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The NYT’s Unknown Unknowns

Why the routine religious ignorance of The New York Times matters

As regular readers will recall, I dropped my New York Times subscription not long ago after nearly 20 years. Why? Because the paper’s pig-blind hostility to orthodox Christianity finally got on my last nerve. I can take people critical of Christian belief, no problem. The Times, though, has an agenda that, if successful, will result in people like me being demonized and marginalized. They can do that, but they’re not going to do it with my subscription money.

Yet the Times remains an extremely good newspaper, one I consult daily, though I have to find ways around the paywall. Every now and then, though, something happens that makes you realize how incredibly ignorant the newspaper’s staff is about basic religious facts. I can understand someone living in Pakistan, or Sichuan province, not getting that all of Christianity, in its many versions throughout the ages, rests on the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t understand how an educated American, whatever his beliefs, can not know that. Yet that story got through several layers of editing at the Times before making it into print. It’s staggering.

If the Times doesn’t know the most basic facts — or the most basic fact! — about Christianity, what else do its reporters and editors miss about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and other religions? I’m not being snarky here. The United States is plunging once again into an extremely complex war in the Middle East, one fought in large part between the two great expressions of Islam — Sunni and Shia — and to a lesser degree, among various strands of Sunni Islam. It is the job of that newspaper — and of all media covering the war — to inform the American public about events there and the factors behind them. Does the Times even know what it doesn’t know? And if the people whose job it is to explain the world to the rest of us don’t know what they don’t know, what kind of ignoramuses are the rest of us going to remain?

I think the Times, and most of the US media, approach religion as something religious people tack on to the real business of life. These journalists aren’t religious themselves, and don’t understand how religious people think. America is increasingly secular, or experiences its religion as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (which is to say, a form of belief that is a comforting add-on to ordinary secular life, like a shpritz of God-scented perfume). But that is not how real religious believers see the world. The Times‘s job is not to advocate for Christianity, of course, or for any religion. It’s to report in as much details as possible the facts as best we know them, and to say what those facts mean. I were a Times subscriber, the paper’s errors about Christianity would make me skeptical not only of the way the paper handles religion when it is part of wider stories, but also of which important religious trends and events occurring in the world that are not seen by the Times, because it doesn’t know what it’s seeing.

Everybody makes mistakes. But saying that Christians believe the body of Jesus is buried in a tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Educated people working for the best and most influential newspaper in the world making that kind of error? It ought to be shocking and embarrassing to the Times. It almost certainly won’t be.



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