Science

Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

The Zika virus is all over the news, right now, so it isn't surprising that journalists are looking for other news stories they can connect to it.

This past week, I received several notes from readers about the following Washington Post "Inspired Life" feature. One came with the traditional trigger warning: "Have tissues ready."

The reader could have added this warning: "Prepare to read about a powerful human drama that is haunted by a religion ghost." The headline: "What this amazing mom of two girls with microcephaly has to say about Zika scare." Here is the classic feature-story overture:

Gwen Hartley’s 19-week sonogram was normal. Her baby girl, her second child, was going to complete her storybook life. She’d married her high school sweetheart, they already had a healthy son, a house and a dog.
When Claire was born, Hartley looked adoringly into her daughter’s big eyes and remembered thinking that she’d forgotten how tiny a newborn’s head was. Then the doctors whisked her baby away. Something was wrong. Something that couldn’t be fixed.

After a series of misdiagnoses, the Hartleys, of Kansas, were told Claire had microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes babies to have extremely small heads and brains, and, in her case, made it unlikely she would live beyond a year. Almost five years later, Claire was defying the odds and, although she couldn’t speak or walk or even sit upright, she was a happy and vibrant child. The Hartleys felt ready to get pregnant again.

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Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

I was never addicted to the X-Files back in its classic era, but I was almost always aware of what was going on in the series because of updates from my Milligan College students -- especially in my "Exegete the Culture" senior seminar on faith and mass media.

Religious issues kept showing up in the show's believer-doubter format, with plots built on a never-ending search for the supernatural. One semester, a bright youth-ministry major wrote a brilliant paper -- the curricula for a weekend retreat for high-schoolers -- based on three X-Files episodes that focused on prayer, healing and life after death. The show was asking lots of interesting questions, which had to be coming from somewhere.

So I wasn't surprised that the recent Rolling Stone profile of X-Files creator Chris Carter (linked, of course, to the six-episode Fox reboot) explored some religious themes. I was also -- alas -- not surprised when a key religion fact got mangled. More on that in a minute.

But, for starters, wouldn't you like to know more about the roots of the Amazon project mentioned in this section of the story?

Though Carter doesn't admit this, his return to Hollywood (not counting a second X-Files film he wrote in 2007) must have been disappointing for the man who ruled the medium a decade earlier. A series about the Salem witch trials that he created for Showtime never made it to air. Same with an Area 51 drama he worked on for AMC. And ditto for a conspiracy thriller, Unique,which he developed at Fox.

But the toughest hit was his 2014 Amazon pilot, The After, a Sartre-meets-Dante serial drama set in the intersection of Los Angeles and Hades.

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Another look at an old question: 'Can we be good without God?'

Another look at an old question: 'Can we be good without God?'

MARY’S QUESTION:

Is a belief in God essential to morality?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Many online articles carry that above headline, so Mary’s question is a classic, one seen in this little incident: A traditional Nativity scene is being moved away from Nebraska’s state capitol for Christmas week 2015 to make way for atheists’ “Reason This Season” display. A sponsor explained the purpose: “It’s meant to communicate that atheists are not bad people; we can be good without God.”

Some might hold a simplistic view that religionists think they and only they are or could be moral, and that all non-believers fall short.

Such assertions are nonsense, of course, and no serious religious figure would claim them. An individual atheist can lead an exemplary life, and a believer can be a scoundrel. British scholar C.S. Lewis observed that the fair comparison isn’t between problematic Christian X and virtuous non-believer Y, but rather what X would be like if he didn’t believe.

The actual question here is not virtues and vices of some individual but whether morality in general prospers if believers predominate, and whether society’s well-being suffers if many spurn faith in God. Does widespread respect for religious teachings, or fear of divine judgment, help people behave? Do supernatural ideals improve society’s over-all moral texture?

And the flip side. What is life like when foes of religion control society?

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This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

The atheist liberation movement of recent years has featured efforts to explain away the global prevalence of religion as totally the result of social forces that perhaps got imprinted into humanity’s evolutionary biology.

The tables are turned in a new book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement” (Oxford University Press). Journalists: It’s heady stuff to be a hook for news treatment, but worth the effort.

