Mixed bag of atheism coverage

I want to get a couple atheist stories out of my guilt file before it’s too late. Ignore this YouTube here for a second and let’s look at the good media coverage. Here’s the Associated Press report on a recent atheist event:

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — For the first time in history, the U.S. military hosted an event expressly for soldiers and others who don’t believe in God, with a county fair-like gathering Saturday on the main parade ground at one of the world’s largest Army posts.

The Rock Beyond Belief event at Fort Bragg, organized by soldiers here two years after an evangelical Christian event at the eastern North Carolina post, is the most visible sign so far of a growing desire by military personnel with atheist or other secular beliefs to get the same recognition as their religious counterparts.

The purpose was not to make the Army look bad, organizers said, but to show that atheists and other secular believers have a place in institutions like the military.

“I love the military,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. He added, “This is not meant to be a black eye.”

Even though the event ended up being smaller than organizers had hoped for, reporter Tom Breen got enough facts, color and analysis to fill a nice long report. Griffith talks about life at the post and the challenges that atheists face there. We learn not just that the turnout, at several hundred people, was lower than the 5,000 hoped for but that rainy weather may have been a contributing factor. Specifics are given about the festive atmosphere. We get quotes from the speakers and artists who performed at the event.

Since some soldiers from the base had expressed concern that the event would disparage soldiers with religious beliefs, that topic is addressed head on, with quotes. Rather than telling readers what to think, we’re just told what was said at the event.

Finally, the story gives some history, explaining why the event took place and what atheists at the facility are trying to accomplish. And we learn that the same foundation (Stiefel Freethought Foundation) that gave Religion News Service money for coverage of atheism also sponsored this concert. I didn’t find RNS coverage of the concert, but that could indicate my own trouble navigating search engines.

Reuters also had a pretty good story (although I could do without the “atheists in foxholes” reference in the headline and copy). It included some helpful data, too:

Christianity also dominates the religious makeup of the military. Only about 8,000 out of 1.4 million active duty members in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force identify themselves as atheists, and another 1,800 say they are agnostic, according to the Defense Department.

OK. Let’s go back up to that YouTube for the bad. Via The Friendly Atheist, a reader found this Dallas-Forth Worth-area Fox treatment of an atheist ad campaign. A group there was planning on running a campaign with billboard ads and ads in theaters before movies. But for some reason the reporter and anchor were obsessed with painting it as a campaign targeting children. Nowhere are these claims backed up by actual quotes from the atheist group or the sources for the story. I mean, it’s not like the ad campaign avoids children, just that it’s a bizarre focus for the piece considering they target folks of all ages.

Now, the same station did a later report where a couple from the campaign came in for a longer interview in-studio. And that interview is actually very nice. The questions are fine and the couple is given the opportunity to respond fully. A different station did another segment on the ad campaign — which was a positive campaign in favor of atheism — as “anti-religious.”

So a mixed bag in some recent coverage of atheists.

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Zombie Muhammad and the First Amendment

We’ve had a few readers send in links to coverage of a First Amendment-related case out of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a sad story that goes back to a 2011 Halloween parade. A small group of atheists marched in the parade, dressed as a Zombie Pope and a Zombie Muhammad. This outraged one Muslim father who attended the parade with his wife and son.

What happened after there is somewhat in dispute. The Muslim, Talaag Elbayomy, was charged with harassment and a court date was set.

When readers first alerted me to the story, the lack of substance to the coverage was what was most noteworthy. Take this Patriot-News story, for example. Now the story has sort of exploded. Here the Daily Mail has a write-up that includes the information that the judge who heard the case is a recent Muslim convert. Blogs are reporting that this not true — that he’s Lutheran.

The reporting is such a mess — either too few details or details that are in dispute — that I went ahead and listened to the 40 minutes of the hearing that Ernest Perce, the atheist, put on YouTube.

