Porn no more: Secular students inviting religious discussion

Gone is the “low-hanging fruit” of years past when the media converged on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus each year to produce titillating stories on students exchanging Bibles and Qurans for porn.

The annual “Smut for Smut” event is no more. In its place are kinder, gentler atheists, in the form of the Secular Student Alliance. The group says it wants conversation, not provocation, and will not revert to its old ways.

Replacing the saucier stories and the reporters behind them is San Antonio Express-News Godbeat pro Abe Levy. He revisited the topic for a Sunday piece on a topic that has gained a lot of headlines — much of them sensational – in recent years.

Kudos to the Express-News for telling a real news story as opposed to the tabloid stuff. Three years ago, that wasn’t exactly the case. From this week’s story:
But times have changed.

This semester, Atheist Agenda renamed itself the Secular Student Alliance, one of 402 groups affiliated with an Ohio-based umbrella organization of the same name. The makeover underscores a national trend in which secular humanist groups have been dropping edgy, insult-minded strategies for more welcoming ones.

The change wasn’t just conscience-based, however. The story quotes one former member who said the old approach would entice people to the group’s meetings only to turn them off.

The strategy is now paying off for the Secular Student Alliance, apparently:

Meetings now attract people of diverse interests, including those affiliated with a religion but seeking a place to question or doubt without conditions, leaders said.

The new group is awaiting approval as a registered UTSA student organization. But weekly recruiting efforts already reflect a kinder bunch of people.

At a small table in the central campus this week, they passed out fliers challenging the ideologies of major world religions. Alliance president Charles Duncan smiled pleasantly and, in an even-handed tone, spoke of how science and reason was a suitable basis for human charity.

“We’re out here just promoting the values of humanism. You can be moral in the absence of religion,” said Duncan, 24, who in 1997 prayed for Christian salvation during a Billy Graham sermon at the Alamodome and officially came out as an atheist two years ago. “Our goal now is to, instead of inciting hostility, we want to engage in civil dialogue.”

Since we’re going there, the story could have been improved with some input from religious folks. This section at the end offered a perfect opportunity:
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Praise be to Soros for investing millions in Baltimore

So, does the cultural left have a leader who might play the role that the Rev. Pat Robertson plays for the mainstream press when it is covering life on the religious right? I mean, is there a person on the religious or anti-religious left whose views are so predictable and, often, so predictably extreme that one can always count on him for that symbolic action or quote that you need to stereotype all of the other people on that side of the cultural aisle?

I mean, other than Madonna or Bill Maher?

At the level of real-life power, I think it would be hard to find a better nominee than mega-billionaire George Soros, the financial titan whose presence looms behind so many important institutions and projects on the cultural and religious left. Yes, I realize that Soros can be found on many lists of prominent celebrity atheists. However, the big tent on the cultural and religious left includes a wide array of people along the spectrum from proud atheism to progressive forms of religious faith. So there is room for this man and his wallet.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that there is a huge flaw in comparing Soros with Robertson, when it comes to the role of providing journalists with easy headlines and soundbites (I mean, other than the fact that Robertson is nowhere near as rich). Robertson talks all the time. Soros does not.

Still, both mean are oh so predictable in their motivations and actions.

Thus, I was interested when the newspaper that lands in my front yard featured a long A1 story built on an actual interview with Soros, focusing on the 15th anniversary of the creation of his Open Society Institute in Baltimore. Is there a GetReligion ghost in the story?

Well, the word “atheist” does not appear in the text, which I think is rather strange. Why is that? To be frank, the elements of the Open Society Institute’s work that are covered by The Baltimore Sun strike me as being, well, so similar to the kinds of social-ministry projects that are taken on by religious groups. In a way, what we have here is a kind of a secular alternative to the work of the major Catholic and Jewish groups that are so powerful here in Charm City.

Like what? Here is a key chunk of the story, right after the description of one outreach program to young internationals:

The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.

The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor — who has given $90 million to the effort here — wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.

“A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide,” Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.

Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted. “Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most,” he said. “From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most.”

Now, what we have here are projects linked to ethics and moral choices — topics that journalists must not, repeat must NOT, assume are inherently religious in nature. What I think is missing here — in light of Soros’ beliefs as an atheist — is a story that truly explores precisely why he wants to get involved in this kind of, to be blunt, urban ministry.

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Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?

BETH ASKS:

Are there any substantive differences between traditional atheism vs. what is called “New Atheism”? Or is the term used just to describe a bunch of popular books (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc.) coming out at once? Who coined the term “New Atheism” and can it be described as a new philosophical movement (or reframing of an old one)?

THE RIDGEWOOD RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The “New Atheism movement” originated, or at least gained wide currency, with a 2006 article by Gary Wolf in Wired the technology/cyberspace magazine (whose innovative founding editor Kevin Kelly happens to be a devout Christian).

Yes, Wolf’s news peg was a “bunch of popular books” preaching atheism that appeared around that time: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (now professor of science literacy at Britain’s New College of Humanities), “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett (co-director of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies”) and “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris (a Ph.D. in neuroscience who runs Project Reason). Later books capitalized on the trend.

