Fresh eyes on religion coverage

student journalismMichigan State University’s student newspaper, The State News, had a solid feature story a couple of weeks ago by Petra Canan that takes a fresh and personal look at the local Christian Science congregation. Apologies for not mentioning this sooner, but it is important not to let this one slip by.

Many thanks to the reader who gave us the heads up on the story, along with this note:

[The story] deserves to be lauded for its willingness to tackle statements of belief right off the bat, as well as take the time to feature a prayer worker’s perspective on spiritual healing and a historical overview of Mary Baker Eddy, while not fixating on medical issues. I think too often we forget that the journalists of tomorrow are the student journalists of today, and that collegiate papers’ coverage of religion can tell us much about where more general media coverage may go.

As a former student journalist myself, I could not agree more. The viewpoints and perspectives entrenched in today’s newsrooms are often formed and shaped during college journalism careers. Influences range from the classroom to interaction with faculty and university officials, but sometimes a single story can have as great an impact as an entire semester of instruction.

The open and respectful perspective on Christian Science is apparent from the start of the article:

As morning gives way to afternoon, the cold wind blowing outside, a congregation comes to its feet at their pews and chairs. The church, with its crisp white walls and maroon carpet, stays warm with the heat of two fireplaces. Eight windows line the room with lit candles on their sills.

. . . Among them is East Lansing resident Jeanne Troutman, who stands in her usual spot at the back of the church with her husband, facing the front of the room with the words of Christ Jesus and Eddy before her.

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” reads the quote from Christ Jesus on the left.

“Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need,” are the words of Eddy.

Troutman, a lifelong student of the Christian Science faith, is a member of the congregation of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, 709 E. Grand River Ave., and a Christian Science visiting nurse. She serves a vital role in the practicing of spiritual healing, which, she said, maintains the ideas of the first creation and the perfect God and the perfect man.

The religion of Christian Science was founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, a Congregationalist who rejected the Christian ideas of predestination.

One could quibble with the statement that predestination is a Christian idea since not all Christian denominations accept it. It is in fact one of the most divisive and controversial theological issues one could find two Christians discussing. But that is a minor point on an overall tremendous article.

As our reader noted, the “medical issues” often fascinate reporters, causing them to miss other aspects of the faith. The article is particularly solid when it discusses the theological foundations of the faith:

Eddy went on to research Christian healing and is said to have performed several healings herself. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” first published in 1875, remains the principle text in addition to the King James Version of the Bible.

However, other versions of the Bible are studied.

The main ideas of Eddy’s book include the role of God as divine love, Father-Mother and as supreme, the spiritual role of man as child of God and the power of healing through God. The book has since been published in 17 languages and English Braille and is sold in 80 countries.

The mother church was built in Boston in 1894 and remains there to this day as the world headquarters for the religion.

One perspective on this student-published article is that is not encumbered with the burdens of the modern journalist. Real-life newsroom pressures such as deadlines and money do not press as much upon the innocent student. But then again, students have pressures in their lives as well.

Another, more optimistic, view is that tomorrow’s journalists will be better at understanding and appreciating religion news. The increased attention today’s journalist give religion — for good and for bad — will certainly raise the importance of religion coverage. I hope it will result in greater understanding and respect.

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Evangelical is not (descriptive) enough

oral roberts universityRichard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., resigned over the long holiday weekend over a series of allegations of misspending the institution’s funds to support expensive shopping trips and trips to the sunny seas of the Caribbean. Only a handful of news agencies have picked up the story, but a few are worth highlighting.

Most notably, The New York Times published an Associated Press story that implies in the headline and says in the body of the story that the university is an evangelical institution.

Perhaps the university’s being founded by televangelist Oral Roberts has created some confusion. I am aware that evangelical is not a very precise word, but the world of Pentecostalism is much broader than that one adjective can encompass.

Thankfully, the AP’s Eric Gorski is on the story and has a very thorough report. These paragraphs highlight an interesting component that would be easy to miss:

At a university that is hardly a den of dissent, the reaction to the scandal has been striking. Before Richard Roberts stepped down, tenured faculty gave him a no-confidence vote and his handpicked provost said he would resign if Roberts were reinstated.

“There was a time when the wagons would circle and we’d protect our own,” said the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a former member of the ORU board of regents who is now a United Church of Christ minister. “But we don’t know what our own is anymore. People are asking questions and questioning answers, and we’re not used to it.”

