What has God got to do with drones?

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,”a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong. 

So began Peter Arnett’s 8 Feb 1968 report from the town of Ban Tre. Published in the New York Times under the headline “Major Describes Move“, time has improved the quotation to various forms of “we had to destroy the village to save it”. Questions of the proportionality of  response to a threat have been present in war reporting from the start of the craft in the Nineteenth century to the present conflict in Afghanistan. However the questions raised by Peter Arnett have been debated for more than a millennium in the theological and philosophical speculations of “just war” theory.

The moral issues surrounding the use of unmanned drones has been been raised from time to time in the U.S. press and addressed by my colleague Mollie Hemingway on the pages of GetReligion. However, the European press has been particularly exercised over their use in the battle with the Taliban. Tuesday’s Guardian in London gave the issue the front page treatment in its story on the activation of an RAF squadron operating from Britain that will control drones flying over Afghanistan. However the Guardian approaches the issue of ethics without reference to religion.

The article entitled “UK to double number of drones in Afghanistan” begins:

The UK is to double the number of armed RAF “drones” flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan and, for the first time, the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain.

In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan, the Guardian can reveal. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks. Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

Details of the new squadron’s operations are discussed and then the story moves to the moral issues involved in the use of unmanned drone attacks.

The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan. The UK has been flying them almost non-stop since 2008.

The CIA’s programme of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal area was last month condemned in a report by US academics. The attacks are politically counterproductive, kill large numbers of civilians and undermine respect for international law, according to the study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools.

After raising the moral issues, the Guardian steps back somewhat and dives into eight paragraphs of operational details before resurfacing with this statement.

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit. …In December 2010, David Cameron claimed that 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD.

Let me start off by commending the Guardian‘s reporter for raising the moral issues surrounding the targeted killing of America and Britain’s enemies. A story published the same day in the Washington Post on the administration’s plans to create kill lists of enemies was silent on the moral issues — though it did mention that there had been legal challenges to the government’s use of drones to kill American citizens in enemy ranks. As an aside, I am surprised by the lack of outrage over the targeted killing program from the press. America has been down this road before. The Phoenix program in Vietnam sparked congressional hearings and a steady flow of moral outrage up through the Carter Administration.

Was it sufficient for the Guardian to put forward the objections of some American law school professors when raising the moral issues of drone warfare? There are any number of philosophers and theologians who could have offered cogent critiques of the morality of drone warfare — Britain’s smartest man, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has been outspoken in his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has lectured on the issue of “just war” to military audiences. The choice of whom to quote, of course, lies with the author — but my sense of this story is that the religious element is outside the reporter’s knowledge. Ethics for the Guardian is not tied to religion.

This is, for me, is the journalism question in this story. There is an ethical ghost here — but what sort of ethical ghost, secular or religious?

The Christian tradition holds that morality without religion is impossible. There can be ethics without religion, but these ethics are necessarily incomplete or flawed. In his book Morality after Auschwitz, Peter Haas asked how Germany could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of genocide. His answer was that:

far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.

If there is no God, there is no good and evil, no right and wrong, or as Fyodor Dostoyevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

Against this view we have philosophers and ethicists such as Prof. Peter Singer of Princeton University who have argued  “that an intellectually coherent ethic has to be independent of religion and that’s an argument that goes right back to Socrates and Plato.”

Whether unconsciously or by choice, the Guardian has come down on one side of this argument. There is no God.

For those of us who are unpersuaded that there can be right or wrong without a God, should it have provided the arguments of religious ethics when addressing morality? Or should we take another newspaper?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should intelligent journalism address this question?

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A non-journalistic flight to heaven and back

In the past week of so, I have received a number of requests for a GetReligion news critique of the Newsweek cover story that ran under the grabber headline: “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.” The problem, of course, is that this cover story by Dr. Eben Alexander is a perfect example of a larger trend, which is the flight of America’s major news magazines away from actual news coverage and into the world of first-person, advocacy, experiential writing.

Please note that this particular feature focuses on a subject that remains highly newsworthy, even after decades of books and chatter about evidence that near-death experiences can in some way be documented and/or investigated. This trend has affected popular culture, pop religion, journalism, etc., etc.

