Gotta Have A Gimmick

Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!

As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick.  It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion.  You know the carriers:  Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.

We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:

Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history.  Susan Stamberg autobiographies.  Scott Simon family tear jerkers.  They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.

But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played.  They become proxies for our curiosity.  They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.

Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan.  I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it.  And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.

Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.  In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica  (so we don’t have to.)  From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition.  That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)

Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.”  Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?”  You wouldn’t.  It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one.  Gimmicks sell books.  And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.

As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs.  That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.

Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours.  As listeners we should expect them to use that time well.  As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well.  In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import.  Yet this almost never happens.  The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons.  Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.

Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches.  Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers.  I call these “advertorials”.  They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph.  There are a couple of give-aways.  They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant  to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.

To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell.  Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell.  This is what happens when notions are productized.  It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.

Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.

At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner.  I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him.  As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute.  Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.

As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.”  Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief.  He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.

The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates.  Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life.  As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself.  So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter?  Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful.  But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.

While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to.  When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.

But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.

It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat.  Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.

I did not like it.

I am very much not the only one who didn’t like it, but I am the only public radio blog that did not like it so keep reading.

What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style?  He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his).  And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry.  But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name.  In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!”  Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal.  The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion.  It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning.  Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose.  “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.

And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest then in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless?  (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)

You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention.  But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character.  People are happy to call themselves “true believers”.  Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”

This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups.  The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night.  He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)

“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists.  (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains.  That’s just science.)

Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:

  • “Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
  • “Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
  • “Nones may not believe in God.”
So this whole “Nones” thing is a bit of a muddle.  Like the idea of religion Nones supposedly enjoy it’s something like whatever you want it to be.  Nones don’t care if a religion is “true” as long as it makes their mental trains run on time.  The “Nones” thing is such a Thomas Friedman-like assignment of a catchy name to a superficially constructed model of something going on in this crazy modern world of ours that you can at least see why it was accepted by the New York Times.
Brief aside: atheism rarely posits things like “There is no god.”  Such a statement often means nothing because of the difficulty of defining deities.  Atheism usually takes the form of questions, such as “What do you mean when you say god(s)? Can you explain why anyone should believe he/she/they exist(s)?”  So far, to my knowledge, there’s been no satisfying answer to this sort of question. (see the postscript)
But then the whole advertorial takes an unexpected and yet still entirely Thomas Friedmaniacal twist.
Are you sitting down?  Okay, read on:

The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.

Wow.  I did not see that coming.  But now that it’s here…still wow.  We’re beyond Krista Tippett, folks.  In fact this statement may allow us to finally create a complete scale of profundity of statements about religion:
  • The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”  - Ludwig Wittgenstein.
  • The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..”  - Carl Sagan
  • The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm”  - I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
  • The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We need a Steve Jobs of religion?!?  To the extent that sentiment means anything it’s a very bad idea.  Steve Jobs was long considered a cult leader.  Apple was maybe the earliest company to actually call its marketing people “evangelists.”
Weiner goes on, in the name of buzzwords, to further technocratize religion by calling for “a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”  It’s just very creepy and so willfully ignorant of history.  Do I really need to mention that every popular religious reformer in history has been their own “Steve Jobs of religion?”  They’ve all come up with new ways of being religious.  But as fun as it is to explore this, many others have already sharpened this particular point so I’ll move on to the next horror from this piece.
In evangelizing for his church of “Nones” Weiner puts this yucky chestnut out there:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
Terrence said “you believe that easily which you hope for earnestly” but I guess he was wrong.
Where, aside from obvious parental/cultural guilt, does this desire to believe in God come from?  And why not gods since polytheism is usually a lot more fun?  Weiner claims to be an Enlightenment-loving rationalist, but he fails to understand that his statement sounds to the freethinking ear like “I’m not a drug addict but I hope to be one day.”
He seems to have taken the propaganda that you can’t be good without God so deeply to heart that he will be forever torn between his desire for belief (goodness) and his respect for his own powers of cognition which tell him clearly that a religion may do good but is, at its very core, a lie.
Mr. Weiner, if you read this, I would suggest you spend less time browser-window-shopping at the ebay of world religions and more time analyzing the origins of your personal need to believe.

To everyone else, Merry Christmas, and if you are interested in the topic of the varieties of religious experience, try Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet, the writer who outed the shenanigans at the C Street house.  Then read his other books too.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’d like to quote Louis CK from his quite recent live online reddit.com crowd-sourced interview.

Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.

Reddit person “Brenner14″: This will come as a surprise to many.

Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].

