A plea for gay, er, atheist rights

Those poor atheists. They have to keep their heads down in repressive American society. They have to watch their words, hide their feelings, guard their secret. Very much like gays, that other major repressed American group.

This is the setup in a feature story in The Telegraph about the state of unbelief in the U.S. The story even starts with a heavy-handed scene-setter of a furtive club meeting:

Going around the circle, each member shares their story and says whether or not they are “out” of the closet.

But while they use the lexicon of the gay and lesbian movement they are not speaking of their sexuality: they are not gay or lesbian, but atheist and agnostic.

It should be noted that the article is based on interviews with secularist students at Virginia Tech, in a conservative area of the state — a “fiercely Bible-minded corner,” in the reporter’s colorful phrase — that’s also home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. So the writer, Peter Foster, has easy access to those at both poles. And like most who approach the topic, he doesn’t bother with shades of gray.

We get anecdotes of youths who feel they can’t reveal their beliefs for fear of ostracism, by friends, families and possible employers. The reporter even uses the device of “Caroline — not her real name…”

“I’m more concerned about getting a job than losing one,” she said. “I know they Google you and while I can’t hide my atheism, I don’t really want to advertise it.

“If the person hiring is a person of faith — which is more likely than not around here — that could easily be the difference between a job and no job. And I have student loans. I need a job.”

She is not alone in her fears. Another student who is applying for graduate school told how his father recommended he delete any references to atheism from his Facebook page in case it spoiled his chances. He rejected the advice on principle, but remains unsure what the consequences will be.

You can probably already see the weak spot in this story: actual instances of discrimination. Yes, the unbelievers fear rejection by parents and employers. Yes, they worry they might be kicked out of clubs and other organizations. How often does it happen? About all we get is a graduate student who says, “I’ve lost a lot of friends.”

Without concrete examples, this is all worse than anecdotal: It’s pure speculation. But Foster does attempt some contexting, though clumsily.

“As a sign of how strong religion remains, polls show that a third of Americans still believe in the most literal form of ‘young earth’ Creationism,” he says, blithely forgetting the millions of Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants who accept evolution.

He also quotes Dan Linford, the president of the Virginia Tech freethinkers. Linford says many youths shun “institutional” religion because they identify it with the religious right. Kinda like Foster himself.

He finally gets around to some opposition time via Johnnie Moore, an officer at Liberty University, who says says Liberty has a record 13,000 students. Moore argues that atheists aren’t more numerous, just louder.

“From our perspective, we don’t feel like we’re a dying breed, we feel like we’re on a crest of a wave,” Moore tells Foster.

The reporter tries to blunt this by tapping that Pew Forum study that showed a third of young Americans claim no religious affiliation. Then he tries another spurious connection with gay advocacy:

[Read more...]

A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

YouTube Preview Image

It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

[Read more...]

Why atheists who pray should still be called atheists

What do you call someone who reads the Bible, attends church, prays daily, and believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, and life after death? Sometimes you call them “atheists.”

A reporter on the crime beat has clear-cut criteria for distinguishing between criminals and police. Likewise political journalists can typically rely on their readers understanding what they mean when they describe someone as being a Republican or Democrat. But religion reporters have a more difficult task when it comes to using labels.

Religious labels are intended to be prescriptive, a form of shorthand that provides a general overview of a person’s beliefs. If I say that someone is a Presbyterian it not only tells you what denomination they belong to, but implies that a number of other labels could apply as well (Christian, theist, etc.).

How then do reporters decide how to use religious labels? I think there are two helpful rule of thumbs. The first is to rely on a person’s self-description: Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not. This may seems obvious, but it’s a principle that is all-too-frequently violated. For instance, earlier this week I noted that Jeff Chu, who attends a church in a mainline denomination, was described by the AP as an “evangelical,” even though he says, “I don’t think I’d claim that label” and the reporter never contacted him to find out what he believed.

The second rule is that when other members of a religious group would dispute the self-identification, quote a source that puts the controversy in perspective. For example, a current dispute in Christian mission circles is whether someone who coverts from Islam to Christianity can continue to self-identify as Muslim.