Clearly, millions of Americans are intrigued with this subject, while others merely groan, curse or shake their heads.

I have been reading up on this topic for a quarter of a century or so and, if this subject interests you, please surf around a bit in the contents of this Google search. Pay special attention to references to the stricken “looking down” from above their bodies and retaining information about objects they could not possibly have seen with their own eyes.

So there is news content here. There are voices on both sides of these debates with information and arguments to share. There are theologians and religious/cultural historians who will gladly debate the implications of the experiences that resuscitated people claim to have had during NDE events.

But do not look for this material in the Newsweek cover story. This is a non-journalistic feature that raises all kinds of questions that journalists could investigate — if they have the will to do so.

Instead, readers are given prose such as the following:

Although I still had little language function, at least as we think of it on earth, I began wordlessly putting questions to this wind, and to the divine being that I sensed at work behind or within it.

Where is this place?

Who am I?

Why am I here?

Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate — hotter than fire and wetter than water — and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.

I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. The orb was a kind of “interpreter” between me and this vast presence surrounding me. It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb, and the orb (which I sensed was somehow connected with, or even identical to, the woman on the butterfly wing) was guiding me through it.

Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself. “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness …”

This is interesting material to quote in a serious cover story on this topic. However, this passage is — in effect — drawn from the “fact paragraph” material in this report. It’s contents cannot be discussed by others or debated. There are no sidebar articles accompanying this feature written by skeptics — secular or religious (such as this reaction piece, predictably, by Sam Harris).

And in the end, what does all of this mean? Well, Dr. Alexander is not shy:

Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.

But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.

This new picture of reality will take a long time to put together. It won’t be finished in my time, or even, I suspect, my sons’ either. In fact, reality is too vast, too complex, and too irreducibly mysterious for a full picture of it ever to be absolutely complete. But in essence, it will show the universe as evolving, multi-dimensional, and known down to its every last atom by a God who cares for us even more deeply and fiercely than any parent ever loved their child.

How does one critique this kind of material as journalism?

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ABC on Jesus the sky pixie

Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!

These words close Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1924 poem “Vladimir Ilych Lenin“.”  Written in the months after Lenin’s death, “VI Lenin” is the greatest of Mayakovsky’s works and the apex of the socialist realist style of poetry that flowered in Russia in the decade after the Revolution. “VI Lenin” is also the template through which some in the press construct the person and works of Jesus Christ

For many members of the chattering classes Jesus is a Lenin figure, or Lenin is a Jesus figure (depending on your priorities) with the difference that Lenin was a real historical figure, while Jesus was not. A recent interview with Salman Rushdie conducted by the ABC, (note the “the” before ABC, meaning the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the American Broadcasting Corporation) typifies this view of Jesus held by his cultured despisers.

But culture first, then media criticism.

Divided into three cantos, “VI Lenin” tells the story of the triumph of the proletarian revolution through the vehicle of the working class, which through toil and strife, guided by the laws of social development, revealed by its ideological genius Karl Marx, produces the “twin of Mother History” — the Bolshevik Party and its leader, VI Lenin.

The party for Mayakovsky is the symbol of the strength and wisdom of the working classes and is what has trained and mobilized the masses, and lead them out of their bondage. And over all this:

the compass of Leninist thought,
the guiding hand of Lenin.

Lenin’s life did not end with his death as the people and the party live on.

And even the death of Ilyich
became a great communist organizer

Lenin will live in the hearts of the proletariat and will remain the rallying point for world revolution.

Proletarians, form ranks for the last battle!
Straighten your backs,
unbend your knees!
Proletarian army, close ranks!
Long live the joyous revolution, soon to come!
This is the greatest
of all great fights
that history has known.

What prompted that bit of showing off of the detritus of a wasted youth was the Salman Rushdie interview broadcast on the ABC Radio National program Books and Arts Daily. In a forty minute segment entitled “Salman Rushdie’s New Memoir: Joseph Anton” host Michael Cathcart spoke to the British novelist about his life in the wake of the fatwah.

