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False Controversies, Factual Legends, and Sins of Omission: an Atheist's Adventures with the Austin American Statesman

Don Baker
Posted: September 20, 2006

One of my roles in the Atheist Community of Austin is that of media contact. This involves answering media questions and distributing official press releases. I have also taken the opportunity to watch the media in Austin for poor reporting on atheist and agnostic issues. This essay chronicles my interaction with the Austin American Statesman as my role of ACA Media Contact.

Most atheists are aware that the media in general is heavily slanted toward a Christian worldview and that the skeptical viewpoint is rarely given airing. But if the issue isn't raised, it's not going to change.In raising the issue, however, it's not sufficient, to have a broad and vague complaint. Newspapers are constantly accused of bias one way or another. One has to point out specific examples and gather evidence over long periods to document bias. I've tried to ground my interactions with the media in these sorts of terms, including my interactions with the Statesman. I've divided this essay into my evidence of errors and bias in the Statesman, some of which I've already presented to them. Specifically, the errors and bias favor a pro-Christian viewpoint.

Let me make clear that I am not complaining about the op/ed section of the Statesman, which I feel does represent the diversity of the community, nor am I complaining about the various "faith" articles published weekly that are clearly labeled as such. This essay concerns items published in the Statesman as factual news. Readers of this essay who which to refer to the original articles will need to subscribe to the Statesman's archive to read them there. All of the articles mentioned in this essay are no longer freely available on the Internet.

As an aside, some people might wonder why an atheist might care about religion reporting. While I don't generally believe religious claims, the actions of believers have a big effect on me and other atheists. Believers are shortening my life, for example, by actively interfering with stem cell research. The political landscape has been dramatically changed in recent years by the rise of the religious right. Christians believe in a god who thinks it's just that I am to be tortured for all time for my "crime" of not believing in such a sadistic monster. Other believers have flown airplanes into national landmarks to kill and maim "infidels" and to be rewarded with 72 black-eyed virgins for their martyrdom. I harbor a grudge against religious belief as the root cause of the vast majority of the harm in the world. By giving these beliefs favoritism in the media, the harm is perpetuated or even amplified. In short, I care more about humanity than malignant fantasies.

Accuracy

Complaints concerning accuracy are the most effective way of improving reporting in the media. It's relatively easy to focus attention on the facts presented in a particular article, address the author of the article, and give your evidence as to why it's wrong. Ideally, over time, the reporter improves and the media along with it. Most of my correspondence with the Statesman has concerned the accuracy of various articles.

Eileen E. Flynn's October 9, 2005 article titled The murky boundary between church and state provided my first opportunity for interacting with the Statesman concerning accuracy. Ms. Flynn is the main religion reporter for the Statesman. Her article concerned differing views of church state separation within two Baptist sub-sects. While the piece was well written and covered the topic, it suffered from two problems, both of which I pointed out to her. The first problem was that the First Amendment of the US Constitution was misquoted as saying "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ...," meaning barring a state religion. The correct phrasing, which completely changes the meaning of the clause, is "respecting an establishment of religion," meaning the barring of religious favoritism. [Italics are mine in both quotes.] While the error may have been innocent on her part, the error played well into the theme of her article that there is a controversy concerning church-state separation and what it means. As atheists know, the "controversy" is largely manufactured by proponents of the majority religion (Christianity) to advance their religious views. It's much the same strategy used by the Intelligent Design movement. However, the Founding Fathers chose their words carefully. The text of the Constitution is quite clear and a long history of legal rulings on church-state separation by the Supreme Court has further clarified the establishment clause.

My second issue with the article was that comparing and contrasting the views of two different Baptist groups hardly constitutes balance. Eileen defended her position by saying that she wanted to show that there "is a wide chasm between people of faith" on the issue of church-state separation. Fair enough. It's reasonable for the author of an article to limit its scope so that the article stays focused an on point. Balance in a newspaper can ultimately come from the breath of viewpoints given voice there. In the case of the Statesman, however, the opposing viewpoint is not given voice. We'll explore the issue of balance later in this essay.

