Press Languages and Religious Freedom
I WON'T BE SPEAKING TODAY ABOUT the usual religious-freedom issues.
Things like the harassment of worshipers in atheistic dictatorships or the savage penalties that are sometimes imposed upon Christian converts from Islam. Those are important topics, but I have nothing new to say about them.
My topic involves a much more subtle form of discrimination: the way that intellectual elites in secular democracies use biased language, often unconsciously, to marginalize religious thinking and ensure that the world will be run on agnostic principles. In a word, I am going to talk about stereotypes, meaning taken-for-granted terms and habits of thought that permeate academic writing and journalism, and that incorporate controversial assumptions about what religion is and what role it should be allowed to play in society.
Every sermon should have a text, and mine will come from articles that appeared in Scientific American and in The New York Review of Books. In its February, 1998 issue, Scientific American published a favorable profile of Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who serves as Director of the multi-billion dollar program to sequence the complete human genome — and who publicly identifies himself as an evangelical Christian. The profile was headlined as follows: Where Science and Religion Meet: The U.S. head of the Human Genome Project, Francis S. Collins, strives to keep his Christianity from interfering with his science and politics.
That headline says a lot about the standpoint of the scientific elite and the science journalists towards Christianity.
First, the headline implies that it is extremely unusual for a leading scientist to be an outspoken Christian (in other than a nominal or liberal sense). Why is that so unusual, given that the population of the United States is so heavily Christian? Of course most readers of Scientific American wouldn’t ask that question, because they take for granted that there is a profound tension between Christian and scientific ways of thinking.
Second, the headline implies that a Christian who directs a scientific enterprise is uniquely under suspicion. Why is it, exactly, that a Christian needs to keep his Christianity from interfering with his science and politics? I have never seen a magazine article commending a Jewish scientist for striving to keep his Jewishness from interfering with his job, nor do scientific publications rebuke Richard Dawkins and his kind for failing to keep their atheism from interfering with their science and politics. Atheists and agnostics find that their religious position fits comfortably with their scientific thinking; only serious Christians have to worry about keeping the two separate.