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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And now, a newsworthy word from the Rt. anti-Rev. Dawkins

First things first.

Wait just a minute: Richard Dawkins said what?!?

By way of a news story from Religion News Service, readers learn:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) – Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

OK, after the shock of reading that, several questions popped into my rapidly aging brain.

Please understand that my first question in no way should be seen as a slight on the Religion News Service piece itself, which is basic, solid daily news reporting. No immediate journalistic complaints.

However, after reading the piece, am I the only one who wondered precisely what the religion angle was in this story?

Let’s think about that for a moment.

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Concerning theological Swiss Army knives (think chaplains)

In the world of church-state studies, few puzzles are as tough to crack as those that surround the work of military chaplains.

Suffice it to say, many soldiers would like spiritual comfort and help in combat. We are talking about life and death situations. A practicing Catholic or Orthodox soldier, for example, will want a chance to go to confession — with a valid priest.

And there is the problem. How many chaplains are going to fit into that foxhole? Are you going to get a male Catholic priest and a female Episcopal priest into the same submarine? How about a rabbi — Reform or Orthodox? — or an imam? Don’t Wiccan soldiers deserve a last rite of their own?

You can see the issues. Chaplains are asked to serve as, to repeat an image used before here at GetReligion, theological Swiss Army Knives. This works better for theological Universalists than it does for clergy who have taken vows to practice the rites and prayers of their faith and their faith alone.

This brings us to the debates about atheist/agnostic military chaplains. The following RNS story covers the political basics right up top:

(RNS) House lawmakers … approved an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill to prevent the appointment of nonreligious military chaplains.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. John C. Fleming, R-La., requires that only religious organizations be permitted to endorse chaplains for the military.

“The amendment holds the military to its current standards on endorsing agencies, which must be recognized religious and faith-based organizations,” said Fleming’s spokesman, Doug Sachtleben.

Currently, the Department of Defense recognizes more than 200 endorsing agents, all of them based on a belief in God. But there has been a recent push by Humanists, who do not recognize a supernatural divinity, to endorse their own military chaplains.

So, do humanists/atheists/agnostics deserve — think “equal access” principles — the right to have their own chaplains, so that in times of crisis they are dealing with spiritual/humanist counsel that reflects their own beliefs?

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Why atheists who pray should still be called atheists

What do you call someone who reads the Bible, attends church, prays daily, and believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, and life after death? Sometimes you call them “atheists.”

A reporter on the crime beat has clear-cut criteria for distinguishing between criminals and police. Likewise political journalists can typically rely on their readers understanding what they mean when they describe someone as being a Republican or Democrat. But religion reporters have a more difficult task when it comes to using labels.

Religious labels are intended to be prescriptive, a form of shorthand that provides a general overview of a person’s beliefs. If I say that someone is a Presbyterian it not only tells you what denomination they belong to, but implies that a number of other labels could apply as well (Christian, theist, etc.).

How then do reporters decide how to use religious labels? I think there are two helpful rule of thumbs. The first is to rely on a person’s self-description: Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not. This may seems obvious, but it’s a principle that is all-too-frequently violated. For instance, earlier this week I noted that Jeff Chu, who attends a church in a mainline denomination, was described by the AP as an “evangelical,” even though he says, “I don’t think I’d claim that label” and the reporter never contacted him to find out what he believed.

The second rule is that when other members of a religious group would dispute the self-identification, quote a source that puts the controversy in perspective. For example, a current dispute in Christian mission circles is whether someone who coverts from Islam to Christianity can continue to self-identify as Muslim.

As a religious matter it may seem clear: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet and Islam does not consider Jesus to be God. Ergo, the label Muslim does not apply to Christian converts. But in many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the term “Muslim” has broader cultural implications and not using it can be as controversial as converting to Christianity. A reporter should therefore allow a Christian covert to refer to themselves as Muslim but, for the sake of clarity, also quote a source that explains why others – both Christian and Muslim – might consider it inappropriate.

An excellent example of these principles in practice is Michelle Boorstein’s recent feature in the Washington Post on how “Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer.” Boorstein’s article begins by quoting a self-identified atheist who prays to an image of a 15-foot-tall goddess he named “Ms. X” after Malcolm X.

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Godless congregations copying Christian churches

Every year, approximately 4,000 new churches are started in the U.S. Out of that number, approximately 4,000 will receive no attention from the New York Times. So what makes Jerry DeWitt’s new church – located in a Hilton Hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – worthy of a feature in America’s greatest newspaper?

Perhaps it’s because DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher, had the marketing savvy to bill his church launch as “Louisiana’s first atheist service.”

It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.

Atheist “churches” are a hot new trend and worthy of broader news coverage. But there is something about this story that strikes me as peculiar. See if you notice anything strange about this sentence:

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.

The general newspaper reader will likely pass over that sentence without giving it a second thought. But for a journalist – particular one writing a feature for the New York Times – that should be a signal to start asking more questions. For example, the first query that comes to mind is, “If you are starting a new church in Lake Charles, why hold the first service in a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge – a two hour drive from where your chapel will be located?”

