Ted Turner's Turnabout on Religion

Brian Worley 

There is plenty to discuss whenever you bring up the name Ted Turner. He has probably been called every name in the book; if I had to sum him up in just a few words, I’d say that the man is a pioneer and a winner! Jesus may have walked on water; but Turner turned around the Atlanta Braves baseball franchise! I could mention amongst other things his sailing and media exploits but for the purpose of this article, I want to briefly look at him in light of his notable encounters with religion. 

I’d love to see an interview where someone probed a little deeper than the articles I had read where he discusses what is behind his recent turnabout. I would write and ask him myself, but I’d probably not make it past the gatekeeper. So, I will speculate from afar from the sources available to me. There is an invigorating example for non-theists to glean from a man that has had obvious reasons to ridicule the faith. Bear with me as I skim through significant episodes which lead unto a point of metamorphic contrast; from hostility unto a man whom has made his peace with an ideology, which he had disparaged most of his life.  

What happened? Surprise, that’s not the Ted we once knew! 

For the sake of brevity, the following are selected quotes from USA Today’s April 1, 2008 article, Ted Turner apologizes joins churches' $200M malaria fight which would provide a synopsis and some pertinent history.

Ted Turner formed a $200 million partnership Tuesday with Lutherans and Methodists to fight malaria, apologizing for his past criticism of religion as he announced the effort.

Turner, 69, said he had only made a few disparaging comments a long time ago and that he is "always developing" his thinking as he grows older.

"I regret anything I said about religion that was negative," he said in a brief interview with The Associated Press.

Years ago, the CNN founder called Christianity a "religion for losers." He also wrote his own version of the 10 Commandments and asked CNN employees who commemorated Ash Wednesday whether they were "Jesus freaks," saying they should work for Fox. He apologized at the time.

"Religion is one of the bright spots as far as I'm concerned, even though there are some areas, like everything else, where they've gone over the top a little, in my opinion, " Turner said. "But I'm sure God, wherever he is, wants to see us get along with one another and love one another."

Turner has not completely embraced faith.

He said he continues to subscribe to his alternative commandments, which he called the "Ten Voluntary Initiatives." They include caring for people and the earth, promising not to have more than two children and contributing to the less fortunate.

"The religious community is huge and has a very good reputation for being able to mobilize resources," Turner said. "Why not use them and be thankful?"

This was a bombshell at the time; note the irony of the date of the article. Turner is normally brash and usually speaks his mind, but the last lines are very insightful. It is very clear to me that the 1990 American Humanist Association’s “Humanist of the Year” did this for the common good. He spoke the truth here and has exhibited what a minister would call meekness (that being power under control.) No one should construe this to be an intellectual assent towards religion.

Turner’s youth: Notable events & God’s failure to intervene

Once again for the sake of brevity, this time, I have selected portions of Ken Auletta’s,  Articles - The Lost Tycoon (Ted Turner) that pertain to the storyline.  Here we have Turner as a kid whom desired to serve the Lord as a missionary only to have two rather illuminating episodes in his life reveal that God‘s reality didn’t square with what he had been taught.

His sister’s suffering and death:

By the time he was a teen-ager, Ted knew that he did not want to join his father’s business. He was religious, and he decided that he was going to be a missionary. Then his sister became ill. He was fifteen when Mary Jane, who was twelve, contracted systemic lupus erythematosus, a disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s tissue. She was racked with pain and constantly vomiting, and her screams filled the house. Ted regularly came home and held her hand, trying to comfort her. He prayed for her recovery; she prayed to die. After years of misery, she succumbed. Ted lost his faith. “I was taught that God was love and God was powerful,” he says, “and I couldn’t understand how someone so innocent should be made or allowed to suffer so.”  

His father’s suicide:

On March 5, 1963, Ed Turner had breakfast with his wife, went upstairs, placed a .38-calibre silver pistol in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. He was fifty-three.

The point of mentioning this isn’t so much to “defend” Turner as it is to show that often people whom desire to do something good frequently get their motivation from the gospel message only to be disappointed by witnessing senseless cruelty from a disinterested deity. Isn’t it evident that Turner (like countless others) are betrayed by false instruction about an imaginary benevolent supreme being?  It is insulting to one’s intelligence when some religious hack approaches those stung by the circumstances to be told something to the effect, “This is for the glory of God.” Only another with dulled humanity seemingly coming from another planet could be so obtuse.

People that are spurned or harmed by religious misperceptions have extra emotional material to deal with. Factors like these serve to further motivate those affected to critically examine and scrutinize the faith proposition that they were once served.

