Friday, March 31, 2006

Solid Journalism Doesn't Have a Prayer

Watch the news today to see the anchors and correspondents struggle awkwardly with how to report the massive study that showed third-party prayers have no effect on the recovery of heart patients. The bad journalism has already begun.

I haven't read the Times piece yet, but you can find it here.

The Associated Press has a truly awful, one-sided, aggressively biased piece that you can find here.

I haven't read the Reuters piece yet, but just its headline tells you that someone fucked up. The study didn't "fail" to find prayer's power any more than telescopes fail to find the gleaming spires of heaven. Telescopes showed us that heaven ain't there. This study has SUCCEEDED in showing us that heaven ain't there.

Can you imagine if the study had shown a better recovery rate among patients who had been prayed for? The TV anchors would be positively gleeful today -- and you can bet they'd be playing the story higher than they will be now.

This outcome, however, will see them somber and neutral. Count on some bubble-headed hairdo to tag out of a piece with some moronic attempt at feel-goodity like, "well, a lot of people know that prayer works for them!" or some other such horseshit.

What most people fail to understand is that a universe in which prayer worked would be a miserable, frightening, awful place. Imagine if physical causality were not the
chain that led to illness or recovery. Imagine if there really were an invisible magic man making life-or-death decisions based on, well, his whim. Would you really feel better in a world where we had no hope of and no reason for pursuing advances in medicine? Would you really feel better knowing that, at any second, for any reason (including, but not limited to, moral judgment of who you are, or the pleading of people who just don't like you) you could be stricken with a flesh-eating virus? Imagine how stigmatized sick people would be in this world (the way they used to be) if everyone knew that Magic Man had decided not to heal them. How would you feel toward Magic Man if he let your Mom waste away from cancer? How would other people feel about your Mom if Magic Man decided she wasn't worth saving from cancer? Listen for half a second to people today who believe in god when they struggle to understand why he didn't save them or their loved ones from 9/11, Katrina, the tsunami, whatever. Do they seem happy and comforted by their faith?

Fuck, no. But that won't stop the media from happily reporting on efforts to keep them in fold, or soft-pedaling this study in order to minimize the potential bummer effect.

It would be nice to see someone with credibility and skepticism report this story. Like Peter Jennings.

Please everyone, post here your thoughts on the coverage of this story. All anecdotes and links appreciated!


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Blind Spots

I witnessed a car accident today.

It was a three-lane service road. The right-hand lane peeled off into local traffic. Ahead of me, in the leftmost lane, was a blue compact car. Immediately prior to the point at which the right lane split off, the blue car veered suddenly and sharply to the right, in a clear, last-minute bid to try to make the turn-off.

Unfortunately, there was another car in between her and the turn-off. She slammed right into it.
I pulled over ahead of the two cars, got out and checked with their respective drivers. Both women were fine. I gave my name and number to the woman whose car had been struck and told her I'd be willing to give a statement saying what I had seen.

The other woman was a little shaken. She kept repeating how the other car had been "in [her] blind spot." As I prepared to leave, I told her that if I were asked, by the police or insurance companies, I would tell them that I saw the whole thing and that, in my view, the accident was clearly her fault.

The woman then became pissed at me -- not raging or anything, but irritated and frustrated. She repeated her previous statement, emphasizing that the other car had been in her blind spot.

I almost wish I had had the time to discuss this with her. Clearly, the fact that the other driver had been in her blind spot was supposed to change my assessment of culpability. Leave aside for the moment the fact that she had veered so suddenly there hadn't been a realistic window of time in which she could have adequately checked her path. In her view, it was reasonable to believe that:
a) She was in the right to have driven into another lane without checking to make sure that there was a car in her blind spot
b) The fact that she didn't see the car absolved her of blame in hitting the car
c) Other people (e.g., me) would understand these views.

Basically, she didn't know whether there was a car in her path, and therefore, she wasn't morally responsible for hitting it.

In reality, of course, she had two other options: Slow down enough to look before switching, or don't switch. Instead, her ignorance became her excuse. Ignorance is supposed to -- and, I think once did -- constitute a reason for caution, rather than an excuse for the consequences of lack of caution.

I have no evidence for this, but I feel as though this is not an uncommon mindset. I'm not just referring to the obvious political analogies. I'm also referring to the people who vote for these politicians. I'm referring to everyone out there who thinks they're free of a moral burden to apply rigorous logic to their place in the world and the consequence of their actions. I've written before that I think a stereotypically liberal mindset -- that we're all due respect, every emotion and impulse we have is great and worthwhile, feelings are all that matter, logic is bad, etc. -- has enabled the emergence of a political culture in which people actually vote for president based on the having-a-beer-with criteria, and think that's okay.

