Gasp! NYTimes covers the heart of Kennedy’s argument!

Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print.

Wait. Say what?

Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.

The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?

As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.

Readers quickly learn some important facts:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that a town in upstate New York had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian and who sometimes used distinctly sectarian language. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion. …

Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent that the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” …

She did not propose banning prayer, Justice Kagan said, but only requiring officials to take steps to ensure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”

The situation in Greece, N.Y., is pretty familiar. Town officials insist that all kinds of people are welcome to line up to give prayers — atheists included — but, as the story notes, in practice “almost all of the chaplains were Christian.” Some believers have even made references to offensive concepts such as Jesus dying on the cross.

This has, of course, offended some citizens who have lawyers.

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Did Jesus only become God at Easter?

ARTHUR ASKS:

Christians observe that the Son of God died to atone for human sins. But St. Paul says (Romans 1:4) that Jesus was “declared … to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” So apparently Jesus wasn’t divine when he died (or before). How then does atonement work?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

A timely inquiry as Christians reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and also due to the clash between two new scholarly books, “How Jesus Became God” by skeptic Bart Ehrman, answered simultaneously (!!!) by an international team of conservatives in “How God Became Jesus.”

Arthur cites a sentence Paul wrote only a couple decades or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, and “form critics” think the apostle was quoting from a previous creed so these words date back to Christianity’s earliest days.

Thanks to www.biblegateway.com, The Guy compared 46 English translations and found “declared” is the typical wording. Other versions say that by the resurrection Jesus’ divine Sonshop was “openly designated,” “publicly identified,” “demonstrated,” “proved,” “marked out” and “shown,” while Bible commentaries add “displayed,” “proclaimed” and “manifested.”

So the expert consensus agrees with the 8th Century theologian John of Damascus that Paul meant that by the resurrection “it was made plain and certain to the world that Christ was the Son of God.”

Note that all the translators say “by” the resurrection, not “at” or “with” or “upon,” which could indicate Jesus’ divinity originated only at Easter. All this agrees with the early belief found elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus was divine in his earthly life and beforehand (for instance Matthew 27:54, John 1:1-3, I Corinthians 2:8, Philippians 2:6).

But get this: A favorite conservative translation of the Bible could be read as suggesting Jesus only became God at Easter. The 2011 edition of the New International Version says Jesus was “appointed the Son of God” by the resurrection, vs. “declared” in earlier N.I.V. editions. Similarly, the first edition of U.S. Catholics’ New American Bible (1970) said Jesus was “made” the Son of God by Easter. The 1986 N.A.B. revision changed that to the ambiguous “established,” which to average English readers could mean either newly established or established for everyone to see.

Then, how does atonement “work”? What does it mean that “Jesus saves” or “Jesus died for our sins”?

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Universe gives birth to itself, transformed by unknown ‘force’

This is a challenging day to be a journalist on the science beat, if the goal is to avoid ultimate questions.

I am happy to report that The Washington Post — to my surprise, quite frankly — didn’t try to avoid the obvious. Here’s the top of its story on the Big Bang update that is making global headlines:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

Say what? “In the beginning”?

Anyone who starts a story on this issue with “In the beginning” has to know that many American readers are going to connect that with, well, this passage that opens the Gospel of John:

1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. The same was in the beginning with God. 3. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Next question: What is the best verb here, science writers?

So the universe “got very big very fast, transforming itself” from nothing or next to nothing into something really big? It “transformed itself”?

To it’s credit, the Post team did not settle for one verb in its coverage of this amazing development. That same passage the opens the story also uses, well, the C-word. The gravitational waves were “created” in an event at the “dawn of time.” Yes, the word “created” certainly raises an obvious question or two. Later, the linguistic plot thickens:

Cosmology, the study of the universe on the largest scales, has already been roiled by the 1998 discovery that the cosmos is not merely expanding but doing so at an accelerating rate, because of what has been called “dark energy.” Just as that discovery has implications for the ultimate fate of the universe, this new one provides a stunning look back at the moment the universe was born.