What’s new about New Atheism?

No, not substantive arguments for disbelief, which are as perennial as the case for God. Rather, a tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush. Such tactics win visibility and sales, much like what we get in current U.S. politics and political media. Wolf said the new approach demands uncompromising hostility by folks like himself, “we lax agnostics, we noncommital non-believers, we vague deists.” The New Atheists insist that such fence-sitters must arise to ”help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith… They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.”

Thus all religions must be ridiculed, believers scorned as naive or stupid, and even trivial acknowledgments of religious heritage extirpated from public life. Some proponents even think parents should no longer be permitted to raise children in their faith. (It’s unclear whether government should enforce this by law or whether in fairness atheists should likewise be forbidden to press their skepticism upon offspring.)

No more mere tut-tutting in faculty lounges or living rooms. It’s all a throwback to Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a preacher’s kid and onetime Illinois attorney general who fashioned a lucrative career delivering caustic, entertaining lectures that assailed religion and the Bible.

What did agnostic Wolf conclude about the anti-God ruckus?

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Hey atheists, ‘Thank God you’re wrong’

As a reporter, I’m always amazed by how much I learn when I actually pick up the phone and talk to somebody.

As opposed to, say, relying on my vast personal knowledge (and Googling ability) and preparing a news report without ever making contact with a real, live human.

Speaking of which …

The New York Times had a story this week (at least I’m 95 percent sure it’s not supposed to be a column or news analysis) on a creationist organization targeting atheists with a billboard in Times Square. The peculiar thing is that the story quoted absolutely no one — except, strangely enough, for Pope Francis, who as far as I know has nothing to do with the billboard campaign.

It was difficult to tell if the Times wrote the story on deadline and didn’t have time to quote any humans or if the newspaper simply didn’t see a need to expand beyond the reporter’s own wisdom.

Alas, conjecture words such as “if,” “perhaps” and “seems” dominated the source-free story, starting at the top:

If the evangelical organization Answers in Genesis was looking to take its message to a secular audience, it would be hard to do better than the heart of Times Square at noon on Monday.

Wedged amid an advertisement urging revelers to take a trip to Atlantic City, promotions for the new CBS drama “Hostages” and a promotion from Google was a 15-second video directed at New York City’s atheists.

“To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you’re wrong,” the digital billboard blared on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

As the lunchtime crowd passed by on the streets below, few gave it more than a passing glance, perhaps distracted by the frightening, blood-soaked photograph promoting the horror movie “Carrie” above the theater next door.

Or, perhaps, religious billboard battles between believers and nonbelievers just do not have the punch they once did.

My basic reaction to the story: Ho-hum, with a heavy dose of “So what?”

The only reason I even bring up the Times story is because CNN’s Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi took the same scenario and produced a meaty religion story — in large part because he actually quoted key figures such as the head of the Young Earth creationism group behind the billboard:

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, said the idea for the advertisements came from an atheist billboard in Times Square at Christmas.

During the holidays, the American Atheists put up a billboard with images of Santa Claus and Jesus that read: “Keep the Merry, dump the myth.”

“The Bible says to contend for the faith,” Ham said. “We thought we should come up with something that would make a statement in the culture, a bold statement, and direct them to our website.

“We’re not against them personally. We’re not trying to attack them personally, but we do believe they’re wrong,” he said.

“From an atheist’s perspective, they believe when they die, they cease to exist. And we say ‘no, you’re not going to cease to exist; you’re going to spend eternity with God or without God. And if you’re an atheist, you’re going to be spending it without God.’ “

And yes, Marrapodi quoted the other side, too:

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Der Spiegel and the cutting question of circumcision

 The issue of circumcision has returned to Germany’s newspapers — and the manner in which the controversy is being discussed suggests that while the press is aware of the issues of personal autonomy generated by state intervention into the private sphere, the religious liberty (or perhaps the religious sensibility) issue is missing from the story.

The English-language section of Der Spiegel ran a news analysis story on 27 Sept 2013 entitled “Cutting Controversy: German Court Sets New Circumcision Rules”. It also ran a story in the German-language Panorama section entitled: “Kinder müssen vorher aufgeklärt werden” that reported a court in Hamm had ruled that parents and doctors must first discuss the procedure with a boy before he is circumcised.

The issue of circumcision of boys in Germany carries with it the baggage of the Nazi era and is fraught with social, cultural and religious issues. The issue attracted international prominence in 2012 when a Cologne court ruled that religious circumcision of boys constituted “bodily harm”. Der Spiegel noted that court held that as a matter of law:
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The warning in the atheist pastor story

The New York Times today has a piece headlined “Minister Admits Overstating Her Credentials,” an update of sorts to the previous week’s fluffy profile of a mainline pastor (“After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission”) that began:

Nine days before Easter in 2012, the Rev. Teresa MacBain sent a letter to the congregants she had pastored for three years at a Methodist church in Tallahassee, Fla. For much of that time, she had preached the Gospel every Sunday, only to slip each Monday into tormented doubt.

