Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Journalists don’t get religion, Ex. 95,244

posted by Rod Dreher

Leading the New York Times site right this moment:

Ethnic Violence in Nigeria Has Killed 500, Officials Say
By ADAM NOSSITER
DAKAR, Senegal — Officials and human rights groups in Nigeria said Monday that about 500 people had died in weekend ethnic violence near the central city of Jos, considerably more than what had initially been reported.
A government spokesman said Sunday that the dead numbered more than 300. The victims were Christians killed by rampaging Muslim herdsmen, officials and human rights workers said, apparently in reprisal for similar attacks on Muslims in January.

Emphases mine. I didn’t realize “Christian” and “Muslim” were ethnic categories. You read down into the story, and you realize that the Christian victims were members of one ethnic group, and the Muslim perpetrators are members of another. OK, fine. But what kind of cockeyed editorial policy downplays the religious nature of this violence? Does it really enhance our understanding of the deadly conflict in Nigeria to marginalize the religious element of the fighting?
A few years back, Philip Jenkins, in an Atlantic Monthly profile of Archbishop Peter Akinola, Nigeria’s Anglican primate, who had become a controversial figure in the West for his hardline stance on homosexuality, wrote:

That Akinola has now spoken out so strongly on issues being debated in other countries suggests his level of fury. This arises in part from his sense that the Northern churches are abandoning the Christian moral tradition. But another element further explains Akinola’s–and, indeed, African Christianity’s–desperate intervention in the Church’s controversies over homosexuality: rivalry with Islam. At first sight the connection may seem tenuous: what does it matter to Christians in Lagos or Kampala whether an Anglican minister blesses two men in a civil ceremony of union in Vancouver? But the link is in fact an important one.
Nigeria is a land of intense interfaith conflict. Islamist authorities have imposed sharia law in a third of the country’s thirty-six states, and Christians there face a very real danger of persecution and jihad. These sharia states include Kebbi and Kaduna, where Akinola lived during his years of theological training in the 1970s. He saw firsthand the growth of Muslim militancy, and his diploma is from the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, located in Jos, which for several years now has been a storm center of rioting and anti-Christian pogroms. Since 1990 the Anglican Church has responded to these threats by deliberately reinforcing its presence in the Muslim north, to show that Christians are not going to fade away without a fight.
This struggle provides the crucial context for African concerns about sexual morality. Across the continent Muslims have tried to make converts by arguing that the Christian West is decadent and sexually irresponsible–a belief that finds daily confirmation in Western films and television. If the Anglican Communion accepted gay bishops or approved gay unions, Muslims would gain an enormous propaganda victory in Nigeria–and in a dozen or so other African countries in which Christians and Muslims compete for converts, often violently. When Akinola speaks out, therefore, it is not because he wants to intrude on the affairs of other churches but, rather, because he feels that the very existence of Christianity in his own territory is under threat. At stake, he believes, is the religious map of much of Africa, and the global balance between Christianity and Islam.

Now that’s interpretive reporting that helps us understand what better what’s going on in Nigeria. Plainly there is an ethnic element to the recent bloodshed in Nigeria. But I want to know more about why Nigerian Muslims and Nigerian Christians are fighting so viciously. Anyway, this screwball headline brought to mind the headline on this Times story from 2002: “Killing Underscores Enmity of Evangelists and Muslims.” It was about Lebanese Muslims who had murdered an Evangelical medical missionary. The enmity only went one way, obviously; that headline really misled the reader.



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lancelot lamar

posted March 8, 2010 at 2:22 pm


There are only certain groups that get to be “victims” in the worldview of western, secular elites, for whom the Times is a chief spokesman. This is true no matter what the facts are. Christians are not on the approved victims list, so they can’t be victims.



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TTT

posted March 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm


So Akinola’s point is that African Christians mustn’t stop discriminating against gays because doing so would lead to more recruitment for African Muslims.
Talk about “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Maybe those Danish papers shouldn’t have published the Mohammed cartoons, because it made some Muslims upset! Islam is not going away–and if it ever WERE to go away, it wouldn’t be because somebody else hated gays enough. So in the meantime, how about not treating innocent people as second-class citizens and religious footballs?