I later criticized an October 24, 2005 article written by Eileen E. Flynn titled Marriage vote mixing faith, politics concerning the then upcoming Texas State constitutional amendment vote on same-sex marriage. While the article gave voice to religious opinions, it contained very little in the way of facts about the amendment and its consequences for religious institutions. The amendment was to have no impact on the marriages that churches perform as it only concerned marriage as a secular institution. The article failed to clarify this basic issue, leading readers to believe (or continue believing) that somehow religious marriage was under attack. Again, another false controversy was perpetuated. I made a plea to her to focus on the real issues in her writing about marriage, which I outlined in an extensive e-mail. Her reply that she felt her job is to focus on faith issues--effectively whatever the religious people were saying. Apparently, if believers have something to say, whether or not the topic affects them, the Statesman will gladly give them a forum. I began to wonder more about where the voice was, in the Statesman, from religious skeptics.

The next interaction I had with the Statesman centered on a December 10, 2005 article by Monica Rivera concerning the Guadalupe myth. Her article, published in the Life and Arts section of the Statesman uncritically recounted the legend of the miraculous appearance of Guadalupe in Mexico during the 1500s. It's one thing to report on the phenomenon of the Guadalupe cult and its pervasiveness among Latin Americans. It's another thing entirely to print legend as fact, which is exactly what the Statesman article did. The article was even titled History. Legends are not history, unless perhaps you live in a fantasy world. I too, am very interested in the phenomenon of Guadalupe. I have done two episodes of The Atheist Experience on the topic, most recently on September 10, 2006 after returning from a trip to Spain where I visited the Guadalupe Monastery in Extremadura region of Spain, the source of the Mexican Guadalupe. In 1976, I have also visited the Basilica Guadalupe in Mexico City where the "miraculous" cloak of Juan Diego is displayed. It's likely that even as an atheist, I know more about Guadalupe than the vast majority of her devotees.

I would wager that the author, Monica Rivera, is a devout Catholic. It is not at all surprising that a true believer would write an article supporting her religious belief and nearly devoid of facts. I follow religious issues, so I see this sort of thing all too frequently. It is inappropriate, however, for a newspaper to publish specific religious beliefs as anything more than personal opinion. In response to the article, I wrote to Rich Oppel, Managing Editor of the Statesman, and cc'd the author. I gave a dozen or more reasons why the myth was untrue and the real story behind Guadalupe and complained about the newspaper effectively published a propaganda piece. "Propaganda" is a word, which ironically has its origins in the Latin name of the Catholic institution Congregation for Propagating the Faith, so the word seemed especially apt. I asked for clarification of the editorial policies of the Statesman--in particular, what was more important than the quality of truthfulness in the choice of articles that were published in the Statesman. Generally, when people propagate falsehoods, there is a hidden agenda. I wanted to see if I could get Mr. Oppel to name its source. I didn't expect that he would, but I hoped that the line of questioning would encourage him to think about what his paper was publishing and the implications of being used in a deception. I accused the Statesman of possibly accepting payment for publication of these pieces by the Catholic Church since it seemed so clear how the church benefited at the expense of the integrity of the paper and its readers. I wrote that I felt the paper lacked the balance of a skeptical viewpoint in religion reporting. Finally, I offered the resource of the ACA as a source of people who are experts on various topics of religion, who have a skeptical bent, and who could help add a balanced perspective to the reporting in the newspaper.

I never heard from Monica Rivera.

