Yes, Public Radio is Pro-Religion

Last updated July 31, 2018

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When religion and “objective” journalism mix, things get weird.

Journalists are routinely required to disclose conflicts of interest and even recuse themselves from stories or even their jobs. Michelle Norris, for example, left her position as host of All Things Considered when her husband took a position with Obama’s reelection campaign. Yet religion gets something of a pass in this regard. It is routine for reporters not to discuss their personal beliefs and practices even when they are reporting on religion. This is an obvious double-standard. How can a Catholic reporter, who seriously believes in transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Ex-Cathedra utterances of the Pope, etc., possibly be objective when covering Catholicism if the assumption is that Norris can’t be objective about Obama because her husband works for the campaign? I mean I sort of get it about Norris, although I credit her with having a totally independent brain from that of her husband and personally think she needn’t have stepped down, but a person’s religion is a deep part of their personal identity – not just something their spouse does.

I’m a bit of a purist on this issue and think that religious folks shouldn’t be religion reporters because they are, by definition, biased in favor of religion in general and biased against the tenets other faiths. But at the very least reporters should tell us what religion, if any, they follow.

As a strict agnostic I have a sensitive ear for bias in religious journalism. I don’t mean bias towards one religion or another, I mean the underlying, nearly axiomatic assumption by many American journalists that being religious is good per se. This is something the journalists themselves have a hard time noticing, because they swim in a sea of what Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief,” which is the idea that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but it matters that you believe. Statistically I’m guessing most public radio reporters actually are religious/spiritual. I have no way of knowing across the board, but if they come even close to representing the American demographic histogram – nine out of ten Americans believe in God – they must be. I do know some of them are religious or constitutionally friendly to religion, and I’ll be listing them below.

One thread common among agnostic/atheist “believers in belief,” whether my own friends or public figures who go on record about their feelings about religion, is that they grew up in religious families and have an autonomic “respect” for those who are religious. I suspect some of them feel like their own lack of faith is a personal failure that they might manage to rectify in the future. (Bill de Blasio seems to fall into this category.) Sometimes I think such feelings can cause those who have lost faith to value those who have it even more than believers do. In any case religion-friendly journalists absolutely must check their bias when talking about religion. Otherwise you can end up with the kinds of stories I am listing below and will continue to update as I have time.

I’ve mentioned this situation in passing in many of my posts, of course, but I’ve noticed that when I make comments to this effect on relevant message boards the usual chorus of right-wing public radio-haters drown me out with brainless claims that public radio hates hates hates religion the way they must hate Mom and Apple Pie – because they are so LIBERAL!!!

It is beyond the scope of this post to address the dumb notion that public radio is radically liberal, as so many conservatives convince themselves. The purpose of this post is to provide the evidence requested by the trolls that public radio in general and NPR in particular are pro-religion in their coverage as well as in their personal lives.

I am going to continue to update this as time allows and as examples present themselves.

Side Note: No True Scotsman

“No True Scotsman” is a fallacy that many people, including journalists, engage in when they talk about religion. It boils down to assuming that religion is a positive force and then using that assumption to retroactively define negative religious forces as definitionally not religious. This is the heart of the tragically and willfully stupid “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” assertion made by journalists and politicians alike from Reza Aslan to Bush to Obama.

Entire Public Radio Shows That Are Religious or Pro-Religion

On Being with Krista Tippett, (formerly Speaking of Faith.) This show is embarrassingly pro religion, hosted by a Yale Divinity School grad.

Interfaith Voices. Their treacly, obsequious-to-religion slogan on Twitter is “Approaching the world’s religions with an open, humble mind.” Hosted by a Catholic Nun. (I always find it ironic to approach religion with a “humble mind” given the unfathomable arrogance so many religious folks have involving their evidence-free certainties about reality and personal relationship to the infinite almighty.)

Shockingly I just heard the contributor credits at the end of Science Friday and was horrified to learn that the Templeton Foundation is a sponsor. The missions of that very wealthy foundation include trying to prove various religious notions like the efficacy of prayer, and to promulgate the misguided assertion that science and faith are compatible. I have not detected much bias in this direction on Science Friday, but I am not a regular listener. I don’t know when this unfortunate relationship began.

