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WHAT WE DON'T KNOW CAN HURT US: what the press doesn't tell us about the world religions (LONG)
World ^ | March 8 issue | Marvin Olasky

Posted on 03/03/2003 8:50:17 PM PST by Mr. Mulliner

What we don't know can hurt us

What the press teaches about Islam and other religions is not nearly as important as what it leaves out of its reporting

By Marvin Olasky

Last year WORLD examined the treatment of Christian conservatives in the press. This year, with the war in Iraq, the slant of stories about Saddam Hussein and the effort to stop him is significant. But it's even more important over the long run that our press educators alert us to the warlike propensities of a large chunk of Islam, not just an extremist faction.

Christianity has had its belligerent eras, but the religion spread over its first three centuries through martyrdom, not aggression. Islam's expansion was different. Sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa during the first century after Muhammad's death in a.d. 632, Islam by 732 was dominant in Spain and known in China. Had Charles "the Hammer" Martel not led Christian forces that latter year to a victory over Muslim invaders in southern France, Islam might have conquered all of Europe.

Muslim military effort gained a great impetus from the Quran, which teaches that "Truly Allah loves those who fight in His Cause in battle array, as if they were a solid cemented structure" (Sura 61:4). The Quran particularly condemns pacifists: "O ye who believe! what is the matter with you, that, when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah, ye cling heavily to the earth? ... Unless ye go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place" (Sura 9:38-39; note also 4:74-76 and 61:10-12).

The early Islamic empires grew through persuasion plus force; the exact percentages are in dispute. The basic Quranic principle is that people should freely declare their allegiance to Allah, and that often happened when Islam seemed to be on an unstoppable winning streak. When those conquered have not been so obliging, in some cases they have had the choice of praising Allah or taking a sword in their gut. Most Americans know little of this, nor of how the Quran encourages war against non-Muslims.

In the face of Hitler's aggression in 1940, John F. Kennedy wrote a provocatively titled book, Why England Slept. Events and President Bush are not letting the United States sleep now, but the frequent tendency in democracies is to take naps whenever the coast is temporarily clear. Many people who enjoy having morning newspapers along with their coffee would be surprised to find that their local papers act as sleeping pills when it comes to covering not only Islam but other religions.

Such pills can be fatal, because the world is a dangerous place. Not only Islam displays militaristic tendencies. Thinking of Gandhi, we often think of Hindus as pacifists, but the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism's favorite scripture, is in part a war poem that endorses military action. Hindu militants today speak loudly and wave very big sticks, including nuclear-tipped ones. Buddhism also is not necessarily a religion of peace, as the records of a Buddhist army that dominated medieval Japan show. A recent book documents how Zen Buddhist thought underlay Japan's buildup to an attack on Pearl Harbor.

This essay examines U.S. newspaper coverage of the three powerful non-Christian religions in the world: Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Related articles bring out some press tendencies concerning Judaism and Christianity. Drawing from an examination of several thousand newspaper articles from January 2000 to January 2003, what follows provides examples of two press tendencies—superficiality and syncretism—and raises questions about what we're missing. But we'll begin with what readers in the United States are learning about Iraq.

Saddam, terrorists, and Islam

Here's a starter question that's crucial in both American strategy and international response: As the United States deals with Saddam Hussein, are we fighting a secular dictatorship or are we fighting Islam?

Saddam, reeling after his defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, began wrapping himself in a green-and-white Muslim flag. He spent $7.5 million building Baghdad's Umm al-Ma'arik ("Mother of All Battles") mosque, which is surrounded by minarets shaped like Scud missiles. He has plans to build many more mosques, including the largest in the world outside of Mecca. The construction program is part of a "faith campaign" that he began in 1996 and has recently accelerated.

Saddam, who rose to power as a secular semi-socialist, is now committed to Islam, his publicists say. He purportedly donated 12 quarts of his own blood over three years for the dark red calligraphy that went on 605 gold-framed pages of a copy of the Quran exhibited in the rotunda of the Umm al-Ma'arik mosque. State-run Iraqi television now broadcasts lengthy readings of the Quran, talent contests feature chanting of the sacred text, and posters show Saddam praying.

How deeply this change from the top has affected Iraq generally is hard to say. Mosque attendance is apparently up, as is the number of women wearing traditional Islamic garb and the number of applicants to the Saddam University for Islamic Studies. The New York Times has noted only in passing that Saddam is "showing up more regularly at mosques and suffusing his speeches with Quranic references." The Times spent most of a recent article noting merely that the "faith campaign" has led to bar closings: "Now, Iraqis drink at home, or in restaurants and nightclubs furtive enough to serve alcohol in frosted glasses."

The Washington Post, perhaps reporting accurately and perhaps trying to dissuade the Bush administration from a vigorous military response, was one of the few newspapers that emphasized "Hussein's efforts to quash dissent by promoting religion." The Post observed, "Getting people to the mosque has clear political benefits for Hussein. Sermons are often imbued with fiery anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.... 'Our belief in Islam will make us stronger for our fight against America,'" one mosque leader said, and a diplomat predicted that, "If there's a war, Saddam is not going to say 'Fight for me' this time. He's going to say 'You must fight for Allah.'"

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only other major U.S. newspaper through the end of January to explore seriously the possible effect of Saddam's new Islamic emphasis. Some left-leaning publications abroad discussed that question at length—again, it's hard to say how serious that concern is and how much it represented an attempt to scare hawks. The Guardian (London) ran a headline on Christmas Eve, "Threat of war: 'If God wants to take us, he will take us': Baghdad's mosques are filling up as Saddam calls on religion to bolster his regime." The newspaper's Baghdad correspondent quoted one resident, Mohammad Ahmed, saying, "For us there is no separation between politics and religion. That means we don't fear anything. If God wants to take us he will take us."

The Iraqi press has certainly been pushing Islam hard and stating that any who die fighting Israel or the United States are martyrs. The daily Al-Jumhuriya published on Dec. 1 an article stating that such martyrs have "a great status in the eyes of Allah.... With the first drop of blood [the martyr] is given absolution and he can see his seat in paradise. He is spared the torture of the grave. He is secure from the Great Horror [of Judgment Day]. He is crowned with the crown of glory. He marries black-eyed [virgins]. He can vouch for seventy of his relatives [to enter paradise]."

How deeply do Iraqis believe this? If they are only fighting to preserve Saddam, many will stop at the first opportunity. If death in battle will yield a guaranteed trip to Islam's heaven, they will fight hard. Which is it for many or most Iraqis? That's the crucial question, but U.S. press avoidance of many religious questions leaves us without crucial intelligence.

Coverage of Islam

Many newspapers and magazines offered crash courses in the basics of Islam following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and WORLD went deeper in a special issue the month after 9/11. Sadly, newspaper presentation of the basics was generally done in the context of stories that advocated the positive, toleration, without coming to grips with the negative, the existence for centuries of a sizeable war party within Islam. Instead of describing both faces of Islam, reporters displayed superficiality and tried to foster syncretism.


Reporters have frequently labeled Osama bin Laden's pronouncements as deviations from moralistic but peace-loving Islam. For example, the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise contrasted "self-declared 'Islamic militants'" with the "authentic Islam" absorbed by convert Nancy Hadiza Collins: "'I used to love drinking strawberry margaritas,' she said. 'Now I read Muslim books and avoid sleazy films or music.'"

On the other side of the United States, the Orlando Sentinel told readers that "Muslims Strive to Educate," which means that "[w]hen Errol Peterkin says Islam is peace, it's more than just an expression. 'It's how we live, by nature of our religion.'" The Sentinel reported that at an open house for the Muslim Academy of Central Florida "kindergartners did finger paintings, some students created collages, and older children wrote essays. 'The terrorists called themselves Muslim, but Muslims do not behave with such violence and evil,' wrote fifth-grader Sufeya Yasin."

Reporters suggested that such pre-pubescent wisdom should just about end the discussion. The Atlanta Journal was typical in its statement that discussions in Muslim countries are open-ended: "Most Americans probably would be stunned to see that the Quran advises Muslims to 'be courteous when you argue with People of the Book [Christians and Jews], except with those who do evil.'" The Journal did not mention that many Muslims view Christian evangelism as evil. Instead, readers were told, "Although Islam is often depicted in Western thought and popular culture as 'a religion of the sword,' the Quran condemns war and violence."

Sadly, the U.S. press had not delved into the debate about what kind of war and violence the Quran condemns. Let's look at several Arabic words. Saddam Hussein and Saudi members of the Wahhabi sect argue that terrorists are martyrs: They pay $25,000 or more to the surviving families of mujahideen (holy warriors) who participate in jihad and become shahidin (martyrs). But other Muslims call terrorists mufsidoon (evil-doers) engaged in hirabah (unholy war against society) and heading not to paradise but to jahannam (eternal hellfire).

