Suffice it to say that one of America’s most consistently important voices on things religious has decided to leap into the blogosphere — that would be the noted sociologist Peter L. Berger, who is also progressive Lutheran, when it comes to matters theological. Here is how he recently introduced his “Religion and Other Curiosities” blog at the American Interest Online:
A Chinese sage wrote to an elderly scholar retired from official duties with two suggestions — to acquire a young concubine, or to learn how to paint dragons on red silk. I am an elderly scholar and I have now retired from most of my official duties. I have given serious thought to the two suggestions and have concluded that they are impractical in my case. Just then the nice people at The American Interest came with a very different suggestion — that I should write a blog under their auspices (if that is the right term in cyberspace language), dealing mainly with current developments in religion, but allowing for occasional excursions into other areas. My relationship to computers is roughly comparable to that of a caveman trying to fly a jet airliner. Still, the prospect of writing a blog with this description intrigued me. It definitely seemed more practical than the two Chinese suggestions.
It will not surprise readers to know that Berger thinks that the details of religion are very important, whether one is studying them through the lens of sociology or that of — GetReligion readers will instantly note — journalism. For example, it is important to understand the role that actual theology plays in the shaping of culture.
When beliefs are taken seriously, all kinds of interesting parallels can be seen in public life. One example will suffice from this opening Berger blog post:
Even if one is only interested in one country, one will understand that country better if one can compare it with other countries. Take the so-called “culture war” in America. Much of it revolving around church-state issues. I think it is helpful in understanding these if one sees the parallels with what goes on in other countries — for example, in Turkey. In both countries a secularist elite relies on non-elected institutions to counter the democratic pressures from a vocal religious populace — on the federal courts in America, on the military in Turkey. (It is more than a joke if one says that the American Civil Liberties Union, in its view of the proper relation between church and state, has a Kemalist ideology.)
This brings us to the passage that will draw the most attention from religion-beat reporters and those who care about their work. This would include academics who study either journalism or religion or both.
I would argue that Berger’s words will also be of interest to those of us who are deeply concerned about the survival of the mainstream press in our culture and, especially, of a press that focuses on accurate, balanced and fair coverage of controversial issues (especially those linked to religion and culture). Here we go:
The treatment of religion in academia and the media leaves something to be desired. … The problem comes at least in part from the fact that these are two institutions which, in their elite echelons, are staffed by what is the most secularized group in American society. Unlike many of their colleagues in Europe, these people are not particularly hostile to religion. But they don’t know too much about it, and its more passionate expressions make them uncomfortable. As a result they are tempted to explain religious phenomena as being “really” about something else — ethnicity, class, politics. Sometimes, of course, this is indeed the case. Thus there are processes of “religionization”, in which a conflict about political power (as in Northern Ireland) or about territory (as between Israelis and Palestinians) morphs into a religiously defined conflict (though even then many people may sincerely believe in and be motivated by the religious definitions of the situation). In any case, it is important to realize that religion is a phenomenon sui generis, which must be understood in its own terms and not right away be interpreted as being “really” something else.
Secularist bias can produce blinders. Evangelical Protestantism is the most explosively growing religion worldwide. Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers. Much academic treatment is equally prejudiced. The media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church very often has an undertone of gleeful Schadenfreude, with little skepticism about events going back thirty years, alleged by individuals with hard vested interests in their version of the events. Academics and journalists have every right to be secularists, but they should bracket their personal beliefs when they try to understand reality — as should “Godders” like me.
Well, now. Feel free to discuss the implications of this famous scholar’s thoughts for the work of the mainstream press.
As for me, I will simply add: What he said.