Parading atheistic ignorance

We don’t usually deal with columns here at GetReligion, but every once in a while, one touches at the core of why we exist, the reason why we advocate so much for religion in the daily newspaper.

In Canada’s highest circulated newspaper, The Toronto Star, Heather Mallick pens a mind-boggling column that many of our readers should …enjoy.

I am an atheist, don’t know why. …I was simply oblivious and continue to be. Religion isn’t on my radar. Like the magnets in high school science experiments that repel each other rather than attract, I am programmed to tune out religious talk.

But here’s the real kicker (bolding is my own).

If you like to stay current, you can’t simultaneously juggle all the elements that make up the news of the world. I follow politics, the arts, memoir and European history, with a minor in Spanish novelists, British comedy and American popular culture. My husband does economics, the history of the English language, meat-based cuisine, the novels of Graham Greene and soccer. The children have assigned themselves music, American fiction, social media and legal issues.

Religion sits on the kitchen table, orphaned.

Most writers don’t openly admit they don’t hold an expertise in something since it almost instantly discredits them. This columnist is blatant about her apathy for understanding religion.

We regret our lack of expertise in religion. But that’s atheism for you. Religion sails past atheists like a paper airplane.

Can you imagine a newspaper employing someone who openly wrote the same sentence above about politics or science or economics?

Here’s an example of my cluelessness: Last summer I wrote a column about a Don Mills school where imams conduct Islamic prayers in the cafeteria, with the boys at the front, the girls behind them and menstruating girls at the back in a sad little huddle.

I genuinely believed that parents and education officials who read this would object to two things: females being treated as second-class compared to boys, and students missing class time that would not be made up later. To me, religion had nothing to do with it.

How in the world can you believe religion has nothing to do with a set of practices set forth from a religious tradition? For a nice comeback, I’m reminded of a comment Ann Rodgers made one a post last year when one student complained about how her religion courses were irrelevant.

I have no idea how a reporter can cover politics, anything involving the Middle East, relief work after a natural disaster, social life in a small town, anything concerning 9/11, neighborhood efforts to improve bad housing and reduce violence, immigration, popular culture or a host of other topics without having a basic grasp of the world’s major religious traditions and how they function in society. You will find religious faith at the heart of all of those topics and many, many more.

Journalism isn’t simply a matter of how well you can put words together. You need a well-formed intellect to be able to step back from the facts at hand and place them in a larger context. You gain the tools for doing so in the classroom, whether in religious classes, sociology classes, or history classes. When I am writing stories today I find myself drawing on classes that I took more than 30 years ago on everything from Catholic mysticism to black history. I would be a poor reporter without that academic background.

Well said. And Heather Mallick is a poor newspaper columnist for openly choosing to ignore religion. Here’s her conclusion:

I shall try not to write about religion again, even inadvertently. For I am an atheist and we atheists have to keep our stick on the ice. We have no faith. We are polite. We do not believe. We are not interested in belief.

The world would be a better place if we made more noise.

Please don’t. What the world doesn’t need is an openly ignorant columnist to write more noise.

Thanks to Jerry for suggesting the image.

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  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Interesting that The Globe and Mail, a leading Canadian newspaper, reported in 2010 on the nation’s rapid march to secularization and suggested:

    This demographic shift raises profound questions about our social values, about the fate of our cultural heritage, about institutions that once formed the bedrock of our communities and about access to political power.

    Here’s the GetReligion post we wrote at the time.

  • Jeff

    She needs to tell her husband to stop reading Graham Greene. He’s at risk of getting cooties otherwise.

  • sari

    Interesting. My child attends a rigorous high-achieving high school and mentioned yesterday that it’s not cool to believe in G-d. I asked if there was any fallout from classmates re: our observance. Later in the conversation, it came up that the students under discussion were the school’s top tier (child’s primary cohort); they feel that intellectual thought and religion are antithetical while at the same time adhering to a philosophy of tolerance for diversity. In my child’s opinion, few had actually thought about religion or G-d and even fewer had received religious instruction of any sort. Religion is just one of those things.

    This the next power generation–the kids who will fill the Ivies and similar schools, and continue on to run the country.

  • http://crazyeddiesbrain.wordpress.com/ Crazy Eddie

    Yeah, it’s unfortunate that we CAN’T just delegate religion to some black hole and chose to ignore it. Would be nice if we could. It isn’t exactly worthy of anything more. It is NOT similar to politics, economics, or science. Being ignorant of religion won’t really change you. There’s quite literally no reason to actually entertain the ideas of religion, though unlike the reporter in question, I have.