Muslims originally used the term hirabah to condemn vicious attacks by members of barbarian tribes who murdered or enslaved those they fought and defeated. Such barbarians engaged in "war against society," attacking indiscriminately as today's hirabah mufsidoon (vicious war evildoers) attack indiscriminately. The TrueSpeak Institute in Washington argues that traditional Islamic law bans "the fomenting of hatred between communities, religions, nations and civilizations; committing and enticing others to commit suicide for the purpose of intimidation; and wanton killing of innocents and noncombatants, even including fellow Muslims."

Even if that is true, Saddam, bin Laden, and other purveyors of violent hatred have been redefining the classic concepts. Israeli adults are not innocent because many at some point had military training, and Israeli children are future aggressors, Saddam charges. Clerks in the World Trade Center were not noncombatants because they fueled capitalism that makes possible American aggression, bin Laden argues. U.S. forces' attack on Iraq is not to force change in a regime that has violated the peace agreements signed after Gulf War I, but to destroy a center of Islam, many mullahs mutter.

How many other Muslims follow that train of thought? The question of definition—jihad or hirabah—is crucial for Muslims, but most Americans are unaware of the debate. A Lexis-Nexis search early in 2003 showed seven references to hirabah in the previous 90 days and thousands to jihad. That debate is on among Islamic scholars, though. For example, Ezzeddin Ibrahim of the United Arab Emirates stated that "what occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, is one of the most loathsome of crimes, which in Islam goes under the name of al-hirabah."

Similarly, Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, said that "al-Qaeda's brand of suicide mass murder and its fomenting of hatred among races, religions, and cultures do not constitute godly or holy jihad—but, in fact, constitute the heinous crime and sin of unholy hirabah." Tamman Adi, director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Eugene, Ore., also argued that "the masterminds of international terrorism are not fighting a jihad, they are hirabah thugs."

These and other assertions can be found on Internet sites but not in U.S. newspapers, according to my Lexis-Nexis search. Some Americans think Islam is a religion of war and others a religion of peace, but few see that it is and has been both at various times, and that a furious debate concerning Islam's future direction is now under way.


Conversion from any religion to another is a major step, yet reporters—apparently coming from the view that Islam and Christianity are essentially similar religions—have generally made it seem easy. The Houston Chronicle, under a "Drawn to Islam" headline, concentrated on food, not faith: "Huevos rancheros for breakfast; fasouliye for dinner.... For El-Kassir, a Mexican-American convert to Islam, starting the day with the Mexican egg breakfast and ending it with a Lebanese meat-and-bean dinner meant nothing more than the merging of cultures easily found in Islam." Nothing more than the merging of cultures?

Syncretism—trying to merge religions—was also evident in a Dallas Morning News report (also under the headline, "Drawn to Islam") on an army officer sent in 1992 to Pakistan, where "the piety of the people made a strong impression. 'They were good, humble people trying to practice their religion,' he said, [so he was] attracted by Islam's strict moral code, a belief system with similarities to Judaism and Christianity." Islam's minutely detailed moral code is very different from Christianity's emphasis on broad principles that require discerning application.

Some stories on Muslim holidays did report customs that would seem strange to many Americans, but almost always without any explanation of what the differences signify. For example, The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) reported the celebration of Eid al-Adha, Islam's three-day festival of sacrifice, and noted, "The sacrifice and cooking of a goat or other animal is part of the ritual of the Eid al-Adha.... In the Islamic holy book, the Quran, Abraham is said to have been commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, but was stopped at the last moment and given a goat to sacrifice instead." The Ledger did not explain that sacrifices came because of the understanding that sin had to be paid for in some manner.

Major theological differences tended to be reported in an "oh, by the way" manner: The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) stated that "Muslims believe in all of God's prophets, including Jesus Christ. However, they believe Muhammad was the last and final prophet." Oh, that's it? But Christianity is based on the belief not that Christ is one among many prophets, but that He is the Son of God. Many newspapers have reported variations on this theme: "Same God: Muslims accept the teachings of the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels." That's not true; Muslims accept those teachings only when they conform to the teachings of the Quran, and often they do not.

Can we do better?

Sure we can, and United Press International's Uwe Siemon-Netto showed how in an article that took aim on syncretism. In "Faith Cocktails for Good Times," he noted that "Syncretism, or the mixing of religious doctrines, is ... en vogue in this giddy postmodern era.... Truth is syncretism's first casualty because honesty falls by the wayside."

The story succinctly noted the error of simply saying that both Islam and Christianity "revere Jesus, affirm His virgin birth, and await His ultimate return to judge the living and the dead. Of course there is a huge difference. To Muslims, Jesus is the second-ranking prophet who never died on the cross. To Christians, He is the incarnation of the very aspect of God that created the universe. In Christ, God made Himself small for humanity's salvation. These differences are insuperable, if you wish to engage in an honest theological discourse."

Mr. Siemon-Netto's piece was a column, but Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times showed what could be done in a detailed piece of reporting (appropriately headlined, "Inside a Complex Community"). The article began, "No place in Southern California symbolizes the tension over Saudi Arabia's influence in the world like the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City.... The mosque's leaders admire Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century evangelist. Al-Wahhab inspired the so-called Wahhabi movement, which is prominent in Saudi Arabia but criticized by detractors for oppressing women, shunning non-Muslims, and inspiring Osama bin Laden's jihad."

The article showed how militant and peaceful factions in America's second-largest city are fighting for dominance within a mosque financed by Saudi money: "Inside the mosque community, there are those who are sympathetic to jihad and suicide bombings and those who are not. Some object to non-Muslims visiting their sacred space; others warmly embrace them. Some women veil their entire bodies; others throw off such practices as outdated.... On the Friday after the terrorist attacks, the imam [Tajuddin Shuaib] says, he gave a sermon condemning suicide bombings and was shouted down by some men who leaped to their feet and accused him of 'changing the Quran.'"

Ms. Watanabe continued, "Patriotic banners supporting President Bush and the families of terrorist victims were torn down from the mosque and stolen, he says. The same hotheads, Shuaib says, have also tried to foment hatred against Israel for its actions against Palestinians and the United States for its bombing campaign against Afghanistan.... Shuaib says he kicked out four members of the mosque in October in part because they were fomenting dissent and extremism."

The article described a kicked-out member, "Abdo Ghanem, 39 ... a designer-clothes salesman [who] praises America's political freedoms even as he castigates its moral decadence." Mr. Ghanem chauffeured Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (given life imprisonment for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks) and favors assassination of bad Muslims and jihad against Saudi Arabia and Israel. But Ms. Watanabe also described "Sonia Arcangeli, 31. The Marina del Rey resident paints her nails red, views gender segregation as unequal and, to the horror of other women, dissents from the majority view that menstruating women must not touch the Quran."

Ms. Watanabe showed her sympathy with Imam Shuaib, who suffered criticism for performing a wedding that non-Muslim women attended without wearing "proper" covering, and took more heat for accepting flowers from a Jewish neighbor after news broke that the Jewish Defense League allegedly planned to bomb the mosque. "Brother, are you out of your mind?" Shuaib says he told the critic. "Do you want a bomb or flowers? People with extremist views want you to come down very, very hard on non-Muslims."

Sadly, Ms. Watanabe's article was unusual, as most reporters implied that Muslim extremists were a small minority. The UPI's Uwe Siemon-Netto was one of the very few to ask hard questions and still offer hope, in a UPI article provocatively headlined, "Can Islam Be Reformed?" He reported both questions involving the meaning of jihad and problems in Islamic law that can lead to death by stoning for a woman who reports a rape charge. Then he noted Islam's "teaching that about once every 100 years God sends a messenger to correct not the Quran, but the perspective from which it is to be seen at any given time in history." He reported that "a small but intellectually powerful group of Muslim scholars is endeavoring to correct this perspective for our time. Quietly, they are also engaged in dialogues with Jews and Christians, especially in Europe and the United States."

The need to tell the truth

Those dialogues are needed, but they need to stress telling the truth and not showing "compassion" toward Muslims by refusing to ask hard questions. On Oct. 1, 2002, the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat printed a letter from M.G. Abu Saber, father of a young Palestinian suicide bomber who wrote, "Four months ago, I lost my eldest son when his friends tempted him, praising the path of death. They persuaded him to blow himself up in one of Israel's cities."

The bereaved father went on to describe how "friends of my eldest son the martyr were starting to wrap themselves like snakes around my other son, not yet 17." They wanted "to direct him to the same path towards which they had guided his brother, so that he would blow himself up too to avenge his brother, claiming 'he had nothing to lose.'"

Mr. Saber continued, "From the blood of the wounded heart of a father who has lost what is most precious to him in the world, I turn to the leaders of the Palestinian factions, and at their head the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their sheiks, who use religious rulings and statements to urge more and more of the sons of Palestine to their deaths." He asked, "By what right do these leaders send the young people, even young boys in the flower of their youth, to their deaths? Who gave them religious or any other legitimacy to tempt our children and urge them to their deaths? ... Has death become the only way to restore the rights and liberate the land? And if this be the case, why doesn't a single one of all the sheiks who compete amongst themselves in issuing fiery religious rulings, send his son? ..."

