How much skepticism is too much for religion reporters?


Over at his blog on, our friend Rod Dreher takes up the question of just when skepticism no longer becomes a reporter.  Dreher agrees that lack of skepticism is a common flaw in journalism, but excess skepticism seems to be more common among religion writers:

[One] can be too skeptical, which is to say, cynical. If one believes that all religion is a racket, that will distort one's religion reporting...Because we're human beings, we suffer from confirmation bias -- that is, we look, usually unconsciously, for our own biases to be confirmed.

Religion reporting is best done by people who see religion as just another aspect of human endeavor -- like politics, or art. It may well be the case that (for example) the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, specially gifted with certain charisms. But from a journalist's point of view, he is also a man, and that means he's subject to the same flaws as anybody else. It can be hard to keep that straight, depending on which religious figure, and which religion, you're reporting on.

This "confirmation bias" reinforces long-standing roadblocks to good news coverage of religion. 

Among the two greatest sins journalists commit in covering religion worldwide is 1) seeing all religions as essentially the same, and 2) seeing believing people within segments of those religions as all the same. 

Appropriately humble journalists will avoid such errors by accepting that religious people (and religions) "are complex, sometimes in ways we wish they weren't" (there Dreher quotes religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer). 

For example, Dreher says:

I grew up in a culture that was pretty moral and religiously observant, but which had a huge blind spot on the matter of race. Did the fact that many white people were badly wrong about race mean that they were thoroughly bad? No, of course not -- no more than the fact that many people are wrong about unborn human life makes them thoroughly bad.

There are some people who are almost wholly bad, and some who are almost wholly good (we call them saints) -- but most of us live somewhere in the messy middle.

Religious people's exhasperation can usually be traced back to reporters' seeming inability or unwillingness to deal with those complexities. 

Religion Dispatches picks up this thread with a good interview with Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One.  Though Prothero's quarrel is not with journalists alone, he hammers on that mortal journalistic sin of collapsing religious difference:  

 One perspective that new atheists and liberal multiculturalists share is that the religions are essentially the same (false and poisonous on the one hand, and true and beautiful on the other). I think this view is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.

Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca, and Muslims do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, going on the hajj is not peripheral to Muslims—in fact it is one of Islam’s Five Pillars. And the belief that Jesus is the Son of God is not inessential to Christians—in fact it stands at the heart of the Christian gospel.

The lesson for journalists - and a drum that we beat here at The Media Project and over at - is to take seriously Prothero's simple argument that "the world’s religions are climbing different mountains with very different tools and techniques".

Journalists can be skeptical of religious leaders' claims and still be mindful of substantive differences that lead to very different lives among the faithful.