CNN finds missing voices in ‘atheist’ pastor’s media blitz

Earlier this week, I posted on Ryan Bell, the Seventh-day Adventist pastor who gave up his faith to focus on granting media interviews.

I kid. I kid.

What I meant to say is that Bell has decided to “live without God” for a year so that he can flirt with atheism. The free national headlines are, apparently, just a bonus.

In my previous post, I raised concerns about missing voices in a Religion News Service story:

RNS quotes a few sources besides Bell, including the author of a book on clergy who lost their faith and an atheist who considers the experiment flawed.

But the wire service doesn’t quote anyone directly involved with Bell’s past employment. The report, lacking any measure of normal journalistic skepticism, doesn’t quote anyone from his former church or ask denominational leaders about his performance and why they asked him to resign. The story doesn’t identify the “highly regarded Christian universities” or ask university officials about his performance and why he was asked to resign.

Those missing voices leave a big hole in an otherwise intriguing story.

So, what would a report look like that included those missing voices?

Enter CNN’s “Belief Blog,” which produced its own account of Bell’s experiment:

(CNN) - In the past, at times like these, when his life foundered and frayed around the edges, Ryan Bell often prayed for help. But this year, at least, the pastor has resolved not to.

For the next 12 months, Bell says he will live as if there is no God.

He will not pray, go to church, read the Bible for inspiration, trust in divine providence or hope in things unseen. He’s taking the opposite of a leap of faith: a free fall into the depths of religious doubt.

Bell’s “intellectual experiment,” which began January 1, has already borne dramatic consequences.

In less than a week, he lost two jobs teaching at Christian schools near his home in Los Angeles. He’s 42 and has been a pastor or in seminary for most of his adult life. Now he faces the prospect of poverty and taking odd jobs to feed his two daughters, 10 and 13.

“There have been times, usually late at night and early in the morning, when I think: What have I done? It really undermines the whole structure of your life, your career, your family,” Bell said.

But just as the man of God began to despair, he found help from an unlikely source: atheists.

But what about those missing voices?

CNN offers one:

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An ‘atheist’ Adventist’s alienation: any missing voices?

The most popular story on Religion News Service’s website right now involves a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who has decided to flirt with atheism for a year:

(RNS) California pastor Ryan Bell has a novel New Year’s resolution. For one year, he proclaimed, he will “live without God.”

It’s an odd resolution for an ordained minister, former church pastor, teacher at two highly regarded Christian universities and church consultant. Yet for the next 12 months, Bell, 42, plans to refrain from praying, reading the Bible and thinking about God at all.

Instead, he will read atheist authors, attend atheist gatherings and seek out conversation and companionship with unbelievers. He wants to “do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist.”

Still, his resolution is only an experiment — he is not, he said, an atheist. “At least not yet,” he wrote in an essay for The Huffington Post, where, on New Year’s Eve, he announced his plan and a new blog to document it.

“I am not sure what I am. That’s part of what this year is about.”

From there, the story notes:

But so far, it has also been about loss. Since announcing his plans, Bell has been asked to resign from both of his teaching positions and lost a consulting job. In the months before his decision to, as he put it, “try on” atheism, his health and his family relationships suffered too.

And later, there’s this background:

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Oklahoma news: A Christmas ‘miracle’ via the local atheists

News stories blending the miraculous with Christmas aren’t difficult to find: families reunited, poor children receiving presents, the homeless fed. A common denominator, though, is usually a denomination, most likely a Christian one. After all, it’s the Christians who connected charity to the whole thing to begin with, right?

Well, things apparently are different in Chickasha, Oklahoma. While I fear to step onto the home turf of Sooner GetReligion duo Bobby and Tamie Ross, tread I must.

The Chickasha Express-News reported a”Christmas miracle” story, but this time, it was area atheists who saved the day, as opposed to reprising what others often view as their “Grinch” role:

CHICKASHA – A group of local atheists saved Christmas for a Chickasha woman after she and her baby were allegedly put through the ringer [sic] at a church’s toy give away.

Tiffany Wait said she, her husband and their 7-month-old baby went to Bible Baptist Church’s Toy Shop Christmas morning to get gifts for their child, but were met with animosity because Wait did not want to give her baby to the volunteers.

“I am poor and would not be able to celebrate Christmas this year without their charity,” she said. “I went last year and it was a life saver. This year however, I was treated shockingly bad.”

Wait said her baby doesn’t like strangers and she’d prefer to be with him. She said the volunteer said it has to be done this way, or the family wouldn’t be able to participate.

“I stood there, fighting back tears and asked, ‘You would turn a baby away on Christmas,’” said Wait.

Two initial questions: (1) Was it a look-alike of some sort (“ringer”) Wait had to somehow be “put through” or was it the metaphorical “wringer” (or clothes press or what the British call a “mangle“) to which the reporter was referring? Also, what’s up with the alleged demand for Wait to “give her baby to the volunteers” at the toy distribution? The church folks could only hand presents directly to the child? Say what?

