Atheist student a NYT hero

Court cases often provide story ideas for profiles of individuals and motivations behind church/state battles, but profiling one side can risk making everyone else look like the monster out to get the hero. For instance, it’s hard not to feel bad for Jessica Ahlquist, an outspoken atheist who successfully sued to get a prayer removed from her high school auditorium after reading the New York Times profile. After all, a state representative called her “an evil little thing,” according to the story.

Here’s how Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta promotes the piece.

The New York Times‘ Abby Goodnough has a summary of Jessica Ahlquist‘s lawsuit in Friday’s paper and Jessica comes out of it looking exactly like the hero she is. (Her opponents, not so much.)

Atheists don’t always get positive coverage in the media, so it’s an encouraging sign, especially after everything Jessica’s been going through:

The thing is, shouldn’t coverage be fair to both sides, at least in theory? It shouldn’t be a win for the atheist community if it’s a poorly written story, right? In making Ahlquist into a hero, the story pits her against the not-so-thoughtful opposition:

Brittany Lanni, who graduated from Cranston West in 2009, said that no one had ever been forced to recite the prayer and called Jessica “an idiot.”

“If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

There an image of the prayer, but why doesn’t the story quote the full text of the prayer, since it’s the subject of debate?

“Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer begins, “grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful.” It goes on for a few more lines before concluding with “Amen.”

“It goes on for a few more lines…” (Blah blah blah) What a weird way to skip over the whole point of the story.

Speaking of photos, the images of Ahlquist all look defiant, strong, hero-like, when the photo of the principal makes him look concerned, doubtful, or something, though it’s unclear if he has taken a personal stance on the issue.

Remember the time when I said that apparently all it takes to get the Times‘ attention is building a Facebook fan page? Here we go again:

She also started a Facebook page calling for the prayer’s removal (it now has almost 4,000 members) and began researching Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom.

Why not add a little bit more background on Williams, a theologian who started the first Baptist church in America? And an additional section of the article made me pause.

New England is not the sort of place where battles over the division of church and state tend to crop up. It is the least religious region of the country, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But Rhode Island is an exception: it is the nation’s most Catholic state, and dust-ups over religion are not infrequent. Just last month, several hundred people protested at the Statehouse after Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, lighted what he called a “holiday tree.”

Sure, New England is no Bible Belt, but I might assume that would make church/state cases even more likely. Using data from Pew about the religiosity of the region doesn’t necessarily help measure church/state battles are higher or lower than other parts of the country. At the very least, Massachusetts and Connecticut have recently dealt with a number of cases.

Superhero image via Shutterstock.

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That ‘What, me worry?’ semi-faith story

I realize that many news consumers are not fond of the emerging tradition in many mainstream newsrooms of running pushy, perhaps even provocative news features during major religious holiday seasons — especially stories during Christmas and Easter.

It helps to understand that many of these same news organizations used to serve up rather dim, shallow, allegedly “inspirational” stories that readers were supposed to see as sort-of religious (but not really) tributes to the season in question. ‘Round about Dec. 20th, reporters would hear frantic, exhausted editors saying things like, “Will someone in this &*^%#%^ newsroom please find me some kind of *&^# %$@^%& *%$#$ Christmas story with big color art for page one? $^%@! You all know that we have to have one.”

Needless to say, many of those stories were rather lame.

These days, the goal seems to be to find some kind of religion story that tweaks the faithful, rather than one that condescends to them. I see this as progress, frankly, when the results are truly newsworthy.

This brings me to the latest USA Today news feature by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman that focuses on life in America’s post-denominational and increasingly post-doctrinal age.

Yes, I have heard from some GetReligion readers who who see this story as another MSM attempt to dance on the grave of small-o orthodoxy. However, I don’t see this story that way.