Really, what else is there to say?  If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.

Sucking Up To Faith

The moderate success of Speaking of Faith has stimulated the New York Times religion section to emit a sticky-icky paean to our Krista, midwifed by Columbia  journalism professor and web domain eponym Samuel Freedman.  (Even Krista Tippett doesn’t yet use her own vanity web domain, and Krista Tippett barely allows people to use pronouns when referring to Krista Tippett.)

The short review: Get a room, you two!

The headline should have read “Self-Promoting Journalist Enjoys Time With Self-Promoting Journalist, Seeks Dinner, Movie.

So that you can get the gist without actually subjecting yourself to the article, I’ve turned excerpts into a found Mad-Lib.

Please submit your best efforts.  If it comes out porn it’s really not my fault.  I promise this is really from the R-rated profile and is not the opening to a Harlequin Romance novel:

…all of which made her wonder why, with a fulsome __(noun)__ and a social __(noun)__ to match, she felt “really __(adj)__ in ways I couldn’t acknowledge or even explain.”

So it was odder still, as she moved onto __(noun)__ , to __(verb)__ with an old, unbidden sensation.  She told herself at first that she just wanted to __(verb)__ . Then she admitted that what she was doing was __(gerund)__, returning not to the fierce __(noun)__ of her Southern Baptist upbringing but surely to the way it taught her how to __(verb)__ __(preposition)__ God.

“Religion is a touchy subject. You’re really getting at the core of people’s __(noun)__, an intimate place. This religious sphere in our public life is very charged, and I want to __(verb)__ that.”

Then she won admission to Brown and recast herself as an __(noun)__, taking up the study of German literature and history, and __(gerund)__ in the same __(noun)__ as John F. Kennedy Jr.

“Won admission?!?”  “WON admission??!”  Seriously?  Did she have to defeat someone in mortal combat?  Who the hell says that?!  More importantly, who says that about Brown?!  Shouldn’t the phrase be “weathered admission to Brown”, “covered up admission to Brown”, or just “settled for admission to Brown”?  And what is it with the triumphalist verbs relating Krista Tippett to higher education?  Avid readers of this blog will recall that she “emerged” from Yale Div.  I guess it’s just my hyper-sensitivity to language.  After all, I studied English Literature after wresting an Ivy League admission myself.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the relevance of her sharing a dorm with John F. Kennedy Jr?  Is that some kind of euphemism?  And, oh, while we’re non sequitur name dropping a K-Bomb, there’s another dweller in imaginary English castles, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, who “won admission” to Brown.  I’ll expect them to mention that in the name-dropping errata section usually monopolized by glittery omissions from “Weddings of the Times.”

According to the article, Tippett claims “parsing” familiarity with ancient Greek.  Is this hyperbole or does she prefer to secrete her polymathematics deep inside pop-theology books so as not to overawe her guests and listeners.  Perhaps she publishes her New Testament exegeses pseudonymously with, of course, the Yale University Press…the same press that wouldn’t publish the Dutch cartoons of Mo- Mu- uhmm Mohu – wait – Muhammed in a book written exclusively on the subject of the Dutch cartoons of Mohammad. That’s the kind of bravery to which Speaking of Faith should dedicate an episode!

Or maybe she simply attended, excuse me, won admission to, one of Yale Div’s summer language classes.  By that yardstick I’m a Catullus scholar.  My pathetic seventh and eighth grade Latin teacher who was killing time until she won admission to Pharmacy school will be so proud to hear it.

Much is also made of her work as a “diplomat” during the cold war.  I’d love to know the details of those adventures given that her mastery of statecraft evidently informs her career as self-appointed ecumenical referee.

And finally Krista’s boyfriend – I mean interviewer – gets in a little dig at, I have to believe, your humble servant.

He states:

…she has been criticized at times on the blogosphere for a perceived timidity.

Guilty as charged, Professor!

Of course in the long run she wins because, as noted Catholic Sunday School Teacher St. Stephen Colbertius so often reminds us, the market has spoken.

On the other hand since she produces a radio show designed to pander to the religious among us, i.e. pretty much everyone on earth, 600,000 listeners is only a drop in the bucket.  She’s got a long way to go if she wants to placate and fail to challenge all 6 billion religious folks on Earth, many of whom can’t find a Minnesota Public Radio affiliate on their dials.

She’d better hurry, British Petroleum seems to be trying to set her a time limit.

St Krista

The religion of “belief in belief” now has a saint!

