Epic New Yorker ‘chin stroker’ meets thin Guardian ‘head scratcher’ in no-news showdown — GetReligion

The chin scratcher, in contrast, can be stimulating and have value, even if it leaves you wondering, why run this feature on this subject right now? Thus, chin stroking here is meant to conjure the image of the serious reader massaging their chin in thought.

My GetReligion colleague Richard Ostling recently tackled one such chin stroker in a post about a super-long New Yorker piece about the search for archeological evidence that the biblical King David was a historical figure. It’s the same one that caught my eye.

It’s a great read — if one has the time and patience to explore 8,500 words on the political and religious differences that infect the field of biblical archeology in Israel. Because I do — the coronavirus pandemic has me hunkering down at home with considerable time to fill — I found the piece an interesting, solid primer on the subject.

Journalistically, however, and as Richard pointed out, why did the New Yorker choose to run this story now?  We’re in the middle of a scary pandemic and a brutal presidential election campaign complicated by great economic uncertainty and racial and social upheaval.

One need not be an ace news editor to conclude there’s plenty of more immediate fodder that readers might prefer. And given that it’s the New Yorker, why give it, as Richard put it, “10 pages of this elite journalistic real estate” when there’s no discernible news peg?

If you missed it, read Richard’s post — fear not, it’s far, far shorter than 8,500 words — because I’ll say no more about it here. Richard covered the finer points of the piece’s journalistic questions. Should you care to go straight to the New Yorker article, then click here.

Now let’s pivot from our chin stroker to a definite head scratcher, courtesy of the The Guardian.

The late-June story began thusly:

Atheists and humanists are facing discrimination and persecution in some countries because of their beliefs and values, according to a new report.

Non-religious people in Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka are often ostracised, and some women are forced into marriages, says Humanists At Risk: Action Report 2020, published on Thursday by Humanists International.

Evidence is growing that humanist and atheist activists are being targeted on the basis of their rejection of a majority religion or their promotion of human rights, democratic values and critical thinking, it says.

What’s the news here?

It’s important to note that this Guardian story is just 467 words long and is based on the “testimony” of just 76 individuals, which seems an absurdly small sample. Nor is there any indication of who these people are. Are they all activists, a random group? We just don’t know.

The Humanists International website defines a humanist as someone who “bases their understanding of the world on reason and scientific method (rejecting supernatural or divine beliefs as bad explanations or ill-formed ideas). A humanist bases their ethical decisions again on reason, with the input of empathy, and aiming toward the welfare and fulfillment of living things.”

My bias: As a religious non-traditionalist, I’m as supportive of freedom from religion as I am of freedom of religion. Nonetheless, I consider this story both utterly obvious and utterly unreliable, a twosome not easy to achieve in less than 500 words. Hence, it’s a head scratcher, a poorly done survey covered by a meaningless, agenda-driven story that reads like a quick rewrite of a press release. 

What’s the agenda, you may ask? I’d say it’s appealing to the sweet spot of the liberal Guardian’s generally less than fervently religious readership base.

Media outlets offer digital clickbait to their audiences all the time, of course. But, if I may say so, there’s quality pandering and there’s ridiculously obvious pandering. This head scratcher falls clearly into the second group, starting with the nations surveyed.

Two of them, Colombia and the Philippines, constitutionally promise religious freedom. But neither nation is  politically open.

So might the problem for humanists here be that they rattle some political cages when they advocate for liberal human rights? And might Mass-going Roman Catholics in these nations also face government persecution for the same actions?

As for the other six nations mentioned, regular GetReligion readers are likely aware that each has a history of selective religious bias if not outright persecution by the majority group against one or more minority faiths.

In India, it’s the Hindu-led government against the large Muslim minority and a smaller Christian minority. In Malaysia, Christians have long complained they are discriminated against by the controlling Muslim majority. In Nigeria, the Muslim north and the Christian south have long been embroiled in civil conflict.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Christians face discrimination. In Muslim Pakistan — well let’s just say life’s difficult there for the Hindu and Christian minorities. Lastly, we have Buddhist Sri Lanka, where a bitter civil war was fought against the largely Hindu Tamil ethnic minority, and where Muslims have more recently faced physical attacks.

So of course non-believers — humanists, if you will — face persecution in these nations where religious identify is as much a sign of tribal or communal political allegiance as it is a simple declaration of faith. How different might the Humanist International poll have turned out if the situation of non-believers had been sampled in Western Europe or North America, where liberal, secular populations are far more entrenched, and safe?

In short, both the survey and the Guardian story were head scratchers to the max.

One last point. Why am I so worked up over one lousy story of no real consequence? 

Because as experienced and astute religion specialists become an increasingly endangered species at news outlets around the world, this sort of sloppy filler masquerading as legitimate religion coverage will only proliferate.

That’s a sad state of affairs for those of us who take religion journalism seriously — not to mention the media consumers desperate to make sense of the global calamities engulfing them. Without insight into humanity’s religion-infused quest for understanding, clarity and solutions are considerably less likely.

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