by Denyse O'Leary
Richard Dawkins was recently named Person of the Year by BBC Belfast. That is only one of many examples of the acclaim that authors who used to market science but now market atheism have received throughout the media.
Typically, they are regarded as making bold, new, and highly controversial statements. Bold, yes, but, as a matter of fact, there is little that is new or highly controversial in any of it. It was all said much better back in the18th century. Only the dust covers have been updated.
One thing I have learned from a lifetime in media is that most media people are unidirectional skeptics - they are very skeptical of non-materialism but not the least bit skeptical of materialism.
Two things follow: Journalists in the legacy mainstream media are regularly astonished by phenomena that better informed people might have predicted - for example the prevalence of religious belief in a high tech age. Journalists are among the least likely people to be devoutly religious or to know many people who are, and they naturally assume that everyone is like them.
Second, you can make them believe just about anything about religion - as long as it is materialist - as the curious saga of the God Helmet* demonstrated. Indeed, any thesis about human behaviour, no matter how ridiculous, will be treated with respect if it is called "evolutionary psychology." In that respect, evolutionary psychology seems to have inherited its dunce cap from Freudianism. What the two have in common is, of course, materialism.
Not only that, but religion is in fact the only large subject in which ignorance is actually sort of "cool." People who would be embarrassed to know nothing of sports may not be the least bit personally embarrassed by referring to Carmelite nuns at John Paul II's funeral as "karma light" nuns. Well, yes, they will admit it is a mistake. But it's not necessarily embarrassing to know so little about the world's great faiths as to regularly make such errors.
Biola historian Richard Flory offers the interesting thesis that many journalists see their role as actually replacing traditional religion as a source of beliefs and values:
Richard Flory nicely documents the ways in which journalistic "professionalization" went hand in hand with secularization. According to the doctrine of the professionalizers, journalism was uniquely essential to civilization; the evolution from primitive to professional journalism was inevitable; journalism was the "educator" of the masses; religion was reduced to morality and ethics, and all religions were to be treated equally; professional journalism was the functional equivalent of and successor to religion. As Flory shows, journalists were very explicitly instructed in these doctrines, and he illustrates the effectiveness of the instruction in the treatment of religion in the New York Times over the past century."
- Richard Neuhaus, FT March 2005: The Public Square
It's worth keeping in mind that for fifty years, media have worked with the assumption that traditional religions would die out. A number of false guesses were made. Here are two of them:
1. The troubles of dying liberal Protestant denominations were regularly mistaken for a decline in interest in religion; few noticed the new storefront churches that had begun to dot the urban landscape or the megachurches of the suburbs.
2. Media stereotypes were never updated and became increasingly at odds with reality - leading to many further bad calls. If we look at the worldwide Anglican communion today, for example, the average Anglican (Episcopalian) is NOT an upper crust British gent but a thirty-year-old black African woman. And her bishop is probably a graduate of a world class university who regularly sends missionaries from Africa to darkest Europe ... And he regards the American Episcopal Church as apostate (seriously heretical).
People who don't know that sort of thing should not be writing about religion, but often are.
The fact that materialism, not religion, is in decline has provoked in an institutional tantrum that vents itself in the great deal of attention paid to the spate of anti-God and anti-Christian books - despite the fact that they say nothing new and are generally off the mark. Let's take a look at a few of the better known authors and their books.
(*That's in Chapter 4 of the forthcoming book The Spiritual Brain by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and myself).
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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