Study: Religious kids believe the Bible and other ‘fiction’

Is this Clutching at Straws Month? Because I don’t know how to dress or what to buy for it. I do know how to celebrate, though. Just publish a study that counters traditional beliefs. And don’t ask questions that might uncover flaws.

The latest example emerged this week in the July issue of Cognitive Science. Three researchers alleged that young children who are “exposed to religion” — gotta love that wording — have trouble telling fact from fiction.

This claim is in an appallingly brief, 291-word article in the Huffington Post — which, true to form, swallows and regurgitates the stuff without chewing. We’ll get to that in a bit.

First, here’s how it went down:

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic — in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.

Now let’s dismantle this, starting with the sampling. I don’t often resort to italics, but c’mon — sixty-six subjects? I saw several times that many kids yesterday at one Vacation Bible School. A sampling of 66 children is pretty small for an attempt to generalize to all children.

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NYTimes warns: Evangelistic speech near the National Mall!

Are there any GetReligion readers out there who remember the mini-media storm back in 1999 when the Southern Baptist Convention published a series of booklets to guide church members in their prayers for the conversion of members of other faiths?

As you would expect, some faith leaders were quite offended by this, especially Jews who — readers with really long memories will recall — had previously been involved with a Southern Baptist or two about issues linked to prayers and Judaism.

I went to an event in 1999 at a Washington, D.C., think tank in when some Jewish leaders dialogued with Southern Baptists, in a very constructive manner, about the wisdom of these guides, the centrality of evangelism to Baptist theology, etc., etc.

In the question-and-answer session, a Washington Post scribe asked, in a rather blunt manner, why Southern Baptists were allowed to print and circulate these kinds of materials.

I was stunned. So was the very liberal rabbi in the chair next to me. I asked a question that went something like this: “Did I just hear someone from the Washington Post question whether evangelistic speech is covered by the First Amendment?” The Reconstructionist rabbi said, “I think that’s what just happened.”

Why do I bring up this story? Well, this is what I thought of when I hit an interesting passage in a New York Times story about the Green family (of Hobby Lobby fame) and its attempt to build a massive Bible museum on prime land in Washington, D.C.

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The Boston Globe veers into the doctrines of ‘Kellerism’

Just the other day, I heard a long-time GetReligion reader use a very interesting new journalism term — “Kellerism.”

Wait for it, faithful readers. Let’s walk through this with newcomers to the site. What, pray tell, are the key beliefs in the journalistic philosophy that is “Kellerism”?

Yes, this is another reference to the pronouncements of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 remarks (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Here, once again, is a chunk of an “On Religion” column I wrote about that event, when the newly retired Keller was asked if — that old question — the Times is a “liberal newspaper.”

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So here is first core “Kellerism” doctrine: There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine is related to that and can be glimpsed near the end of Keller’s response (.pdf here) to the famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” self-study of the Times, during troubled ethical times in 2005. The key is that Keller insisted that he was committed to diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc. However, he was silent or gently critical when addressing the study’s calls for improved cultural and intellectual diversity. The Times was diverse enough, it appears, on those counts.

Yes, criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of traditional religious believers was raised as a concern by the committee that wrote the report.

So why bring up this new term in a post topped with a photo of The Boston Globe building?

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Attention editors: Is there a ‘Little Sisters’ case in your area?

While the post-Hobby Lobby meltdown continues on the cultural and journalistic left — this New Yorker piece is beyond parody — it’s important to remember that, from a church-state separation point of view, the most serious issues linked to the Health & Human Services mandate have not been settled.

Here at GetReligion, we have been urging reporters and editors to look at this as a story that is unfolding on three levels.

(1) First, there are churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions that are directly linked to “freedom of worship” and, thus, in the eyes of the White House, should be granted a full exemption by the state. The problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never been anxious to define what is and what is not “worship,” since that is a doctrinal matter.

(2) Religious ministries, non-profits and schools that — functioning as voluntary associations — believe that their work in the public square should continue to be defined by specific doctrines and traditions. The leaders of these groups, for religious reasons, also believe that these doctrines and traditions should either be affirmed by their employees or that, at the very least, that their employees should not expect the organization’s aid in opposing them. In other words, these ministries do not want to fund acts that they consider sinful or cooperate in their employees (or others in the voluntary community, such as students) being part of such activities. More on this shortly.

(3) For-profit, closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby which are owned by believers who do not want to be required to violate their own beliefs.

