GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own

You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too.

It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.

The Q&A-style interview, on Syracuse.com, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.

Coyne also gives a “snappy interview,” in Stagg’s words. We’re treated to inside info such as:

* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.

* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.

* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.

Why was the interview “mostly” excellent, then? Because of a “major ghost”spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:

I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.

“The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes ‘intelligent design,’ which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form,” Stagg writes. “What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of “creationism,” which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article.”

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10 years of GetReligion: Labels, labels, labels, labels!

It is my understanding that there was some kind of Jerry Springer-esque debate last night between young-earth creationist Ken (hello dinosaurs) Ham and Bill (The Science Guy) Nye.

Let me state up front that I am not terribly interested in what either man had to say.

However, I am curious to know if any of the thousands of religion-beat pros who live and move and have their being on Twitter can answer the following questions:

(1) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “creationist” defined? Did the definition involve six 24-hour days or was the emphasis on God being meaningfully involved in creation, period?

(2) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “evolution” defined? If so, was the process described as being “mindless, unguided, and without purpose or goal” or words to that effect?

Also, was anyone involved in the debate whose viewpoint resembles the following?

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations.”

And also:

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

These words, of course, were spoken by the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Which simplistic term commonly used in mainstream articles about these debates — “creationism” or “evolution” — is best used to describe this soon-to-be-official saint’s perspective on God, man and creation? Which label, as commonly used by way too many journalists, deserves to be stuck on the forehead of John Paul the Great?

If there is one thing that your GetReligionistas do not like, at all, it is the degree to which the mainstream press accepts the use of vague, simplistic labels. Want to imply that you accept someone? Then call them a “moderate” (like that crucial New York Times self study noted). Want to imply that someone is stupid? Then you know what F-word to pin on them.

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All the experts say evolution story lacks WHAT!?

Define terms.

Identify sources.

The best journalism recognizes the importance of doing both — particularly on complicated and controversial subject matters.

On the other hand, the Austin American-Statesman embraces neither concept in a news story reporting that “critics” say students are being taught creationism in two public high schools.

Let’s start at the top:

A charter-school operator with contracts to teach at two Austin high schools has come under fire for questioning evolution in its science curriculum — the latest in a long line of clashes over Christianity in Texas classrooms.

Advocates for the separation of church and state say that Responsive Education Solutions — one of the state’s largest charter operators, which the Austin school district partners with at Lanier and Travis high schools — is pushing creationism.

For example, the biology curriculum, obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, says: “Many leading scientists are questioning the mechanisms of evolution and are disputing the long timeline required for evolutionary processes.”

Experts say that is untrue. What’s more, they say, discrediting evolution invites students to consider creationism as an alternative.

The latest in a long line of clashes over Christianity in Texas classrooms. What clashes are we talking about? The story never elaborates.

Advocates for the separation of church and state. Who are these critics making these allegations? The newspaper never names them.

Pushing creationism. In the context of this story, how would “creationism” be defined? Are we talking about “Young Earth creationism” or “Old Earth creationism?” Are we talking about intelligent design?

Experts say that is untrue. One biology professor — presumably an expert — is quoted later in the story. Would “an expert says that is untrue” be more accurate? Or are there other experts who aren’t named? And would any “experts” disagree? (Even better, maybe the story should establish named sources as “experts” rather than crown them as such?)

Later in this story, there’s this:

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NPR stumbles on GOP and Darwinian orthodoxy

Here’s a shocker, but not really. More Democrats than Republicans believe in evolution, or so says a survey from the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says:

…six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that ‘humans and other living things have evolved over time,’ while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

The predictable party gap seems of interest to many, though mostly political pundits.

National Public Radio is not content to leave speculation to mere political bloviators, however, and trumpets the change in party affiliation of creationists as a major political issue:

A new national survey showing that the share of Republicans who believe in evolution has tumbled from 54 to 43 percent over the past four years comes at an inopportune time.

The Pew Research poll suggests that the GOP, already struggling with an identity crisis and facing ferocious internal battles, is out of sync on the issue with independents and young voters, who are far more likely to believe in the science of evolution than their forebears.

NPR raises what it considers the key question:

But just how politically significant is the finding, which shows that the evolution belief gap between Republicans and Democrats has since 2009 grown from 10 percentage points to 24 points?

Now there are all sorts of interesting — and interested — people who could address the topic. People who are experienced in science and theology, or people who hold informed opinions about evolution or creationism. Instead, the first “expert” sought out by NPR is a political consultant, albeit a Republican one:

For Republican strategists like Whit Ayres, however, the evolution results are politically insignificant. More than anything, he says, it reflects the trend of both parties gravitating toward their more extreme wings, which, in the GOP, includes evangelical Christians. He argues that it is unlikely to define the GOP negatively or otherwise in any sustaining way.

