Thursday, 17 May 2007

Newspapers Should Re-title Religion Section to "Religion & Ethics"?

Paper Should Re-title Religion Section

May 16, 2007

Editor's Note: The Institute for Humanist Studies works to bring the humanist perspective to the mainstream media. We are currently beginning a national initiative to persuade newspaper publishers and editors to re-title and rethink their "Religion" sections. Nearly 14 percent of the population in the U.S. reports "no religion." Yet media coverage of the non-religious perspective does not reflect this demographic.

As Humanist Network News readers know, non-religious people have values and ethics, too. That's why IHS is working to help newspaper publishers and editors realize that titles like "Religion & Ethics", "Faith and Values", "Communities & Values" are more inclusive and will welcome more positive voices into the national dialogue on American faith, values and ethics.

And we're starting right in our own backyard. Here in Albany, N.Y., our hometown newspaper, the Times Union, still publishes a "Religion" section. We've spoken to the editor and to the Religion editor about renaming the section and about including folks like humanists. Here is the first step toward making that a reality.

The following column, authored by IHS Executive Director Matt Cherry, appeared in the "Religion" section of the Times Union, under the heading "Voices of Faith."

At the end of the column, Cherry calls for the Times Union to rename their religion section and to make more of an effort to include the humanist perspective.

If you agree with this IHS initiative, please send an email to the editors at the Times Union. Please applaud them for publishing Matt Cherry's column and encourage them to rename their "Religion "section and to rethink their coverage of faith and ethics to be more inclusive of humanists and the nonreligious.

You can send a letter for publication in the Times Union by clicking here.

You can also send an email that is not for publication to the relevant people at the Times Union:

Please encourage your religious friends and family who support this cause to write in as well! And don't forget to send IHS a copy of your email or letter.

First published by the Times Union
Saturday, May 12, 2007

It is with some trepidation that I venture into the Religion section of the Times Union. You see, even though I am president of the United Nations Non-Governmental Organizations Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, I am not personally religious. That's right, I am a godless humanist.

Yet I enjoy reading the religion pages. I like learning about the traditions of different communities. I share the moral concerns and the quest for deeper meaning expressed by so many of the writers here.

So perhaps that makes me the right person to explore, as a nonreligious writer in the religion pages, the question of inclusion versus exclusion, unity versus division.

Questions of faith and division are on my mind because of the Rev. James Dobson complaint about "a slap in the face the governor of New York has delivered to people of faith all across the country." Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, was offended that Gov. Eliot Spitzer waited until April 25 to sign a proclamation for the National Day of Prayer on May 3.

A National Day of Prayer sounds like a lovely opportunity for religious inclusion, but Dobson's criticism of Spitzer shows how easily an occasion for inclusion can become divisive. Obviously, the roughly one in 10 Americans who share my lack of religion are going to feel excluded, but at least all religious people will feel included in a day of prayer. Right?


The National Day of Prayer Task Force is remarkably narrow about whom it wants to include, requiring that any "volunteer must be an evangelical Christian who has a personal relationship with Christ." That would exclude a lot more people than the nonreligious, including Gov. Spitzer, who is Jewish. In fact, according to a detailed study by the Texas Freedom Network, the Task Force -- "sometimes with the tacit approval and support of elected local and national officials -- uses the day to promote 'culture war' battles that divide, rather than unite, our nation."

The Task Force is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of, you guessed it, James Dobson. Adopting the culture war language of the Christian right, the panel explicitly instructs participants to pray against "condom distribution, the promotion of homosexuality and a refusal to acknowledge God" in public schools.

Three years ago, the Task Force caused an uproar in Utah by saying that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as Seventh-Day Adventists, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, would not be allowed to pray at any of the services it sponsors.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that atheist and humanist groups have reacted to the National Day of Prayer with an alternative called the National Day of Reason, also held on May 3. For last week's National Day of Reason, free-thought groups across the country held blood drives to show the altruism of the nonreligious. Giving blood is a wonderful way to help our fellow citizens, but the National Day of Reason can easily be interpreted as a deliberate jab at the religious, and therefore divisive.

The National Day of Prayer has thus become a symbol of division, not unity.

Inclusion seems to be less of a problem in my work at the United Nations. The very name of the Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief reflects the U.N.'s inclusion of nonreligious believers. I am the only person on the committee who does not belong to a religious denomination. I represent the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Yet our committee works very well together because we share common values, principles and goals. We support the fundamental right to freedom of conscience for every human being on the planet. We work to build tolerance and understanding.

These are the kind of principles so often celebrated in the religion pages of the Times Union. It is important to note, though, that there is nothing exclusively religious about these principles. Humanist and religious people both care about values and ethics and share a commitment to working for a greater good. All of which leads me to conclude with one modest proposal to encourage greater inclusion.

Why doesn't the Times Union follow the lead of other papers and change the title of these pages to something more inclusive.

"Religion & Ethics," anyone?

Matt Cherry is executive director of the Albany-based Institute for Humanist Studies.

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