The Guardian doesn’t get atheism

`Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.’

`I know what you’re thinking about,’ said Tweedledum: `but it isn’t so, nohow.’

`Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, `if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’

`I was thinking,’ Alice said very politely, `which is the best way out of this wood: it’s getting so dark. Would you tell me, please?’

But the little men only looked at each other and grinned.

They looked so exactly like a couple of great schoolboys, that Alice couldn’t help pointing her finger at Tweedledum, and saying `First Boy!’

`Nohow!’ Tweedledum cried out briskly, and shut his mouth up again with a snap.

`Next Boy!’ said Alice, passing on to Tweedledee, though she felt quite certain he would only shout out “Contrariwise!’ and so he did.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll

Good atheism journalism is as rare as good religion journalism. Assumptions about what an atheist believes more often than not are couched in terms of what he does not believe, turning it into a game of Tweedledee and Tweedledum with the theist and atheist in turn shouting ‘contrariwise’. The varieties of atheistic thought are so wide it makes as little sense for a reporter to say ‘atheists think … ‘ as it does to say ‘Muslims think … ‘ or ‘Christians think …’.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in atheistic writing and a ready market for the works of biologist Richard Dawkins, critic Christopher Hitchens, and philosophers Daniel Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel and Michel Onfray. However, there is no one atheistic worldview for within this genre there are incompatible viewpoints, arguments and varieties of tone.

Guy Kahane has observed that the arc of atheism encompasses those who do not believe in God, but runs from those who regret his absence to those who posit his absence is necessary for a moral world. Polemicists like Harris and Hitchens do not want God to exist and see religion as a force of evil while Thomas Nagel argues we should not want God to exist. “I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

At the other end of the arc are those who want God to exist, even though he does not. In his 2008 memoir the English writer Julian Barnes  observed: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” God does not exist for Barnes, but he feels his absence — a sentiment forcefully expressed by a character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame” who stated:  “God doesn’t exist — the bastard.”

Theodore Dalrymple in an essay entitled “What the new Atheists Don’t See” in City Journal argued: “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” In his critique of those new atheists who see in religion the cause of all evil in the world, Dalrymple (an atheist) noted that “If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.”

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

This brings me to a recent article by the Guardian entitled “Rising atheism in America puts ‘religious right on the defensive’.” In this rather silly advocacy piece the Guardian manages to play into its stereotypes. In his report on an atheists conference in New England, the Guardian‘s U.S. reporter offers a one-sided view of American politics and religion and offers statistics to substantiate the editorial voice: atheism is good, its triumph inevitable, and one day the American masses will come round to the Guardian’s way of thinking.

The story begins with the setting of the scene and then moves into assumptions, opinions and facts that gathers evidence for its conclusion.

At the meeting, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) will hear speakers celebrate successes they have had in removing religion from US public life and see awards being presented to noted secularist activists.

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major “religious” demographic in the country.

Anecdotal evidence is offered to support the claims of fast growing atheism: Sunday shopping, low church attendance on Super Bowl Sunday, and so forth. The story then turns to politics.

Yet there is little doubt that religious groups still wield enormous influence in US politics and public life, especially through the rightwing of the Republican party. Groups such as Focus on the Family are well-funded and skilful lobbyists.

[An expert cited in the story] said the attention paid by politicians and the media to religious groups was not necessarily a sign of strength. “When religion was doing well, it did not need to go into politics. Secularity of our population and culture is obviously growing and so religion is on the defensive,” he said. … Others think that one day it will become politically mainstream to confess to a lack of faith as US political life lags behind the society that it represents. “Politicians have not yet caught up with the changing demographics of our society,” said Gaylor.

My concerns with this story are not with the viewpoints offered by FFRF. It is with the uncritical assumptions and observations made by the Guardian. “Survey said” may work for a game show but it doesn’t cut it in serious reporting especially when there are other surveys that report opposite findings. In a 2008 story in the Washington Times, Julia Duin reported on a Baylor University survey that came to the opposite conclusion of the Trinity College study.

