Newsweek: Can atheists save the world?

atheismMuch praise is due to Newsweek for running an article discussing atheism in its Sept. 11 edition. It is a unique way to approach religion’s influence on the country since the terrorist attacks of five years ago. My only complaint was that it mixed a bit too much opinion with the news. But author Jerry Adler snagged some real bits of news here, and his thoughtful 2,100-word article does the tricky issue adequate justice.

The article provides interesting and much-needed commentary on the status of atheism in America, with plenty of back and forth between the believer and genuine unbeliever. I would also like to contend that while the article is about people who promote the idea that religion is silly and should fade into history, it was accurately placed under the “religion” heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

Alder tracks the responses of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins to the 9/11 attacks. All three have, in one way or another, argued that religion is outdated and that “the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening.” Adler contrasts the beliefs of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins with those of the vast majority of Americans.

This was the most illuminating exchange in Adler’s extremely well-written article:

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests — say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness — but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

atheismI didn’t mind Adler’s editorializing as much as I would have on a subject with more practical implications, such as abortion or marriage policies. The debate over atheism is fairly basic. One either believes that God does exists or he does not. Also, in long-form journalism some liberties will be taken. Saying that one side’s position is clever is stating opinion, but it helps the reader walk through a tricky subject.

News coverage on atheism is difficult to find these days, largely because there is so little happening in that area. Also, the development of ideas, while very newsy in my mind, does not lend itself very aptly to the breaking news story the same way a development in science or medicine does.

The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America and does not deserve much coverage or commentary is not adequate because, as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers (Alder highlights the “theodicy” problem). Some journalists have the privilege of covering the development of ideas, regardless of how popular those ideas are.

p.s. For more to chew on in the atheism debate, check out this cartoon.

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To convert or not to convert, that is …

ignatiusLionIf you have followed this blog from Day 1, then you are almost certainly familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House. As I mentioned during my recent visit to England, Marshall is also one of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

When you combine his writing, speaking and research, Paul is one busy man, far too busy to be a regular contributor at this site (but we can wish). However, he does have a new piece in The Weekly Standard that may as well be a GetReligion commentary — so we will gladly treat it as such. It’s called “A Conversion You Can’t Refuse: And the Western media can’t comprehend.”

It is, of course, about the kidnapping of the two Fox News journalists, American Steve Centanni and New Zealander Olaf Wiig by the so-called Holy Jihad Brigades (click here for a previous post by the soon-to-be Ms. M.Z. Hemingway on that topic). One of the key lessions learned in this episode, according to Marshall, is that far too many journalists still do not, well, get religion.

But there are other problems. Here is a large slice of what Paul has to say:

… (Honest) local reporters have their lives threatened if they tell the truth. Palestinian journalists have been killed for reporting that reflects adversely on Hamas or Fatah. Many denounced the Fox duo’s kidnapping, and two days after their release, dozens of journalists in Gaza demonstrated outside the Palestinian Legislative Council offices, demanding an end to the intimidation that cripples their work. Centanni and Wiig made headlines because they worked for an American broadcaster: The suppression of local reporters is all too frequently ignored.

The coverage also showed the continuing cluelessness of much of our media when it comes to religion, despite its growing influence in all Middle Eastern conflicts. Centanni and Wiig were not merely kidnapped but also — something new in the Palestinian areas — forced to announce that they had converted to Islam as a condition not only of their release but of their survival.

The significance of this forced conversion has been downplayed in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post even pronounced the two “unharmed” on release. This judgment is perverse. If Muslim prisoners in American custody were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or as a condition of release, the press would denounce it as virtual torture, and rightly so: No sane person would say the prisoners had suffered no harm.

This blindness also trivializes religion. Many people would sooner die than deny the commitments that shape their lives.

Crucifixion of PeterUnderline that point, please.

Try to picture an army of Ann Coulters — in black leather skirts, perhaps — forcing a pair of defenseless Muslims to convert, with swords at their throats and video cameras aimed at their faces. That would not happen, of course. At worse, Coulter would force them to listen to her do dramatic readings from her upcoming greatest hits collection. But you get the point. At Georgetown University, if would almost certainly be a thought crime to ask two Muslims to get a cup of coffee and discuss the Trinity.

