Hey Bible Belt believer: Why do YOU persecute atheists?

Confession: I live in the Bible Belt. Even worse, I’m a — gulp — conservative Christian.

But here’s the good news: I haven’t persecuted any atheists today!

Of course, it’s still early, and I haven’t left my house yet. There’s still time for me to track down a nonbeliever, give ‘em hell and chase ‘em into the baptistery.

That’s what we do in (how dare they believe in) God’s country, right?

In case you’re wondering the reason for my sarcasm, CNN’s Belief Blog (which I generally love and praise often … but not this time) just published a piece with this provocative headline:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

I guess this possible headline was too long:

Atheists gather to make fun of religion, lament constant mistreatment by everyone in the Bible Belt

Let’s start at the top:

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.

The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.

They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.

“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.

The Godbeat pro who produced this feature is one of the best at his craft and does an excellent job of presenting the atheists’ side of the story.

I just wish CNN had considered that there might be another perspective. This “survival guide” assumes that the atheists’ assumptions are based in fact. Maybe they are. Maybe not. Or maybe, like a lot of things in life, the truth is complicated.

What’s missing from this story? Any real context or feedback from believers in the Bible Belt on how they actually view atheists.

Instead, we get broad generalizations like this:

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SCOTUS prayer case: reporting, opinion in one story

Like many towns, prayer opens government meetings in Greece, N.Y. Unlike many towns, a couple of citizens voiced their offense to the practice — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As we heard yesterday, the high court sided with the town. And of course, the other side is crying foul.

Even including CNN, which was supposed to be doing straight reporting.

Here’s how CNN’s Belief Blog item by Daniel Burke led off the report on the high court’s decision yesterday. And keep in mind that it’s not marked as opinion or analysis or commentary:

If you don’t like it, leave the room.

That’s the essence of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s advice for atheists and others who object to sectarian prayers before government meetings.

In a 5-4 decision written by Kennedy, the Supreme Court allowed Greece, New York, to continue hosting prayers before its monthly town board meetings – even though an atheist and a Jewish citizen complained that the benedictions are almost always explicitly Christian.

Why did the Supreme Court rule as it did? We don’t find out until the ninth paragraph. Before then, we need to be softened up on the right way to view it.

“Many members of the country’s majority faith — that is, Christians — hailed the ruling,” Burke continues. He then lists some of the supporting organizations and quotes their leaders on what they see as the benefits of the ruling.

Just kidding, just kidding; he doesn’t do that at all. After that token paragraph acknowledging another side, he moves to his real interest: who objected and why.

Many members of minority faiths, as well as atheists, responded with palpable anger, saying the Supreme Court has set them apart as second-class citizens.

Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday’s decision.

“The court’s decision to bless ‘majority-rules’ prayer is out of step with the changing face of America, which is more secular and less dogmatic,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which litigated the case.

Finally, the story adds five paragraphs on Kennedy’s majority opinion, which leans heavily on historic precedent going back to the First Continental Congress. The story also cites a poll that found less than 23 percent of Americans object to prayers at public government meetings. (This, of course, counters Rob Boston’s argument that such prayers don’t match the American mood, but he apparently wasn’t asked to account for the contradiction.)

Burke then asks about people “who like their local government meetings to be religion-free?” Interesting choice of word, that: The absence of religion spells freedom. He then gives 11 paragraphs to the dissenting opinion of Justice Elena Kagan, whom he points out is Jewish.

She spins a hypothetical case of a Muslim at a town meeting where a minister invites everyone to pray in the name of Jesus. In her view, avidly reported by Burke, the Muslim must either comply and violate his beliefs, or object and risk giving offense.

But the article doesn’t report that the majority Supreme Court opinion, too, dealt with the question of coercive effects:

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Two forgiveness stories that are worth your time

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Forgiveness has been making a lot of headlines lately, at least it seems to me.

Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the evil committed by priests who molested children (for more insight, see George Conger’s post Wednesday). A Louisiana congressman who campaigned on a Christian family values platform requested forgiveness for an extramarital affair.

In Texas, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist found “one of the most moving accounts of forgiveness” ever involving a severely wounded victim of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. In California, the Contra Costa Times reported on the “power of forgiveness” by a burned Oakland teen’s mother.

But I wanted to call special attention to two recent stories on forgiveness.