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Rod Dreher

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm


TTT, the point I’m trying to make here has nothing to do with whether or not Akinola is right on gays. Rather, Jenkins’ piece puts Akinola’s religious views and actions into a geopolitical context, and helps us to understand better what’s going on in Nigeria, however we feel about Akinola himself. My complaint is that today’s Times story is confusing, and in an amateurish way. To what extent is the violence a matter of ethnic rivalry, and to what extent is it genuine sectarian fighting?



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Antonius Magnus

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:26 pm


I do not pretend to understand Africa’s many ethnic conflicts; the only one that I know anything about is the Rwandan genocide between Hutus and Tutsis. Europeans, when in control of the region during the colonial era, favored the Tutsi over the Hutu for unguessable reasons, and this fostered hatred between the two that remains today. Nigeria is a large country with many different tribal groups, some Christian, some Muslim, some Animist. I am quite sure that colonialism played some part in the antagonisms, but I would argue that it cannot be the sole cause of this kind of tribal conflict–what I am curious about, and what I could not find mentioned on any news site, is the tribal description of the religions involved. The reader of these news “reports” does come away, as Mr. Dreher has said, with the impression that is Muslim vs Christian, and that is the main reason for the violence. This does play into the narrative that is currently very popular, but is it accurate? Are the people who happen to be Christians at war with the people who happen to be Muslims on religious grounds, or are they at war with them for other, secular reasons like land, water rights, or land for grazing animals? These are the questions I could not find answers to when I read the news sites this morning (including NYT).
As to the ‘Journalists don’t get religion’ claim, I just say “Absolutely correct!” I have seen so few journalists display any understanding of religious communities and the faiths that sustain them, even such luminaries as Christian Aumanpour, whose faith series on CNN was so appallingly bad as to be hidden away somewhere in the CNN archives, never to be seen again. Her issue, and the issue that a lot of academics fail to properly understand, is popularity does not indicate the “norm” of a particular religion: just because the Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.,does not therefore mean that they are the standard bearers of the Protestant ideal nor does it mean that all Protestants agree with their ecclesiastical philosophy, or even their Christology. All too often, some nutjob fringer like Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson or Van Impe will make some crazy claim that no serious Christian would agree with, and the news writers will intimate that somehow all Christians believe as the aforementioned nutjob believes.
British news people seem to be worse than Americans; I will only mention the lady who noticed VP Biden’s ashes on Ash Wednesday, and posited that the blot on his head was a bruise from “having a go down the slalom with a deli tray”, and then after this shocking lack of knowledge, claims to have been raised in Roman Catholic school and to be a Roman Catholic (albeit a bad one).



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BobSF

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:28 pm


Leading the New York Times site right this moment
The previous version of the story on the NYT website (which I read yesterday, so I remembered the headline): Nigeria – More Than 200 Dead in Religious Violence.
Granted, that was an AP story, so the headline might have also been AP’s. The violence is religious and ethic. The story is not “confusing” to the Times normal readership of informed people. There is a context of on-going violence tied to religion, ethnicity, geography, development, and the legacy of colonialism.
Attributing Akinola’s anti-gay positions to his need to compete with Muslims misses a lot of context. There is plenty to complain about in “western decadence” if that’s what he has to do. And plenty of African rulers do complain about “western decadence” without adopting Akinola’s tactics. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Akinola’s real audience in his anti-gay crusade is in America, where he has become quite well known in “conservative” circles and whence he has received a lot of financial support.



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karina_b

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm


Examine the writing in the story, the use of the passive as opposed to the active:
“… 500 people had died…” instead of “500 people were killed”
The headline could have read: Muslim herdsman kill 500 Christans” etc… but instead, unless you read on you would think that they all showed up and all simultaneously dropped dead from strep throat.
Again, the “The victims were Christians killed by rampaging Muslim herdsmen..” — nothing too terribly wrong, but compare the tone here to the strident active tones used when, for example, when a Christian is suspected of doing something similar to a non-Christian.