Ignorance is not an excuse. We have a moral duty to stop exalting emotion and instinct at the expense of logical assessment. We have to start embracing what once were stereotypically conservative values -- hard-headed rationality -- if we want to get back to a government and a politics that holds people -- politicians included -- accountable for their actions.


The Secret War of Christianity

I love, and I'm glad they nailed it here, but I think they missed a larger point. At best, you can argue that there is a war on government endorsement of Christianity. That war was started by the founding fathers when they wrote the First Amendment. That war also helps to ensure that Christianity thrives as much as it has in this country (as opposed to other nations that nominally endorse specific denominations).

But while I'm glad C&L pointed out the war on gays and science, the reason that war is possible is that the real theological war in this country is being waged against atheists. Here's the proof. Gays and minorities still, clearly, suffer from discrimination. But there are gay and black and Latino and Asian members of Congress. Are there any atheists?

Atheists make up a comparatively large percentage of the nation's top scientists, leading America in technology and research. The most praised casualty of the war on terror was a man whose family said had no use for religion. Atheists base their morals on rational choices, rather than on the coercion of unseen forces. That makes them MORE moral, not less. And yet, still, people in this nation treat them like moral lepers. Fortunately, our numbers are growing. The internet is allowing more and more people to escape the cognitive confines of even the most remote, shuttered communities. We're making progress, but we won't make real strides until we can get the mainstream media -- or even our friends at C&L! -- to recognize that atheists are a disenfranchised, persecuted target of religious-based bigotry. Everyone who champions tolerance ought to make sure that they're including atheists (and, of course, agnostics), among the ranks of those being defended.


Your Soul Is Keeping Us in Iraq

When we think about religion and politics, we tend to think in terms of religious leaders and demographic blocs exerting political influence. But that's not the most pernicious effect religion has on the public sphere. The most insidious religious beliefs, the ones that damage our society and culture most, are the ones that are held by everyone of a religious bent, from fundamentalist conservatives to the most radical lefties who say they reject god and superstition yet cling to superstitious, religious notions such as souls and spirituality and even fate.

For instance, if you believe in such a thing as souls, you're a part of the reason for some of the support he still has for the U.S. war in Iraq. Here's how.

On Wednesday, President Bush spoke yet again about the war. He made one interesting comment which got a lot of play on cable news, but I haven't seen it picked up in print yet. I suspect that's because the certainty of his delivery made for good TV better than the insubstantial content made for good print. Here's what he said about the (presumably monolithic) enemy in Iraq:

They're not going to shake my confidence, I just want you to know. I understand their tactics and I know their designs. But I also believe that Iraqis can and want to self-govern. That's what I believe. And so when you see me make decisions, or make statements like I make, you've got to understand it's coming from a basic set of beliefs. That's what I believe. And that's what a decision-maker ought to do. The decision-maker ought to make decisions based upon deep-seeded beliefs. You don't need a President chasing polls and focus groups in order to make tough decisions. You need Presidents who make decisions based upon sound principle. Now, people may not agree with the decisions; I understand that. But I hope after this talk, those of you who didn't agree at least know I'm making my decisions based on something I believe deep in my soul.
There are, in fact, people who are uncertain (at the very least) about this war, but who actually do take solace in the fact that his decision to send U.S. troops to invade another country was based on a belief that's located not just in his soul, but deep within it, away from the surface of it.

There are actually people in this country who believe that and, worse, think that it matters. If you believe in souls, then you have to support the idea that they matter (in some way, somehow), in which case, you can't logically deny Bush the political shelter he's just claimed by ascribing his war-mongering (which we know is actually politically motivated) to the soul (which, of course, we all know, is where purity and "essential" goodness reside).

In a world where journalists observed the Ten Commandments of Covering Religion, Mr. Bush's remarks would have demanded several follow-up questions from the journalists in attendance, such as:

  • Why should people care whether this belief is held in your soul, rather than in your brain?
  • Is a belief that resides in a soul intrinsically better or more credible than a brain-based belief?
  • We have it on good authority that other people believe in their souls -- at an equal depth -- that the war in Iraq is wrong. What mechanism can you suggest for comparing and assessing soul beliefs that are held at equal depths?
  • Why does it matter to you that other people know where you hold this belief?
  • Have any other of your soul beliefs -- of equal or greater depths -- ever turned out to be wrong?
  • Have any soul beliefs of yours at any depth ever been proved wrong?
  • What is the greatest depth at which a soul belief of yours has turned out to be wrong?
  • By what mechanism did your soul communicate this belief to your brain?
  • How did your brain recognize this belief as originating from within the soul and how can you assure the American people that this belief was not planted either in your soul or in your brain by Satan?