Why? Let’s look at the recent story that ran under the headline, “For many, ‘Losing My Religion’ isn’t just a song: It’s life.” The story focus on the growing slice of the population that neither believes or rejects belief. These folks just shrug and say, “So what?” Here’s a crucial chunk of Grossman’s story:

As Christmas Day glides by — all gilt, no substance — for many, clergy and religion experts are dismayed. They fear for souls’ salvation and for the common threads of faith snapping in society. Others see no such dire consequences to a more openly secular America as people not only fess up to being faithless but admit they’re skipping out on spiritual, the cool default word of the decade, as well.

Only now, however, are they turning up in the statistical stream. Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

• 44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19% said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

• 46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

• 28% told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18% scoffed that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

• 6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists”

First of all, note the sources of these gloomy statistics. Grossman is drawing, primarily, on research done by conservative Protestants and organizations that are seen as dedicated to fair, informed research. No one is dancing on any graves, here. In fact, you can argue that the Southern Baptists, in particular, are sounding these statistical alarms in order to awaken the faithful, not to insult them.

This is similar to those headline-grabbing polls conducted in the past decade or so by the evangelical researchers at the Barna Group that determined — according to their doctrinal standards — that only 9 percent of American adults are attempting to live according to a “biblical worldview.” Is it anti-religion when candid believers conduct this kind of research?

Come to think of it, are scholars linked to the oldline Protestant churches doing similar research? If anything, this USA Today report has too many conservative voices and not enough info from the religious left.

The bottom line, however, is clear: This story has legs. And it is linked to another major trend that cannot be ignored:

The hot religion statistical trend of recent decades was the rise of the “Nones” — the people who checked “no religious identity” on the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS). The Nones numbers leapt from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008.

The So Whats appear to be a growing secular subset. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Landscape Survey dug in to the Nones to discover that nearly half said they believed “nothing in particular.”

However, this USA Today report did leave me asking some questions. Here are a few of them.

* How does this “So what” trend relate to the phenomenon that Jewish sociologists have been studying for years, the one that I first read about in the early ’80s in a Jewish studies class at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign? The trend has become known as “Fewer Jews, but better Jews.” In other words, as more believers drift away there is a corresponding change in the shape of the religious community. There are fewer believers, but a higher percentage than before are believers who are trying to practice traditional forms of their faith.

* If rising numbers of people are unconcerned about religious life and doctrine, how does this trend affect religious groups that are not as strict or orthodox? Are liberal movements growing or shrinking, especially in comparison to trends in more conservative forms of the faith? Even inside one branch of the church — such as Roman Catholicism — are liberal parishes thriving, opening schools and producing priests? How do their statistics compare to parishes that strive to defend church traditions?

* What replaces these traditions, when they are thrown aside? How do the “So what” Americans mark their marriages, births, deaths and other symbolic movements? I was struck by this piece of the Grossman report:

The Rev. Ema Drouillard, who specializes in San Francisco-area non-denominational ceremonies, said in 2001 about 30% of her clients refused any reference to religion at their weddings. A decade later, 80% of her clients choose her carefully God-free ceremony. The only faith they pledge is in each other. No higher authority is consulted as they vow to walk beside each other, “offering courage and hope through all your endeavors.”

“A lot of people just aren’t on any spiritual path. They say, ‘We are just focusing on the party.’ Or they have no language for their spirituality so they just leave it out,” Drouillard says.

Interesting. By the way, this minister is ordained. Who ordained her? Who is supporting these lite rites?

* On a related question, what do we know about the ages and lifestyles of these “So what” semi-believers? Is this a stance that works better for single adults who are cohabiting, as opposed to married couples with multiple children?

* During a visit to the Czech Republic a few years ago, I heard journalist after journalist discussing two interesting trends. The first has received plenty of ink, which is the fact that this nation is one of the most secular on earth. The second trend, however, can be seen as the second piece of a paradox. The Czech Republic has also become one of the world’s most superstitious nations, with millions of unbelievers who, in effect, turn to superstitions to replace the mysteries that once were defined by organized forms of faith.

