Opinions expressed by individual writers and talkers are a legitimate aspect of journalism.
But these days newspapers, TV news and allegedly journalistic Web sites are all tempted to overdo such single-sourcing. Mainly that’s because you have to pay a salary and benefits to a seasoned staff journalist so it’s cheaper to throw a few bucks at a freelance. As the saying in the business goes, the operative adjective is “free.”
Like science or medicine, religion is a highly complex news beat that suffers when a news organization lacks an experienced specialist. For example, the Wall Street Journal is pursuing an ambitious effort to expand general coverage beyond its business ghetto. But with religion, it typically limits matters to Friday op-ed pieces written by interested parties. They’re often worth a look but cannot match analysis by a non-partisan journalist carefully assessing various sides of a question.
Another sort of WSJ example occurred with the April 27 special section titled “The Future Issue.” The religion aspect, not treated in the print package, was relegated to the online postings. The paper had noted Tufts University atheist Daniel Dennett tell us “Why the Future of Religion is Bleak,” while Vanderbilt Divinity dean Emilie Townes separately contended that “The Future of Religion is Ascendant.”
Problem was, the two profs often talked past each other and made some assertions a newswriter would challenge. Moreover, Townes, a professor of womanist ethics, typifies the ardent religious left, so it would have been useful to also hear from a religious conservative. To competently assess religion’s long-term prospects, why not have a newswriter interview Dennett, Townes, some conservative, and key experts in sociology? What's wrong with reporting?
The Religion Guy here focuses on Dennett’s atheistic gospel. He wants news consumers to know that if current trends continue “religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West,” with mere “pockets” of believers surviving. The only hope for global faith would be a World War III over water or oil, the collapse of the Internet and other communications, or some other “unimagined catastrophe” that will foster “misery and fear, the soil in which religion flourishes best.”
Otherwise the “recent rapid growth of mutual knowledge” will eviscerate faith. It seems religious groups have the power to “control” what their members know, which was certainly true till printing became widespread, say circa A.D. 1516. Moreover, there will be increasing “exposure of all the antique falsehoods of religious doctrine” because -- Get Religion readers may have somehow missed this -- the “pro-religion bias in the media is crumbling.” Apparently Dr. Dennett doesn’t get out much.
“Religion has been waning in influence for several centuries,” he contends, and “especially in Europe and North America.”
It’s worth analyzing the places in the West where that isn’t true. But let’s look globally. With a quick Internet search any reporter would have found Pew Research’s new projections to 2050. Yes, non-affiliation with organized religion is predicted to increase among Americans, from 16.4 percent to 25.6 percent. But “the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population.” (Click here for that Pew report.)
If religion rises and falls, does that result entirely from “misery and fear” in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe? Or is something missing? Dennett could have cited World Christian Encyclopedia data about the massive increase in the “non-religious” category, from 0.2 percent of humanity in 1900 to 16.9 percent in 1985.
Could that just possibly reflect Communism’s past and present zeal to imprison or kill religious leaders, force atheistic propaganda, shackle church activities and blatantly discriminate against believers? Dennett offers not a phrase about that factor.
The bottom line: No competent journalist -- as opposed to a preacher or propagandist -- would make such an amateurish interpretive mistake.