Battle of the God covers

In a previous post today, I referred to Time and Newsweek competing with each other for the best religion-centered cover story last week. Newsweek offered a package of articles (here's the mainbar) about the Religious Right, while Time offered a more tightly focused debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Newsweek clearly would win for the week if the effort were judged by comprehensiveness. But Newsweek's package offered fewer cases in which a reasonably informed reader will mark the text because it contains some new information or insight.

Some reporters find it difficult to write big-picture articles about the Religious Right without making ridiculous generalizations. For instance, a photo caption on p. 37 of Newsweek purports to show a racially mixed congregation in Philadelphia standing and applauding -- upon hearing of the nomination of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. Somehow I think the moment consisted of a bit more than that.

Michael Gerson writes a fine meditation on how evangelicals want to engage social issues more than is generally recognized, and Sam Harris issues his familiar warning that any mixture of faith and politics inevitably leads to barbarism.

I highlighted only two portions of the entire package.

The first highlight was for this silly dismissal:

But there is clearly discomfort with the movement's apparent obsession with sins of the flesh.

The second highlight involved entertaining wordplay from former Rep. Dick Armey, speaking of his new nemesis, James Dobson:

"It's painful to have him angry at you. . . . He responds in a manner that's damaging. You know, he'll say, 'I'm leaving, and I promise you, I'm taking a lot of people with me.' Well, elected officials know what that means . . . I think we call it a Dobson's choice."

Time brings greater firepower, especially in the person of David Van Biema. In setting up a lengthy dialogue between Dawkins the atheist and Collins the Christian (by adult conversion), Van Biema writes of how most Americans aren't really comfortable with the winner-take-all approach to debating evolution and religion:

Most Americans occupy the middle ground: we want it all. We want to cheer on science's strides and still humble ourselves on the Sabbath. We want access to both MRIs and miracles. We want debates about issues like stem cells without conceding that the positions are so intrinsically inimical as to make discussion fruitless. And to balance formidable standard bearers like Dawkins, we seek those who possess religious conviction but also scientific achievements to credibly argue the widespread hope that science and God are in harmony -- that, indeed, science is of God.

Once Dawkins and Collins begin engaging each other, Dawkins resorts to his patented aggression, calling Collins' positions cop-outs (one is even "the mother and father of all cop-outs") and trotting out another variation on his "flying spaghetti monster" strawman:

DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That's God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small -- at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case.

At least he resisted the temptation to compare Collins to Joseph Goebbels -- a temptation he did not resist as his opening salvo when greeting Ted Haggard at New Life Church, as part of his documentary on religion, The Root of All Evil? (See a six-minute excerpt courtesy of YouTube.)

Collins stays patient through most of the exchange, and finally offers this marvelous bit of understatement amid Dawkins' rhetorical fireworks:

DAWKINS: What Francis was just saying about Genesis was, of course, a little private quarrel between him and his Fundamentalist colleagues ...

COLLINS: It's not so private. It's rather public. [Laughs.]

DAWKINS: . . . It would be unseemly for me to enter in except to suggest that he'd save himself an awful lot of trouble if he just simply ceased to give them the time of day. Why bother with these clowns?

COLLINS: Richard, I think we don't do a service to dialogue between science and faith to characterize sincere people by calling them names. That inspires an even more dug-in position. Atheists sometimes come across as a bit arrogant in this regard, and characterizing faith as something only an idiot would attach themselves to is not likely to help your case.

Well, thanks for trying, Dr. Collins.

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