    But in order to understand how other people behave, you often have to understand their religion. It’s a simple fact of life. So yeah, a reporter not having the first clue or interest about religion is going to severely limit his/her ability to report on some of our most important problems in the world.

  • Julia

    Jeff: What a great line about cooties and Graham Greene.
    Made me laugh out loud. It’s a wonder the husband likes those books. Perhaps he just doesn’t get the ubiquitous religious themes in Graham Greene. He’d probably get cooties from James Joyce and Garcia Marquez, too.

  • Will

    “Really, a young atheist can not be too careful of his reading.” — Lewis

  • Dale

    I, too, loved the irony of mentioning Graham Greene’s novels as an intellectual interest, while maintaining that one had absolutely no interest in religion.

    Utterly clueless. I hope her husband doesn’t embarrass himself by writing about Greene without learning something about Catholicism.

  • Jeff

    Julia,

    Yes. I’d be interested to know how she and her family manage to “follow” politics, the arts, European history, Spanish novelists, British comedy, American popular culture, the history of the English language, music, American fiction, and legal issues (whew!) without any knowledge of religion at all.

    My guess would be not very well — a guess supported by how well her husband seems to follow Graham Greene.

    The problem with “well-educated” types like this is that they’re rarely educated very well — nowhere near so well as they themselves suppose and want the rest of us to believe.

  • Bill

    I am an atheist, don’t know why. …I was simply oblivious and continue to be.

    And don’t talk about religion. It’s not logical.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    While I appreciate the sentiments here and can see the value to the religious in labeling we atheists “ignorant,” it’s hard to get around the fact that atheists, on average, are actually more knowledgeable about religion that religious people are.

    The article in question is not a particularly useful representation of atheists, and I agree it demonstrates a profound lack of insight on the author’s part (at least the pieces of it you quoted); but I can also understand Ms. Mallick’s point of view. I was raised Catholic, but could see very early on that most of what I was being taught made zero logical sense. Because of this, I rarely ever think about what the religious call the “truth” of religion anymore. Frankly, it’s a waste of my time.

    I do, however, find myself thinking about religion in social and political contexts quite often. Of course, the trouble for religion here is that once you discard the idea of God, you’re now primarily just thinking about society and politics anyway. Religious ideas become factors, but not drivers within political contexts once you accept that the majority of them are nonsense.

    Religion (with a capital “R”), after all, is a relative late comer to the reality that is human society. Politics, which is at its core the simple interaction between human persons and groups, LONG predates it in history. As does art, and also even the idea of science – which is really just human curiosity outwardly expressed.

    To the author’s point, religion very often does sit on the kitchen table orphaned for us atheists. But not, as you seem to suggest, because we refuse to consider it. Rather it is there because most of us have already done so, and find it worth little added effort to continue. There are far more important things for us to think about.

  • Spencerian

    Picture how this comment of an imaginary scientist would go over among fellow scientists, using the writer’s same logic:

    As a botanist, I deal with plants, not the physics of the sun. So when I study, I solely look at the plant biology.

    I can appreciate the writer’s disinterest in religion. What I cannot tolerate is her understanding that religion, like the sun, shines/exists throughout the world, regardless of her interest or approval in it. Those with religious interests only desire that reporters take enough of an academic interest to accurately acknowledge and report religious practice and its influence based on the stories they write, without interjecting their personal views, bias or hearsay about what they think a religion does.

  • joye

    I don’t even understand what that last sentence is supposed to mean or signify, other than to check off a box in a “bad writer cliche list” called “end with a pithy sentence that vaguely suggests a call to some kind of action without actually committing you to anything”.

    I mean, she goes from saying “From now on, I am taking my toys and GOING HOME, you mean old religious people, I am not going to write about ANYTHING that has to do with you, SO THERE, I’m going to IGNORE you because I’m POLITE and I’m going to make HOCKEY metaphors because I’m CANADIAN” to saying “let’s make more noise, atheists!” What? Where is the logical consistency there? You’re going to ignore them and concentrate on higher, more noble matters… noisily? What?

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    joye,

    It makes more sense if you go and read the entire article rather than just the snippets given here…

  • Jeff

    Michael E. Kelly,

    You and the author here can be as atheist as you please. But if you’re going to free-ride on the vast majority of our common culture with theistic roots, then you ought to *understand* theism to an adequate degree. Otherwise, you come off as ignorant, parochial, and frankly podunk as the author here, with her specious claim to a cootie-free immersion in our largely theistic common culture, from Graham Greene forward on (and on) down the line. Perhaps you *do* understand theism to an adequate degree. I have no reason to doubt that you do. But, in any case, you do your fellow atheist no favors by trying to defend her ignorance here, the ignorance she’s chosen to parade in a ridiculous way that has opened her up to the ridicule she’s getting on this thread.