If the American president will reap political gains by ascribing beliefs to an ethereal, supernatural expression of some essential "self," then American journalists have a duty to pursue all of these questions and more. But as long as you treat souls like real things -- with an understood but unchallenged (and absurd) set of governing principles -- then journalists will have no reason to ask precisely the questions that would deny him the political safe haven that has afforded him the ability to start and wage this war.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Card Shuffled Out; New Head Waiter Installed

Andy Card has resigned as White House chief of staff. He's being replaced by Josh Bolten.

Bolten will now assume the responsibility of obtaining for the commander-in-chief his presidential cheeseburgers.

Nothing will change about the Bush administration or its impact on people's lives. Who implements Bush's orders will not matter unless Bush decides to start listening to people who disagree with him and applying logic and empirical results to differing arguments, and choosing courses of action based on those results, rather than on the same "gut" that told him to ignore the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB; dismantle FEMA; invade Iraq rather than pursue Osama bin Laden; vacation during Hurricane Katrina; violate U.S. laws against warrantless wiretaps; detain alleged terrorists without affording them due process; dismantle Iraq's army; endorse Vladimir Putin, Michael Brown, Julie Myers, Harriet Miers......


The Ten Commandments of Covering Religion

For too long, American journalism has treated spirituality with condescension, neglect or disdain. This was a moral and professional error even before this nation was both attacked by and led by people who define themselves in religious terms. It is an even more grievous error now. And the time has come for a change.

From this day forward, let every journalist who wishes to call himself or herself a thorough, responsible, thoughtful journalist know that religion can no longer be ignored. Religious coverage can no longer be relegated to the ghetto of the so-called culture wars, focusing on trivial issues such as ritual language and symbols, while ignoring the profound consequences religious thought has had for the course of history.

Journalists must now elevate religion to the same status as other areas of legitimate inquiry. They must accord it the same weight. They must address religious issues in every story to which those issues relate. They must apply the same tools, the same methods of inquiry. They must utilize the same sharpness of eye and pursue the same depth of inquiry. To that end, journalists must observe the following ten commandments:

The Ten Commandments of Reporting on Religion

1. Thou shalt have no other god without confirmation. Journalists must confirm, specifically, which god is being worshipped and which religious system has been chosen. If a politician claims to have "faith" or belief in "God," a good journalist must ask that politician to identify their specific denomination, as well as their specific concept of "God," so that people might know whether the politician believes merely in something as vague as "a sense of connectedness," or in the actual definition of "God" as a sentient, all-powerful, all-knowing creator. If they swear to belief in the Bible, that belief must be elucidated: How do they reconcile its internal contradictions and errant prophecies? Do they believe in a literal interpretation? If not, how do they decide which parts to take literally and which to treat as metaphor? How do they know that their method of distinguishing is reliable?

2. Thou shalt not make the grave mistake of assuming uniform adherence to denominational tenets. If a politician claims to be a Methodist, a good journalist must ask what kind of Methodist, and whether they diverge from any tenets of their branch of Methodism. Once that politician's religious beliefs have been fully articulated, then the good journalist must hold them accountable for adherence to or departure from those beliefs. The politician enjoys political benefits from espousing that belief; it is a journalist's job to ensure that those benefits are not falsely gained from a populace left unawares by the journalist's failure to scrutinize that belief.

3. Thou shalt not take the Lord's word in vain. The word of God comes not just through scriptures, but also through preachers. A good journalist should identify the preacher or preachers chosen by the politicians they cover, hold politicians accountable for the content of those sermons, and pursue with those preachers the precise meaning, logic and sourcing of their messages.

4. Remember the soul, to keep it wholly in mind. The concept of a soul has been a cherished one throughout recorded human history. Any assault on the soul must be chronicled in full. Even the tiniest conceptual shift could have far-reaching implications for societal notions about psychology, sociology, justice, motivation, causality and the very self. Already, advances in neuroscience are rendering obsolete traditional claims that mental phenomena such as love and even religious faith originate from an eternal, ethereal spirit-self, rather than from the brain itself. A good journalist should not report on new findings in neuroscience without explaining the implications for widely embraced beliefs about souls.

