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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Economist, New York Times tailor pope to their notions

One of the fascinating things about Pope Francis is the apparent mad rush among mainstream media scribes to recast the Bishop of Rome in their image, particularly if the image is in any way left-leaning, or, at the least, non-rightward-facing. After the conservative Blessed John Paul II and the conservative Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Jose Maria Bergoglio is now positioned in some media quarters as the Vatican’s version of the Barack Obama of 2008: At last, pontifical “change we can believe in.”

The Economist‘s Erasmus blog, is not exactly a hotbed of Christian, or Catholic, fundamentalism. It recently focused on Pope Francis’ interview with the editor of Italy’s liberal La Repubblica daily, the “atheist journalist, Eugenio Scalfari,” who elicited from the pope some rather hard words about a Vatican “bubble” that may have enclosed previous occupants of the Chair of St. Peter:

It was striking for the warmth of the “small talk” in which the two men engaged (they gave each a metaphorical embrace over the telephone while arranging to meet) and also for the pope’s devastatingly insightful comments on the corrupting effects of power, especially clerical power. “Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” How true. This can also apply to prime ministers, head teachers, generals, perhaps even some newspaper editors (not the brilliant ones I’ve met, of course). But the pomp and circumstance of religious authority can be especially corrosive.

Nor, one might suggest, is the Roman Catholic Church the only ecclesiastical body where the top leader is, well, cosseted by praise and pomp while holding office, only to find themselves in a lonely place after a sudden departure. In the past 15 years, this writer has witnessed exactly that happen in two (very different) Christian organizations — one just a few months ago — and I’m guessing there are many similar stories elsewhere in religion-land. But I digress.

Ersasmus’ author, identified only as “B.C.” in a byline, moves beyond the “court” talk to zero in on something truly important to many wondering about where Pope Francis will lead his global flock:

The comment from Francis that upset religious traditionalists was this: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

The Economist then notes the discomfiture of Rod (Friend of this Blog) Dreher and others about what was an almost-universalist turn in Francis’ phrasing. On the contrary, Erasmus argues, we should view the pontiff’s words through the prism of the Pampas:

Yet the pope is not merely being fashionably modern (or post-modern) when he recognises integrity in people whose metaphysical views are different from his own, and detects dishonesty among people of the church. He is speaking out of his own experience of living through an urban guerrilla war and an exceptionally brutal dictatorship in his native Argentina. He hints at this in his exchanges with the editor, recalling his youthful encounter with a communist professor, later killed by the military. He didn’t accept her materialist world-view but he did respect her as a “courageous and honest” person. Doubtless he was also deeply disappointed by the clerics who fawned on the dictators.

But Erasmus appears to have forgetten that Francis isn’t a tweedy, pipe-puffing college professor or the proprietor of an ecclesiastical Algonquin Round Table. He is the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, and as such apparently feels the need to get as many people as possible to hear what he’s saying so that his message can reach out to them. Relatability seems to be Francis’ stock-in-trade, and, after whatever remoteness some perceived in Benedict, it’s not a bad thing.

There is, however, a difference between respecting the views of others and accepting those views as equal, or making a friendly remark about folks getting along into a vote for syncretism of some kind. It’s nice to “make the world a better place,” but nothing in Francis’ comments suggests that should be the end of the matter. If Scalifari didn’t press the point, the La Repubblica editor not only missed an opportunity, he also gave Erasmus (and others) leeway to pigeonhole Francis in a way the pope might not want to be classified.

A day earlier, Jim Dwyer of The New York Times, whose beat is interesting people stories, and not religion, played the “leprosy of the papacy” card in his “About New York” column about two nuns, Sister Camille D’Arienzo and Sister Helen Prejean, the latter of “Dead Man Walking” fame.

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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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To use or not to use: Journalists and the word ‘Islam’

Do you ever get the impression, when reading mainstream news stories, that some editors have created formal policies describing when reporters who cover terrorism stories can or cannot mention the words “Islam” or “Muslim”?

