Atheists & Agnostics

Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Journalists love polls, surveys and studies. One week, wine, for example, is good for you. Seemingly the next, it’s not. There is especially true of medical studies. It was also true during the last presidential election. When it comes to polls, studies and surveys, there has been a reckoning of sorts. Nonetheless, news outlets can’t stop reporting on them despite issues with veracity.

The primary reason is that they get clicks.

As a result, they are widely shared on social media platforms. Another reason is that they provide news sites with diverse news coverage. It “can’t be Trump all the time” has become a popular newsroom refrain the past few years.

What we learned this month is that polls, survey and studies involving politics and health — despite their polarizing natures — are fair game. The ones around faith — and specifically around a specific belief — is not. How else would one explain the dearth of coverage around a Pew Study released on August 5 around a central belief that should be held by Catholics, but is increasingly not. Catholic news sites were abuzz with coverage, but secular news outlets chose to ignore it. 

Transubstantiation — the belief that during Mass the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ — is central to the Catholic faith. Pew found that just 31% of U.S. Catholics believe that statement. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the priest’s offering of bread and wine, known as the eucharist and a re-enactment of The Last Supper, are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The reaffirmation of this doctrine came in the year 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. When consumed, God enters the life of a Catholic. This is essential to salvation.

On the other hand, let’s take another subject that sparks debate and division: belief in ghosts and UFOs. Yes, the phenomenon of people seeing an Unidentified Flying Object, sparking the belief that alien life is out there, has been taken more seriously in the press than any Catholic belief deemed too magical or strange by secular society and mainstream news outlets.

Don’t believe me? UFOs have been in the news this summer, and at other periods of the year, whenever possible. It’s a subject that stretches one’s imagination. It serves as clickbait. It’s important. These are all reasons why UFO stories may be covered, even though they border on conspiracy theory whenever the government may be involved.

For example, Politico, USA Today and the BBC all chose to do UFO stories this month. Why not transubstantiation? By comparison, the central belief of the Catholic faith — so out of reach for many reporters to understand and explain — is relegated to the religious press.

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Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

As a rule, your GetReligionistas do not post critiques — positive or negative — about opinion pieces in the mainstream press. The exceptions usually run on weekends, when we point readers to “think pieces” and essays on topics linked to religion-news work.

Every now and then, however, a think piece comes along that does a better job of handling an important news topic than most of the “hard news” pieces on the same or similar topics.

In this case, we are talking about the many, many debates we will be seeing in the weeks and months ahead as Democratic Party leaders attempt to thin out the field of 666 or so candidates who want the right to run against Donald Trump in 2020.

That brings me to a very important New York Times piece that ran the other day — written by Thomas B. Edsall — under this wordy, but important headline:

The Democratic Party Is Actually Three Parties

They have different constituents and prefer different policies. Satisfying them all will not be easy.

Now, it is impossible, these days, to talk about divisions in the American political marketplace without running into controversial issues linked to religion, morality and culture. Can you say religious liberty? Oh, sorry, I meant “religious liberty.”

Obviously, one of these Democratic armies is the world of “woke” folks on Twitter. Then you have the left-of-center party establishment. And then you have the world of “moderates” and conservative Democrats, who still — believe it or not — exist. You can see evidence of that in recent GetReligion posts about the fault lines inside the Democratic Party on subjects linked to abortion.

Here is Edsall’s overture, which is long — but essential:

Democratic Party voters are split. Its most progressive wing, which is supportive of contentious policies on immigration, health care and other issues, is, in the context of the party’s electorate, disproportionately white. So is the party’s middle group of “somewhat liberal” voters. Its more moderate wing, which is pressing bread-and-butter concerns like jobs, taxes and a less totalizing vision of health care reform, is majority nonwhite, with almost half of its support coming from African-American and Hispanic voters.

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

As nuns age, the huge question has been about who can be found to replace them. The future of Catholic religious orders in the United States is pretty dire at the moment. Two publications recently came out with stories on millennials and nuns, with very different conclusions.

One story is a splashy, detailed look at a handful of millennial women who entered Catholic religious orders in New Jersey and their reasons for doing so. Another is a Religion News Service story, datelined Grand Rapids, Mich., about older nuns who meet with agnostic/seeking millennial women and try to connect on a spiritual plane.