The show notes state:

On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Iran’s Supreme leader the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa – any believer who assassinated the novelist Salman Rushdie was promised eternal life. The Ayatollah announced that the Indian born British novelist had committed an unpardonable blasphemy against Islam in a novel called The Satanic Verses. To supporters of the fatwa, even the title must have seemed like a confession. This was a man who by his own declaration was the author of The Satanic Verses. And so Salman Rushdie winner of the Booker prize became Rushdie the Infidel. Rushdie the man in hiding. For some he became a champion of free speech, a man who refused to cave in to bullying. To others, he was the author of his own misfortune. Now he tells the story of his years in protection in a memoir, a vast book called Joseph Anton, the alias he took while in hiding.

I encourage you to listen to the interview. Rushdie tells a fascinating story about his life and his work — and also has insights in the present unrest spreading across the Muslim world.  In recounting the protests that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses Rushdie states the “people who had demonstrated were ordered to demonstrate.”

“They didn’t know anything” about his book and were out in the streets demonstrating against a Western provocation against Islam on the instructions of political leaders who wanted to capitalize on the book’s notoriety for their local political advantage. The same pattern of events was unfolding in the Muslim world, Rushdie argued, with the obscure YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims.”

This interpretation of events is in line with the reports I shared from my contacts in Egypt on 11 Sept 2012 when a mob attacked the U.S. embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi. While the government on 28 Sept backed away from its claim the attack on Benghazi was caused by spontaneous outrage from the “Innocence of Muslims” film, I have yet to see them concede what the press and Egyptian government have concluded — that the Cairo riot was a staged provocation also.

Do listen to Rushdie — he is worth your time. The interviewer, on the other hand, was not as strong.  About six minutes into the broadcast, when discussing Rushdie’s university studies about the history of Islam, the interviewer said:

There is no doubt that Muhammad was a real person. .. (while) Jesus was an ambiguous person.

Muhammad is real. Jesus is, maybe, real, or maybe a legend, the ABC argues. The interviewer has mangled his facts here, as after 150 years of scholarship on this point, the historical Jesus is conceded to have existed by most scholars. The issue as to whether Muhammad existed is an open one in Western scholarship.

For Mayakovsky Lenin is not like other men. He is a symbol of the struggle of the proletariat: past, present and future. He is a genius and a practical man, the “most human of all humans who have lived on earth”, Mayakovsky wrote.  A man “just like you and me.”

The ABC interviewer, were he to posit the existence of Jesus, would describe him in these terms also — and view the Christian religion in terms of its social utility. Let me say my concern is not to argue theology, but to point out the worldview the interviewer used in expressing what he believed to be the consensus as to who Jesus was. Jesus like Lenin was a figure whose value lay in his symbolic utility. It is how Jesus is interpreted, not who he is or his work that matters.

This, of course, is contrary to most Christian traditions, save for a few modern sects — yet the palette the ABC uses to paint who Jesus was is a default left-liberal semi-universalist one. Doubts can be raised about Jesus, but the portrait of Muhammad is the one held by traditional Islam.

Voluble skepticism of Christianity doubled with incurious statements about Islam is common among the press these days. Why?

Was this an example of political correctness? The crawling that one sees from many in the press when the topic comes to Islam? Or, was it ignorance of the topic? What say you GetReligion readers? Do you think the ABC would have argued that Jesus was real while Muhammad was sky pixie (a phrase beloved by atheists in describing divinity)?


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Some religious denigration is better than others

Back when the Obama administration was still claiming that they believed the assassination of the United States ambassador to Libya was in response to a YouTube video, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

In President Obama’s statement on Stevens’ murder, he used this line:

“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

The media seemed oddly incurious about the idea that our leaders were saying that the U.S. rejects efforts to denigrate religious beliefs (and they were only mildly more interested in this claim back during the early days of Terry Jones’ media stunts or when similar statements were made during the previous administration). Media outlets more or less printed the claims and didn’t even realize that many Americans believe that the First Amendment means the government has no business rejecting efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Even more, they believe the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to do just that. Free country and all that. You can stand on the corner and distribute your poorly written anti-Calvinist tracts all you want.

What was particularly odd about the coverage was that, for instance, the Associated Press previously reported that Clinton had been in a crowd that had given a standing ovation to the “Book of Mormon” play. The same play that won a Tony for Best Musical, I believe. Do we reject efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others! Or do we give these efforts standing ovations and awards? I’m so confused! (And I’m not even going to get into any of the other religious liberty battles being fought against government entities.)