  • Jon in the Nati

    There was a day, and not too very long ago, when regardless of one’s personal beliefs or commitments, one could not be considered a cultured and learned person without some knowledge of the world’s great religions and philosophical traditions. Despite being raised a committed Christian, I was certainly raised with that understanding as well. It appears that this is no longer the case, and it is a shame.

  • Jerry

    Michael E. Kelly, I’ll grant that SOME atheists are very knowledgeable about religion and are able to see how much of every day life has religious elements.

    But this post is about an aggressively ignorant person who is proud of her ignorance and has no interest in learning something about religion. Not only that, she throws a basic tenet of journalism under the bus: being able to write intelligently and knowledgeably about the news because there is a religious component to the vast majority of important news stories specifically including politics.

    And you might want to learn a bit about the history of religion because it stretches back at least to the neolithic and even further back to Neanderthal’s at least according to some archeologists. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_religion

  • Mark Erickson

    It’s good you don’t regularly cover columnists, because as a savvy newshound, you should know columnists are emloyed to sell papers, not care about all facets of life or even about facts. And if this type of ignorance about a subject merited a post from you, you’d be drowned by all the religious columnists who don’t care about science, or economics, or foreign affairs.

  • http://jaydinitto.com Jay DiNitto

    For I am an atheist and we atheists have to keep our stick on the ice. We have no faith. We are polite. We do not believe. We are not interested in belief.

    Incoherent. Atheism presupposes many things and it a statement of religious belief–namely that she believes that the metaphysical is non-existent. You can’t come to atheism without entertaining religion in the first place.

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    Ah, Heather Mallick. If you think this is bad, you should look up some of her old columns re: now mayor Rob Ford. I truly don’t know how she convinces any paper to pay her to write for them.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    Jeff,

    I fail to see why this must be contentious (podunk? really?), but I will address your points.

    First, rather than defend her, I actually maintained that the author did no atheists any favors here (I believe I used the words “profound lack of insight on the author’s part”). She allowed herself to be presented as unlearned and foolish. The actual article she wrote is slightly more sensible, if you care to read it (though I will admit, not by much).

    The point I did make – and I stand by it – was that most atheists have thought very hard about religion at some point and rationally decided to discard it. Harder, in fact, than many religious people will ever think about it their entire lives. We’re forced to, by the way, because religion does have such a prominent place in society. Were none of us ever exposed to religious ideas, we wouldn’t ever have to think about them at all. Not one of us would ever feel the need to say, “You know that idea of the supernatural that none of us believe in? Yeah, I still don’t believe in it.”

    Second, to assert (as you do when you call us free-riders) that any of us should have to defer to religious tradition or even think hard about it in our daily lives is the pinnacle of arrogance. Religion deserves no special treatment, it is a cultural phenomenon that needs to be understood as such. Its tradition is no more or less important today than other cultural phenomenon like nationalism. It should be studied and discussed, but I hardly think I should need to be careful how I discuss it – or to pay homage to it for giving us what we have today. In fact, doing so would be the opposite of “understanding” theism. It would set it apart from all else and force us to consider it a “special case.” I will not do that.

    Political (with a small “p”) thought, artistic expression, and scientific curiosity are the key features of what “being human” really means. They are what separate from the rest of the animal world. Organized religion, unfortunately, has been “free-riding” off those dominant traits of our species for thousands of years. I, for one, don’t feel the need to apologize for pointing that out.

  • KJS

    As a botanist, I deal with plants, not the physics of the sun. So when I study, I solely look at the plant biology.

    Well, as a former biologist, I don’t see the problem with this. Botany has very little to say about energy transfer in proton-proton chain reactions, and astronomy has very little to say about lethal mutations in light-cycle reactions. Both the physics of the Sun and the biochemistry of the chloroplast are both well outside of the reach of people who are not specialists, and that’s been the case for almost a century now.

    The same, I find, is true of religion, where the demand for knowledge becomes a game of double-standards and shifting goalposts. Thankfully, most reasonable people seem to be more than willing to entertain honest ignorance with delightful conversations where both people learn.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    Jerry,

    I understand your point of view, and appreciate your link; but I think you misunderstand me. The history of religion is one not easily understood (and certainly can’t be done in a comment on the internet), but organized religion – belief systems codified or with a common oral tradition – are likely a very recent phenomenon.

    Political behavior, artistic expression, and “scientific” curiosity, on the other hand, are ingrained in our species from the start. In fact, it is very likely in my opinion that a combination of these traits gave rise to religion in the first place. Religion is a human cultural creation, not a god given natural phenomenon.