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Oda

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm


A thoughtfully written story would require research, a nuanced understanding of the culture involved, and thoughtful writing, all qualities in sadly short supply in the current American journalistic scene.



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Anderson

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:55 pm


but compare the tone here to the strident active tones used when, for example, when a Christian is suspected of doing something similar to a non-Christian.
Can you provide an example for purposes of comparison?
I agree that the NYT botched the headline, and I disapprove of the article’s unnecessary use of the passive voice. But you only have to read two sentences into the story to learn that Muslims. It’s not as though the writer completely buried or ignored this fact.



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Anderson

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:57 pm


That should say “to learn that Muslims killed Christians.” Apologies.



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Rod Dreher

posted March 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm


Granted, that was an AP story, so the headline might have also been AP’s. The violence is religious and ethic. The story is not “confusing” to the Times normal readership of informed people. There is a context of on-going violence tied to religion, ethnicity, geography, development, and the legacy of colonialism.
I wasn’t really blaming the reporter, but the headline writer. The story he/she put a headline on made it clear that the violence is primarily religious. My guess — and it’s only that — is that once again, we have journalists trying to hide or downplay matters when Muslims kill Christians, out of fear that some redneck somewhere will stereotype all Muslims. I’ve seen it happen inside newsrooms. On CNN some years ago (back in 2002, I think), I saw a report about “religious violence” in the Middle East. The violence involved a Muslim mob massacring Christians. But it was presented by the reporter in this faux-neutral way, as if this were a matter of inscrutable hostility between religious parties. As if “Nazis, Jews clash in streets” were a truthful way of reporting Kristallnacht.
If Christians massacre Muslims, I want to know it. I deplore it, but I’m a big boy, and can handle it. I get so weary of American journalists trying to hard to baby the news.
Attributing Akinola’s anti-gay positions to his need to compete with Muslims misses a lot of context. There is plenty to complain about in “western decadence” if that’s what he has to do.
You are misreading Jenkins. He pointed out that Akinola has theological reasons for believing as he does. Jenkins added context to the overall Akinola story. I didn’t get the idea that Jenkins was trying to absolve Akinola in any sense, but only point out that there’s more to this theological dispute with liberal Anglicans than doctrinal disagreement.



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karina_b

posted March 8, 2010 at 4:43 pm


This is from CNN, when Christians killed Muslims earlier in the conflict:
http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/01/23/nigeria.massacre.probe/index.html
Headline: Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria warrants probe, rights group says
Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) — Reports of at least 150 Muslims killed in recent religious clashes in Nigeria should be investigated, a human rights group urged Saturday.
Just one example.



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Mitchell

posted March 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm


I would argue that religion actually has very little do with the ongoing conflicts in Nigeria. While the North is predominantly Muslim and the South predominantly Christian, the geographical mixing of the religions is actually quite high, especially in the southern 1/2 of the country, where there are high Muslim populations. In fact many families are both Christian and Muslim, with little problem. However, the extent of intergroup violence seems to be limited to the northern 1/2 or so of the country. Why is this?
Nigeria is a heavily-populated, underdeveloped country with high poverty levels. In the north, where poverty is most acute and resources most limited, we find that there is a stiff competition for land, food and many other goods. It is no coincidence that the Muslims attacking the Christians were “herders”. In fact, the Christians were farmers. As population growth has crowded out herders and led to intensification of farming, resource competition has become more and more acute. By teaming up with their religious “compatriots”, rival groups (farmers vs herders, newcomers vs longtime settlers) manage to find strength, and greater violence, in numbers.
The violence in Nigeria is due to the failure of the state to improve local and national development while reducing inequality. With better access to resources for all Nigerians, you can be sure “ethnic” and “religious” violence would fade away. The real tragedy is the bad name the mis-informed press is giving to religion, and, I would argue, ethnicity.



