Science

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

THE QUESTION above, in the headline, and current developments depicted below, involve skeptics’ long-running assertion that modern science makes religion outmoded and it should be discarded as irrational.

Is faith still credible in our scientific age? How do devout scientists view this supposed “war” between science and religion?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Gary Saul Morson, a Russia expert at Northwestern University, offers an important analysis of why the purportedly “scientific” — and horridly bloodthirsty — Soviet regime worked zealously to exterminate all religion (see the October issue of Commentary Magazine). But here The Guy will bypass political atheism’s track record.

Nor will this item survey the continual scientific and anecdotal evidence that religious involvement fosters physical and emotional well-being and positive life outcomes. Philosophy professor Stephen Asma, for one, hails these benefits even though he’s an agnostic bordering on atheism (see “Religion Q & A” for August 11).

Instead, The Guy focuses first on new research by British scholars Michael Buhrmester at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Lanman at Queen’s University, Lois Lee at the University of Kent, Valerie van Mulukom at Coventry University, and Anna Strhan and Rachael Shillitoe at the University of York.

Lee, who studies why youths become atheists, says non-believers usually think this results strictly from rational inquiry. But “science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists,” and thinking otherwise is unscientific — indeed “irrational”! She finds that people on both sides of the God divide are shaped similarly by environmental influences like group-think, charismatic individuals, and how their parents raised them.

Atheistic parents pass on their outlook like religious believers do, more through shared culture than rational arguments, she reports. Non-religious parents often say children should choose for themselves but inevitably convey attitudes about religion. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of children from atheistic homes “choose” atheism.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

Did the recent United Nations report on climate change (.pdf here) leave you alarmed but also bewildered?

If so, my bet is you're one among many. Given the situation’s described magnitude, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the report’s predicted dire consequences.

What's an ordinary citizen supposed to do about it? (Hint: Recycling your jars, can and papers isn’t enough.)

Making it more difficult, I believe, is that some key world leaders either reject the scientific consensus on climate change or prefer to ignore it in favor of shortsighted and immediate economic gains they believe are more likely to attract materially oriented voters. 

No, I’m not just leveling a dig at President Donald Trump. Click here to read a Washington Post story about other important leaders who reject the political steps necessary to stimulate broad public understanding and global action to slow climate disaster, to the degree that’s still possible.

What about journalists? 

Given the depth of climate change’s predicted and irreversible societal upheaval, is climate change the most important story of our time? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan seems to think so.

But that still begs the question: How can this mind-boggling issue be covered in a way that makes it more comprehensible to the ordinary reader?

Allow me to suggest journalism 101’s time-honored formula: explain the macro by focusing on the micro — which is to say tell the story by highlighting one person’s experience at a time.

The New York Times did just that with this piece that ran as a sidebar to its main story on the UN report. Moreover, GetReligion readers, the piece has a strong, and valid, religion component.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

It’s back to school time, and how’s this for a bracing lineup of campus lectures in just the past four weeks?

At Yale University, distinguished philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who is an atheist, hosted a top theologian, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews to jointly ponder “Living Well in Light of Death.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat visited Ann Arbor to advise University of Michigan students that “Faith Is Not a Sideshow.”

At arch-rival Ohio State, a panel on “Living and Dying Well” consisted of a physician, a biological ethicist, and a specialist who helps patients with end-of-life planning.

Bob Cutillo, a physician working with Colorado’s homeless, spoke at the Mayo Clinic and its medical college on “The Doctor’s Gaze: Some Ancient Opinions on How We See Our Patients.”

Then it was celebrated attorney Rachael Denhollander, leader of the sexual abuse victims in the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics scandals and among Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.” Her double-header this week at New York University, then Columbia University Law School, addressed how justice can be reconciled with religious faith and forgiveness.

So began the season for the Veritas Forum of Cambridge, Mass., which organizes campus lectures to address “life’s hardest questions” from traditional Christian viewpoints that it believes academe neglects. To date there’ve been Veritas events at 185 colleges and universities, including at all but one of America’s top 25 schools in the new Wall Street Journal rankings.

Lecture topics run the gamut, for example “What Does It Mean to be Human?? “Is There Truth Beyond Science?” “Does Science Point to Atheism?” “Is Tolerance Intolerant?” “Contradictions in the Bible?” and “What Makes Us Racist?”

The concept is particularly intriguing due to heavy involvement of conservative or “evangelical” Protestants, often depicted in the media as anti-intellectual or at best mediocre thinkers.

The journalism hook?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

Please respect our Commenting Policy