  • R9

    Sarah did you forget to link the piece itself?

    I’m pretty much apatheist myself, but I can still see value in understanding what motivates the religious. (or trying to anyway).

  • KJS

    Most writers don’t openly admit they don’t hold an expertise in something since it almost instantly discredits them.

    And that’s a problem, because the most insightful writing comes from people who are willing to put all their prior expertise aside to listen and observe fairly. News media about religious issues is universally dreadful, largely because it’s filled with “experts” arguing about things well beyond their area of expertise.

  • Jeff

    Michael E. Kelly,

    Whether or not you and your fellow atheists like the author we’re discussing here *should* “defer” to “religious tradition” or to the theistic roots of our common culture is not my concern. I merely meant to point out the fact that you *do* defer to that tradition and to those roots, and, given that deference, that you ought to *understand* that tradition and those roots in an adequate way. I was willing earlier to grant that you yourself, unlike the author we’re discussing here, may understand that tradition and those roots in an adequate way. But now I think I spoke too soon. While you aren’t parading your ignorance to the same parochial and podunk degree as the author we’re discussing here, you do nonetheless seem to understand theism, religious tradition, and the roots of our common culture to something less than an adequate degree. I’d recommend the works of Friedrich Nietzsche as a place to start for a better understanding than you seem to have of what it means to say that God is dead. All the best. Have a nice day.

  • Will

    Mr. Kelly, perhaps you have thought hard, but from my experience I do not believe it as a general statement. Before this comment is deleted for not focusing on journalism: the unbelievers I have to cope with persistently attack a version of “Christianity” suitable for a dull twelve-year old, and when I try to point out that it is not that simple, accuse me of making it up… or go on telling me “THIS is what YOU REALLY believe, no matter what you say.” This does not show signs of having “thought hard”.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    Jeff,

    With all due respect, whether or not we should defer to religious tradition seems very much your concern. And while your sense of intellectual superiority is very apparent, any concept of what you consider an “adequate” understanding of these vague theistic roots of our culture is not. This, unfortunately, forces me to assess that you define an adequate understanding as one that corresponds neatly with YOUR understanding. And if that is the case, it seems fruitless to discuss it further.

    As to Nietzsche, I’m familiar with his work; though not as familiar as I am with other philosophers. My understanding of the phrase “God is dead” has always been that Nietzsche believed that Christians, in corrupting their belief systems (the actual teachings of Jesus) in the face of modern convenience, were themselves the responsible parties for killing their own God. However, even this allows more credit to religion than I’m willing to give.

    I don’t believe that morals have their roots in religion. They never have. Religion was simply the best way early humans could figure out to express their shared traditions in a way that could be transmitted quickly to the next generation. That’s it. The most basic moral tenants – cooperation, a sense of fairness, protecting kin – exist in every form of religion, and thus must be independent of all of them. Religion helps us to explain morals, it doesn’t provide us with them.

    Alas, I fell I’ve gotten slightly off topic here; and for that I apologize. But I hope it’s clear that my understanding of the topics we’re discussing here is, in fact, quite broad. I am not – hard as it may be for some to believe – an ignorant atheist.

  • KJS

    I think the fact that we’ve gone from “adequate knowledge” to understanding Nietzsche in under a paragraph is a classic example of shifting the goalposts.

    The beauty of education in any field is that the more you learn, the more ignorant you realize yourself to be. Yes, I’m an ignorant atheist, that’s why I’m trying to listen carefully to what you have to say.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    Will,

    I am sympathetic to your concerns. And I believe what you say about many of the atheists you know. But I assure you that not all atheists are like this. What you are likely experiencing is more a social expression than an intellectual pursuit on their part. There can be a sense of rebellion in atheism I suppose, because people who give up on God feel empowered to flaunt it. But to be honest, I never had a very deep belief in the supernatural – even as a child. It was easy for me to let it go.

    That said, it can also be a difficult position to be in. Imagine being scorned for simply not believing that something exists. To an atheist, that can’t be a rational position for another person hold. What if I decided that I didn’t like you just because you don’t believe in unicorns? And I went out of my way to make sure you knew it? Would that make sense?

    And this goes to the heart of the matter that I think Ms. Mallick is trying to get at. Atheists don’t think about God a lot, because why would we? Do you think often about unicorns? Also, I think that there is a regional component to all this. I’m from New York. Ms. Mallick is from Canada. These are pretty secular places to begin with. But what if we were in the deep south, where religion is more a part of everyday lives? We wouldn’t be able to get away with not thinking about religion very often I don’t think.