At the hearing, Perce tells his side of the story — that he was marching in a parade as a Zombie Muhammad and Elbayomy grabbed him by the neck, grabbed his fake beard, stopped him and turned him around and generally harassed him. Elbayomy, the alleged perpetrator, tells his side of the story. That he felt compelled to do something to stop this mockery of Muhammad but that he didn’t touch him physically (although a police officer who responded to the incident and brought the case to court pointed out that Elbayomy said there was physical contact at the time). Elbayomy says that someone freaked out about his interaction with the guy dressed up as Zombie Muhammad, and started yelling about how it’s a “free country, dude,” and the like. He explains that he didn’t think it was legal to dress up as a Zombie Muhammad and that’s why he intervened. In his attorney’s closing statement, he explains that Elbayomy believed that mocking Muhammad was a crime and that’s why he was trying to get the atheist to stop. He had a mistaken belief that such treatment of religions was not allowed in this country.

His intent may not have been to go and accost this individual, but that’s what he did, said Sgt. Brian Curtis, the police officer who charged Elbayomy with harassment. Curtis added that whether it is criminal in this country or not has no bearing as to what occurs in the Boroguh of Mechanicsburg and what he did is definitely criminal and definitely rises to harassment.

The judge ruled that the it was not proven to him beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant was guilty of harassment. So he dismissed the charge.

This is all pretty standard fare, I suppose. But what happened before that ruling is what makes this case so noteworthy. The judge could have dismissed the charge after giving Elbayomy a little speech on the First Amendment and how it works in this country.

Instead, he lectured the alleged victim. He talked about the years he’d spent in Muslim countries and lambasted the defendant’s view that the Koran teaches that Muhammad had risen from the dead, calling him a “doofus” for holding that erroneous view. He pointed out that in “Arabic-speaking” countries, you could be killed for marching in a parade so arrayed. But in this country, he added (this is my transcript of the alleged victim’s taping of the speech):

Here in our society, we have a Constitution that gives us many rights, specifically, First Amendment rights. It’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others. I don’t think that’s what our forefathers had really intended. I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak with our mind, not to piss off other people and other cultures, which is what you did.

I don’t think you’re aware, sir, there’s a, there’s a big difference between how Americans practice Christianity – and I understand you’re an atheist. But, you see, Islam is not just a religion, it’s their culture, their culture. It’s their very essence, their very being. They pray five times a day towards Mecca. To be a good Muslim, before you die, you have to make a pilgrimage to Mecca unless you are otherwise told you cannot because you are too ill, too elderly, whatever. But you must make the attempt.

Their greetings, “Salaam alaikum,” “Alaikum wa-salaam,” “May God be with you.” Whenever — it is very common — their language, when they’re speaking to each other, it’s very common for them to say, “Allah willing, this will happen.” It is — they are so immersed in it.

Then what you have done is you’ve completely trashed their essence, their being. They find it very, very, very offensive. I’m a Muslim, I find it offensive. [Mumbled] was very offensive.

But you have that right, but you’re way outside your bounds on First Amendment rights.

This is what, and I’ve spent about seven and a half of my years altogether living in other countries, um, when we go to other countries, it’s not uncommon for people to refer to us as ugly Americans. This is why we are referred to as ugly Americans. Because we’re so concerned about our own rights we don’t care about other people’s rights. As long as we get our say, but we don’t care about what the other people say.

Yikes! OK, the first thing to note is that this is news mostly because atheists and civil libertarians have forced it into the news cycle. And it’s taken many days to get this into the news cycle, which is somewhat odd.

The lack of news has led to a proliferation of blog commentary that doesn’t have the benefit of being rock-solid reporting. For instance, while it’s true that the judge appears to say he’s Muslim, that is open to interpretation (e.g., [If] I am a Muslim, I am offended…). Not that this necessarily matters to how a story reports his preferential treatment in the case.

More than anything, what the stories lack is any discussion of what relevant teachings in Islam were in play that led to the confrontation. Zombie Pope was unmolested while Zombie Muhammad was confronted. Why, exactly, was that? What teachings are in play? Why are they being kept a secret?