5. Honor thy first source and thy second source. A good journalist does not merely rely on two sources before repeating a claim; a good journalist relies only on sources uniquely positioned to know, empirically, the truth value of their claim. For instance, the claim that dead people somehow go to "a better place" is a claim that no one can empirically prove, let alone know, and therefore ought not be repeated as fact by a good journalist, no matter how many sources claim it as fact.

6. Thou shalt not kill heterogeneity. Every faith differs from every other faith. Every denomination of a faith differs from every other denomination. Every adherent of a denomination differs from every other adherent. Some politicians will try to sway journalists into treating believers, denominations, faiths, or even all religions, as monolithic. They are not; a good journalist will explore and illuminate the differences.

7. Thou shalt not commit adulteration. If a politician says that they believe in "God," or "fate" or "heaven," a good journalist shall not condescend to that politician and substitute their own meaning for these words. A good journalist shall consult their dictionary and treat that politician as they would anyone else who claims belief in supernatural phenomena. Journalists shall pursue the implications of these beliefs to their logical ends. For instance, a politician who espouses belief in evil spirits -- such as Satan -- that cause wrongdoing in this nation, ought to be asked to outline their plan for researching (the way prayer's impact on health has been researched) the method through which evil spirits influence our nation, and methods our nation might employ to insulate or defend ourselves against such influence.

8. Thou shalt not steal the boundaries between faith and reason. A good journalist knows that every religion ultimately rests on faith. But a good journalist also knows that many believers start with a premise of faith and then use reason to extrapolate or justify rules about the world and about moral behavior. A good journalist should never presume to know where someone's logic ends and faith begins. Until the source specifically says that they have reached the end of reason and must now rely solely on faith, it is a journalist's duty to pursue the logic of any religious claims. Further, in those matters when someone employs logic for their claims, a good journalist will subject that logic to the fullest rigor, including but not limited to extrapolation of their reasoning and comparison to past acts and statements.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor's religion or lack thereof. Now that religion has assumed a place in the marketplace of ideas, a good journalist shall no longer weight stories in favor of religion. Thus, a good journalist will not refer to unexplained phenomena as miraculous phenomena; a good journalist will not refer to belief in a supernatural being or beings as a mark of character or integrity; a good journalist will not presume to know whether a violent sect or a pacifist sect more accurately represents their faith; a good journalist will not ascribe purity or innocence to motives of a religious rather than rational nature; a good journalist will not conflate religion with ethics, or a lack of religion with a lack of ethics; a good journalist will not assume that the having of faith or reclamation of faith are intrinsically good things or that the absence of faith or eschewing of faith are intrinsicaly bad things.

10. Thou shalt not covet privacy for religion. The taboo against discussing religion and religious beliefs ended when religious advocates won a place for religion in the town square. If the town is to accommodate religion in the marketplace of ideas, the townspeople must be free to examine, discuss and assess all aspects of any religion or religious belief wishing to compete in an atmosphere of free intellectual trade.
Until now, some -- be they atheists, secular humanists or simply members of the political left -- might have considered journalistic neglect of religion to be appropriate. They are wrong. And the time has come for a revolutionary change in American journalism: The full embrace and engagement of religion as a viable, vital topic.

Religious people of every political stripe have long called for journalism to recognize and address the religious component of life in America. This call has come most vocally, but by no means exclusively, from the Christian right. That has, unfortunately, made it easy for the gatekeepers of supposedly mainstream media to write off such calls as politically motivated, intended to demonize the media or to promote the agenda of the Christian right.

It's time for that to end. Regardless of the agenda pursued by some of its supporters, the notion that journalism must confront religion and religiosity head-on is indisputable. The only question should be, "How?" Some guidelines can be found in the aforementioned commandments. But the focus ought not come solely on the religious right. When Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), for instance, railed against immigration laws because, she said, they might have criminalized the Good Samaritan or Jesus, a smart reporter should have held her to her reasoning and asked whether she supported abolition of any laws that Jesus or those he held close might have transgressed. Did he disturb the peace or trespass when he chased the moneychangers from the temple? Would he have co-sponsored laws legalizing prostitution? If not, how does Senator Clinton select which Biblical edicts to incorporate into U.S. law and which ones to ignore? What is it about her methodology that she feels ought to make American voters comfortable with this decision-making?