    And that would annoy us! Once more back to the unicorn analogy. How would you react if all the people you knew didn’t like you because you didn’t believe in unicorns, made it known to you, AND persisted in talking about unicorns every chance they got? You’d get a little defensive around unicorn believers too, I think. Take that for what it’s worth I guess. We’re not out to get you, it’s just tiring to have to defend a non belief in something that no one else can prove exists.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    KJS,

    I see what you’re saying, but I disagree with how you’re using the word ignorant in this context, as the original article uses ignorant as a derogatory term.

    It can be said that there are things that we know we know, things that we know we don’t know, and things that we don’t know we don’t know. The goal of a good education should be to shrink that last category. Those who don’t bother to try are the people I would consider ignorant.

  • Julia

    The ‘atheist’ columnist wrote an effective piece to get people’s attention focused on issues of modern religion. She is so accurate in her honest perceptions, its bound to draw out discussion.

    Face it, Canada is extremely diverse, probably more than the US in terms of religion. You can’t miss religion in Canada, one of the hit TV shows has been ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’. Yet I got the hint from the article that hockey is a bigger part of community and unifies Canada more than religion.

    Most folks are missing the point. Canada is tolerant of diversity in observing religion and equally not observing religion aka atheism. Celebrate the fact that a Canadian can live a full life without religion, as that seems like the point of the column. I don’t think that the author is uninformed about religion or its role in society as much as she recognizes it doesn’t play a meaningful part of her life in the least bit.

    Similarly in the US we have lots of people who call themselves religious yet often are religious illiterates and religious intolerant. Claiming to be religious or to care about religion does not equate to being a better person. For that matter being honest enough to acknowledge being not religious or not to care about religion would make any less a better person. Going further I’d say honesty makes a better person as opposed to hypocrisy.

    Editor: This is a different Julia than the Julia who frequently comments at GetReligion. Just fyi.

  • Julia

    I would ask the other “Julia” to identify herself somehow as being a different person from me. I’ve been going by “Julia” since my first days with Amy Welborn way back when there weren’t many blogs on-line and many people know me by that moniker. I’d not want you to be stuck with my reputation; you should be free to speak your own individual mind without my baggage.

    Thanks.

  • RMC

    When I was six years old my dad told me that female feminists don’t have a sense of humor. And while deep down I knew it was true I could not believe him. So I went out in the world and asked every female feminist whether she had a sense of humor and they all said “NO!” And finally I asked Heather Mallick. And she told me: “This question is not funny.”

    I rest my case.

    Link service:

    http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1122905–atheists-should-make-more-noise#article

  • sari

    While I appreciate the sentiments here and can see the value to the religious in labeling we atheists “ignorant,” it’s hard to get around the fact that atheists, on average, are actually more knowledgeable about religion that religious people are.

    Michael, that may be true of your social circle, but not mine. Mainly I meet second generation irreligious. Asked if they believe in a higher power, they will say that their parents were lax in their observance and that religion was never a meaningful part of their lives. This is even more true for my high schooler’s classmates and friends. While I do not subscribe to the belief that all or most atheists lack a moral code, I have witnessed some pretty nasty arguments between Christians and atheists while I wait on carpool. Without exception, the former walks away hurt when the latter uses the word stupid. My child also had a science prof who assumed that we would have issues with evolution theory, because we are observant Jews. We don’t; in seventeen years of SpEd meetings, he, an in-your-face atheist, was the only teacher to ever question my children’s capacity to learn material. Bad assumption on his part, since he made this comment with admin present. My child said he routinely baited religious kids in his class. Inappropriate, unprofessional and a firing offense for a theist.

    The article in question is not a particularly useful representation of atheists, and I agree it demonstrates a profound lack of insight on the author’s part (at least the pieces of it you quoted); but I can also understand Ms. Mallick’s point of view. I was raised Catholic, but could see very early on that most of what I was being taught made zero logical sense. Because of this, I rarely ever think about what the religious call the “truth” of religion anymore. Frankly, it’s a waste of my time.

    I do, however, find myself thinking about religion in social and political contexts quite often. Of course, the trouble for religion here is that once you discard the idea of God, you’re now primarily just thinking about society and politics anyway. Religious ideas become factors, but not drivers within political contexts once you accept that the majority of them are nonsense.

    Religion (with a capital “R”), after all, is a relative late comer to the reality that is human society. Politics, which is at its core the simple interaction between human persons and groups, LONG predates it in history. As does art, and also even the idea of science – which is really just human curiosity outwardly expressed.

    To the author’s point, religion very often does sit on the kitchen table orphaned for us atheists. But not, as you seem to suggest, because we refuse to consider it. Rather it is there because most of us have already done so, and find it worth little added effort to continue. There are far more important things for us to think about.