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BobSF

posted March 8, 2010 at 5:13 pm


I wasn’t really blaming the reporter, but the headline writer.
First off, let me say I’m surprised that a journalist would call the person who writes the headlines for a paper a fellow “journalist”. My journalist friends have lots of names for the folks who take their stories and try to hype them up with a catchy headline. “Journalist” isn’t one of those words. :-)
I get so weary of American journalists trying to hard to baby the news.
Isn’t it worse to just pigeonhole this as “religious violence” when there are other factors at work? Wouldn’t that just play into the prejudices of the “New atheists” (as you call them)? As another poster pointed out, there are large populations of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria who do not go killing each other. If the tension were religious in nature, wouldn’t Nigeria be just another killing field in a religious war that stretched across the continent, indeed the world?



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Anderson

posted March 8, 2010 at 5:15 pm


Headline: Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria warrants probe, rights group says
Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) — Reports of at least 150 Muslims killed in recent religious clashes in Nigeria should be investigated, a human rights group urged Saturday.
The headline in your example doesn’t say who killed whom, only that Muslims and Christians were involved in violence. The opening sentence doesn’t even mention Christians. And the article lacks the “strident active tones used . . . when a Christian is suspected of doing something similar to a non-Christian” that you mentioned earlier.



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Charles Cosimano

posted March 8, 2010 at 5:59 pm


My question is, hang onto your hair, this. Why would anyone consider a story about one group of Africans killing another group of Africans, or whatever reason, news? Isn’t this a “dog bites man” story?



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Norwegian Shooter

posted March 8, 2010 at 7:28 pm


As someone who has worked at a newspaper, you should know that criticizing a hed is like shooting fish in a barrel. It certainly isn’t even worth a newshook for a crappy blogpost.
If you want to see some truly amateurish journalism, just turn to a Templetonalist trying to cover evolution: http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/thesearch/archive/2009/02/28/join-the-real-charles-darwin-debate-on-the-12-theories-of-evolution.aspx
“There is actually a much richer discussion about evolution occurring behind the scenes. It involves 12 current theories. Only one of these evolutionary theories is neo-Darwinism, the school based on genetic mutation and natural selection that is dominant in most universities. [ed. note – I wonder why?] Neo-Darwinism is advanced by high-profile, anti-religious biologists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. But to my mind, some, not all, of the other 11 theories of evolution are more complete than neo-Darwinism.”
More complete? Then why don’t any of them have a significant portion of university professors supporting them? Well, thankfully, a New Age fluff piece provides the 11 other theories. Great reporting.



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Pat

posted March 8, 2010 at 7:32 pm


From following feminist news, I’ve known about and been appalled by the imposition of sharia law in Nigeria. But I fail to see how it would be one iota less disgusting if it were imposed by christians. A ‘race to the bottom’ by religions competing to be as brutal as the citizens wish to be… that’s about the most unchristian, cowardly thing I can imagine.



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public_defender

posted March 8, 2010 at 7:35 pm


Newsflash: Complicated story not completely summarized in headline.
Look, in the first two paragraphs we learn that 1) the victims in this case were Christian and of a different tribe than their Muslim attackers. We also learned that Christians had attacked and killed Muslims in the same country. That seems fa
I’d rather headline writers err on the side of generality and let the reporter tell the story.
And as to Akinola, I had heard the He-oppresses-gay-people-to-deflect-oppression-of-him before. It’s not exactly a secret. And, alas, its also not unique for an oppressed minority to look for weaker minorities to oppress.
In Nigeria, it looks like we have a choice between brutal thugs who oppress in the name of Islam and brutal thugs who oppress in the name of Jesus. Pity the Nigerians.
This also reminds me of criticisms we hear of Middle East coverage. Partisans of either side get very worked up about any article that doesn’t include every “critical” “fact” of the entire history of the conflict.
I’d like to see every article that mentions the split of the American conservative Episcopalians to include a discussion of what their new leadership really believes about gay people (imprison them just for saying that they’re gay). If, in return, every article also says that Akinola supports imprisoning gay people in order to deflect oppression from local Muslim groups, that seems fair.