Public Radio Staff Who Are Religious or Pro-Religion

Ari Shapiro. I don’t have an opinion about him yet, but since he reports on religious subjects from time to time I asked him on twitter. So far no reply. He is gay, so that may inflect his feelings about groups like ISIS that hurl homosexuals and apostates off of roofs.

Krista Tippett of “On Being”, née “Speaking of Faith”. Never met a religion she didn’t love.

Michelle Norris of NPR (Feb 19 2015 tweet below)

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EJ Dionne is usually the liberal half during ATC’s version of point/counterpoint. He often mentions his Catholic faith. This is an interesting position that some in media critical circles have called for more of: Dionne admits his biases. I suppose this ghettoizes him sometimes as an editorialist, but it’s a good start. When he reports on the church at least we have a broad idea of his perspective.

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a religion reporter for NPR and was raised as a Christian Scientist. What she is now I don’t know, but her journalistic output is consistently pro-religion and pro-religious figures. I’ll list some of her worst stories below.

Scott Simon (for whom I have otherwise great affection as a host) often speaks warmly of religion and religious figures, even some nasty ones like Oral Roberts. On August 1 he interviewed Nick Tosches, author of Under Tiberius which portrays Jesus as a villain. Simon once again revealed his naked affection for religion. As soon as the conversation became a bit critical of religion, Simon pulled out this:

I have been around the world in a lot of different wars and scenes of savagery. And in I believe all of them, you will find very selfless priests and nuns trying to help people.

The problem with this sentiment is that it represents the one-way filter used by people predisposed to religion. The claim is that when people do good things it’s because of religion, but when people do bad things, even in the name of religion, it’s somehow not because of religion. This is how the press in general and NPR in particular refuse to blame Islam for the actions of ISIS even as they give Christianity the credit for the good actions of Christians. They refuse to admit religion can be a bad influence, even though examples abound, from monumental atrocities of ISIS to quotidian indignities perpetrated against gays and women. Tosches gave him a pretty good answer:

I am saying that those same good human people would be behaving the same way without a god to tie it onto.

UPDATE 4/30/29

Scott Simon went into some detail about his personal theology in an interview on today’s show:

NEVINS: Do you know where you’re going? I don’t believe in heaven or hell. So…

SIMON: No. I know what I tell myself, but do I know that for sure?

NEVINS: What do you tell – what do you say?

SIMON: Oh, I – you know, I believe in a heaven and I’ll be reunited…

NEVINS: You think that?

SIMON: I’ll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I’ve ever had and loved. And I’ll be up there waiting for my wife and children. Is that for real? Of course not. But that’s what I tell myself to get through the day.

This is totally fascinating. They say genius is the ability to hold 2 opposing ideas in your head at the same time, but I’ve always thought that was a stupid thing to say. Scott Simon basically just described a theology that I think is common to many intelligent “believers.” They’ll say they believe, they’ll even tell themselves they believe, but, if pressed by someone they respect they’ll often admit they do understand it’s all a fairy tale.

Tom Gjelten is now on the religion beat at NPR. Judging by one of his first stories (see below) he is pro-religion, but I don’t know yet if he is religious. UPDATE: Gjelten is a gentleman and replied thusly on Twitter: “Lapsed Norwegian Lutheran (ie, unaffiliated) but humble enough not to claim I grasp anything cosmic, respect those who do.” That last clause is part of the problem. Nobody is owed respect simply because they claim to grasp the cosmic. I would argue people who claim to grasp the cosmic deserve more scrutiny than those who profess ignorance. Countless people have fallen for con men who claimed to grasp the cosmic. I suspect he knows this and couldn’t fit more nuance in a tweet, but religion reporters must be more clear-eyed than others when they approach people who claim to grasp the cosmic. Otherwise you risk becoming Krista Tippett. I highly recommend Gjelten and any other religion-beat reporters go see Book of Mormon as a corrective.