And what existed before the universe “was born” and who, or what, gave birth?

Questions, questions, questions. At some point, the professionals behind this story needed to admit that this development raises questions that transcend science. Finally, there is this:

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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A plea for gay, er, atheist rights

Those poor atheists. They have to keep their heads down in repressive American society. They have to watch their words, hide their feelings, guard their secret. Very much like gays, that other major repressed American group.

This is the setup in a feature story in The Telegraph about the state of unbelief in the U.S. The story even starts with a heavy-handed scene-setter of a furtive club meeting:

Going around the circle, each member shares their story and says whether or not they are “out” of the closet.

But while they use the lexicon of the gay and lesbian movement they are not speaking of their sexuality: they are not gay or lesbian, but atheist and agnostic.

It should be noted that the article is based on interviews with secularist students at Virginia Tech, in a conservative area of the state — a “fiercely Bible-minded corner,” in the reporter’s colorful phrase — that’s also home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. So the writer, Peter Foster, has easy access to those at both poles. And like most who approach the topic, he doesn’t bother with shades of gray.

We get anecdotes of youths who feel they can’t reveal their beliefs for fear of ostracism, by friends, families and possible employers. The reporter even uses the device of “Caroline — not her real name…”

“I’m more concerned about getting a job than losing one,” she said. “I know they Google you and while I can’t hide my atheism, I don’t really want to advertise it.

“If the person hiring is a person of faith — which is more likely than not around here — that could easily be the difference between a job and no job. And I have student loans. I need a job.”

She is not alone in her fears. Another student who is applying for graduate school told how his father recommended he delete any references to atheism from his Facebook page in case it spoiled his chances. He rejected the advice on principle, but remains unsure what the consequences will be.

You can probably already see the weak spot in this story: actual instances of discrimination. Yes, the unbelievers fear rejection by parents and employers. Yes, they worry they might be kicked out of clubs and other organizations. How often does it happen? About all we get is a graduate student who says, “I’ve lost a lot of friends.”

Without concrete examples, this is all worse than anecdotal: It’s pure speculation. But Foster does attempt some contexting, though clumsily.

“As a sign of how strong religion remains, polls show that a third of Americans still believe in the most literal form of ‘young earth’ Creationism,” he says, blithely forgetting the millions of Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants who accept evolution.

He also quotes Dan Linford, the president of the Virginia Tech freethinkers. Linford says many youths shun “institutional” religion because they identify it with the religious right. Kinda like Foster himself.

He finally gets around to some opposition time via Johnnie Moore, an officer at Liberty University, who says says Liberty has a record 13,000 students. Moore argues that atheists aren’t more numerous, just louder.

“From our perspective, we don’t feel like we’re a dying breed, we feel like we’re on a crest of a wave,” Moore tells Foster.

The reporter tries to blunt this by tapping that Pew Forum study that showed a third of young Americans claim no religious affiliation. Then he tries another spurious connection with gay advocacy:

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That faceless, mysterious flock of atheists in Guitar Town

One of the rules here at GetReligion is that we really, really try to understand the limitations that shape the work of many mainstream journalists in this era.

After all, we have been there and done that. We have had editors cut stories. We have been told to write 500-word daily stories on subjects that, to do them justice, would require 4,000 words and a month’s work of research. We feel your pain, fellow journalists.

Thus, we try to avoid criticizing a story by saying that it should be twice as long. If we spot a massive hole in a story — a religion-shaped hole — we try to propose ways that a time- and space-strapped reporter could fill it with a sentence or two or, or maybe a paragraph or two, of content. All journalists yearn for more reporting time and more inches of type in which to display the results.

However, I am about to break that rule.

Maybe it’s because I love the city of Nashville and know a thing or two about the people there, but that short news story in The Tennessean about the new atheist congregation in hip East Nashville — “Sunday Assembly’s atheist gathering looks a lot like church” — really needed more content. Yes, this is another localized story spinning off all of the coverage of the small Sunday Assembly on the other side of the big pond.