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Is the ‘New Evangelization’ a laughing matter?

In America there are two career fields that have a disproportionate number of agnostics and atheists: scientists and stand-up comedians.

At least that’s my impression. While surveys confirm that four-in-ten scientists (41 percent) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, the data on comedians is anecdotal and based entirely on my having watched way, way too many stand-up comedy specials.

While black and Hispanic comics often reference topics such as church-going, white comedians tend to only bring up religion when they are mocking believers. One notable exception is Jim Gaffigan, one of the whitest (or at least palest; he jokes that people wonder if one of his parents was a polar bear) and most successful comics in the country.

As the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein recently asked,

Is Jim Gaffigan technically employed by the Catholic Church?

The thought occurred to me in a week during which I saw the awesome Catholic comic speak in person and did some reporting about the church’s major new outreach effort it calls “the new evangelization.”

The sweeping campaign seeks to bring back the many millions of Catholics who have left the church and generally to re-imagine the entire concept of evangelizing, which is more typically associated with, well, evangelical Protestants. The new Catholic version is more subtle, highlighting Catholics who are just living out Catholic teachings and are happy as a result.

Let’s consider the question about Gaffigan being on the Vatican’s payroll by looking at one of his clips on Jesus and Christianity.

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Yes, Pope Francis said: All are ‘redeemed!’ Is that news?

Let’s start with the actual words spoken by Pope Francis, in his much quoted, and often warped, sermon on Mark 9:38-40 and the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming all of creation, including the people in it.

The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. …

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!

OK, here is what that turned into once it reached the cyber-pages of The Huffington Post, with this dramatic headline:

Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed By Jesus As Well As Catholics, Pope Francis Says

Pope Francis has delivered a homily in which he states atheists who do good are redeemed through Jesus.

Speaking at the Wednesday morning Mass in his Rome residence, he told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists were saved by Christ.

In the unprepared speech, he emphasized the importance of “doing good” as a principle which unites all humanity.

OK, what we have here is two crucial doctrinal concepts that have been jammed into a journalistic blender.

First of all, the pope is talking about “redemption” and he notes, of course, that Jesus Christ died and was raised and, as the Orthodox like to say, has thus “trampled down death by death.”

So all of creation has been redeemed. The issue whether everyone in that creation manages, through grace, to accept the reality of this redemption. At that point, the key term is not “redemption,” but “salvation.” And who is saved, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ? Those who have embraced that redemption.

For another take on this, consider the following — the blunt take offered by the famous/infamous theologian Stephen Colbert at the end of his classic showdown with scholar Philip Zimbardo, author of “The Lucifer Effect”. By all means, click right here for the full video. Meanwhile, here’s the key exchange:

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‘I’m an atheist, Wolf’


Oh what a perfect clip for GetReligion.

You have to watch it to get the full gist but CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer is, above, interviewing Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca, holding her son Anders. (Full interview here.) Then, as transcribed by Politico:

Blitzer: We’re happy you’re here. You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?

Survivor:  Yeah.

Blitzer: Did you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?

Survivor: I — I’m actually an atheist.

Blitzer: You are. All right. But you made the right call.

Survivor: Yeah. We are here. And you know, I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.

Blitzer: Of course not.

Is this not a perfect example of why yes/no questions are a bad idea? I mean, it turned out all right. In fact, the survivor’s response is what made this such an interesting interview, despite Blitzer’s best attempts. But what was he expecting to have someone say?

Also, though, while I object to the form of the question and how it gave too much direction to the respondent, I do find it interesting how this question rests in the general sector of “journalists are weird about religion and disasters” that I’ve noticed over the years. My favorite recent example was from another CNN interview. It was back in February and the legendary Poop Cruise had finally docked. CNN was ignoring the Gosnell trial but, for some reason, doing round-the-clock coverage of the survivors of the Poop Cruise. But when two survivors tried to say what Scripture verse had sustained them during their journey, they were cut off. It was weird.

Anyway, the vast majority of the time the problem with how religion is treated in disaster interviews is that the reporters behave as if religion plays no role in sustaining people during their time of need. Perhaps it’s the loving way in which the atheist here answered the question, but I found it oddly interesting and comforting to see that religious adherents and skeptics alike get the silly questions that make assumptions about belief or non-belief.

Another interview I want to highlight was aired on CBS. I can’t stop thinking about it. The reporter is speaking to an older woman who lost her entire house while she sat in it. She is battered and bruised but she rather cheerfully describes what she went through and talks about how she knows she lost her dog under the ruins. A few minutes into the interview, someone off camera says “A dog!” The interview subject then realizes that her precious dog is alive and she asks for help getting him out of the rubble. She’s so very happy. And then she says, unprompted:

“Well I thought God just answered one prayer to let me be OK, but He answered both of them. Because this was my second prayer.”

It’s a powerful moment and it was captured simply by letting someone speak freely about a dramatic moment.

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