(8/18/15) It has come to the attention of Muslim-despising Republicans that law school drop-out and AT&T sales rep turned presidential candidate Carly Fiorina once said some nice things about Islamic cultures, not long after 9/11. Fiorina was responding to the brief and predictable outbreak of various anti-Muslim hate crimes at the time. She did so with some well-worn platitudes about the contributions to world culture of the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic apogees. Discovery of Fiorina’s heinous crime against Republican orthodoxy caused a particularly inept rhetorican named Bethany Blankley to emit an incoherent tantrum-level diatribe against her. (It’s worth reading for her hilariously clumsy sophomoric metaphor usage alone.) This caused Tom Gjelten to defend Fiorina on Twitter with the statement “True words, and sorely needed.” I don’t dispute the truth of Fiorina’s words or that they were sorely needed at the time. I mention to this very minor incident simply because it demonstrates the eternal autonomic drive on the part of the press in general and religion reporters in particular to magnify positive statements about religion and minimize negative ones.

(5/14/15) Gjelten had a few revealingly odd moments hosting the Diane Rehm show episode dedicated to the recent poll showing Americans are becoming less Christian and less religious in general. He seemed alarmed by the fact that an online poll on the show’s website was showing listeners were 36% atheist and 19% agnostic. He hastened to point out that this didn’t necessarily reflect NPR listeners in general, just the ones who took the poll. Then, as if feeling guilty about the whole topic, he twice encouraged the Catholic Priest to explain to listeners why they should return to the faith, including letting the Priest have the last word on the show. Imagine if he had been doing a show on tobacco companies and encouraged their PR person to sell the listeners on smoking in the face of declining rates!

Eric Deggans was quick to defend religion against Peter Sagal in the following Twitter exchange:

This is some serious apologetics. “Religion can’t be blamed because it’s human and humans are bad!” Religion is a powerful cultural tool often employed effectively to further nasty human ends. It doesn’t get a pass because it’s part of a generalizable description. The universe tends towards entropy, but that doesn’t mean general human misbehavior is absolved.

Rachel Martin, talented host of Weekend Edition Sunday, recently tweeted that ex-Wonkette Ana Marie Cox’s Daily Beast love letter to Christ, “Coming Out Christian,” was “worth reading.” This prompted me to ask Martin if she practiced a faith, to which query she generously replied “I don’t. But grew up in a religious home and have a lot of respect for many people who do.” I appreciate her addition of the word “many,” because it allows room for judgment in the cases of those who fake or otherwise mis-use religion.

Reza Aslan is not a staffer but is often interviewed on public radio as an expert on religion. He has the kind of animus for new atheism that middle schoolers have for the person who stole their boyfriend/girlfriend. Literally. Wait Wait Don’t Tell me broke my heart by recently featuring him as a panelist.

More to come…

Public Radio Staff Who Chose Not To Answer My Inquiry About Their Religion

Ari Shapiro

Jennifer Ludden

Pro-Religion Stories in Public Media

This ATC story about an increasing demand for exorcists in the Phillippines just takes it as read that demonic possession is, you know, a thing. A real thing.

– This worshipful interaction between Scott Simon and a monk.

– This one-sided treatment of a Catholic family’s decision not to euthanize their suffering daughter. As the blog Why Evolution Is True points out, when NPR ran a story about a woman who chose euthanasia they throughly covered both sides of the debate.

– This travesty was constructed of 2 parts speculation and one part Reza Aslan by Tom Gjelten. According to it there is a potentially violent group of extreme “anti-theists”. It’s laughable. Still waiting for more on this non-development. Hey, by the way, whatever happened to this case? Maybe brief spasms of Twitter outrage from the professionally offended isn’t the best way to prioritize production and air time?

– In this ridiculous piece Barbara Bradley Hagerty basically presents a medical case as a holy miracle.

– Every episode of “Speaking of Faith” and “On Being”.