The first appeared in The Tennessean newspaper and reported on a “lesson in forgiveness” taught by former hostage Terry Waite:

Chained to a basement wall for five years, his only measure of time a mosque’s blaring calls to prayer, Terry Waite didn’t feel particularly close to God.

He’d been kidnapped in 1987, an Anglican envoy and hostage negotiator now himself in need of aid after associates of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah snatched him. His disappearance made daily international news for weeks, then occasionally for years, the irresistible story of a father, peacemaker and man of God whose life was shattered trying to save others.

Every day, as Waite’s muscles deteriorated and his skin grew whiter, he took a piece of bread he’d saved from scant meals, dipped it water and experienced a true communion, mentally traveling to his home country of England, or to Africa, uniting with the worldwide fellowship he’d known. And he said a prayer from his youth that had exceptional meaning now: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord …”

He’s not a “happy-clappy” Christian, he told a crowd of local pastors and students at a Lipscomb University question-and-answer session this month. And being starved and beaten in that basement, he felt isolated and alone. But faith isn’t dependent on how one is feeling, and Waite never lost it.

Perhaps he’s not happy-clappy, but Waite’s story of forgiveness and his dry wit — he chuckles recounting how he once mistook a Ugandan carjacker for a parking attendant — is resonating with a generation of students who’d never heard of him before.

Read on, and there’s this compelling anecdote:

That Waite could forgive his captors and return to Beirut is incredible, said Kevin Sanders, a Lipscomb student and soldier who fought in the Middle East. Sanders stood up during that Q-and-A with Waite, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “The people in the Middle East — to go back and look them in the eye and forgive them for what they did to you, I wanted to let you know that inspires me,” he told Waite.

In my view, The Tennessean story — at roughly 800 words — was much too short. I found myself at the end much sooner than I would have liked. Still, the piece presented a poignant portrait of Waite and the concept of forgiveness.

On the other hand, the second story I’d like to highlight did not suffer from a space limitation, running close to 2,000 words. In fact, the in-depth report by the CNN Belief Blog is truly exceptional. Given the byline — Tim Townsend, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro — that’s probably no surprise.

“Forgiving the unforgivable in Rwanda” is the title of Townsend’s piece.

Forgive me for feeling compelled to copy and paste such a big chunk of the opening:

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And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

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Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

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5Q+1: CNN Godbeat pro on his remarkable Lampedusa story

When one of the best religion journalists on the planet produces one of the most gratifying stories of his life, news consumers are in for a real treat.

Enter Eric Marrapodi, co-editor of CNN’s Belief Blog.

His 4,500-word  “Stepping-stones to Safety” story — featuring a family fleeing Syria’s war — ran over the weekend.

The gripping lede:

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) – Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.

Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.

He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.

Abdel prayed for safety. He hoped land would come soon. He worried his wife, 8 1/2 months pregnant, might give birth before they reached land.

Abdel and his family risked their lives to flee Syria for Italy.

Marrapodi agreed to respond to a few questions from GetReligion about his extraordinary report.  (If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to do so now. We’ll still be here when you get back.)

What’s the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about, and how long did it take to report, write and edit it?

I’d been hearing about Lampedusa and the refugees there for a long time. After Pope Francis made it his first visit outside of Rome, I knew I had to get over there. I was fortunate to be part of an extraordinary group of journalists who won Henry Luce Foundation grants for international religion reporting through the International Center for Journalists. ICFJ connected me with another grant winner, the wonderful Elisa Di Benedetto, who is an Italian journalist.

We met in Rome and flew to Lampedusa and Catania. We were on the two islands for a week total at the end of September. Because it was more of an evergreen story, we worked on the writing and the editing for months to get it right. We also had a lot of fact checking and following up to do.

It was a real challenge and a real joy to report.

Tell me about your travel experience. How big a journalistic adventure did you enjoy?

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere: hymns and happy hour?

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“Beer with Jesus” might have fallen off the country music charts, but the trend has legs — er, foam — apparently.

You may remember the other half of our resident husband-wife team, GetReligionista Bobby Ross Jr., writing a post in November on the subject.  In summary, he looked at reports on churches offering services in pubs and bars and the successes and failures in each.

We have a new twist to the story now, and it comes to us from the country music capital of the world, Nashville Tenn. It also involves music, but not of the hometown variety.