It would also be nice to see some better discussion of sharia. Some are arguing that the judge’s speech suggests the application of sharia in a U.S. court room. His actual dismissal of the case was based solely on the stated belief that the burden of proof had not been met. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that sharia was ignored by the judge. The judge specifically mentions a sharia punishment for blasphemy and sharia guidelines for public treatment of Islam before lecturing the alleged victim. Again, none of this is necessarily out of order, but it must be reported accurately and with care.

This could just be a case of a lower-court judge being, what is the word, a doofus. But it also shows how easy it is for the First Amendment to be dismissed relative to other concerns — a huge news story right now. No matter what, this was a real court case that any cub reporter could see would be big news and that deserves good reporting. That means good reporting on atheism, on Islam and on the First Amendment.

The video embedded above, which can also be found here with a story, is actually one of the better pieces of journalism I found on the matter. And yet it still suffers from that trademark local newscast jokester tone and more than a few religion ghosts.

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A tale of two rallies

Last month, we looked at how the online producers at the Washington CBS station posted a photo slideshow that appeared under the rather literal headline:

Activists Hold Annual March For Life On Roe v. Wade Anniversary

For several days, the number of pictures of anyone who participated in the massive March For Life on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade was … zero. There were literally no pictures of any pro-life activists. Instead, the gallery featured the handful of pro-choice activists who counter-protested. After quite a bit of outrage and several days, the gallery was updated to include pro-lifers in about half of the pictures. How generous.

Anyway, if you enjoyed following that little brouhaha, you will get a kick out of this. The same local CBS affiliate has a piece headlined:

‘We Are Stronger’: Atheists To Hold Massive Rally On National Mall Next Month

The article begins:

Thousands of atheists are expected to attend the Reason Rally next month in Washington, D.C., an event that organizers hope will unify a large part of the secular community.

On March 24, the National Mall will be populated by those who sympathize with atheist perspectives, generally defined by an absence in belief of deities or other religious icons.

But the best part of the whole thing is the picture and caption that accompanies the piece. I’ve embedded it above. The reader who sent it in noted:

CBS reports a massive rally by atheists will be held on the mall. And there’s a picture of a massive rally to prove that it will. CBS expects thousands to come, certainly a massive number.

Who knows how massive or non-massive this atheist rally will be. It’s just interesting to see how different rallies are covered by the same outlet.

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Last temptation of Castro

Fidel Castro will be received back into the communion of the Roman Catholic Church during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island in March, the Italian press is reporting. If true, this is a remarkable story — and one that has yet to catch the attention of editors this side of the Atlantic.

On 1 Feb 2012, La Republicca — [Italy's second largest circulation daily newspaper, La Republicca follows a center-left political line and is strongly anti-clerical; not anti-Catholic per se but a critic of the institutional church] — reported that as death approaches, the octogenarian communist has turned to God for solace.

ABC’s Global Note news blog is the only U.S. general interest publication I have found that has reported this story.  It referenced the La Republicca story and said that Castro’s

daughter Alina is quoted as saying “During this last period, Fidel has come closer to religion: he has rediscovered Jesus at the end of his life. It doesn’t surprise me because dad was raised by Jesuits.” The article quotes an unidentified high prelate in the Vatican who is working on the Pope’s Cuba trip: “Fidel is at the end of his strength. Nearly at the end of his life. His exhortations in the party paper Granma, are increasingly less frequent. We know that in this last period he has come closer to religion and God.”

Some Italian websites have even speculated as to when Fidel will make his confession and credo — setting the date as 27 March 2012 at 17:30 when the two ottantacinquenni, Pope Benedict XVI and Castro, will meet at the Palacio de la Revolución when the pope makes his official visit to the head of state, Raul Castro.

During Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba, Castro attended mass, but did not receive the Eucharist or give voice to Christian beliefs. If his daughter’s story is true and Castro returns to the church it will be very interesting to see how it plays out across the media.