Anyway, this story is not over. The two journalists now must live as Muslims — or face a death sentence, should some imam somewhere choose to issue one.

P.S. Over at Beliefnet, Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher pounded out a post titled “On the failure to become martyrs,” asking his readers if they thought it was wrong to convert or to fake conversion under these circumstances (forget the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights for a moment) and the result was a blitz of impassioned commentary. You can’t tell me that this topic was not worth a page-one feature story or two.

Check it out.

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Observations of a supposed GOP church

hypothesisMichael Crowley’s New Republic cover story on how powerful Republican conservatives have taken over the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., is a fun read. From a journalistic perspective, it makes no pretense of political balance. Liberal elitism has merit and rich yuppie conservatives are bad. But if you can put that aside, you can treat yourself to an interesting look at how conservative, sometimes evangelical, Republican politics has changed a sleepy suburban community.

As a profile of a community, the article naturally touches on religion, right along with a discussion of the schools and architecture. Here is the section that deals with McLean’s churches:

Even churchgoing has a political cast in McLean. Worshippers at Trinity United Methodist Church, just off McLean’s main drag, listen to sermons from pastor Kathleene Card, wife of former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. (The church’s signage recently advertised a somewhat belated sermon on Christianity & World Religions: Understanding Islam.) For evangelicals, there is McLean Bible Church, a $90 million complex that seats 2,400 parishioners. (“The Wal-Mart of churches,” one former church employee told the Post in 2004.) McLean Bible is led by the crusading Reverend Lon Solomon, who preaches a particularly doctrinaire and conservative gospel with the aid of elaborate mood lighting, 92 speakers, and the occasional fog machine. Solomon has attracted such prominent Republicans as Kenneth Starr, Dan Coats, Don Nickles, Don Evans, Senator John Thune, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and a clique of young Bush White House staffers. “It’s really because of Lon Solomon that I go,” the conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who sometimes takes notes during Solomon’s sermons, told the Post. “He does things that many others don’t do. He’s not afraid to say things and talk about political issues. He’s very pro-life and strong on opposing homosexual [marriage].” In one sermon during the Clinton impeachment, Solomon reportedly issued a thinly veiled Clinton-bashing spiel about how lying to the American people is wrong. That would be little surprise, given that Solomon is close to Ken Starr, to whom he sent encouraging personal notes during the Clinton inquisition. Perhaps because of Solomon’s fearless mixing of religion and politics, McLean Bible is a networking hub for young Washington conservatives, and many a GOP power couple has formed there. One McLean lobbyist, a former aide to Senator Phil Gramm named Jay Velasquez, told Roll Call that he met his future wife in the church’s lobby when she complimented his cowboy boots.

McLean Bible Church, described earlier in the piece as “a holy destination for GOP senators and Bush aides,” contains a whole host of fascinating religion story ideas worth exploring from the political perspective.

First, I’d like to take issue with this idea that a church would be used as a hub for networking. I mean, that’s suggesting sacrilege! Who would find their life mate at a church?! But seriously, reporters should note that this idea that a church could be seen by the young and ambitious as an opportunity to meet people and even rub shoulders with the rich and powerful is nothing special. Is it unfortunate? Sure, but it is really not that surprising.

The New Republic piece sets the stage for some potentially fascinating articles over the next two years. There is a very real chance that the balance of power could shift substantially this fall to the Democrats. And who knows what could happen in 2008? If the church is indeed a destination for the GOP powerful and subsequently those hoping to be in the good graces of the powerful, a change in power would create an interesting social dynamic within the church.

If Crowley’s thinly researched but plausible hypothesis — that conservative Christians attend these churches to be near the powerful — is correct, should we expect to see a decline in attendance at McClean Bible in the event of Democratic takeover? A change in the political power in Washington is always interesting from a cultural standpoint, but it’s also going to be interesting from a religious perspective. Crowley and others will have a chance to measure the validity of the concept that certain churches attract crowds because of their high-powered political members.

