February 04, 2004

God and The New York Times

If you had asked me a week ago to name a major American news organization with interesting commentary on religion, The New York Times would not have been the first news source to leap to mind. (I tend to prefer The Washington Post's religion coverage, and a lot of magazines publish really good articles about the role of faith and God in American life.) Even so, America's newspaper of record has published several interesting religion articles over the past week.

The first of these articles was an op-ed piece by John Kearney, a journalism student at Columbia. Kearney's main argument is that American journalists should "dispense with Allah and commit themselves to God," but he isn't making a conservative Christian argument. Instead, his suggestion is much more interesting:


Here's what I mean: Abraham, the ur-monotheist, represents the shared history, and shared God, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many Christians and Jews are aware of this common past, but seem to have a tough time internalizing it. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a deputy under secretary of defense, made headlines last year suggesting that Allah is not "a real God" and that Muslims worship an idol. Last month in Israel, Pat Robertson said that today's world conflicts concern "whether Hubal, the moon god of Mecca known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah, God of the Bible, is supreme."

Never mind that Hubal was actually a pre-Islamic pagan god that Muhammad rejected. Mr. Robertson's comments, like those of General Boykin, illuminate a widespread misconception one that the news media has inadvertently helped to promote. So here's a suggestion: when journalists write about Muslims, or translate from Arabic, Urdu, Farsi or other languages, they should translate "Allah" as "God," too.


The article goes on to suggest that American Muslims are more willing than Christians are to view the gods of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the same being, and it points out that Arabic Christians describe their god as "Allah."

The second article (a Saturday "arts and ideas" piece by Felicia Lee) discusses the relationship between religious belief and economic growth: new research suggests that religion encourages growth by fostering a fear of hell and thereby encouraging individual traits like honesty, work ethic, thrift, and openness to strangers.

South Korea, the researchers argued, was an excellent example of how economic growth and religiosity sometimes go hand-in-hand. The study's findings weren't all good for religion, however:


Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance tended to depress economic growth. Mr. Barro, a renowned economist, and Ms. McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard's government department, theorized that larger attendance figures could mean that religious institutions were using up a disproportionate share of resources.

"It's all been rather surprising," Ms. McCleary said."People didn't believe you could quantify aspects of religion. We wanted to be intellectually provocative. We see about five more years of study to get out all the stuff we want. We're trying to raise interesting questions in a different way."


I'm not convinced by this research, but it will be interesting to see the reaction.

The third article notes that Mel Gibson has responded to focus groups by deleting a key scene from his film version of The Passion. In that scene, the high priest Caiaphas declared of Jesus that "His blood be on us and on our children," uttering a curse that some see as a historical justification for anti-Semitism. The article also address Gibson's views on the Holocaust.

Posted by Ed at February 4, 2004 01:43 PM
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