Dog bites man? That's not news. Any journalist knows that.
Pastor goes to church? That's usually not news, either. Except, of course, if the pastor doesn't believe in God.
Newspapers seem to love breathless features about godless congregations (almost as much as bloggers like me enjoy contextless overgeneralizations). But seriously, see The New York Times, CNN's "Belief Blog" and The Tennessean for relatively recent stories on Bible Belt atheists going to church. I critiqued a similar Tulsa World story for GetReligion two years ago.
Enter The Dallas Morning News with a pretty good report headlined "Atheist churches provide a community for Dallas nonbelievers."
The Dallas story is written by an obviously talented young reporter whose LinkedIn page indicates she helped lead Bible studies for children in a previous gig. Any constructive criticism I offer in this post relates not to the aspiring journalist but to improvements I wish editors at the Morning News — a major metropolitan newspaper — had initiated.
Let's start at the top of the story:
In Pastor Tim Gorski’s church, there are no Bibles, prayers or songs of worship. There is no mention of God. But every Sunday, people come to him looking for a community.
Gorski is a pastor and founder at the North Texas Church of Freethought, an atheist church that has been in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since 1994. They have monthly meetings, a youth group and social outings — programs usually reserved for traditional religious organizations.
“We want to not only be a community for people who reject the supernatural,” he said, “but also for people who need help dealing with life upsets.”
Here's my first question for the editors: The second paragraph (along with the non-church church's website) indicates that the group meets once a month. How does that fact mesh with the every Sunday in the lede? (That's the kind of error a sloppy editor might make trying to improve a reporter's prose on deadline, but that's pure speculation on my part.)
From there, the story branches out to the big picture:
Overshadowed by steeples and temples, atheists in Dallas have gone largely unnoticed. But with each year the number of atheists in the United States grows, and Dallas has become home to atheist churches that bring together those rejecting religion.
Sunday Assembly, an atheist group whose meetings run like church services, is starting a Dallas service this fall. More than 4,600 people are actively involved in a dozen atheist organizations in the area, and experts say it’s not surprising that Dallas has attracted a new group.
That estimate of 4,600 "actively involved" atheists demands attribution. An editor needed to ask, "According to whom?" That number, for what it's worth, represents 0.2 percent of the total Dallas County population of 2.2 million. The Morning News — again without attribution — reports that Catholicism makes up 39 percent of the Dallas population, with the Southern Baptist Convention accounting for 23 percent.
The story puts the number of Americans who claim no religion at 15 percent, citing the American Religious Identification Survey (by the way, nice job of attribution on that stat). That's a different figure, of course, from the 2.4 percent of American adults who say they are atheists when asked about their religious identity, up from 1.6 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.
My nitpicking aside, this is, in many ways, a perfectly fine feature.
Nonetheless, it's one of those stories that — in my humble opinion — buries the really juicy angle at the end:
But the trend is controversial among some atheists.
“It’s my personal opinion as an atheist that we should leave the word church out of our vocabulary,” said Randy Word, president of Metroplex Atheists.
Metroplex Atheists is a local activist group that meets once a week. Word said atheist churches “don’t stick because there’s already a number of established groups to provide community.”
Sarah Bell, an atheist and recent Southern Methodist University graduate, said she wouldn’t attend an atheist church.
“It kind of sounds like a clubhouse. Like, ‘No Christians allowed,’” she said. “I’ve always associated the words pastor, church, etc., with cults, and that’s pretty scary. All I can think is ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.’”
Your turn, GetReligion readers: Check out the Morning News story and join the conversation.
A few questions to consider: Is this trend really news? What angle interests you most? What additional questions would you have asked?
Remember to focus your comments on journalism, not your opinion of atheists or their beliefs.