Tuesday, March 28, 2006

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.


Ken said...

But they won't.

Good column none the less.

brewski said...

While they're at it, why don't same journalists include psychological profiles, psychiatric profiles, sociological profiles,...They could go in any number of directions. Why bother with just straightforward facts?

R said...

Journalists should also note every time they mention the 72 virgins promised to Muslims who blow up other people that 28 young boys round out the number of children they get to rape in their fevered idea of "heaven." They should demand every Muslim either embrace or denounce this tidbit of the Prophet...wait, we already know. They throw one UNHOLY fit of rioting when it's brought up in less than the LOVELY light it so DESERVES.

Sportin' Life said...

Wonderful, Jonathan!

Anonymous said...

You started the opinion piece out alright:

"For too long, American journalism has treated spirituality with condescension, neglect or disdain."

But then you brought religion into it, and confused the issue.

Please do not confuse spirituality with religion. They are not the same.

Religion creates polarization and hatred between people. Spirituality brings them together with unconditional love.

To be spiritual, it is not necessary to be affiliated with any dogmatic religion based on superstitious and traditional beliefs.

In fact, dogmatic adherance to any particular religion is usually a hinderance to becoming spiritual. Although, it is possible for a religious person to also be spiritual.

Throughout history, ALL religious leaders have been lying to us. They claim we must follow them and their ways to get to God. But what they really want is for us to pay them tribute ($) and to hold power over us so we will do their bidding.

The truth is, you only need to go within and reach out for God. Sit and meditate, commune with nature, help someone in need (don't just give them money). Open up your heart, and let God in.

There is nothing better than direct communication with God. No religious beliefs required!

Kevin Schmidt, Sterling VA

Petty Larseny said...

Two quick thoughts.
To Brewski: The reason religious belief should be accorded more scrutiny than the things you suggest is that religious beliefs have been elevated to a new level in our political discourse. If the other elements you list rise to a position of prominence in our cultural and political spheres, then, yeah, I'd say they'd deserve the same scrutiny!
To Kevin: I went and checked out dictionary.com and "spirituality" refers to things that are not of this world, "spirits," specifically, of course, but also the soul. These are religious concepts, as is your concept of a god capable of discussing things with you. You may wish to consider these things free of the trappings of ORGANIZED religion, but that doesn't not mean they are not elements of religion. Spirituality may not be the same as religion, but they are not inextricable from each other, either. If you believe in a spiritual realm and experiences of the spirit (as opposed to transcendent, but wholly material experiences), then you are espousing religious beliefs. Just because the word "religion" has taken on negative connotations doesn't mean the dictionary definition doesn't still apply. If it helps, you can go through and change all references to the supernatural -- "spirituality," "religion," "God," etc. -- to "magic." It's all the same. Attempts to differentiate are just theology.

Clemsy said...

Jonathan, well done. It is long past time for religious views to be opened for inspection and deconstruction if they are going to be entered into the political sphere.

It should be relatively easy to pin down such issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception as religiously driven by the so-called christian right.

So any legislation against those issues is automatically unconstitutional.

WickyWoo said...

You're half right

What needs to be hit on is that religion is not a black or white issue. You are supposed to be obeying a divine, omnipotent being. If you don't, then you're not obeying your god. Any Christian not burning down the local Red Lobster is not obeying the laws that Jesus himself endorsed in the text

Abrahamic religion is murderous and violent. Anyone who follows it is delusional, and either violent or a hypocrite.
Either way, mental illness is not avirtue

J.D. Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J.D. Ryan said...

You are SO right on with this. Have you read Sam Harris' 'The End of Faith'? What you are espousing here is a major point in his book, that if religion wants to be heard in the public sphere, that it need to be held up to critical scrutiny. One of my favorite things in the book is that if we tell others how God speaks to us in times of distress it's ok, but if we say we're getting messages from creatures in Alpha Centauri coming through our hirdryer, we're nuts. What is the difference?I have wrtitten quite a bit about this on my own blog... pardon the plug, it's

I'd really enjoy you and your thoughts on some of my writings, there are a lot about the whole church/state religious wingnut thing. I'm also gonna put a link to your blog.