In other words, there is more to this story than yet another Christian showing that all humans are sinners and are just as capable as self-destructing as everyone else.

Speaking of everyone else, William McQuillen and Jeff St.Onge of Bloomberg News put the news in an larger context:

Roberts becomes the latest president at a U.S. school to lose his post because of allegations of financial impropriety. Benjamin Ladner was ousted from his post as president of American University in Washington, D.C., after an audit found that he used school funds to hire a personal chef, take trips to Europe and throw parties for his family.

The Tulsa World led with a word from the man himself:

Embattled Oral Roberts University President Richard Roberts resigned Friday following nearly two months of allegations that he and his family misused university and ministry resources.

In his resignation letter, Roberts states: “I love ORU with all my heart. I love the students, faculty, staff and administration and I want to see God’s best for all of them.”

If there was ever a time to bury a resignation in the news cycle, Thanksgiving week was the time to do it. By resigning Friday, Roberts almost assured that there won’t be much coverage of his resignation after today. That doesn’t mean this story is going away. An independent report is expected to be released maybe next week, but the significance of the story is gone. The subject of the report has stepped down. The next question involves the complicated and undetermined future of the university.

A huge question that remains largely unanswered is how this scandal was affected by the Roberts family’s emphasis on prosperity theology.

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The meaning of life

StemCell2Yesterday media outlets announced the news of a breakthrough in stem-cell research. The details were published in the prestigious journals Science and Cell (PDF).

Translating the research for readers of mainstream media has challenged reporters all over the globe. Two different teams of scientists have figured out a means to obtain pluripotent stem cells without creating — or destroying — an embryo. In fact, no human reproductive material was used at all, including eggs. Now, most pluripotent stem cells are known as embryonic stem cells, meaning they come from an embryo. The new technology, called Direct Cell Reprogramming or Induced Pluripotent State, takes adult cells and regenerates them back to the pluripotent state. It’s quite similar to embryonic stem cells, but they are not embryonic stem cells.

So that’s my first note — headlines such as these two from National Public Radio are problematic:

Skin Cells Can Become Embryonic Stem Cells

Scientists Create Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin

On the other hand, many reporters did a great job of explaining and translating the science and its ethical impact. Here, for example, is Gina Kolata in The New York Times:

Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The need to destroy embryos has made stem cell research one of the most divisive issues in American politics, pitting President Bush against prominent Republicans like Nancy Reagan, and patient advocates who hoped that stem cells could cure diseases like Alzheimer’s. The new studies could defuse the issue as a presidential election nears.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work, conducted by independent teams from Japan and Wisconsin, should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added.

Good thing Missouri enshrined embryonic destruction into its constitution! Thinking back to that election battle, one of the criticisms I had was that the mainstream media kept referring to supporters of the Missouri amendment as “favoring stem-cell research.” Of course, everyone, more or less, favors stem-cell research. Stem cells have been considered very exciting avenues for research because of their remarkable potential to develop into different cell types in the body (muscle cell, brain cell, skin cell). Some stem cells come from adults while other stem cells come from embryos. Each type has various advantages and disadvantages. Some people don’t think advances in science should come by destroying embryos. Others think that destroying embryos is a price you have to pay for the possibility of developing cures to diseases.

StemCellWhat’s neat about the recent news is the potential improvements on the most promising line of research — without destroying embryos or requiring women to donate or sell their eggs.

Well, all of a sudden, the media seem to have figured out this distinction between stem-cell research and embryonic stem-cell research. Obviously the whole hook of the story was that pluripotent stem cells are being obtained without killing embryos. So reporters had to explain the distinction between embryo-destroying research and non-embryo-destroying research. But what a shame that they hadn’t been doing a better job of this earlier.

Anyway, there are many stories out there about this recent advance. In addition to a straight news story, The Washington Post explored the political significance of the finding:

Still, even skeptics of the president’s approach acknowledged that the new findings could make it more difficult to keep up the political momentum for embryo research, even if scientists say it is too early to abandon it. Most immediately, some said, it could hurt the effort to override Bush’s June veto of a bill that would have loosened the rules on federal funding.

