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5Q+1: Mark Oppenheimer on belief & skepticism

We usually stay away from critiquing columns here since we focus on mainstream coverage of religion news. Occasionally, though, a columnist will use reporting to make claims about the state of religion.

Along with many others at the New York Times, we regularly read Mark Oppeneheimer, who writes a regular biweekly religion column for the Times. For the past few years, we've read and discussed his work, so we thought we'd talk to him about where he's coming from and what he hopes to accomplish in his writing.

Oppenheimer holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Yale and has written for Books & Culture, The Christian Century, The Forward, and Tablet (the Jewish one, not the Catholic one), among other publications. He also authored three books: Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, and Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate.

He, his wife, three daughter and two dogs live in New Haven, Connecticut. You can find him through his columns, on his blog, Twitter and Facebook. Here's what Oppenheimer had to say about his role in religion coverage.

What kinds of issues do religion columnists navigate that might be different from others kinds of columnists? How can religion columnists cover old ideas in new ways?

First off, I think it's weird that I am a "columnist." At the Times, that largely means that I am freer to write stuff that has no obvious news peg. But I still believe in reporting, and in striving to be fair. I have a point of view, but I try not to be polemical or argumentative.

But to answer your question, I think we have one huge problem: we often are describing beliefs for which there is no evidence of the traditional kind. That does not mean those beliefs are stupid or to be scorned, but if they were new beliefs we'd often treat their holders as quite mad. Religions gain respectability with age, for better or worse. Believing in a messiah who died two thousand years ago is okay -- so is believing in one who is yet to come -- but believing in one who stands outside your building with a sandwich board is ridiculous. Those are the terms of the discussion. Even a religiously observant and devout reporter has to admit there is something queer about that. There are good reasons the discussion is held that way, but it troubles me sometimes.

How would you describe the advocacy or point of view you're trying to get across in your columns? Wow! What a loaded question. Advocacy? I advocate for good journalism. I am often writing short profiles of people, and so in 900 words I try to portray them fairly and accurately. I hope they would recognize themselves in my portraits. I also hope people who know them well would recognize them.

When you profile individuals, is there a temptation to portray them too positively? Of course. I like most people, so I am often seduced into portraying them more positively than I should. Journalists are supposed to be skeptics. If someone says "Christ died on the cross," we should say, "How do you know?" We should want to know what happens to the money in the collection plates; whether priests who preach against masturbation have ever masturbated; whether rabbis sneak a snack on Yom Kippur. Especially with clergy, there is a temptation to think them better than other people; as one example, we give them honorifics: "Father," "Rabbi," "Monsignor." I'd prefer "Mister" and "Ms." They are people. Any time a journalist gets too reverent, we have a problem.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media are having a hard time grasping? I think we are always misunderstanding the connection between professed belief and behavior. I often read surveys that suggest that religious belief has almost no influence on key behaviors: premarital sex, abortion, crime, etc. The one exception seems to be charitable giving (although it's unclear how the stats would shake out if we excluded church giving and tithing from charitable giving). But basically I don't really know how coming to Christ, or getting deeply involved in a mosque, or whatever, changes people's private morality or their citizenship. We haven't even begun to figure out what questions to ask.

What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? I don't know. But I have been very interested in divorce lately. Annulments are given quite freely in Catholicism, the stigma is largely gone in evangelicalism, and Orthodox Jews are searching for a way to help women secure divorce rights (only the Orthodox Jewish man can give a religious divorce). Meanwhile, we have gay men and lesbians marrying, and we don't know at what rates they will divorce. So a lot of interesting questions out there...

Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media? It's not skeptical enough. I blame myself, but I blame all of us. We either treat religion with reverence, or we treat is as a human-interest curiosity -- but we rarely treat it as a vice-filled human institution in need of investigative reporting. And we all suffer for that, religious people most of all. Think how much pain we could have spared Roman Catholics if we, as the media, had investigated the behavior of a vicious minority of priests decades earlier. If we could crack Watergate in 1972-1974, maybe we could have cracked some scandals in organized religion, too. And one tragic thing is that many religious people think the mainstream media is too critical of religion, when the truth is that the mainstream media is not critical enough. It misunderstands religion, sure -- but is still oddly hands-off and reverent. And again, it's the people in the pews who suffer. It's not the children of atheists who were being molested.

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