Washington Post finds ghost in Russian adoption ban

Now that my husband and I hope to bring more children into our family through adoption, we’ve entered into a complex and incredibly bureaucratic and confusing world. We’ve made new friends, too, who have helped us through the process. Some of them have adopted internationally. In fact, most of the other adoptive families we’ve met have adopted internationally.

Some of our friends were in the middle of difficult Russian adoptions when the Russian government shut down adoptions from Americans. I can’t possibly convey how difficult and heartbreaking this has been for some folks who have spent a great deal of time and money pursuing the growth of their families through Russian adoption.

The story received a bit of coverage, but is there a religion angle? The Washington Post thought so, as you can read in this terribly interesting piece headlined “Russian adoption ban will hit disabled children, evangelical Christian families.” Here’s the lede:

In the “before” photos a pro-adoption protester carried outside the Russian Parliament last week, little Anton Delgado looks bloody, bruised and listless — baby steps away from death.

In the photos from after his adoption, his face fills out, his bandages off. Twenty-three-month-old Anton sits propped up on a couch with his adopted parents and siblings in Texas, thanks — his adoptive mother, Vanessa, says — to the grace of God.

“I prayed for God to tell me the right time to adopt,” said Vanessa Delgado, who met her husband, Jason, at church and regularly quotes Scriptures in her blog posts. “Then I saw a picture of Anton on Facebook, and I knew, ‘That’s my son.’”

Russia’s ban on U.S. adoptions brokered heartbreak for many would-be parents and their adoptive children last week. But the law may hit one community especially hard: evangelical Christians, who in the past five years have begun adopting in droves.

The article goes on to state in the next line that “Adoption statistics are not broken down by faith, but agencies have seen a strong uptick in adoptions from impoverished countries since mega-preachers such as Rick Warren took up adoption as a religious issue five years ago, said Susan Cox, vice president of public policy for Holt International, one of the world’s largest international adoption agencies.”

I have definitely heard the same thing — but I’m wishing we had any hard data to support the idea that “evangelical Christians … “have begun adopting in droves.” Are we sure that this is a recent phenomenon? What do studies tell us precisely, if anything?

We learn that “a number” of adoption ministries have emerged in recent years, including some focused on children with special needs. We’re told that “the movement” reached a head in 2010 and that it’s driven, in part, by Rick Warren’s push to focus on adoption. Christianity Today (to which many of us here GetReligion contribute) has highlighted the issue on its cover.

Given the lack of hard data on adoption breakdowns by religious affiliation, I like the effort to substantiate. I just still wonder what the numbers are.

The story gets back to the Delgados. We learn about Anton’s rare skin condition, his abandonment by his biological parents, and how the Delgados came to adopt him. Apparently the Delgados loss of their special needs twins in 2008 motivated them to adopt. One thing I liked about the story was the inclusion of this quote, which accurately represents the general Christian approach to adoption — something that is not universally shared by other adoptive parents:

“Adoption is a beautiful gift,” she said by phone from Fort Worth, where her kids yelled and played in the background. “God adopted us through Jesus when we did nothing to deserve it. It’s a beautiful picture of the Gospel.”

There are many other stories — really terribly interesting — that are shared in this piece.

The story keeps a fairly narrow angle — on how this Russian ban affects evangelical Christian adoptive parents in America. So it doesn’t include background information on what precipitated the ban. Part of that issue relates to concerns over how some Americans have treated the children they adopted from Russia. That might be worth including. There have also been criticisms of some of the agencies mentioned in the article, also worth mentioning.

And along with the problem with the general lack of data, it may have helped to know how many children with special needs have been adopted out of Russia in recent years and what percentage of total adoptions that represents.

Still, kudos for finding a very real and undercovered (in the mainstream press) angle to this huge story.

Adoption image via Shutterstock.

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Do Nativity scenes owe more to artists than historians?

I am blessed to be a member of an absolutely wonderful congregation. It’s a healthy mix of people who work together to keep the mission of our congregation going and thriving. Our regular focus on the Divine Service inspires all of our mission work, including a parish school and community programs.

I had to say that before pointing out this one tiny … issue. See, we have this 100-year-old Nativity scene we set up each year. The older folks in the congregation have let us know that this must always happen. Somehow over the years it got mixed with both another Nativity scene and with a Noah’s Ark scene. It’s ridiculous. In with the oxen and cattle and camels are pairs of zebras and rhinos and elephants. There is some theological beauty in combining these two scenes, but it’s kind of a train wreck.