Baylor researchers also criticized a much-ballyhooed “new atheism” as a barely discernible trend, saying the number of Americans who are atheists has stayed at 4 percent since 1944.

Why? Atheism is a “godless revolution that never happened,” the survey said, adding that irreligion often is not effectively transmitted to children who, when they reach adulthood, often join conservative religious denominations.

An American Spectator story offered the argument earlier this year that atheism is collapsing as a worldwide phenomena. It cited a 2010 Gallup poll that reported 43 per cent of Americans said they attended church at least monthly. In 1937 this figure was 37 per cent, rising to 49 per cent in the 1950s and settling at 42 per cent in 1969, where it has remained constant for the past four decades.

The question whether atheism is the “fastest-growing major ‘religious’ demographic” or a “barely discernible trend” in American religious life is not settled, nor is it the issue I am raising in this critique. An opinion or news analysis piece may argue that one view is superior to another. It is a mistake for a news story to write as if the issues were settled.

Nor is it helpful to leave the discussion of atheism as that of a purely “anti-” phenomenon. This story gives us the ‘who’ and the ‘where’, but assumes we know ‘why’ — why does the FFRF believe religion should be driven from the public square? What are their moral or metaphysical views? What sort of atheists are they? Leaving it this way paints the group as a gathering of village atheists. Atheists are not cranks, yet the Guardian‘s portrayal leaves this impression of monomania

The bottom line: This article about atheism would have been improved by detailing what atheists believe and why they believe (or not-believe). The statements of fact offered by the subject should have been challenged or checked, and more than one expert point of view should be offered — especially when the issue is in dispute. While the tone and editorial voice of the story is sympathetic to the atheists’ agenda, the omissions, assumptions and biases served to make the atheist view appear unserious –a contrarian Tweedledee to the theist’s Tweedledum.

There was an opportunity to treat this phenomena seriously, but instead you have what you see.

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  • Mark Baddeley

    I wonder if, in the Guardian’s (limited) defense, some of the issue might come from atheists themselves on this. Atheists (especially New Atheists), at least in their online presence, tend to speak as though ‘atheism’ is a single position, with a fairly uniform stance towards God. Talking about ‘what sort of atheists are they?’ is to (at least a bit) cut against the grain of how atheists tend to present themselves: “If you are favorably disposed towards science then you won’t believe in x and will believe y.” The simple talking points to set it up as as a simple ‘reason versus religion’ question tends to blunt differences within the movement.

    Journalists would have to take several steps back (given what seems to be a favorable stance towards atheism in papers like the Guardian) to move past that self-presentation to open up issues of difference within the movement.

  • Stephen Schettini

    Atheism is not a single position and neither is theism. Einstein talked about God all the time, but do you think he’d see eye-to-eye with those who look to a personal creator for consolation? How many ways are there to conceive of an underlying ground of reality? Good God!

    Buddhism offers a profoundly satisfying alternative by denying both eternalism and nihilism. Even though we might describe reality in great scientific detail, it remains fundamentally inexplicable. Hence the Buddha’s concern not with “Why are we here?” but “Here we are, what now?”

  • Dave

    “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

    Laurie and the Guardian are setting themselves up for a bit of post hoc fallacy. The loosening of restraints on free-thinkers has come largely with targeted litigation, not with increases in the ranks of atheists.

    The question whether atheism is the “fastest-growing major ‘religious’ demographic” or a “barely discernible trend” in American religious life is not settled

    This isn’t an either/or question. A movement can be growing like a weed and still be a minuscule precentage of the whole. I belonged to a UU Pagan group that doubled its size annually from some 30 people to some 2,000. That was a phenomenal rate of growth and still would up with only two thousand.

