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When Journalism Collides with Faith

by Lewis Vaughn


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 3.


Conspiracy theorists and paranoids like to posit the existence of forces in society that are both omnipresent and unseen. Such powers are supposed to be as mighty as gravity, pulling people into some dark, silent orbit. Yet no one ever seems to notice the slightest gravitational tug or-rarest of all-ever questions the desirability of the tugging. 

All nuttiness aside, what gives me the willies about such fairy tales is that last part-the lack of a questioning, critical response to something that affects virtually everything that matters. This is the bad dream that free persons fear. It is the nightmare that a democracy is supposed to avoid. The forces that impel the citizenry are supposed to be visible. The bright beams of the Fourth Estate are supposed to help expose the covert powers so they can be weighed, debated, and directed. 

Reality bites. In the real world, the nightmare of massive, unquestioned influence is real. One manifestation consists of the Fourth Estate simply ignoring—deliberately or otherwise—powerful, pervasive forces in public life while seeming to be preoccupied with them. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of religion, the grand gravitational force of minds and morals. 

To be sure, there is a great deal of coverage of religious themes-the religious scandal ("Large Numbers of Priests Have AIDS"), the holy conflict ("Christians Attack Muslims in East Timor"), the grand pageant ("Pope Blesses Thousands in Jerusalem"), the Good Samaritan ("Local Churches Aid Flood Victims"), the demographics ("Mainstream Protestants Lose Members"), and the dance of science and faith ("Cosmologist Says Universe Has Divine Pattern"). But almost all of this coverage misses the point: It avoids serious discussion of what nearly everyone regards as the vital cognitive core of religion-the doctrinal beliefs. 

Beliefs have consequences, as religious conservatives like to say. And religious beliefs are at least as consequential as those in politics, science, and social policy. Beliefs in all of these realms affect the quality of people's lives. So examining the underpinnings of beloved propositions is not just useful but necessary for any society that cares where it is going. Most people accept the legitimacy of journalistic inquiry into whether the program pushed by a politician is feasible, or if a major cancer study is credible, or if a policy designed to deter teen pregnancy works. But imagine the outcry if an honest, impartial journalist seriously asks whether a religious truth claim-a doctrinal or historical one that may affect millions of lives-is justified. In America, where the sea of faith washes in the streets (unlike Europe, for example, where such waters have long since receded), probing questions about religious propositions are taboo-and way below the radar of most journalists and the citizens they serve. 

This, despite the obvious fact that, for people of faith, the hallowed, life-guiding beliefs matter at least as much as religious experience. For the faithful, all the other religious news-the little dramas of faith's advance and retreat, of scandal and healing-have meaning only when they happen in the shadow of a sacred creed.

I am not suggesting that we need a more overt kind of journalistic faith-bashing, in which one partisan slams another's sacred beliefs because they are different. A few centuries of this type of bigotry is enough. And I am not referring to the "It is so!" "It is not!" style of religious "debate" that is as pointless as it is frustrating. 

I am advocating a new kind of religion journalism, one in which the journalist follows wherever the scholarship leads, striving for the ideal of objectivity and fairness while reporting on the best thinking by the best scholars on every significant religious proposition. Like good science writers, these religion journalists would not only report the news but offer an assessment of what the experts know and don't know given the evidence at hand. This approach could prove enlightening, in part because there is wide agreement among theologians, philosophers, and other scholars on many religious claims, and even a lack of agreement among honest inquirers can be more telling than many will admit. 

Am I kidding? Am I naïve enough to think that religion can be tested by reason and reality as though it were astrophysics or Medicaid? After all, the received wisdom (among the public as well as most religion journalists) is that religion, influential or not, is essentially subjective, personal, and experiential. It is a secretive wisp of something that cannot-and should not-be rationally assessed at all. 

Most philosophers and Christian theologians would disagree, as Thomas Aquinas did, asserting that reason can reveal truths about things theological without any help from revelation or faith. One would think that after hundreds of years of being wrong about facts acquired through reason and science (like evolution, racial equality, modern medicine, and the heliocentric view of the solar system), believers would be loathe to reject rational arguments that contradict their faith. Better to respect appeals to reason than to fight them. Otherwise one might end up having to apologize for dogma-inspired errors, as the pope did recently. If religion journalists assume that no headway can be made by critical reasoning against the tenets of faith, I suggest that they peek into a few contemporary journals in the field where intellectual progress is made in every issue. 

Then again, some religion journalists may be painfully aware of the criticism of religious claims by scholars but dare not speak of it for fear of offending the people in the pews. Or they may assume that, if the intellectuals are out of step with the mass of believers, the intellectuals must be wrong. This is the kind of prejudice that lifted the cup of hemlock to Socrates' lips. 

Others would say that, if this new critical journalism is not epistemologically suspect, it is at least bad manners, corrosive bias, or even a hate crime. My, how far we have slid down the dark hole of political correctness, where criticism of ideas is a sin, and any query about the justification of dogma is viewed as an attack. 

I recently met with several brave people who have seen firsthand what happens when this fear of inquiry is taken to its logical conclusion. They are Islamic dissidents who have criticized certain tenets of Islam for encouraging abuses of human rights, oppression of women, and violence against critics. In Islam, they are blasphemers or apostates. Some of them have been forced into exile; some are living under a fatwa (a sacred way to order a hit); all have suffered for daring to speak their minds. By speaking against what they think are religiously inspired moral outrages, they have offended people of faith. Should they be silent so as not to give offense? To assume so is itself a moral outrage.

Such widespread aversion to legitimate criticism of religious tenets makes the paranoid's case for him. Society is indeed permeated by a potent force that pulls everyone into a different path but is almost never called to account, and then only in hushed tones. 

But publicly criticizing the articles of someone's faith is divisive, many would say. So is honest scholarship, public debate, and informed disagreement. They are all necessary to democracy and moral progress. 

Perhaps one day journalists will regularly offer balanced reports on the historical accuracy of the Bible or the Koran, or on the logical inconsistencies of some church doctrines, or on scientific investigations of alleged miracles. And maybe, when society grows up, they won't have to fear the wrath of self-appointed Pharisees, a cup of hemlock, or a holy hit. 


Lewis Vaughn is the Editor of Free Inquiry.


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