I thought of that when I read this great story by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For all the importance that Nativity scenes have in the lives of Christians in America and throughout the world, it’s interesting how little coverage we get of them in news stories. For many, it might be difficult to write an interesting or newsy story about them.

When the duke of Urbino in Italy needed a gift for the queen of Spain, he turned to his friend, the painter Federico Barocci.

Barocci, a devout Catholic, worked during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1597 he had painted his version of one of the most recognizable images in all Christendom.

And as Christians mark Jesus’ birth today, they will do so with imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists such as Barocci and thousands of others who preceded him for 1,000 years.

The hook is that Barocci’s Nativity is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. But Townsend uses this as item to write an interesting story exploring the theology and artistry of the scene:

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross — a symbol of the resurrection — in their homes, “but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “When the savior of the world was born, he wasn’t born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child.”

And, of course, Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” wrote the author of Luke’s Gospel.

There is a ton of history packed into the story as well as interpretations of same, making it a rare, meaty story in the midst of a lot of fluffy stories. You should read the whole thing.

The whole thing reminded me of the stir over Pope Benedict’s writing that the Gospels don’t mention any animals at the manger. Townsend mentions it toward the end of the piece, which concludes:

Eventually manger scenes became a feature in many Christian homes throughout the world. Carlson said that when he was growing up, he loved to play with the creche figures in his parents’ house.

“What got me into trouble was that I also had these little toy soldiers,” he said. Did he ever mingle the two? “Never,” he said, smiling.

Carlson has 14 creches decorating the archbishop’s residence on Lindell Boulevard at this time of year. He keeps two of them up year-round. One, a gift from a family in South Dakota made of wood and dating to the 19th century, sits on a mantle directly across from the desk in his home office. He looks at it every day.

“To me,” he said, “it’s just a simple reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son to be with us.”

Our house currently has three manger scenes: a toy one for the children, a nice ceramic one my mother sent me this year and the one my Dad picked up when he was studying in Israel. It’s such an obvious point but it’s nice to see something so important to me and my family in the news. What’s more, it’s nice to learn more about the history of their development and their significance throughout the ages.

Nativity image via Shutterstock.

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Remembrance and mourning in Newtown

I imagine I’m not alone in still struggling with the Newtown massacre. Even after witnessing media deluge, the tangential political grandstanding, the unique evil of killing 1st graders is very difficult for me to think about.

How do reporters even begin to make sense out of the bloodbath? For many, they turn to politics, which provides comfort for many, including many journalists.

I’ve been intrigued by the relative downplaying of religion in coverage. But there was a really good piece on one of the victims and it’s worth a read.

It comes from The Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we don’t normally critique. But it’s written in a straight news fashion and does a great job of looking solely at how six-year-old Noah Pozner’s family is mourning. It begins with a mention of all of the gifts being sent to the family by strangers the world over.

Noah was the youngest child massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza first killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then shot his way into the school and slayed 20 first grade students and six staff members, including the principal. Noah was hit 11 times. He was the first child to be buried, on December 17 in a funeral overseen by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown.

For the following six nights, the family sat shiva at a friend’s house, which could better accommodate the dozens of visitors than their smaller home. Today, Sunday, with the official Jewish mourning period over, the Pozners have invited friends and family to a large white two-story home they have rented on the outskirts of Newtown. (Noah’s father Lenny is not present. Veronique says her husband “needed to get away” after sitting shiva with the family, and went to visit friends in Florida.) In preparation, the family clears the stuffed animals off the kitchen island and replaces them with bowls of dried fruit, chips, candied nuts, carrot sticks and a roast turkey.

This is how the nation’s most famous Jewish grieving family grieves.

The story is a couple thousand words long and includes tons of details, explaining that a torn black ribbon pinned to mother Veronique’s shirt is a Jewish mourning custom. Other things are not, such as a tattoo she got the day after his death of “a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah’s name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath.”

For those curious about the day-to-day aftermath of losing your child, we learn a great deal about just that. And about how Veronique became Jewish:

Veronique was born in Switzerland to French parents who raised her in Scarsdale, N.Y. She converted to Judaism in 1992 when she married her first husband, Reuben Vabner. Her second husband, Lenny, is also Jewish; he is originally from Brooklyn and works in information technology. In 2005, Lenny and Veronique relocated to Newtown from nearby Bethel. (They had previously lived in Westchester.) They had three children in tow: Sophia, an infant, and Danielle and Michael, from Veronique’s first marriage. Sometime in 2013, Veronique says, she plans to move her family again, this time to the Seattle area where much of her extended family lives. They will be taking Noah’s body with them.