One issue that might be raised is Castro’s excommunication. One of the recurring errors of religion reporting GetReligion has addressed is the misconceptions about excommunication. The overwhelming majority of those who are excommunicated have not been formally and individually censured by the church, but have followed a course of action that led to their self-excommunication. Castro’s excommunication is the same, but over time the lack of clarity in the 1963 press reports have hardened into conventional wisdom.

The Miami Herald has a well written and thorough report on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba that states as fact that John XXIII excommunicated Castro, while the La Republicca article quotes an unnamed Vatican official as saying:

True in 1963 [Castro]was excommunicated by the Pope, but then that measure was a measure almost automatic for those who professed Communism.

However, Friday’s Vatican Insider column in La Stampa reports there is no evidence that Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII.

There is also much talk about the excommunication bestowed on him by John XXIII, who is now a Blessed pope. What has sparked these rumours, is the excommunication decree for communists, published by Pius XII in 1949 and renewed in 1959 by Pope Roncalli.

Indeed, the news regarding the excommunication decreed by the “good Pope” against Fidel and dated 3 January 1962, can be found practically all over the web. What happened that day? The first man to mention excommunication was Dino Staffa who was working as Secretary of the Congregation for Seminaries at the time, a renowned scholar of canonical law. Paul VI allegedly promoted him to the Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and then made him a cardinal in 1967. Newspapers presented him as a “high-ranking prelate” of the Secretariat of State, even though he did not in fact hold any position in said office. What is more, Mgr. Staffa’s reasons were not related to communism, but to violence against bishops. The prelate, an expert in canonical law, essentially said that Castro should consider himself excommunicated by virtue of the Code of Canonical Law, which automatically prescribes this very serious punishment to those who are violent against bishops or who collaborate to carry out such acts. The excommunication therefore boiled down to the opinion of a scholar of canonical law, not to an excommunication decreed at that moment.

In other words, Castro’s was an excommunication latae sententiae, “by the very commission of the offense.” No action was taken by the church to excommunicate Castro. He did it himself.

The La Republicca article closes its report on Castro’s return to the church by stating:

In Havana there waiting for the arrival of Benedict XVI. The Church in Cuba is loved and respected. So is the government for its broad social interventions.

The church can thus serve as a “mediator” between the people and the government in the post-Castro era, La Republicca argues. I think it is a bit of a stretch to say the government is loved and respected for its “social interventions”, but La Republicca is a left-wing European paper and its default position is that Cuba’s experiment with socialism is a moral good.

Which ever way it goes, the Castro/repentance story will be fascinating to watch. What does it mean for a dictator to seek  repentance? What does forgiveness mean? Is moral redemption possible in this day and age? How will those who have been harmed by the regime respond? What about the prisoners of conscience who remain in Cuban jails — a Cuban political prisoner, Wilmar Villar, died on 21 January 2012 after a 50 day hunger strike — what does an old man’s repentance have to say about that?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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L.A. Times fails to draw religious blood

Did you hear the one about the atheist doctor asked to treat Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t believe in blood transfusions?

Well, it’s no joke, as the Los Angeles Times highlighted in a Column One story — the newspaper’s most prime real estate — this week:

The Times’ compelling opening:

Christina Blouvan-Cervantes had been battling aggressive leukemia when her blood count plummeted and she landed in the emergency room in Fresno. Her doctors told her a blood transfusion was her only hope. But her faith wouldn’t allow her to receive one.

So she turned to one of the only doctors who could possibly keep her alive: a committed atheist who views her belief system as wholly irrational.

Dr. Michael Lill, head of the blood and marrow transplant program at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, is a last recourse for Jehovah’s Witnesses with advanced leukemia.

They arrive at Lill’s door out of desperation and a desire to live. Many specialists decline to treat them because of their biblically centered refusal to accept blood transfusions, a mainstay of conventional care for the cancer.

Lill thinks their refusal is risky and illogical but nevertheless has devised a way to treat them that accommodates their religious convictions.

Despite his belief that God doesn’t exist, he has become a hero to many devout believers.

It’s not a terrible story at all. In fact, I’d describe it as almost adequate.

On the positive side, the writer certainly treats the religious beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with respect.