It is neither wise nor compassionate to remain uninformed about those fiery religious rulings, and whether they have a basis in the Quran. Nor is it wise, when one culture may be threatening another, to settle for the most superficial coverage of that culture's belief, or to assume that both cultures have essentially the same understanding of who God is.

Coverage of Buddhism

Many Americans equate Buddhism with the search for serenity, but two books by Methodist-turned-Buddhist Brian Victoria show that Zen Buddhist priests before and during World War II taught Japan's military leaders to be serene about killing others and, if necessary, themselves. As samurai warriors in previous centuries had found Zen's mind control useful in developing combat consciousness, so kamikaze pilots visited Zen monasteries for spiritual preparation before their last flights.

Buddhism also has its parallels to the teaching by some Muslim clerics that dying in the process of killing enemies guarantees passage to paradise. Some Zen priests during World War II told prospective kamikaze attackers that they would gain improved karma for the next life, and in a deeper sense would lose nothing, since life is unreal and there is really no difference between life and death. Mr. Victoria shows that D.T. Suzuki, who taught at Columbia University in the 1950s and became the prime spreader in America of Zen's mystique, stated in 1938 that Zen's "ascetic tendency" helped the Japanese soldier to learn "that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him."

Mr. Victoria also shows that Hakuun Yasutani, who helped in the 1960s to make Zen popular in the United States, was a major militarist before and during World War II, and even wrote in 1943 a book expressing hatred of "the scheming Jews." Stung by such evidence, leaders of Myoshin-ji—the headquarters temple for one major Zen sect—issued shortly after 9/11 an apology noting that "in the past our nation, under the banner of Holy War, initiated a conflict that led to great suffering." Myoshin-ji noted specifically that its members "conducted fundraising drives to purchase military aircraft."

Other Buddhist groups besides the Zen sects supported Japan's aggression and looked to historical warrant for it. In medieval times an army housed in temples of the Tendai sect on a mountain overlooking Kyoto dominated Japan's capital city and occasionally sacked it. Sect fought against sect in battles involving tens of thousands of men. Some 100,000 soldiers, with Buddhism's blessing, wiped out the last organized remnant of Japanese Christianity in 1637.

Many Buddhists today are pacifists, yet they teach an attractive-sounding doctrine that has stunning implications for human interaction. Buddhism's top selling point is nonattachment to anything in the world; that, Gautama Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, is the way to eliminate suffering. We shouldn't be emotionally attached to our houses or cars, our cats and dogs, our own health, or even (and here is where some who understand Buddhism drop out) our husbands or wives.

U.S. journalists regularly portray Buddhism as merely an attack on selfishness. The Kansas City Star in 2001 reported this central Buddhist message: "We are most attached to our self-image. Friends are those who reinforce our image, and our enemies challenge it. In renouncing attachment to our self-image, we discover the truth about ourselves.... This leads to compassion for others and our own freedom." The opportunity for nonattachment to promote a lack of compassion ("don't mess up my tranquility") is rarely examined in articles that tend to be superficial and syncretistic.


The Dallas Morning News, under a headline, "Buddhist master enthralls devotees," printed Buddhist testimonies: "Lid Juarez found something four years ago that transformed his life. The 70-year-old Dallas man has lost 25 pounds, and chronic problems with indigestion and arthritis are gone. He said the hassles of day-to-day life no longer bother him, and he feels at peace 24 hours a day."

The Deseret News, the Salt Lake City daily, provided a local Zen center an article that reads like an ad: "[T]he center at 1274 E. South Temple continues to attract an increasing number of Utahns looking for a place to do some self-examination and find peace, ... honesty, openness, love, and compassion." The Austin American-Statesman quoted Austin residents rejoicing that "Buddhism is very practical. Every day in your life you can use it and share. I feel very free and very content. Above all, I now discover the joy of life."

The San Francisco Chronicle described Buddhism as nice-nice belief: "a philosophy that stresses the interconnectedness of life, and the importance of being kind to others." Writer Don Lattin has one convert to Buddhism explain that her mother at first was unhappy but is now pleased because the convert's "kids are kind to other kids."

Many Buddhist sects have arguments with each other that go back centuries, but U.S. newspapers almost never report those differences. One St. Louis Post-Dispatch article did note the existence of one division, but gave no detail about the differences—and then explained how representatives from each group eat together: "Everyone always loves the delicious vegetarian lunch." Political reporters do not overlook battles between U.S. solons because they eat bean soup together in the Senate dining room.

For example, one Buddhist sect, Soka Gakkai, has garnered wide criticism in Japan for its totalitarian nature and its control of the third-largest political party in Japan. But a Washington Post article merely noted that "chanting is one of the features that distinguishes Soka Gakkai from better-known traditions that emphasize meditation." It then quoted one Soka Gaakai member, "While doing inner transformation, also at the same time you make efforts to transform society around you as a private citizen and collectively as a member of SGI." Sounds good.

Reporters regularly overlooked controversy and held out clichŽs as profundities. The Denver Post advised its readers through this headline: "Slow down, says Buddhist leader: Learn how to see 'beauty everywhere.'" A novel idea, and there was more from the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh: "'Pay attention to the world in which you live.... The seeds for happiness are everywhere—in the blue sky, in the clouds, in the face of our children." Reporter Barbara Hey observed that these are "[c]omforting words in a place and time when seeking happiness is often relegated to a 'to-do' list." She then summarized the message: We should feel "a connection to the Earth, engaging and nourishing what is best in all of us and opting not to flame the fires of qualities that harm ourselves and others." Beware of journalistic poets.

Journalistic skeptics who scorn Christian revivalists have become weak in the knees when writing about visiting Buddhist biggies. Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times, beneath an "Insights for Troubled Youths Complete Dalai Lama's Visit" headline, reported how two people came together: "She's just 17, but her world swirls with violence.... He's 64. He's won the Nobel Peace Prize, is regarded as the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion."

Ms. Watanabe reported 17-year-old Monisha gushing, "What he told her will stay with her forever.... 'He told me to find self-confidence in my heart and myself. I had tears in my eyes. My heart was beating, like, wild.'" There was more: "'You are your own light,' he told the teenagers. 'Look into your own self.' Some smiled and nodded. Others confessed the teaching went over their heads. But there was no mistaking the impact on them of the day's events." The Times did not list the signs of impact, or interview "the troubled youths" a year later to see if they had stayed out of trouble, to see if the impact was lasting.

Controversy is a key element of most stories, but reporters allowed none to touch the Dalai Lama. Criticizing Christian anthropology, the Dalai Lama says, "Some people get the impression that we human beings have basically a negative nature.... If basic human nature is negative, then there is no future." Christians believe basic human nature is negative, but they still posit a bright future. A back-and-forth here could have edified readers about the differences between the religions, but none was forthcoming.


The Denver Post presented a vignette in which a child said to monk Thich Nhat Hanh, "I'm Christian. How can I practice Buddhism?" The response: "If you practice Buddhism, you will become a better Christian." The story embraced cafeteria-style theology—combine something from religion A with other elements of religions B and C—and quoted the monk explaining, "'If you are committed to eating oranges, it does not prevent you from having a kiwi or a mango, and still eating oranges.'"

The Houston Chronicle reported on a Buddhist temple with good things to say about Christ: "In Buddhism, we believe that Jesus Christ is one of the Buddhas," said John Lin, chairman of the temple's board. "He came to this world to help other people." The Austin American-Statesman similarly promoted a program in which Christians were said to be "using Buddhist meditation to find a calm that they say brings them closer to God."

Many stories ascribed as special to Buddhism some goals and practices shared by other religions. Seattle readers could learn that Buddhism helps people "change the way in which they think about the world, themselves, and others," and that Buddhists "recognize the things over which they have influence, while also learning to let go of the things they can't control." They could learn "that Buddhism is a matter of transforming minds, which can then transform experience."

The Dallas Morning News quoted a new Buddhist, Tifany Henderson, who was promoting Buddhism because "We could all use more peace and less stress." According to the Los Angeles Times, the Buddhist goal is "to take life's ups and downs in a balanced and centered way." The Deseret News noted that Buddhists teach "correct posture" and provide "guiding principles" such as honesty, openness, love, and compassion that help us develop "an appropriate response to any given situation." Perhaps one signal of journalists' nonattachment to Christianity is the sense that these principles are Buddhist.

A typical piece about Buddhism in The Seattle Times noted that city resident George Draffan, after his father and others close to him died, "reacted to these personal crises by searching for some sort of spiritual support or belief system that could help him cope. His search led him to Buddhism, of which he said, "I think the thing that attracts a lot of Westerners is stress.... If you get into [Buddhism], you can't do without it. It's a much more productive way of dealing with problems than drinking beer." The article publicized an upcoming Buddhist festival "which organizers say could draw up to several hundred people, is open to the public and will feature music, food, dance, meditation, chanting, informational tables, and presentations."