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One extreme or the other

Adam Gadahn 20060922This weekend, while many Americans were wrapping up their last summer vacations, another American was seen on an Al Qaeda propaganda video. The video, featuring ex-Californian Adam Gadahn, warned Americans to convert to Islam before it’s too late.

I have not read a full translation of the 48-minute video, but apparently it’s a long encouragement — aided by the threat of force, sure — for Americans to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam. It’s almost as if al-Qaeda is trying to tell Americans something. It’s almost like they think this a religious war. It’s almost like the pattern of forced conversions or threats of violence add up to something.

Let’s see what the mainstream media do in the wake of this latest religious missive. Hmm, that’s a curious headline from the Associated Press’ Salah Nasrawi — “Latest al-Qaida message seen as PR bid“:

The new al-Qaida video featuring an American calling for his countrymen to convert to Islam raised fears it signaled an imminent attack, but experts in the region said Sunday it is more likely a bid to soften the terror group’s image.

A public relations bid to soften the terror group’s image? That doesn’t seem to match with the rhetoric from the video, does it? I watched a bit of CNN this weekend where one of the talking heads wondered if the video weren’t an appeal to be better understood. Nasrawi didn’t quote from the video.

The way much of the media treat these Islamic terrorist threats is imperialistic. They apply Western values and constructs to Muslims who view the public square rather differently. These Muslims could not be more clear about their religious aims. But when the media try to analyze them for American audiences, we get insights such as these:

There have been widespread reports that some Muslim religious figures strongly criticized al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden over the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he failed to follow directives in the Quran that require potential victims be warned that conversion to Islam could save them.

The criticism led to speculation after Gadahn’s appearance that the Saturday video meant a warning was being issued and a new attack was imminent.

But experts discounted those fears.

If the reports are so widespread, how come they are not identifiable here? If this unverified criticism led to speculation, could the reporter share with us who was doing the speculating? Or are we just supposed to believe it without any evidence? And finally, who are these experts?:

“This is not a warning for an attack. It is rather a speech aimed at winning the Americans’ sympathy and understanding,” said Gamal Sultan, editor of the Islamic magazine Al Manar.

Columnist Mishari al-Thaydi of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat agreed, saying al-Qaida is trying to portray itself as a group with a religious mission, not a terrorist movement.

Who are these people? What is Al Manar? What is Asharq Al Awsat? Is it too much to ask for a few more details here? And as much as I hope that this latest violent threat is not carried out, did Salah Nasrawi try to get perspective from folks who are more concerned about it than the ones quoted?

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Post covers culture, not religion has a handy religion section that grabs stories from just about everywhere. From India to Dupont Circle to national politics, religion stories are appropriately all across the board. It’s no surprise that two very long stories dealing with Muslims in the Washington area (published on Monday and Tuesday) landed there. But unfortunately they are less about God and theology and more about life and culture.

The second article, titled “For Conservative Muslims, Goal of Isolation a Challenge,” is long overdue. It’s thorough and does an adequate job describing the challenges of Salafism in America, but there is little explanation of the sect’s history and why people are devoted to it. The best perspective we’re given is that it’s akin to Christianity’s fundamentalists, such as Jerry Falwell. Sorry, but that’s not good enough.

The article tackles its religious subjects from the edges, but each time it gets close to highly controversial religious subjects in Islam, it backs away. Take for instance this discussion on Koran commentaries:

For many years, the Saudis distributed a widely used English edition of the Koran with commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. But in the late 1990s, they began giving out a new edition called “The Noble Koran,” with commentary that reflected the Wahhabi outlook of two scholars at the University of Medina.

Many local Muslims were particularly embarrassed by commentary that disparaged Jews and Christians even though neither group is mentioned in the original Arabic. “The outcry was so great. . . . People were disgusted,” said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, head of Bethesda’s Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic think tank. “And it wasn’t just liberals. I couldn’t find an American Muslim who had anything good to say about that edition. I would call it a Wahhabi Koran.”

Anybody want to give us an idea of what in the commentary was so inflammatory? We have hints (it’s disparaging of Jews and Christians) and that it’s based on Wahhabism, but otherwise we are given little. If you want details, you might want to click here and check out a complete essay on the subject in the Weekly Standard. This is sobering stuff.