All this to say that I was intrigued by media coverage of just the latest effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Here’s how the Inquisitr covered it:

In the clip for American Horror Story: Asylum, Jessica Lange appears as a sinister nun at particularly dark and dreary mental institution during the 60s. “Here you will repent for your sins to the only judge that matters,” she says while leaning over a patient strapped to hospital bed. If the embedded promo is any indication of things to come, then this season looks to increase the sex and violence by several intense notches…

If you want to see more of Jessica Lange as a sadistic nun at a very creepy mental institution, be sure to tune into the American Horror Story: Asylum premiere on October 17.

Entertainment Weekly is so excited about the premier that it ran on the cover of the magazine.

But I haven’t seen any questioning of the anti-Catholic bigotry in this TV show in the mainstream media. Just in this piece in America magazine by James Martin, S.J. He goes through his enjoyment of EW prior to reading its article on the show and adds:

Anti-Catholicism (especially in grotesque portraits of sisters and nuns) has a long history, is alive and well, but is often overstated by some sensitive Catholics.  And of course it’s quite subjective.  One person’s good-natured ribbing is another person’s offensive stereotype.  But it’s always a good thought experiment to imagine the lines about, say, Lange’s sadism rendered with another religious or ethnic group.  Instead of nuns, substitute “rabbis” or “imams,” or “Muslims” or “Jews,” or “African-Americans” or “gay men,” in that sentence.  So reread those lines about the spanking with those groups in mind.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

How does that sound?  Do you think it would make it past many network execs or the editors at EW?  Well, maybe, but should it?

Of course Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender.  A new movie called “The Good Doctor,” opened this weekend, starring Orlando Bloom as a wicked physician who poisons his patients.  (Bad Legolas.)  So Catholic sisters aren’t the only vocations to have their reputations besmirched.  It’s as fair for filmmakers and TV producers to feature the occasional mean priest, bad bishop, and silly sister as it is to feature crooked cops, devious lawyers and messed-up parents.  And Hollywood even turns on its own: check out the brilliant “Episodes” starring Matt LeBlanc as an addled, well, Matt LeBlanc.

But that a sadistic, slutty, screwed-up Catholic sister is the centerpiece of a show’s entire season on a mainstream network is depressingly retrograde, especially when real sisters are trying hard to be seen as women worthy of dignity and respect.  It’s a lazy trope and an offensive one, too.  And I’m always amazed that editors and writers and producers and screenwriters and photographers don’t see that.

Father Martin’s piece is all an interesting critique I’m more interested in the media’s curious decisions to avoid talking about the fact that we denigrate religious beliefs — sometimes in incredibly high-profile ways — all the time in this country. There’s been a general problem with the media coverage of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, but most of that is political or relates to approaching that story politically. But there are, of course, some overlap issues with religion news.

I think the only mainstream outlet article I saw that even critiqued the administration’s line on free speech in recent weeks came from the New York Times, and while it was certainly good, it didn’t get into the religion angle.

Protecting the rights of atheists, skeptics, and believers to criticize and denigrate the religious beliefs of others is a huge issue in this country. While we’ve seen some hypocrisy in how denigration of religious beliefs has been covered, have you seen any good articles exploring this vital First Amendment issue? If so, please pass them along.

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How should the Godbeat be funded?

It’s no secret that times are tough for journalism. We keep seeing newspapers laying off reporters, combining beats and generally making work harder for the limited number of employees who remain. The Godbeat in particular has had a rough go of things, with the loss of some of its very best professionals. So I’m pretty open to innovative methods of keeping the beat going.

And that includes taking grants from foundations who push a particular agenda. When I first heard that Religion News Service had taken a $50,000 grant in 2011 from the Stiefel Foundation, which says it exists to provide “financial support and volunteer strategy consulting to the Freethought Movement,” I had some questions. It just seemed so risky. Would RNS have to write favorable stories? Would it be covering events it otherwise wouldn’t? Would it skew the coverage?

