It is no coincidence that the decline of institutional, inherited religious beliefs and organisations over the past fifty years (particularly in Europe and North America) has occurred at the same time as a revolution in the media – and especially the rise of the internet-based, digitally-conveyed ‘new media’.
The democratisation of knowledge and of belief have occurred together. Authority and veracity as the monopoly of the few is no longer credible in the online world. This reality has substantially changed the agenda regarding the way religion is perceived, described and commented upon.
Many in current leadership positions in faith bodies have still not grasped quite what is happening, or are still trying to hold on to a past where their voices were heard more prominently, with less questioning and with more respect than is ever going to be the case again. There are strong attempts to retain ‘God slot’ style footholds in the established media (the resistance to non-religious voices on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, for example) and a corresponding failure to generate mainstream media content from an engaged faith perspective.
But there is no place to hide in the 24/7 online world. What might once have been ‘internal debates’, such as vituperative arguments about sexuality within the churches, have now become public property and have exposed what for many looking in from the outside is an unattractive landscape. Un-exposited theological language also finds less and less traction in a wider cultural environment in which the assumptions and beliefs of religion are less generally accepted, more diverse and much more contested
The democratization of media has meant a shifting boundary between ‘professional’ journalists and a growing phalanx of reporters and commentators from civil society. Religion writers on national newspapers must now produce blogs which will attract informed and critical response, like Ruth Gledhill’s ‘Articles of Faith’ on the Times (which I hope will not be imprisoned for too long behind Rupert Murdoch’s pay-me-more wall). This has positively ‘upped the game’ of the professionals. The Guardian’s online ‘Belief’ section, like the Washington Post’s religion debates, has similarly opened up discussion about religion well beyond the specialists. On the other hand, as a quick reading of comments on Guardian CIF will indicate, it has also enabled a stream of uninformed invective and has sometimes marginalised expertise. How to value depth of knowledge without succumbing to elitism is a continuing challenge.
Religious groups now also present themselves directly, as well as being ‘reported’ – with startlingly mixed results. Sometimes they seem to have little idea about how repellent they are being! A more open media environment provides ample scope for highlighting the plainly odd. Bartholemew’s Notes On Religion is one site that provides detailed, informed analysis of weird and wonderful beliefs – often pointing out that what appears exotic or offensive to the general observer, may still be profoundly influential – Christian Zionism in Israel, and racially or nationally exclusive religious ideologies in less known corners of Europe, for instance.
Both tech-savvy aggressive religious conservatives and proselytising ‘New Atheists’ have also been adept at using the new media environment, especially social networking, to spread their message – though they are probably appealing to ‘their own’ far more than those of different perspective. In turn the more argumentative types of belief and non-belief have shaped the corporate news agenda in particular directions.
One of the questions that has been posed to us is, ‘What stories about religion provoke debate, and what does this say about the subject of religion?’ For me, a more important question might be ‘What lenses are most frequently used to report religion, and what does this say about the way religion and the media feed off one another?’
A majority of religious people on our planet are probably relatively peaceable and accommodating - except where nationalism, conflict over resources and strong ideology raises its head. Yet it is sex, violence, exoticism, personalities and menacing commitment that sells websites as well as papers. This tells you as much about certain styles of media as it does about certain kinds of religion or belief.
Two strongly ingrained, and in my view unhelpful, narratives currently inform religion reporting in the West. The first is the idea that most disputes within faith communities arise from a root conflict between conservatism (understood as adherence to basic tenets) or liberalism (an abandonment of them). It is this mentality that often portrays fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam – comparatively recent outlooks based on distorted forms of modern rationalism – as normative for what it is to be a “proper believer”. Oddly, both Richard Dawkins and a Southern Baptist pastor would share this view, with one opposing and one supporting its outcomes. But in many cases, what is happening in a religious community is not like this. It is much more complex, nuanced and variable. Indeed authentic ‘tradition’ has always involved adaptation to change – as the evolving perspectives of the Hebrew and Christian biblical narratives clearly illustrate – when not captive to a narrow, particularist viewpoint.
Likewise, it is taken for granted in much religion reporting and comment that there is an unassailable conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’. But ‘religion’ understood as a set of discrete beliefs and rituals set apart from the rest of life is a fairly modern conception, essentially dreamt up in the seventeenth century with the rise of instrumental forms of reason. Likewise the ‘secular’ was historically understood to be the whole fabric of worldly existence, distinguished from an eternal perspective – rather than life separated from ‘religion’ (and vice versa).
Similarly, in today’s world, the truth is that there are forms of religion well adapted to the pluralism secularity assumes, and forms of religion inherently resistant to it. There are also forms of secularism that welcome the religious alongside the non-religious in the public sphere (without privileging one over the other) and others that reject this in favour of their own exclusionary ideology.
What is less frequently understood and reported is that people of faith and people of good faith (but not religious belief) can and do find ways of living and cooperating together without resort either to imposed state religion, or the elimination of religion from the public square. The zone in which this constructive engagement happens is civil society, and the tension is not between religion and non-religion per se, but between authoritarian and open convictions – whether grounded in the transcendent or not, ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’.
The religion and society think-tank that I jointly head up, Ekklesia, which bases its research and advocacy work on a national and international news briefing service, is specifically committed to illustrating how these dominant narratives of liberal versus conservative, religious versus secular, and faith fundamentalism versus angry atheism are neither representative nor necessary. A better way is needed.
We find that bringing people together across the divides to discover how different belief traditions can inform common commitments to peacemaking, restorative justice, social solidarity, environmental sustainability and economic sharing is both practical and possible – if underreported. It can very fruitfully be done by deploying the best that we as Christians have to offer alongside those of other persuasions, without resorting either to the watering down of our faith into a vapid kind of liberalism or its hardening into a stifling caricature of orthodoxy.
In this way, investing in pluralism rather than feeding monopoly needs to be the future of both religion and media – and not just in the interactions between the two.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This is the text of a presentation given in the context of a recent roundtable discussion on ‘Debating Religion in the Media’, alongside Martin Beckford from the Daily Telegraph and Michael Wakelin from the BBC. The session was chaired by Kim Knott, Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds, as part of a two-day conference at the Open University Centre in London.
* Simon Barrow, ‘Why we need to rid ourselves of the 'god of the slots',’ http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5160 
* More on the 'Thought for the Day' debate, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/2185 
* Simon Barrow, 'Losing our (radio) religion?' http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5168