What would this look like in an American context? Perhaps this trend could be linked to all of those atheists who, according to researchers, continue to pray?

Lots of questions. Yes, but these questions are based on the assumption that this is an important story.

More coverage, please.

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Holy smokes, Batman! They’re proselytizing!

Here at GetReligion, we’re a generally amiable group. There’s not a lot of backbiting or harsh words among your friendly neighborhood ghostbusters. We get along just fine, thank you very much.

Except maybe for today.

A little tug-of-war ensued between Sarah and me over who would get to critique the following story. After Mollie shared the link with our crew, I quickly called dibs, prompting this note from Sarah:

Oh shoot! I was literally reading this and thinking how awesome it is for a post.

Kind of like the Jelly of the Month Club in the holiday classic “Christmas Vacation,” this 4,000-word story by Bloomberg Businessweek is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Story might not be the right word to describe this hard-hitting investigative expose (sarcasm intended) on the fact that, believe it or not, evangelical Christian high schools in the U.S. that enroll students from China teach them about Jesus. (I’ll pause for a moment and let that shocking news sink in.)

The headline says it all about the tone of this report:

Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

The top of the story:

Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) — Haiying Wu’s family in Shandong Province wasn’t religious. After a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the U.S. are safe and academically strong, she enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ben Lippen required her to attend church and chapel, take Bible class, and join a Bible study group. At first, she didn’t understand “why you need to believe in something you can’t view or touch,” she said. Gradually, it began to make sense. When the house parents in her dorm showed the 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” she wept. Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.

Her parents were taken aback. “In China, I don’t think there’s any chance I would have become a Christian,” said Wu, 21, a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It takes a lot to convert someone. Because Ben Lippen is such a strong religious environment, it makes you feel you have to learn about Christianity, and how come everybody around you believes.”

As evangelical schools capitalize on the desire of affluent Chinese families for the prestige of an American education, many Chinese students are learning first-hand how the Bible Belt got its name.

While proselytizing is banned in China, Protestant — and, to a lesser extent, Catholic — high schools are doing their missionary work on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Through placement agents and religious networking, they’re recruiting growing numbers of students from China, most of them atheists, and encouraging them to convert, in the hope that some of them will spread the faith back home.

As I read the story, I couldn’t help but smile. I imagined the reporter — totally aghast at the wicked proselytizing occurring at the hands of evil evangelicals in the Bible Belt — doing his best to control his blood pressure as he typed. Undoubtedly, an extremely somber soundtrack played in the background as the piece was edited.

I wanted to be irritated at the slanted perspective of the report. Instead, I was reminded of country comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “My Wife’s Family” bit in which he talks about his father-in-law waking up at 4:45 in the morning and playing the Discovery Channel at full volume while Foxworthy’s trying to sleep. The comedian notes:

It’s a weird sensation to be mad and learning at the same time.

This story fits that description. While much of the piece is laughable to anyone who knows anything about evangelical Christianity — or for that matter, Christian inroads in China — the report contains a lot of detailed information, in many cases hurting its own thesis that proselytizing is harming Chinese students and their families.

Interestingly enough, the story opens with a Chinese student who converted to Christianity and ends the same way (with a different student). In both cases, the students are content with their decision. The piece quotes Christian school officials who freely acknowledge a desire to share Jesus with foreign students (while claiming that they make their Christian affiliations and requirements crystal clear to Chinese applicants). In a story about Christian schools “luring” Chinese students to proselytizing environments, I found this section telling:

Guan Yuntian, a 15-year-old from Beijing, was interviewed by three schools, including Northland.

“Religious school is fine for me,” she said. “The school will be better disciplined than other schools,” and the tuition lower. “It’s not bad to have a religion as it may help me to be stronger.”

Zhang Shaoxuan, the father of another girl at the fair, would gladly send her to a Christian school, he said.

