Dying for your faith

jesus healsIt must be very difficult to maintain any sense of journalistic objectivity while writing about a family’s religious beliefs when it is almost certain that those beliefs are linked to the death of a child.

Unless the reporter is an expert on church-state law or has in-depth knowledge of the beliefs of the religious organization that that is involved, how are you supposed to report in a way that explores both sides of the story?

For some reason or another, several stories about these cases have come out in the last week. The first story from The Oregonian seems to be following a long-running series of articles the newspaper has done over the years that has tracked a group that does not seek medical treatment in the event of an illness for religious reasons:

According to Young, the child’s parents are members of Followers of Christ, an Oregon City church that practices spiritual healing rather than seeking medical treatment, even when children become gravely ill.

A June 1998 investigation by The Oregonian found that of the 78 children buried in the church’s cemetery since 1955, 21 died from treatable diseases. The Followers of Christ came under intense scrutiny in 1997 and 1998, when three children died after their parents denied them basic medical care. One of them, 11-year-old Bo Phillips, had diabetes.

The reporting apparently resulted in a new law that resulted in criminal sanctions in one particular case and blocked a “spiritual healing defense” that has been used in past cases. The challenge with laws like these is that they can outlaw a particular religious faith, or at least a major tenet of a particular faith.

But there is the church-state question: Do parents have a right to refuse life-saving medical treatment to their children because of their beliefs? When does the state have the right to step in and take away parental rights?

The problem with allowing parents to refuse medical care for their children is that the children can’t legally consent to refusing medical care. Adults on the other hand have every right in the world to refuse medical care.

The second story comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which takes a look at a similar situation and finds the same set of difficult issues that arise when children die because the faith of the parents prohibits them from seeking medical help. While the story does little to explain the religious perspectives of the groups, it does do an adequate job of explaining the policy conflict:

“At what point do religious beliefs take over for medical help? And the flip of the coin is at what point are the parents responsible for the health and welfare of their children,” he said. “These people truly believed their prayer and faith would heal their daughter. They have no question about that.”

Police and courts have grappled with such issues for decades. Norman Fost, professor of bioethics and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, said the First Amendment to the Constitution gives citizens the right to practice religion.

“A Jehovah’s Witness can refuse life-saving blood transfusion based on their religious belief,” he said. “They’re protected. But they can’t refuse it for their child . . . the First Amendment extends to their own behavior but not their children’s.”

Reporters should be on their guard for stories like these. It’s important to dig beyond the sad details and examine the public policy behind the laws that govern these situations. Journalists have to realize that there are facts that need to be quoted, facts linked to church-state law. There are church-state experts that can be quoted on the legal side of these issues. This is a journalism problem and there are ways for journalists to solve it.

Even more importantly, reporters should look closely at why people maintain these religious beliefs and whether or not they are maintained after the loss of a loved one. What is the real basis for these beliefs, and how common are they?

More questions: Why should the state single out religion? When can authorities step in when there are threats to the life and health of children in other homes? What about children with asthma whose parents are smokers?

The questions go on and on. Quote some people who know the law.

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Prayer works. That’s a “fact”?

hands folded in prayer 799927Anyone who spends any time studying the history of journalism, especially the American model of the press, knows that reporters and editors really, really, really love what they call “facts.” Some historians have even said that journalists worship “facts.”

This is one of the reasons that journalists say they have trouble covering religion news. Obviously, for many scribes, religion is all about emotions and feelings and doctrines and all kinds of things that don’t fit neatly into government reports and Excel spreadsheets. When it comes to religion, people make all kinds of decisions and take all kinds of actions for reasons that journalists simply do not, well, get.

Oh why, oh why can’t religion be more like politics, where all is reason and logic and fact? Yeah, right.

Anyway, the most recent issue of Newsweek contains two stories — it’s a classic, click here in the front of the magazine, then click here in the back — about one of those questions that drive journalists a bit nuts. The question is: Does prayer (or meditation) “work,” in any sense of the word that rational people can respect?

The first is this week’s Belief Watch mini-feature, by Lisa Miller, and offered this nice double-deck headline: “How to Make Sarah Laugh — Does being religious actually help you get pregnant? It’s possible, says a fertility specialist.” Here’s how it ends:

When Eileen Lyon, who is Catholic, was trying to conceive, her ob-gyn pressured her to try IVF but she said no. Her Catholicism, she says, gave her a sense of the sacredness of her marriage and of her own body, which she was not willing to violate. “You feel kind of brutalized by physicians who dismiss your religious views. If you choose against IVF, it’s your fault you will have no baby,” says Lyon, who is a history professor at SUNY Fredonia. Lyon finally sought treatment at the Pope Paul VI Institute, a clinic in Nebraska that seeks to help infertile couples without IVF. After surgery for her endometriosis, Lyon had a baby boy. Even though she tried — and failed — to get pregnant a second time, Lyon says she is glad she made the choices she did. “I feel a real sense of contentment,” she says. “It’s God’s will if you have a baby.”