Well, it sounds like getting additional coverage was precisely the plan of Todd Stiefel and his foundation. Under its list of accomplishments, we see news of an additional gift for this year, along with a report on last year:

SFF donated $15,000 to Religion News Service to support the second year of its increased coverage of freethinkers. Year one resulted in a total of 41 stories, most of which were picked up by outlets such as The Huffington Post, USA Today and The Washington Post

The Blaze has a big piece up analyzing these gifts and discussing whether they’re ethical to receive. It also has an interesting response from RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom. Eckstrom explains that the organization went from being for-profit to non-profit just a year ago and that part of the reason was to be able to solicit and accept donor support. The group’s development director had worked with Stiefel previously and that helped lay the groundwork for that initial gift. Most importantly, Eckstrom says:

“We have fairly limited contact with the Steifel [sic] Foundation by design,” he explained. “When we were first talking, we were very clear and we remain very clear that all editorial decisions would be up to us — that we would not take direction from anyone including the funders in regards to what we could or could not cover.”

The editor also says that Stiefel’s goal in providing the funding was for “unbelievers to be treated with the same degree of coverage as believers.” That being said, Eckstrom reiterates that there are “firewalls” setup to prevent editorial influence from Stiefel and his foundation.

The Blaze raises the concern that this could be seen as directly paying for coverage. Eckstrom says, basically, that he understands and is sensitive to those concerns and that while this is obviously a different journalism model than has been traditionally followed, that model is not sustainable any more. Oh, and Eckstrom says if anyone else wants to give the group money, they’re all ears!

Anyway, my one area of concern is how the arrangement should be handled publicly. And I really don’t have any easy answers for this. I’m just curious what you think:

TheBlaze did explore how fervently RNS made Stiefel’s funding known to readers. A search conducted on the organization‘s web site didn’t show any notation that the $65,000 had been received by RNS. When asked about this, Eckstrom said that, over the past year, the outlet has gone through a major evolution in moving from a for-profit to a non-profit model.

“When we were getting off the ground, it was an absolute chaotic mess. We were moving offices, changing computer systems,” he said. “It was just sort of a gigantic whirlwind. I think this was one of the things that fell between the cracks — there was never a decision not to publicize.”

Eckstrom says that 80 to 90 percent of the atheism-themed stories on RNS come from Winston’s work (which is a direct result of the SFF funding), noting the relationship with Stiefel on the web site could be problematic.

“Not all of our atheist stories comes from Kimberly or the grant — we have staff writers here who are separate from the grant,” he explains. “If we had to label some, we’d have to label all — it seems kind of redundant and unnecessary.”

I think the grant has largely accomplished at least part of what it was intended to do, increase significantly the amount of coverage. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I sympathize with the plight of funding the new journalism model. And I’m sure we’ll start to see more of this type of funding. Heck, the Ford Foundation just gave the Washington Post $500,000 and the Los Angeles Times $1,000,000 to increase coverage of some pet areas of theirs. I suppose for mainstream outlets such as Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and RNS, it might be helpful to have a prominent disclaimer that can be linked to in stories.

I also worry — in the long term — that poorly funded groups or even just groups that choose not to fund journalism won’t get good or prominent coverage in the new model (should we ever get to the point that we’re all swimming in piles of cash under this model!). Any other concerns? Also, anyone have a problem with direct funding of the Godbeat for projects such as this? If so, why? Any better ideas?

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Didn’t CNN fact check the holy popsicles?

Anyone who has read GetReligion for a month or two knows that, from time to time, journalists get a bit confused about some of the language that is used in ancient, liturgical churches and other religious bodies.

Take, for example, the differences between a same-sex marriage rite and the blessing of a same-sex union. For Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers, both are blasphemous violations of centuries of Christian doctrine and faith, but these two acts are in no way equal. You could make the same statement in many other churches, but it is especially true in sacramental churches in which, to be blunt, marriage is a sacrament.

There may also be some confusion in newsrooms about the blessing prayers that priests may say under a wide variety of circumstances and the totally unique prayers of consecration that are carefully pronounced over the bread and wine during a Mass (or Divine Liturgy in the Eastern churches).

Consider the following chunk of a CNN report about another piece of alleged art by the Chilean-born artist and provocateur Sabastian Errazuriz, this time part of a statement he is making about what he considers religious extremism.