“Both religious school and private schools are fine, the public schools are what you don’t want to be in,” he said. “Because there will be all kinds of odd students there.”

The premise of the report is that Chinese parents are upset by an apparent “bait-and-switch” approach by Christian schools recruiting their children and that the Chinese students are victims of deceptive marketing:

Plunged with little preparation into an intense religious environment, Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Some shed their skepticism and become Christians, delighting school officials and dismaying their families in China.

Missing from the report is evidence to back up the claim that Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Meanwhile, not a single “dismayed” Chinese parent is quoted in the story. (I also wondered if there are perhaps any closet Christian parents in China purposely sending their children to the U.S. Christian schools. That question, of course, is not raised.)

Alas, the story is worth a read. For all its faults, it provides some compelling background and anecdotes. And a few chuckles, too.

Photo via Shutterstock

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Speaking Kim Jong-il of the dead

What a week in deaths. We already talked about Christopher Hitchens. On Sunday, we learned that the great Czech playwright, revolutionary and president Vaclav Havel died.

On the other end of the spectrum was Kim Jong-il. Or as the Associated Press put it:

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died of heart failure. He was 69.

“Mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader,” eh? Is that how they spell “murderous Communist dictator” these days? I guess so.

Any religion angles here? Well, see, that’s tricky. Hitchens, commenting on the giant mausoleums and parades of North Korea, said it “seemed to fuse classical Stalinism with a contorted form of the deferential, patriarchal Confucian ethos.”

Apparently the people of North Korea aren’t just starving, they’re subjected to racist and nationalistic propaganda and are confused about their relative position in the world. The food bags countries send them are said to be given to Kim Jong-il out of respect and terror.

I’m reminded of this old piece in The Guardian about the torture chambers Kim’s regime ran:

In the remote north-eastern corner of North Korea, close to the border of Russia and China, is Haengyong. Hidden away in the mountains, this remote town is home to Camp 22 – North Korea’s largest concentration camp, where thousands of men, women and children accused of political crimes are held.

Now, it is claimed, it is also where thousands die each year and where prison guards stamp on the necks of babies born to prisoners to kill them.

The piece goes through the first-hand testimonies from defectors about execution and torture, including gas chambers with chemical experiments run on humans. It tells of whole families put in glass chambers and gassed while scientists take notes.

This is difficult to read, but here are some anecdotes from a worker and prisoner:

He explains how he had believed this treatment was justified. ‘At the time I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault; that we were poor, divided and not making progress as a country.

‘It would be a total lie for me to say I feel sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.’

His testimony is backed up by Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. ‘An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,’ she said. ‘One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.’

No one knows how many prisoners were held in various centers but one camp alone held 50,000. And why?

Most are imprisoned because their relatives are believed to be critical of the regime. Many are Christians, a religion believed by Kim Jong-il to be one of the greatest threats to his power. According to the dictator, not only is a suspected dissident arrested but also three generations of his family are imprisoned, to root out the bad blood and seed of dissent.

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: ‘For too long the horrendous suffering of the people of North Korea, especially those imprisoned in unspeakably barbaric prison camps, has been met with silence … It is imperative that the international community does not continue to turn a blind eye to these atrocities which should weigh heavily on the world’s conscience.’

That Kim Jong-il was so suspect of Christianity is interesting. A girlfriend of mine who grew up under Communism in Czechoslovakia became a Christian and a protester the same way — via her local congregation.

But the fact of North Korea’s existence and the horrific suffering its people have endured — psychologically, physically and spiritually — is staggering.

As we look at coverage in the coming days, I wonder whether we’ll see more about what really is going on in that country or more descriptions about mercurial, enigmatic, longtime leaders. (And for those curious, please check out this awesomely comprehensive list of all the titles Kim Jong-il bequeathed upon himself. My favorite has to be “Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love”

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Haunted Christmas in the public square


It’s “War on Christmas” time again in the public square and, thus, in our newspapers from sea to shining sea. Rejoice, all ye lawyers.