Maybe with such free publicity, more than several hundred would show up—but would anyone ask hard questions? One Buddhist speaker in Dallas said that people must honor "all other beings, including humans, animals, and even the smallest insect. 'We are all equally the same,' he said, referring to humans and all creatures, big and small." The reporter did not point out that behind that democratic notion, which suggests that people should be kind to dogs and deer, lay an equation of humans with cockroaches.

Can we do better?

Sure we can. While the overwhelming majority of stories about Buddhism were superficial, syncretistic, and self-censoring, I found one article from The New Republic and two from U.S. newspapers that went beyond public relations. I've also been impressed by two stories from Australian publications and a sharp critique from an Indian one.

First, here's a Chicago Sun-Times piece that didn't go very deep but at least made a Buddhist leader seem like a human being and not a plastic figurine. Under the headline, "I Blew My Monkhood," Debra Pickett profiled Nawang Gehlek, an Ann Arbor resident: His followers "address him as 'Rimpoche,' which is a title used for people who are the reincarnation of a major lama or other important figure." But Mr. Gehlek rebelled in the 1960s: "'I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day,' he says, and then with made-for-TV delivery, pauses, adding, 'but I did not inhale.' Also, he drank. And some other stuff."

The story continued, "Living in India, through his 20s, he did a good bit of the aforementioned experimenting, mostly with American and European 'seekers' who traded their vices for his abbey-trained wisdom. More significantly—to him—he also had a crisis of faith. He wasn't sure he believed in reincarnation, and particularly not his own." Devotees would tell him he did wonderful things in his past life, but he could remember nothing. "He felt he couldn't ask his teachers and was afraid of being rejected by his peers if he put his doubts into words. 'Buddhists accept reincarnation just like we accept hamburger,' he says. 'Imagine an American kid asking their parents about hamburger in the 1940s or '50s. He'd get beaten up, too.'"

Second, UPI's Uwe Siemon-Netto (under the headline "Buddhism's pedophile monks") showed the dark side of some Buddhist practice: "Sex between clergymen and boys is by no means a uniquely Catholic phenomenon, a noted American scholar said Wednesday—it's been going on in Buddhist monasteries in Asia for centuries." University of Wisconsin Professor Leonard Zwilling told Mr. Siemon-Netto, "Of course, this is against the Buddhist canon, but it has been common in Tibet, China, Japan, and elsewhere. In fact, when the Jesuits arrived in China and Japan in the 16th century, they were horrified by the formalized relationships between Buddhist monks and novices who were still children. These relationships clearly broke the celibacy rule."

Buddhist pedophilia has a long background and is still a concern, Mr. Siemon-Netto reported: "Some 2,500 years ago, the outrageous behavior of one pandaka (homosexual, in Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) prompted the Buddha to ban the ordination of such men." UPI included Mr. Zwilling's citation of 20th-century "incidents where members of the Bob-Dob, an order enforcing discipline among Tibetan monks, fought each other over boys."

In The New Republic, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote that his view of Buddhism "was shaped by the American media, which usually portrays Buddhists as pure, serene, and incorruptible." But then he attended a Buddhist seminar in Bangkok and spoke with Thais who told him of "saffron-robed Buddhist monks guilty of graft, lechery, and other crimes." Mr. Kurlantzick first "chuckled skeptically at their tales," but then found that the stories of rape, orgiastic sex, and murder were true, and "especially shocking because so many Westerners assume Buddhism to be fundamentally different from other faiths. It isn't.... Not that any of this is undermining Buddhism's reputation in the West.... American disciples won't let reality get in the way of their preconceptions about the religion."

Some newspapers in Australia also were willing to fight Buddhist public relations. Under the headline "Buddha in Suburbia," Joyce Morgan of The Sydney Morning Herald asked whether Buddhism is "a temporary staging post for aging baby boomers." Disillusionment with materialism is key to the appeal of Buddhism, which teaches that "the solutions lie within ourselves." That's a welcome notion to boomers who don't want to be part of "Christianity, with its emphasis on God the Father [that] evokes a parent-child bond. In short, a vertical relationship."

Ms. Morgan traced the history: "One of the biggest influences on the spread of Buddhism in the West was the emergence of the hippie trail through India and Nepal in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these psychedelic dreamers were no doubt muddle-headed as they clutched their books by Lobsang Rampa, the so-called mystic monk who turned out to be Cyril Hoskins, a British clerk.... Not that the Tibetans were enamored of the dope-smoking Westerners filling their rucksacks with prayer beads and incense ... the hippies were viewed with suspicion as people who had run out of things to do in the world and were looking for novelty. And perhaps they were.... Buddhism may appear fashionable today and some will no doubt discard it with last season's flares."

The Age (Melbourne) also came through with a profile of one woman who became intensely Buddhist after her partner committed suicide: "You ask me what brought me to Buddhism?" Jenny Kee says. "Suffering. Suffering and great pain." Others, however, dabble: "Many more people profess vague allegiance to the ideals of Buddhism than are card-carrying members.... Buddhism in the West does not ask followers to make a lifelong and exclusive commitment, or to join a community of believers," and that works well in a culture where people believe "spirituality" but not religion is important.

The article, headlined "Devotees and Dabblers," quoted a religion professor's argument that many use Buddhism in the pursuit of "power, personal autonomy, and profit." Writer Sophie Cunningham concluded, "Precisely because it is so easy-going, Buddhism can be seen as just another New Age philosophy."

Shefalee Vasudev of India Today set a particularly colorful article, "New Buddhism: The Buddha Bar," on "the eve of the 67th birthday of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Up in the hills of Himachal Pradesh in the small town of Mcleodganj near Dharamsala, some students of Buddhist philosophy sway in abandon to the beats of a techno-trance number that plays loudly at a rave party ... amidst uninhibited smooching, petty arguments, umpteen puffs and sniffs of drugs, the night lingers on."

Mr. Vasudev described "the many groups of beaded, bearded, funkily accessorized moksha-seeking tourists clad in tattered blue jeans with pierced lips and eyebrows who are redefining this religion.... They seem to be showing the world that worldly detachment can be on friendly terms with the trappings of desire." He quoted "Gintaras, a Lithuanian who studies Buddhist philosophy, saying, "This taste of Buddhism is doing me a lot of good since my disillusionment with Christianity turned me into an atheist. Spirituality works only if it is flexible. And unlike most other religions, I find Buddhism open to interpretation. I had thought of experimenting with different concepts, but Hinduism and Islam are not my cup of tea."

Mr. Vasudev then quoted "Ideno, a 21-year-old Israeli girl" saying over cups of Tibetan herbal tea, "Peace does not necessarily have to be about passivity. Even as I seek peace, I do not want to withdraw from the path of desire because it will only make me agitated." Sacha Faller, a psychology student from Switzerland, added, "What better way to understand detachment than to have it constantly tested by an indulgent life?" He added, "I had the most intense relationship of my life here, which lasted only 11 days," but lessons in detachment helped him recover.

"The monks too seem to be wading in doubtful waters," Mr. Vasudev concluded. "There is no mistaking the body language of young monks who are seen with girls in restaurants and other public places. Is this an indication that the liberated, neo-Buddhists who crowd the philosophy classes are becoming role models for the monks instead of it being the other way round?"

Coverage of Hinduism

Hinduism is the world's third-largest religion and the dominant one in India and Nepal; its 900 million adherents include many in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other countries. Perhaps close to 1 million Hindus now live in the United States, so reporters recognize Hinduism's significance both domestically and internationally. But it's hard to make any generalizations at all about the religion, since it consists of thousands of different groups that have developed over the past 3,000 years. Hinduism has no single founder, consistent theological system, central religious organization, or single system of morality.

On the surface, Hinduism seems polytheistic because Hindus worship numerous gods and goddesses. But Hindu gurus say that when they are worshipping those small gods—at least 33 million in all—they are actually bowing to Brahman, the supreme god, the impersonal ultimate reality, the world soul. They say the many gods merely represent various incarnations and manifestations of the supreme god, and function in a way analogous to clothes: People wear different ones in different situations.

At an intellectual level, those assertions are correct, but at a popular level, it certainly seems that Hindus worship idols. In any event, Hindu gurus generally prefer to describe their religion as monistic, which means it asserts there is no essential difference between God, man, and animals. They say everything is part of God, and that the universe is one unitary, organic whole with no independent parts. They say people and animals at some point appear to be separate from God, and that we even think the split natural. They say we will find no true, lasting happiness until we lose our individuality by becoming reabsorbed into the cosmic whole from which we came.

How do American journalists even begin to explain, in the context of a feature story, something so complicated? Can they at least give a sense of complexity and nuance? That's vital for the education of readers, and also crucial for future relations between India, one of the world's nuclear powers, and the United States. India gained its independence partly through the work of Mahatma Gandhi, but India's current leaders do not hold to his pacifism either internationally—regularly threatening war against Pakistan—or domestically.