  • KJS

    In more technical terms, I think that an emic perspective is well beyond what most writers can achieve outside of their own religious communities, and etic perspectives can’t do much more than scratch the surface of religious thought. Frankly, it strikes me as unethical to claim an etic perspective on the topic of religion.

    As Will said, “it’s not that simple.”

    I’m an atheist AND a member of a religious community. I just don’t trust the writing of outsiders. If you want for me to trust your writing about a religious/spiritual community, don’t point to your education, show me how you gained the trust of the people involved, how they fit with the larger community, and how your writing lets their voice come through.

  • sari

    The article in question is not a particularly useful representation of atheists, and I agree it demonstrates a profound lack of insight on the author’s part (at least the pieces of it you quoted); but I can also understand Ms. Mallick’s point of view. I was raised Catholic, but could see very early on that most of what I was being taught made zero logical sense. Because of this, I rarely ever think about what the religious call the “truth” of religion anymore. Frankly, it’s a waste of my time.

    Being raised Catholic gave you the knowledge base to make a choice. For many coming up, growing up as nothings has made their choice for them. If my child, heaven forbid, ceases to be observant, it will be a conscious decision from a position of knowledge rather than just because.

    I do, however, find myself thinking about religion in social and political contexts quite often. Of course, the trouble for religion here is that once you discard the idea of God, you’re now primarily just thinking about society and politics anyway. Religious ideas become factors, but not drivers within political contexts once you accept that the majority of them are nonsense.

    Well, whether one believes in G-d or not, religion is still a driver. One cannot understand European or American history independent of Christianity, especially those periods when religion was all-encompassing. Likewise our legal code derives heavily from Scripture. Art, language, music, figures of speech, morality are all strongly influenced by religion. To relegate religion, good or bad, to a factor diminishes its influence.

    Religion (with a capital “R”), after all, is a relative late comer to the reality that is human society. Politics, which is at its core the simple interaction between human persons and groups, LONG predates it in history. As does art, and also even the idea of science – which is really just human curiosity outwardly expressed.

    The above is an unprovable assertion. My background is anthropology. One of my professors defined politics as the arena in which problems were solved with words rather than physical force. From a purely secular standpoint, we still cannot pinpoint when human beings became human, when they acquired language, or whether language was integral to early forms of religious expression. Iow, short of bringing back Asimov’s ugly little boy, we just don’t know.

    To the author’s point, religion very often does sit on the kitchen table orphaned for us atheists. But not, as you seem to suggest, because we refuse to consider it. Rather it is there because most of us have already done so, and find it worth little added effort to continue. There are far more important things for us to think about.

    Actually, according to my child, classmates’ atheism is exactly that described by the author. It is neither thoughtful nor well-thought out. My teen described is as a fad. I’m not sure that’s true, but they’ve been classmates for 5-10 years, depending, know each other well enough to look for certain kosher seals to allow food sharing, and have never demonstrated the kind of introspection you describe. They are as intellectually lazy in their atheism as other friends are in their theism.

    The bottom line is that journalists should research their topics well and make accuracy and impartiality a priority. Though religion plays no part in the author’s life, she should at least recognize that it plays a part in some people’s lives and is therefore important to them. My seventeen year old knew that the sexes are separated during Muslim prayer services and that menstruants have additional restrictions, this despite a complete lack of interest in becoming a Muslim. Why? Curiosity about others.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    sari,

    Without delving too much further into this discussion, as it could go on forever, I still think you’re making the same subtle but very important mistake that so many others do. Let me try and explain my point of view.

    Well, whether one believes in G-d or not, religion is still a driver. One cannot understand European or American history independent of Christianity, especially those periods when religion was all-encompassing. Likewise our legal code derives heavily from Scripture. Art, language, music, figures of speech, morality are all strongly influenced by religion. To relegate religion, good or bad, to a factor diminishes its influence.

    You are making an assumption here that I refuse to make. What I find you essentially saying is that religion is the cause of much that has happened in history, but what I see when I look at history is that religion is often just used as an excuse to motivate others to accomplish political or social goals that already existed. Religion has, in every age, been corrupted by man to serve political ends – both good and bad.

    If a group of people says “we want to kill those guys, let’s cite the Bible as proof that we should be allowed to!” they are not making a religious decision, they are instead draping their true motivations – often even from themselves – in a cloak of “God said this was ok to do.” The same can be said for people who do good. Humans have a fundamental sense of right and wrong that is independent of religion. We have evolved a sense of fairness that is hard wired in our brains. So when people look at that group who want to kill everyone and say “God wouldn’t want this, it’s right here in the Bible!” What they are really saying is “that doesn’t seem right, but I need more than just my gut to convince others of my assertion.” This is often also very much an unconscious decision.

