Richard Ostling

Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Are there other intelligent beings somewhere out there in the cosmos? Forget science fiction. Recent news said level-headed U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing what seemed like UFOs, so classified military protocol deals with how to handle such incidents. Meanwhile, scientists, aided by new technology, have spent decades seeking to contact alien life.

Nonetheless, “perhaps humanity is truly alone,” contends Ethan Siegel, an astrophysics theorist and college teacher turned science writer, in a cover story for the June Commentary magazine. This old, old story is ever new, and perhaps it’s time for journalists to run it past some quotable theologians for an off-the-news if not off-the-wall feature.

Siegel himself offers no insights on the obvious religious implications. That’s not surprising, since he’s an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, who preaches that “everything that has ever happened in this universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them.”

Still, the questions nag. Did God, or intelligent design's Designer, create beings like us on Earth and nowhere else?

If so, why? Or, if there is intelligent life in other realms, what is God’s purpose with mere earthlings? Are those extraterrestrials “sinful” and “fallen” like us? What would this mean for Christianity’s belief that God was uniquely incarnated on Earth in Jesus Christ? And so forth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes probable when vast stretches of time allow vast accumulations of genetic mutations that can undergo vast selection to yield the origin of vast species. (The Guy, no science whiz, senses that the sudden emergence of countless advanced life forms during the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago is hard to fully comprehend in such simple terms).

Probabilities also seem to tell us there just have to be many forms of intelligent life beyond those on Earth.

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Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

If you decide last-minute to visit the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual extravaganza at Birmingham, Ala., June 11–12, you may need a hotel in Montgomery, if not Atlanta, since something like 10,000 “messengers” (please, never say “delegates”) will be cramming 37 local hotels. Whether in-person or from long distance, some coverage tips. 

Media should recognize that alongside its vast Sunbelt flock,  America's largest Protestant denomination claims, for instance, 42,000 adherents in New York State, 68,000 in Illinois, 76,000 in Indiana, 84,000 in Kansas-Nebraska and 206,000 in California. This influential empire has 51,541 local congregations and mission outposts, with $11.8 billion in yearly donations.

Long gone are the years when pulses pounded over high-stakes political machinations as hardline conservatives were winning SBC control. But news always abounds. 

Notably, this is the first meeting since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the lid off SBC sanctity with data on 350 church workers accused of sexual misconduct with 700-plus victims since 1998.

That crisis reaches the floor Wednesday afternoon, June 12, when SBC President J.D. Greear’s sexual abuse study gets a ridiculously tiny 20-minute time slot. Greear’s address Tuesday morning may offer grist. And the June 10-11 convention of local and state SBC executives gets a proposed policy to protect minors (.pdf text here).

Another related effort was last month’s survey on perceptions of the abuse problem, which critics will think exposes naïve attitudes.  Sources who monitor SBC depredations include evangelical blogger “Dee” Parsons of The Wartburg Watch and the 10 SBC victims and victim advocates featured in  the current Christianity Today (behind pay wall).

Greear, a North Carolina pastor, is up for re-election Tuesday afternoon to a second year as SBC president. Should be automatic, though he’s under some right-wing fire for saying women can be speakers at Sunday worship despite the SBC’s 2000 “complementarian” stance that only men should be pastors.

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An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

THE QUESTION:

What do U.S. religious groups teach about the contentious abortion issue?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Remarkably, the abortion issue is as contentious as when the U.S. Supreme Court liberalized law 46 years ago, with new state restrictions injecting it into courtrooms and the 2020 campaign. The following scans significant teachings by major religious denominations.

The Catholic Church, the largest religious body in the U.S. (and globally), opposes abortion, without exceptions. A Vatican Council II decree from the world’s bishops declares that “from the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care,” and calls  abortions “abominable crimes.” The official Catechism says the same and dates this belief back to Christianity’s first century (Didache 2:2, Epistle of Barnabas 19:5).

Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders have jointly affirmed “our common teaching that life begins at the earliest moments of conception” and is “sacred” through all stages of development. However, America’s 53-member Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops acknowledges “rare but serious medical instances where mother and child may require extraordinary actions.”

A Southern Baptist Convention resolution before the Supreme Court ruling advocated permission in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity” or damage to a mother’s “emotional, mental, and physical health.” The SBC later shifted toward strict conservatism on many matters. A 2018 resolution affirms “the full dignity of every unborn child” and denounces abortion “except to save the mother’s physical life.”

Two United Methodist Church agencies helped establish the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (since renamed Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) to champion women’s unimpeded choice. But the 2016 UMC conference directed the agencies to leave the coalition, and voted to withdraw endorsement, upheld since 1976, of the Supreme Court’s “legal right to abortion.” The UMC recognizes “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify” abortion. It opposes late-term abortion except for danger to the mother’s “physical life” or “severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.”

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?

That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.

If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.

Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)

A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.

Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself

Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief ofChristianity Today magazine.

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New social-media explosion could make news: Should Protestants have women pastors?

New social-media explosion could make news: Should Protestants have women pastors?

THE QUESTION:

Should women be pastors or preachers in U.S. Protestant churches?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The above issue erupted in recent days among U.S. evangelicals (more on this in a moment). In the interest of full disclosure, the (Protestant) Religion Guy’s personal opinion on this is yes, and in fact his own local congregation has its first female pastor. But as usual “Religion Q & A” intends to provide a non-partisan journalistic survey.

Let’s first note that Catholic and Orthodox tradition bars any realistic prospect of female priests, even as increasing numbers of U.S. Protestant women become ministers. The Association of Theological Schools reports women are 30 percent of the students (mostly Protestants) in member seminaries preparing for the M.Div. professional clergy degree.

With “mainline” Protestants, the Congregationalist ancestors of today’s United Church of Christ ordained America’s first female, Antoinette Brown, in 1853, though she later went Unitarian and few other women followed till the 20th Century. Women achieved full clergy status in e.g. predecessor bodies of the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1956 and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1970, and in the Episcopal Church in 1977 (following non-canonical protest ordinations in 1974).

Among “evangelical” Protestants, from the late 19th Century some denominations appointed women to such leadership roles as preacher, evangelist, missionary or deacon, and in certain instances to clergy status. But most congregations barred women pastors, either de facto or de jure.

Lately, a vigorous evangelical movement has formalized the belief that limiting pastors, preachers and lay officers to males is God’s mandate in the Bible. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) organized in 1987. Its founding “Danvers Statement” defined Protestant “complementarianism,” meaning the two genders have distinct roles that complement each other, over against “egalitarians.”

This document teaches that gender distinctions are part of God’s “created order.”

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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