Here is her icon:

How shocking that Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett would select this particular cover art. Did anyone suggest an image of Einstein?  Or God?  At least BB Hagerty had the good taste to slap a scientifical image on the cover of her recent “Some scientists are religious!” tell-all.

Anyhoo…

Note the mystical, crepuscular background of this auto-canonization.  It symbolizes – could it be? – the half-lite of the day god (sun/knowledge) as it mixes with the night goddess (moon/irrationality).

A little on the nose don’t ya think?

“Personal Miracles” My Behind

Scott “There Goes Cryin’ ” Simon, NPR Nation’s reliably lachrymose Saturday morning sentimentalist, spent a tellingly lengthy, as well as tellingly mild, chunk of the show today conducting the full range of what public radio recognizes as religious discussion.  On the one hand, in a segment entitled with gratuitous obsequiousness “Oral Roberts Leaves Personal Miracles Behind,” there were the red state red meat Oral Roberts adherents, who happen to be true believers in some rather specific and rather extreme doctrines. One of them claimed he was, as a child, on the receiving end of an actual healing miracle. (WTF?  Is this NPR or CBN!?)  And in this corner, representing the blue states, there was Mitch Albom, who declared his admiration for a more Krista Tippett sort of faith, where it’s the faith journey that’s good in and of itself, pretty much regardless of what the beliefs are or how sincerely they are ultimately accepted by their professors.

And that’s really the problem.  The latter makes it impossible to robustly interrogate the former.  A lack of confidence in one’s own belief system, something of which I’ve accused the public radio upper middlebrow intellectual ecosystem many times before, makes it impossible to offer thoroughgoing coverage of a subject.

An interview subject on a news program needs to be challenged, or what’s the point of having the interview? I admit, Scott soft-balled a question along the lines of “what if your miracle was just a coincidental recovery from an allergic reaction,” but that’s really, really not good enough.  A leisurely 30 second googling of the Oral Roberts empire of Elmer Gantry charlatanism will yield untold treasures for the journalist wanting to talk about something of importance.

Here are a few suggested topics that are immediately relevant to Robert’s death:

  • What is the prosperity gospel?  Is it uniquely American?  What does it say about us as a country?  Did it contribute to our recent economic downturn?
  • There is a spectrum of prosperity gospel purveyors.  On one extreme you have Nigerian mountebank “pastors” who are so evil they cause little boys to be murdered in order to increase their own notoriety as witch hunters and thereby raise more money from their gullible flocks.  On the other extreme, I assume, you may find sincerely misguided leaders who honestly think god will improve your material circumstances to reward faith and, of course, tithing.  Where on this spectrum did Oral Roberts sit?  (By the way NPR never covered the “little boy witches” story even though it’s perfect for Gwen Thompkins.)
  • Pentecostalism is growing rapidly all over the world.  What is it?  Why is it becoming so popular?
  • And so much more…

But instead of taking on these kinds of questions we get the standard kid glove treatment.  Barbara Bradley Hagerty‘s not going to ask them.  All she could bring herself to do in her unenlightening and pointless obituary was give him credit for reinventing televangelism and mention briefly his too-notorious-to-ignore-even-for-Barbara claim that god would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million.

Krista Tippet’s not going to ask them. “Prosperity gospel” is barely mentioned on the Speaking of Faith website.  You’d think they’d get around to that a few episodes before Ambian-outmoding esoterica like “Re imagining Sitting Bull“.  (Or maybe “Sitting Bull” is a yoga posture?  That would explain it.)

Why are they doing such a piss-poor job of this?  There are two reasons.  First, there is the aforementioned dearth of cojones as either journalists or philosophers that results in an inability to really take on these subjects.  Second, they think discussions of religion that are anything other than “nice” are dangerous and unpleasant so they simply choose to pretend that religious activities and ideas that aren’t nice don’t exist.

For an alternative treatment of Oral Robert’s death I strongly recommend Karen Spears Zacharias‘ take on it.  She, herself a faithful believer in a teleology a bit more specific and full throated than Karen Armstrongian Neo/Pseudo/Crypto deism, has absolutely no problem calling it like it is. But I don’t think you’ll hear anything like this on public radio, especially not on Speaking of Faaaaaith.

Come on Scott, I know you’d love to interview her.  After all, she’s been mentioned in the same log roll with Fanny Flagg, one of your favorites I’m certain.

As a side note I’d like to thank “Entertainment Weekly” reviewer Jennifer Reese for describing Albom as setting “tough new standards for sticky sentimentality [and] insipid moralizing” in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”.  That’s right, a glossy excuse for movie and cosmetics ads puts Weekend Edition to shame, even at the risk of alienating an advertiser.