– NPR is in the midst of a well-intentioned and well-produced (as usual) series about Muslims in Europe. Today’s story about an abandoned church in Bolton, England filed by Ari Shapiro is a good example. It’s an interesting story about a very ecumenical project that is just the sort of narrative people who are reflexively pro-religion love to promulgate. I don’t have a problem with the story itself, but its “celebrate diversity” and “yes, we can all just get along” message is practically the only one you’ll hear throughout this series. Yesterday there was the oddly-headlined and very sympathetic story “British Muslims Still Feel the Need to Explain Themselves” (filed by Audie Cornish) in which Muslims described hate emails they get from anti-Muslim extremists. It’s too bad about the hate emails, but until an anti-Muslim extremist walks into a building full of innocent artists and starts shooting up the place we need to keep things in perspective. (And shouldn’t we ask religious folks to explain themselves all the time?) I’m waiting for a story in this series about radical imams who encourage violence or the like, but I doubt we’ll be hearing one. It appears to be a “feel good” piece except for the parts where we are meant to pity the plight of European Muslims. Muslim groups in Britain are attempting to pass anti-blasphemy laws, for example, but nothing like that is discussed in this series. So far it is mostly an attempt to understand and reify the ways in which Muslims feel bad about living in their chosen countries rather than why those countries might have some difficulty with immigrants whose religious choices are antithetical to the founding principles of the host country.

– When Evangelical cash machine Robert Schuller died NPR once again, as with Falwell, delivered a pointless, timid press-release of an obituary.

– Giving Barbara Bradley Hagerty a 5-PART-SERIES about her book on science & religion.

MANY more items to come as they are produced and from the archives when I have time to update… (if you can’t wait just peruse old posts here.)

Religion-Unfriendly Events Ignored or Downplayed by Public Media

– In 2013 a numbskull named Richard Loewen tried to cause a whole bunch of carnage at the Wichita airport with a truck bomb – right before Christmas. Oh, yeah, apparently by total coincidence he also happened to be a radicalized Muslim convert. NPR published exactly two stories as part of the “The Two-Way” news disposal on their website. One was from the initial arrest in 2013, and the other was from his conviction. This means the story of what could have been a very major tragedy was never mentioned on air. (I’m increasingly concerned that “The Two-Way” is just some kind of plausible deniability landfill for not putting things on the air. Does anyone get their news from these pages?) Both stories are brief and minimize the Islamic terrorism angle. In neither story are the rather interesting and important issues surrounding his conversion and radicalization explored.

– It’s the anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings that killed over 50 people. Morning Edition had a moving report about victims and responders today, but the event itself, while referred to as a bombing, was treated more like a natural disaster. There was absolutely no mention of the bombers or their motivations. That was a dramatic and obviously purposeful omission. Why did they choose to treat it that way? Were they worried that simply mentioning the Islamist terror that caused the bombings would seem “islamophobic,” or did they just not want to give the bombers the attention they sought in the first place? Guessing it’s the former. There will be more coverage on All Things Considered this afternoon and we’ll see if they treat the event the same way. UPDATE Sure enough the second report on ATC also failed to mention anything about the bombers. This is akin to journalistic malpractice.

– The documentary film “The Wolfpack” is about the strange isolated upbringing of the children of a Hare Krishna father. Scott Simon did an interview with the filmmaker and her subjects. It’s clear that one of the major sources of the bizarre and mentally abusive family culture was, as is so often the case with such families, religion, specifically the father’s interpretation of the Hare Krishna branch of Hinduism. This was never asked about by Simon in the interview. It’s too bad, because public attention to the role religion plays in nightmarish family cultures, from keeping gay kids in the closet all the way to murdering children by denying them life-saving medical care, could help diminish tolerance for such practices.

Simon was kind enough to respond to my tweet asking about this “I’m reluctant to label those beliefs Hindu, even if he does. A billion Hindus in the world don’t lock up their children.” Isn’t it interesting that he self-identifies as Hindu? This is the same argument that inspires NPR guidelines to specify that ISIS must be referred to as the “self-described Islamic State.” Just because most followers of Islam don’t behead people on a daily basis does not mean Islam doesn’t inspire some to behead people. Meanwhile the denial that religion inspires the small number of very horrible atrocities masks the fact that it indisputably inspires the millions of daily indignities and aggressions suffered by millions/billions around the globe.

– There are secularist conventions happening all the time all over the world, but you’d never know it listening to public radio. On the other hand every time there’s a political prayer breakfast or CPAC circle jerk you’ll hear about it for days. On the other hand given the snide tone public radio uses when it talks to or about secularists it may be better they stay away from such meetings.