    In my mind I don’t need to diminish religion. Because I think that for too long it’s been given a place in our attention that it hasn’t truly deserved. Religion is a convenient way to attempt to explain difficult ideas. It’s done it’s job with varying degrees of success for a very long time, but that doesn’t mean it must always do so. My goal is to show religion in the true light of reality, not the deep clouds of ever changing mythology.

    I stated in an earlier comment, using other words, that religion might actually be a cultural creation derived from our natural human instincts to behave as independent but social animals (politics), make expressive representational creations (art), and curiously explore the world around us (science). And while your professor’s definition of politics “as the arena in which problems were solved with words rather than physical force” is an interesting one, it doesn’t strike me as very useful to this discussion. To declare violent human action as a fundamentally different force than so called “political” human action implies a world view that refuses to take certain parts of our reality into account.

    When I think of politics I think of all action that humans take among themselves to achieve shared goals. Violence is and has been one of those actions, even if it doesn’t seem very civilized. Put another way, the state of nature (in either the of the dominant views of Hobbes or Rousseau) doesn’t exist – and, importantly, it never has. To think otherwise, to believe that one day humans behaved fundamentally differently towards each other than we do now, is naive. It is, therefore, useless as an explanatory system. So when I say politics, art, and science predate religion I mean that religion is cultural invention while those other categories are instinctual. Religion wouldn’t even make sense without those human traits being in place first.

    Human beings can live perfectly natural lives without religious belief. Those kids in your children’s school who don’t have may or may not ever have find it. They can still be productive members of society. Imagine them, though, without the instincts to politics (social behavior), art (abstract ideas), or science (basic curiosity). It cannot be done.

  • sari

    Michael,
    Your definition of politics, your views on the meaning and relevance of religion are personal. Likewise, your beliefs. I know enough people across the religious spectrum to acknowledge that every group has moral and immoral adherents, and that most fall in the middle. However, you appear to have projected your personal journey onto the journeys of others and seem unable to parse alternative perspectives.

    I personally don’t care what people believe, but I do care that they can set aside their personal prejudices when writing news. My issue is with Ms. Mallick’s trivializing others’ beliefs because she finds them personally irrelevant, not with atheism. Denying G-d’s existence is not new. The ntellectual laziness shown in her writing and her lack of curiosity about what drives people’s behavior are attributes which do not lead to good journalism, as she herself said. More telling was her decision simply to avoid a topic she finds incomprehensible and distasteful rather than to expand her, by her own admission, very limited horizons. Her Op-Ed suggested that she consider other fields of endeavor, since her deliberate ignorance renders her incapable of writing a fully researched and nuanced story.

  • http://michaeledwardkelly.com/ Michael E. Kelly

    sari,

    I will not disagree that Ms. Mallick’s article wasn’t very good. I didn’t particularly like it either. As to your criticism of me, I understand it. I, of course, respectfully disagree. Discussion of religion is inherently personal, and I won’t make a lot of friends by telling people that their deeply held beliefs are flat out wrong and without basis in reality. Such is life. I think we can both agree that most people, religious or not, are generally good and want to be kind whenever they can be. That, more than anything else, is my reason for saying that religion will never be as important in reality as people may think. This is not a subjective opinion; but one, with far more space at my disposal, I know I could assert and illustrate with evidence. I fully understand your perspective about the importance of religion, I just happen to think it’s wrong.

  • Mike O.

    I’m going to defend Heather Mallick’s article to a point. If a person in this day and age doesn’t investigate the concept of where did we come from, many would argue (and I’d guess some would disagree) that the null position isn’t that there is a god. It certainly wouldn’t be that we should naturally assume that there is a human-shaped being who put the universe together and thinks humans are the best.

    For anything if you don’t really think about it too much or consider the hows and whys, the answer is going to be much more along the lines of it just is as opposed to something unfathomably miraculous caused it. To quote the great rock philosopher Neil Peart, “Why are we here? Because we’re here.”

    Why do rainbows occur? If you don’t go into the science of it all and just take a casual look at things, the null position is along the lines of “something to do with the rain” instead of “it’s a sign from God”. So if Ms. Mallick doesn’t do the research (and she maybe should) I’m not surprised that she defaulted to the ordinary instead of the extraordinary.

  • Mark Baddeley

    If she really does manage to write anything about religion in any form, then I think her basic position is good. She’ll be quite limited as a journalist or columnist given how often religion will be a factor in various news items, but if she can genuinely stay clear of speaking about religion, then that would be a service to journalism.