Now here comes the really interesting part, and kudos to Miller for daring to go there:

Conventional fertility clinics may be dismissive of the Nebraska institute’s approach, but one thing appears to be true: a religious or spiritual mind-set may help infertile women. In a study of nearly 200 women published in 2005, psychologist Alice Domar and her colleagues found a high correlation between women who said they were religious and those with low rates of anxiety and depression during fertility treatment. Here, then, is the million-dollar question: does being religious actually help infertile women get pregnant? Domar says it’s possible. If religious women have less depression and anxiety, and lower rates of depression and anxiety correlate to higher pregnancy rates, “it stands to reason that religious and spiritual women should have higher pregnancy rates.” No wonder Sarah laughed.

So, is it a fact that faith “works”? Well, it appears that this small study points to some facts at the level of psychology and even medicine. But this, to me, seems almost beside the point from a journalistic perspective.

meditation pLook at it this way: Is it a “fact” that prayer works? That can be debated.

But is it a “fact” that millions of people in a wide variety of faiths around the world say that they believe prayer works and that this “fact” helps shape how they spend their time, spend their money and make their decisions?

Yes, that is a fact. Journalists have to accept that fact and, well, try to cover how all of those decisions affect life in the real world around us (even the public square).

Don’t take my word for it. Head to the back of the magazine and connect some dots by reading the feature “No Buddha Required,” which notes:

Recent studies have shown meditation can yield a host of health benefits, from increased concentration to some relief from depression. Hospitals and clinics are including meditation as therapy, and medical schools are including it in their curricula. As the practice becomes more accepted as something that can be both secular and therapeutic, publishers are responding: at least a dozen books on meditation are scheduled for release in the next three months. …

Brain-imaging research has shown that meditation reduces stress and can enhance one’s sense of well-being. Novice practitioners have increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that can produce positive feelings and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and the director of its Lab for Affective Neuroscience.

That sounds pretty official.

My final questions: Should editors at Newsweek have linked these stories? Did anyone see the connections? And why is one a “religion” story and the other a “health” story?

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Magnify the supernatural

detail It’s one thing to rip a routine or bad story. It’s another to criticize an excellent story with one flaw. The exercise can seem, and perhaps often is, pedantic. So if the criticism is to be convincing, it better be valid.

With this proviso in mind, I bring to your attention a Baltimore Sun story about former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett.

Everett was paralyzed after suffering a life-threatening spinal cord injury in a football game last year, but he recovered, to the point that he can do most any physical activity except play professional football again. His recovery has been called a miracle. Sun columnist Rick Maese, to his credit, wrestles with the nature of miracles.

I ask him what he thinks a miracle is.

“A blessing, a gift from God,” he says.

… [T]oday, six months later, he walks. A miracle man. Those aren’t my words. That’s what Oprah Winfrey called him on her show last month. I don’t know what a miracle is. Is it something that defies reason? Or merely explanation?

Maese’s questions suggest he is open to a supernatural explanation. Indeed, Maese asks Everett the right follow-up query:

Can Everett credit both God and doctors? Is the fact that he walks today a miracle of faith or a miracle of science?

“Both,” Everett says.

In the following paragraph, Maese reveals that Everett is no dumb jock; he’s a man of uncommon honesty, openness, and wisdom.

What continually impresses me is Everett’s demeanor. There’s not a hint of remorse or regret. At 26, he essentially had spent a lifetime preparing for one thing: to play football. Now, as he is starting over, he refuses to allow his story to become one of despair or disappointment.

I tell Wiande Moore, Everett’s college sweetheart, that I’m simply amazed at the upbeat attitude Everett and everyone around him has maintained. There must have been some bad days in there, though.

“No, not really,” she says. “We just stayed positive.”

Everett interrupts. “Let’s quit with the lies,” he says. “I was sad, depressed. I couldn’t go on …

At this point, Maese’s story was promising indeed. He asked Everett about his faith; was open to the possibility of a supernatural explanation; and revealed Everett’s character. Few stories achieve that trifecta.