The problem, from a GetReligion perspective, is that the piece handles the religion element in such a casual, shallow way. My suspicion after reading the entire 1,500 words was that a health writer, not a Godbeat pro, produced the story (and I was right). Too bad the Times didn’t employ an editor with religion expertise to ask simple questions that could have improved the report dramatically.

For instance:

— Consider this paragraph:

Jehovah’s Witnesses draw their beliefs about blood from a literal interpretation of the Bible, which repeatedly warns against its consumption. Among the passages often cited by adherents: “You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water.”

Why not cite the specific biblical reference (Deuteronomy 15:23)?

— And this graf:

During Lill’s rounds one recent morning at Cedars-Sinai, he washed his hands and went into the room of Kyle Hester, a 21-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from Fresno who was waiting for a stem cell transplant. Hester lay in his bed, hooked to an IV and an oxygen tube. His face was pale and his arms swollen. A book of Scripture lay open beside him.

What book of Scripture are we talking about? Is it the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own New World Translation?

— And this passage:

Wanda Smith, a Jehovah’s Witness from Texas, sat on an examination table in Cedars-Sinai’s outpatient cancer center. Her husband, Will, clasped a blue bag filled with medications.

Lill greeted the couple and launched into routine questions about her recovery from her stem cell transplant: Any coughing or shortness of breath? Nausea or vomiting? How is your appetite?

Smith, 65, announced in a Southern accent that she had gained six pounds in a week. Lill teased her about a Jehovah’s Witness tenet: “And you aren’t supposed to be celebrating Christmas or anything else.”

“No, I didn’t,” she laughed. “I just got my appetite back.”

You get the vague impression that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas. But why not use the opportunity to share a few details about their beliefs, including why they don’t celebrate Christmas, Easter or other holidays they consider pagan?

— Finally, this graf:

She heard about Lill through her church, and soon she was undergoing chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai. After returning home, she ended up in the emergency room with a high fever. As she moaned and struggled to breathe, doctors and nurses pleaded with her to accept a blood transfusion. Barely able to speak, she scribbled a note: “Please don’t give me blood.”

The Religion Newswriters Association’s online stylebook notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses call their gathering places “Kingdom Halls,” not “churches.”

That’s a minor detail maybe.

But the lack of attention to it seems to exemplify the story’s overall indifference to the religion angle — both in terms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith and the atheist doctor’s lack thereof.

Photo via Shutterstock

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See no evil, report no evil

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an Muslim radical makes death threats against a university audience in London, and the BBC does not report it, did it really happen?

There is a sense of unreality about the reporting of militant Islam in the U.K. The BBC is regularly chastised for its biases and omissions in reporting on Islamic militancy — while some tabloids are taken to task for whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. However, one can usually count on the corporation making mention of an incident.

Maybe not.

While I was researching background materials for an article, I happened to page through the website of the National Secular Society (NSS) — a humanist group in the U.K. I came across a 17 January 2012 press release entitled “Islamist stops university debate with threats of violence.” I had not heard about this incident, and when I googled the name of the lead actor in this drama I imagine you did not hear about this either as the Independent was the sole broadsheet to cover the story — and they buried the article in the crime section.

According to the NSS press release:

A talk on sharia and human rights by NSS Council Member Anne Marie Waters’ at Queen Mary University of London was cancelled at the last moment because of an Islamist who made serious threats against everyone there.

Ms Waters was due to give a talk on behalf of the One Law for All campaign on 16 January but before it started, a man entered the lecture theatre, stood at the front with a camera and filmed the audience. He then said that he knew who everyone was, where they lived and if he heard anything negative about the Prophet, he would track them down.

The man also filmed students in the foyer and threatened to murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, apparently there to support him. Students were told by security to stay in the lecture theatre for their own safety.

The Independent reported the same set of facts and interviewed a number of witnesses and Ms. Waters. The headline fairy seems to have been at work that evening at the Independent as the title of the story was sanitized. “Man threatens students at debate” is not likely to pull many readers interested to learn more.