While that is just one complaint representing my general displeasure with the second article, my exasperation with the first article, “Young U.S. Muslims Strive for Harmony,” was much greater. Not only does it read as a piece on Islamic culture, not religion, it approaches the issue with the wrong questions.

The general question that the reporter tries to answer is “How can Muslims in America be both good Americans and true to their Islamic faith?” It’s a very good question to ask in, say, Europe, where young Muslims have not had a good public track record, but here in America I believe that the right question should be along the lines of “Why do Muslim Americans not feel assimilated?” Of course barriers exist for Muslims that do not exist for others, but what are they and how are they being surmounted?

The other problem I had with the article involved the Post‘s never-ending quest to find an ideal moderate. The problem with this quest is that it pits two sides that may not be diametrically opposed to each other as the Post would have us believe. Consider the following example. It describes the choices of Mohamed Magid, Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, Basim Hawa, a son of Palestinian immigrants; and Tiffany Ballve, a convert to Islam.

Afterward, Magid said that he worries when young people go to extremes, staying in the mosque all day and calling movies or sports or social activities haram, forbidden. To him, these are part of a balanced spiritual life.

“All the extremism now in Britain, all this is because people have the wrong idea of what religion is. I tell young people, ‘You have three choices in America — isolate yourself; assimilate and do everything in popular culture that you’re going to do; or integrate’ — and that’s what we’re advising people to do.”

Magid does not sanction all mainstream American activities — adult co-ed swimming and shopkeepers selling alcohol are not all right with him. But he is troubled by those who preach against a long list of American activities, from celebrating Thanksgiving to shaking hands with non-Muslims.

Hawa is constantly making decisions on when to participate and when to excuse himself. He and Ballve don’t celebrate birthdays, but they play soccer and go to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving.

As I grew up, I was always fascinated to learn about the various traditions that conservative families observed (I grew up in a fairly traditional conservative family). Some families did not celebrate Christmas, others did not let their children date, listen to rock music or stay out late and others had strict dress codes that were akin to ones we see in conservative Muslim cultures.

There was always a reason behind the strict rules. The reason could be argued and debated late into the morning, but the important part was that there was a reason.

Throughout this article on the culture of Islam in America, reporter Tara Bahrampour failed to cite the reasons for why conservative Muslims believe what they believe and why others disagree with them. She cited no reasons for why Magid does not celebrate birthdays or why some believe that sports are forbidden. Answering those questions and explaining the reasons would produce some interesting stories that shed light on how Muslims practice their religion in America.

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Virtual silence on the Vatican front

fall04 nextwave1 p24Well, I have some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that we know almost nothing concrete about what happened during the discussions between Pope Benedict XVI and his former students this past weekend — those talks about evolution and philosophy. We have clips and snips from here and there, with the spin being that Intelligent Design was not on the agenda. What was on the agenda? Well, precisely the kinds of philosophical concerns that are at the heart of the ongoing debates inside the Vatican about clashing evolutionary theories (plural).

The good news is that the “minutes” of the meeting will be released. I assume that minutes do not equal a transcript. Here is a typical report, from The Register. Note the rejection of ID, while ID is defined with a phrase that sounds a lot like statements by the late John Paul II:

The Vatican will publish the minutes of the Pope’s recent meeting with his former doctoral students in which he discussed the Catholic Church’s position on the origins of life, evolution, and creationism.

The meeting was called, aides say, not to align the Catholic Church with the Intelligent Design camp from the US, but to revive a public discussion of faith and reason. Intelligent Design is presented as a counter to the theory of evolution, suggesting that life is too complex to have evolved without a designer, usually understood to be God. Proponents want it taught in science classes, alongside Darwin’s theory.

Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, told Reuters that described the session as “a meeting of friends with some scholars to discuss an interesting theme”. Fessio explained that the conclusion that God created the world is not a scientific position, but a philosophical one. This, he said, is where the Catholic Church differs from the creationist movement in the US.

He told the news service: “There’s a controversy in the United States because there is a lack of awareness of a thing called philosophy. Evangelicals and creationists generally lack it and Catholics have it.”