Before we move on to a tragic, but well done (one hole, in the shape of a ghost), Washington Post story on the waves of legal silliness going on out in Loudoun County, Va., I want to establish a few basics. Yes, they will seem self contradictory, but I can’t help it. U.S. law is rather all over the place at this moment when it comes to public displays of religion.

(1) I, personally, have never understood why some religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government’s headquarters.

(2) I’ve never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christianity to say that a Nativity Scene is not religious and, thus, is merely a cultural symbol. That’s a victory for the faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would put up its own creche and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to. … Well, here’s the top of the Post story.

For the better part of 50 years, a creche and a Christmas tree were the only holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.

Then came the mannequin Luke Skywalker and signs celebrating the winter solstice. This month, a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society’s obsession with consumerism. A pine stands adorned with tinsel — and atheist testimonials. (“I can be moral without religion,” one declares.)

Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”

With the new displays, a new tradition was born: a charged seasonal debate.

And so forth and so on.

What the story does is effectively portray the political warfare that surrounds the embattled lawn. It also shows the deeply emotions that all of this touches for many citizens — on both sides.

What it does not do, however, is talk to any of the Christian leaders who are either (a) super-pro creche, alone (a position hard to justify under “equal access” legal principles), (b) those clergy happily willing to settle for the crazy mix that currently exist or (c) those who would like to see the flip side of “equal access” honored, with the government choosing the legal option of rejecting all displays while leaving the lawn clean, while churches blanket the town in traditional forms of Christmas celebration — on their own lawns and on those of their members.

At one point readers are told:

Despite a flurry of tongue-in-cheek news reports about the controversy, most in Loudoun don’t find it a laughing matter. Some say the issue is about freedom of speech or the separation of church and state; others say it is about the importance of preserving a cherished small-town tradition.

Stanley Caulkins, who moved to Leesburg in 1937, remembers the first time the Nativity scene was put up at the corner of the courthouse lawn.

Caulkins, who has owned Caulkins Jewelers in downtown Leesburg for more than a half-century, sees the creche as a valued symbol, something that should not be messed with. He went before the County Board of Supervisors two years ago to argue that it should stay. Last week, he said that he still does not understand why the issue engenders such controversy.

“The creche is not religious,” Caulkins said, his voice trembling. “It is a belief symbol. You have to believe in something.” His eyes were glazed with tears.

This is a story about free speech. It is also a story about church-state separation. However, it is also — gasp — a story about the current state of Christmas in modern churches and homes. It’s about the secular Christmas and the religious Christmas.

Yes, believe it or not, what we have here is a haunted Christmas story.

IMAGE: A sample Flying Spaghetti Monster holiday display

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God, “Hitch,” the Baptists and Hell

I have been unbelievable swamped all day, working on final grades for the fall term at the Washington Journalism Center. That’s doesn’t matter to GetReligion readers, of course, but it does mean that I have not been plugged into the World Wide Web all day.

Thus, I am only now starting to look at the Christopher Hitchens obituaries and tributes — including those featured in the Divine Mrs. MZ’s overview earlier today.

Now, at the end of the day, I am struck by a simple fact: If one wants to look at some interesting and, behold, at times even even graceful commentary on the death of one of the world’s most articulate atheists, the one online destination is Baptist Press? No, not the progressive Associated Baptist Press. I’m talking about the press team at the Southern Baptist Convention.

The mainbar on his death included the logical quotes to set the scene. GetReligion readers probably know some by heart:

(Hitchens) once said of families who raise their children to believe in God: “How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?”

He wrote that religion was “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

The key to the responses? I think it was the fact that many Southern Baptists — such as philosopher William Dembski (see photo) — had actually met Hitchens and talked/debated with him. I also believe that many have crossed paths with his brother, journalist Peter Hitchens, who as an adult moved from atheism to Christian faith. In other words, “Hitch” had a face and family, as well.