I understand what these journalists are trying to do. Their goal, in the post 9/11 world, is to make sure that news consumers understand that there is no ironclad, automatic connection between Islam and the actions of some Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their religion.

The problem is that trying to hide the religion ghosts in these stories often results in tone-deaf coverage that ignores the obvious. It’s like the editors are saying, “We know that you know what we are saying here, but we don’t want to say it and, besides, you know the facts so just read the facts into the story and everyone will feel better in the long run.”

Take, for example, this Washington Post story about the fear that stalks students at the American University of Afghanistan — especially female students — as the day nears when U.S. troops retreat and the Taliban almost certainly return to power.

What is the cause of this logical fear? Right up front, readers learn:

KABUL – It is easy to drive past the American University of Afghanistan, barricaded by blast walls and guard towers. There is no sign, no American flag, no emblem.

But those who slip through its nondescript door enter a tiny corner of this country that is unique, wondrous and heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Young men and women mingle freely, in contravention of the country’s conservative social norms. Some female students walk around unveiled, a break with custom that is unthinkable elsewhere in the country.

This long A1 news feature, literally, never mentions the words “Islam” or “Muslim.” Apparently there are scary generic “conservatives” in this blood-soaked land and then generic — what? — enlightened “progressives” or “secularists”?

Lost in the fog is the real issue addressed in the story, which is that millions of Muslims in Afghanistan hate what is happening inside the doors of this institution of higher learning and millions of other Muslims embrace the alternative worldview taught in these classrooms. What we have here is a clash between two different approaches to one of the world’s most powerful and important faith traditions and it’s hard to write about that reality without talking about the doctrines and traditions of Islam. It helps to talk about the obvious.

With that reality in mind, click here and read an early New York Times report about the latest bloodbath in the heavily Muslim northern half of Nigeria.

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The warning in the atheist pastor story

The New York Times today has a piece headlined “Minister Admits Overstating Her Credentials,” an update of sorts to the previous week’s fluffy profile of a mainline pastor (“After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission”) that began:

Nine days before Easter in 2012, the Rev. Teresa MacBain sent a letter to the congregants she had pastored for three years at a Methodist church in Tallahassee, Fla. For much of that time, she had preached the Gospel every Sunday, only to slip each Monday into tormented doubt.

GetReligion readers are familiar with this story, as it was big news back in 2012 when CNN, NPR and Religion News Service covered it. Last week the Times had this follow-up:

Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.

This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.

Gushy. So anyway, turns out the Harvard project won’t be going ahead with Ms. McBain:

A Methodist minister who resigned her pulpit last year after deciding that she was no longer a believer, and who was recently hired by a humanist group based at Harvard to help build congregations of nonbelievers throughout the country, has acknowledged fabricating aspects of her educational background.

The former minister, Teresa MacBain, whose crisis of faith was described in the On Religion column last Saturday, claimed she had earned a master of divinity degree from Duke University.

I think there are two items of journalistic interest in this news.

There’s the old editor’s adage about how if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. There’s a reason that we’re encouraged to be skeptical about — everything. But I don’t think that means reporters should be expected to call universities to verify degrees received. I would be particularly unlikely to check the veracity of obtaining a degree if the person had been hired at Harvard.

Although, it seems, Harvard was not doing its due diligence:

“Clearly we should have verified Teresa’s M.Div. degree rather than relying upon her résumé and the frequent, public references to it as she worked for and with several Freethought organizations.”

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Praying Jews flock to the Temple Mount; world notices

If there is a “Ground Zero” for the world’s three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it would be the Temple Mount, or “Haram Al-Sharif” (“Noble Sanctuary”) in the center of Jerusalem.

Jews revere it as the site of the First and Second Temples, wherein the “Holy of Holies” was contained. Christians revere the Temple as the place where Jesus walked and reasoned with the rabbis — as well as chastised the Pharisees and money changers. Muslims view the site as the the third holiest location in Islam, the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven.