The key details are near the top of the story:

At a party this weekend celebrating New York Design Week, which begins today, the Chilean-born artist plans to hand out 100 “Christian Popsicles” made of “frozen holy wine transformed into the blood of Christ” and featuring a crucifix instead the tongue depressor that typically hosts the frozen treats, he said.

An image of Jesus Christ positioned traditionally on the cross is visible once the ice pop is consumed. As for the frozen wine, Errazuriz said, he concealed it in a cooler and took it into a church, where it was “inadvertently blessed by the priest while turning wine into the blood of Christ during the Eucharist.”

We will come back to the details of that claim in a minute, because what CNN has printed is total nonsense and should have been challenged by reporters and producers during the reporting of the story.

Perhaps the artist himself was confused? This is not likely, in view of these later details:

Raised in a Catholic household, Errazuriz is now a “practicing atheist,” but he has many friends and family members who are religious, and he respects their beliefs. … His frozen cocktails stand as a symbol, he said, an invitation to “drink the Kool-Aid” that he feels so many religious zealots are stirring up.

No matter how strained his relationship to Catholicism, surely Errazuriz knows that there is a difference between a priest blessing something and the formal prayers of consecration that are recited over the elements during the most holy moments of a Mass.

Also, what in the world does “inadvertently blessed” mean? Is the artist claiming that he hid his container UNDER the church altar? Come to think of it, the artist would have to be claiming that he hid his frozen wine container ON THE ALTAR, in a strategic location and in clear view of all. It that is true, what does “concealed” mean?

As a reader noted in private correspondence, this claim is problematic on many levels:

Consecration (not “blessing”) is an intentional act and only what the priest places on the cloth called the corporal is consecrated. And then there is the deception issue. Not a single Catholic source is quoted.

In other words, this story is a disaster. Did the CNN team grasp the bizarre and ludicrous nature of this claim by the artist? Did anyone stop and think about the practical details of what was said to have happened? If so, why was the story published without some kind of commentary from a liturgical expert, if not a priest or bishop of the church?

As Errazuriz himself states, this was not a joke. Why did CNN treat it as a kind of wink-wink joke?

IMAGE: From Mocoloco.com

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Chavez, Communism and Christianity

The Associated Press’ Christopher Toothaker has a long and fascinating look at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Let’s get right into it. Here’s the top of the piece:

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spent much of his career praising the socialist ideas of famed atheists such as Karl Marx and Fidel Castro. Now in the thick of a prolonged battle against cancer, however, the leftist leader is drawing inspiration more than ever from a spiritual leader: Jesus Christ.

Chavez has been praying for divine intervention during increasingly infrequent appearances on television, holding up a crucifix while vowing to overcome his illness. He says living with cancer has made him “more Christian,” talk that has coincided with speculation by some Venezuelans that cancer might cut short his bid for re-election in October.

Chavez’s voice cracked with emotion as he bade farewell to aides and supporters in Caracas on April 30 before leaving for what he said would be his final round of cancer treatment in Cuba.

“I’m sure our Christ will do it again, continuing making the miracle,” Chavez said as he raised his cross to his lips and kissed it, prompting applause from an audience of aides.

If Chavez survives cancer, political analysts say his increasing religiosity could pay election-year dividends in a country where Catholicism remains influential.

And it goes on like that for a while. The report is detailed and includes quite a bit of perspective from analysts (including of the skeptical variety). He’s apparently become quite outspoken about his faith, even crying during a televised Mass with relatives. The article is illustrated with a picture of Chavez holding up a crucifix and kissing it.

Chavez’s religiosity contrasts with the resolute secularism of his political father figure, Castro, and other leaders who have followed the socialist path Chavez lauds.

A large majority of Venezuelans practice Catholicism, and Protestant denominations have grown rapidly in some parts of the country. Many Venezuelans also practice folk religions and leave offerings at roadside shrines.

Mixing religion and politics isn’t new in Venezuela, even if religious groups generally don’t get directly involved in politics. Former President Luis Herrera characterized himself as spiritually pure and promoted social programs for the poor while leading his Copei Social Christian party.