Public Radio could really use a bit more of this kind of attitude, which is only found on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “On The Media,” and then all too infrequently and inconsistently.  I mean I understand the semi-ironic impetus for having on Andy Williams at Christmas time, but come on.  The guy said Obama’s a Marxist who wants our country to fail.  Now those are fightin’ words which, and this is the point, invite the same, not misty memories of watching Christmas specials last century.

Krista Tippett’s Agenda: Kum Ba Yuck

Oh lord, kum bia yuck...

What's wrong with this picture?

A commenter who somehow managed to overcome the recent technical problems this blog has been having with too many people trying to comment at the same time posed the following question this morning:

What is Krista Tippett’s agenda?

This is an intriguing query.  Since I can’t hear the vocal inflection of the person who asked it I can’t tell if it’s sarcastic or serious, but it deserves exploration.  It spurred me to think and research more about the whole problem with much religious “journalism” in general and Speaking of Faith in particular.

It turns out that the agenda of SoF is a bit hard to tie down because they don’t seem to have an official mission statement on the SoF website.  Their stated priciples are, unsurprisingly, couched in a warm miasma of platitudes:

When she [Tippett] emerged [like Venus from the sea!] with a Master of Divinity from Yale in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be.

The black-hole-generating religion reporters who worked before 1994 have got to feel good about that one!

…she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that would enliven and open imaginations and public discussion.

She draws out the intersection of theology and human experience, of grand religious ideas and real life.

Evidently Krista didn’t study a lot of geometry at Yale Div, as I’m not sure how you “draw out an intersection.”  I just can’t tell if she means “clearly delineate” or “smudge beyond recognition.”

So an outright mission statement from SoF seems a bit elusive, maybe ineffable or even transcendent.  Sound familiar?  Maybe you can only have a poetic way of knowing the agenda of Speaking of Faith.  Maybe you have to look at it sideways.

Or maybe you need to look at their sponsor.

A primary sponsor of SoF appears to be, from the prevalence of their ads on the SoF website, the Fetzer Insitute. Luckily for my purpose they aren’t shy about articulating their mission statement:

The Fetzer Institute advances love and forgiveness as powerful forces that can transform the human condition.

Wow, who could be against that?  “Advancing” is a weak, vague verb to use in the context of love and forgiveness, however, so let’s take a closer look what they actually do.  Their programs range from extremely laudable sounding, if quixotic, world peace initiatives to less universally approved-of claptrap consisting of new age healing and spiritualism mixed with junk science some of which reads exactly like jacket copy for Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

So what we’ve discovered is nothing less than a teeming nest of modern Theosophers.  These folks find the hardscrabble wonders of rationalist secular knowledge to be unfulfilling, uninspriring unless they are spiced with heaping helpings of tired, intellectually empty and dishonest but highly decorated teleologies.

These sentiments have a corrupting influence on public discourse and encourage what atheists call “woo.”  Woo is a helpful category that refers holistically to irrational beliefs, especially in the realm of health care.  The problem with woo is that it can kill.  When Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or New Age cult members refuse modern medical help for their children, and the children die, that’s the dark side of all this spiritual role-playing.  What if deluded, costumed, Klingon-speaking Star Trek fans refused actual medicine in favor of a spray painted salt shaker they claim is a treatment from the 23rd century?  What really makes that different?  And should we really be spending money on trying to detect souls with fMRI machines when, for example, vaccine production is so slow and antiquated?

The real “black hole” in religious journalism, at least since the “emergence” of Tippett, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Karen Armstrong and the rest of the weak teleologists, is the inability of such people to be objective.  They see a noble heart in, as far as I can tell, every religious or spiritual idea they’ve ever covered.

Isn’t it frighteningly easy to imagine a friendly hour-long interview between Krista and, say, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson?

Ultimately what fails to satisfy about Speaking of Faith is the extreme ecumenicism Tippett’s “agenda” requires.  It’s intellectually crippling, akin to a restaurant which tries to delight both big game bush-meat lovers and vegan PETA activists.  Everyone likes to eat, right?  They have that much in common, so it’ll be great!

Imagine if “On the Media” had a similar mission?  The whole point of the show would disappear.  No malefactor would be thoroughly investigated or subjected to cleansing, well-deserved ridicule.  So when an agenda like that of Krista’s Theosophical Sunday School infects public radio for two hours every weekend, taking up space where a superior program might thrive, it annoys me.  And I’m not alone.

You may not be surprised to learn that one of the most common google search queries leading people to this blog is as follows:

Krista Tippett Annoying

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

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