Rich Oppel and I had a handful of e-mail exchanges based on my initial letter. It turns out, I had hit a nerve, but not the one I expected. I got some mild pushback on the propaganda claim, but ultimately he ceded that ground as I had provided evidence of my claim. He never once, in the whole correspondence did he respond to the issue of the paper willfully publishing falsehoods, nor did he ever clarify his editorial policies, either with me or on the Statesman web site as I requested. He is the king of his domain and it was apparently inappropriate of me to ask how such decisions were made, or even proposed that those policies be clarified publicly. The only real inkling I got about editorial policies was his comment: "If you have a problem with us (and that should be the rare issue of news coverage; not the routine debating the efficacy of religion coverage), feel free to email me." So he clearly thinks of religion coverage as something other than real news. I suggested (in a later correspondence) that if religion news were held to a different editorial standard that perhaps religion news could be set off graphically in the paper so as to give a clue to the reader that it is being held to a different editorial standard than "real news." The Statesman already does this, for example, with its Op/Ed section and the inside front page that focuses more on celebrity news. In the end, none of these important editorial issues seemed to have an impact on the Statesman's Editor.

The nerve I struck was my baiting accusation that the Statesman may have accepted payment for the propaganda piece. He told me that 70% of his readers expressed an interest in coverage of religion. Clearly, the economic health of the paper depends on its readers buying papers. The editorial policies of his paper apparently place other factors above veracity as far as what gets printed. He was unable to counter my claim that the Guadalupe piece was propaganda. So, he seemed to admit that the paper is willing to bend the truth in some cases to make money. But my accusation that the money might come from sources outside its readership apparently struck at the professional integrity of the newspaper. By analogy, it's ok to be called a slut, but my whore accusation offended their professional sensibilities. This distinction is such a big issue for Rich Oppel that he demanded a retraction on my part, which I eventually give, as I have no evidence for my accusation. He accepted the apology and praised me for my willingness to admit my mistake. Score one for the Editor. Score zero for me and the Statesman's readership for my not getting an admission of the Statesman editorial policies or admission of any ethical problem in publishing myth as fact.

Unbeknownst to me, Rich Oppel was so annoyed by this accusation that he wrote up an entry on his blog about "atheists lacking faith in religion coverage." (His blog is no longer on the Internet.) He quoted my questions concerning the publishing of propaganda, but none of the context concerning the Guadalupe piece. Of course, there is no mention of any wrongdoing on the part of the Statesman. (It's good to be king.) He painted me as a self-promoter and he compared atheists to flat earthers. According to him, we all have a predictable viewpoint, which is not newsworthy. He closed by quoting my apology. He can say what he wants in his blog, including misrepresenting the conversation and the core issues that I raised. (And I can respond on the ACA web site, as I'm doing here.)

What really warmed my heart was that a number of people wrote comments to that blog entry to defend me. Four of the five total commentators saw through Rich Oppel's ploy. The fifth was neutral. For the record, I don't know any of these people, nor did I know about the blog until after the five people wrote their comments. These people wrote of their own volition. A military officer stationed in Iraq wrote, "I emphathize [sic] with Don Baker in that I am amoung [sic] one of the 30% of your readers that is tired of seeing religion getting free rides in the media so much of the time at the expense of other points of view." Another person who saw through Mr. Oppel's ad hominem argument wrote, "You are the ones who owe this atheist fella, and all atheists, an apology. The Flat Earth Society is nonsensical and unserious. Atheism has and deserves the utmost respect and regard (despite a few snarky and harmless questions from your atheist correspondent), and you should not only remedy your breech of civility but also should think a bit more deeply about what you put out there as your ‘thoughts.'" Score one for my side.

Now, it wasn't my intention to develop an adversarial relationship with the Statesman. I have a blunt style and I have the ability to rub people the wrong way without trying too hard. My goal was (and still is) getting accurate and unbiased reporting in Austin's media. I would think it would be the Statesman's goal, as well. If my irritating them helps them to see a point, then doing so might be a viable tactic for me to take. Yes, I might have gotten my points across without irritating them, and perhaps I could have taken a softer approach. I have tried to adopt a more respectful tone in my later correspondence with the Statesman.

