World Religions

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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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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Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

This is one of those weeks when I’m putting together Friday Five after not paying a whole lot of attention to the news.

So if I miss something really crucial, blame it on my “bucket list” baseball trip to see my beloved Texas Rangers play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is the 23rd major-league stadium where I’ve seen a game. Of course, four of those ballparks (old Atlanta, New York Mets, St. Louis and Texas) no longer exist, so I have 11 left on my bucket list. The new Rangers stadium next year will make that 12. 

OK, that’s enough for now, but feel free to tweet me at @bobbyross for more baseball talk.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the (distracted) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at age 37 was the major headline of the week.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias, The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller and Slate’s Ruth Graham all covered the sad, sad news of Evans’ passing.

Here at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly wrote a post on the importance of focusing on doctrines, not political choices, in coverage of Evans’ legacy. And Julia Duin voiced her opinion that Evans’ death offered “a rare look at journalistic grief.”

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Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

THE QUESTION:

This month, the Muslim nation of Brunei cited religious grounds for prescribing execution by stoning for those guilty of adultery or gay sex, and amputation of hands to punish convicted thieves. Does Islam require these penalties?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In the Muslim world there’s no consensus that the faith requires these traditional punishments in modern times, but a handful of the 57 member nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have such legislation. One is the small East Asian sultanate officially named Brunei Darusslam (“Brunei, Abode of Peace”), which proclaimed these penalties six years ago. Due to the resulting uproar, the law did not go into effect until this month. When it did, the foreign minister responded to another round of international denunciations by stating that “strong religious values” form “the very foundation of the unique Bruneian identity.”

The punishments were commanded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s hereditary monarch, who wields absolute political and religious powers and is devoted to strict interpretation and application of shariah (Muslim law). At the same time, fabled oil revenues provide the sultan  eyebrow-raising personal wealth of some $20 billion, the world’s largest home (1,788 rooms), and largest collection of rare automobiles including a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

Regarding punishment for sexual sins, Muslims point out that long before Islam arose the Bible’s Old Testament law named execution as the penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 20:13), as well as other sins. Those passages did not state what method was to be used for execution, but rabbinic law later compiled in the Talmud specified stoning for gay relationships. Stoning was also commonly cited for adulterers.

Jewish scholars say the Bible’s various laws on execution were meant to signify and proclaim the seriousness of the misdeeds but were rarely applied in practice.

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A day after Lilly Endowment news, Associated Press posts job opening ads for seven religion journalists

A day after Lilly Endowment news, Associated Press posts job opening ads for seven religion journalists

We shared the big news Wednesday about the 18-month, $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation.

We had a few questions, too, about the specifics of the Global Religion Journalism Initiative, which RNS CEO and Publisher Tom Gallagher calls a “transformative and historic grant by Lilly.”

A few of the answers — such as the specific descriptions of the positions and where they will be based — began emerging today.

AP posted job opening ads on its careers website for seven Global Religion positions, including:

New York-based Global Editor: “an experienced journalist and news leader to lead its new Global Religion team and direct the cooperative’s coverage of religion around the world in all media formats, with a focus on explanatory and accountability reporting.”

New York- or Washington-based news editor: “this senior producer will help lead a team of journalists who cover religion around the world and will have direct responsibility for crafting video news report on religion that is rich in exclusive spot news, compelling live video and distinct, deeply reported enterprise.”

New York- or Washington-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on the intersection of politics and religion as a newsperson.”

New York-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on youth and faith as a newsperson.”

New York-based newsperson: “a talented text and digital presentation editor to join its new Global Religion team as a newsperson. … (T)his editor will direct and edit breaking news coverage, working closely with news managers and journalists worldwide to ensure AP content about religion is accurate, fast, distinctive and packaged creatively for audiences around the world.”

Cairo-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on Islamic faith and culture as a newsperson.”

Washington-based videojournalist: “a videojournalist with a history of successful television and online video storytelling to join its new Global Religion team as a videojournalist in Washington.”

As you may recall, Wednesday’s news release noted:

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Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes

Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes

There was an interesting op-ed the other day in The New York Post that had a very GetReligion-esque feel to it, to say the least. The headline stated: “New York Times hits new low with mortifying Notre Dame correction.”

Then there was that familiar Hemingway byline.

“Mark Hemingway, that is.”

I realize that I have already written a post about this latest Gray Lady offense against 2,000 years of Christian doctrine, history and language. If you missed that one, click here: “Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?” Here is a refresher, care of Hemingway:

… The New York Times later appended this correction to the story: “An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.”

How could the newspaper possibly confuse these two things? The most logical explanation is that Father Fournier referred to the “body of Christ,” and the reporter took his words literally and not seriously. It doesn’t appear to be a translation error; the reporter who wrote the story, Elian Peltier, appears to be fluent in French and tweets in the language regularly.

Why return to this subject?

What Hemingway offers in this short piece is a collection of stunning and, at times, unintentionally hilarious Times errors linked to essential Christian doctrines — including the narrative of Holy Week and Easter. (For Western Christians, this past Sunday was Easter. For Eastern Christians, such as myself, this week is Holy Week and this coming Sunday is Pascha, or Easter.)

Since we are talking about GetReligion basics, let me stress that no one believes that editors at the Times — the world’s most prestigious newspaper — need to BELIEVE these essentials of Christianity. The goal is to understand them well enough to be able to write about them without making embarrassing errors. Try to imagine Times-people making errors like these when dealing with the basics of Judaism, Islam or, for heaven’s sake, the latest Democratic Party platform.

