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An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
(A review)

The Doubter's Companion:
by John Ralston Saul (Excerpts)

Skeptic Magazine:

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:

Other Blogs
Carl Zimmer
Chris C. Mooney
Chet Raymo

The Meaning of
  the Island of Doubt

Author's site:



May 3, 2005: Climate of Bias

May 10, 2005

An internal committee at the New York Times charged with finding ways to improve the newspaper's reputation has told the editors to "increase our coverage of religion in America." Good idea. Religious institutions have long avoided real journalistic scrutiny. But it will take more than the non-binding recommendations of one panel at one paper to change that.

For one thing, we can expect those same religious institutions to fiercely resist the application of standard reporting techniques to their administrative affairs, their finances and, most crucially, the basis for their beliefs. Rarely do we see something like "In fact, the gospels make no mention of homosexuality" in corporate media coverage of Christian fundamentalist opposition to gay marriage.

It is also doubtful that church-going readers who have been unhappy with the Times' record of late -- Jason Blair's fictional news reportage, Rick Bragg's penchant for passing off second-hand stories as original reporting, editors' failure to question questionable information from the U.S. government in the prelude to the Iraq war -- will automatically welcome critical coverage of their relationship with the Supreme Being.

On the first point, North America's churches haven't exactly embraced the notion that the truth shall set them free. Thomas J. Reese, the editor of the Jesuit magazine America, lost his job in March on the orders of the man who a month later would become pope. The reason? Reese likes to consider the Catholic Church a political, not just religious, organization. He probably should have seen it coming. As the Times' Laurie Goodstein (already dusting off the critical eye, it would seem) wrote last week, "The Jesuits prize their independence, but like everyone in the church, even their top official, the Jesuit superior general in Rome, ultimately answers to the pope." (May 7, 2005)

Sadly, there's been no real follow-up to the Reese story. American media outlets simply aren't in the habit of pounding on responsible priests and reverends in the way they once might have done with their own government when someone was fired for speaking the truth. (How's that John Bolton holding up, by the way?)

One story that does show some potential, however, is unfolding just down the interstate from me, in East Waynesville, N.C. Pastor Chan Chandler of the town's Baptist church recently orchestrated what can best be called the expulsion of nine members of his flock because -- wait for it -- they voted Democrat.

Chandler's words in October: "The question then comes in the Baptist church, 'How do I vote?'. Let me just say this right now: If you vote for John Kerry this year you need to repent or resign. You have been holding back God's church way too long. And I know I may get in trouble for saying that, but just pour it on." (From the Asheville Citizen-Times, May 9, 2005.)

When word of the explusion got out last week, another 40 members resigned in protest. Media attention has been unusually intense, both locally and nationally. Turns out the process used to cast out the Kerry supporters was questionable. But the bigger issue is, will the Internal Revenue Service enforce its own laws, and revoke the charitable status that allows the East Waynesville Baptist Church to avoid taxation?

One can be forgiven for being skeptical. After all, support from the pulpit is widely believed to be at least partly responsible for dragging millions of Republicans to the polls last November, giving Bush the edge.

Not that churches shouldn't be able to determine the criteria for membership. If East Waynesville's Baptists don't want to respect the spirit of the First Amendment's separation of the church and state, if they want to play politics among the pews, they have that right. But then they can pay their taxes just like all the other non-profits that jump through hoops to keep the finances of their partisan and apolitical wings separate. You can't have your cake and eat it, too. At least, that's what the law says.

I, for one, am curious to see how far Chandler will take his crusade. I'm also curious to see if the media lets the IRS off the hook when the taxocrats fail, as they inevitably will, to respect their legislative mandate and start levying some taxes.

James Hrynyshyn

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