  • sari

    A distinction should be made between atheism and apathy-ism. Do people believe in G-d but eschew church attendance or are they really atheists? Definition matters; the absence of church attendance, which seems to be the most common yardstick, does not denote absence of belief, yet the Guardian suggests that Sunday commerce and football (a religion in some places) are reflective of a more atheistic society.

    I’d also like to see more care taken to look at research methodology, the questions asked, and how outliers are defined as well as who provides funding before quoting any study. Statistics are easily manipulated when taken out of context.

  • Jerry

    Nail, meet hammer. Besides the obvious attempt to put the American situation into the UK mold when it comes to religion, you’re right about the wide range of belief. I became curious and started searching. I found a site that said There are sometimes also agnostic Pagans who are not sure if the gods exist, but find their life works better if they behave as though they do.

    Then you have atheists who experience imminence but don’t attribute it to God:

    I think I understand those believers a little better now. I think what I felt was the origin of the religious doctrine of immanence, the belief that God’s spirit imbues the things of the natural world. But I think the theologians who invented this concept have misconstrued its origin. Before an awe-inspiring natural landscape, we imagine that we feel a vast love surrounding us – and, in fact, we do. But it’s not God’s love surrounding us from outside, as many religious believers would have it. What it is, instead, is our own love for the world, projected outward.

    Part of the tangle is that we all operate with assumptions about the nature of God. I know atheists who object to their impression of what Christians believe: A sky daddy who you can “whack” with prayers like a heavenly piñata.

    And part of the objection of some atheists is to organized religion, not realizing that there is a lot of “disorganized” religion these days including house churches and intentional communities. So they confuse the number of people attending church on Sunday with belief in God and other forms of worship.

  • Gabriel Austin

    As the man said: “Atheists are a bore. They are always talking about God.”

  • michael

    I agree wholeheartedly that it would be wonderful if journalism offered us a better and more responsible account of contemporary atheism, given that only the nature of all of reality is at stake in the debate. (I am assuming, charitably, that journalism has an interest in reality!)

    But understanding atheism is not just a matter of understanding what atheists believe. It is a matter of understanding what their atheism means irrespective of what they think they believe. (Or at least it is if we believe in reason.) Aristotle points out that these are not always the same thing. From want of education and self-knowledge we can hold positions whose meaning and implications are quite opposite of what we think we believe. We can even think we hold positions which are are impossible to hold in practice. We can therefore be wrong about what we think we think. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. I don’t think he has a very deep understanding of the meaning and implications of his own thought; otherwise he wouldn’t violate it at every turn. This may be unfair, though, since Dawkins isn’t really a serious thinker and doesn’t seem the least troubled by the numerous problems with his position. Nagel is infinitely better. If every age gets the atheism it deserves, the fact that ours can still produce a Nagel as well as a ‘Ditchkins’ means that all is not yet lost.

    It would be immensely refreshing to see journalists focusing less on the subjective motivations driving believers and atheists and more on the objective logic and implications of their positions. But this would require journalism to become something other than journalism, namely, philosophy. For this would require penetrating these positions rather than simply relating ‘facts’ which admit, by defnition, of no further penetration.

  • Ray Ingles

    Mark Baddeley –

    The simple talking points to set it up as as a simple ‘reason versus religion’ question tends to blunt differences within the movement.

    And, say, Christians don’t have central ‘talking points’? That was geoconger’s point in saying “The varieties of atheistic thought are so wide it makes as little sense for a reporter to say ‘atheists think … ’ as it does to say ‘Muslims think … ’ or ‘Christians think …’.”

    At least, when it comes to the basics like the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and so forth. There are a lot of differences after that, but most articles don’t have time for more than the basics.

    Michael –

    I don’t think he has a very deep understanding of the meaning and implications of his own thought

    I personally find it amazing how many people object to what they think Dawkins says rather than what he actually says. :)

  • michael

    Good afternoon, Ray. I knew it wouldn’t be long before you came out of the woodwork. I know quite well what Dawkins actually says about a good number of things. I also happen to think that I understand a good deal of what he says better than he does. Not that it matters. His imperturbable confidence in his own whiggish vision of things shows him to be less interested in truth than he is in winning the war of persuasion. This makes him worse than superficial. It makes him a sophist.

