Newberg On TV:
Black Cloud Over Atheist
Fox 6 News, here in San Diego, blew it.
Well, maybe not outright blew it, but they certainly did their part last night to fuel the fires of enmity between the religious and the non-religious.
Last night, they did a piece called "Wired to Believe?" about Andrew Newberg and his Why God Won't Go Away findings. I normally avoid network news like the plague (especially Fox), but the title intrigued me enough to tune in. I thought that they very well might have put together a fair report on how Newberg's results indicate a purely natural explanation for those feelings the religious hastily categorize as supernatural.
Alas, that wasn't the case. Instead, they presented a born again Christian who gave the stock "I was into drink and drugs and then god saved me" story, claiming that the "power of prayer" had made him recover a lot faster than his physicians had expected. Then they said that Newberg's findings "may provide scientific evidence" for why things like this happen.
At that point, I slumped in my chair and sighed.
Every time they showed a clip from their interview with Newberg, they bordered the shot with a white mist. Whenever they ran part of their outdoor, obviously impromptu interview with the head of the San Diego Atheist Association (or something like that), they bordered the shot in a black mist. I kid you not. It was textbook sensationalism. Robert Anton Wilson once said something to the effect that, "There is nothing we satirists can come up with that won't be outdone by the real thing."
The biggest problem was this forced dichotomy between religious and a-religious. They said that "non-believers say it's all a product of brainwashing," and then show the SD Atheist guy saying something like, "I don't know if these [Newberg's] findings have been up for scientific scrutiny or what," and point out how indoctrination plays the biggest part in belief in a god or gods. I really felt for the atheist, because it seemed like they'd just shown up at his house in the middle of the day, told him about Newberg, told him their version of Newberg's findings and the implications they drew from them, and asked him to comment. It seemed clear that the guy had never read Newberg's stuff himself, but was simply reacting to what Fox told him. Under these conditions (and under the mouse of the Avid in the Fox editing room), he comes off as coarse and unreasonable. Fox seemed to be trying to say that "science is now on God's side" without ever coming out and saying it.
My conclusions about Newberg's data seem to be closer to your own. I don't think he's demonstrated "where god lives" in your brain, he's simply shown how the thing many humans tend to describe as a "deep religious experience" is really just another brain function, explainable and natural. The great thing about religious fundamentalism, though, is that any piece of evidence whatsoever can be used as proof that one's god exists. So, instead of seeing Newberg's report for what it is, one can say, "Wow, this proves that God put a special place in our brain just for worshipping Him; atheists must just be genetic mutants lacking this place." (Similarly, I was reading a creationist online the other day who claimed that the recent completion of the mapping of the human genome, "should, but probably won't, be the end of Darwinism.")
To top it all off, they mentioned that Newberg's studies also demonstrate the health benefits of faith and belief. As far as I can tell, 1) Newberg didn't do anything like this, but only mentions studies like this in the last couple chapters of his book, and 2) they've been discredited (as Courcey points out).
I don't know why I expected integrity from a Fox affiliate, and, in retrospect, I guess I didn't. But it would have been nice to have had a fair assessment of Newberg's book, rather than sensationalistic dichotomizing.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Fox 6 News and Newberg
Date: Tuesday, May 08, 2001 5:56 PM
They also could have known who would be the most reactionary atheistic spokesperson in town. If the press is looking for a dichotomy, they'll find it. It's much easier to put this into a 90-second bit than it is to squeeze a reasoned discussion into the same time frame. It took eleven pages in Positive Atheism's April issue just to scratch the surface of both the implications of Newberg's findings and also of the somewhat slipshod conclusions to which he comes.
Television news clips are not the way come to reasoned conclusions such as those which we offer in the April edition: Newberg's findings are important not only for the skeptics' peace of mind but also for the dignity of the theist; Newberg's conclusions are based upon a biased presentation of not only the facts but also the way humans have examined and described reality for over two-and-a-half millennia. This is one of several reasons why I have never owned a television set my entire adult life. I have one now, but (a) it is not mine, and (b) it is not hooked up to an antenna; rather, it is connected to the karaoke machine.
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