Noah and his twin Arielle, we learn, were inseparable. Their 22-months-older sister was also close to them. He was a smart kid who asked about how things worked:

Noah also wondered about God, asking his mother, “If God exists then who created God?” He wanted to know what happens after death. “I would always tell him, ‘You are not going to die until you are a very old man, Noah.’ He was afraid of death, I know he was. He feared the unknown,” Veronique says. “Sometimes I wonder whether he had some foretelling, some prescience about it. Of course I will never know for sure, maybe it was just the random fears of a child.”

The whole piece is good and worth a read. It’s full of interesting details about the religious practices of the Pozners. Would be nice to read more of this type of story.

Remembrance candle via Shutterstock.

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Everything you know about Christmas is wrong

George just posted about an old story being rehashed for Christmas, which reminded me that the regular attempts to debunk Christianity around its holy days has become my favorite tradition. What would Christmas and Easter be like without a semi-blasphemous newsweekly magazine cover questioning some central tenet of the religion?

All that to say that the Washington Post‘s piece the “The Evolution of Holiday Celebrations” is a decent entry into the genre.

It’s in the Style section, so all expectations are lowered, of course. It says stuff like this:

Early Christians did not celebrate the Nativity. Christianity had been around for more than 350 years before the church fathers in Rome decided to add that event to the Christian calendar. They did so in part because many Christians were arguing that Jesus had not been an actual human being but rather a divine spirit — a belief the church fathers considered heretical. What better way to convince Christians that Jesus was human than to commemorate his physical birth? The problem was that there was no evidence of when Jesus’s birth took place. (Neither Luke nor Matthew, the two gospel writers who included stories of Jesus’s Nativity in their narratives, had indicated the date, or even the season, of the event.)

Is it most accurate to say “many Christians” argued that Jesus wasn’t human? Is that really the central aspect of how the date for Christmas was chosen? That is a heresy that has been taught and continues to be taught but I’m not sure this is phrased the best way. As for the rest, it’s true that the Nativity was not celebrated by early-early Christians, but we also know that it was celebrated in a variety of locations well before the date was fixed. By 200 A.D., for instance, Clement of Alexandria is reporting that Egyptians have marked the date and the year of Christ’s birth. The thing was that different people were celebrating the birth on different dates. Why did it get pinned to Dec. 25? Was this a top-down effort to defeat gnosticism? Was the day something Christian laypeople noted that some church leaders tried to stop? Was it much more complex than a brief article in the Style section could broach?

The church fathers decided to place the new holiday in late December, virtually guaranteeing that it would be widely adopted because this was already a season of mid-winter revels, a holdover from pagan times. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the holiday was called Saturnalia. This festival, which concluded on Dec. 23, was partly a holiday of lights that celebrated the winter solstice. But Saturn was the god of agricultural abundance, so his festival also marked the bounty of the completed harvest. Finally, the Saturnalia was a time of role reversals and seasonal license. Everyone took time off from ordinary labor. Slaves were granted temporary freedom and were treated by their masters to lavish banquets. The holiday was observed with feasting, drinking, gambling and sexual abandon.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

As I wrote six years ago (!) here at GetReligion:

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

It doesn’t matter. Almost everyone believes something else.

The story also tackles Hannukah:

In recent times, Hanukkah, too, has largely become a child’s holiday. Many Jewish parents give their children seasonal presents as abundant — and expensive — as those received by their Christian neighbors.

And with Hanukkah as with Christmas, a vestige remains of older mid-winter festivals. This is the dreidel, a four-sided top that resembles the familiar six-sided dice and is used in similar fashion to determine how much money (or Hanukkah “gelt”) the player receives — or owes. Thus Hanukkah, originating as the celebration of a military victory, now incorporates a host of other rituals: the commemoration of a divine miracle, a seasonal celebration of light and harvest, a focus on children and even a hint of mid-winter revelry.

Over the centuries, through all those historical accidents, Hanukkah and Christmas have come to look a lot like each other.

They don’t really look much like each other, obviously, but is the dreidel just a game? It’s origin isn’t exactly known but when I was in Israel, I was told that it hearkens back to a game developed by Jews to hide the fact they were studying the Torah. During one period of their history, the penalty for teaching the Torah was death. Jews would gather in caves to study and were pretending they were gambling if spotted by soldiers.