The police are investigating the incident we learn, and the university is appalled by the incidence. Ms. Waters is made of sterner stuff, telling the Independent:

“This is the first time this has happened, it’s really very frightening and you don’t know what else it’s going to turn into,” she said. “I’m not worried about repercussions, but I’m worried about it happening again.”

While the head of the British Humanist Association stated:

“Free expression, the free exchange of ideas and free debate are hallmarks of an open society; violence and the threat of violence should never be allowed to compromise that, especially in our universities.”

No comments from Islamist groups, or from experts on censorship was appropriate, or an exploration of why someone would commit a criminal act in the name of Islam. Yet, I am not that worried about the brevity of the Independent story and am pleased that something made it into print that reported on this assault on free speech and civil liberties.

Let’s look at this another way — imagine if a professed Christian activist entered the Queen Mary University lecture hall and threatened death to those attending a lecture disparaging the Christian faith.  Do you think that this would not be spread across the British press? How many column inches would Polly Toynbee or Richard Dawkins take to denounce the incident and the belief system behind it?

But this is Islam — so we have silence.

In Peter Godwin’s wonderful memoir of life in Zimbabwe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, he cites a phrase of Winston Churchill’s that speaks to this moral cowardice:

… appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.

Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps it was a cringing, craven self-censorship, perhaps the A-team of reporters was not back from the Christmas holidays. Whatever it may be, I can see no reason to spike this story.

Crocodile photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Parading atheistic ignorance

We don’t usually deal with columns here at GetReligion, but every once in a while, one touches at the core of why we exist, the reason why we advocate so much for religion in the daily newspaper.

In Canada’s highest circulated newspaper, The Toronto Star, Heather Mallick pens a mind-boggling column that many of our readers should …enjoy.

I am an atheist, don’t know why. …I was simply oblivious and continue to be. Religion isn’t on my radar. Like the magnets in high school science experiments that repel each other rather than attract, I am programmed to tune out religious talk.

But here’s the real kicker (bolding is my own).

If you like to stay current, you can’t simultaneously juggle all the elements that make up the news of the world. I follow politics, the arts, memoir and European history, with a minor in Spanish novelists, British comedy and American popular culture. My husband does economics, the history of the English language, meat-based cuisine, the novels of Graham Greene and soccer. The children have assigned themselves music, American fiction, social media and legal issues.

Religion sits on the kitchen table, orphaned.

Most writers don’t openly admit they don’t hold an expertise in something since it almost instantly discredits them. This columnist is blatant about her apathy for understanding religion.

We regret our lack of expertise in religion. But that’s atheism for you. Religion sails past atheists like a paper airplane.

Can you imagine a newspaper employing someone who openly wrote the same sentence above about politics or science or economics?

Here’s an example of my cluelessness: Last summer I wrote a column about a Don Mills school where imams conduct Islamic prayers in the cafeteria, with the boys at the front, the girls behind them and menstruating girls at the back in a sad little huddle.

I genuinely believed that parents and education officials who read this would object to two things: females being treated as second-class compared to boys, and students missing class time that would not be made up later. To me, religion had nothing to do with it.

How in the world can you believe religion has nothing to do with a set of practices set forth from a religious tradition? For a nice comeback, I’m reminded of a comment Ann Rodgers made one a post last year when one student complained about how her religion courses were irrelevant.

I have no idea how a reporter can cover politics, anything involving the Middle East, relief work after a natural disaster, social life in a small town, anything concerning 9/11, neighborhood efforts to improve bad housing and reduce violence, immigration, popular culture or a host of other topics without having a basic grasp of the world’s major religious traditions and how they function in society. You will find religious faith at the heart of all of those topics and many, many more.

Journalism isn’t simply a matter of how well you can put words together. You need a well-formed intellect to be able to step back from the facts at hand and place them in a larger context. You gain the tools for doing so in the classroom, whether in religious classes, sociology classes, or history classes. When I am writing stories today I find myself drawing on classes that I took more than 30 years ago on everything from Catholic mysticism to black history. I would be a poor reporter without that academic background.