    It’s not great as a journalist to be completely, actively disinterested in a big slice of life for many/most people. But if you are, and you’re happy to be that way, then it’s good to know your limitations and stay out of that area.

  • Jeff

    Mark Baddeley,

    But she doesn’t seem to know her limitations. Graham Greene’s novels, for example, are something that she isn’t entitled to speak about but nonetheless does, and in an ignorant way. Maybe the best way for her to stay within her limitations would be simply to say nothing at all about anything at all, full-stop.

  • sari

    Mark,
    How can she write about the fabric of society if she does not acknowledge or understand the threads from which it has been woven? Better to step out of journalism altogether.

  • Adam

    Let’s get a grip people. Unless the column she’s writing about is a religion column, the she shouldn’t be attacked but rather commended for her openness. Many people are ignorant of ton’s of things, I don’t have a problem with her being honest about hers.

  • Howard T.

    Yep, many atheists don’t know much about religion, or even atheism. Atheism mostly comes from thoughtful reasoning about what we see and experience. People think about how reality works and figure out that magic isn’t real, so gods don’t exist.
    Few atheists think through what it means for life to have evolved by natural processes. Human behavior is naturally selected to help us survive and reproduce. Yep, even moral altruism was naturally selected because it helps groups prosper, which of course helps the individuals in that group.
    Hopefully, atheists will some day develop our thinking and organize so we are not so isolated.

  • KJS

    How can she write about the fabric of society if she does not acknowledge or understand the threads from which it has been woven? Better to step out of journalism altogether.

    I’m skeptical of this argument on two points. The first is that it’s often, even usually invoked in ways that are sectarian and even ethnocentric.

    The second is that there’s a weird bit of differential credentialism going on where growing up Christian can be the basis for a certain kind of authority, but the atheist is required to muster a dissertation on Aquinas, Lewis, the Koran, and the Upanishads to express doubt.

    Certainly I’m not going to embarrass myself by charging into theological debates with Jesuits with only an armchair knowledge of Catholicism. (Although I might invite one to coffee and conversation in the interest of learning more.) I’m less convinced that such lofty credentials are necessary to write about most issues.

  • RK

    “The world would be a better place if we made more noise.”

    About what? The very thing she just admitted she knows nothing about?? Unbelieveable.

  • sari

    KJS #46,
    Even the most secular seeming article may involve players for whom religion is important, like the snarky reporter who complained in print that the rabbis at a Florida JCC failed to return his Friday afternoon calls before his article went to press Sunday morning. The article actually concerned a huge corporate relo, one which involved close to 1000 families, and he was looking for representatives of different backgrounds to interview. The area had a large concentration of Jews, many fully observant, so he figured he’d have time to get a referral, do a quicky interview and write up the article. How do I know this? Because I called him on it. He, unlike Ms. Mallick, used the information provided to broaden his knowledge base. The next article was spot on. And, he apologized for not doing his homework.

    I cannot imagine covering the Southeast without a working knowledge of religion’s place in the community and in people’s lives.

  • http://ninomania.blogspot.com David Wagner

    A veteran editorial writer and hands-on researcher on religious liberty issues once told me there are two issues to which editors routinely assign new reporters with zero substantive knowledge of the subject: one was education, and the other was, of course, religion.

  • KJS

    Even the most secular seeming article may involve players for whom religion is important, like the snarky reporter who complained in print that the rabbis at a Florida JCC failed to return his Friday afternoon calls before his article went to press Sunday morning.

    Which is a mistake often made by Christians on the basis of their working religious knowledge. I know just enough about Judaism to know that I should probably, ask a question, rather than to pretend I understand what observance means and how best I should accommodate it.

    I cannot imagine covering the Southeast without a working knowledge of religion’s place in the community and in people’s lives.

    I still hold that working knowledge (as opposed to an working open-minded willingness to learn) often ends up creating a form of bias that leads to bad and stupid writing about religion when the players are outside of the writer’s comfort zone. Take this dumb lede which doesn’t do justice to the diversity of ways that religious groups use ritual spaces, much less the debate between religious humanism and antitheism which has been going on for over a century.

    And while we’re on the topic of the southeast, count how many articles about the Republican primary treat the region as a monolithic in religion and culture ignoring not only the presence of non-Christian votes, but the diversity of Christian perspectives as well.

  • KJS

    Or to put it another way, we both want better writing about religion. In my opinion coverage of both mainstream and minority religious views would be greatly improved if writers bothered to build their articles on what the people involved say about their beliefs, rather than what the reporter “knows” about their beliefs.


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