Porn no more: Secular students inviting religious discussion

Gone is the “low-hanging fruit” of years past when the media converged on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus each year to produce titillating stories on students exchanging Bibles and Qurans for porn.

The annual “Smut for Smut” event is no more. In its place are kinder, gentler atheists, in the form of the Secular Student Alliance. The group says it wants conversation, not provocation, and will not revert to its old ways.

Replacing the saucier stories and the reporters behind them is San Antonio Express-News Godbeat pro Abe Levy. He revisited the topic for a Sunday piece on a topic that has gained a lot of headlines — much of them sensational – in recent years.

Kudos to the Express-News for telling a real news story as opposed to the tabloid stuff. Three years ago, that wasn’t exactly the case. From this week’s story:
But times have changed.

This semester, Atheist Agenda renamed itself the Secular Student Alliance, one of 402 groups affiliated with an Ohio-based umbrella organization of the same name. The makeover underscores a national trend in which secular humanist groups have been dropping edgy, insult-minded strategies for more welcoming ones.

The change wasn’t just conscience-based, however. The story quotes one former member who said the old approach would entice people to the group’s meetings only to turn them off.

The strategy is now paying off for the Secular Student Alliance, apparently:

Meetings now attract people of diverse interests, including those affiliated with a religion but seeking a place to question or doubt without conditions, leaders said.

The new group is awaiting approval as a registered UTSA student organization. But weekly recruiting efforts already reflect a kinder bunch of people.

At a small table in the central campus this week, they passed out fliers challenging the ideologies of major world religions. Alliance president Charles Duncan smiled pleasantly and, in an even-handed tone, spoke of how science and reason was a suitable basis for human charity.

“We’re out here just promoting the values of humanism. You can be moral in the absence of religion,” said Duncan, 24, who in 1997 prayed for Christian salvation during a Billy Graham sermon at the Alamodome and officially came out as an atheist two years ago. “Our goal now is to, instead of inciting hostility, we want to engage in civil dialogue.”

Since we’re going there, the story could have been improved with some input from religious folks. This section at the end offered a perfect opportunity:

Forgetting the kippah or crucifix (and the second why)

All-nighters and Domino’s Pizza at the student newspaper. X-acto knives and 2-point tape. The smell of chemicals processing the film. The five Ws and the H.

Good times, folks. Good times.

What journalists among us can forget our introductory class, whatever it was creatively named by the institution of our choice? One of the first quizzes I remember taking at my alma matter covered the basics of good, solid reporting. And those fundamentals included (say it with me): Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

As our loyal followers know, one of our mantras is to stress this foundation and its importance from a religious standpoint. Of course, just as multiple Whos can be involved in a report, so can multiple Whys.

Why am I stressing the basics? Because The Associated Press didn’t. And the absence of a second Why in this AP story from earlier this month on a proposed move by the Quebec government to ban employees in the public sector from wearing religious headwear and neckwear glares at me from my computer screen.

From the top:

MONTREAL – Viewed from the outside, Quebec often seems like a place where all life orbits around the political destiny of a French-speaking province in an English-speaking country.

The latest instance centers on religious headwear. The trigger is a heatedly debated plan by the ruling party, the separatist Parti Quebecois, to make the provincial government religion-neutral.

It wants to do so by banning symbols of religious faith such as Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, Muslim head scarves and large crucifixes from public workplaces. And as usual, the measure is being read also for what it says about the ruling party’s perennial goal of making Quebec independent of the rest of Canada.

The analysis is that with support for separatism weakened, and an election being predicted for December, something spectacular is needed to rally the party base. But the proposal appears to be losing support with that base, and if anyone is being mobilized, it’s the opposition.

In recent weeks Montreal has witnessed the rare spectacle of thousands of protesting Muslims, Jews and Sikhs marching together through the streets.

“I just want to be able to wear what I want; I don’t see why any one can tell me what to put on my head,” Saara Khan, a Montreal Muslim high schooler who wears a head scarf, said at a recent protest.

But why, Saara Khan? Why do you want the religious freedom to wear your head scarf at school?

AP assumes we know the importance of the religious headware. Another thing I learned in that freshman journalism class is what happens when we assume. Ahem.

The full answer is easily available. As author Shabana Mir, assistant professor in social foundations and qualitative research at Oklahoma State University, puts it: “The list … shows that the Muslim headscarf is capable of a number of meanings, many of which are rather more mundane and less dramatic than outsiders might imagine.”

And of course I can’t expect valuable ink to be spent on all 17 reasons. But how about a primer?

Another source for the story represented the Jewish faith:

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An Army (trend) of one (or maybe two)

There’s an old journalism joke that goes, “Q: How do journalists count? A: One, two, trend.”

You can tell the joke is old since it implies that it takes at least three examples for a journalist to declare a “trend” and to write an article about it.

In the Twitter age, journalists who wait ’til they find three examples will get scooped, whatever that word means these days, which is why we now have trend stories based on a single-data point or worse.

A prime example is the Associated Press “Big Story” feature that ran with the headline, “Soldier Says She Faced Harassment Over Muslim Name.”

Sgt. 1st Class Naida Hosan is not a Muslim — she’s a Catholic. But her name sounded Islamic to fellow U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and they would taunt her, calling her “Sgt. Hussein” and asking what God she prayed to.

So before deploying to Afghanistan last year for her second war tour, she legally changed her name — to Naida Christian Nova.

This did not solve her problems.

Before we can get to the trend in the story, let’s talk about that headline and second sentence.

What exactly is a Muslim name? And what types of names sound “Islamic?” Some names certainly have religious connotations. If someone is named Christian that would certainly sound like a Christian name. Similarly, if a man is named Mohammed their name might sound “Islamic.” But Hussein is a relatively common Arabic name meaning “good,” “handsome” or “beautiful.”

Thus, there are Christians throughout the world named Hussein, including Barack Hussein Obama. Does the AP think the president’s name is Muslim and “sounds Islamic?”

The “Muslim name” angle is the necessary for the article, though, since it serves to establish the implied trend that members of the military are being discriminated against for having names that sound Islamic (i.e., a name that would be common in Arab cultures). The AP has stumbled upon a potentially significant religious story.

But if such harassment is occuring, why didn’t the AP make the effort to find Muslim soldiers with Arabic names who can verify the discrimination? Instead, their sole confirmation of extreme anti-Muslim bias is the biased anti-Christian activist Mikey Weinstein:

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