My most recent interaction with the Statesman on the topic of accuracy concerned a July 8, 2006, piece on Ben Franklin by Steve Gushee, a reporter (or perhaps editorialist) for the Palm Beach Post, published as news in the Statesman. The article was titled "Franklin's beliefs private, pragmatic." The first paragraph of the article contained a bold assertion: "The religion of the Founding Fathers was a complex canvas of beliefs. They were Christian to be sure, but they shaped their Christianity, as many do, through the lens of experience and culture." Of course, many of the Founding Fathers were not Christians at all, but Deists, and of other religious backgrounds. I recognized the author's assertion as being part of the Christian founding myth being propagated by the religious right, and most especially propagandist David Barton. Although the religious beliefs of Franklin, Washington, and other Founders were quite private, the religious right has made these Founders whores for their cause. Franklin's autobiography includes an incident where he refused to be pigeonholed as a Christian. He may have been a Deist. I took the opportunity to point out a much better article about the Founders' beliefs published in the Christian Science Monitor about the same time. Given that both articles were available to the Statesman prior to publication, why would they favor the one with propaganda from someone unknown over a factual and balanced piece from a respectable outlet for religion reporting? I never got a satisfactory answer from the Statesman. To be fair to Rich Oppel, I understand he was on vacation during this episode and the decision of what article to run was made by one of his assistants. The article is absent from the Statesman archives.

Why Accuracy Matters

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I'd like to make a case here that propagating falsehoods in the media is a bad thing.

As a reader, there is the issue of trust one places in a given media outlet. If a media outlet, such as the Statesman, is printing items with clear falsehoods in them, then a reader should be asking whether there are falsehoods in other articles that the reader is unable to identify because he lacks expertise. Thus, printing myths and falsehoods should cause the reader's trust to erode. You would think a newspaper would care about this issue, but I got no indication of concern from the Statesman. To be fair, I'm only commenting on a subset of the religion articles published in the Statesman in which I found errors and problems.

Accuracy is a much bigger issue than just trust in the news source, however. Our country has gone to war with Iraq based on the strength of a series of lies. There is the lie about Iraq having nuclear weapons and the lie about ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Both lies were propagated in the media prior to the Iraq war and both were instrumental in swaying public opinion for a war that, in hindsight, may be the biggest and most costly mistake made by the United States in the last decade--perhaps even the last century. Future historians will judge. Again, to be fair, I'm not making any specific accusation about the Statesman here. I am criticizing the US media as a whole, however, who have allowed these lies to be repeated and fester.

Without accurate information from the media, our very democracy is at risk. An ignorant or misguided electorate cannot use their individual voting power effectively to guide the future of our country. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of the media as another form of check and balance on the government. Lies propagated by the media are therefore a form of treason. Bergen Evans captured this idea eloquently in his 1946 essay A Tale of a Tub: "Obscurantism and tyranny go together as naturally as skepticism and democracy. It is very convenient for anyone who profits by the docility of the masses to have them believe that they are not the masters of their fate and that the evils they must endure are beyond human control." The essay, which concerns "vulgar errors" (common misperceptions), closes with the powerful line: "For in the last analysis all tyranny rests on fraud, on getting someone to accept false assumptions, and any man who for one moment abandons or suspends the questioning spirit has for that moment betrayed humanity." Amen.

What about publishing falsehoods that support one's religious beliefs? I would say that in addition to betraying the trust of a newspaper's readership, our democracy, and humanity, it also betrays the religion. If someone has to lie to convince someone of the "truthfulness" of their religion, they effectively admit that their religion is damaged goods that need the talents of a dishonest used car salesman to make the sale. If the religion had value, there would not be any need for dishonesty to support it. Some people might even claim that the Judeo-Christian god himself disapproves of deception, according to the Ten Commandments. For modern Christians, however, the Decalogue seems to be some sort of magic talisman of political power, with its quaint edicts being largely forgotten.

Honest mistakes happen. They should be acknowledged and corrected. We should have a zero tolerance policy toward all others.

Pro-religious Bias

Bias in the media is a much harder thing to prove than errors, and bias is more insidious at the same time. Bias can show up as favoritism for a particular viewpoint, which can sometimes be excused in a single article, but which should balance out across articles. The more difficult form of bias to spot is the absence of articles for issues that would provide an opposing view or contradictory evidence.

