Poking the Jedi

star-wars-return-of-the-jediSometimes the most interesting religion stories are about some small angle in daily life. And the Washington Post's William Wan has found a great one. He looks at how folks have filled out the "religious views" box on Facebook. Mine says "Confessional Lutheran," for instance. It was in no way difficult for me to self-identify as a Confessional Lutheran. While my "Favorite movies" list includes Lindsay Lohan's "I Know Who Killed Me," I didn't joke around about my faith. I have over 700 contacts on Facebook and at least 328 of them are Lutheran. It's one of the ways I keep in touch with my Lutheran peeps around the country. We share news on what's happening in our church body as well as jokes, videos and pictures. So I was excited to see the way that other people use Facebook as it relates to their religious views.

It turns out that this piece had a surprisingly narrow focus. Basically Wan shares a few anecdotes of people who have struggled with how to fill out the box:

Katharine Gordon, 29, a Catholic from the District, who joined Facebook two years ago . . . agonized over what to say about her beliefs.

The problem, she explained, was that she couldn't just type "Catholic" and leave it at that.

"The term comes with a huge asterisk," said Gordon, a civil rights advocate for a nonprofit group. She found herself wanting to add parenthetical clauses to explain her nuanced stances on homosexuality and abortion.

"I'm not exactly looking to discuss the intricacies of the latest papal encyclical with work buddies," she said. "I couldn't help thinking how others would judge me."

She had to consider her strongly secular friends from Bryn Mawr College -- people who might be shocked to hear her talk of God now -- as well as her current friends from the local parish. She could just imagine the reaction at church ("Wait, she doesn't list anything under religious views?").

So after several days, she finally settled on this answer: "Matthew 25," the Bible chapter in which Jesus urges his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and help the imprisoned. His words represent the part of Gordon's faith that she holds most dear.

"It's a bit of code," she said, "so people can make of it what they want."

There are also anecdotes about or mentions of a Pastafarian, agnostic, a student who answered with a Noam Chomsky quote and a girl who went from "Judaism" to "MJLC{heart}" -- the initials of a friend who died.

The thing is that Wan is handicapped by Facebook declining to share any meaningful information about how people fill out the form. We learn that only 150 million out of 250 million users worldwide fill out the "religious views" box but not how that compares to other profile areas. We don't have any reasonable statistical information. Presumably the 2,000 folks who answer "Amish" aren't being serious. Wan handles it by sharing a little of the little he's given:

Not surprisingly, the most popular faith professed is "Christian" and the various denominations associated with it. The category is so dominant that for this list, Facebook's statisticians insisted on combining such other designations as "Protestant," "Catholic" and "Mormon" under the "Christian" label. As a result, the second most popular entry on the list is "Islam," followed by "Atheist."

"Jedi," interestingly enough, makes an appearance at No. 10.

I think the story idea is great for an evergreen piece -- looking at people who struggle to fill out the box. And it's not surprising that Pastafarians and Jedis get media coverage far outweighing their actual representation among religious adherents. That's how it works. Still, considering that the story is pretty much only a collection of anecdotes and shrouded numbers, it may have been a good idea to broaden the piece a bit. Include those Catholics who don't want an asterisk, for instance. Or maybe it would have been a better idea to use the aforementioned anecdotes in service to a larger point about difficulties with religious self-identification. There's a quote from a graduate student about how teens identify themselves on MySpace but the Post's story isn't about teens or MySpace, for instance.

The problem with relying simply on a couple of anecdotes you happened across is that the piece becomes extremely subjective. Much of Wan's piece is written in the passive voice and phrases such as "some," "others," "a good many," "a staggering number" and "often" are littered throughout. (What exactly is "a staggering number," I wonder?)

Media critics are always pointing out the trouble that some reporters have in coming up with stories that quote people who are not in their larger social circles. (Here's the New York Times ombudsman recently on the matter. And here's a New York Times story on Facebook from yesterday in which many of the sources are described as "friends" of the author!) Not that this was necessarily the weakness of the Washington Post's article but to avoid the problem of writing a trend piece based solely on the reporter's personal experience or circle of friends, articles should have at least something a bit sturdier to build around.

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