The book analyzes atheistic causes in North America over the past century, including its internal schisms and contradictions. The work is based on Canadian author Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral dissertation at York University in Ontario and post-doctoral study in Sweden at Uppsala University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.

Religion newswriters are well aware that those aggressive “New Atheists” sometimes suggest faith is not just stupid but morally evil or a sort of mental illness, such that parents should be forbidden to infect their own children with it. Journalists may be surprised to learn that for LeDrew and others, this sort of anti-religion thinking is outdated and “utterly out of sync with contemporary social science.”

Social scientists long embraced the “secularization thesis,” according to which religion will inevitably decline as modern science advances. But now, says LeDrew, many acknowledge that scenario was “a product of ideology” rather than empirical fact. Thus, the New Atheism could be seen as a promotional effort to defend against “a perceived failure of secularism in practice in late modern society.”

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Daily Beast approaches satire territory when ‘reviewing’ Carson’s congregation

Daily Beast approaches satire territory when ‘reviewing’ Carson’s congregation

Tina Brown, who founded The Daily Beast, will readily admit the news site’s name is an homage to Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop,” in which the newspaper tub-thumping for war was called “The Beast.”

But Brown’s website approached satire not only in its name when it sent a reporter to poke around a congregation with which this writer is intimately familiar, the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. In its report, Brown’s reporter demonstrated a breathtaking lack of basic knowledge about religion -- certainly about Christianity -- or even what people do when they go to worship services these days. Click here to read that story.

Disclosure: I’ve been a member at Spencerville since 2003, have attended weekly worship there, and still am on the rolls, not having yet transferred my records to a local Adventist congregation in Utah.

Oh, some fellow named Dr. Ben Carson is a member there, along with his family. You might have heard about his connections to the Seventh-day Adventist faith.

It’s not unusual for the press to poke around the church of a presidential candidate’s choice, especially if that church is either little-known or perhaps controversial. In 2008, Trinity United Church of Christ was put under a media microscope not only because Barack Obama was a member there. but also because the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor, had issued many sermons that were, shall we say, a bit caustic about America and its role in the world. Four years later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a media-led “Mormon Moment” when Mitt Romney, a lifelong member, returned missionary and former bishop, ran for the presidency.

Now it’s Adventism’s turn.

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God and public-school classrooms? These clashes are hard to report and that's a fact

God and public-school classrooms? These clashes are hard to report and that's a fact

Do you remember my post a few days ago about that Katy, Texas, public-classroom dispute between a teacher and a student named Jordan Wooley? That was the KHOU story about how this 12-year-old student -- on a critical-thinking test -- declined to give the correct answer, which was that "There is a God" was a statement of opinion, not fact.

This was the rare "culture wars" story of this kind in which journalists were able to do something other than quote angry parents, followed by silence from public-school officials or statements from their PR professionals stating that school officials are very sorry that parents have chosen to get upset about absolutely nothing.

In this case, they key was that young Wooley had a chance to stand up in public and speak her mind, in front of journalists and everybody else. That public forum seemed to push this story out of the usual news gridlock in which conservative media (and conservative activists with fundraising letters) quote the concerns of parents, while mainstream journalists (and liberal activists with fundraising letters) quote the views of school officials.

This leads us to the question on this week's Crossroads podcast: Why is it so hard for journalists to write stories in which voices on both sides are quoted, with respect, and allowed to dialogue about the alleged facts in these disputes? Click here to tune that in.

As I told host Todd Wilken, this KHOU story reminded me, in many ways, of the recent disputes here in Tennessee about class activities in which very young students are required to learn and even recite key elements of Muslim doctrine -- including the Shahadah, the prayer that someone recites in order to convert Islam.

As I noted in another recent post, most of the coverage I am seeing ignores the actual concerns of the parents and acts as if this is a dispute about studying the history of Islam, period. The key is the word "Shahadah." That term shows up in the "conservative" media reports, but not the mainstream stories.

But back to Houston. After I wrote my post about the KHOU report, The Houston Chronicle weighed in with an A1 story that (a) admitted that the conflict existed, (b) that there were clashes here in how two major forces in education view the word "fact" and (c) that these kinds of classroom conflicts are not going to go away.