For the Statesman, we see bias in all three areas. Four articles with factual errors supporting Christianity have already been described. Next, we'll take a look at one article that looks balanced, but isn't. Later, we'll list a number of religious news stories that went unreported.

Perhaps the most cunningly biased article I've seen in the Statesman was Eileen E. Flynn's What the Bible says about homosexuality depends on how you read it, published November 6, 2005, again just prior to the Texas State Constitutional amendment vote concerning same-sex marriage. Her article contained a number of Bible quotes concerning homosexuality and appeared to present both sides of a debate about what the Bible scholars claim it says about homosexuality. Again, her article takes a "teach the controversy" approach. This time through the choice of her quotes she sabotages the side she disagrees with. She completely omits any discussion about what Biblical scholars might say about Jonathan and David or Ruth and Naomi. The fact that Jesus uttered not a single word about homosexuality was not mentioned. Jesus did, by contrast, condone slavery and encourage children to disobey their parents (to leave them and follow him), so his moral radar must have been quite faulty. The true controversy concerning homosexuality in the Bible is not reported in Ms. Flynn's article, nor is the proper context given. It is also important for the reader to understand that the apostle Paul thought that all sexual contact was hopelessly dirty. Women throughout the Bible are considered chattel. Lesbian relationships are never explicitly mentioned in the Bible although women's "natural use" seems to be bearing children. A balanced article on Biblical views of homosexuality should mention these facts.

Presumably, Eileen Flynn's article was relevant to the same-sex marriage debate, but the topic of marriage was conspicuously absent from her article. The reason, of course, was that there is little in the Bible about marriage to support her not-so-hidden agenda. Men in the Bible had multiple wives and concubines, all of whom were their disposable property. To marry, apparently one needed only to have sex (and perhaps pay a dowry). The sin of adultery is mostly a property crime; the victim is the property owner--the father or the husband of the adulterous woman. The Apostle Paul is quoted as saying that the natural use of a woman is for the function of bearing children. Paul was against marriage as it detracted from a man's love of God. Jesus never married. Finally, Paul was certain that Jesus return was so imminent that he advised believers to stop having children. Would the only person claiming to be an eye witness to Jesus' aura lie? Sadly, the Christian right is embarrassed enough about their own holy book to avoid bringing it up when they want to promote their own notion of "traditional" family, which has little basis in scripture. Through her omissions, Ms. Flynn danced around all those landmines to achieve her goal while giving the illusion of balance--quite a feat, indeed.

Since the Statesman cares so much about their Christian audience and since Christians generally consider the Bible as the definitive moral guide, perhaps the Statesman should run more articles like Eileen Flynn's in the Statesman. I'll even help by giving the list of Bible quotes over which her Biblical scholars can disagree on the following issues:

  • According to Bush, we're at war with the "Axis of Evil." The god of the Bible clearly takes sides in various holy wars. How about publishing an article enumerating all of the people that He has killed directly or indirectly and by what means. Genocide must be an ideal of human morality if the Author does it. With the right Bible verse, nuclear annihilation is justified.
  • For next year's Juneteenth celebration, the Statesman can run an article giving all the Biblical quotes where slavery is condoned by both Yahweh and Jesus. An article can clarify under what conditions it's acceptable for a man to kill his slave.
  • Knowledge is rarely promoted and often denigrated in the Bible. Education must be a bad thing. Running an article about Bible quotes on education would certainly be relevant when the legislature is debating school finance.
  • According to the Bible, incest and inbreeding must be a good thing. All the great patriarchs are somehow involved in incest or inbreeding. There is no prohibition in the Bible against a man fathering a child with his daughter. In the Sodom and Gomorrah story, a favorite of conservative Christians, the hero Lot winds up impregnating both of his daughters. God goes out of his way to save this favored holy man from one of His destructive rages.
  • Causing a miscarriage is considered a property crime in the Bible, not murder. Abortion is never mentioned. The father can dispose of his children any way he wants, as they are his property alone. Disobedient children are to be taken to the public square and stoned to death. God himself ruthlessly murders vast numbers of cute little unborn babies in the flood (to use the emotionally twisted language of the religious right). An article on abortion would clarify the fact that religious conservatives have little Biblical justification for their position.
  • Most people seem to think that pedophilia is wrong, but the Bible doesn't seem to say much about it. According to the Bible, children are the property of the father. Perhaps pedophile priests are Biblically justified.
  • On the issue of marriage, there are plenty of cultural norms from Biblical times that most people would consider reprehensible today. I have already given a number of examples, but there are dozens more.