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John

posted March 8, 2010 at 7:45 pm


now, if only the gays would duck and cover while the Muslims launch their jihad and the Christians launch their crusade.
I thought we got over this. People mutilating women and children, real, live people, over some preconceived notions about a god that we can neither see nor hear. And how do they prove their faith? by demonizing the gays of course!
Now I know why I left the Christian faith.
These Muslims and Christians really deserve each other.



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John

posted March 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm


Almost forgot one more point:
Religious leaders are, in theory anyway, supposed to preach “the truth” whether the geopolitics surrounding it seems right or not. They lose their credibility when they take into consideration these tactical concerns.



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Jon

posted March 8, 2010 at 8:06 pm


Re: But another element further explains Akinola’s–and, indeed, African Christianity’s–desperate intervention in the Church’s controversies over homosexuality: rivalry with Islam.
With all honor and veneration to the martyrs who have perished at the hands of radical Islam, I reject the notion that Christians the world over must kowtow to Muslim notions in order to achieve peace with Islam. That way lies dhimmitude. What next: second class citizenship for women? If Archbishop Akinola and the Christians of Nigeria wish to treed that path, that is their choice, but they have no business dictating to anyone outside the borders of their own dioceses.



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public_defender

posted March 9, 2010 at 7:51 am


These Muslims and Christians really deserve each other.
No one deserves to have their family massacred.



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Knez Dan

posted March 9, 2010 at 8:15 am


Christians killing Muslims sells news. Two unknown Africn tribes, regardless of religious affiliation, killing each other, does not sell news. Furthermore, exacerbating the problem is most American’s woeful ignorance of world cultures. As a Serbian American, I wish I had a dollar for every person I met who thinks that I am from Syria. Syria, Serbia, it’s all the same. They’re east of here aren’t they? Yes, but occasionally we get the breezes (Line from Philadelphia Story.)



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Betty Carter

posted March 9, 2010 at 9:32 am


In the article referenced above about Christian violence against Muslims (in Nigeria in January), it mentions that a Christian pastor who tried to stop the attacks was killed. Makes you wonder what’s going on. Some strange things are up Nigeria, and the media obviously have a very limited understanding of it all so far. I’m sure they’re working hard, but not from the inside–it’s as if they’re watching this conflict from space and speculating on the meanings of it. Until we know more from the inside (and have confirmation of what we’re told by participants), we should avoid passing judgment on anybody, Muslim or Christian.



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Chuck Bloom

posted March 9, 2010 at 12:01 pm


To have labeled Christians and Muslims as if they were part of a racial makeup comes from the same minds that have ALWAYS labeled Jews as a single race. It is SOOOOOO wrong.
I am an American who happens to be Jewish. I really don’t have any relatives living in Israel or Europe or elsewhere, nor do I feel any kinship other than a fellow follower of a certain religious viewpoint.
I hold the same viewpoint about Christians (who often themselves need better definition within their own ranks because too many of them cast others, who believe in the teaching of Jesus as being somehow of a different skin color) and Muslims and Hindus and Bhuddists, etc.
There are FAR more religions than there are races. People, stop melding both into one.