“It’s not a particularly surprising result, especially if you follow Gallup data on how Americans interpret the Bible,” says Ayres, of North Star Opinion Research. “There’s a significant minority of Americans who believe that the Bible is the actual true word of God.”

Apart from a grammatical flaw that always annoys me — did they really talk to Ayres or someone “like” him? — why is his view on how many Americans believe “the Bible is the actual true word of God” more useful than that of Randall Balmer or George Barna or someone else who “gets” debates about doctrine and science?

NPR does link to the Gallup numbers, but again, is there another, better voice? If so, you won’t find it here.

And what about the “political” implications of this interesting and crucial passage?

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NYTimes reverts to using vague labels in Texas science war

It’s time for a GetReligion post linked to press coverage of biology, textbooks, God and Texas. Before I jump into the fine details, I’d like to make two observations.

First of all, since my goal is to discuss a story in The New York Times, it is important to note that stories about this topic fall under former editor Bill Keller’s proclamation that the world’s most powerful newspaper no longer feels obligated to offer balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides of moral, cultural and religious issues. You may recall that, two years ago, Keller was asked if his newsroom slanted news to the left.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.” …

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

My second preliminary statement is this: I’ve been following press coverage of debates about religion and science for 40 years and my primary journalistic observation remains the same. I think the committee that produces the Associated Press Stylebook needs to urge mainstream journalists to be more careful when using the words “evolution” and “creationism.” Each of those terms has a half dozen or so finely tuned definitions, depending on who is using them at any given moment.

For example, a person who accepts a creation narrative with a “young earth” and a timeline with seven 24-hour days will certainly embrace the creationist label. But what about a person who believes that creation unfolded over billions of years, involved slow change over time, a common tree of descent for species and ages of micro-evolutionary change?

Similar things happen with the term evolution, which as the Blessed Pope John Paul II once observed, is best discussed in terms of different schools of evolutionary thought, some of which are compatible with Christian faith and some of which are not (addressing those who believe that man was the product of a process that did not have Him in mind).

The word “evolutionist” certainly applies to someone who believes life emerged from a natural, materialistic, random process that was without design or purpose. But what about someone who accepts that theory on the biological front, but believes that there is scientific evidence that our universe was finely tuned to produce life? What about someone who says that creation contains evidence best thought of as the signature of its creator (Carl Sagan, for example). What about people who insist they are doctrinaire Darwinists, but still see cracks in the old neo-Darwinian creeds? Are “theistic evolutionists” really believers in “evolution” in the eyes of the truly secular academic powers that be? And so forth and so on.

This brings us to the recent Times piece about the ongoing textbook battles in the Lone Star state.

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When Obama didn’t ‘presume to know’ Creation details

Yesterday I wrote a jeremiad against the media’s curiously inconsistent approach to science. The hook was the media outrage over Sen. Marco Rubio’s comments (in the middle of a fluffy GQ interview about rap music) equivocating on the age of the earth.

I didn’t have a beef with the question so much as the larger media context, where only certain people are asked science questions.

Over at National Review, I began reading a piece that begins with a telling of a Hindu creation story. Reporter Dan Foster discusses some of the questions he has about it, and adds:

I’m sure practicing Hindus have views on this and other matters of their faith, and an enterprising reporter might have asked a prominent Hindu — say Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii), the first to be elected to Congress — about hers. But near as I can tell, nobody has. Sure, it was widely noted as a source of pluralist pride that Representative Gabbard would be sworn in on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and presumably Gabbard’s connection to that book is sufficient to ground its use in underwriting her sacred oath, but nobody thought to query her about how she understood and related to the truths contained in it.

He brings up the different standard for Rubio and notes that some critics think the question was silly:

But a better question might be, why wasn’t Gabbard asked it? Or President Obama, or Senator Harry Reid or Representative Keith Ellison? After all, Gabbard’s espoused Hinduism, like Obama’s espoused Christianity or Ellison’s espoused Islam or Harry Reid’s espoused Mormonism, entails a range of commitments to claims that are, prima facie, at odds with the empirical record. But there isn’t a cottage industry in interrogating Democrats on their faith the way there is with religious conservatives.

Except that Obama has been asked the question! Really! It wasn’t from the media, of course, but it happened none-the-less. I want us to consider the media reaction to President Obama’s statement versus the media meltdown and prominent coverage given to Rubio’s.

First, though, let’s look at what President Obama said, as reported this week by Slate in a piece headlined, “Who Said It: Marco Rubio or Barack Obama? Willful ignorance of science is a bipartisan value“:

And here’s then-Sen. Obama, D-Ill., speaking at the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. on April 13, 2008:

Q: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you—and maybe they already have—“Daddy, did god really create the world in 6 days?,” what would you say?

A: What I’ve said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it … it may not be 24-hour days, and that’s what I believe. I know there’s always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don’t, and I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part. My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live—that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible: That, I don’t presume to know.

And the response to these statements? Was it the same as the response to Rubio’s? You know the answer.

Galaxy image via Shutterstock.