Newsweek's weekly BeliefWatch section is great. It's a guaranteed two-column slot in a national magazine that will focus on some unique issue relating the religion. Usually it's a story that has received little or no coverage elsewhere, and for that the contributors to the section should be commended. This week is a great example. How often do you read about the history and the results of "interfaith dialogue"? But unfortunately this piece by Lisa Miller gets off to a poor start by quoting Nexis search results. Miller found that of the 173 entries since 1997 in major national newspapers, 100 were in the past five years. I guess that tells us something, but there are better ways to prove a trend than keyword searches.
After explaining to us what a tremendous thing it was for Pope John Paul II to reach out to Jews in 1987 and to give support to the state of Israel, Miller goes on to explain that if children of different faiths become friends, "that's all to the good" and that dialogue between religious sects is "essential to world peace."
Now I don't disagree with any of that, but why is Miller telling us this? Can she site specific examples where interfaith dialogue led to peace? I don't doubt that there are examples out there, but unsupported statements fail to pass as quality journalism.
In an attempt to insert some skepticism, Miller interviews a college psychologist who seems to be an expert in interfaith issues. Here's where the piece gets interesting:
Based on the sheer volume of these efforts, however, it's reasonable to assume that the bulk of them, though sincere, are quixotic. For the past five years, Steve Worchel, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, has been studying the effects of interfaith camp programs on youth over time. "You go to these camps [in the Balkans or the Middle East] and afterward, everyone's hugging each other," he says. That glow quickly fades. "Many of these programs are one-shot deals, and these are attitudes that have grown up over generations ... You don't change deep-seated hatred in a week." More lasting, says Worchel, is a feeling of self-esteem. Kids who attend interfaith camp tend to think of themselves as part of the solution, but they need the long-term support of their community and political leaders to keep their minds open. And then Worchel says something really profound. Conflict, he says, is part of life and love; communities require enemies in order to cohere. Interfaith dialogue is not a magic bullet. The question is how to manage the human instinct for conflict into the future so it doesn't destroy the world.
I love how Miller has taken on the job of telling us what is "really profound" about a person's words. And again, I agree, what Worchel says here is pretty profound, but I believe I can make that determination myself. I'm not against personal essays, but if this is supposed to be genuine journalism, personal opinions ought to be kept out.
Also, as an afterthought, since this is the age of the Internet, could we see more of Worchel's work on Newsweek's site?