The Los Angeles Times had a thorough article with an interesting comment thread. Kolata had a follow-up story for the Times about one of the scientists who broke the latest discovery, James Thomson. He was the same scientist who touched off debate on embryonic stem-cell research in 1998 when he took stem cells from embryos:

The fact is, Dr. Thomson said in an interview, he had ethical concerns about embryonic research from the outset, even though he knew that such research offered insights into human development and the potential for powerful new treatments for disease.

“If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”

Interesting. USA TODAY reported on the ethical concerns remaining, something religion reporter Gary Stern highlighted on his blog. Finally, if you are looking for an excellent analysis of the medical and political significance, I recommend (my fellow Phillips Fellow) Ryan Anderson’s piece in The Weekly Standard.

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Revising a reading of Joseph Smith Jr.

book of mormonPeggy Fletcher Stack has been all over a story coming out of Utah, where she reports on religion for The Salt Lake Tribune. A week and a half ago, she wrote about an interesting change being made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

The LDS Church has changed a single word in its introduction to the Book of Mormon, a change observers say has serious implications for commonly held LDS beliefs about the ancestry of American Indians.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith unearthed a set of gold plates from a hill in upperstate New York in 1827 and translated the ancient text into English. The account, known as The Book of Mormon, tells the story of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book’s current introduction, added by the late LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, includes this statement: “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The new version, seen first in Doubleday’s revised edition, reads, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

The change continues a debate about the book’s — and the church’s — historical claims, Fletcher Stack explains. She shows how the new wording is different from what many Mormons, including several church presidents, have taught and how DNA testing came into play. But she is very fair and bends over backwards to provide the church’s explanation for its teaching.

Her follow-up stories in the last couple of days have also been interesting. In a special report on Saturday, she spoke with a Mormon apologist who thinks he might have been the cause of the change. She also explored how the Book of Mormon is understood by its academic critics and champions.

DNA is not the only challenge to the Book of Mormon’s version of history.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith said the book was written in “Reformed Egyptian,” which he claimed to translate from the writings on gold pates he unearthed in Upstate New York. Non-Mormon scholars have never heard of such a language and wonder why Jews would use the language of their oppressors rather than Hebrew to record their sacred history.

The book mentions metals, elephants, horse-drawn chariots, wheat, and barley — all of which had yet to be discovered in Meso or South America during the scripture’s time period, 2200 B.C. to 400 A.D. Critics see no sign of Book of Mormon kings, no palaces or tombs, no mention of important names from the scripture, no site of the book’s final battle that included thousands, if not millions of soldiers.

DNALDSBut the bulk of her story is an exploration of how Mormon scholars explain these aspects of the Book of Mormon. It provides an interesting insight into Mormon apologetics and is well worth a read.

Another story looked at how the thousands of changes to the Book of Mormon are seized upon by opponents as evidence of LDS problems.

Starting in the 1980s, longtime anti-Mormon researchers, Sandra and Gerald (now deceased) Tanner have charted nearly 4,000 changes from the 1830 version and the book as it reads today. To them, such a magnitude of difference suggested Mormon leaders were playing fast and loose with the sacred text and contributed to the Tanners’ view of the book as fake.

Mormon researchers agree with the Tanners’ numbers, just not their conclusion.

The majority of the changes were punctuation and spelling differences between the handwritten manuscript Smith dictated to scribes in 1829 and the printer’s first typeset, according to Brigham Young University linguist Royal Skousen, who has studied all the versions side by side.

Skousen later says that there are only about 250 changes of meaning to the text. Fletcher Stack quotes Mormons explaining how those changes came about. Smith himself revised the text twice. Apostle Orson Pratt added chapters and verses in 1879, for instance, and a committee of apostles altered it in 1981. Fletcher Stack mentions the most controversial change, which related to racial issues, but she quotes Skousen defending the change. The package also included a summary of what the Book of Mormon says, provided by a Mormon apologetics group, and how Native American Mormons feel about the change.

It’s so nice to read a series of stories about what a church body believes and how it engages in apologetics. I wish that other reporters had noticed the change (it’s not like Mormons only live in SLC) so we could look at more coverage but, at this point, it looks like only Fletcher Stack is on this story.

