It’s time for another entry in the “those silly Christians think the media is unfair to them” file. I thought the following Q&A from an interview with columnist Mark Oppenheimer was noteworthy in that it actually manages to demonstrate two of the ways in which the media is unfair.
Religious believers often feel that they’re treated unfairly by the media. Do they have a point? What aspects of religion do journalists regularly get wrong?
Most reporters have a superficial knowledge of whatever beat they’re on; that’s true of me every time I wander from the religion beat, where I actually have pretty deep knowledge. So reporters get religion wrong, but they get a lot of things wrong: labor relations, war, etc. I don’t think there is a special animus against religion. One could argue there is special gentle treatment for religion. Religious believers say things all the time for which there is no real evidence — that’s what “faith” is, by definition — and reporters don’t call them on it, unless the religion is new and thus seems weird, like Scientology. But if a religion is old and traditional, like Judaism and Christianity, its adherents get to go on about the Rapture, or the Resurrection, or whatever, and reporters never insert paragraphs like, “Asked for evidence that the Rapture would someday come, the minister could only point to the Book of Revelation.”
Superficial knowledge of most subjects may be a typical problem amongst reporters, but the more insidious version of this problem is thinking that one’s own knowledge is deep even when it is superficial. Oppenheimer, for example, considers his own knowledge of religion to be “pretty deep,” but one begins to find this assessment deeply suspect as he goes on to define faith as belief without evidence. That may be how atheists like to define faith; it may be how Hollywood usually defines faith; but it is not how faith is defined by orthodox Christianity—one of the two specific religions he mentions. In truth, Christians talk about faith in several different senses. This is why we often use disambiguations like saving faith when referring to trust in God’s promises of salvation through the death & resurrection of Christ or the faith when referring to the body of doctrine given by God and delivered to the Church through the apostles. It is also why we use the term blind faith when referring to Oppenheimer’s kind of faith—to mark it out as something which has nothing to do with Christianity. This would not be news to anyone with a pretty deep knowledge of religion and should not be news to anyone who has taught others how to report on religion.
The second problem is revealed when Oppenheimer goes on to confuse patronization with “gentle treatment.” Reporters don’t ask about evidence for specific doctrines because by-and-large they see Christians like they see Trekkies—as members of some kind of weird fandom. To reporters, being a Christian just means being caught up in a story—until, of course, Christians begin taking it “too far” by treating it as though it were actually true and allowing it to unduly influence their lives. That’s when Christians go from harmless fans to dangerous fanatics. Because of this mindset, reporters will often approach the subject with all the credulity of parents inquiring about their child’s imaginary friend. They will chuckle or reflect wistfully on this strange behavior when they find it charming, and they will chide and censure when they do not, but they will never bother asking about evidence because they are certain it would all be techno-babble anyway.
I, for one, would love to see reporters stop being “gentle” so that they can start inserting paragraphs like, “Asked for evidence that the Resurrection happened, the minister provided historical documentation that would be more than adequate for any other event in antiquity.”