But after this point, the story disappointed somewhat. Maese failed to probe Everett’s explanation of God’s role in his recovery. Instead of detailing Everett’s supernatural rationale, he kept it general. Here are a few questions that Maese might have asked Everett: Why do you believe that God played a role? How, exactly, did God play a role? Did you pray to Him for His help?

Those questions are — pardon the pun — completely in bounds. Watch the video of Everett’s injury. After he is paralyzed, players from both teams met in the middle of the field and began to pray; a couple of players even sprinted there. Doesn’t Everett think that their prayers helped?

I don’t make this point lightly. A decade ago, a Roman Catholic priest in Baltimore was stricken with a debilitating heart problem. But he prayed every day to then Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. Behold, one day at a church healing service, the priest fell to the floor for minutes and suddenly leapt up, astonishing the crowd. The priest was healed; Church authorities verified the miracle; and Kowalska was canonized.

Reporters should never discount such a possibility. Sure, a supernatural miracle is unlikely. And Maese was right to detail the medical side of Everett’s miraculous cure. But why not detail the possibility that God intervened?

Alas, even this fine story reflected an unjustified imbalance between natural and supernatural explanations.

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Obama and the Islam factors

obama in OhioNews media from around the world parachuted into Ohio and Texas this week to cover the much anticipated primary elections that managed to further the Democratic Party’s confusion over their choice for a 2008 presidential candidate.

One story that continues to follow the Obama campaign is the false rumors that he is not a Christian. To write about this, reporters have latched on to Obama’s statements that he is a Christian, and followed that with the false rumors that he is a Muslim. The other angle of this story is that many voters seem to be confused (or don’t care) about the status of this charismatic politician’s personal faith.

Here is The New York Post conducting an ill-advised information survey of about 12 people in Cleveland:

On a recent visit to Cleveland, The Post conducted an informal survey of about a dozen people and found that most didn’t know Obama’s faith – and many incorrectly assumed he was a Muslim.

Some Ohio Democrats even thought he had sworn the oath of office while holding the Koran – another false Internet rumor.

Trying to reassure voters yesterday, Obama told the audience in rural Nelsonville that they would feel right at home in his church in Chicago.

Surveys like that are just dumb. What percentage of the unscientific sample size of about 12 thought he swore his oath of office while holding the Koran? And if he did, would that affect whether they would vote for him? Also, would the members of Obama’s audience in rural Nelsonville, Ohio, really feel comfortable in Obama’s Chicago church? Should it matter? What if they’re like the people who (like me) are rarely that comfortable when they visit a church for the first time?

Much of the media coverage of this issue has failed to ask the question so obvious to many American Muslims: why is Obama so insistent in trying to disprove a silly baseless Internet rumor? Is it really that politically damaging to Obama’s campaign that some people are confused about his faith? Is a candidate’s religion, particularly if it happened to be Islam, to be considered by default a handicap in this country?

Why does it seem to bother Obama and his campaign so much that some people think (and others believe) that he is a Muslim? Do people really take the Manchurian Candidate theory so seriously that they believe it is an issue?

On the other side of this issue is the fact that American Muslims seem to be gravitating towards Obama after largely supporting President Bush in 2000. Not that you would hear this if you followed solely the American news media. The BBC, with its sensitivity towards the growing Muslim population on its side of the pond, swooped into a Cleveland mosque, stating that it “would sit comfortably in the capitals of the Middle East.”

Here is what they found:

A group of men from the mosque, led by the centre’s president, Faud Hamed, spoke to BBC News after evening prayers.

There was exasperation at the on-going war, and a sense that social justice – a central tenet of Islam – is being ignored: “We all know that in the US Constitution it calls for peace and justice, but if we look around the world do we see any peace and justice?”

Uneasy about being publicly critical, most asked not to be identified.

“We are sometimes given the short end of the stick but in general we’re treated fairly… I agree with the brothers [that] if you look at the cost of the war in Iraq so far, how much of these billions could have saved lives in the US alone,” said one.

Whenever someone says that they have a right to something or that a certain concept is central to the Constitution, reporters should always ask for citations. They don’t have to be specific, but allowing someone to state that a certain vague idea such as “peace and justice” is somehow central to the Constitution requires further explanation.

But vague surface explanations and quotes fitting the BBC’s worldview is par for the course in this story. One gets the sense that this visit to Ohio mosques by the BCC was an act of an excellent dictation exercise by the reporter. If BBC journalism is merely taking down a couple of quotes gathered by a few vague questions, then that’s their prerogative. The public is less informed by reading it.