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National Geographic: Medieval Peru = child sacrifice + some vague pagan religion thing

National Geographic: Medieval Peru = child sacrifice + some vague pagan religion thing

More than a decade ago, Mel Gibson came out with “Apocalypto,” a movie about the bloody pre-Columbian civilizations on our side of the Atlantic. And two months ago, the February issue of National Geographic had a story about a new archeological site — Huanchaquito-Las Llamas — in Peru that bore out the movie’s thesis that Mesoamerica and South America alike were charnel houses of human sacrifice.

More on Gibson in a moment. The National Geographic piece showed that some time in the past few hundred years, a society had carried out a mass orgy of child sacrifices early in the 15th century. The question, of course, is this: What did these rites have to do with religion and faith? We will get to that.

The text from this piece has only gone online recently, hence my delay in posting commentary about it.

THE YOUNG VICTIM lies in a shallow grave in a vacant lot strewn with trash. It’s the Friday before Easter here in Huanchaquito, a hamlet on the north coast of Peru.

The throb of dance music, drifting up from seaside cafés a few hundred yards to the west, sounds eerily like a pulsing heart. It’s accompanied by the soft chuf, chuf of shovels as workers clear away broken glass, plastic bottles, and spent shotgun shells to reveal the outline of a tiny burial pit cut into an ancient layer of mud.

The first thing to appear is the crest of a child’s skull, topped with a thatch of black hair. Switching from trowels to paintbrushes, the excavators carefully sweep away the loose sand, exposing the rest of the skull and revealing skeletal shoulders poking through a coarse cotton shroud. Eventually the remains of a tiny, golden-furred llama come into view, curled alongside the child.

The grim count from this and a second sacrifice site nearby will ultimately add up to 269 children between the ages of five and 14 and three adults. All of the victims perished more than 500 years ago in carefully orchestrated acts of ritual sacrifice that may be unprecedented in world history. …

The Old Testament chronicled child sacrifice, the article says, although the writers didn’t add that God thoroughly detested the practice. Tiny detail, there.

Other than the sacrifice of virgin girls in Minoan Crete to appease demons, the Eastern hemisphere had comparatively little of it compared to the blood baths in the West.

Until the discovery at Huanchaquito (pronounced wan-cha-KEE-toe), the largest known child sacrifice site in the Americas—and possibly the entire world—was at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City), where 42 children were slain in the 15th century.

In Huanchaquito:

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Key question: Can American Jews vote in Israel's high-stakes balloting for prime minister?

Key question: Can American Jews vote in Israel's high-stakes balloting for prime minister?

Let me just state the obvious: After a week in Israel, I am no expert on the Jewish state or its politics.

That said, though, I did learn one interesting fact during my recent trip to the Middle East: Israel doesn’t have absentee voting.

What does that mean? Basically, except for deployed military personnel and diplomats, voting must be done in person. In other words, the people who actually live in Israel will determine who wins in Tuesday’s high-stakes election.

So while American Jews have lots of opinions, they’re not likely to have much of an impact on who is elected (or re-elected) prime minister.

In case you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the opening of a recent Associated Press story:

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot for Israel’s national election, yet he’s a dominant factor for many American Jews as they assess the high stakes of Tuesday’s balloting.

At its core, the election is a judgment on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has won the post four times but now faces corruption charges. In his battle for political survival, Netanyahu has aligned closely with Trump — a troubling tactic for the roughly 75% of American Jewish voters who lean Democratic.

“The world has come to understand that Netanyahu is essentially the political twin of Donald Trump,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street. “Unlike his previous elections, there is a much deeper antagonism toward Netanyahu because of that close affiliation between him and Trump and the Republican Party.”

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Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great story about religious freedom and freedom of conscience?

Want to read a great story about this topic — religious liberty, not “religious liberty” — in The New York Times?

Well, that’s what this post is about. Here’s the headline: “She Wears a Head Scarf. Is Quebec Derailing Her Career?

How did this story happen?

Well, for starters, it’s about a religious liberty linked to the life and beliefs of a Muslim woman. It’s not a story about white evangelical Protestant cake bakers in USA flyover country or traditional Catholics wrestling with liberal Catholics on some issue of marriage and sexuality.

In other words, this is a religious liberty case that — in terms of readers — pulls together the old left-right First Amendment coalition that existed several decades ago, when you could pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the U.S. Senate and only three people would oppose it. It’s the kind of case that brings American religious conservatives together with liberal activists, attempting to — oh — protect the rights of Muslims in U.S. prisons.

It also helps that this drama is set in Canada and the bad guys are “right-leaning.” In other words, zero Donald Trump-era implications. Here is the overture:

MONTREAL — Maha Kassef, 35, an ambitious elementary schoolteacher, aspires to become a principal. But since she wears a Muslim head scarf, she may have to derail her dreams: A proposed bill in Quebec would bar public school principals, and other public employees, from wearing religious symbols.

“How am I supposed to teach about respect, tolerance and diversity to my students, many of whom are immigrant kids, when the government is asking me to give up who I am?” asked Ms. Kassef, the child of Kuwaiti immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to send her and her four siblings to college.

“What right does the Quebec government have to stop my career?” she added.

Religious minorities in Quebec are reeling after the right-leaning government of François Legault proposed the law last week. It would prohibit not just teachers, but other public sector workers in positions of authority, including lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols while working.

What’s the point here? The Times explains that this proposed law is advocating the brand of radical secularism and church-state separation that has its roots in France.

In other words, we are not talking about a First Amendment debate.

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