We get comparisons to other Latin American leaders who employ religious language. We even get to drill down a bit on Chavez’s eclectic religious views, such as his views on María Lionza. I do wonder if that was put accurately:

He has at times also expressed faith in folk deities such as Maria Lionza, an indigenous goddess venerated by some Venezuelans who pay homage through candlelit rituals and shrines.

Since Venezuelans tend to relate to her in rather different ways, it may be helpful to have a direct quote to explain what “expressed faith in” means here. Anyway, the one area I wanted to discuss related to conflicts between Chavez’s Catholicism and his political practices. Here’s how the article handles it:

Despite his recent expressions of faith, the president has had a rocky relationship with Catholic leaders. He has accused priests of siding with the country’s wealthy rather than the poor and in a particularly heated clash in 2010, suggested that Christ would whip some church leaders for lying after Cardinal Jorge Urosa warned that democratic freedoms were being eroded in Venezuela.

Chavez insists his faith goes back to his days as an altar boy, and long before his illness, he was calling Jesus Christ “the greatest socialist in history.” …

Chavez has been receiving radiation therapy in Cuba over the past week, the latest phase in treatments that since June have included chemotherapy and two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic region, though he has not said what sort of cancer he has.

I guess what I found noteworthy is that nowhere do we discuss the persecution of Christians that has taken place under, among other political allies of Chavez’s, Cuban rule.

The article does a nice job of reporting nearly every other aspect, but considering the strength of that relationship between Castro and Chavez and the reality of what life under Castro has been like for religious adherents, I’m surprised we didn’t get more discussion of whether Chavez has problems with that friendship. And, if not, why not.

Chavez photo via <a href="Vitoriano Jr. / Shutterstock.com.

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A pastor loses her faith

NPR has launched a series of stories on losing faith, and Godbeat pro Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s piece on an atheist pastor gripped me from the beginning:

Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she’s terrified to reveal.

“I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she says. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”

MacBain glances nervously around the room. It’s a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, Md.

Her secret is taking a toll, eating at her conscience as she goes about her pastoral duties week after week — two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick when she doesn’t believe in the God she’s praying to. She has had no one to talk to, at least not in her Christian community, so her iPhone has become her confessor, where she records her private fears and frustrations.

I kept reading, assuming that “Teresa MacBain” would be revealed as a pseudonym. After all, surely a pastor with such a “secret” would not share it with NPR using her real name, right? I recalled that first names such as “Adam” and “Jack” were used in 2010 when Religion News Service and our own esteemed tmatt reported on a study on unbelievers in pulpits.

Alas, as the story proceeds, I realized that the intro was a storytelling device — an outstanding one. It turns out that, in the course of her journey, MacBain has come out and revealed her lack of faith both to the atheists’ convention and, indirectly, to her church.

The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the pastor, with the exception of input from her husband, who still believes but supports his wife:

But MacBain did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. The Humanists of Florida Association offered to pay her salary for a year, but there’s no guarantee. Only two of MacBain’s friends called her and took her to lunch. Meanwhile, her family was a refuge, even if they didn’t all agree with her new views.

“I believe in God,” says her husband, Ray. “And to be honest, I pray for her every night, I got friends praying for her.”

But he says he adores his wife and defends her right to disbelieve. “That’s why I spent 23 years in the Army. That’s why I’m still a police officer. We have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?”

If the piece has a weakness, it’s the total lack of perspective from the church members who suddenly discover that their pastor is an atheist. I’d love to know their reaction, both to the news of their former pastor’s unbelief and how she chose to reveal it — to an atheist convention as opposed to the congregation itself.

Religion News Service (which received a $50,000 grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation to bolster its coverage of atheists) also covered MacBain’s “coming out party,” as the news service described it.

Like NPR, RNS did not talk to anyone from MacBain’s congregation. But to its credit, RNS did quote someone from another church whose pastor revealed his lack of faith:

Aus’ congregation, unaware of his change of heart until learning about it on television — on Palm Sunday, no less — decided to disband. Their final service was Easter Sunday.

“There was anger, yes,” said Joe Vingle, a member of Aus’ Texas church. “Some people had been with Mike for 20 years or longer. Those were the ones that were really hurt. They are feeling that everything they were taught by him is a lie.”

But Vingle said there was also understanding. “He is still a friend and I am interested in seeing where this takes him,” he said.

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