Anyway, this being the Year of Our Lord 2013, Wait — whose Twitter account describes her as an  Avon representative and one of whose Facebook photos show her with her husband and two children — did what anyone would do, these digital days.

She sought solace online:

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NYTs on atheists at holidays: Fox Butterfield, is that you?

There is such a thing as “low-hanging fruit” in life, and, it turns out, even in journalism. I am, therefore, a tad grateful to The New York Times for this easy-to-pick story about atheists who happen to organize gatherings close to the 25th of December, but don’t dare call them “holiday parties.”

One bit of explanation: James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal‘s online opinion section, specifically his daily “Best of the Web Today” feature, coined the phrase, “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” to describe writing that’s obvious-yet-oblivious. Butterfield was the Times‘ crime reporter who incredulously once noted, “Despite drop in crime, an increase in inmates.”

The latest Butterfield Award goes to the Times for noting  ”During Religious Season, Nonbelievers Assert Right to Celebrate.” You can almost see the #firstworldproblems hashtag adjacent to the headline. Let’s begin:

In the darkness of an Upper West Side concert hall last weekend, 150 audience members holding twinkling plastic candles sang and swayed to celebrate reason and the season. Snow fell with abandon outside.

“We are not alone,” a humanist rock band crooned in a call and response.

“I wanted a holiday that made us feel connected, and feel connected to the world,” Raymond Arnold, the M.C., said at the start of the show he created, “Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice.”

Mr. Arnold, 27, a self-described “agnostic-atheist-humanist” who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told sardonic sermon-like stories to explain scientific developments since Stonehenge.

Then he invited the audience to sing a Christmas carol. “Some of you might be like, ‘I came to a secular solstice, what up?’ ” Mr. Arnold said, drawing laughs. He explained that “Do You Hear What I Hear?” did not mention Jesus Christ and could refer instead to the birth of an idea. He was going for “a sense of transcendence,” he said. It felt a little like church.

Apart from the fact that Arnold is just plain wrong about the carol making no reference to Jesus (the reference might not be explicit — “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light” — but it surely is understood by most Western hearers), an immediate question is, “Is this really news?” If, as might be imagined, there have been atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers” for centuries, is it not also reasonable to assume that some of the folks might gather together for solace against a world laden with Christmas imagery?

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UK’s Telegraph finds atheists in Florida — film at 11

Here’s a shocker: America is becoming more secular, atheism is on the rise and — get this! — for now there are more observant Muslims than Jews in Florida. Of course, it depends on whether you define a Jew as one who practices the Jewish faith or simply identifies culturally.

That’s the somewhat-breathless reporting of The Telegraph‘s blogs editor Damian Thompson — a journalist once labeled by The Church Times “as a ‘blood-crazed ferret,’” according to his online biography.

Over to you, Damian:

Did you know there are — possibly — now more religious Muslims than religious Jews in Florida? I know, it seems incredible. Miami Beach has had 15 Jewish mayors, there are getting on for 200 synagogues in South Florida – and, of course, it was the hunting ground of the despicable Bernie Madoff.

It also seems incredible because the journalistic evidence is thin. I realize that this is a blog post and, thus, a form of commentary? But facts on the ground matter, even in blogging.

Thompson cites figures from the BestPlaces.net website, which is geared more towards the real estate industry, as evidence, albeit scanty, that Muslims outnumber Jews in the Sunshine State:

There are still more Jews than Muslims in Florida, loosely defined; these figures measure Judaism as a religion. That said, even to compare the two 20 years ago would have seemed ridiculous. Florida has a small but vibrant, growing Muslim community, half of it from India, followed by Pakistanis – only 150,000 registered voters to date. As you’d expect, 80 per cent voted for Obama in the last two elections; but in other elections they’re swing voters, and in Florida you ignore those at your peril. As for the Jewish community, the retirement communities are reflecting the national picture.

He then goes on to quote a Newsmax article about the October 2013 Pew Research study showing a decline in Jewish population. Thompson then spells it all out for you:

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Where’s the other side in atheist lawsuit story?

Religion News Service had an interesting story recently about atheists challenging Uncle Sam over nonprofit financial reporting.

It’s a pretty straightforward account:

Nonbelievers are challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s special exemptions for religious organizations in a federal court in Kentucky, saying churches and other religious groups should have the same financial rules as other nonprofit groups.

If they prevail, it will change the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations, and require the same transparency of donors, salaries and other expenditures that secular nonprofits must currently meet.

So far, so good.

Then comes this quote:

“This is a very strong case,” said Dave Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, a national advocacy group and lead plaintiff in the case. “It seems to be straight-up discrimination on the basis of religion.”

Wow, the public relations director and lead plaintiff thinks it’s “a very strong case.” I’m sorry, but that made me chuckle. He’s not exactly an unbiased source.

I kept reading:

The case centers around who must file IRS Form 990, an annual reporting statement that provides information on a group’s mission, programs and finances.

Current tax law requires all tax-exempt organizations to file a Form 990 financial report — except churches and church-related organizations. A few state, political and educational organizations are exempt as well if their annual revenues fall below certain amounts.