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Media: Just say no … to Moses

friberg mosesandburningbushIt usually happens during Holy Week each year — a new rash of media pieces attempting to undermine miraculous stories about Jesus and his life. Some of them have been very bad, but the media find it difficult to miss this annual rite of passage.

Well, it’s not Holy Week yet and it’s not Jesus, but this year the media are engaged in a special Torah-era debunking. I’ll let our good friends at Agence France-Press explain:

High on Mount Sinai, Moses was on psychedelic drugs when he heard God deliver the Ten Commandments, an Israeli researcher claimed in a study published this week.

Now, AFP doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in mainstream media, but they’re not alone in this story. The British papers as well as Reuters and MSNBC have already jumped on the story.

I just find it so interesting that the mainstream media always have so much time and resources to devote to these stories. But maybe there’s something to this story. Let’s hear the Israeli researcher — a cognitive psychologist, of all things — out. Benny Shanon of Hebrew University says the acacia tree mentioned in the Bible contains one of the most psychedelic substances known to man:

The professor, who came up with his theory after experiencing firsthand the effects of a hallucinogenic brew used in religious rituals in Brazil, said the story of Moses and the burning bush also had the hallmarks of a psychedelic experience.

The account in the Book of Exodus of the bush’s ability to burn without being “consumed” is generally attributed to the presence and power of God.

But to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Professor Shanon, who freely admits to having experimented with mind-bending substance “about 160 times in various locales in contexts”, it is evidence of the power of drugs.

So I guess there’s no need to make a joke about his thesis having been developed while he was high. And yes, in case you were wondering, the hallucinogenic brew referenced is none other than ayahuasca! Anyway, Shanon also noted that drug-induced visions included a loss of sense of time, seeing bright lights or fire, the blurring of the senses and profound religious and spiritual feelings.

The thing I find so interesting about these stories is that they rarely do anything more than raise the question. Very few of these accounts include any substantive critique from Biblical scholars or even other cognitive psychologists or botanists.
crossing the red sea
Now I don’t expect Christians and Jews to start any riots or anything, but it might be interesting if they had the opportunity to ask a few questions. If God wasn’t involved in what happened at Mt. Sinai, how did the drug hallucinations create tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone? And for nothing more than drug-induced hallucinations, those Ten Commandments have staying power, don’t they!

It reminds me of a story I heard about a Sunday School teacher explaining to her class that the miracle of Moses parting the Red Sea wasn’t really that miraculous. It turns out, she explained, that a better translation for the body of water crossed by Moses and the Hebrews fleeing persecution in Egypt would have been Sea of Reeds, so called because it was a shallow body of water that wasn’t even deep enough to obscure reeds growing up.

“That’s amazing!” responded one of her young charges. She explained that actually it wasn’t amazing — crossing such a shallow body of water wouldn’t be that difficult and didn’t require any miraculous parting of the water. “Wow! That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard!” the child insisted. Exasperated, the teacher asked the boy how it was amazing that Moses led his people across this shallow pond. “It’s amazing that Pharaoh’s entire army drowned in a body of water so easy to cross!”

The point of this story is that so many of these debunking stories are presented uncritically. No one is brought in to ask all of the obvious follow-up questions. And it’s getting somewhat tiresome.

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Same bodies, different worldviews

mic pietaThere’s a controversy in Cincinnati about the “Bodies … The Exhibition.” However, it appears that there is no controversy at all about the same show in Baltimore.

Does that tell us something about the two cities, the two Catholic hierarchies or the two newspapers? Honestly, I can’t decide.

GetReligion has covered the whole “Bodies” controversy before. There isn’t any question that, from a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspective (at the very least), the idea of hauling 20 human cadavers around the world as education/entertainment is problematic.

If you want to understand why this is controversial, then click here and read Father Michael A. Seger’s Cincinnati Enquirer commentary called “Plasticized bodies disrespect our value of people as spiritual beings.” This was a nice op-ed to run to help readers understand the big news story in town. Here’s a key piece of that main story:

The controversy surrounds the way the bodies were obtained: They’re unclaimed or unidentified Chinese citizens who gave no consent to be exhibited after death. A small group protested Thursday night. Critics claim that, given China’s record of human rights abuses, they could well be political prisoners who were starved or tortured to death. …

The controversy swelled Monday when Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk told archdiocese elementary and secondary schools that no Catholic schools should plan field trips to the exhibit because “it seems to me that the use of human bodies in this way fails to respect the persons involved.”