Most Christians instinctively know that the Bible is a moral morass so they downplay most of it. They skip over and forget the parts that they don't like. Perhaps psychology can explain why Christians work so hard to promote the idea that the Bible is a good source of moral teachings when they actively ignore so much of it. But the Statesman will never publish any truly balanced articles about Biblical morality on any of these issues. This is because the Statesman has no interest in educating the public as to what the Bible says about current issues. The Statesman does appear to be interested in promoting a modern Christian worldview, however detached it may be from scripture. Yet, Christians will gleefully dig out the scripture if it provides an opportunity to persecute a minority of Americans. Promoting hatred of gays is big business for many Christian groups.

Another subtle source of bias in the Statesman and other news sources is the use of alternate religious viewpoints to attempt to create balance in an article. I have already complained about Eileen Flynn's use of two different Baptist sects to balance each other, but even Protestants and Catholics share a religious heritage of over a millennium. The great religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are cut from the same cloth. Consider the following:

  • All three religions are monotheistic and all worship a god that interacts with humanity. By contrast, there are billions of people in the world with multiple gods, distant gods, or no god at all.
  • All three religions have their own holy books. In 1795, Deist Thomas Paine in his Age of Reason argued that the creator of the universe would never use a holy book to communicate to mankind. Language evolves and there is just too much potential for miscommunication. His argument is still rock solid today. An omnipotent god with complete control over the sender (himself), receiver (his created creatures), and transmission media (the universe) could not fail in delivering his message and having it be understood. Yet all three religions have large numbers of sects, all of which disagree with each other about the meaning of their holy book, adding practical confirmation of Paine's assertion.
  • The holy books of all three religions are loaded with atrocities and divine directives for all manner of harm.
  • All three religions have long histories of ruthlessly killing each other in holy wars. In fact, these three religions are responsible for the vast majority of pain and suffering in areas of the world where they have influence. All three religions are actively promoting genocidal movements today.
  • Ironically, all three religions worship the same god, the god of Abraham, and so they are called Abrahamic religions. Abraham is famous for loving his god so much that he was willing to murder his own son to prove his devotion. He was then rewarded for his treason to his own flesh and blood. Thus, the moral foundation of these three religions is the selling out of one's fellow man to curry favor with a thug god. This insight explains much of the behavior of this god's believers, such as their willingness to lie and kill for their faith.
  • All three religions can provide no evidence for their god, but instead promote faith. Faith is nothing more than gullibility about religious claims. Gullibility makes a terrible moral foundation. Gullibility only makes a person more likely to be manipulated by the unscrupulous. Religious and political leaders alike adore faith for this reason. Just look at Martin Luther's writing or ask Carl Rove.
  • All three religions seem to take no responsibility for the acts of their believers. My "tolerance" for these religions is proportional to their willing to take responsibility.
  • Christianity and Islam promote belief in the afterlife, which they view as the ultimate goal of each individual's "soul." The belief denigrates the value of human life as the religions consider the human body as little more than a ghost trap. Both religions trade in martyrdom. Both believe that their god will reward them for killing infidels, which include believers in their sister faiths.
  • Versions of all three religions actively sow distrust in science. Empiricism is deemed a competitor to faith that must be suppressed. Yet, science and technology, the fruits of empiricism, have provided far more charity and practical benefit to humanity than religious efforts, even if you ignore all the harm propagated by religions. Believers do their best to steal the credit for their god.