    But you and I both know that this is not the place to debate Dawkins, which would be a very complicated undertaking since doing this well would require us to get down to first principles. It’s not even possible to have a serious disagreement before we get to that point, which is to say that I’m not sure it is possible to have a serious disagreement with Dawkins.

    My point, and I will reiterate it, pertained to journalism: that while there is a certain value in knowing what atheists and religious people believe as a matter of personal conviction, if the goal of ‘atheism journalism’ is really to help us understand atheism–and I’m not at all convinced that this is the goal–then a different approach is in order. The problem, and I know I sound like a broken record, is that the required approach is in some ways the very antithesis of journalism as a form of reason. It is here that the really interesting questions arise, questions about journalism’s own ‘philosophical’ assumptions and its own inherent limits as a form of reason. At the very least, it raises the question of whether there are some matters that journalism, as a thought form, is inadequate to illuminate and the possibility that treating such matters journalistically is already to distort them. Though none of this is to deny the difference between good journalism and bad journalism or that an individual journalist, not qua journalist but qua just, intelligent, and educated person, might arrive at an adequate treatment of these things. In fact, I’d be willing to say that happens a lot.

    I suppose you could characterize my view as the opposite of Terry’s. He has a high view of journalism and a low view of some journalists. I have a high view of some journalists and a low view of journalism. Especially when it comes to clarifying, rather than obscuring, what is at stake in the debate between a religious worldview and various forms of contemporary atheism.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Ray -

    And, say, Christians don’t have central ‘talking points’?…At least, when it comes to the basics like the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and so forth.

    Yes, orthodox Christians do have central ‘talking points’. But there are a reasonable number of self-described Christians who would take umbrage at your view that the divinity and resurrection of Christ are ‘the basics’. They’d disagree that they should even be seen as true in a straightforward kind of way. Theological liberalism has been with us for a couple of centuries now.

    More pertinently, journalists have shown themselves quite adept at communicating the differences within Christianity. Few people think that the Pope and the Southern Baptists basically believe the same thing, or the Greek Orthodox and the Missouri Synod Lutherans (nod to you there Mollie :) ). Christians (at least orthodox ones) might focus on the central talking points, but journalists have proved capable of stepping back from that and bringing out the conflicts and disagreements between groups of Christians.

    Journalists haven’t done that with regards atheists for the most part. And I think that’s because they are (at least in places like the New York Times and the Guardian) too sympathetic to atheism to get critical distance from it. They simply accept atheism’s presentation of itself in a way that they do for very few other movements or institutions.

  • Brian Westley

    “why does the FFRF believe religion should be driven from the public square?”

    Since the FFRF doesn’t believe that, I have to ask where the author came up with this. Keep in mind that removing unlawful religious symbols from government property is not “driving religion from the public square” in the least.

  • JB

    Everyone wants a sign so they can have some kind of identity in a no God existence. Anthony Flew was the most studied and eloquent in all things atheist. He was the king living his entire life dedicated to exploring the depths of atheism. Interesting, he left this place believing in God. I trust Mr. Flew’s conclusions. All the rest just want to be something (or not be something) that in the end isnt worth pursuing.

  • MJBubba

    Mark Baddeley (# 10) says:

    …journalists have proved capable of stepping back from that and bringing out the conflicts and disagreements between groups of Christians.

    I disagree. Journalists flee from describing disagreements between groups of Christians. They may enjoy reporting on frictions, but we rarely get doctrinal explanations from journalism. Either journalists are uninterested in such matters or editors quash them. The entire catalog of GetReligion is a long series of illustrations that, whenever presented an opportunity, the journalists choose to overlook the disagreements (the thought content) in favor of a focus on the conflict only (the emotional content).