The domestic danger gained some publicity early in 2003 as Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed Hindu groups for leading riots against Muslims and also noted attacks on Christians generally and the lynching of lower-caste members in particular. Earlier, HRW had noted dozens of Hindu-led attacks against Christians, some ending in murder, and many condoned by India's ruling political party, Bharatiya Janata. HRW in 1999 reported that three Hindu groups were responsible for "the killings of priests, the raping of nuns, and the physical destruction of Christian institutions, schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. Thousands of Christians have also been forced to convert to Hinduism."

One incident that received some press coverage culminated in the burning to death in 1999 of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons as they slept in their jeep in eastern India. Many Hindu leaders criticized such attacks, but others justified them by saying that missionaries who preach "that the only way to salvation is through Christ" deserve to be punished. Without much coverage, attacks go on. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered one in January 2003, but only because a missionary from Pittsburgh came under attack from a Hindu mob wielding clubs and swords.

Journalists looking for contradictions should be swarming over Hinduism's alternating pacifism and militancy. The Hindu principle of ahimsa means that Hindus are not to harm any creatures; some extreme Hindus may even wear a cloth over their mouths to prevent the possible killing of small insects. How does that accord with terrorizing missionaries? Alas, U.S. newspaper coverage of Hinduism displayed superficiality and syncretism.


Domestic reporters treated Hinduism not like a mighty religion that can hold its own against critics but as a pet capable only of receiving pats on the head. Central Texas newspaper readers learn that "the Shree Raseshwari Radha Rani Temple rises from the Hill Country terrain like a giant Faberge egg," and that it is a place of "peace, harmony, and devotion to God." (Which god? No indication.) Journalists teach that "Hindus see no need for an intermediary or a prophet to come between humans and God. Hindus seek truth, and they practice nonviolence." (Which God? What do Hindus mean by "truth"? No indication.)

Reporters rarely asked basic questions about what Hindus believe happens after death. One story read, "Members of the Hindu Temple of San Antonio prayed Wednesday for the soul of an American-born swami ... asking that the swami's soul be granted eternal peace in God's presence." (But the Hindu goal is the achievement of moksha, generally seen as the extinction of personality.) Another reporter related, "Hindus believe that the soul never dies and reincarnation enables one to complete a journey to nirvana, a oneness with God." (That "oneness" is not togetherness but the obliteration of individuality.)

The Los Angeles Times rarely prints testimonials to Christianity, but the newspaper gave space for one Hindu devotee to report "an 'incredible peace and an ability to deal with the toughest situations in business and not be swept away by it.'" The Orlando Sentinel told of how "Hindu spirituality encourages ... a human being to achieve his or her highest potential. Ultimately, all paths lead to the goal of self-realization." Those boilerplate sentiments led to a concluding sentence as to how "self-realization leads the way to nirvana, which literally means extinguishing of desires." (How is that the highest potential? Doesn't that last sentence extinguish everything that precedes it?)

Reporters regularly erred in defining not only moksha but karma, using it as a synonym for good or bad fortune rather than an exact measure of what an individual deserves, based on what his current and previous incarnations achieved. The Orlando Sentinel began one story with the theologically illiterate statement that "[t]he developers of Orlando's Hindu University of America are certain of one thing: The unique institution they are planning already has plenty of good karma." (Organizations do not have karma, and in any event it's impossible to be sure whether anyone has good karma except by seeing what happens to him day by day.)

Many reporters did not even ask obvious questions. One Austin American-Statesman story began, "After she showers and before she eats breakfast, Lalima Pathak chants and sings before the Hindu gods and goddesses that adorn the puja, or altar, in her dining room.... 'When I enter, I say, 'Thank you for getting me home safe,' and when I leave, I take a look at the puja and seek God's blessings to watch over me,' Pathak said." (Questions: With a broad variety of gods and goddesses, what does it mean for Hindus to seek capital-G "God's blessing"? And what difference would a blessing make anyway, since everything is determined by karma?)

Journalists normally are skeptical about leaders who foster unthinking obedience. The Los Angeles Times, though, offered a headline, "Hindus flock to temple to meet spiritual leader," and waxed enthusiastic about how "they began arriving at the Swaminarayan Hindu temple in Whittier at 6:30 a.m., as the waking sun broke through the morning mist. Thousands of Indian devotees from San Diego to Seattle, from Orange County to Oregon, flocked to the temple Sunday for the rare chance to see their spiritual leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj.... Mrudula Dashi of La Verne watched enraptured by his faith. "For us, he is everything. For us, he's like a god."

Other laud followed: "'He's like a mountain of magnetism, and everyone is attracted to that,' she said." At this point, journalistic warning lights should have been flashing as police lights do at an accident scene, but this reverential report continued: "What does this gentle old man in the saffron robe mean to the Hindu community? For the Swaminarayans ... Pramukh Swami is the manifestation of God on Earth. 'How do you describe something so divine?' asked one follower. 'This is a lifetime memory,' said Rakesh Patel, a pharmacist who works in Long Beach and is also the temple spokesman. 'When you're with him, you can feel that he is divine. You think you know who you are, but he looks at your soul. You feel the presence of God.'"

The Los Angeles Times' unadulterated praise was also surprising because these Hindus "follow a puritanical path that preaches against drugs, alcohol, and television. To guard against illicit relations between the sexes, men and women are separated during worship. And women are forbidden from speaking to Pramukh Swami. All followers adhere to a strict vegetarian diet that prohibits even onions and garlic." A Christian "puritanical" group that made women second-class devotees would never receive such a positive story.


The San Antonio Express-News summarized the message of Sri Viswayogi Viswamji, a visiting Hindu guru: "love, truth, peace, and eternal consciousness.... All the religions start with the same truth and are meant to show the divinity of God.... All religions start with the same truth and are meant to show the divinity of humanity." The first statement about all religions is arguable, the second is obviously wrong since all religions do not attempt to show humanity's "divinity," but in a medium that often searches for controversy the Express-News passed up the opportunity to have a debate.

Reporters regularly were conduits for swami syncretists, such as the one in Rhode Island who was prepared to respond to a request from one adherent: "that Swami help him break free from all material attractions and ultimately take him to Akshardsham, the place 'you English-speaking people call Heaven.'" They also did not challenge those who "fell in love with Christ" at a Hindu-American ashram or said, "I consider myself a Christian, and what I find here at Kashi is all the principles I was taught" in church. The leader of that ashram exclaimed, "I love Jesus Christ."

The Los Angeles Times admiringly reported Hindu statements that "all faiths were essentially different paths to the same God, and in particular taught that an essential unity exists between original yoga and original Christianity—one reason that Jesus Christ is considered one of the gurus." The Washington Post even suggested that Christians should not cause pain to Hindus who are wounded by "the assertion by some Christians that Hindus 'are sinners' because they don't profess a belief in Jesus as savior and instead worship thousands of divine manifestations of God."

Similarly, the Orlando Sentinel journalist wrote that "Hinduism recognizes that there is one Truth, perceived and expressed by different people in different ways. This liberal view of God and humanity's relationship with God leads to an incomparable freedom of worship, and an acceptance of all ways of religious and spiritual inquiry." The unasked question: Why are Hindus and Muslims at each others' throats? Given press reports that Islam is a peace-loving religion, Muslims must not be causing problems, and Hindus are accepting of all, so the disputes are mysterious.

Can we do better?

Again, sure we can. Even some newspapers that never looked beyond colorful ritual when reporting on Hindus within the United States went deeper when reporting on Hindu observances in Asia. For example, when Nepal's Crown Prince in 2001 killed nine other members of the royal family (including his parents) and then himself, the Washington Post reported an explanation given by "the prevailing worldview in Nepal, based on Hindu teachings." According to that view, the incident occurred because "the members of the royal family brought only short lives into their most recent incarnations based on actions in previous existences." Mukunda Raj Aryal, 58, a professor and Brahman, added that the Crown Prince should be honored for having "acted well the villainous part he was assigned" by karma.

I found one other newspaper story during the past three years that gave readers a sense of Hinduism's extreme predestination in that way. The Los Angeles Times did well in its profile of Hindu villagers who "depend almost entirely on the coins and bowls of wheat flour they receive as alms. It has been this way for at least a century because, the villagers say, they have been born to honor the Hindu god Krishna with song and outstretched hands ... the beggars of Ranidongri say they are simply following in sacred footsteps."

The Times quoted villager Sadaram Mukutwansi, 32, saying, "I blame my own karma. If god didn't give me poverty, then we wouldn't have [to beg] in the first place." The key is karma: Begging "is punishment for being just as mean to other beggars in a previous life, Mukutwansi believes." That gives him license, in his own mind, to beg and also to consume "the local brew, moonshine made from the flowers of the mahua tree, which produces a liquid said to be potent enough to keep a motorcycle running in an emergency." Villagers "go out to beg for five to six months," then "come back and mostly spend [alms] on drinking."