This means the IRS treats religious organizations differently than it does all other organizations, the suit holds. It claims the IRS policy is a violation of the First Amendment and the due process promised under the Fifth Amendment.

The deeper I got into the story, the more I wondered if RNS would quote anyone besides the atheists.

The answer: Not really.

Perhaps RNS felt like it satisfied its journalistic responsibility with this note:

IRS spokesman Anthony Burke said the agency’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

But given the broad complaints made about churches and church-related organizations, why not quote a religious source?

Earlier this year, Bob Smietana wrote a piece for USA Today about the federal government trying to give a tax break to Annie Laurie Gaylor, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

From that story:

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Concerning C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist (not theologian)

The mistake showed up in news reports so often that it almost became normal, which is the worst possible thing that can happen with a mistake. Over and over, journalists kept pinning the “theologian” label on the Rev. Martin Marty of the School of Divinity at the University of Chicago.

The problem, of course, is that Marty is one of the world’s best known church historians. In the world of elite academia, which is certainly Marty’s territory, calling a church historian a theologian is something like calling a quarterback a wide receiver, or calling a surgeon a dentist, or calling a drummer a guitarist.

Why do this? And, once the mistake is made, why not correct the error? Marty once told me that, no matter how many times he tried to explain this error to journalists, it just kept happening. The mistake lived on and on.

This brings me to a very interesting story that ran in The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Speaking of which, is there a story on the Lewis anniversary in your local newspaper today? If so, please leave the URL for us in the comments pages.)

Lewis, of course, was a man of many academic and literary talents. The Times story sought to capture that right up top:

LONDON – C. S. Lewis was a noted polymath: philosopher, theologian, professor, novelist, children’s writer, literary critic, lecturer. But he was not much of a poet.

Still, 50 years to the day after his death, Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends and family as Jack, will be among the more than 100 people commemorated in some fashion in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, John Milton and Ted Hughes.

Lewis, who died at a week before his 65th birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — will receive the honor of a memorial stone in the floor in the Poets’ Corner, a portion of the abbey’s south transept that contains graves, memorial stones and a memorial window.

Sigh. Once again, that “theologian” label is so easy to abuse. Lewis wrote a wide variety of books, but he never produced a single work of systematic theology or anything resembling work in that disciple. There is a good reason for this: Lewis was a skilled literary critic and professor of literature. He was not a theologian and, to my knowledge, never claimed that label. His Oxford colleagues would have loved taking shots at him for that.

Now wait a minute, some GetReligion readers will respond. Isn’t it right to call him a “popular theologian,” in that he wrote books that for general readers — as opposed to academic readers — served as works of “popular” level theology?

That may be true, if one accepts that people have redefined the word “theologian” and are using it in a way that would be quite offensive to theologians. I am not aware of Lewis ever accepting that label, either.

It is also confusing to see that error in the Times lede, since the an accurate label is later used in the story when talking about some of this more popular books, such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.”

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How many atheists does it take to form a ‘megachurch?’

In pitching a trend story for a national audience, a headline-friendly catchphrase goes a long way.

Take the expression “atheist megachurch,” for example. That’s sure to grab editors’ attention, right?

Such was the case over the weekend as The Associated Press reported on what it characterized as atheist megachurches “taking root across the U.S. and around the world.”

The top of the story:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.

Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.

Now, the AP doesn’t actually quote any supporters or detractors who use that term, so we’ll have to take the wire service’s word for it.

As I began reading the story, the idea of “atheist mega-churches” intrigued me. In my time with AP in Texas, I reported on a number of megachurches, from Joel Olsteen’s Lakewood Church to T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House to the two Ed Youngs’ disparate Baptist congregations. In more recent times, I reported on megachurch seminaries and pastor training for Christianity Today.

Based on my past reporting, I know that the term “megachurch” has a specific meaning. The Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook defines it this way:

megachurches

Generally defined as a Christian church that has a weekly sustained attendance of 2,000 or more. Although megachurches existed in some form in the United States throughout the 20th century, in recent decades they have flourished. Megachurches are often Protestant, evangelical, Catholic or Pentecostal, and many are theologically conservative. Many are nondenominational or Southern Baptist.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research provides more details on megachurches:

Q: What’s the definition of a megachurch, and how many are there in the United States?
A:  Megachurches are not all alike, but they do share some common features. Hartford Seminary Sociologist Scott Thumma who, with Warren Bird, compiled the 2011 “Megachurches Today” research report defines a megachurch as a congregation with at least 2,000 people attending each weekend. These churches tend to have a charismatic senior minister and an active array of social and outreach ministries seven days a week.

As of 2012, there were roughly 1,600 Protestant churches in the United States with a weekly attendance of 2,000 people or more. That’s nearly 25% more than 2005, suggesting people continue to be receptive to this large-scale way of worshipping. The average megachurch had a Sunday attendance of 3,597. But not all megachurches are mega. The survey found that just 20 percent of megachurches had 5,000 people in attendance on a given Sunday.

So how many thousands of non-worshipers did the Los Angeles “atheist megachurch” draw?

Let’s read on:

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