But more than anything, it’s not what is in the article that is so bothersome but what’s left out. Or how what’s in the article is treated so flippantly. Did Christianity just happen onto the idea of Jesus being the Christ? Isn’t the Nativity story a central element of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew? Even the Winter Solstice is treated as something of an historical accident. Was Hanukkah really just a holiday that morphed into something about light?

I wonder if part of the problem is that the author of the piece typically writes very accessible history books and that this breezy style works well when you have the time to flesh out more details but when you’re given just a few hundred words in the printed page, it comes off too glib, glossing over serious religious and cultural battles. That might be a function of editing as much as anything.

Hanukkah image via Shutterstock.

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A boring, non-sacramental Christmas in Syria

I hope all of our readers who celebrate Christmas are having a blessed one. As I prepared for my church’s Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve (where the youngest Hemingway made her choir debut), my thoughts turned to Christians elsewhere in the world where Christmas is not just a time to celebrate God made flesh but also a time to fear bombings or violence. This Reuters piece headlined “Christmas brings fear of church bombs in Nigeria” begins:

Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, 16-year old Hope Ehiawaguan says a prayer, lays down flowers and tearfully tells her brother she loves him.

He was one of 44 killed on Christmas Day last year when a member of Islamist sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives into the gates of St Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a satellite town 25 miles from the center of Abuja.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria and is the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil exporter.

Two other churches were bombed that day and on Christmas Eve 2010 over 40 people were killed in similar attacks.

But such is the commitment to religion in a country with Africa’s largest Christian population that millions of people will pack out thousands of churches in the coming days. It is impossible to protect everyone, security experts say.

“I feel safe,” Ehiawaguan says with uncertainty, when asked if she will come to church on December 25 this year.

“Not because of security here … because we have a greater security in heaven,” she says, wiping away her tears.

I say it all the time, but Reuters is a valuable source for religion news outside of the United States and Europe. The quotes the reporter got are theological even as the story itself blends politics and other aspects of culture. That story is much more substantive than this 24-second bit on the Pope decrying violence in Syria that was on CBS.

Sadly, terrorists did manage to kill 12 Christians, according to this CNS report:

Gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to an evangelical church in the northern state of Yobe, police said. Wire reports said the pastor was among the dead in the midnight attack.

Separately, a Baptist church in neighboring Borno state was attacked. Nigeria’s The Nation said six church members were killed.

But it was this BBC story that left me less than impressed with its headline and lede. The headline:

Syria crisis: Low-key Christmas for Christians

The lede:

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.

“This is my body, which is given for you,” he says. “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In Syria, the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya, the day before Christmas Eve, according to opposition activists. They say the civilians were bombed by a government warplane as they were queuing at a bakery, killing some 90 of them.

OK. So the entire story is sad, with people refusing to speak with reporters or give their name for fear of being targeted. We learn that minority areas, including those dominated by Christians are being targeted by the government. The already-small population of Christians is fleeing the country. Is describing this simply as a “low-key Christmas” appropriate? What a boring headline for the reality of what Christians in Syria are dealing with this Christmas.

In any case, I don’t know where the Beeb reporter got her info, but Christians in Syria do not believe that Jesus told his disciples that “the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.” Traditional Christian belief is that in the Eucharist we receive the actual body and blood of Christ.

The teaching that communion only represents Christ’s body and blood is certainly present among some Christians, but not among Orthodox Christians.

To further compound the error by saying “the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya” is just insulting to those sacramental Christians who believe we partake in the real body and blood of Christ.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be surprised. But how would a reporter not know this? I’d more expect a reporter to mock traditional Christians for this belief than be ignorant of it.

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Galileo meets the Mayan apocalypse

Far and away my favorite headline of Friday was the one that ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Experts almost certain world not ending today

How great is that? And I say that as someone who was not quite as impressed as Romenesko with this front-page folio line from the Omaha World-Herald yesterday.

The story is well done, with a nice look at calendars and apocalyptic thinking. It begins:

A previously undiscovered zombie planet will not crash into the Earth today, obliterating all human life and leaving the cockroaches to roam the desolate landscape, a drove of authorities said.

These authorities, ranging from rocket scientists to anthropologists to religious leaders, also said that the sun will not spout a flare 100 million miles wide that will char the Earth like a marshmallow dropped into a campfire.

