Sunday, October 27, 2013

Needs improvement #1: The New York Times on atheism and religion

Some recent responses to articles in the New York Times have led me to consider in more depth their coverage of certain topics. First was the response to Templeton-funded T. M. Luhrmann’s most recent offering in the paper, “Conjuring Up Our Own Gods.” As Quodlibet remarks at Ed Brayton’s blog,
As a regular reader of the NYTimes, I’ve followed with interest — akin to rubbernecking at a traffic accident — the monthly columns by T.H. [sic] Luhrmann. They are a flagrant waste of pixels and the energy required to transmit them. I also have read with interest, the many comments appended to her columns by other readers, most of whom have disagreed with her and call her out for what she is – an apologist for religiosity, specifically Christian religiosity. I also have posted comments to her columns, criticizing not only Luhrmann’s weak arguments, but also criticizing the editors at the NYT for their poor judgement in publishing her columns at all, and also for failing to cast a more editorially-critical eye on their contents. Luhrmann’s columns are poorly-reasoned, her assumptions are too often based on anecdotes, and her analysis is underlaid by the gross assumption that religious faith is a default for all people, when actually the reverse is true: people are born without religion and gain it only through indoctrination and manipulation.

The NYT chose not to publish my most recent comment, but I published it on my blog* anyway. (nyah nyah NYT)

I find it fascinating that the NYT no longer accepts comments on ANY of her columns.

It appears from my brief, unscientific, and quite possibly inadequate investigation* that Luhrmann’s regular posts form part of a larger pattern in how the Times covers atheism, religion, and secular humanism. My impressions from a cursory article search:

On October 10, 2012, the Times featured the article “Percentage of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds”: “The study also found that nearly one in five Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’, a seismic shift from 50 years ago.” Despite this rapid growth, particularly among young people, atheists and other nonreligious people don’t have much of a voice at the NYT.

Generally the paper features few positive articles about atheists, and even fewer by atheists - offering their point of view on philosophical, moral, and political questions. These do appear from time to time:

• “The Blessings of Atheism” (op ed), by Susan Jacoby (January 5, 2013): “The absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.”

• “Good Minus God,” by Louise M. Anthony (December 18, 2011): “Atheists do not lose morality by giving up God. Instead, they must find it where it lives: in the natural world.”

But they’re few and far between. The sorts of articles Greta Christina publishes at AlterNet, and that she and others post regularly on blogs, almost never appear in the Times.

A search for “secular humanism” within the category of atheism turned up a meager selection of articles since 2011, which fail to offer a fair representation of outspoken atheists. Two concern Teresa MacBain. The first of those:

• “After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission,” by Samuel G. Freedman (September 21, 2013): “The path for a minister who loses faith in God can be murky. But for one lapsed Methodist, fate — or something — intervened.”

The previous three:

• “Children, Choosing Their Religion,” by KJ Dell'Antonia (January 03, 2013): “Raising children outside of a religious tradition doesn't mean there's no room for religion in their lives.”

• “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent,” by Samuel G. Freedman (December 29, 2012): “At a time when more Americans are without religious affiliation, the ‘nones’, as they are known, seem conspicuous in their absence from recent scenes of grief and mourning.”

• “Beyond ‘New Atheism’,” by Gary Gutting (September 14, 2011): “Most believers come to religion because of personal experience, not philosophical argument. A new brand of atheism takes this fact seriously.”

As this last title suggests, there seems overall to be a preference for the Harvard Humanist flavor of atheism, which carries a candle for religion and tends toward hostility to those atheists who are openly critical of and have little use for it. They’re also fond of covering religious leaders and people with religious training in atheist and humanist organizations. Aside from MacBain’s, the other atheist “leader” profiles offered:

• “From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader” (August 26, 2012): “The new heroes within the secular movement are coming from unlikely places — like the pulpit.”

• “In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home” (June 24, 2013): “A former Pentecostal preacher, saying nonbelievers often miss the sense of community of church, held what he called Louisiana’s first atheist service.”