Covington Bishop Roger Foys released a similar statement, saying, “our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Covington should not arrange field trips to the exhibition.”

Here’s the key, from GetReligion’s perspective. The Enquirer printed a variety of viewpoints about this controversy — which is what a newspaper is supposed to do. Good on them.

bodyworks 01But this also required the newspaper to admit that the topic was controversial in the first place. Compare that story with the following Style piece in the Baltimore Sun.

Controversy? What controversy? This glowing report is all praise, all the time.

Oh, it seems that there was some controversy about this topic — long, long ago — but not in this enlightened age. So there.

For much of history, the science of anatomy was at the mercy of powerful religious and cultural taboos. In the late 15th century, when Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo first began to teach themselves the basics of human anatomy by dissecting corpses at morgues, they literally had to risk their lives to uncover nature’s secrets.

A papal decree from 1300 had made dissecting corpses a crime punishable by death. As a result, the body’s interior was terra incognito not only to artists seeking to represent the human form more accurately, but even to physicians.

Yes, that is interesting information. But it hardly replaces the valid, emotional news hook in the here and now. To cover both sides of the story, you have to admit that both sides exist.

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Losing their religion

AtheismImagineThe January/February issue of Psychology Today features a 5,000 word story, ostensibly on clergymen who lose their faith. While you have to get a copy of the dead tree version to read the whole thing, you can read the first few hundred words here. Having just finished writing a history of atheism for another magazine, I was excited to read the piece.

The story alleges that there is a growing spiritual struggle for ministers, priests and rabbis. And this spiritual struggle — toward atheism — is despite “encroaching fundamentalism.” The use of such an imprecise phrase probably tells you what you need to know about how well reporter Bruce Grierson handles this weighty topic.

One of Grierson’s examples is a woman who is not a pastor and never went to seminary. Her husband is a pastor. She told some story about wishing people would have considered her a pastor when her husband became a missionary in Africa. Another is a Lutheran chaplain who was raised Roman Catholic and was an atheist for 25 years before a midlife change of heart that apparently didn’t stick. Another is a bona fide atheist in the pulpit — but it’s a Unitarian pulpit that has no problem with her beliefs. And despite the promise, no rabbis are mentioned in the article.

In other words, the examples from the story do a horrible job of making Grierson’s case that there’s an epidemic of clergy struggling with atheism. Here’s a bit about the Lutheran who is pseudonymously identifed as the Rev. James McAllister:

A second-career minister-for most of his life he was a graphic designer and a fine artist–McAllister approaches the Big Questions more in the manner of a scholar than of a monk. (Even as a Catholic grade-school kid, he recalls, he hungered for real evidence. “Why,” he would ask the nuns, “did this stuff all happen so long ago before there were cameras and TVs? Why aren’t there prophets and holy people and miracles now?”) A year ago, frustrated with his denomination but by no means ready to bail out, he picked up Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. He found he “agreed with about 98 percent of it.”

He picked up other books in the neo-atheist canon. He read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and then the one-two punch of Christopher Hitchens’s mega-bestselling God Is Not Great and his earlier Letter to a Christian Nation. He closed the latter book and found himself saying, aloud, “Amen.”

Didn’t this chaplain’s questions get any more substantive since he was in grade school? I’m a pretty serious doubter — that is my spiritual struggle — and this article was deeply disappointing. It doesn’t seem to scratch the surface of doubt and its psychological ramifications. I mean, Dawkins is an entertaining writer but I tend to agree with the reviewer who said The God Delusion read like an undergraduate diatribe. Hitchens is an even more entertaining writer but God Is Not Great was riddled with errors and wasn’t serious.

I can’t help but think struggles with doubt are widespread among the clergy. It’s a great idea for a story. Why must this story have been so weak?

Part of it, I think is that it doesn’t really engage doubt apart from full on atheism. I think many interesting stories about doubt come from folks who have experienced it but not necessarily succumbed to it. Grierson doesn’t mention a single person who would fit in that category. Part of it might just be that many of the people quoted seem not to be very thoughtful atheists.

The Lutheran, by the way, is sticking around in part because he owes his church $18,000 for his schooling. That led to the most interesting piece of news in the article:

Richard Dawkins is convinced that McAllister’s situation is common; in fact, he hopes one day to address it through “clergyman-retraining scholarships,” set up through his charitable foundation, to “bridge the gap between living a lie and getting a new life,” as he puts it.