Thus we read:

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, said Hitchens was a friend.

“I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now,” Warren wrote in a Tweet. …

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. also commented, saying in a Tweet: “The death tonight of Christopher Hitchens is an excruciating reminder of the consequences of unbelief. We can only pray others will believe.” Mohler added, “The point about Christopher Hitchens is not that he died of unbelief, but that his unbelief is all that matters now. Unspeakably sad.”

Ed Stetzer, vice president of research and ministry development at LifeWay Christian Resources, wrote in a blog post that for many people, “Hitchen’s passing will lead to stirring up old debates and old bruises.” Yet Christians should react with compassion, Stetzer said.

“I would like to see the dialogue of Christian apologetics move from Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris into our houses, diners, and local community centers,” Stetzer wrote. “The AP news wire will not be abuzz with the passing of the atheist in your neighborhood, but your heart ought hurt for them. I am grateful for evangelical scholars who have engaged New Atheism with the level of intellectual commitment the movement deserves. But for most of us, we ought to concern ourselves with and grieve over the debates that war in the minds of our families, friends, and coworkers.”

I was struck, in particular, by the following theological commentary — on this kind of story, theology is newsworthy — by the articulate and often surprising Russell D. Moore (blog here), dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Check this out:

Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most famously caustic atheist, is now dead.

Hitchens expected this moment, of course, but he anticipated, wrongly, a blackness, a going out of consciousness forever. Many Christians today are sadly remarking on what it is like for Christopher Hitchens to be now opening his eyes in hell.

We might be wrong.

Right, there’s more to this:

The Christian impulse here is exactly right. After all, Jesus and his apostles assured us that there is no salvation apart from union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, a union entered into by faith. And Hitchens not only rejected that Gospel, he ridiculed it, along with the very notion of anything beyond the natural order. …

But I’m not sure Christopher Hitchens is in hell right now. It’s not because I believe there’s a “second chance” after death for salvation (I don’t). It’s not because I don’t believe in hell or in God’s judgment (I do). It’s because of a sermon I heard years ago that haunts me to this day, reminding me of the sometimes surprising persistence of the Gospel.

Fifteen or so years ago, I heard an old Welsh pastor preach on Jesus’ encounter with the thieves on the cross. The preacher paused to speculate about whether the penitent thief might have had any God-fearing friends or family members. If so, he said, they probably would never have known about the terrorist’s final act, his appeal to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). They never would have heard Jesus pronounce, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

These believing family members and friends would have assumed, all their lives, that this robber was in hell, especially dying as he did under the visible judgment of God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). They would have been shocked to meet this man in the Kingdom of God. “We thought you were in hell,” they might have said, as they danced around him in the heavenly places.

That sermon changed everything for me about the way I preach funerals for unbelievers.

Now, all of that would be horribly offensive to Hitchens himself and to his defenders. The point is that these questions are being discussed in a tone that would probably surprise many newsroom leaders. Besides, that subject — funeral sermons for unbelievers — would make a fantastic weekend A1 feature. I bet there are more than a few seminary professors and pulpit masters pondering that today after the death of Hitchens.

Would this be true on the doctrinal left as well as right? Wondering about that, I looked on the home pages of several liberal Protestant news services today and saw nothing about “Hitch,” let alone words of either concern or tribute.

Back among the Baptists, many are choosing today to focus on simple words of prayer.

Now, there could be acid and venom out there. I have not found it (leave URLs if you hit strong words in news coverage). I do not doubt that some on the Christian right will place the emphasis on curses rather than compassion. If that shows up, I will not be surprised.

However, I think there is something unusual going on here. True tolerance is when people who DISAGREE on matters of substance still treat each other with respect. By its nature, the American model of the press asks journalists to treat voices on both sides of hot debates with respect, accuracy and even balance. It seems that Hitchens found some sense of kindness and respect, or at least true tolerance, with some of those who sincerely believed they were arguing about the eternal destiny of his soul.

