COMMENTS: God is Alive among Americans; Carlin Dies

A massive questionnaire survey of the religious beliefs of Americans dominated the headlines even as one of the nation's most famous atheists died. The foul-mouthed God-ridiculing comedian George Carlin died, aged 71, earning obituaries on all three network newscasts. Carlin was in a clear minority, according to the findings of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. After interviewing a sample of 35,000, the forum found that 92% of the population believes in God. Both CBS and ABC, with substitute anchor Elizabeth Vargas, led with the survey, which was Story of the Day. NBC kicked off with the pinch the high cost of oil puts on public school budgets as funds are diverted to pay for school bus diesel.

CBS anchor Katie Couric was hardly neutral on the survey's results. She interpreted the finding that "people think prayer and faith is very important in their lives" as "a lot of good news" when she interviewed her network's in-house faith analyst Thomas Williams, a Roman Catholic theology professor based in the Vatican. Williams disagreed about the "good news" part because the survey also found Americans to be open minded, tolerant and undogmatic when it comes to religious beliefs. "Religion has always been considered to be in the truth business," the priest insisted. "When it is no longer about truth but just about kind of feeling good and fitting in, then I think that that is threatening." On NBC Rehema Ellis extracted a similar soundbite from the Rev Eugene Rivers of Boston's Azusa Christian Community: "terribly theologically illiterate," was how he described Americans based on survey results. ABC's Dan Harris and CBS' Chip Reid came down on the side of tolerance. "We have had enough tolerance to make sure that our culture wars do not turn into civil wars," declared Harris. "Americans are becoming more and more willing to accept the religious beliefs of others," concluded Reid.

UPDATE: thinking about theological illiteracy, all three networks missed the opportunity to provide context for their reporting of the survey results. For example, ABC's Harris noted that the study found a big division between the 60% of Americans who believe they have a personal relationship with God and the 25% who consider the divine to be an impersonal force. It would have been instructive for Harris to have offered a theological checklist. Which religions and denominations find God to be personal? Which opt for impersonal? Which sects do the weakest job at instructing adherents on the articles of faith?


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