The New Jersey story, available on NJ.com (a group of news sources including the Newark Star-Ledger) follows three women who joined religious orders. There’s Anna, a Rutgers grad; Chiara, a one-time nursing student at Villanova; and Lauren, a former Australian actress now living with a contemplative religious order.

They’re millennial women who have chosen a path more popular for generations before them — one that involves kneeling before an altar, vowing to live in poverty, obeying God and abstaining from sex.

“I didn’t see a lightning bolt that fell out of the sky,” Sister Anna said. “I didn’t see an angel who told me what I was going to do in my life.”

In our hyper-connected, media-saturated age, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down and engage with the spiritual world, much less get them to consider a life lived in service to the church. Yet handfuls of millennial women across the state have taken that path. These women are serving as Catholic sisters or missionaries, many working through the process known as discernment to become “women religious,” commonly referred to as nuns. If the young sisters make it through the discernment process — which takes years and sometimes pulls them thousands of miles from family and friends — they are choosing something permanent, and forsaking the lures of marriage, kids, autonomy and material goods.

I know reporters may feel they have to dumb down religion stories for the masses, but the “kneeling before an altar”? Is that simple act so beyond the experience of most 20-somethings?

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Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.

Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.

But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.

It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:

Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?

A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York

What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?

It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)

Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:

For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne Lolita Express, some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …

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Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

If you follow America’s battles over religious liberty (no scare quotes), you know that things are getting complicated.

One of the most important stories out there is the search for compromises that protect the rights granted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers who affirm centuries of religious doctrines that reject this new teaching by the state.

Yes, that’s a complicated statement. It doesn’t help that America doesn’t do compromises very well, these days. It also doesn’t help that many — some would say “most” — political reporters have zero interest in learning more about these complicated church-state issues. The result, in many cases, are news reports in which it is almost impossible for readers to know what is going on or why some politicos are taking the stance that they are taking.

Case in point is this Alabama Political Reporter story that ran with this headline: “Legislature OKs bill ending marriage licenses.”

This is complicated, so let’s walk through this carefully. The key question: Who opposed this bill and why did they oppose it?

… The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill that would end the requirement that marriages must be solemnized with some sort of a ceremony and the state will no longer issue licenses giving two people permission to marry. Instead, the state will simply record that a marriage exists.

Senate Bill 69 is sponsored by state Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.

Under Alabama law, marriages can only be between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that centuries-old legal standard in the highly controversial 5-to-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.

SB69 ends the requirement that there has to be a marriage ceremony. A couple will simply fill out and sign the marriage forms, pay the recording fee, and the probate judge’s office will record that there is a marriage agreement between the two parties.

“All the state needs to do is ensure that a marriage is legally formed,” Albritton told a House Committee last month. “If you want to have a ceremony go to your pastor and have it in whatever form you want to do. This takes marriage out of the state purview.”

So what we have here is a radically simplified contract system that creates a legal union — gay or straight — in the eyes of the state government.

If citizens want a “marriage” rite, they are free to arrange that with the religious or secular professional of their choice. They just need to let the state know, for legal reasons, that this has happened.

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Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality.

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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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Heavy, man: Late-night Rolling Stone bull session about a monument to a 'France that never was'

Heavy, man: Late-night Rolling Stone bull session about a monument to a 'France that never was'

Here is a rarity in the realm of GetReligion: a report in which the ghost is secularism — or, as Rolling Stone’s E.J. Dickson might write — “the ghost is quite literally so-called ‘secularism.’ ”

On the day after the inferno that swept through Notre Dame Cathedral, Dickson delivered brisk roundup of perspectives from historians of architecture about what was lost and what perhaps ought to replace it.

The problems begin in her first sentence: “Yesterday, the world watched in open-mouthed horror as Notre Dame Cathedral, an 800-year-old monument in Paris, France, burst into flames.”

Of all the ways one might describe Notre Dame, “an 800-year-old monument” is bland and tone-deaf, and it reflects Dickson’s consistent theme of the cathedral mostly as a symbol rather than holy ground. It’s kind of similar to what our own tmatt noted in his national “On Religion” column this week:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

As you would expect, this Rolling Stone paragraph in particular drew concern from Catholics, such as Raymond Arroyo of EWTN, who appreciate the cathedral’s primary identity as one of Christianity’s most sacred spaces:

But for some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

It grows worse:

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