As a religious matter it may seem clear: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet and Islam does not consider Jesus to be God. Ergo, the label Muslim does not apply to Christian converts. But in many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the term “Muslim” has broader cultural implications and not using it can be as controversial as converting to Christianity. A reporter should therefore allow a Christian covert to refer to themselves as Muslim but, for the sake of clarity, also quote a source that explains why others – both Christian and Muslim – might consider it inappropriate.

An excellent example of these principles in practice is Michelle Boorstein’s recent feature in the Washington Post on how “Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer.” Boorstein’s article begins by quoting a self-identified atheist who prays to an image of a 15-foot-tall goddess he named “Ms. X” after Malcolm X.

[Read more...]

That stark divide in Catholics in America and on high court

Shortly before Barack Obama reached the White House, pollster John C. Green of the University of Akron visited the classroom here at the Washington Journalism Center to meet with a circle of mainstream journalists from around the world. At one point during his presentation, he created a chart detailing the changing landscape of religion in contemporary America.

The key was that a solid belt of religious believers — something like 20 percent or so — remained on the cultural right, people who could be identified in a number of ways — but primarily by the fact that they actively practiced more traditional forms of religious faith. Worship attendance was one key statistic.

On the cultural left, a fascinating coalition was emerging that was about the same size as the one on the right. This camp — roughly 20 percent or so — consisted of a growing number of people who were openly agnostic or atheist or who were — this was the emerging trend — the so-called “nones,” vaguely spiritual people with no ties to religious bodies.

These religiously unaffiliated Americans were natural allies, on social and moral issues, with liberal believers and the larger numbers of ordinary people who claimed religious ties, but rarely took part in worship. That’s the sea of vaguely spiritual folks in the middle of our national life that I often refer to as “Oprah America.”

The growth on the moral, cultural and religious left was highly significant, said Green. It was also very important to know that the vaguely religious landscape in the middle was changing, with the movement in the direction of a moderated cultural liberalism, rooted in radical individualism.

All of this information, and more, would hit the headlines — with Green as a major voice in the presentations — through the landmark Pew Forum “nones” study (click here for .pdf) released in the fall of 2012.

I bring it up to note another one of the fine details in the data in a related Pew Forum study, a detail that certainly appears to be linked to a religion ghost in today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Green had noted that it is impossible to discuss any of today hot-button social and moral issues — gay rights in particular — without noting the changes sweeping through the ranks of white Catholics, especially those who rarely attend Mass. The frequent Mass attenders tended to remain loyal to Catholic beliefs. Those who rarely attended Mass? No way.

As noted in a 2010 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

White mainline Protestants and white Catholics have become more supportive of gay marriage, though virtually all of the change in opinion among both groups has come among those who attend services relatively infrequently.

About half (49%) of white mainline Protestants support same-sex marriage while 38% oppose this. This is a reversal of opinion from the past two years when 40% favored and 49% opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Just 35% of white mainline Protestants who attend church at least once a week favor same-sex marriage, nearly the same percentage as in 2008-2009 (34%). Among those who attend services less often, support has increased by 11 points (from 42% to 53%).

There has been a similar shift among white Catholics — 49% now favor same-sex marriage while 41% are opposed. Opinion was more evenly divided over the past two years (44% favor, 45% oppose). Here too, support has increased among those who attend services less than weekly, from 51% in 2008-2009 to 59% in 2010.

And what about that powerful circle of American Catholics involved in the U.S. Supreme Court decision?

[Read more...]

Godless congregations copying Christian churches

Every year, approximately 4,000 new churches are started in the U.S. Out of that number, approximately 4,000 will receive no attention from the New York Times. So what makes Jerry DeWitt’s new church – located in a Hilton Hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – worthy of a feature in America’s greatest newspaper?

Perhaps it’s because DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher, had the marketing savvy to bill his church launch as “Louisiana’s first atheist service.”

It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.

Atheist “churches” are a hot new trend and worthy of broader news coverage. But there is something about this story that strikes me as peculiar. See if you notice anything strange about this sentence:

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.

The general newspaper reader will likely pass over that sentence without giving it a second thought. But for a journalist – particular one writing a feature for the New York Times – that should be a signal to start asking more questions. For example, the first query that comes to mind is, “If you are starting a new church in Lake Charles, why hold the first service in a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge – a two hour drive from where your chapel will be located?”

[Read more...]