Well said. And Heather Mallick is a poor newspaper columnist for openly choosing to ignore religion. Here’s her conclusion:

I shall try not to write about religion again, even inadvertently. For I am an atheist and we atheists have to keep our stick on the ice. We have no faith. We are polite. We do not believe. We are not interested in belief.

The world would be a better place if we made more noise.

Please don’t. What the world doesn’t need is an openly ignorant columnist to write more noise.

Thanks to Jerry for suggesting the image.

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Wash away your affiliation

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday had a story about a 71-year-old atheist’s rather curious legal battle against the Catholic Church in France. Rene LeBouvier has taken the church to court over its refusal to let him “nullify” his baptism:

LeBouvier grew up in that world and says his mother once hoped he’d become a priest. But his views began to change in the 1970s, when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn’t believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized.

“They sent me a copy of my records, and in the margins next to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the church,” he says.

That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, a position that LeBouvier calls “criminal.” Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn’t possible, he took the church to court.

Apparently a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor and the dioceses appealed. The case is pending.

OK, the story just utterly confuses me. LeBouvier has already left the church. And he doesn’t deny he was baptized. Is he asking the court to force the church to rewrite history? Again, he was baptized into the Christian faith. He has since renounced the faith. The church records both that he was baptized into the faith and that he chose to leave the church.

I’m not sure if the article simply needs to explain the oddities of French law more or if the story just fell down on the explanation of how Christian sacraments work.

The article apparently equates asking the church to strike the name from baptismal records with something called “de-baptism,” without quite explaining why it’s called that. The article quotes the dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America, Rev. Robert Kaslyn, as saying that Catholic teaching doesn’t provide for de-baptism. Certainly this is not a Christian teaching. The article doesn’t exactly dig down on why Christianity has no provision for de-baptism, although the dean explains a bit of Catholic teaching on baptism’s permanent mark on the baptized:

“One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate,” he says, “but we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.”

French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish. Loup Desmond, who has followed the case for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, says he thinks it could set a legal precedent and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

“If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books, if it is confirmed, it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France,” he says.

Again, I need more explanation about why this article equates leaving an organization with something we’re calling de-baptism, particularly since this case already includes the individual renouncing his membership. I’m sure it makes sense in the mind of the reporter or the litigant, but somehow something is getting lost in translation here.

Are we talking about forcing the Catholic Church to knowingly state something they know not to be true? To rewrite history? To create a new sacrament of de-baptism? To declare a particular sacrament of baptism invalid in the eyes of the church? If it is the last case, on what grounds is the atheist arguing the sacrament was invalid in the eyes of the church? If he were petitioning for an annulment of marriage, that would be what he’d be arguing, right? That the sacramental marriage was somehow invalid in the eyes of church? Is that what he’s arguing here? If that’s the sort of annulment he seeks, the argument for that annulment is missing.

Now, it’s certainly true that churches are occasionally legally forced to do something that violates their conscience and teachings. Obviously we have a major instance of this even in the United States with the recent news that the Obama administration is giving religious institutions one year before they’ll be forced to comply with provisions in the new health care laws that profoundly violate their teachings. But what’s most interesting to me is not that sometimes a judicial or executive branch will try to force a church to violate its teachings but, rather, how the church responds. This article completely failed to discuss what the Catholic Church would do if France forced it institute a new rite/rewrite history/declare a sacrament invalid this would do. How would the church respond? Isn’t that what’s most interesting? Why no mention of the theological implications at hand? My own church body’s American history began in response to a German attempt to force us to violate our doctrine. It’s certainly interesting when governments attempt to tell religious institutions how to practice their religion, but even more so how they respond to such demands.

I also wish we could have gotten a better explanation of why annulment is the preferred legal avenue being pursued by this atheist. It was certainly given to readers and listeners why he loathes his former church but not why he seeks annulment. Perhaps a bit more explanation of whether the baptism records have sway outside of the church would have helped.

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