Launched in London just over a year ago by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the group has grown to 37 Sunday Assemblies across the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Of the 16 in this country, Nashville is arguably the most unlikely location. The group meets a few miles from the headquarters of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Organizers say they’re tapping into the “nones,” what religion demographers call the one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. That group is on the rise, Pew Research Center data show, and includes atheists and agnostics but, in larger numbers, people who simply don’t identify themselves with any particular philosophy.

Sunday Assembly began meeting in Nashville in November and has faced little criticism from locals, even the most religious.

The news hook for the story? Jones the co-founder was in town for a filming session for a CNN show. What a shock.

Otherwise, the whole story — this is valid, methinks — focuses on how this non-church looks like a church once you walk inside the doors. Has anyone seen a story about one of these groups in which this was not the case?

All together now:

[Read more...]

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Got news? Can Christian and atheist swap lives for a month?

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Half a world away from my Oklahoma home, an experiment just concluded in Australia.

An atheist and a Christian who are friends agreed to trade places for a month and document the experience, with the summary promised later this week.

According to a brief in online news’ The Blaze, believer Bentley Browning and non-believer Simon Capes gave up their respective belief systems for the other’s in January, “in the hopes of coming to understand one another’s views more fully.” They’re calling it Faith Swap.

To be specific, each adopted the other’s daily rituals, or lack thereof, including prayer, Bible reading, worship, sacraments or any other related activities.

Color me intrigued.

Faith Swap also has been quasi written up in the Huffington Post after a brief PR piece appeared in the Christian Today Australia. So the concept is kind of out there, but without a good story.

So what am I critiquing exactly? The possibility. I’m still hopeful a GodBeat pro might latch onto it in and give us a proper feature.

Why? I’d like to see it go deeper. While Christians don’t always walk the walk, so to speak, can one completely erase all contact with or dependence upon God for a month and adopt the lifestyle of an individual completely without faith? Conversely, can someone with no belief in God conform to the daily discipline of contact with Him and extract spiritual meaning in the rituals of worship?

The possibilities for a true piece of reporting vs. a quick publicity rehash keep popping into my head.

For starters, Capes’ non-belief is categorized as that of an atheist without test or question. In a setting like this, why not educate readers about the differences between agnostics and atheists?

From there, how did Browning cope? Did he find a substitute for prayer? How did erasing God from his life affect his approach to money or reading?

For further background, the pair has been updating on Facebook, and some of Browning’s posts are genuinely descriptive of what I would envision a day without prayer might feel like to me. It is tough to make out which man is which, however, because both post under one user name.

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God, prayer and the winner of the Super Bowl


THIS WEEK, the question doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event:

“Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?”

THE GUY (who lives in that county) ANSWERS:

You gotta be kidding.

Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game on Feb. 2, no matter how big the TV audience is?

Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a Nov. 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?

Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins.

For some reason, football fans report praying more often than those who follow other sports. Fully 48 percent of adults thought “athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success.” On that question, agreement jumped to nearly two-thirds among white evangelicals and minority Protestants. If that’s automatically the case, the demonstrably devout Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow might be at MetLife Stadium with the Broncos, or might be hoping for future bowl appearances with the Jets or the Patriots, instead of analyzing college games on television.

Atheists smirk at the idea that God cares about who has the most points on the scoreboard. For instance, how might He decide which team to favor? On salon.com, Gary Labyrinthitis commented on prayers for one’s team to win: “There is something basically wrong with God deciding the outcome. It’s illegal to fix sports games … It diminishes the game if the outcome depends on to whom God throws the game. So why do we allow God to get away with it? And doesn’t this call into question God’s sense of fair play and honesty?”

And yet. The God depicted in the Bible is so intent on mundane matters that He numbers “the hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). The Bible also urges, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Everything? Really? Does this cover (actual examples from preachers) a broken toe, lost car keys, or the need for a parking space?

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