The McCallie School and Pat Robertson

Moving onwards, I can’t help but think that the wackiness of Pat Robertson played a part with his annoyance of Christianity. All three of us went to school in Chattanooga, with Robertson and Turner  being graduates of the McCallie School.  I’m disappointed that a school like Vanderbilt would rank a scandalous religious huckster like Robertson ahead of Turner and Howard Baker and others in their notable graduates listing.

While Robertson associates with international leaders known for systemic human rights violations; Turner is a human rights champion known for being a generous humanitarian. Turner never fleeced anyone as a faith healer, but made an honest living as a businessman. While a Christian minister repeatedly badmouths other religions with immunity; a great humanitarian gets headlines for jesting and reacting to provocation.  I find some of the choices of people whom American’s place upon a pedestal to be rather odd indeed. 

Marriage to Jane Fonda

Christianity came out of nowhere to interfere with his marriage to Jane Fonda. Borrowing from Auletta once again:

During this time (according to an E! biography of Fonda that aired last fall), Fonda started attending services at the Providence Missionary Baptist Church. Turner, who alternately describes himself as an atheist and an agnostic, told me his reaction: “I had absolutely no warning about it. She didn’t tell me she was thinking about doing it. She just came home and said, ‘I’ve become a Christian.’ Before that, she was not a religious person. That’s a pretty big change for your wife of many years to tell you. That’s a shock. I mean, normally that’s the kind of thing your wife or husband would discuss with you before they did it or while they were thinking about it....Obviously, we weren’t communicating very well at that time.”  

“My becoming a Christian upset him very much—for good reason,” Fonda says. “He’s my husband and I chose not to discuss it with him—because he would have talked me out of it. He’s a debating champion. He saw it as writing on the wall. And it was about other things. He knew my daughter was having a baby and it would take me away from him. He needs someone to be there one hundred per cent of the time. He thinks that’s love. It is not love. It’s babysitting. I didn’t want to tell you this. We went in different directions. I grew up.” Turner’s daughter Laura doesn’t think religion per se was the real basis of their disagreement. She says, “It was another male”—Jesus. “It took time away from him.” 

Non-theists should note that Fonda knew better than to test her faith proposition against Turner’s reasoning skills because frankly, it would quickly be “shot down.” This also is a vivid illustration that reason wins most intellectual battles but isn’t the sole decision maker that non-theists make it out to be. Turner’s animosity toward the faith likely complicated the lives of people that he was close with that didn’t share his same view towards religion.

Christianity/religion is a major player in the chess game of our world. Although faith and reason don’t mix together too well; they don’t have to clash! We do need to learn how to better get along together for the common good. The thing about winners like Turner is that they make adjustments and learn how to properly deal with things that might annoy them. 

Many non-theists are downright angry with religion and the faithful. I challenge all of you whom have decided to fight or oppose religion to explore why it is that you react this way? Why should it bother you that someone else has an imaginary friend? If we can ascertain our real motive, it would tell us something about ourselves. 

I think those who are strongly opposed to faith should do some deep personal introspection. When I look at Turner, I see plenty of things that would make anybody sour towards religion if they were in his shoes. Our reacting in anger cannot touch a non-existent deity; only those choosing to believe in that deity are affected. Step back and think. Financing that anger takes our time and energy and could be redirected into better ways to serve mankind. Expressing the anger might make us feel a little better but it doesn’t help the evolution of our society. Isn’t that one of our criticisms about religion, that it is detrimental to society? 

All of us probably have things in our past concerning the religion we left behind that bothers us. But religion does make many positive contributions to our world as Turner realized. If you cannot recognize and be grateful for that good then isn’t it evident that you have some unresolved issues that obstruct your vision? I agree with Turner that if we develop our thinking we might come to see the large number of Christians that are bright spots in our world.  We would see that it is foolish to make them into enemies.  

What I’m suggesting is to change our reaction towards religion. We are hard pressed to change our reactions if our perceptions are skewed only towards the negative. This was the thought behind the website’s Christian Common Good page that acknowledges those believers whom do great things in our world!  

There will always be rogue elements within religion. Religion cannot be trusted to do the right or proper things. This is why the organization will always examine it with reason and a watchful eye! But I remind secular people that there are some outstanding elements within that reach out to the poor, the needy and the underprivileged. This aspect is not only reasonable, it speaks well of their character and compassion!  

Reason is the catalyst for change. More and more fundamentalists are getting concerned with “those going over the top.” The shock value of these unreasonable events creates a desire for them to search for more reasonable venues. If we are friendly, balanced and approachable they just might talk with us. So let us keep writing and promoting reason while encouraging those amongst us that portray the “madman” to schedule a visit with the shrink if they cannot make adjustments without one. Lets “bury the axe” and be true people of reason! Lets recognize good people and work with them in order to achieve the common good!


Brian Worley     Ex-Minister.org     September 24, 2009     All rights reserved





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