GetReligion readers are familiar with this story, as it was big news back in 2012 when CNN, NPR and Religion News Service covered it. Last week the Times had this follow-up:

Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.

This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.

Gushy. So anyway, turns out the Harvard project won’t be going ahead with Ms. McBain:

A Methodist minister who resigned her pulpit last year after deciding that she was no longer a believer, and who was recently hired by a humanist group based at Harvard to help build congregations of nonbelievers throughout the country, has acknowledged fabricating aspects of her educational background.

The former minister, Teresa MacBain, whose crisis of faith was described in the On Religion column last Saturday, claimed she had earned a master of divinity degree from Duke University.

I think there are two items of journalistic interest in this news.

There’s the old editor’s adage about how if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. There’s a reason that we’re encouraged to be skeptical about — everything. But I don’t think that means reporters should be expected to call universities to verify degrees received. I would be particularly unlikely to check the veracity of obtaining a degree if the person had been hired at Harvard.

Although, it seems, Harvard was not doing its due diligence:

“Clearly we should have verified Teresa’s M.Div. degree rather than relying upon her résumé and the frequent, public references to it as she worked for and with several Freethought organizations.”

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Pope not Catholic reports The Independent

The Independent is reporting that Pope Francis is a heretic. More precisely The Independent has insinuated that Francis has adopted a Pelagian view of salvation.

But it could also be saying the pope is a crypto-Lutheran. Or, has it simply botched the translation from the Italian original, omitted key portions of the quote, ignored the context of the statement, and made a hash of the theology being discussed in Pope Francis’ letter to an Italian newspaper?

“Bear in the woods” stories or breaking news reports that the “pope is Catholic” seldom get pushed to the front pages of a daily newspaper. I have sympathy for a reporter then who thinks he has found a “man bites dog” story. But The Independent‘s 11 Sept 2013 article entitled “Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven” is not it.

Not only does it assume that doctrinal development for the Catholic Church takes place in the letter page of a secular newspaper, it misses the point of the pope’s comments. And it does not attempt to break free from the tired liberal / conservative dichotomy. The content of what the pope says, even when it appears to be off base, is of less importance than the classification of his teaching in secular political terms.

The story opens:

In comments likely to enhance his progressive reputation, Pope Francis has written a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences.

Responding to a list of questions published in the paper by Mr Scalfari, who is not a Roman Catholic, Francis wrote: “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.

“Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.”

The Independent went to a liberal Catholic publication for an expert quote — and found what it was looking for, and then dropped in Francis comments about homosexuality to close out the story.

If a reader’s sole source of information on what the pope said was this story, he might be excused for thinking the pope was preaching Pelagianism. Wikipedia sums up this theological term by saying:

Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid.

The undivided church condemned this understanding of salvation in 418 at the Council of Carthage. It anathematized the proposition that men could, without special grace from God, fulfill the commands of God by the exercise of their own free will. It rejected the view that when the saints pray “forgive us our trespasses” they are praying for others, not for themselves, or that they utter these words “out of humility and not because they are true.”

Not all were convinced by these arguments, and in in 529 at the Second Council of Orange anathematized the Pelagian teaching that “by the force of nature we can rightly think or choose anything that is good.” Is the pope then a Pelagian? Does he teach that an atheist by his own will can achieve salvation if he remains true to his conscience?

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Dawkins talks 2.0, and Anglicans just can’t catch a break

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There he goes, there he goes again.

At the moment, the Rt. anti-Rev. Richard Dawkins is — logically enough — in full-tilt, set-on-stun PR mode for his new book, “An Appetite for Wonder: the Making of a Scientist.” The goal is to make headlines and move volumes and, as the old saying goes, a headline is a headline.

You may remember that big-headline story the other day, the one in which one of the world’s most famous atheist evangelists said he thought that recent scandals linked to the sexual abuse of children had been overblown and that he found it hard to condemn the “the mild pedophilia” — his term — that he experienced as a child while in school in England.

In my earlier post, I asked if this statement was automatically a “religion story” and, if so, why didn’t journalists ask other atheists what they thought of his stance on this issue.

That was then. Now Dawkins has spoken out again, this time on his views about the role of the Church of England in British culture and, strangely enough, in his own life as an atheist. The bottom line: With friends like Dawkins, the Anglican prelates really don’t need enemies.

Here’s the headline in The Telegraph, riffing on quotes drawn from The Spectator:

Richard Dawkins admits he is a ‘cultural Anglican.’

And a few of the key paragraphs, with the elements of British newspaper style left intact:

Prof Dawkins admitted he would consider going into a church, and would miss ‘aesthetic elements’ such as church bells if they were gone. And he said he was “grateful” to Anglicanism which he claims has a “benign tolerance” — enabling people to enjoy its traditions without necessarily believing in them.

He told the Spectator: “I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do … I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green.

“I have a certain love for it.”

Now, this time around there is no question that we are dealing with a religion-beat story. Right?

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