Nor, the experts confidently claim, will a distant supernova send a concentrated laser beam of gamma radiation hurtling toward our homes at near light speed, annihilating any trace of our ever having existed.

Probably.

They cannot say for sure because the future is by its nature uncertain, despite science, despite our desires, despite what we may or may not have marked on next week’s calendar.

What I wanted to highlight was the excellent way the story briefly explained why the Mayans were not predicting the end of the world when a calendar ended:

The ancient Mayan civilization, for example, used a calendar system that ran in cycles, like a car’s odometer. When one cycle ended, that calendar ended, and another one began.

I keep being reminded of something Amy Sullivan mentioned at the Religion Newswriters Association conference earlier this year. She said that when you find religion news mistakes, these are typically mistakes being made by people off the Godbeat. The corollary to that is that there are reporters who are on the Godbeat or otherwise in tune with religion news and that they do a good job of telling religion news and explaining it. For all of the bad reporting on the Mayan calendar, we did see some good stuff, too.

The story did have a religion passage that might be worth discussing:

The Vatican weighed in, too.

The Rev. Jose Funes, the Vatican’s top astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, wrote in the Vatican’s newspaper this month that the end of the world nonsense is “not even worth discussing.”

The Vatican, you may remember, has not always found itself on the side of science. It condemned Galileo in 1633, for example, for correctly arguing that the Earth revolved around the sun. An apology came 359 years later.

Oh, we remember. But is what we remember what actually happened? It reminds me of one of my favorite comment threads to a GetReligion post headlined “King of Night Vision.” The entire back and forth is worth re-reading if you don’t have time to read an actual history of Galileo. One commenter put it:

We need to be more careful with the myths that we create, especially those myths which are somehow supposed to be about our casting aside of myths.

I just put that out as a reminder since the culture seems to have rewritten the Galileo story a little bit.

It might be nice to see a story with a bit more reflection on the theological implications of why society celebrates (before condemning) precise predictions of the end of the world. There are probably quite a few areas to explore about what this cultural obsession says, what it signifies and what various religious bodies might say about the culture’s engagement with doomsday scenarios. Or maybe I’m just saying that because my pastor preached a great Advent sermon today about just this.

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The nones on the bus

This week the Pew folks came out with a large Global Religious Landscape report. It’s a super fun read for anybody who follows this site. Yesterday, we looked at one story that came up short when discussing the significance of Christianity’s dominance. In the comments to that piece, reader MJBubba wrote:

Not so fast on those 16% unaffiliated. I heard a radio news broadcast that briefly mentioned this story and, though I don’t recall their actual words, it sounded like the 16 % were all atheists and agnostics. The Pew report says that 62 % of the 16 % are Chinese, and then goes on to say that 44 % of these 700 million Chinese “say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year.” It sounds like many of these unaffiliated are either too suspicious to give their affiliation (Falun Gong perhaps, or un-registered Christians or Muslims?), or maybe they practice the “Chinese indigenous spirit religions.” Either way, some media coverage of the 16 % seems to run far further than the Pew report supports.

The “nones” (not to be confused with the “nuns,” as I do literally every time I hear a report about them) are a huge story this year. But when we talk about those who are unaffiliated with any particular confession of faith, we could be talking about everything from hard-core atheists to folks who worshiped at a sacred place in the previous year. How does the coverage handle this?

One of the difficulties in covering this story is that it takes quite a few words to explain what “unaffiliated” means. And “unaffiliated” isn’t the most exciting way to phrase it sometimes. This Reuters report is great. Here’s the top dealing with the issue at hand:

People with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest global group in a new study of the size of the world’s faiths, placing after Christians and Muslims and just before Hindus.

The study, based on extensive data for the year 2010, also showed Islam and Hinduism are the faiths mostly likely to expand in the future while Jews have the weakest growth prospects.

It showed Christianity is the most evenly spread religion, present in all regions of the world, while Hinduism is the least global with 94 percent of its population in one country, India.

Overall, 84 percent of the world’s inhabitants, which it estimated at 6.9 billion, identify with a religion, according to the study entitled “The Global Religious Landscape” issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on Tuesday.

The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith.  “Many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs,” the study stressed.

“Belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults,” it said.

It’s everything you could hope for in a very brief report on this intriguing trend. But we did have a few complaints about the headline, which reads:

“No religion” third world group after Christians, Muslims

What do you think?