  • R9

    Michael seems to do this on a regular basis

    , and I never quite follow what his version of journalism would do differently, other than churn out 5000 word philisophy essays. I think “consequences of atheism” would get into a whole load of nitpicking in epistemology that really doesn’t belong in a news item (maybe a lengthy feature piece). The sort of thing where someone can claim their “win” and someone else can feel totally rational and reasonable in not knowing what difference that makes to anything, shrugging and disregarding.


    “His imperturbable confidence in his own whiggish vision of things shows him to be less interested in truth than he is in winning the war of persuasion”

    Is possibly true but is also applies to just about everyone on the internet. :p

  • Kunoichi

    “Baylor researchers also criticized a much-ballyhooed “new atheism” as a barely discernible trend, saying the number of Americans who are atheists has stayed at 4 percent since 1944.”

    This shows a misunderstanding of what “new atheists” are. These aren’t people who’ve turned to atheism, thereby increasing their numbers. The “new atheists” are proselytizing atheists that actively attack religious belief and seek to convert people to atheism; a segment within atheism that seems to be growing. Or at least becoming increasingly vocal.

  • Chris

    JB: “I trust Mr. Flew’s conclusions.”

    Anthony Flew suffered from dementia in old age. Are you saying you trust a demented people because their views just happen to coincide with your own preferences?

  • Pete

    Chris: Anthony Flew suffered from dementia in old age. Are you saying you trust a demented people because their views just happen to coincide with your own preferences?

    Is there empirical proof that he suffered from dementia and that it significantly clouded his thoughts? Has this been studied rigorously or is it only wishful thinking on your part? I apologise for the off topic nature of my post.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: MJBubba #13 -

    I agree with you. Journalists don’t try and communicate the theological differences between branches of Christianity, by and large.

    And yet, they don’t just speak of ‘Christians’ either as though we are all one undifferentiated group united in the same talking points and that’s all that matters. They speak of Catholics and Orthodox and mainline and evangelical and fundamentalist and Baptist. They might not go into the differences, but they are very concerned to use labels that break Christianity up into easy to identify sub-groups.

  • R.S.Newark

    Like everyone, I’ve been dealing with “devout” Atheists all my adult life. What I’ve come away with is they hate (really) not God but ALL Gods. Decussions with them usually are resolved by the question; “in which God do you disbelieve”…not only are there sooo many but the non existence of the deity is fundamental to the question. It must be troubling for an atheist to wake in the morning thinking so much about hating a particular God, oh say the God Vishnu or the God of Jainism or Animism, so many, ahmen!

  • sari

    Mark #18

    Most journalists distinguish between different Christian groups, at least the major denominations, but I think that’s due to the understanding that most people are already familiar with the groups’ major differences. Each label is a code word for what people think they know about any given group.

    Contrast that with coverage of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., where all members of a group seem to be lumped into the same category. As a reader, I am interested in what differentiates Sunni from Shia Islam, for instance, and would like the religion writer who covers any given mosque to state the mosque’s affiliation (for lack of a better word) and the beliefs/practices unique to it. Likewise, as a Jew, I am tired of reading stories about what Jews do. Even without addressing differences in theology, the range of observance is enormous, and, the public’s level of ignorance is stupendous. Again, when writing of a synagogue or temple, the writer should mention affiliation and how practices are representative of *this* institution rather than imply (by omission) that it’s representative of all Jews.

    It seems to me that atheism is being treated in exactly the same fashion as other minority religions–all its followers/believers/professers (heck, what *is* the right word?), being lumped into the same pot. Most non-theists in my circle, for instance, stress the absence of any overriding philosophy–decisions are left to the individual. That should have been in the article.

    R.S. Newark–Many “devout” atheists simply want to be left alone. Their behavior may be a direct response to aggressive proselytizing.