As I've mentioned previously, Dan Dennett's important new book, "Breaking the Spell," is calling for a scientific inquiry into the nature of religious belief. I believe it is equally urgent, if not moreso, that journalism incorporate the same sort of inquiry into its pursuit of truth. In a nation whose government funds initiatives based on religious faith, the people have a right to know all there is to know about those faiths. The general assumption of a monolithic, but vague and ephemeral, religious aspect of this nation and its people has long outlived any use it might once have served. The time has come to explore exactly what people believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs shape our lives and the course of our country's future.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Breaking the Spell

The current issue of the New Yorker includes H. Allen Orr's review of "Breaking the Spell," Daniel Dennett's new book calling for scientific inquiry into the phenomena of religious belief. Dennett, as I mention at every opportunity, was my faculty advisor in college, so his position is not surprising to me.

Orr's review ends with the usual, waffly, ahistorical science-and-religion-explore-different-terrain silliness. Here's a prime example:

Science can certainly undermine particular factual claims made by religion (the universe was created in six days), but it’s far less clear that it can challenge religion’s general metaphysical claims (the universe has a purpose). To insist on this distinction is to recognize what it means for something to be a metaphysical, not a physical, claim. What experiment could prove that the universe has no purpose? To suppose that a kind of physics can demolish a kind of metaphysics is to commit what philosophers call a category mistake.

That may well be (my scholarship was sufficiently slovenly that I don't recall what a category mistake is) but it's also a mistake to claim, as Orr does, that saying the universe has purpose is to say something metaphysical rather than physical. Who says? There are two possible meanings to the phrase, "the universe has a purpose." One is that the universe was created to fulfill an end. The other is that the universe itself has intentionality. Both of these interpretations belong just as firmly in the realm of the physical as does the claim, "Britney Spears has a purpose." If someone created her to fulfill an end, that is something that can be determined physically. If Britney Spears herself has some purpose of her own, that, too can be determined physically. Eventually, we will be able literally to see that purpose as a neurochemical configuration in the brain of either Britney Spears or, if she was created to fulfill an end, in the brain of her creator. The MEANING of the universe may be a metaphysical debate, but whether it - or its creation - is or was imbued with intentionality, is not.

That said, I've been thinking a lot about Dennett's challenge to science, that it confront religion head on, not as an adversary but as a subject. I think the time has come for journalism to do the same thing, and in my next post, I'll attempt to lay out what a Journalism of Religion ought to look like.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Law and Order Democrats

Sen. Russ Feingold has a short, effective explanation up at dailykos of his call to censure President Bush. I think it's particularly meaningful that Feingold begins by reminding us of how we all felt on September 11, 2001. I think the right wing (i.e., not all Republicans, and not all conservatives) doesn't necessarily appreciate just how supportive millions of Americans who hadn't voted for him felt toward President Bush then.

I didn't vote for him, and I viewed him as an embarrassment. In the first few days after September 11, 2001, President Bush disappointed me because he wasn't tough enough. Remember? His very first outings were tentative and meager. He didn't yet appreciate the scope of what had happened. He spoke in terms that were criminal, rather than martial. I was enraged. I wanted vengeance. I wanted hell unleashed.

Finally, after almost a week, either someone made things clear to Bush or the impact of coming here to New York genuinely hit him. He vowed that America would respond mightily and I was behind him all the way. He gave the Taliban a chance to turn over bin Laden and, when they failed to do so, he waged war on them. And I was behind him all the way.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: I backed President George Bush, wished him well and cheered his war on Afghanistan.

That's what the right wing doesn't get. Criticism of Bush from the left doesn't come (primarily) from radicals, people constitutionally incapable of backing him. It comes from mainstream people on the left -- who've even crossed party lines on occasion -- who were willing and eager to put aside their partisan (or non-partisan) assessments of Bush in order to support him as our president in a time of war.

Ideally, I'd prefer that Bush were censured, impeached, convicted, imprisoned not just for lying to the American people to mount an elective war that has killed 2,300 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, but for the dereliction of duty he displayed in NOT mounting the war necessary not just to roust the Taliban, but to accomplish the entire point of rousting the Taliban: Capturing Osama bin Laden. There are millions of Americans just like me who don't mind that American troops are deployed overseas -- We just wish they were in Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrapping up the War on al Qaeda, rather than in Iraq, perpetuating the definitionally-unwinnable War on Terror.

But I don't know that we have the body of evidence we need for that.

We do, however, have the body of evidence we need to convict President Bush of wiretapping. Namely, his confession. President Bush won't be convicted, of course. He won't be impeached. He won't even be censured. But just because you know your position won't rule the day doesn't mean you ought not stand by it. It's not going through the motions, it's not even futile. It's denying those who would defend President Bush the ability to claim that no one disagrees with them, that no one cares. If we can do nothing else, we can do that at least. Call, e-mail or write your senator. Let them know we want a party of law and order.

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