Stephen Hirsch said...

I have a beef with #8."Thou shalt not steal the boundaries between faith and reason."

There is no such thing as reason that stands on its own. Reason is a process that starts with axioms, whether religiously or areligiously based.

Also, as an Orthodox Jew, I would like to add the following "Commandment" to the list: when referring to "The Bible", please identify if the speaker is referring to the Bible itself, or one of its translations. If a translation, which one; if the Hebrew Bible in particular, which commentator is used to understand the passage.

brewski said...

Jonathan, Brewski here. Not only are you ascribing more importance to religion than reality dictates, you are saying journalists may take liberties to delve into areas for which they typically have no training or experience - even though I have previously seen attempts made by obviously unqualified people.

Now when somebody like the current President makes an issue of personal religion, definitely get someone with the background for more analysis as is possible. But there is no reason to ask journalists to go beyond their basic training and experience based on trendiness.

hojyaj said...

STOP TRYING TO SHOVE CHRISTIANITY DOWN OUR THROATS. Religion is the cause for almost any war that has existed and has killed more people than any other event(s).

Sharoney said...

As a journalist and Christian (Lutheran ELCA) I say, HELL, YEAH! Let's get some specifics and some honesty to reporting on religious issues. The media has been shirking its educational and informative role in this area for too long, and the result has been sloppy reporting.

If a candidate uses religion as a talking point, then their actions as well as their words are, to coin a phrase, "Fair game."

In the case of Christianity, even the most Protestant sects acknowledge that one's behavior is a reflection, to one degree or another, of how seriously one takes one's faith. So those who say they accept Jesus as their Savior should not get a free pass when it comes to their actions in the public sphere.

As Jesus once said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." If a public figure parades his religion as a point of pride, then he/she opens himself/herself to an examination of precisely what that speaker has done to live up to those professed ideals.

After all, they brought the subject up themselves.

And I agree with Stephen Hirsch. There is a tradition in both Jewish and Christian thought, stretching back many centuries, concerning the relationship between faith and reason. There is no thinking Jew or Christian who has not struggled with the boundaries between the two. The wrestling with that boundary is one of the most exciting and vibrant areas in modern religious thought, and should not be dismissed as an absolute.

Right now, journalism considers religion a subspecialty. I fervently hope (and pray!) as a journalist and a Christian that this will change. To do otherwise is to trivialize religion and to neglect an important area of human existence.

And no, hojyoj, to report on it is not "shoving Christianity it down our throats." Informing the public of the factors that drive the news is not (or should not) be equated with advocacy.

And Brewski, reporters, especially those in the trenches of local and regional reporting, go "beyond their area of expertise" all the time. The way the profession works almost guarantees that one will have to be a generalist, at least until one reaches the lofty heights of the national press. But even local reporters can approach any subject -- even religion -- with the humility, curiousity and discernment necessary to bring the story to the public by asking the right people the right questions, with the right attitude. I think that's what the original post was about to begin with.

Anonymous said...

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.


This entry is going to take me a while to digest. However, there are some religious studies programs, mythology programs, and depth psychology programs (or a blend of all three) that promote such an approach. The trick is bringing that experiential knowledge out into the world in fruitful ways.

I'm in one such graduate program that is not only a comparative mythology/religion degree, but takes into account the role of psychology in shaping religious beliefs and customs -- and vice versa.

The myths and sacred stories we live by, whether rationalism, faith, fundamentalism, atheism or any other flavor, determine how we experience the world and how we see everyone and everything around us: good and evil, law and crime, sin and virtue, and so on. Knowing what paradigm people are operating within is vital for communication. Many of the complex problems we're facing nowadays stem from the fact that many people are operating on different mythic or religious paradigms, but their paradigms include a built-in "monolithism" that makes it impossible for them to communicate with those in other paradigms, or even to realize that other paradigms exist.

ceej said...

The previous anonymous poster wrote: "The myths and sacred stories we live by, whether rationalism, faith, fundamentalism, atheism or any other flavor...."

What are the myths and sacred stories of i) rationalism and ii) atheism???

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