trying to find atheism in stories that don’t necessarily warrant it.

I will defend pointing out the omission, but I could’ve been more careful in how I presented it. Certainly, the fact that he didn’t mention God wasn’t anywhere close to the biggest thing anyone should’ve taken from the interview. If I blew that bit out of proportion, you’re right to call me out on it.  I’ll try to do better in the future.

— Hemant

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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3 Responses to The Friendly Atheist’s Reaction to Tracy Morgan Interview Really Irked Me (With a Response from Hemant Mehta)

  1. Barry says:

    As someone living outside North America, I find it odd that the absence of thanking God is a significant event.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I honestly never noticed it either. Mehta, in his response to me, acknowledges that it wasn’t the first thing he noticed. I guess that’s what upset me. A broken man lamenting his friend’s death and promising a return to comedy is not, in my opinion, fodder for atheist articles.

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