What do you call someone who reads the Bible, attends church, prays daily, and believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, and life after death? Sometimes you call them "atheists." A reporter on the crime beat has clear-cut criteria for distinguishing between criminals and police. Likewise political journalists can typically rely on their readers understanding what they mean when they describe someone as being a Republican or Democrat. But religion reporters have a more difficult task when it comes to using labels.
Religious labels are intended to be prescriptive, a form of shorthand that provides a general overview of a person’s beliefs. If I say that someone is a Presbyterian it not only tells you what denomination they belong to, but implies that a number of other labels could apply as well (Christian, theist, etc.).
How then do reporters decide how to use religious labels? I think there are two helpful rule of thumbs. The first is to rely on a person’s self-description: Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not. This may seems obvious, but it’s a principle that is all-too-frequently violated. For instance, earlier this week I noted that Jeff Chu, who attends a church in a mainline denomination, was described by the AP as an “evangelical,” even though he says, “I don't think I'd claim that label” and the reporter never contacted him to find out what he believed.
The second rule is that when other members of a religious group would dispute the self-identification, quote a source that puts the controversy in perspective. For example, a current dispute in Christian mission circles is whether someone who coverts from Islam to Christianity can continue to self-identify as Muslim.
As a religious matter it may seem clear: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet and Islam does not consider Jesus to be God. Ergo, the label Muslim does not apply to Christian converts. But in many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the term “Muslim” has broader cultural implications and not using it can be as controversial as converting to Christianity. A reporter should therefore allow a Christian covert to refer to themselves as Muslim but, for the sake of clarity, also quote a source that explains why others – both Christian and Muslim – might consider it inappropriate.
An excellent example of these principles in practice is Michelle Boorstein’s recent feature in the Washington Post on how “Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer.” Boorstein’s article begins by quoting a self-identified atheist who prays to an image of a 15-foot-tall goddess he named “Ms. X” after Malcolm X.
Each morning and night, Sigfried Gold drops to his knees on the beige carpeting of his bedroom, lowers his forehead to the floor and prays to God.
In a sense.
An atheist, Gold took up prayer out of desperation. Overweight by 110 pounds and depressed, the 45-year-old software designer saw himself drifting from his wife and young son. He joined a 12-step program for food addiction that required — as many 12-step programs do — a recognition of God and prayer.
Four years later, Gold is trim, far happier in his relationships and free of a lifelong ennui. He credits a rigorous prayer routine — morning, night and before each meal — to a very vivid goddess he created with a name, a detailed appearance and a key feature for an atheist: She doesn’t exist.
While Gold doesn’t believe there is some supernatural being out there attending to his prayers, he calls his creation “God” and describes himself as having had a “conversion” that can be characterized only as a “miracle.” His life has been mysteriously transformed, he says, by the power of asking.
Adding some helpful context for what may seem a paradoxical phenomena (an atheist that prays?), Boorstein refers to research that shows Gold’s behavior is uncommon for an atheist but not unheard of:
New research on atheists by the Pew Research Center shows a range of beliefs. Eighteen percent of atheists say religion has some importance in their life, 26 percent say they are spiritual or religious and 14 percent believe in “God or a universal spirit.” Of all Americans who say they don’t believe in God — not all call themselves “atheists” — 12 percent say they pray.
A reporter who tried to identify Gold’s beliefs and religious practices might have described it as “neo-pagan,” since the creation of gods to worship is one of the practices associated throughout history with paganism (an admittedly loaded and contentious term). But why refer to someone with a label they themselves would not use? Why not just let them use their own preferred label?
The answer, of course, is that many atheists would dispute the idea that the label should be applied to those who pray to 15-foot imaginary goddesses. And that’s why Boorstein provides space for someone to explain the disagreement:
An atheist praying may seem like an oxymoron, and some atheists interviewed for this article reacted angrily to the concept.
“Like anything about humans, there are variations or perceptions, and some humans seem to be born with this perception of ‘otherness’ or non-physical presence, and it’s a mystery to me what they’re talking about,” said Steven Lowe, 62, who is on the board of directors for the Washington-area Secular Humanists.
While not ever readers will appreciate Boorstein’s approach, I think it should serve as a model for any reporter writing about a contentious use of religious labels, such as the perpetual “Catholic women priests” stories. By letting both sides be heard and allowing the reader to decide how labels should be applied, journalists show they understand their role is to report on a story – and not to be umpires in disputes over heresy.