With that in mind, let me close with this memorable quote from a Peter Hitchens column last year in The Daily Mail about his love for his brother:

“I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers’ war. … I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault, and that religion does not poison everything.

“Beyond that, I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.”

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Christopher Hitchens was great

We all knew it was coming but somehow that didn’t make the news any easier to bear. Christopher Hitchens, the mighty literary provocateur, died yesterday. This is a profound loss to his wife and family, who loved him so much it hurts to think about. And it’s a loss for the Republic of Letters and all those he touched, including the townfolk of Washington, D.C.

Many people have been noting that though they didn’t agree with him on many things, they grieve his death. Well, obviously. Not only did he change his mind rather dramatically on some seminal issues of our day, he was a through-and-through contrarian. If you agreed with him on too much, I’d suggest — in the words of Ed Koch — you seek a psychiatrist. Speaking as an anti-war, libertarian Lutheran … I’m not really sure I agreed with him on anything. But who cares? The man could write. An amazing prose stylist with devastating wit. A master. And it’s been fun to read the obituaries his friends have posted.

I enjoyed Nick Gillespie’s tribute at Reason, but I disagreed a bit with one line — he said “Hitchens was never a cheap-shot artist.” That’s true, but many of his books were full of cheap shots. I found “God Is Not Great” easy to refute with even an introductory course in the religions he trashed.

Vanity Fair had a nice brief tribute to the man and Christopher Buckley wrote a beautiful remembrance at The New Yorker. A sample:

As for the wit … one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?”

I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our three-decade long tutorial—Wow.

A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted, but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”

Yes, everything he said was brilliant. It was a feast of reason and a flow of soul, and, if the author of “God Is Not Great” did not himself believe in the concept of soul, he sure had one, and it was a great soul.

Another favorite part of the piece:

One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.

John Podhoretz noted a particularly Jewish angle in his remembrance at Commentary:

Christopher’s loathing for Israel originated in his days as part of Britain’s neo-Marxist left and its post-1967 decision to treat the Jewish state as an imperialist power (where once it had been considered a great success in the battle against British imperialism). But when he turned from those views, he continued to express an alienation toward Israel even when he came to hold views about the civilizational threat of Islamic radicalism that were remarkably consistent with, say, Natan Sharansky’s. In the end, his feelings toward Israel calmed down but never underwent an evolutionary change, because his problem was not with the notion of a homeland for the dispossessed Jewish tribe so much as it was with the continued existence of the tribe itself—a tribe of which he was astonished to discover in midlife he was a member, on his mother’s side. That tribe survived on this earth through the millennia because of its fidelity to the laws not of man but of God. That fidelity, as I am sure he was honest enough with himself to understand, made his own formidable life possible.

Douglas Wilson’s beautiful obituary in Christianity Today hit on the interesting and respectful relationship Hitchens had with actual believers:

Ironically, the branch of the faith most interested in getting the “cultured despisers” to pay us some respect is really not that effective, and this is a strategy that can frequently be found on the pointed end of its own petard. Respectability depends on not caring too much about respectability. Unbelievers can smell accommodation, and when someone like Christopher meets someone who actually believes all the articles in the Creed, including that part about Jesus coming back from the dead, it delights him. Here is someone actually willing to defend what is being attacked. Militant atheists are often exasperated with opponents whose strategy appears to be “surrender slowly.”

Earlier this year, my husband and I co-hosted a baby shower with Hitch and his wife, and Hitch and another one of my favorite writers — who is a devout Christian — tore through both a bottle of Scotch and the New Testament as they discussed eternal salvation.

Many tributes end in poetry, a testament to the mark he left with his poetic pen. The Weekly Standard‘s Matt Labash has a great example of a beautiful essay with a poetic end. Some more links here.