Pope Benedict has also argued that some scientists go too far in their interpretation of the theory of evolution, and make claims for it that are based on ideology, rather than science.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said that the minutes would probably be published in November.

Click here for a longer version of, basically, the same information.

Do we trust the paraphrases of the quotes from Fessio? I do not, because Fessio knows that the arguments over science education are rooted in philosophy and the interpretation of data. Fessio also knows that several of the key critics of the “unguided,” “random” definitions of evolution are either (a) Catholic or (b) scholars with Cambridge University-level doctorates in the philosophy of science.

So the news here is that the statements of John Paul II and Benedict remain on the record. We’ll have to wait for public documents to be released — while the storm inside the Vatican rages. Like I keep saying — stay tuned. We don’t know anything new yet.

P.S. Please try to focus the comments on press coverage. I will strive, again, to kill comments that turn into shouting matches between fundamentalists on both sides.

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Liberal anti-Semites on the rise?

coverThe other day I received a blunt, fiery, angry email. It was from an anti-Semite who was mad at me for writing a Scripps Howard News Service column in which I quoted several Orthodox Jews discussing the meaning of repentance and forgiveness in Judaism and, in particular, why they thought that Mel Gibson — if he is a serious Catholic believer of one form or another — was going to need to do more than seek out a few good photo opportunities on a holy day or two.

This ugly letter kind of came out of right field at me, because most of the negative email I received about that particular column came from the Jewish left. Perhaps the writer was just mad, period. Perhaps he would have come out firing with all guns at any column that said the vile language Gibson used was sinful and should lead to repentance, confession and serious efforts at change (the kinds of sacramental efforts that have helped the actor in the past).

But I also have to confess that I was surprised to get a letter from a right-wing, secular anti-Semite. It had been so long since I had been exposed to that particular brand of poison. However, I have been paying attention in recent weeks to some interesting essays that have raised questions about anti-Semites on the left. It seems that some people in the Democratic Party are worried about this and, at the same time, journalists are trying — honest, they are trying — to figure out where anti-Semitism ends and fierce opposition to the actions of the state of Israel begins.

Thus, I have not seen an actual news report on this trend. At the moment, it’s hovering at the level of op-ed columns by unusually candid voices on the left. There is, however, no question about who first put the topic into mainstream print. That would be former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, in his much-quoted Wall Street Journal essay, “Liberal McCarthyism — Bigotry and hate aren’t just for right-wingers anymore.” You see, Davis made the mistake of supporting Joe Lieberman. We all know what that means in the new blogosphere:

Here are just a few examples (there are many, many more anyone with a search engine can find) of the type of thing the liberal blog sites have been posting about Joe Lieberman:

. . . • On “Lieberman vs. Murtha”: “as everybody knows, jews ONLY care about the welfare of other jews; thanks ever so much for reminding everyone of this most salient fact, so that we might better ignore all that jewish propaganda [by Lieberman] about participating in the civil rights movement of the 60s and so on” (by “tomjones,” posted on Daily Kos, Dec. 7, 2005).

• “Good men, Daniel Webster and Faust would attest, sell their souls to the Devil. Is selling your soul to a god any worse? Leiberman cannot escape the religious bond he represents. Hell, his wife’s name is Haggadah or Muffeletta or Diaspora or something you eat at Passover” (by “gerrylong,” posted on the Huffington Post, July 8, 2006).

• “Joe Lieberman is a racist and a religious bigot” (by “greenskeeper,” posted on Daily Kos, Dec. 7, 2005).

And these are some of the nicer examples.

There are, Davis said, veteran Democrats on the traditional left who have begun to worry about their own physical safety, because they do not support some of the hatred that is being spewed on the digital left. These old-guard Democrats find it hard to believe what they are seeing and hearing.

It was no surprise, then, when the gadfly Nat Hentoff took up this theme. After all, Hentoff is a Jew — right?

Hentoff started with Davis and the blogosphere, but then veered into another setting worthy of mainstream coverage.