There are many other similarities. Again, the Abrahamic religions are far more alike than dislike and therefore contrasting two Abrahamic viewpoints cannot be the basis of a balanced perspective on an issue.

Contrast these Abrahamic faiths with atheism, which is simply the lack of a belief in gods. Atheism is the conservative, skeptical stance that demands evidence for all claims and withholds belief until such evidence is provided. Atheists would rather understand the world as it is than succumb to wishful thinking for how one might like it to be. Atheism is ultimately grounded in reality. Atheists have actively examined religious claims and apologetics and found them nonsensical at best, or harmful, at worst. Atheists value reason, evidence, and scientific thinking. Atheist Americans, by and large, are upstanding citizens who contribute to society and value constitutional liberties, especially church-state separation. We differ from Abrahamic religions on all points mentioned above. We have no holy book, but instead value the ability for each person to become educated and reach his own informed conclusions. Instead of killing each other for being infidels, we debate each other over the merits of a case. We worship no god and have no conflict of interest in promoting a worldview at odds with reality. We feel no need to deceive or threaten people to gain adherents. We take responsibility for our actions. Our morals derive from our humanity, compassion, understanding the consequences of our actions, and the need for education to make informed choices. We value human life, as we don't believe in an afterlife.

Not only can atheism provide a balanced perspective on an issue, I would assert that it should provide the default perspective to which any religious claim should be compared. Whenever a religious claim or belief is discussed, it should be weighed against reality. If it can't measure up to reality and reason, perhaps it's not worthy of ink. But if one feels it's his job to sell that lemon, he's likely to resort to the oldest trick in the book: hiding the fatal flaws as a means of deception. One way that newspapers do that is by simply not reporting things that should be reported. The Statesman has used this strategy in its choice of what to report in religious news. Consider the following news stories not published in the Statesman that would cast Christianity or religious belief in a bad light.

  • In March 2006, the results of a well designed, multimillion dollar study of intercessory prayer funded by the Templeton Foundation were released. The study found that intercessory prayer had no positive effect on the recovery of heart bypass patients. See the original AP newswire report, Prayer Does Not Help Heart Bypass Patients. I know of no well-designed and implemented prayer study that has found evidence for the efficacy of prayer.
  • In October 2005, a study published in the Journal of Religion and Society compared religious belief and various measurable social ills in various countries. The study found that religious belief is correlated with a number of social ills including higher abortion and teen pregnancy rates, higher homicide and suicide rates, higher child mortality, and lower life expectancy. This is a study about correlations and the author calls for additional research to determine causality. The article by Gregory S. Paul is titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies. This study dismantles the claim that religious belief is somehow a necessary ingredient for a moral society. It is simply a myth that religious belief is good.
  • The President's faith-based initiatives idea has been credited to Austinite Marvin Olasky. The Statesman can be credited with giving Olasky a frequent column to popularize the idea. Perhaps it is time for the Statesman to given an honest assessment of the faith-based initiatives idea. If they do so, they will find that:
    • Religious charities had a "level playing field" before the program. They were required to provide accountability and not use government money for their religious programs. The faith-based charities initiative does away with these sensible restrictions.
    • Nearly all of the money has flowed to Christian charities, a clear case of religious favoritism. It is true that fewer minority faiths have applied for funding. Perhaps minority faiths have a greater respect for the Constitutional separation of church and state.
    • Most implementations of the program do not past Constitutional muster. They are illegal. Many have been successfully challenged in court. Think of the money wasted on this terrible idea that could have been used for legally implemented public services to help the needy.
    • Many implementations of the program lack oversight and, as such, there have been many cases of fraud.
    • The claim that people of faith are somehow better at charity work is still being given without proof. Is helping others really charity, if you believe you are going to be rewarded in heaven for your efforts?
    • The program is rife with conflict of interest problems at every level. It ultimately trades the religious liberties of the poor for political power of the President and other politicians who are happy to exploit the Constitution. Many of the fund recipients are outspoken supporters of politicians, such as Bush, who have created faith-based programs.
    • A study of the Texas implementation of Bush's faith-based initiatives published by the Texas Freedom Network found many of these problems and others. See TFN's Web site for their 2002 study.
    • Faith-based programs are now an integral part of much of the government, including, for example, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Agriculture. I personally can't imagine what belief in the supernatural has to do with agriculture, unless perhaps the government is going to fund rain dances to improve crop yields.
    • Ultimately, the Bush administration has cut back dramatically on the overall funding of social programs, which indicates that his "compassion" is largely self-serving.
  • The Statesman has failed to report on the take-over of much of the US foreign policy by conservative Christians. The Bush administration largely traded this control for the political support of these groups. What have Christians done with the new power at their disposal? With respect to AIDS funding, they did two things. First, they sabotaged many of the existing AIDS relief programs that worked. See An Epidemic Failure by Geraldine Sealy. Christians have consistently worked to hinder the use of condoms as a preventative measure. James Dobson of Focus on the Family has been the leader on this front. Franklin Graham looked at the AIDS crisis and saw a captive audience of people who could be converted to Christianity. He has managed to get a share of the AIDS funding for his organization, Samaritan's Purse, to go to Africa to convert the heathens. Together, these two efforts have turned US AIDS funding into a convert-or-die mechanism to gain new Christian converts. In hijacking AIDS funding, these groups have also harmed the effectiveness of the programs, in terms of raw numbers-- effectively orchestrating the deaths of large number of Africans. While Americans may be ignorant of this American Christian zeal and activity, nearly everyone involved with AIDS relief around the world judges America by these policies. Americans, by contrast, are ignorant of the "pro death" agenda of these groups and only hear about how caring and loving they supposedly are. America takes the blame for the behavior of these sociopaths. The world's animosity toward Americans is largely due to the horrible things that Americans do around the world. Just maybe if Americans had a clue about these atrocities, the people orchestrating them could be stopped and brought to justice, and terrorism could be reduced. The Statesman did report about the April 2006 GAO study finding that AIDS prevention efforts had been sabotaged by the Bush Administration's PEPFAR plan, but to my knowledge, few media outlets have reported directly on its Christian orchestrators.