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Norwegian Shooter

posted March 9, 2010 at 6:03 pm


When I posted the terrible reporting from journalist Douglas Todd, I saw that he had posted a follow-up to respond to criticism. I thought he back-pedaled as fast as he could from his story, but now that I’ve read it, it’s even worse that the original story – which at least attributed the 11 other more complete theories of evolution to someone else.
Here is the result of Templeton bribing journalists:
“A few scientists have been offering either [sic] support for my recent arguments that we should move toward a synthesis of the realms of science, philosophy and spirituality, particularly around evolution.”
“But, like the prominent American scientists Francis Collins and Owen Gingrich, who happen to be Christian, I think science can only study phenomena that the human senses and their technological extensions can measure. There are limits to what can be known through the scientific method. Natural scientists, philosophers and spiritually inclined thinkers could grow more sophisticated in their realms by engaging in dialogue. I’m struck by how the acclaimed French theoretical physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, said this year, after receiving the $1.7 million Cdn. Templeton Prize, that he was was troubled by how little the field of science was addressing the philosophical questions raised by, for instance, quantum theory. d’Espagnat suggested that a key insight of quantum theory is that science does not provide a view of “ultimate reality as it really is,” but rather “as it appears to us, accounting for the limitations of our own mind and our own sensibilities.” Praised by several Nobel Prize winners for his attempts to bring metaphysics to the subject of science, I value the way d’Espagnat is not reductionistic about the nature of reality. As he said: “When we hear great classical music or look at very great paintings, they are not just illusions but could be a revelation of something fundamental. I would accept calling it God or divine or godhead but with the restriction that it cannot be conceptualised for the very reason that this ultimate reality is beyond any concept that we can construct.” ”
“I am opposed to blind fundamentalisms of any sort — including what some have begun dubbing “scientism,” which is an exaggerated belief in the power of the natural sciences to explain absolutely everything.
That’s why I so appreciate scientists who are open to the perspectives of philosophy, the social sciences, psychology amd [sic] metaphysics (which is the study of what occurs beyond the physical, of ultimates).”
He then goes on to name drop 22 scientists. Here’s how it ends, with some comments from me in brackets:
“I don’t want to overwhelm readers with names of thinkers who have creatively blended science and metaphysics [too late, and creatively? nice euphemism for pulling it out of their *ss], but there are many others in the 1800s and 1900s [why not the 2000s?] who also seized on evolutionary theory to explain how the universe works at its most fundamental level. They include French philosopher Henri Bergson, American psychologist William James, American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Canadian psychiatrist Richard Bucke and the so-called co-founder of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, an English naturalist who developed his own theory of natural selection contemporaneously with Darwin, but held that evolution also had a spiritual dimension. Few of these philosophers or scientists are given much credence by most North American natural scientists, or even by most academic philosophers [James and Emerson aren’t given credence by philosophers? That’s crazy wrong]. That’s in part because atheism has for the past century been the only publicly acceptable worldview among the vast majority of professors. [Oh, now I see your agenda.] It may be possible, however, that those at the forefront of the dialogue over evolution, science and philosophy are signaling a paradigm shift is about to occur in higher education.”
It may be possible, or it may be that the only people who actually dialogue over evolution, science and philosophy are creationist and IDers.
at http://tinyurl.com/yf546me
[Note from Rod: You are perfectly at liberty to point out that Todd, whom I’ve never heard of, won the Religion Reporter of the Year prize from the Templeton Foundation, but you are not at liberty to call him “Templeton journalist.” He is not an employee of the Templeton Foundation, and is no more a “Templeton journalist” than NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the Washington Post’s Joel Garreau, Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum or any other
professional journalist who has had something to do with the Templeton Foundation. Legitimate criticism is one thing; axe-grinding is another. — RD]



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public_defender

posted March 9, 2010 at 7:49 pm


The more I think about this, the more I think Dreher is just flat-out wrong to say that this story (or headline) shows any deficit in journalists’ understanding of religion. The reporter did a very good job of explaining what happened here and putting it in a larger context. I don’t expect one newspaper article to tell the complete back story. It’s an article, not a non-fiction book.
This story also shows just how hard it is to report from a very dangerous place, and how much more reporting we need from Nigeria. But that’s not this reporter’s fault. He’s part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Any reporter who can get anywhere near where this kind of thing happens and accurately tell us what happened has my gratitude.



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Norwegian Shooter

posted March 10, 2010 at 11:08 am


Thank you for directly responding, but what is the line between axe-grinding and legitimate criticism? It seems that can only be determined by my motives, not evidence I’ve provided.
I didn’t mean to imply that Todd was an employee. Just a recipient of a Templeton fellowship. Now that we have that minor point cleared up, can you address my claim that journalists who receive Templeton fellowships* are much more likely to espouse fuzzy thinking about the interplay of science and religion?
* That’s much less catchy, and snarky, than Templeton journalist. Oh, well



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