The article described how "[i]n the beggars' village, Mukutwansi squatted on a plastic mat sewn from pieces of old sacks.... He takes his only son, Lokeshi, 10, with him to beg in a group of about a dozen people, who travel by train—if they can beg a free spot on the floor—to reach the several cities where they sing for handouts. Most days, his alms amount to about 45 cents and a little flour." Here was the pathetic outcome of religious misunderstanding.

Two other U.S. newspapers gave a sense of the difference between Hinduism's high theology and common practice. The New York Times, under a headline "Braving Nature and Militants, Hindus Trek for a Peek at a God's Icy Symbol," reported from Kashmir about a cult object that lacked Viagra: "Barefoot, world-renouncing Hindu monks, naked to the waist and wrapped in orange cloth below, came walking, carrying tridents.... Over a month, more than 100,000 Hindu pilgrims will hike at least 19 miles, sleep in freezing temperatures above 10,000 feet and brave attacks from Muslim militants. Their trek is all for a hurried glimpse of an ice stalagmite that forms each year on a wall of a remote cave here. The nine-foot-tall ice sheet, shaped like a phallus, is considered to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism's three most revered gods."

The outcome wasn't all that Hindu visitors hoped for: "After crossing a small snowfield, arriving pilgrims took a ritual bath in a pristine stream and put on fresh clothes. They then waited for two hours in a long line that snaked up a set of stairs leading to the cave. Hailing Shiva and ringing ceremonial bells, they took a final few steps, pressed themselves against an iron railing and looked at the cave wall. The towering, nine-foot ice form had apparently melted. It was only one foot tall. Some pilgrims, it must be said, were disappointed with the size. Others lamented that they were forced to leave after only seconds, saying the police had pulled them away before they could confess sins and make requests of Lord Shiva."

The Chicago Sun-Times under a headline, "4,000 on hand for monkey's funeral," offered a story from New Delhi about how "4,000 devotees attended the funeral in southern India Sunday of a monkey they believed to be the incarnation of a Hindu god. The animal strayed several weeks ago into a temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman in Timmaganipalli village. Villagers refused to release it, and hundreds visited the monkey each day, seeking its blessing and garlanding it with flowers."

The story did not have a happy ending: "Animal-rights activists said the monkey, which collapsed on Saturday, died of starvation and exhaustion. When the villagers discovered the monkey sitting on Hanuman's idol, they thought it was a reincarnation of the ancient god and refused to let it out of the temple.... India is dotted with tens of thousands of Hanuman temples, and every Tuesday is reserved for his worship. Anyone trying to catch monkeys, however destructive they may be, is beaten or chased away."

That same sense of the bizarre is not apparent in coverage of Hinduism within the United States—yet the same theology underlies Hindu worship inside and outside India.

Coverage of Judaism and Christianity

Judaism was the first major religion truly to concentrate on things unseen, and that represents a problem for newspapers that focus on what can be seen and touched. The problem was evident in an Austin American-Statesman article that emphasized the ritual of Torah scrolls being walked from one synagogue building to a new sanctuary. "'It's heavy,' said Diane Radin as she carried one of the larger scrolls," but the reporter provided no sense of the real weight of Scripture. She described each of the six scrolls but mentioned nothing about their contents.

Similarly, the American-Statesman article about Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year's Day, did not note that Rosh Hashana is yom ha'din, "the day of judgment," the day Jews believe God decides which names will be in the "book of life" and which in the "book of death" for the coming year. Editors who took such matters seriously might think this was "news you can use," news so significant that it is announced by the blowing of a shofar, a ram's horn. But instead of reporting that news, the American-Statesman covered ... the making of shofars.

Readers could learn about how the shofar "needs to be washed, sawed, drilled, sanded, washed again, and varnished." Readers could follow the whole process and then cut out a 350-word sidebar on "How to make your own shofar." Readers would not learn, though, what the blowing of the shofar announced. What they got was the equivalent of a story about the Super Bowl that dealt only with the singing of the National Anthem.

The period between Rosh Hashana and the end of Yom Kippur 10 days later is called the Ten Days of Repentance, because the Talmud suggests that a person's behavior during that period might lead God to alter a tough call. An American-Statesman article mentioned that "On Yom Kippur, Jews believe God will pass judgment on them," and then emphasized the performance: "Cantors, like celebrated opera stars, prepare and deliver the prayers wrapped in ancient melodies with an individual style.... It can be an exhausting experience, but they say the meaning of the prayers feeds the soul. Still, the body can become tired."

Stories about Yom Kippur in other newspapers were similarly superficial. The San Antonio Express-News headlined one story, "The ancient power of Yom Kippur," and noted that "Synagogues will be full. Before sundown, congregants will listen to the emotional tones of the chanted Kol Nidre.... 'It's an overwhelming experience, coming together with the whole community, all of us bringing our failures with us. When you hear that music, it stirs your soul,' [Cantor David] Silverstein said."


Some newspapers looked with favor on those trying to syncretize Judaism and Buddhism. Under the headline "'Buddhist translation of biblical Psalms," the San Francisco Chronicle ran a gushing profile of Norman Fischer, who "was born a Jew and grew up chanting the Psalms in Hebrew," but did not like to think of God destroying His enemies. Mr. Fischer became a Buddhist and wrote Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, in which words such as God or Lord are "usually just replaced by the word You, a simple trick that allows the reader to find whatever Higher Power floats his or her boat."

The article concluded, "Some conservative Christians or Orthodox Jews might find blasphemy in Opening to You, but Fischer's inspired revision of these ancient poems will enable many others to see old Scripture in a new light." The Chronicle also profiled Jack Kornfeld, another convert from Judaism to Buddhism, and described how he was taking "his 18-year-old daughter to a Yom Kippur service in a San Geronimo Valley community center.... Someone asked her what her religion was and she said, 'Jewish Buddhist Hindu Christian.'"

Curiously, those who combined two religions that do have many overlaps, Judaism and Christianity, tended to receive mostly critical attention. The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) headlined one story, "Messianic Jews find faith in blend," but started and ended with the implication that the blend did not work. The story began, "Rabbi Bob Cohen has seen the dirty looks when he shows up at Jewish celebrations. He and other Messianic Jews have heard the barbs from those who call their religion a sham, a disgrace, and a back-door ploy by Christians to convert Jews."

After a brief explanation—"Unlike traditional Judaism, Messianic Judaism also follows the teaching of the New Testament and recognizes Jesus Christ as the Messiah"—came the type of scornful quotation that rarely appears in an article about theological liberals:

"'People who say "my Judaism is fulfilled by Jesus Christ" are trying to play football with bats,' said Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda of Ponte Vedra Beach, who also denounces Cohen's title of rabbi." After some statistics—"about 250 Messianic synagogues have been established across the country"—came another hostile statement: "'We call them Hebrew Christians,' Jews for Judaism Director Mark Powers said of Messianic Jews. 'It's a fraud. It's Christianity dressed in Jewish clothing.'"

The Times-Union did include description of and quotation from adherents: "About 150 people attended a recent Friday service at Beth Jacob. Several men wore yarmulkes; some women wore mesh scarves on their heads. Some carried Bibles titled Complete Jewish Bible that included both testaments.... Arlene Yahre of Orange Park was raised Jewish, but said observing Jewish laws didn't make her feel connected to God. 'I don't feel I need all those rituals. They keep you busy, busy, busy. They cloud things,' said Yahre, who adopted the Messianic faith about two years ago." But the story ended with a quotation whose equivalent is not seen in stories regarding feminist or gay religious adherents: "Yahre said she wishes people would understand Messianic Jews better. 'We're not so far out nutso,' she said."

The New York Times gave disproportionate coverage to the activities of theologically liberal groups. For example, the Times in 2001, under the headline "Humanist Jewish Group Reaches New Milestone," reported that "Two years ago, an organization of secular humanist Jews celebrated a milestone, the first ordination of a rabbi trained within their movement. Last night, the group took another step forward, ordaining three more at a temple outside Detroit." The writer later revealed that a not-so-grand total of six other students were being trained by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. How often does the internationally renowned Times deign to spend its highly sought-after space on a tiny organization?

Journalists regularly led cheers for the Jewish left even in conservative towns like Salt Lake City, where the Salt Lake Tribune gave little attention to an existing Orthodox synagogue in order to herald what its headline called a "Jewish Blossoming; New Park City rabbi balances progressive thinking with Jewish tradition." The writer told of how "Rabbi Joshua Aaronson goes to work in a golf shirt, but not a yarmulke," and then quoted the rabbi's desire "to establish the most creative, innovative, and open Jewish community in North America.... I want our children to know that whomever they decide to embrace as a life-partner—a Jew, a non-Jew, a person of the same sex or a person of the opposite sex—there will be a place for them in this community."