Less successful was the New York Times headline:

Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion

The story is very short and doesn’t include details about how many of those one in six hold religious beliefs even as they’re unaffiliated. As Peter Manseau put it:

Better headline for this would be “Study Finds 1 in 6 Follows No Religion Exclusively.” Unaffiliated doesn’t mean none.

Even the New York Times headline was better than this one from Religion News Service, which was just flat out false:

Unbelief is now the world’s third-largest ‘religion’

Pew asked about religious affiliation, not belief.

It’s a difficult concept to capture in a headline. I still think “unaffiliated” might be the right term to use, but copy editors might riot rather than use it. What do you think?

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Christians are numerous. What’s their problem?

Yesterday, Pew came out with a new “Global Religious Landscape” report. Much of the media coverage has been focused on the relatively high percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated. We’ll probably need to look at how some media continue to confuse everything between atheism and multiple religious traditions into one grouping.

The Washington Post had a blog item that had a markedly different focus, headlined “Our Christian Earth: The astounding reach of the world’s largest religion, in charts and maps.” It was a bit of a disappointment, beginning:

Christmas is an official government holiday in the United States, one that coincides with a smaller and informal but well-known tradition: debating whether or not there is a “war on Christmas.” In this thinking, American Christians are obligated to ”stand up and fight against this secular progressivism that wants to diminish the Christmas holiday,” as prominent Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recently argued. “We have to start to fight back against these people.” This is often portrayed as a global fight; O’Reilly, in one of his books, suggested that the “war on Christmas” is part of an effort to “mold [the U.S.] in the image of Western Europe.”

This movement to defend one of Christianity’s most important holiday can sometimes seem to begin from the assumption that Christianity itself is on the defensive in the world, a besieged minority or at least under threat of being made one.

A very different picture emerges from a just-out Pew report, “The Global Religious Landscape.” There are a number of fascinating trends and details in the study, but it’s worth examining what it indicates about the place of Christianity in the world. And, based on this data, the world’s largest religion seems to be doing just fine.

Hunh? That second paragraph is just a mess. If you’re a reporter and you use the phrase “can sometimes seem to begin from the assumption,” your editor should probably explain to you why that’s not good journalism. Seem to whom? And about this assumption — was it made up by the reporter or is there something substantive that a journalist can point to?

The article “seems to” falsely concludes that because there are many Christians in the world, perceived attacks on Christians in the American public square are of no concern for Christians. Of course, there could be many Christians in the world, and many Christians in North America, and many Christians in the United States and there could still be attacks on Christians in the American public square.

And since the global report shows that there are growing numbers of “unaffiliated” — not just around the world but in the United States, too, the data trends there might be as important as the raw numbers, or more so. I’ve long stated my dislike for theological giant Bill O’Reilly (who once said my church didn’t follow Jesus because we oppose syncretism), but his arguments have nothing to do with the data supplied by the Pew report. Further, folks worried about the expression of Christianity in the public square include those at the Vatican, who perceive a threat from secular humanism and its effects on the church and culture. Their concerns aren’t specifically addressed by the Pew report but they’re definitely not renounced by it.

Anyway, another item is that the article was half-edited to correct an early error that asserted that Christmas is Christians’ most important holiday. It now says “one of Christianity’s most important holiday [sic].” And speaking of editing, there were some problems (on review these have been corrected since I first read the story) confusing North Africa and North America and whether 68 million Christians represent 5 percent or one-fifth of the Chinese population. The article ends:

Two of the 10 countries with the world’s largest Christian populations are not actually Christian-majority: Nigeria, which is about half Muslim, and China. Those 68 million Chinese Christians only make up about five percent of their country’s population, but it’s a remarkable toehold for the world’s largest religion in the world’s largest country. And the number of Chinese Christians appears to be growing rapidly, particularly as the government loosens long-held restrictions on free religious expression.

This data is likely to provide little comfort to the handful of Christian communities, particularly in countries such as Iraq, that are facing real persecution. But, overall, the story of Christianity in today’s world is still one of vast majorities, enormous populations, and historically unique reach. If there truly is a war on Christmas or any other facet of Christianity, then, in global terms, it doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

Again, this study is not the one to use to determine whether attacks on Christians or tenets of Christianity are doing well. This study does not even begin to broach those topics. Pew actually has looked at which religions are most persecuted in the world and found that Christians are persecuted in more countries than other religions are. As for basic tenets of Christianity, those are always in conflict throughout the world, including in the United States of America, where major battles dealing with religious liberty are being obscured by the media.

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