But how about the more mainstream media? How did they handle the obituaries? Bill Grimes wrote The New York Times piece, headlined “Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, With Wit.” Grimes is an obituary writer for the Times but he’s also known for his many books on food and drink. I was somewhat surprised the obit didn’t get more into Hitchens’ voracious appetite. But it did mention, in several parts, how Hitchens developed his views on “Islamofascism”:

His support for the Iraq war sprang from a growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a mortal danger to Western principles of political liberty and freedom of conscience. The first stirrings of that view came in 1989 with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against the novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous words in “The Satanic Verses.” To Mr. Hitchens, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed the threat.

In a political shift that shocked many of his friends and readers, he cut his ties to The Nation and became an outspoken advocate of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a ferocious critic of what he called “Islamofascism.” Although he denied coining the word, he popularized it. …

He also threw himself into the defense of his friend Mr. Rushdie. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”

To help rally public support, Mr. Hitchens arranged for Mr. Rushdie to be received at the White House by President Bill Clinton, one of Mr. Hitchens’s least favorite politicians and the subject of his book “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton” (1999).

He regarded the response of left-wing intellectuals to Mr. Rushdie’s predicament as feeble, and he soon began to question many of his cherished political assumptions.

So much to say about this great man, and much will be said in coming days. Please let us know if you see any particularly insightful essays or tributes. As I’m signing off, I’m just now reading this from Peter, his brother. Oh wow, the part about the roof … just beautiful.

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Atheists create a Facebook page

What do you need to do to get featured in the New York Times? Just get a Facebook group of about 800 people, apparently. The website Stuff Journalists Like noted a trend of journalists who love the social network.

There are two types of journalists – those who use Facebook and those who don’t get Facebook. Those of the latter often dismiss cell phones and power car windows.

Not since the phone book has there been a tool journalists used more than Facebook.

Facebook is a favorite tool for journalists to find stories, and it just takes is a page to attract some attention. Last week, Bobby noted what looks like an increased number of puff pieces on atheists. His post nicely prepared us for the Times profile of black atheists, a group the paper just discovered and found it best to fit in front of Sunday’s style section.

Ronnelle Adams came out to his mother twice, first about his homosexuality, then about his atheism.

“My mother is very devout,” said Mr. Adams, 30, a Washington resident who has published an atheist children’s book, “Aching and Praying,” but who in high school considered becoming a Baptist preacher. “She started telling me her issues with homosexuality, which were, of course, Biblical,” he said. “ ‘I just don’t care what the Bible says about that,’ I told her, and she asked why. ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ It got silent. She was distraught. She told me she was more bothered by that than the revelation I was gay.”

This is a fairly dramatic lead to the story that only serves as a mini anecdote with no further explanation. What was the path he took from considering being a Baptist preacher to becoming an atheist? From the opening, you might guess it has something to do with his sexuality, but the piece doesn’t flesh that out, making the lead anecdote a lazy way to get into a flat story.

In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like “Godless and Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.

Listen, a Facebook group of 879 members for something is basically nothing. I understand this is in the style section and may not need a hook, but framing the story with these numbers makes it seem like it’s some sort of trend, when 800 really isn’t that many for a place like Facebook.

While some black clergy members lament the loss of parishioners to mega-churches like Rick Warren’s and prosperity-gospel purveyors like Joel Osteen, it is often taken for granted that African-Americans go to religious services. Islam and other religions are represented in the black community, but with the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian.

This is stated with authority but with little to back it up. Why not attribute this to anyone?

Given the cultural pull toward religion, less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, according to Pew. Black atheists, then, find they are a minority within a minority.

I don’t doubt that this story is true. It would probably be difficult to be nonreligious–especially atheist–in a black community. It just annoys me that the Times would print something so obvious. If there were a mass trend towards atheism in the black community, I might find it more interesting. But nothing in the piece taught me anything new about faith, race or culture, and breaking new ground is where I would hope the paper would devote its resources.

Simple photo via Shutterstock.

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