‘Religious’? A ‘descriptor’ of no value.

Journalism is built upon shortcuts. Not always, and not everywhere. Long stories can be deliberately–and effectively–discursive. But daily news items rely on shortcuts to get the job done in as little time as possible. 

Take, for example, an obit today for Robert Edwards, one of the developers of in-vitro fertilization. The obit was written by AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng. It begins, "Robert Edwards, a Nobel prizewinner from Britain…died Wednesday at age 87."

"Nobel prizewinner" is a shortcut. It tells us in two words (I'd make it three) that Edwards likely did good and important research, and that he was probably well known. A couple of grafs later, the story says that Edwards and his late colleague, Patrick Steptoe, were "accused of playing God and interfering with nature," a shortcut Cheng used to describe the huge controversy that arose when the two scientists announced they could produce a baby from an embryo created in a laboratory dish. She amplifies on that later, but this is a quick tip-off to what's coming. This sort of thing is common in news stories, it's practical, and it's generally acceptable. But sometimes shortcuts don't say what we think they do.

Which brings me to the subject of today's thought: the adjective "religious." It comes up in all kinds of contexts, including stories about evolution, creationism, and the Big Bang. We can be tempted to write that someone is "religious" as though that means something. 

The issue came up not long ago in a sports story, generating an explosive post at sbnation.com by Spencer Hall, a sportswriter, who says the word "religious" is "a descriptor that contains no demonstrable value." 

Writers sometimes think it means something, but as he explains, it doesn't:

We live in the most religious portion of the country, a place where a lot of people who self-identify as "spiritual" routinely have irresponsible sex with disastrous consequences, shoot each other over absolutely nothing, cheat on their spouses, stump for openly fraudulent businesses, write medieval gibberish into the legal code, and demand it be granted some kind of face value on the basis that someone goes to church. The best people we have ever known go to church. The worst people we have ever known went to church. Pardon us if the term has an ambiguous value at best with a data set showing little correlation between practice and theory.

That should clear up any ambiguity about what Hall is trying to say. And Hall's remedy for this journalistic crime? "If you want to demonstrate how good someone's character is, don't just give them a sticker. Show it, illustrate it, and give examples."


-Paul Raeburn

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