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The spirit of the law

moses and the lawI read with particular interest a Houston Chronicle article on Tuesday about the growing number of “Christian-based” law schools sprouting across the country. The story hooks onto a new law school opening in Louisiana called the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law. The school is supposed to open in 2009 and is named after a lawyer active in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Mary Flood highlights a few interesting points and takes off on a brief survey of religiously affiliated law schools around the country. The story manages to summarize a few highlights, generally miss more substantive issues and note that many of the law schools classes begin with a prayer. Oh, and classes like torts and contracts will have discussions involving religious issues, as if that is some novel development:

“The law school will deliver through the lens of a biblical world view needed today in our nation and our system of justice,” said Joe Aguillard, president of Louisiana College in Pineville, La., where he hopes the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law will open in 2009.

Aguillard wants his school to graduate lawyers whose understanding of the law is rooted in “the absolute truth of the Bible” and the foundations the Bible provided for American law.

He notes that means abortion should not be legal. The press release announcing the plans for the private school, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, included a picture of a fetus in the womb reaching a hand out to grasp the finger of a surgeon during an operation.

I am not sure about the relevance of abortion in establishing a law school, but apparently it was important enough to note high in the story. Is it all that surprising that a law school named after Pressler would be against abortion?

The article correctly notes, or implies, that basing an entire legal curriculum on religious issues is not exactly the norm. However, I am not sure that is what these schools or doing, or that what they are doing in highlighting and emphasizing the religious roots of our legal system is that far out of the norm.

I attend a secular state-funded law school, and all of my classes have at one point or another discussed serious religious issues. In three of the four areas of law I am studying — torts, contracts, property — we have discussed how the foundations are in principles found in the Bible. The Good Samaritan rule is a good place to start. (My textbook contained the entire passage from the Book of Luke.)

Another shortcoming is that while the story highlights Ave Maria School of Law, there is little mention of the dozens of other Catholic law schools that will have at least some level of piety in the class room and the curriculum.

Regarding Ave Maria, this paragraph — quoting Charles Roboski, associate dean for external affairs — is priceless:

“Students feel comfortable sharing issues of faith here,” Roboski said. He called it a pro-family campus, meaning students with families may feel especially welcome, and pro-life, meaning anti-abortion.

Thanks for the clarification about those terms. No doubt Roboski is anti-abortion, but is that clarifier all that necessary?

The story rightly points out that there are plenty of law schools affiliated with religious institutions, but they should not be confused with institutions such as Ave Maria:

Despite the new trend merging religion and law, other law schools at universities with religious affiliations have strictly secular curriculum and don’t stop for prayer. In Texas they include the law schools at Baylor University, St. Mary’s and Southern Methodist University.

John Attanasio, dean of SMU’s Dedman School of Law, said his school’s mission “is to train lawyers. The practice of law is largely secular, so that’s what we’re about.”

The article attempts to divide American law schools and the teaching of law into two neat little boxes. There are those secular schools that teach the law the proper way, which start classes with “probing questions about the separation of church and state,” and there are the others, this growing force, that want to “intertwine … the tenets of one or more branches of Christianity into the legal curriculum.”

I would argue that the statement is not precisely accurate since American law is by its nature already intertwined with Christian tenets. How that history is highlighted is another matter, but it is an important distinction. The issue of mixing today’s religion and the law is no doubt controversial, but the issue is not as clear-cut as this story implies.

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WABAC: How to cover a priestess story

wayback400The Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway has, through the ages, written more than her share of posts on this blog about the women who are holding ordination rites and then proclaiming that they are now Roman Catholic priests.

So, this time around, I thought I would take a shot at one of these stories. However, I was slow at the switch and young master Daniel jumped in front of me with some comments focusing on new coverage of a controversial ordination service in St. Louis.

This is going to be strange. But I want to jump in the WABAC machine and take a look at an earlier news feature that Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the controversy that led up to the actual ordination service.

If you want to know how to cover a story rooted in an obvious clash between liberal and traditional groups, this is the way to do it. Welcome to “How to cover a priestess story 101.” The tensions are there, of course, between the local Roman Catholic leadership and their friends in the Jewish community. But that is not the real issue. Townsend makes sure that everyone knows who is who and who is not who.

Rose Marie Hudson and Elsie Hainz McGrath want to be Roman Catholic priests. Their ordinations will not be recognized by the church, which does not ordain women as priests.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has reacted strongly, and Jewish leaders are questioning the synagogue’s decision to host the ceremony.