The Tennessean invites us to pull up a barstool and join the Beer and Hymn Sing Group in this report:

They don’t talk doctrine. There’s no prayer or Bible study.

Once a quarter, they pack the dark upstairs bar at MadDonna’s in East Nashville to sing centuries-old favorites. The last one kicked off with “Amazing Grace,” ended with “Go Now in Peace” and featured classics such as “How Great Thou Art” in between.

The organizer, Geoff Little, said he got the idea from seeing soccer fans in London and Dublin pubs switch seamlessly from singing fight songs to singing “Be Thou My Vision.” He believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.

“Why was Christ’s first miracle to be the ultimate bartender? Jesus was interested in celebration,” said Little, a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. “We separate being human from being spiritual all too easily in Nashville.”

This story isn’t just throwing one back with the regulars. It does justice to all sides, including religious experts, historians and visitors who drink nothing stronger than Diet Coke. We’re also invited to explore the Bible for Scripture related to drinking and consider the temptations of excess imbibing.

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Hey atheists, ‘Thank God you’re wrong’

As a reporter, I’m always amazed by how much I learn when I actually pick up the phone and talk to somebody.

As opposed to, say, relying on my vast personal knowledge (and Googling ability) and preparing a news report without ever making contact with a real, live human.

Speaking of which …

The New York Times had a story this week (at least I’m 95 percent sure it’s not supposed to be a column or news analysis) on a creationist organization targeting atheists with a billboard in Times Square. The peculiar thing is that the story quoted absolutely no one — except, strangely enough, for Pope Francis, who as far as I know has nothing to do with the billboard campaign.

It was difficult to tell if the Times wrote the story on deadline and didn’t have time to quote any humans or if the newspaper simply didn’t see a need to expand beyond the reporter’s own wisdom.

Alas, conjecture words such as “if,” “perhaps” and “seems” dominated the source-free story, starting at the top:

If the evangelical organization Answers in Genesis was looking to take its message to a secular audience, it would be hard to do better than the heart of Times Square at noon on Monday.

Wedged amid an advertisement urging revelers to take a trip to Atlantic City, promotions for the new CBS drama “Hostages” and a promotion from Google was a 15-second video directed at New York City’s atheists.

“To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you’re wrong,” the digital billboard blared on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

As the lunchtime crowd passed by on the streets below, few gave it more than a passing glance, perhaps distracted by the frightening, blood-soaked photograph promoting the horror movie “Carrie” above the theater next door.

Or, perhaps, religious billboard battles between believers and nonbelievers just do not have the punch they once did.

My basic reaction to the story: Ho-hum, with a heavy dose of “So what?”

The only reason I even bring up the Times story is because CNN’s Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi took the same scenario and produced a meaty religion story — in large part because he actually quoted key figures such as the head of the Young Earth creationism group behind the billboard:

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, said the idea for the advertisements came from an atheist billboard in Times Square at Christmas.

During the holidays, the American Atheists put up a billboard with images of Santa Claus and Jesus that read: “Keep the Merry, dump the myth.”

“The Bible says to contend for the faith,” Ham said. “We thought we should come up with something that would make a statement in the culture, a bold statement, and direct them to our website.

“We’re not against them personally. We’re not trying to attack them personally, but we do believe they’re wrong,” he said.

“From an atheist’s perspective, they believe when they die, they cease to exist. And we say ‘no, you’re not going to cease to exist; you’re going to spend eternity with God or without God. And if you’re an atheist, you’re going to be spending it without God.’ “

And yes, Marrapodi quoted the other side, too:

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Guess which sin makes church discipline newsworthy?

Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.” The process for this practice was first outlined by a popular religious leader named Jesus and recorded in a book known as the Gospel of Matthew:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In modern times, being treated like an IRS Agent could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so if the person remains unrepentant the most extreme thing that can happen is their formal removal from church membership. If they do repent, though, then the church is commanded to comfort, forgive, and reaffirm their love for the person (2 Cor. 2:5-8).

The name for this practice is “church discipline.” A journalist – even one on the Godbeat – could go their whole career and not be aware that church discipline happens in the churches they report on. The matters are usually handled quietly and within the confines of the congregation. But a case of church discipline involving a family in Tennessee has received quite a bit of attention, with two stories and an op-ed in the local paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and a feature on CNN’s Belief Blog.

So what sin could make a case of church discipline newsworthy>

Oh, I think you know which one it’s going to be:

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