Similarly, little noted during the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses around the country is the occasional morphing of anti-Israel hatred into plain classic anti-Semitism. For example, waving in the California sun on a campus was the regret: “Hitler didn’t finish the job!” These are not entirely rare instances. On April 3, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported: “Many college campuses throughout the United States continue to experience incidents of anti-Semitism … When severe, persistent or pervasive, this behavior may constitute a hostile environment for students in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“On many campuses,” the commission continues, “anti-Israel or anti-Zionist propaganda has been disseminated that includes age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes … that perpetuate the medieval … blood libel of Jews slaughtering children for ritual purpose … as well as Jews as overly powerful, or conspiratorial.”

Here is my question: Have I missed something? Has there been coverage of this issue in the major newspapers and newsweeklies and I simply missed it? Has anyone seen anything in The New Republic, since that is a crucial forum for these kinds of issues?

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Forced conversion? What forced conversion?

St  Stephen MartyrTwo Fox journalists who were kidnapped several weeks ago were released on Sunday. To some extent it’s the same old story with a happy ending: Muslim terrorists kidnap reporters. Media groups express outrage. Hostages released.

But this story had a very interesting twist. Just as it was for Jill Carroll when she was kidnapped in Iraq, the hostages were pressured to convert to Islam. Carroll wrote well about the voluntary vs. involuntary nature of the conversion attempt in her series on her ordeal:

After a while Abu Ali — the salt-and-pepper bearded man who had helped kidnap me — came into the room carrying a Koran.

. . . I tried to listen to Abu Ali’s lesson attentively as he translated complicated Koranic Arabic into more basic Arabic he thought I could understand. He was very pleased that I showed interest in learning. He kept saying there was no pressure, no pressure in Islam, that they were forbidden from forcing people to convert. True acceptance must come from a free will.

They’d kidnapped me, and they all had guns ready to kill me, but, oh no, no pressure there. I falsely assured him that I felt no pressure.

Carroll returned to the theme repeatedly as she told her story. Her captors had guns on her but she should feel no pressure to convert. Somehow she withstood the pressure.

The Fox journalists, however, were unable to withstand the pressure or felt it unwise to do so. They converted to Islam and were released. Unlike a lot of newspapers that covered this story, The New York Times put the forced conversion at the top of its story:

Two journalists kidnapped in Gaza were released unharmed on Sunday after being forced at gunpoint to say on a videotape that they had converted to Islam.

“I’m really fine, healthy in good shape and so happy to be free,” [Steve] Centanni told Fox News. He said the two had been forced at gunpoint to say that they were converting to Islam and had taken Muslim names. “I have the highest respect for Islam,” he said. “But it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

Earlier on Sunday, their captors delivered a video showing the two men in Arab robes reading from the Koran to indicate their conversion.

That is one fascinating angle to a story with many ramifications. I used to wonder about the strength of my own statements that I would not recant my faith even unto death but would comfort myself with the knowledge that, in this day and age, I would never be forced to. But here you have that situation.

I was excited to read more about it. Reader Linda Lindley had questions she was hoping to find in coverage of the forced conversion:

I am wondering if anyone else is perturbed about the forced conversion of the captive Fox news reporters as a condition for release. The MSM treats it as if it were just a loophole in the whole drama which allowed saving face and a happy ending for all. No one has commented on the spiritual ramifications. Were either of these men Christians to begin with? Or were they not practitioners of any religion? Or of some other religion? What is the long term effect for them according to their respective religions? What happens to them if they recant their conversion to Islam? Will they have a fatwa issued against them? How will their conversions and the consequences affect their families?

You can’t tell me that there’s not major interest in the religious ramifications here. Cliff May, a former editor at the Rocky Mountain News, wrote on National Review’s Corner that he had all sorts of questions that weren’t addressed by anyone in the mainstream media:

Has any Palestinian religious or political leader publicly condemned the coerced conversion? Has U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan said a word about it? (Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the U.N. Charter.) How about the leading Muslim organizations in the U.S. and Europe? If not, why not and what does this tell us?

Have any of you seen any of these questions addressed? Any others you’d like answered?

Image of The Entombment of St. Stephen Martyr by Juan de Juanes.

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