The president of the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis, who is Jewish, said the decision by Central Reform Congregation may have been a mistake.

Now that wasn’t all that hard, was it? A woman cannot be ordained a priest in a global Communion — built on a clear chain of authority — that does not ordain women to the priesthood. It’s kind of like this: The folks at Apple cannot hold a meeting and elect Steve Jobs as the new CEO of Microsoft (not that he would want the job).

Masthead RCWP 700However, Townsend’s reporting includes the kinds of details that let us know this fight isn’t between the Catholic establishment and the local Jewish community. No, this is a fight inside the local Catholic community — as is the case all across America. This was a case of some active local Catholics deciding that enough was enough. They were going to act on the convictions they had been expressing in other channels for a long time.

Thus, we read:

Hudson, 67, is a grandmother of 11 from Festus who retired three years ago after 40 years as a teacher, the last 21 in the St. Louis public school system. McGrath, 69, of St. Louis, has eight great-grandchildren and recently retired after a dozen years as an editor at a Catholic publishing house. Before that, she was a campus minister at St. Louis University.

After their ordination Sunday, Hudson and McGrath say that they will co-pastor a faith community and that they will celebrate Mass each Saturday at the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis in the Central West End.

I was left with one or two questions. Before she moved to the public schools, was Hudson a teacher in Catholic schools? That detail would have provided one more piece in the puzzle. Also, what was the name of the Catholic publishing house at which McGrath was an editor?

Meanwhile, the key details on the Womenpriests group have not changed. We are still looking for the names of the Catholic bishops who are supposed to have ordained the first women back at the head of this chain reaction. Catholicism — like Eastern Orthodoxy — has a two-step test for ordination, requiring right orders and right doctrine. Something tells me that Rome would have questions about the right doctrine of any bishop who ordained women to the priesthood.

The two women will be ordained as priests of an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which, in its constitution, defines itself as “an international initiative within the Roman Catholic Church.”

The group was founded in 2002, when seven women were ordained aboard a boat on the Danube River in Germany. All of them were later excommunicated. The organization says other women have since been ordained by male Roman Catholic bishops, including Patricia Fresen, a former Dominican nun and Roman Catholic Womenpriests bishop, who will ordain Hudson and McGrath.

The group insists that it is Roman Catholic, but the church says it is not.

That’s stating the matter rather clearly.

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Free to associate or discriminate?

free2 In my 11 years as a reporter, I can’t recall an editor or fellow journalist discussing the legal concept known as the “freedom of association.”

If debate over this Constitutional right arose, it came in the context of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which codified the idea that blacks’ right to be free from discrimination trumped the right of other Americans’ rights to associate with whomever they wish. So my experience has been that reporters don’t think much about the right of association, and when they do it has the whiff of racial discrimination about it. But what happens when the issue at hand is not race but religion and morality?

My impression is that a reporter tends to overlook the religious angle, rendering it a “ghost,” to use tmatt’s apt description. Such a sin of omission is unfortunate. We are downplaying the importance of American religious life. As Terry has pointed out, reporters fail to explain whether religious conservatives differ on freedom of association. Yet reporters fail to capture a divide between religious liberals and secularists, specifically atheists and agnostics.

David Herszenhorn of The New York Times reported that House Democrats were divided about legislation to forbid employment discrimination against homosexuals. One key dispute was over whether the bill should contain an exemption for religious organizations:

The Democrats also carved out a blanket exemption for religious groups, drawing the ire of civil liberties advocates who argued that church-run hospitals, for instance, should not be permitted to discriminate against gay employees. The civil liberties groups wanted a narrow exemption for religious employers.

On the House floor, Ms. Pelosi acknowledged challenges. “History teaches us that progress on civil rights is never easy,” she said. “It is often marked by small and difficult steps.”

Can the dispute between civil liberties groups and Speaker Pelosi be characterized as more than one between purists and pragmatists? How about a dispute between atheists and agnostics who seek to erode traditionally religious morality and religious liberals who believe that the views of religious traditionalists should be respected? A sentence about both, or either, would have been helpful.