– A classic today from Peter “The Non-Tweeter” Kenyon on Morning Edition. He did a whole segment on violence against women in Turkey without mentioning Islam. Yes, most cultures outside of Wonder Woman’s home island are rife with sexism, but Islam has ancient, terrible and unique problems with women. Not bringing this up in the context of a story in Turkey is nearly journalistic malpractice. (He did mention head-scarves.) I can only imagine internalized fear of accusations of Islamophobia caused this omission.

– On February 26 a Bangladeshi-American named Avijit Roy was hacked to death by Muslim Extremists who were unhappy with his writings critical of fundamentalist Islam. No word was heard on NPR, though their “Two Way” news blog did cover it. Meanwhile they did see fit to run a trivial Islamophilia story about a moderate German Muslim who encourages people to ask him about his faith.

– There have been several recent stories in the US and Canada regarding children who died because religious parents refused them the treatments that would have saved them. You wouldn’t know about them listening to NPR.

– Coverage of the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber on NPR routinely downplays or fails to mention the Islamic Extremist ideas behind the mass murder.

– (3-23-15) 7 children died a few days ago in a fire that was caused because ridiculous Orthodox Jewish tradition demanded a hot-plate could not be turned off on the sabbath. On numerous occasions today the deaths/burials were reported on NPR without the crucial information about the circumstances of the death.

– (4-2-15) Robert Schuler, the man who made himself and his family very wealthy while his Crystal Cathedral ministry went bankrupt, was pre-eulogized during today’s NPR News round-ups because he has fallen ill. The mini-bio mentioned his Cathedral and his “Hour of Power” TV show, but, as usual, failed to mention any hint of greed or financial misbehavior on his part.

– (5/18/15) Five days ago 45 reformist Shia were murdered in cold blood execution style on a bus in Pakistan by decidedly less reformist Sunnis. So far not a peep about this on any of the flagship NPR news programs. Somehow the news choosers for every major NPR show decided this hideous event wasn’t worth considering. On the other hand there was a hard hitting interview with the guy behind “The Bachelor” TV show. Priorities? It may have nothing to do with fear of being perceived as Islamaphobic, but it certainly does make one wonder.

Really Morning Edition?

WARNING: This post contains much more profanity, large fonts, and profanity in large fonts than are commonly employed here.

I like to use public radio content as a jumping off point to discuss some larger idea in journalistic practice or politics.  I never meant this blog to just be sniping about this or that story or person day to day on the air.

But today I’ll make an exception.

My question today for the producers of Morning Edition:

“What the F**K?!?”

It’s really all I can think.  Seriously, what the f**k, guys?

Three, count them, three long, ear-bleedingly bad pieces.  And I didn’t even listen to the entire show.

Crappy story 1: No surprise that Barbara Bradley Hagerty would create a staggeringly credulous puff piece on a purported Catholic miracle.  What’s shocking is that nobody at NPR listened to it and said “Uhmm, Barbara, you know this is basically Catholic propaganda that could have been released unchanged by the Vatican’s PR department right?  We can’t possibly run this.  Also, you always do this, so you’re fired.  Really, really fired, as in we are removing all of your old stories from the NPR website because we suddenly noticed they are all like this.”

It seems that Hagerty “reporting” on religion is like Sean Hannity “interviewing” Sarah Palin – only without the uncomfortable sexual undercurrent.

Crappy story 2: A super-mawkish “Storycorps” about a self congratulatory divorced dad and his self congratulatory daughter taking a break from self congratulations to congratulate each other on being such an awesome dad/daughter.  Now I know I shouldn’t complain because at least no one died in the fascinating stories they told about throwing frisbees around, but cloyed nausea is not a feeling I relish a lot more than the usual existential dread inspired by StoryCorpse.  But again, I don’t resent the daddy/daughter combo for making the recording.  What they do in that storycorps booth is none of my business.  But why was it chosen by someone at NPR to be put on the air?

Crappy Story 3: They actually interviewed the vapid author of and promoted the hideous book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”. Which is enough for me to condemn them for all the reasons that will be obvious to people who aren’t douchebags.

But they ran this on Earth Day.

Really?

Now, NPR, I give you money because I listen to you, not because I agree with everything you say.  People who listen regularly  but don’t give money because they don’t agree with all of the content are straight up assholes, especially if they have Scottish accents.

But if you make it so unpleasant to listen to your programming that I have to turn you off, well, the money goes away too.

“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.