Let's parse a bit of this Chronicle story:

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Washington Post meets David Daleiden, whose Catholic faith is less important than his socks

Washington Post meets David Daleiden, whose Catholic faith is less important than his socks

This post will be shorter than usual because it focuses on the religion content in one of the major stories of the day. I am referring to the large Washington Post news feature that ran under this headline: "Meet the millennial who infiltrated the guarded world of abortion providers." 

The "millennial" in question is, of course, David Daleiden, the young Catholic activist behind all of the hidden-camera Planned Parenthood videos released by his front organization, the Center for Medical Progress (click here for its homepage). 

The word "meet" in the headline made me think that this would be an in-depth profile of this man. Thus, as I read it, I kept waiting for fresh material about this life, faith and motives that I didn't already know from reading -- naturally -- religious-press coverage of this work. This is, after all, a "conservative news" subject.

But one of America's most important mainstream newspapers landed an interview with this man. Surely there would be fresh insights and information, right? Hold that thought.

The key to the story is that is framed primarily in terms of, you got it, political activism. The assumption is that Daleiden's motives for taking on Planned Parenthood are primarily political, Thus, readers are given this summary of why he is important:

Daleiden, 26, is the anti­abortion activist who masterminded the recent undercover campaign aimed at proving that Planned Parenthood illegally sells what he calls aborted “baby body parts.” He captured intimate details of the famously guarded organization, hobnobbing at conferences so secretive that they require background checks and talking his way into a back laboratory at a Colorado clinic where he picked through the remains of aborted fetuses and displayed them luridly for the camera.
Daleiden’s videos landed like a bomb in Washington this summer, providing fodder for a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders and energizing social conservatives on Capitol Hill.

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Define 'agnostic,' please; does it take faith to be one?

Define 'agnostic,' please; does it take faith to be one?

LISA’S QUESTION:

What does it mean to be agnostic?  Are there people who actually consider it to be a religion?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In Pew Research’s much-mulled 2014 religion poll of 35,000 U.S. adults, 3.1 percent defined themselves as “atheists” (compared with 1.6 percent in a similar 2007 survey) while a somewhat larger faction of 4 percent called themselves “agnostics” (versus 2.4 percent in 2007). Pew grabbed headlines by combining them with the far larger numbers who said their faith was “nothing in particular” and concluding that 22.8 percent of Americans are now religiously “unaffiliated” compared with only 16.1 percent seven years earlier.

The agnostic term was coined in 1869 by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a noted advocate of Darwin’s evolution theory, to distinguish his own doubts from outright atheism. Darwin soon embraced that label for himself. So did a popular U.S. performer of that era, the touring anti-religion lecturer Robert Ingersoll. However, the agnostic outlook was nothing new. This sort of skepticism was found among some thinkers in ancient Greece and India as far back as the centuries B.C.

No doubt (so to speak) the line between agnosticism and atheism can be confusing, but it was well and clearly defined by the great British mathematician Bertrand Russell, a critic of Christianity, in his essay “What Is An Agnostic?”:

“An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Are agnostics atheists? No.

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Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

I need a break from @Pontifex posting for, well, a few hours at least.

So let's do an evening think piece on a different media storm, the one that has in recent days surrounded Carly Fiorina and her GOP debate comments challenging President Barack Obama and others to actually watch some of the Planned Parenthood sting videos that (a) they seem to deny exist, (b) they dismiss because of editing (while the unedited videos are even more horrific) or (c) haven't addressed in public in the first place.

Journalists know that it really matters how truth claims are stated. For example, with my reporting students I always talk about the implications of the following statements.

Millions of people believe that God hears their prayers and sometimes people are healed. Again, it's absolutely true that millions of people believe that. Is it true that this happens? Hard to prove. Ah, but what if Ivy League medical studies show that prayer is positive for your health? That still doesn't prove something, but it is another level attribution linked to a source of authority. Alas, I have heard journalists in real newsrooms say that they would never quote any of that because they know that healing is a fraud. End of story.

OK, back to candidate Fiorina. In her case, the accuracy of her statements depends, in part, on how one interprets key statements in connection with video images that are taking place at the same time. It also matters whether one admits that the videos exist. Here is what she said:

"I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' This is about the character of our nation. If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us!" 

Now to the think piece. Take it away, Ross Douthat of The New York Times:

 

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