There are no conflicts, at this point, about group one. A major case linked to group three has just been addressed by the high court. But did the so-called Hobby Lobby decision also settle the cases in that second category? That’s the question that many newsrooms managers need to be asking because, as I argued the other day, in journalism “all news is local.”

So, journalists in Chicago, I am looking at you. This Associated Press report can serve as a wake-up call:

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the religious claims of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit businesses supports the government’s position in separate, ongoing disputes with religious-oriented nonprofit organizations.

The administration urged the justices to deny a request from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois that the government says would block its students and employees from free access to emergency contraceptives. The Justice Department said the Hobby Lobby decision essentially endorses the accommodation the administration already has made to faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities.

Wednesday’s court filing was the administration’s first legal response to the Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses to assert religious claims to avoid covering some or all contraceptives in employee health plans. Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

The problem, of course, is that the Wheaton College community covenant document includes a clear statement that this voluntary association will:

… uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4). …

Must the college cooperate in offering its students and unmarried employees — in violation of its own doctrines — all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?

As I noted the other day, there is more to this conflict than the mere signing of a piece of paper that says these services will, allegedly be funded by the health-care providers themselves, with the government’s guidance (as opposed to these providers simply raising health-care rates for the affected ministries). The groups in this second, doctrinally defined ministry category are, in effect, asking that the government allow their voluntary associations to defend their own teachings when dealing with members of their own communities. Wheaton, for example, doesn’t want the government to help students and employees violate the vows they have, of their own free will, taken when they signed on with the college. (Wheaton College is, of course, part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach and the CCCU has backed the school’s stance.)

The Associated Press editors take all of that complexity and condense it — in a set of unattributed factual statements — to the precise language used in White House talking points:

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The Atlantic: Apparently, ‘evangelical’ now equals ‘cult’

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, every year or two, there is some kind of mainstream media meltdown linked to (a) leaders of a mainstream religious group using the word “cult” to describe another religion or (b) some radical new religious movement behaving in a truly frightening manner that leads to it being labeled a “cult” by secular journalists.

The results are often rather icky, from the point of view of logic and information. During one of these blowups a few years ago I wrote, in a GetReligion post:

… I realize that “cult” is a loaded word, whether one is using it in a doctrinal context or in a sociological context. In a mainstream newsrooms, reporters have no business using it in stories about doctrinal conflicts, unless the word is used by one of the groups in a dispute and there is no way to avoid explaining how and why they are using it. Like what? Southern Baptists may refer to Mormonism as a “cult,” because of the latter faith’s radically different doctrine of God, in comparison with traditional forms of Christianity through the ages. But no one, including 99.9 percent of the Baptist leaders I know, would claim that modern Mormonism is a “cult,” in a sociological sense of the word.

Should mainstream reporters use this loaded word at all?

Note the stress on a doctrinal approach to this dangerous word, as opposed to a sociological approach. Journalists need to know that these distinctions exist in religious and academic discourse.

Why? Here is another practical example, from one of my “On Religion” columns:

… The Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult … is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”

Why do I bring this up right now? Well, The Atlantic just published a very interesting article with one of those headlines that reach out and grab readers by the neck (especially if readers are Godbeat professionals): “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.”

Oh my.

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NYTimes: Why did two towns produce so many priests?

At least once a year, a major newsroom in the United States produces a big story about the OTHER Catholic crisis in this land, which is the declining number of men entering the priesthood (and women and men entering religious orders, as well). The American priesthood is getting smaller and older.

It is possible to write this story over and over, year after year, covering the same ground and pretending that this is a “news trend.” However, skilled journalists can find new wrinkles within this decades-old story and, thus, do fresh reporting.

That’s good. And that is clearly what The New York Times national desk was going for in an interesting news feature that ran under the headline. “In Two Michigan Villages, a Higher Calling Is Often Heard.”

So what is the new angle? Well, it appears that there are small, intensely Catholic communities that are producing way more than their share of priests. Why is that? What does that look like on the ground?

What really jumped out at me was that the Times team actually — buried near the end of this piece — came close to discussing a really crucial demographics issue linked to this big story. More on that later.

At the heart of this piece are 26-year-old twin brothers, Gary Koenigsknecht and Todd Koenigsknecht, who are about to be ordained as Catholic priests. The story notes that they will be “two of 477 men in the United States expected to be ordained this year.”

They demonstrate that priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography: they are among six priests in their extended family, and among 22 from their hometown, Fowler, Mich., population 1,224. They officially tie up the leader board with the neighboring village of Westphalia, population 938, which has also produced 22 priests, making for a robust rivalry in both football and Roman collars.