  • Marty Kay Zee

    Just as wooden scaffolds were employed by stone masons to build the great cathedrals, religion has served as a temporary structure, now superfluous, enabling Western civilization. Yes, the U.S. Constitution guarantees us freedom of and from religion, but more importantly, protection from religion.

  • Richard

    Tweedledum and Tweedledee were not in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They were in the second book, ‘Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There’. Just a head’s up.

    As per the topic of the article, both sides are completely at fault here. It is a numbers game. People will say 10% of US people don’t believe in god, but 90% do (those numbers are just examples), making a “this side and that side” argument. It is never as simple as that. Both the 10% and 90% are fractured groups of many many opinions outside of the belief or non-belief of god(s).

    There can be NO general statements about the two groups’ beliefs other than:

    Group A believes in god(s).
    Group B does not believe there are gods.

    How those beliefs are expanded on an individual level is, as they say, personal.

  • Dana Ames

    Very much appreciate the addition of geonconger to the GR lineup, especially the opening to us in the USA of some of the European sensibility. As always, the writing is clear and makes the point well, using appropriate examples.

    One grammatical error -and I have found this in many, many places in print: the word “phenomena” is the plural form; if singular is meant, the correct form is “phenomenon”.

    Keep up the great work.

  • Drew

    Well i still do not understand atheism , for if there is no god then who or what created everything things cannot just appear they have to be made so therefore the question is what do the atheists really think…Just a thought

  • Ray Ingles

    Drew… See here for an example. My email address can be found there if you have any other questions.

  • Dave

    Drew, there’s a perfectly respectable notion in physics that says things can just appear, and did. So assume it’s true. Still doesn’t prove anything about the existence or non-existence of God.

  • michael


    What can I say (other than thanks for noticing)? We all have our little ticks.

    My principal complaint is not with the limits of journalism per se, though I do think that journalism is necessarily superficial in a rather precise sense having to do with its notion of a ‘fact’. Nor do I mean to deny the difference between good and bad journalism or to deny that journalism has any value. This superficiality is better fit for some subject matters than others.

    My complaint is that the media exercise enormous and largely unaccountable cultural power, mediating what the world thinks about in public and how it thinks it, while showing precious little humility about the responsible exercise of that power or about journalism’s inherent intellectual limits. Concealing its assumptions, journalism makes every subject matter an image of itself (which means that it renders every subject matter superficial in the relevant sense). This is not a matter of the subjective motivations (or the intelligence) of journalists, but rather the structure of journalism as a thought form. There is a kind of totalitarian impulse built into the method and animating conceits of journalism itself, an impulse disguised by journalism’s self-appointed role as guardians of a free society.

    There is no easy remedy for this, maybe no remedy at all. This is because it is more than one kind of problem: it is simultaneously an intellectual problem and a socio-techno-political-economic problem. (“They own the means of production, Jerry!”) Which means that every time journalists convene as a group to navel gaze on their craft (take The Reliable Sources, e.g.,), the effect is to underwrite the indispensibility of journalism. Bad journalism is critiqued. Journalism as such is never called into question.

    If I were going to begin somewhere to take a stab at this massive problem, I would begin by reforming journalism education. I would require that journalists be educated in something other than journalism. I would want them to have what we used to call liberal or humanistic educations, with a heavy dose of literature, history and philosophy and yes–religion–as well as science. (Unfortunately, universities cannot be counted on to supply that these days). If j-schools were to persist at all, they would require aspiring journalists to think critically, i.e., philosophically, about the foundations and assumptions of their craft, specifically the notions of ‘method’ and ‘fact’ and what it means to be a ‘free press’, not out of baseless suspicion, but in the interest of putting journalism in the service of truth. The better part of wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.

    Of course, this wouldn’t solve this huge problem. But all else being equal, it stands to reason that if you have more reflective and thoughtful people practicing journalism, you are likely to get more reflective and thoughtful journalism.

  • R9

    Okay so, let’s go to the basics in the hope that i’ll get it eventually.

    What are the foundations and assumptions of journalism right now?

