Science

Medium wants to know: Can Mormon transhumanists revitalize the Latter-day Saints?

Medium wants to know: Can Mormon transhumanists revitalize the Latter-day Saints?

When Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, decided to tell the world that the National Enquirer was blackmailing him with nude photos, he turned to the blog platform Medium to tell the world about it.

Everyone, from Mashable to USA Today asked why someone worth $150 billion would self-publish not in the Washington Post, which he owns.

Instead, he turned to a humble (but neutral) place that’s accessible to everyone and anyone. I joined Medium a month ago — after perusing it for over a year — because the writing was about unusual topics with unique angles. There isn’t an army of editors going over the prose; what you see is raw copy straight from the writer’s laptop.

As it turns out, I’m not writing about Bezos, but I am writing about a recent piece on Medium about Mormon transhumanists, whatever they may be. Fellow GetReligionista Dick Ostling has written about them before, but some things bear repeating.

Mormons are the opposite of cafeteria Catholics. Instead of a pick-and-choose religion of faith du jour, they inhabit a closed system with a unique holy book and scriptures; certain beliefs that only they own and a place as the preeminent American-founded religion. Its legends and history are uniquely that of the Western hemisphere.

Before we start, please note the author isn’t just any old pajama-clad writer wannabe. Erin Clare Brown has worked for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. although her stint with the Times lasted only seven months. Whatever. (See here for a piece on Nordic Mormons she wrote for the WSJ three years ago). Her Linked-In account mentions she is a former Mormon missionary to the Russia, which explains her insight into these folks.

The piece starts with an anecdote by Michaelann Bradley, a young woman who was having a crisis of faith and had drifted from her Latter-day Saint roots.

In 2013, Bradley met her future husband, Don, at an academic scripture study group. He was a thoughtful historian 18 years her senior whose own faith in the LDS Church had been shaken years before. Many of their early dates were to “Mormon-adjacent gatherings,” Bradley said, so she hardly batted an eye when Don invited her to a meeting of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He billed it as a group of thoughtful folks tackling slightly different ideas about Mormonism. “I thought he meant ‘transcendentalist,’” Bradley told me. “I came prepared to talk about Thoreau.”

The meeting was as far from Walden as the moon or a terraformed Mars. Held in a local tech entrepreneur’s basement, it was a philosophical free-for-all of ideas that were closer to science fiction than scripture. The 10 other attendees — all male, all white, all in their 20s and 30s, and mostly with backgrounds in computer science or the tech world — batted around theories that reframed deeply held Mormon beliefs, like the notion that “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become,” in terms of cryonics and the singularity. They quoted futurists in the same breath as Latter-day Saint Apostles and Carl Sagan. They asked whether we could become like God through technology — could we live forever now and not just after we die?

Taking certain Mormon beliefs to their logical conclusion, I’m guessing.

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Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

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This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

Another year, another mini-storm linked to media coverage of the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

As always, the controversial issue is how to describe the size of the crowd. That’s been a hot-button topic inside the DC Beltway for several decades now (think Million Man March debates) Authorities at United States Park Police tend to turn and run (metaphorically speaking) when journalists approach to ask for crowd estimates.

March For Life organizers have long claimed — with some interesting photo evidence — that the size of this annual event tends to get played down in the media.

That is, if elite print and television newsrooms bother to cover the march at all. For more background, see this GetReligion post from 2018: “A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat.” And click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw focusing on media-bias issues linked to mainstream coverage of abortion.

So, what about 2019? Writing mid-afternoon, from here in New York City, let me note one bad snippet of coverage, care of USA Today, and then point to several interesting issues in a much more substantial story at The Washington Post.

I received a head’s up about the lede on an early version of the USA Today story about the march. Alas, no one took a screen shot and it appears that the wording has since change. However, several sources reported the same wording to me, with no chance for cooperation between these people. Here’s a comment from the Gateway Pundit blog:

USA Today, the first result when you search for the march in Google News, began their story by saying, “more than a thousand anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.”