There’s an apparent uneasiness about the atheistic rejection of religion and a tendency to suggest that atheism doesn’t or shouldn’t mean dismissing it, as implied in some of the pieces cited above and several others:

• “Learning to Respect Religion,” by Nicholas D. Kristof (April 8, 2012): “Easter is the perfect day to reflect on the new intellectual tide that expresses grudging admiration for religion as a cohesive force….”

• “Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’,” by David Brooks (March 16, 2012): “Alain de Botton suggests how culture might still save our souls.”

• “A Religious Ritual Attracts Even Nonbelievers,” by Mark Oppenheimer (March 16, 2013): “An embrace of Lent is seen by some who call themselves atheists as cultural nostalgia and as claiming a sense of community.”

(There’s a real reluctance, as this last example with its reference to people who “call themselves atheists” suggests, even to recognize a wholly atheist identity.)

As the articles above indicate, pieces about atheists tend to cluster around religious holidays, and also frequently concern clashes over religious displays in government contexts. While the latter can be explained in part by the journalistic attraction to stories about conflict, the articles to seem to frame these conflicts in ways that isolate atheists and suggest that they focus on targeting religion rather than on defending the law and their own and others’ human rights:

• “Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Replaced by Atheists” (also titled “Where Crèches Once Stood, Atheists Now Hold Forth”), by Jennifer Medina (December 22, 2011): “Atheists who objected to Nativity scenes in a park in California won the right to put up their own messages, which now outnumber the religious ones.”

• “To Fight Religious Monuments, Atheists Plan Their Own Symbols,” by Laurie Goodstein (July 5, 2013): “Starting with a bench in Florida, the group American Atheists intends to install 50 more secular totems near displays of the Ten Commandments nationwide.”

There have been some sympathetic articles about atheists experiencing marginalization:

• “African-American Atheists,” by Emily Brennan (November 27, 2011): “African-Americans who say they don’t believe in God are often at odds with family, friends and potential romantic partners.”

(Note the “say they don’t believe in God.”)

• “For Indonesian Atheists, a Community of Support Amid Constant Fear,” by Sara Schonhardt (April 27, 2013): “In predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where trumpeting one's disbelief in God can lead to abuse, ostracism and even prison, atheists find careful ways to build a community of support.”

But generally there’s little attention to discrimination against atheists or resistance to religious privilege in the US. Even the coverage of the Jessica Ahlquist story, about as straightforward a case of someone courageously standing for the First Amendment and for religious freedom and being threatened and harassed for it as you’ll find, seemed to take an odd course beginning with “Rhode Island City Enraged Over School Prayer Lawsuit” (January 27, 2012) and moving, following reader responses to the report, to an op ed entitled “A Brave Stand in Rhode Island” (February 1, 2012).

And why does the Times timidly rely on atheist objections and lawsuits to call attention to violations of the separation of Church and State? Of course, they can’t be expected to go into every school or local government office scouting for religious displays or practices, but there are many examples of religious involvement with government that warrant coverage, independent of whether any organizations have (yet) brought a legal challenge – see, for example, The Atlantic’s recent story “Using Christianity to Fight Crime” (a lawsuit is now being discussed).

So, to return to where I started, there’s a lot more where Luhrmann’s opinion pieces came from. In the most recent example, doing my “research” for this post I noticed a new article from just the other day – an interview by John Williams with Francis Spufford about the silly thesis of his book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. (It received equally fawning treatment last year in the Guardian.)

Based on my reading, I give these suggestions:

1. Offer more coverage of both the growth of atheism and the continued marginalization of atheists.

2. Feature a broader range of atheist voices, including those who are openly critical of religion, and offer opportunities for atheists, including those who are openly critical of religion, to discuss morality, social justice, and politics.

3. Make reporting on potential violations of the First Amendment – at the national, state, and local levels and in a variety of contexts - a normal part of your journalistic practice.

4. If you must publish these gooey interviews with and inane commentary by religious apologists, at least allow atheists (preferably not named Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) an equal opportunity to respond, particularly to the apologists’ characterizations of atheism.

* Aside from its brevity and non-systematicity, the search was hindered by the fact that I’ve reached my limit for the month and can’t go back and read most of the articles. I’m sure the titles and brief descriptions don’t fully capture their arguments, and I would appreciate corrections if I’m mischaracterizing any of them on that basis; on the other hand, these titles and descriptions have an importance all their own.

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