Some newspapers even pretended that the controversy within Judaism about "gay marriage" within Judaism doesn't even exist. The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) headlined one story, "Reform rabbi weighs uniting same-sex couples," and did not follow the typical newspaper practice of displaying (if not provoking) dispute. The article quoted the rabbi's willingness to officiate at gay weddings, because "Just as the rabbis of old made changes in their understanding of the Bible to meet the knowledge of the day, rabbis of today can do no less." The Ledger did not quote anyone in opposition.

We cannot and should not expect newspapers to concentrate on things unseen, but they should report what can readily be seen: the concentration of Orthodox Jews on the state of their souls and not the skill of the shofar player, and the differences between Reform and Orthodox Jews on issues such as homosexuality. The natural American journalistic tendency is to chase controversy; when reporters ignore opportunities for feisty debate, the fix is in.

Coverage of Christianity

U.S. newspaper coverage of Christianity, even leaving out the Catholic church pedophilia/homosexuality scandals, has generally been negative but uneven. Christians who consider the Bible to be inerrant typically receive hostile coverage. Those who embrace feminism and other fixations of the left often receive positive coverage, even in conservative areas of the country.

For example, under a loaded headline—"A call for more equality in Christianity"—The Tulsa World reported the view of a Dallas husband-and-wife speaking team that "The traditional teaching of the Christian church on gender roles subjugates women and hurts churches and marriages." Eddie and Susan Hyatt also proclaimed that "Church fathers were influenced by the ancient Greek belief that women were made of a different, inferior substance than men." The World purportedly turned recitation of their propagandistic statements into objective journalism by the magic words "she said" at the end of a sentence—as in, "'The patriarchal teaching of the traditional church is about 'blame, shame, and tame,' she said."

Big gatherings of theological conservatives generally went unreported, but when small liberal groups gathered major city newspapers often provided coverage. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a headline, "Catholics debate purpose of women deacons," but the article reported not a debate but a speech by liberal Phyllis Zagano to a group of 50. The Post-Gazette quoted extravagant statements of hers like this one: "Until the late 18th century, the educated view was that women were a completely different species from men. To refuse to ordain women, for whatever reason, gives the impression that the church has not moved from this belief."

The tilt toward liberalism also held true in coverage of Roman Catholics. For example, the Denver Post reported that "at least 35 Colorado Catholics" had signed an advertisement in The New York Times "proclaiming that contraceptives should be easily available and gays and lesbians should have full civil rights." Big deal; the Times runs lots of ads on policy issues, and 35 is not a hugely impressive number, but Catholic liberals could count on coverage that would multiply their efforts and frame issues as they saw them.

The Tulsa World also gave a small group big space, beginning a story headlined "Theology war" with the notice that "for the past five Sundays, a new church has been meeting at Helmerich Library formed by Baptists unhappy with the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative stand on the role of women and the autonomy of the local church." The World noted that no other church in the Tulsa metropolitan area had formed in opposition to the SBC position and that only 50 or so people had come to the new church. Nevertheless, it still provided publicity for the nascent effort by amply quoting liberal Baptists' complaints that "the autonomy of the church seems to be fading" as the SBC was exercising "rigid, unyielding control from the top down." The article did not report conservative concerns.

The Chicago Daily Herald looked over developments in its vast metropolitan area and saw as crucial a decision by what it acknowledged was only "a handful" of churches. Under the headline, "With open arms 'Affirming' congregations welcome sexual diversity," the Daily Herald lauded those that "have taken steps to welcome gays and lesbians into their church communities and into every aspect of church life—from assisting in services to working with youth." Some congregations also "provide a meeting place for gay and lesbian organizations or set up drop-in centers for gay and lesbian teens to talk about issues, have dances, or hang out."

The Daily Herald noted that representatives of these churches planned to march in Chicago's annual Gay Pride Parade a week after the article's appearance, and provided testimonials from gay couples who are "devoted Christians" and now feel accepted at the "affirming" churches. Three of the article's 17 paragraphs presented conservative views and then depicted them as devoid of love, quoting one church member as saying, "How can you not accept the whole person? ... People should be accepted into God's family regardless of their sexual orientation." Although national statistics suggest that churches and denominations that move away from the Bible's opposition to homosexual practice lose members, the Daily Herald emphasized that the handful of "welcoming and affirming congregations have seen a growth in their membership."

Two kinds of churches could receive favorable coverage without necessarily being theologically liberal. Predominantly black Protestant churches receive an exemption from the hostility aimed at their predominantly white counterparts. For example, the Houston Chronicle, under the headline "Visions of hope," sweetly covered the opening of a new church building: "Lewis C. and Mary L. Rogers are right back where they started, only blocks away from where they grew up in Acres Homes.... The new sanctuary is just a starting point for a new era of growth and community projects," under a pastor who "preaches on Sunday mornings in a dynamic African-American style."

The article continued with quotations from the pastor's son, Lewis Rogers Jr., who is also the church's youth minister: "I don't believe God has given us a vision as large as this one for His house to be empty. There are tons and tons of people walking streets who don't have a church home. I believe if we did evangelism just in this area, this sanctuary would be filled to overflowing." Reporter Richard Vara then continued enthusiastically: "Evangelism is what the church is preparing to do. Lewis Rogers announced to excited congregants at their first Sunday services in the new facility that there would be Saturday night get-togethers involving door-to-door visits and other outreach projects."

A predominantly white church that embraced a trendy style could also receive positive coverage. A headline in the San Antonio Express-News designated one church an "oasis of hope" because "First-time visitors to Eagle's Nest Christian Fellowship usually know there's something different about the North Side church the minute they walk into the lobby. On most Sundays, it's hard to miss the rich aroma of coffee wafting from the church-operated espresso bar, which does a steady business.... Entertainers in the spacious lobby before and after Sunday services have included a harp player, bluegrass musicians and mariachis."

The service itself did not disappoint: "The band—complete with a horn section—let loose, electrifying the congregation with a sound that certainly had a bit of rock 'n' roll mixed in. Kase Saylor, the band's leader, said they include a mix in their musical selections—from contemporary praise and worship to Latin rhythms. 'We're having fun here. Church is supposed to be fun and exciting,' said Saylor.... For more information on the church and its services, call (210) 402-0565."

Typical press coverage of Christianity resembles coverage of Judaism in two ways. First, stories often cut against the journalistic grain by avoiding debate. The San Antonio Express-News under a headline, "Scholar says Bible is true, not literal," presented the view of Marcus Borg of Oregon State: "Modern Christianity must help people see the Bible as true without defining truth as the historical factuality of specific events." The Express-News did not quote the opposite view offered by the Apostle Paul and many more: If the Bible is not factual, it's a lie and Christians are to be pitied for wasting their lives.

Second, much as Rosh Hashana coverage emphasized the shofar and not what it signaled, so journalists tended to highlight ritual objects and neglect the beliefs to which they pointed. One Austin article described a locally carved crucifix that "has deepened the spirituality of many who have seen the striking figure. A natural knot in the wood creates the pierce in Jesus' side, and the dark grain at the calves and feet matches how the skin begins to turn color at death." The writer, instead of explaining how viewing the sculpture deepened religious belief, if it did, went on to describe at length Celtic, Greek Orthodox, and other crosses scattered throughout the city. Once again, a journalist was missing the forest and describing the surface of one tree.

How to go deeper

The Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Lord") is the most beloved of Hinduism's many scriptures. This poetic conversation between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, the god Krishna, begins with Krishna telling Arjuna not to worry about the prospect of killing relatives in battle. "Arjuna, you grieve over those who should not be grieved for," Krishna says, for "wise men do not grieve over the dead or the living." The reason not to be sad is that souls never die, but transmigrate from one body to another and eventually become part of the cosmic whole. For that reason we should fear neither death nor war.

Journalists who want to go deeper when writing about a religion need to study its sacred writings and work at the theological knots until some understanding is reached. To grasp Islam, it is vital to understand what jihad means within the religion, and to do that takes some work. To grasp Buddhism, the nonattachment principle must be studied. To grasp Hinduism, journalists must be willing to delve into the implications of believing in karma and the transmigration of souls—and that's a deep subject which journalists who think religion unimportant are unlikely to plumb.

Some academics and editors claim that a theologically liberal or atheistic reporter is best equipped to cover religion-related news, because he will not favor one strong set of beliefs over another. Such journalists are not neutral, though: They have taken a stand in opposition to theological conservatives. Nor are they likely to provide thoughtful coverage of something they believe contributes to delusion among hundreds of millions of pitiful believers. Those who understand the power of belief are best equipped to write about the power of faiths not their own.

