How Not to Do Important Science Journalism about Spirituality

I’m not exaggerating when I say that a reconciliation between science and religion is one of my most important issues. I’m worried about what will happen to us if the impasse goes on any longer. It’s getting increasingly polarized. It’s pretty obvious from any given day of news what fundamentalist theism does to people. Get into an argument on /r/atheism (should be easy to arrange), and you’ll see what fundamentalist atheism looks like.

Extremists are volatile, is the thing. It’s very easy to incite them. And when everybody is yelling (or fighting), nothing gets done. There will be no moving on from this stupid stand-off in history if religious people and science people don’t learn to speak each other’s languages.

Unfortunately, the economics of the web are designed not to help. When attention is turned into a currency, trolling extremists is pretty much a blogger’s safest bet. When your choice is between a few smart people and hordes of angry dumb people, the Attention Economy leaves your typical web publisher with no choice but to goad the mob. Today’s link is an excellent example of what that looks like from “my” side of the aisle — that is, the religious side.

The problem begins, as with all web articles, with the headline. “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke.” Provocative. It’s a half-troll guaranteed to grab at least five seconds of attention. The first line is going to make or break it. And what does author Nury Vittachi do?

“WHILE MILITANT ATHEISTS like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn’t exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist.”

Oof. So now the atheists are coming in mad. (There are 809 comments on this post since July.) It makes me so upset to see articles about important things executed this way in the name of maximizing eyeballs.

So what does the post actually say? It doesn’t, of course, say that science has proven that people are hard-wired to believe in G!d. But it does point to lots of interesting findings about how deeply wired we are for certain kinds of spiritual feelings, much deeper than our rational minds can touch. It says, in short, that spirituality is complicated, not a binary proposition. If you’re intrigued, I urge you to critically read the whole article, which the vast majority of people who clicked on its baiting headline surely did not.

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