    What are its inherent intellectual limits?

    Why do you keep quote-marking the word fact? What is wrong with the facts on which they report?

  • Julia


    speaking of distinguishing Christian groups – what are “intentional communities”?

  • MJBubba

    R9, I will jump in here rather than wait for Michael’s response:
    What are the foundations and assumptions of journalism right now? Most reporters, and most editors, are postmodern a) universalists, b) agnostics, or c) atheists. There is very little mass media reporting that indicates that the media outlet that is publishing the account has any sympathy for anyone who actually believes in some religious ultimate truth claim. There is precious little evidence that any mass media have someone on staff who understands people who hold beliefs based on the ancient faiths. GetReligion has done great work to highlight by name the couple of dozen mass media reporters who care to accurately convey issues that confront people of faith.

    What are its inherent intellectual limits? I don’t think that “intellectual limit” applies; this beef is not to say that reporters and editors are not intelligent people. The issue is that, when confronted with any complexity of religious thought, these media types back off, since their herd mentality is to view it all as unintelligible superstition. They simply do not care to report accurately on these topics.
    Why do you keep quote-marking the word fact? Well, I cannot answer this one for Michael, but, as a young-earth creationist, I get awfully impatient with the mass media for promoting evolution, man-made global warming, and other politically-driven dominant positions in science, along with the sociological or psychological theory du jour, and agreeing with one side that the questions from the other side are not worth listening to. Debate is squelched when one side of an argument is put forward as factual, with valid difficult questions brushed aside because they come from people with religious motives.

  • R9

    Okay, you problem comes down to the usual allegations of bias and ignorance amongst liberal journalists. I think Michael’s trying to get at something more fundamental (and therefore a more interesting discussion).

  • michael


    Thank you. You are right. My point was not about the intellectual capacities or subjective motivations of journalists. Though intelligence and goodwill sometimes seem to be in short supply, at least on the religion beat, I would prefer to give most persons in the media the benefit of the doubt. My point was about the logic or structure of journalism as the dominant form of modern rationality. I have a long post on this somewhere from a year or so ago. I’ll try not to reduplicate it, and I’d like to avoid a 5000 word dissertation, so this will no doubt be an over simplificiation.

    First, a historical point. I’m no student of journalism history, and I imagine its origins are heterogeneous, starting from various notices, political pamphlets etc. But modern journalism as a self-conscious craft has not always been with us, and is certainly much younger than modern empiricism, which serves as its model. It is interesting that my undergraduate journalism degree is a bachelor of science, not a bachelor of arts.

    So what is this craft and what is its central conceit? It is a method for gathering, conveying, and reporting infomation on any subject matter whatsoever. This involves several key assumptions. The first, which is implicit in the notion of method itself, is that no particular substantive intellectual formation is required of the journalist. The journalist need not be particularly learned or have substantive knowledge in any given domain of life or area of inquiry, though of course the best journalists are well educated and do make an effort to get deeply acquainted with their fields. But in principle,the method is sufficient, as evidenced by the fact that it is transferable across different fields of knowledge; so the erudition serves the method rather than the other way around. The second assumption is that there is no subject matter that is not transparent and will not yield itself up to this method.

    The third assumption is the crucial one. It is important to see that within this conception of method there is a pre-judgment, call it a metaphysical decision if you will, of what the world which is the object of this method must be like (which means that the world must be made to fit these assumptions). Otherwise, there is no guarantee that journalism would transcend every area of inquiry and render them all transparent. What must the world be for this method to be adequate to it? An assemblage of atomic ‘facts’. And what are facts? Things or events whose meaning is self-evident and admit of no further penetration. This is why I called journalism “superficial” in my earlier post: because for journalism’s basic unit of reality, the ‘fact’, all the meaning is on the surface.