In an era when the number of priests in the United States continues to dwindle — declining by 11 percent in the past decade and crippling the Catholic Church’s ability to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population — this rural patch of Clinton County offers a case study in the science and mystery of the call to priesthood.

With the older generation of priests dying off, it would take three times as many priestly ordinations as is occurring nationwide to maintain the population of 38,600 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The story updates all of the dire statistics, as it should.

But the strongest material in the piece, from my perspective, is the detailed background information — high up in the report — about what Catholic life is like in these parishes. What’s going on here?

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Do religions influence China’s atheistic rulers?

MADDIE ASKS:

How much of … eastern and western religions have had an influence on the [atheistic Chinese Communist] Party’s ideology?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Not much, on the surface, but there’s obvious affinity with Confucianism that the Communist authorities don’t admit. However — Is Confucianism a “religion” or a mere humanistic philosophy, since it lacks defined gods and supernaturalism?

Dr. G. Wright Doyle, director of the scholarly Global China Center, is currently in China researching Maddie’s issue and has edited a magazine issue on shifting Confucian-Christian relations (see below). He e-mails “Religion Q and A” that “on the level of daily practice” most Chinese see little ethical influence from Confucianism while on the theoretical level it’s hard to trace “conscious influences of Chinese traditional religions” on Marxism or Maoism.

However, he thinks ancient Daoism’s yin-yang dynamic of opposites does have a counterpart in Marxist embrace of Hegel’s dialectic in history and that Daoism complements Communism’s denial of “any absolute truth or abiding ethical standard.”

As for Confucianism, China’s Communists explicitly rejected it from the beginning. Yet Doyle says their “dictatorship fits well into the Confucian concept of the emperor as father and mother of the people” and with “hierarchical social structure that expects complete and unquestioning obedience from subordinates.” Confucianism also agrees with Communism’s this-worldly materialism and its communalism in place of individualism.

T.S. Tsonchev of the Montreal Review says “we can even argue that Communist China, in many respects, seems more Confucian than Marxist.” After all, Communism was an import from modern Europe while the ancient religions the party recognizes, even Christianity, were born in Asia. Oddly, the Party does not list Confucianism alongside its favored Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Tsonchev is among many who consider Chinese Communism a ”political religion” with its own Mao-worship, scriptures, doctrines, mythologies, icons, idols, and festivals.

The Party requires members to be atheists. Yet Doyle says many have “personal commitment to some form of religion, especially Chinese Buddhism and, recently, Christianity.” He remarks that Party members “at all levels contribute large sums of (ill-gotten) money to temples, either in order to procure personal peace and prosperity or to assuage a guilty conscience.”

State policy is defined in the Constitution and the Party Central Committee’s 8,000-word “Document 19? on “the religious question” (1982). Neither text hints that religions influence the Party or state, nor do they recognize that citizens might find value in faith.

Remarkably, the Constitution pledges “freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities.”

Ah, but what’s “normal” in Communist eyes?

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The Godbeat: Cry for a renewed emphasis on the liberal arts

Let’s flash back for a moment to the press coverage of the dramatic fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. I want to start with a topic that is pretty far from the obvious religion-news angles (covered here by our own Jim Davis and at The Federalist by GetReligion alum M.Z. Hemingway) and then work my way back in that direction. So hang in there with me.

We will start with political theory, by looking at a passionate Forbes essay posted by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, which ran under the headline, “It’s Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education.” He noted that David Brat, the man who shocked the world by defeating Cantor, is a self-avowed, practicing academic and scholar — which means that he has left a paper trail about his beliefs and worldview. Thus, Gobry notes:

In one piece of writing, Brat refers to the government as having “a monopoly on the use of force.” As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke noted, several journalists — all of them covering politics, all of them working for reputed institutions like the New York Daily News, Politico and the Wall Street Journal, all of them presumably college-educated — pounced on his use of the phrase as a portent of dangerous extremism.

Stop me if you see what’s wrong with this picture — please.

What’s wrong with this picture, America, is that the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes. (Cooke, maybe because he went to college in the UK, knows this.)

So how did this laugh-to-keep-from-crying error of omission take place? This brings us to that often twisted term “liberal arts.”

Gobry — God bless him — is actually talking about the liberal arts, as defined in traditional higher education.

Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe — a.k.a. science — but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

And in this case:

Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.

Which brings me back full circle, which is that when a bunch of people, whose job is to write about politics, who presumably have nice-sounding educations, who have editors, don’t know one of the very basics of the political thought that gave us the world we live in, the hour is very late indeed.

And what does that have to do with mainstream religion-news coverage?

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