I could list at least a dozen more religious news items in the last year or so that the Statesman neglected to publish.

The usual response for a newspaper to not to publish things is to declare them not "newsworthy." Statesman Editor Rich Oppel did a preemptive strike on that very issue in his correspondence with me by claiming that atheism is predictable, and predictable things are not worthy news. Well, what about the above items? Given that most Americans believe in prayer, could it possibly be newsworthy that their beliefs are false? Or that their cherished idea that religious belief is correlated to morality, is actually a lie? What about fraud and vote-buying in the name of America's favorite religion? Is that predictable? Sadly, perhaps it is. How about Christians using their collective power to orchestrate the deaths of Africans? That must be so boring and predictable that it's just not worthy of printing. No news there. Right, Rich.

I think by now I've made my case that the Statesman, like many other news outlets in the United States, is biased toward the Christian viewpoint. The Statesman's bias exists in bald errors, spin, and suppression of stories antithetical to Christian beliefs. To my knowledge, the Statesman has yet to print anything in its news that is critical of faith, though they have drawn attention to several questionable religious groups and practices. There is no good reason for this bias. It is unethical and un-American. It is also an admission that Christianity cannot flourish without being propped up by deception.

I am reminded of a newspaper editorial code to avoid publication of anything about Santa Claus not existing. Presumably, if they did, some unsuspecting child would have the potential to find out that their parents lied to them and lose their innocence. Perhaps, by analogy, Christian believers are temperamental children who will throw a tantrum if their cherished but nonsensical beliefs are held up to the light. It does seem that they, like their Islamic counterparts, are holding the media hostage under threat of thuggery. Perhaps it's time for the followers of the god of Abraham to grow up and take responsibility for the harm their religions do. And instead of playing hostage, perhaps the media can educate us as to where there is work to do in making the world a better place.

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From the officers:

The audio and video from Steve Bratteng's July 13th lecture are now available.