I wonder whether there are any funds within the religious community for pastors who are experiencing doubt. Far more common than leaving religious belief for unbelief is leaving one confession of faith for another. Do any denominations or religious bodies make provisions for people who are struggling with leaving a church body for any reason? That would have been an interesting angle to explore.

Instead we get condescension. Grierson interviews Dan Barker, a former charismatic Pentecostal who said he received the call to preach at the age of 15. Later:

He began reading widely outside the Christian canon: science magazines, psychology, philosophy. It was the liberal-arts education he never had, and what followed was “a slow but steady migration across the theological spectrum” that took about five years. (Among the deeply faithful, doubt is often first stoked with exposure to the “outside world.”)

What a joke. As if Christians only have faith because they don’t read anything but the Bible. This is just not a serious exploration of doubt. It seems like what religious doubt might look like to an atheist. Having said that, Barker’s story is one of the more interesting in the article. He actually has a full-fledged deconversion experience out in nature. And now he heads the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here was an intriguing, if overwritten, part of the article — one that I wish was more representative:

The sense of cold finality, the impression that one’s prayers are just so many tennis balls served into the ocean: Such existential issues are a big part of anybody’s crisis of faith. But for religious leaders, the stakes are raised even further, for faith is no longer a private matter.

“As a clergyman your livelihood is not just a job–it’s a whole theological system that you’d better be on board with,” says Dick Hewetson, a 77-year-old former Episcopal minister from Minnesota who left the church to do secular work and soon called himself an atheist.

“It hit me during those last couple of years in the pulpit that everything coming out of my mouth was being taken as gospel” he says. “I began to think, This is crazy. If I tell these people something, they believe me. Remember Jonestown? People asked, How could that happen? Well, I know how. I wasn’t the Jim Jones type, and my people weren’t the Jonestown type. But I was the shepherd and they were the sheep, for sure.”

Some pastors would probably pray for a congregation that would be so receptive. A brief mention of Carl Jung only highlights another feature that is lacking from the article — historical perspective. One of the things I found so interesting about the history of atheism is how frequently it was advanced — intentionally or unintentionally — by theologians and clergy. James Thrower, among others, has written extensively about this. I suppose the mention of the Unitarian openness to atheism shows some of how this works but I suspect that there is more institutional support of unbelief, much less doubt, than the article indicates.

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Fundies on the march, yet again

marycheneybaby onesie(Cue: Loud sigh.)

It is time to open up our Associate Press Stylebooks and read that entry, once again, about what is, sadly, one of the most popular words in modern journalism:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

I bring this up, yet again, because this weekend I was digging through the back pages of a Washington Post edition from last week and I ran into a story with this headline: “Sex-Ed Dispute Aired in Court — Lessons Violate Md. Law, Opponents’ Attorney Tells Judge.”

Now you just know that, even though this ticks off some GetReligion readers, that this is going to turn into a religion story. It took about two paragraphs, starting with the lede by reporter Daniel de Vise:

A six-year battle over the content of a new sex education curriculum in Montgomery County schools came down to two questions posed yesterday in a Rockville courtroom: Can the school board legally teach students that homosexuality is innate? And can the lessons discuss sex acts other than copulation?

Montgomery educators are defending the new curriculum, approved by the school board last summer, which addresses sexual orientation as a classroom topic for the first time. The lessons place the county at the fore of a trend among some of the nation’s public schools toward more candor in discussing homosexuality. But they have prompted a strenuous challenge from religious conservatives who see the curriculum as a one-sided endorsement of homosexuality.

Now the phrase “religious conservatives” is good, although I think there are lots of people in other kinds of sanctuaries who do not believe that science has resolved the entire nature vs. nurture debate. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the status of homosexuality as a condition, in terms of civil-rights status. So the conflict is almost certainly rooted in the complaints of “religious conservatives,” but the issue is broader than that.

But things get worse later on.

The school system began working on the lessons six years ago at the urging of a citizens advisory group, which noted that the old curriculum permitted teachers to speak about homosexuality only in response to a student inquiry.

A first attempt to revise the lessons ended in 2005, when a federal judge found fault with teacher materials that criticized religious fundamentalism. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast withdrew the lessons before they were taught.

So here is the question: Who used the phrase “religious fundamentalism” in this case?

Was it the judge and, if so, why isn’t the phrase inside quotation marks? If the phrase comes from the Post, why was it allowed in the newspaper when the question of the moral status of homosexual acts has nothing to do with “fundamentalism” per se? What about traditional Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others who believe that homosexual acts are sinful?

In other words, one does not have to be a “fundamentalist” to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin. Why use the word in this case?

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