Theresa Vargas of The Washington Post wrote about a pro-life teenager who started an anti-abortion club at her high school. The ghost in Ms. Vargas’s story is why exactly school administrators had initially denied the student’s request to start such a group:

School administrators initially turned down Hoffmeier’s request to start the club at Colonial Forge High School on the grounds that it was not tied to the school curriculum. She filed suit in federal court in Alexandria, contending that her proposal could not be denied when other clubs are allowed to form on campus. The suit put a spotlight on an often-misunderstood legal arena involving religion in public schools. Even some advocates of strict separation of church and state say religious speech by students at public school is protected under the Constitution and federal law.

Here we go again. Did school administrators disagree with the student’s aims, or seek to keep traditionally religious morality away from the classroom? We never find out.

Neither story suggests that the reporter overlooked the religious angle consciously. But the story is the worse for its absence. There’s another religion-shaped hole in the news.

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Antony Flew brings deism back

FlewBookIn The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, Mark Oppenheimer built a lengthy case that the philosopher Antony Flew is, amid painfully documented memory problems, being exploited by a few evangelical authors. Oppenheimer argues that There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, “a book attributed to Flew and a co-author, the Christian apologist Roy Abraham Varghese,” bears far more editorial fingerprints by Varghese than by Flew.

Oppenheimer describes interviewing Flew at his home in Reading, England:

I visited on two consecutive days, and each day Annis, Flew’s wife of 55 years, served me a glass of water and left me in the sitting room to ask her husband a series of tough, indeed rather cruel, questions.

In “There Is a God,” Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, “Do you know Brian Leftow?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I do.”

“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. “I think he’s quite good.” But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie’s work.

“Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?” In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science.”

“I’m afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from “nominal aphasia,” or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn’t remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to “God and Philosophy” just two years ago. There were words in his book, like “abiogenesis,” that now he could not define.

To his credit, Oppenheimer also describes aggressive efforts by doctoral student Richard Carrier to persuade Flew back to the rock-ribbed atheism he defended for the bulk of his career.

Oppenheimer engages in a few annoying practices in this report. He begins the piece with a sentence that sounds either patronizing or overly apologetic about its subject matter: “Unless you are a professional philosopher or a committed atheist, you probably have not heard of Antony Flew.”

He’s also fond of using scare quotes and the unattributed “many would say” method:

The book offers elegant, user-friendly descriptions of the arguments that persuaded Flew, arguments familiar to anyone who has heard evangelical Christians’”scientific proof” of God. From the “fine tuning” argument that the laws of nature are too perfect to have been accidents to the “intelligent design” argument that human biology cannot be explained by evolution to various computations meant to show that probability favors a divine creator, “There Is a God” is perhaps the handiest primer ever written on the science (many would say pseudoscience) of religious belief.

Still, I find it difficult to argue with Oppenheimer’s conclusion: “At a time when belief in God is more polarizing than it has been in years, when all believers are being blamed for religion’s worst excesses, Antony Flew has quietly switched sides, just following the evidence as it has been explained to him, blissfully unaware of what others have at stake.” (I would take issue with that “following the evidence as it has been explained to him” shot, but maybe that’s just me.)

A few related posts: Stanley Fish compares Flew’s path toward deism with Bart Ehrman’s path away from Christianity. My friend Rod Dreher considers Oppenheimer’s piece “surprisingly fair-minded and sympathetic, without any of the slash-and-burn rhetoric of the pop atheists today. Which to me makes it all the more damning.” My friend (and former boss) David Neff writes that Oppenheimer “raises questions galore without actually proving any of his points.” If you read David’s post, scroll down to the first comment, in which Roy Abraham Varghese shares a spirited defense of Flew that he sent to the Times as a letter to the editor.

Here’s an especially good passage from Varghese’s response:

Let me be blunt about this (as I was with Oppenheimer). For three years, assorted skeptics and freethinkers have hounded the poor man trying to get him to recant. Believe me, if there was the slightest indication, the remotest suspicion, that he had retracted his new-found belief in God, it would be plastered all across the worldwide web (and beyond). Instead, Tony has taken it on himself to respond to every attack on his intellectual integrity in contributions to publications ranging from a rationalist journal in New Zealand to the latest issue of Skeptic magazine in the UK. The attacks on him are always highlighted on the Internet — his responses are never to be found unless you happen to get hold of the print editions. Not without reason, he now refers to several of the apostles of reason as “bigots.”

Now, would it be too much to ask that everybody leave Antony Flew in peace?

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