Wait. “More than a thousand?” During a bad year — extreme weather is rather common in mid-January Washington — the March for Life crowd tops 100,000. Last year, a digital-image analysis company put the crowd at 200,000-plus. During one Barack Obama-era march, activists sent me materials — comparing images of various DC crowds — that showed a march of 500,000-plus (some claims went as high as 650,000).

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Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

We already know that in 2019 the news biz will be as consumed by All Things Trump as during the prior three and a half years. The media must also monitor countless maneuvers by countless Democratic presidential hopefuls. And there will be those ongoing eruptions in global politics.

If any column inches and air time are left over for our beat, the temptation will be to do those “religion and” stories, oh you know like predictable Donald Trump accolades from the media’s favorite evangelicals. On the big 2019 theme of whether the President can win a second term, The Guy reminds pundits for the umpteenth time that white Catholics outside the  Bible Belt will decide that.  

Most important, The Guy advises editors that audiences will welcome a bit of a break from political news. How about covering the more religious aspects of the religion beat like these three major 2019 stories?  

First, the top story of 2018, as the Dec. 5 Guy Memo proposed, is reports that the “CRISR” technique in November successfully produced the first newborns with engineered genes that  will be inherited by future generations. Biologists “playing God” to create human “designer babies” is an ethical quagmire that demands 2019 folo-ups.

Then, two vital and nearly simultaneous church events, one dealing with moral performance and the other with moral doctrine, will reverberate throughout the year.

Ready to mark those calendars?

Feb. 21-24 — Pope Francis has summoned the 135 heads of national  bishops’ conferences and comparable officers for a Vatican summit to cope with the disgusting and ceaseless cascade of priests who sexually molested underaged boys and girls (and the bishops and cardinals who hid them). The stakes could not be higher for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

This brings fierce memories of Pope John Paul II’s 2002 Vatican abuse confab with U.S. Catholic leaders (which The Guy covered for The AP alongside Rome Bureau legend Victor Simpson). Shortly thereafter, several hundred reporters (including The Guy alongside award-winning AP virtuoso Rachel Zoll) swamped the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas that devised a cleanup plan.  

U.S. scandals then dominated the news. Since, it’s become obvious this is no “American crisis” but a worldwide one. The fact that victims’ suffering, scandals, cover-ups, malfeasance, investigations, lawsuits and bankruptcies persist 16 years later shows how intractable the moral rot has proven to be, with Cardinal Pell’s conviction the latest instance. 

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Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

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The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

Five years ago, I had a chance to eat lunch with the late William Peter Blatty, an articulate Catholic apologist who won an Academy Award for turning his novel, "The Exorcist," into a stunning Hollywood screenplay.

Yes, I called Blatty a Catholic apologist.

Why? In part because he viewed his masterwork as a vehicle for criticizing this materialistic age. Here is a chunk of that column, in which Blatty explains his motives. In “The Exorcist”:

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."

The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people. 

This brings me to the feature story in The Atlantic that stirred up lots of online conversation over the weekend, the one with this haunting double-decker headline:

American Exorcism

Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.

A serious piece of journalism on this topic faces a big question: How much space should be dedicated to the views of people who, well, think demon possession is real? As Blatty noted, it is impossible to talk about this topic — exorcisms — without debating evidence that the material world is not all that there is. (Click here for a Rod Dreher discussion of this angle.)

Toward the end of this long feature, reporter Mike Mariani offers this summary of what he was seeing, hearing and feeling:

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures.

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Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Jordan Peterson is a very hard man for journalists to quote.

Some journalists have learned, the hard way, that he is also a very easy man to misquote.

Readers and “Crossroads” listeners (click here to hear this week’s podcast): Perhaps you are among the millions of YouTube consumers who witnessed his famous “Gotcha” moment on Channel 4, during a somewhat tense interview by British journalist Cathy Newman.

This was the viral clip that launched the University of Toronto psychologist even higher into the cyberspace elites. Read the following, from the Washington Times, but know that this is news media territory — on the issue of pro-trans speech codes. This was not an example of what this man is saying in the online lectures that have created a massive digital community:

“Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” the reporter asked at the 22-minute mark of a 30-minute interview.

“Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now,” the psychologist answered. … “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. … You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ms. Newman paused, sighed and struggled to find a response until her guest interjected, “Ha. Gotcha.”

“You have got me. You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head. It took awhile. It took awhile. It took awhile,” she said with a repetitive concession.

I will admit that there is a guilty-pleasure factor, when watching reporters try to grill this man.

However, that’s not the point of this week’s podcast or my two recent “On Religion” columns on this topic for the Universal syndicate — “Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates.” Click here to read Part II.

It’s obvious why Peterson gets so much analog news ink — his digital ink numbers are simply astonishing.

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Keeping up: Transgender challenges ahead for news media and 'mainline' Protestants

Keeping up:  Transgender challenges ahead for news media and 'mainline' Protestants

The New York Times reported this week that the Donald Trump Administration is considering, for federal purposes, a definition that a person is male or female “based on immutable biological traits identified by or before birth,” supplemented if necessary by genetic testing. That would overturn a policy under President Obama to recognize transgender identities.

The Times team repeatedly used the new “Mx.” identifier preferred by Jill Soloway in a lengthy October 14 feature about pro-transgender media. Formerly a married heterosexual raising two sons, Soloway now identifies as “non-binary” after “peeling off” physical femininity (breasts, clothing, hair, makeup) so that “I’m like nothing. Just human.” Soloway produces films and plans to publish a book about “gender-creative” parents who keep their child’s gender “a secret.”

Weeks before that, the Times “Ethicist” column fielded a questioner’s “moral aversion” against attending friends’ “gender reveal party” to celebrate their firstborn because that would affirm “gender binarism.” Prof. Kwame Appiah’s response deemed attendance OK assuming the parents would be equally happy if an infant girl later becomes “a boy, or neither a boy nor a girl.”

There are challenges here not only for elite media policies but for members of “mainline” Protestant churches, clergy and seminiarians. Consider Yale Divinity School’s Reflections magazine edited by Ray Waddle, former religion writer with Nashville’s Tennessean. The current issue — texts not yet posted online — blends support for the budding transgender cause with opposition to patriarchy and #MeToo abuse.

The trans movement says gender identity is “assigned” by the culture, and thus changeable, avoiding considerations of birth genitalia (Yale doesn’t mention chromosomes).

This approach is gaining. Ligonier Ministries’ biennial survey on Americans’ beliefs finds 46 percent of Millennials under age 35 agree “somewhat” or “strongly” that one’s “gender identity is a matter of choice.”

Journalists will ponder words in Yale’s “gender identity & affirmation” guide (.pdf here and note that the “worlkplace” typo in URL is needed for access). Each person’s “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun) is to be followed, and new labels observed — “transgender” not “transsexual,” “gender-affirming surgery” not “sex change,” “cross-dresser” not “transvestite,” or “cisgender” instead of “binary” male or female.

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Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

For years, it was one of the most painful, divisive journalism questions faced by reporters and editors, a question that they couldn’t look up in the Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of most mainstream newsrooms.

The question: When is an unborn child an “unborn child” or a “baby”? When should reporters use the supposedly neutral term “fetus”?

Here is the top of a recent news story that serves as a perfect, and tragic, example of this journalism issue:

A grieving widower has revealed why he shared photos of his dead wife and unborn daughter after they were killed by an allegedly drunk driver.

Krystil Kincaid was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Alvalynn, when their car was struck on a California highway on Sept. 9. Her heartbroken husband, Zach, who lives in San Jacinto, Calif., decided he wanted the world to see the unsettling images of the 29-year-old mother and their little girl lying in a coffin together at their wake.

That’s a tragic example of this journalism issue.

Here is another new case study, drawn from current celebrity clickbait news. After all, it’s hard for journalists to ignore a royal baby bump.

In this case, the New York Times headline proclaims: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Announce She’s Pregnant.” The lede is where we see the “problem.”

LONDON — Another royal baby is on the way.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are expecting a child in the spring, Kensington Palace announced.

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