Advocates of improved religion-beat coverage often run into the following argument. Newspapers are supposed to be skeptical (true) and that means we should only be covering stories based on facts. Religion is all about private beliefs, not verifiable public facts, so we shouldn't be covering that emotional gobbledegook in the first place. Whenever you cover those stories people call in all upset and they don't want to talk about the facts.
On one level, this makes sense.
On another, it's totally bogus. Newspapers cover facts. OK, it is a fact that millions of people say that their beliefs affect how they live their lives, earn their living, raise their children and, heaven forbid, cast their ballots. The fact of these activities then affects issues of time and money. The last time I checked, sportswriters tried to cover the not-so-logical side of their beat and, increasingly, the same is true of political reporters. Are the arts based totally on "facts"?
It is also true that millions of people believe that prayer can change things and even heal. This is a belief that transcends denominational differences. These days, one might even run into a healing service at a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary.
Thus, it is interesting to read a very traditional journalistic report on the phenomenon of scientists doing research into the power of prayer. Reporter Benedict Carey of the New York Times sticks close to the basics, and pretty quickly runs into the "fact" wall:
Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.
"Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science," said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. "It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money."
To understand the nature of the research, read the story. The scientists involved are trying to find ways to do neutral tests. They are trying to research the facts, even if they cannot provide explanations for why the facts exist.
And this is not a fringe activity. Clearly, this is news. Even if it causes sweaty palms.
Since 2000, at least 10 studies of intercessory prayer have been carried out by researchers at institutions including the Mind/Body Medical Institute, a nonprofit clinic near Boston run by a Harvard-trained cardiologist, as well as Duke University and the University of Washington. Government financing of intercessory prayer research began in the mid-1990's and has continued under the Bush administration. ...
Two large trials of the effects of prayer on coronary health are currently under review at prominent medical journals. Even those who defend prayer research concede that such studies are difficult. For one thing, no one knows what constitutes a "dose": some studies have tested a few prayers a day by individual healers, while others have had entire congregations pray together. Some have involved evangelical Christians; others have engaged rabbis, Buddhist and New Age healers, or some combination.
Maybe the fact is that this is a mystery. Can newspapers cover this, quoting intelligent voices on both sides of the debate? This approach might even work in other controversial science issues. You think?