Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That's 'anti-journalism'

When British media critic Jenny Taylor talks to journalists about why they need to take religion seriously, she tells them stories about news stories -- mostly stories many journalists try to avoid.

"The majority world is deeply religious. That small bit of it that still dominates the world's agenda -- the secular West -- is deeply unaware of what drives the rest," she said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and her own Lapido Media network.

Thus, she argued, "The world is in grave danger from the West's own conceits and complacency. ... In Britain we have been trained through cultural prejudice and ideological pressure not to 'do God.' I was told by a BBC press officer that 'we leave our religion at the door when we come to work.'

"The intention may be the scrupulous avoidance of perceived bias, but misunderstood it leads to blindness and an inability to report the facts."

One story has been unfolding in East London, where controversy has long swirled around plans to build the massive Abbey Mills Mosque near Olympic Stadium. How massive? It would hold 9,000 people, roughly four times the size of the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.

The power behind the mosque is Tablighi Jamaat, a global organization that Western security experts believe serves as a recruiting network for radical Islamists, including al-Qaeda. Many Muslims accuse "TJ" of opposing efforts to help believers, especially women, assimilate into Western life.

A cabinet minister will soon decide the mosque's fate. But the key, said Taylor, is that this story has received little mainstream press coverage, in part because journalists either don't take religion seriously, fear making mistakes or don't want to be called "Islamophobic," even when defending moderate Muslims.

There is no way to justify this lack of coverage, she said, and in the end "to ignore religion is 'anti-journalism.' "

This "anti-journalism" gauntlet came from published remarks by Richard Porritt, a former top editor at The London Evening Standard and the British Press Association.

"Many news desks shun real religious news because they believe the subject matter is too tricky to get across properly, and the fear of getting anything wrong is too great," he argued. "But ignoring these stories, or not reporting them fully, is anti-journalism.

"It is the exact opposite of why every reporter signs up in the first place -- to uncover the truth and educate your audience. The media must not avoid hard truths just because they are hard."

During the "Getting Religion" conference, several speakers discussed the degree to which journalists and the diplomats they cover see religion as an "irrational" part of life that should be kept out of the public square. Thus, while private, personal beliefs are acceptable, many elite opinion shapers fear what will happen if religious convictions -- especially among so-called "fundamentalists" -- affect things that are "real," such as politics, law, business and education.

It would be hard to imagine a worldview more radically different from that of -- to be specific -- millions of traditional Christians, Muslims and Jews, argued historian Kate Cooper of the University of Manchester, in a paper included in the conference's "Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties" report (.pdf here).

"Modern people often imagine that human beings are naturally a-religious and that religious traditions add an optional layer of meaning -- and conflict -- into human experience," noted Cooper.

"But in the Mediterranean world out of which the Abrahamic religions emerged, the understanding of the human condition was entirely different. All parties agreed that the sacred was everywhere. ... There was no conception of a world in which the sacred had no place -- where it was absent or had been 'stripped away.' "

That world, one open to both the sacred and the secular, is the world that far too many journalists struggle to understand, respect and cover, said BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Caroline Wyatt, who moderated one conference session. It's time for journalists to be "braver" and to cover this real world.

"Globalization has meant that there is a whole world out there to whom religion is very important and for whom secularism or the idea of separation between religion and state is not necessarily something people believe in or want," said Wyatt. "We need to start getting our minds in the West around how other people think."

NEXT WEEK: When religion gets linked to violence.