Beliefnet
Rod Dreher

More from Conor’s Mark Oppenheimer interview. Here’s Oppenheimer on his approach to religion reporting:

The most common flaws in religion reporting are the same as common flaws in all reporting: lack of skepticism, taking the speakers’ words for it. We always have to be skeptical, even of monks and priests and imams and rabbis. And we have to remember that power corrupts, so the people we are likely to revere may be the most likely to fail us.

So true! I would add, however, that one can be too skeptical, which is to say, cynical. If one believes that all religion is a racket, that will distort one’s religion reporting. But I think in general Mark is right. Because we’re human beings, we suffer from confirmation bias — that is, we look, usually unconsciously, for our own biases to be confirmed. I have watched otherwise intelligent and skeptical journalists swallow loads of codswallop from Muslim leaders. I myself have no doubt that I have swallowed loads of codswallop from Christians who were saying things I liked to hear. Religion reporting is best done by people who see religion as just another aspect of human endeavor — like politics, or art. It may well be the case that (for example) the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, specially gifted with certain charisms. But from a journalist’s point of view, he is also a man, and that means he’s subject to the same flaws as anybody else. It can be hard to keep that straight, depending on which religious figure, and which religion, you’re reporting on. Which leads us to Mark’s comment on how his own religious sensibilities affect the way he does his job:

How does it inform my reporting? Honestly, I don’t think it does, except in this one way: as someone who knows a lot of religious people, Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and otherwise, I hope I am unlikely to stereotype them or make easy assumptions. I know religious people are complex — sometimes in ways they wish they weren’t. For example, see my comments above, about how even the most devout are atheists on certain days of the month; that’s not the kind of thing they talk about much in some churches and mosques, but it’s a testament to the complexity of all human beings, and to their intellectual power, to say they are always testing their ideas.

That’s really true, and it’s so hard to get one’s arms around. How is it that the radical clerics of Hamas, for example, can do such great charitable work in their communities, helping the poor, but are also exponents of vicious, hateful anti-Jewish and anti-Christian propaganda? We all want them to be either all-good or all-bad, but that’s not realistic. I grew up in a culture that was pretty moral and religiously observant, but which had a huge blind spot on the matter of race. Did the fact that many white people were badly wrong about race mean that they were thoroughly bad? No, of course not — no more than the fact that many people are wrong about unborn human life makes them thoroughly bad. There are some people who are almost wholly bad, and some who are almost wholly good (we call them saints) — but most of us live somewhere in the messy middle. We all see through a glass darkly; the wisest among us know this about ourselves, and try to go forward with humility and mercy.
By the way, in his Friedersdorf interview, Mark references a “fruitful exchange” he had with me last year about atheism and belief. It’s worth revisiting. It started with Mark’s Slate piece about why it’s important to him to take his young daughter to shul, even though he himself tends to be standoffish about his own faith (describing himself as an “atheist … about half the time.”). I responded with a commentary about this attitude, and judged Mark to be “fundamentally unserious” about religion. Mark wrote back to take issue with my characterization, and to explain why he thought I was unfair. It turned out to be a pretty interesting back-and-forth between us, I think, one turning on orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Check it out by following those links.

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