Within the space of two days, two prestigious newspapers have covered the relatively recent phenomenon of more and more Jews, mostly Israelis, visiting the Temple Mount and praying, usually surreptitiously. Though captured by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” the Temple Mount was almost immediately returned to Muslim control, and Jews were advised not to visit.

No longer, says The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, both of whose Jerusalem correspondents have investigated. Both stories document the relatively quiet return of worshipping Jews to the site, the occasional protests of Muslims there, and the now-increasing warnings from local Islamic leaders that unless the Israeli government does something, matters could get out of hand.

From Jodi Rudoren at the Times:

For decades the Israelis drawn to the site were mainly a fringe of hard-core zealots, but now more mainstream Jews are lining up to enter, as a widening group of Israeli politicians and rabbis challenge the longstanding rules constraining Jewish access and conduct. Brides go on their wedding days, synagogue and religious-school groups make regular outings, and many surreptitiously skirt the ban on non-Muslim prayer, like a Russian immigrant who daily recites the morning liturgy in his mind, as he did decades ago in the Soviet Union.

Palestinian leaders say the new activity has created the worst tension in memory around the landmark Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and have called on Muslims to defend the site from “incursions.” A spate of stone-throwing clashes erupted this month: on Wednesday, three Muslims were arrested and an Israeli police officer wounded in the face. And on Friday thousands of Arab citizens of Israel rallied in the north, warning that Al Aksa is in danger.

“We reject these religious visits,” Sheik Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, said in an interview. “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aksa.”

Writing for the Monitor, Crista Case Bryant reports:

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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Closer to God than all the diagrams in the world

An obituary of Father Robert F. Capon in the New York Times? Sounds great. It begins:

Robert F. Capon, an Episcopal priest, author, theologian and food writer best known for “The Supper of the Lamb,” a sui generis book about cooking and metaphysics that has remained in print almost continuously since it was first published in 1969, died on Sept. 5 in Greenport, N.Y. He was 87…

Mr. Capon, who lived for many years on nearby Shelter Island, wrote 27 books from 1965 to 2004, most of them works of theology or New Testament interpretation that gave voice to a passionate, entertaining and sometimes unorthodox view of Christian teachings.

In books like “The Third Peacock: The Goodness of God and the Badness of the World” (1971) and “Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace” (1996), Mr. Capon (pronounced KAY-pun) dismissed most forms of conspicuous religious piety, construed the Gospels as a radical manifesto for freedom, and for better or worse championed what he called “the astonishing oddness of the world.”

It’s a great beginning, but I fear that the obituary focused on the food writing at the expense of some of these deep theological concepts. In my mind the two were woven more closely together. Take this passage that the Times quoted:

The onion passage became a favorite of readers. Before explicating a lamb recipe, Mr. Capon instructs readers to set the lamb shank aside and first spend some time with an onion — an onion they will cut into pieces for sautéing. “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are,” he writes. “Savor that for a moment.”

Noting that “an onion is not a sphere in repose” but “a linear thing, a bloom of vectors thrusting upward from base to tip,” he invites his readers to recognize their little onion “as the paradigm of life that it is — as one member of the vast living, gravity-defying troop that, across the face of the earth, moves light- and air-ward as long as the world lasts.”

But it leaves out the line “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

I think this passage Rod Dreher quoted at the time of Capon’s death is worth noting. It’s a benediction from the end of the Supper of the Lamb chapter about how to stage a dinner party:

I wish you well. May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys. And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its won. May you relish them indeed. May we all sit long enough for reserved to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.

We are great, my friend; we shall not be saved for trampling that greatness under foot. Ecce tu pulcher es, dilecte mi, et decorus. Lectulus noster floridus. Tigna domorum nostrarum cedrina, laquearia nostra cypressina. Ecce iste venit, saliens in montibus, transilens colles. [Behold, you are beautiful, my love, and fair. Our bed is blooming. The beams of our house are cedar, the ceiling is cypress. Behold, he is coming, leaping over the mountains, jumping across the hills. (From the Song of Solomon) -- RD]

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