Sunday, July 22, 2007

Good and Bad Reporting

Contrast this article from yesterday's National Post about the rise of atheism with this series by local religion "reporter" Denyse O'Leary.

The National Post article points out that the non-religious in America have grown from 8% to 14.3% of the population between 1990 and 2001, and that a 2006 study shows 20% of young adults are non-religious, up from 11%. The article discusses the recent atheist books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, and quotes prominent atheists such as Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Herb Silverman, an atheist mathematician who successfully challenged a South Carolina law that established a religious test for public office, in conflict with the US constitution.

Now, any sensible person would conclude from the statistics in the National Post article and the wave of best-selling atheist books that interest in atheism is increasing, and the Post reporter has a brief analysis why: former UW professor Michael Higgins is quoted as saying "There is a profoundly anti-religious sentiment that exists in the culture-at-large as a result of 9/11" and "There is a souring against religion. There is a general perception that most political and social problems have been generated by religion [and] this comes from the danger people fear as a consequence of 9/11."

Now look at O'Leary's "reporting". She calls the rise of atheism an "anti-God crusade". (Isn't it strange that when theists want to insult atheism, they resort to using explicitly religious language that recalls the bad aspects of religion?) And she suggests that the rise in the interest in atheism is really due to the failure of materialism. She even denies that atheism is on the rise, claiming "atheism ... is stagnant or withering away". Of course, no actual statistics are provided to support this claim. I wonder what it would be like to live in O'Leary's topsy-turvy world.

In her series, O'Leary doesn't do any actual reporting. You will look in vain to find O'Leary actually interviewing anyone, particularly an atheist, to find out what they believe. No, O'Leary resorts to quoting the work of real journalists, journalists who have actually bothered to do the legwork required for an article. Instead, the series consists mostly of sneers and insults directed at atheists and amateur psychologizing:

"...Materialist science is in trouble. And the trouble does not stem from traditional religions, though materialists are - as one might expect - quick to blame their troubles on traditional religions and to reassure themselves that - despite all the evidence - traditional religions are doomed. But, materialists are also smug and thus cannot imagine or respond to any source of trouble arising from their interpretation of the evidence.

They have apparently decided instead to target the Christian religion as the source of their problems. One outcome is that, as we shall see, many materialists want to start a new religion to compete with the traditional ones, including a Darwin Day (Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, and Chinese New Year all rolled into one?)..."

Along the way, O'Leary manages to plug her books. (No article by O'Leary is complete without self-promotion.) She resorts to the hoariest clichés, calling atheists "militant" and "dogmatic".

There is an interesting parallel here between O'Leary's parasitic use of other reporters' work to construct her series, and the behavior of creationists. Like creationists, O'Leary didn't do any actual research of her own. Like creationists, O'Leary isn't interested in exploring her subject, the evidence, or why people believe they way they do. Like creationists, O'Leary spends most of her time denigrating a view she doesn't accept.

My parents were journalists. Some journalists are friends of mine. Ms. O'Leary, you're no journalist.


Unknown said...

I called it...

Dembski Recruits O’Leary

Anonymous said...

Just a possibility: maybe her pieces are editorials.