    Journalistic analysis is thus never a matter of thinking through facts to their ultimate meaning, implications or foundations, because journalistic method essentially denies any deeper reality than ‘facts’. This would require an altogether different way of thinking, and to admit of this would be to admit the inadequacy of the media as ‘mediators’ of all public knowledge, to give up journalism’s ‘transcendental’ position. Journalistic analysis, then, is simply a matter of assembling and arranging more facts and bringing in opposing facts to achieve ‘fairness’ or ‘balance’.

    Now this may be fine for exposing political malfeasance, conveying what happened down at the courthouse this afternoon, or spreading the word that things are moving slow on the outer loop. But of course journalism has appropriated to itself a much bigger and more powerful cultural role than this. The media rarely just ‘report’ because, as one commenter here once said, “reporters are not stenographers.” They are rather ‘mediators’ of culture and arbiters of public reason. But if there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in journalism’s, then these will necessarily remain invisible.

    This is especially true of religion journalism which generally is, by turns, either political or human interest journalism about religious matters: e.g., what is the Roman curia really up to or what motivates Tim Tebow? There is no capacity from within journalism as such to entertain an alternative conception of reality to the one presupposed by journalism, which of course never acknowledges that it has such a conception (though human beings who also happen to be journalists may do so). So Pope Benedict gives an epochal speech to the Bundestag in Berlin challenging the philosophical foundations of the secular west and its conception of law, just to give an example, and it goes unnoticed.

    This is why I said that journalism contains a ‘totalitarian impulse’: because it methodically reduces the world to its own ‘philosophical’ assumptions while concealing those assumptions and because, aided and abetted by an IT revolution that allows it to project itself around the world with astonishing speed, it has appropriated to itself an indispensible social role and accumulated vast, largely unaccountable cultural power. The media’s mediation is now ubiquitous. Journalism is the thought form of the age. And therein lies the problem. If journalism’s basic unit of reality is essentially superficial, then the pervasiveness of journalism as a form of rationality is inversely proportional to our capacity to think deeply about anything.

  • Bobiel

    People do not care if God exists, or not.
    What they are interested in is, if there is life after death.

  • sari


    While I agree overall with your comments, it seems that you’re calling for journalists to adopt something akin to the method employed by anthropologists–immersion into the community under study. Anything less than direct observation of how all the pieces fit together, particularly the disconnect between stated belief and actual practice, will fail to describe nuance and complexity. Use of written references imparts a superficial knowledge, but to master the human subject, that knowledge must be substantiated by first-hand observation.

    In reading this and other religion blogs, it appears (at least to me, a reader and sister of a longtime journalist), that many journalists are arbitrarily assigned to the religion beat as they work their way up the ranks. Iow, many papers assign journalists unschooled in the topic on the assumption that the journalistic method can be applied to any topic—not exactly what you said, but close.

  • gsw

    Group A believes in god(s).
    Group B does not believe there are gods.”

    If only, I wish … etc.

    Group A also believes that everyone else should follow their god’s laws.
    Group B believes that laws should be made for the good of the most (living) people based on today’s facts – rather than ancient texts purporting to be from a hypothetical god.

  • R9


    Thanks for taking the time to write that out.

    re: facts, I don’t know myself what deeper meaning journalists are meant to be pursuing that quotemark-facts? X person said something, y discovery was made in the outer solar system, interest rates are at z.

    Of course journalists can be better informed, so as when to know that x person says we can find an solution to the energy crisis by having lots of tiny hamsters on wheels, this isn’t presented as a serious alternative to whatever engineers are saying.

    But there’s going to be a limit to their expertise in practical terms, and and it seems like only half an answer to your concerns anyway.

    But penetration into deeper meanings than quotemark-facts, or whatever… is that really their job? Would it not be better to go ask some philosophers?

    Do we know for sure that there is deeper meaning than quotemark-facts in the first place?

  • greg

    One point you are incorrect on is that statistically athesits are likely to be far more moral as a group than religious people. The more athesit a country is the better quality of life tends to be, atheists commit less crime etc etc.