Winners and losers in our do-it-yourself religion era

No one on the national religion-news scenes writes with more vigor and enthusiasm about America’s sharp turn away from religious doctrine and traditional religious institutions than veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today. Her journalistic glee is completely justified, in my opinion, because this is one of the most important religion-beat stories of our age, especially on the religious left.

On one level, her latest piece on this topic — the headline is “Relationships are the new religion for many” — is best seen as part of the wave of mainstream coverage following the “Nones on the Rise” survey about the surging number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, research that grew out of a partnership between the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Toss in new research numbers from a number of other sources, such as the LifeWay team linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, and you have yet another chapter in the important story of do-it-yourself spirituality in postmodern America. The holy days hook at the top of the story, fleshed out with some name-specific anecdotes, is perfectly natural:

Emily Hilliard will cook a festive brunch with friends on Easter Sunday. But none in her Washington, D.C., social circle of foodies, folklorists and fiddlers will go to church that day.

In Denver, Ambra Vibran will enjoy an Italian feast with cousins that Sunday. But she says, “My spiritual life is in hiking, skiing, kayaking and enjoying God’s creation.” It’s a stretch to recall when Vibran last went to church.

Eleanor Drey plans a Jewish traditional meal where family and friends will talk about freedom. But it won’t be on Passover, Monday night this year. Folks are tied up with their kids’ spring vacations. They’ll gather at Drey’s San Francisco home in April instead.

The new data kicks in at the summary paragraph, where the line between the religiously devout and the new American normal is made quite clear. This is long, but you need to read it in order to get Grossman’s main point:

This week, most Americans will celebrate essential stories of Christianity and Judaism: God freeing the enslaved is a key Passover theme. Easter’s core is Jesus’ resurrection, offering a doorway to salvation.

But many will celebrate with a twist. While 73% of Americans call themselves Christian, only 41% say they plan to attend Easter worship services, according to a March 13 survey of 1,060 U.S. adults by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research agency. Passover is a home-centered celebration, but it’s not known how many Jews plan to recite the prayers and serve symbolic foods at their Seder meal.

In the gap between faith and practice are millions of people who will delight in Easter and Passover as “holidays,” not “holy days.” They’re just as Christian, just as Jewish, in their own eyes as people who follow traditional scripts — church on Sunday before carving the ham or the Seder rituals before slurping the matzoh ball soup. They’ve simply redefined their spirituality to center on the people at the table — shared time, shared values with their nearest-and-dearest.

“Relationships have replaced religion for many Millennials,” says Esther Fleece, who spent three years specializing in outreach to young adult Christians for the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

Now, the only part of that I would question is Grossman’s summary judgment that these believers consider themselves “just as Christian, just as Jewish” as traditional believers. To be more specific, the only words in that summary that I want to question are “just as” — as opposed to millions of Americans still calling themselves Christian or Jewish, but then turning around and saying, something like “but I choose not to sit in a pew” like those who are still affiliated with traditional religious institutions.

They consider themselves “just as” Christian, “just as” Jewish as the orthodox? I’m reading the same surveys, but I don’t see that judgment in the numbers — although it’s in a few of the anecdotes. I see numbers suggesting that the unaffiliated people are saying, “but I still consider myself Christian” or “I still consider myself Jewish.”

So here is the key question. How does one interpret the personal identity being articulated in the following quote:

[Read more...]

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?

Not all ‘nones’ are atheists

In England and Wales, there were 37.3 million Christians in 2001, representing 72 percent of the population. In the most recent census (2011), that had dropped to 33.2 million or 59 percent of the population.

Religion News Service had a brief story about this that included these graphs:

Figures from the 2011 Census show the number of people declaring themselves to be atheists rose by more than 6 million, to 14.1 million.

“It should serve as a warning to the churches that their increasingly conservative attitudes are not playing well with the public at large,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. “It also calls into question the continued establishment of the Church of England, whose claims to speak for the whole nation are now very hard to take seriously.”

However, those statistics are not right.

As reported in The Telegraph:

The number of people specifically identifying as Atheists was 29,267, while over 13.8 million refused to identify with a faith at all, ticking the “No religion” box on the census form.

While reporting no religion might sound similar to atheism, there is no way for journalists to know if respondents are atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated or otherwise.

But there is a big difference between 29,267 reporting atheism and 14.1 million. For more on the rise of the nones, check out The Friendly Atheist’s blog post here.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X