Let's conclude by touching on what is likely to be a great civil-rights conflict throughout the coming decade and perhaps the entire 21st century: the battle in India of 240 million Dalits ("untouchables") to break out of 2,000 years of subservience. Some reporters might think the battle is about economics, but they underestimate the continuing influence of Hindu belief in transmigration. As one Dalit, Udit Ray, said at a congressional human-rights hearing, "the untouchables have been convinced to live this dehumanized life because they are said to be condemned to it by the desire of the gods. Accordingly, it is considered good if they suffer because their present suffering will liberate them in the next life."

U.S. newspapers that condemn racism at home have given surprisingly little coverage to the plight of the Dalits. The Associated Press transmitted on Sept. 6, 2001, a detailed story that only the Memphis Commercial Appeal, among major newspapers, ran. Under a headline, "As India debates whether caste is racism, little changes for 'untouchables,'" the story began evocatively: "At the end of a network of dusty lanes in Trilokpuri, a suburb on the outskirts of the Indian capital, a scavenger lugs home a plastic bucket of water for her family. It is dusk, and Birum and her two daughters have spent the day collecting used plastic bags from rotting waste in city dumps. The mother and daughters are filthy and hungry—yet they cannot bathe or cook with water from a tap near their home."

The article continued, "'That's the tap for the upper castes. We are not allowed there,' the 33-year-old Birum says as she sits on the dirt floor making bread on a coal-burning stove. Although water is supplied by municipal authorities, the few public taps in this shantytown of nearly 10,000 people are divided along caste lines. Taps for the lower castes are nearly a half-mile away, and the water barely trickles. Birum is a Dalit, the lowest rank [within the caste system that] was described in Hinduism's ancient sacred text, the Rig Veda, as a social order intended to maintain harmony in society."

The AP story noted that discrimination based on caste is now outlawed in India, yet "the practice pervades society" to such an extent that only 3 percent of the Dalits have benefited from legal changes. Many say the caste system is similar to racism, but Hindu religious leaders who criticized racism in the United States support India's caste system as theologically correct. The article ended with a note that, despite having the law on their side, "Dalits rarely file complaints with the police. 'Who can we complain to? And what will happen when we return to the village? I tell my sons, just keep quiet. This is a curse on our lives,' said 71-year-old Kishan Chand." Karma rules.

That good article received little pickup, perhaps because five days after it was circulated newspapers turned to coverage of the 9/11 disaster. A year later, though, coverage was still slight despite the growing movement among Dalits toward conversion to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, where they could be accepted by other adherents as brothers rather than inferiors. Hindu leaders intent on closing the escape hatch last year passed a law in one state that forbids conversion when any economic advantage comes with it. Since Dalits in India generally can work only in the lowliest occupations, converts of course have the opportunity to do better, and Christian missionaries can readily be accused of coercing "conversion" by offering opportunity.

Sadly, an Oct. 7, 2002, AP story reporting the new law framed it positively as a way of bringing peace to a "multi-faith society where violence among the followers of rival beliefs is all too common." The AP article briefly quoted a Christian critic and a Muslim opponent of the new law, but ended with more spin: One of Indian Hinduism's senior holy men, Jayendra Saraswathi, said a ban on conversions should be enacted nationally. "'It is a pity that even after 50 years of independence, conversions are taking place in the name of God,' he said." AP also sympathetically quoted "a former Supreme Court judge, V. Ramaswamy, [who] said the law did not violate religious freedoms. 'On the contrary, it only goes to strengthen that right by ensuring that the individual is not forced or lured into practicing some other religion instead of his own.'"

American journalists need to do better than that, and can. A college student last fall shamed the pros. Jessica Spradling of The Dartmouth, reporting on a talk by Indian writer M.C. Raj at the New Hampshire school, "outlined many of the daily atrocities" that Dalits suffer: "limited access to water, forced and uncompensated labor, murder, and rape. 'Though we are called the untouchables, often our women are the most touchable in India,' Raj said of the Dalit women who are sold into prostitution by their families in some parts of India." Reporter Spradling noted that "India's caste system—intimately connected with the Hindu conception of reincarnation—is important in shaping the opportunities available to and the limitations placed on Hindus."

I've run across only one major U.S. newspaper article on the way religion holds back the untouchables. Ellis Cose, author of the book Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, wrote on the editorial pages of USA Today that "intractable as prejudice sometimes seems in America, at least here it isn't rooted in religion; at least in taking on bigotry, we are not taking on God. Indeed, it is just the opposite." But he noted that "Dalits are relegated in Hinduism to an almost sub-human niche beneath the formal caste system." Although Indian leaders talk of how that has changed in the half-century since Indian independence, Mr. Cose wrote that his interviewees "swore that, particularly in rural areas, Dalits continue to be treated like dirt."

Mr. Cose wrote that even when disasters leave many dead or homeless, "villages have created segregated tent camps." He told of one Dalit who "had been literally beaten to death for questioning an order from his higher-caste boss. I heard similar stories elsewhere, as well as repeated complaints Dalits were not allowed to go into the community temple or draw water from the village well." But those similar stories went unreported; the Lexis-Nexis service reports only two U.S. stories in 2001 or 2002 that included the words Hinduism and untouchable. One, in The New York Times, touched on the untouchables only in passing, in a story headlined, "Holy Cow a Myth? An Indian Finds the Kick Is Real."

We need better coverage of non-Christian religions to protect ourselves in a violent world, but we also need better information so we can learn how to help others. We can help the Dalits if we learn about them and their oppressors, and that means learning about the weaknesses of Hinduism. We can help the oppressed in the Middle East if we learn more about Islam, and we can help Americans not to slouch into Buddhist trendiness if we show them its limitations before they get in too deep.

Besides, as technology and transportation make the world smaller, these and other religions are now next door to us. Both non-Christians and Christians need to understand the motivations of new neighbors. Christians need to understand points of contact for purposes of evangelism. Shallow press coverage should not be an option.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News; Miscellaneous; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: biasinthemedia; ccrm; clashofcivilizatio; islam; media; moslem; muslim; pagan; paganism; taqiyyalist
This long article is actually a short introduction followed by 6 separate essays or articles in the latest World magazine. All of them are by Marvin Olasky so I have combined them here into one article and marked each essay with large, bold headlines.

I do not want to take anything away from the excellent work of World magazine. I urge my fellow freepers to visit their website, register (it's painless), and subscribe.

1 posted on 03/03/2003 8:50:17 PM PST by Mr. Mulliner
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To: *CCRM; calypgin; bert; ForGod'sSake; Landru; Copernicus; Peacerose
2 posted on 03/03/2003 8:55:11 PM PST by Mr. Mulliner
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To: Mr. Mulliner
Stop Islam Now.

It's the only way to win the war.
3 posted on 03/03/2003 9:07:08 PM PST by Stopislamnow
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To: Molly Pitcher
In case you can't wait for your next issue, here's the cover article (and about half of the content!).
4 posted on 03/03/2003 9:17:51 PM PST by Mr. Mulliner
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To: Mr. Mulliner
read more later
5 posted on 03/03/2003 9:23:51 PM PST by LiteKeeper
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To: Mr. Mulliner
>With open arms 'Affirming' congregations welcome sexual diversity," the Daily Herald lauded those that "have taken steps to welcome gays and lesbians into their church communities and into every aspect of church life—from assisting in services to working with youth."

Whoa! I bet parents are really looking forward to having their little Johnny go on an overnight trip with that church's youth pastor.

6 posted on 03/03/2003 9:27:03 PM PST by Dialup Llama
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To: *Clash of Civilizatio; *Taqiyya list
7 posted on 03/03/2003 9:35:55 PM PST by Mr. Mulliner
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Comment #8 Removed by Moderator

To: Mr. Mulliner
9 posted on 03/03/2003 9:38:07 PM PST by Fiddlstix
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To: Mr. Mulliner
Good albeit long read.
Wouldn't disagree with anything, really.

Still, what the mediot's have done here with their blackout, isn't a'tall any different than what they've done with say, socialism or communism.

When was the last time anyone saw the lamestream mediots go into these backward & gawd-awful screwed up socialist/communist countries to do an expose' -- nevermind a critical "pro west" expose', either -- but just a "here's HOW these people live under THEIR form of government" type thing?

Yet, these "news" organizations would lead us all hell-bent for election down the socialist/communist path here in the states?

What's wrong with that picture is the same thing that's wrong with what the mediot's are NOT telling us about Islam et al. Same mo.
These mediot idiots are the most dangerous threat this nation faces. well as the most immediate.

10 posted on 03/04/2003 4:28:56 AM PST by Landru
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To: Mr. Mulliner
I have a copy of Mr. Olasky's book "The Tragedy of American Compassion" which dissects in detail the predatory Social Welfare system we have constructed in the last 50 years and the debilitating effect it has had on it's "clients" as well as society at large.

I highly recommend it to all.

Best regards,

11 posted on 03/04/2003 5:08:55 AM PST by Copernicus (A Constitutional Republic revolves around Sovereign Citizens, not citizens around government.)
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To: Mr. Mulliner
Good post.
12 posted on 03/04/2003 8:08:30 PM PST by Utah Girl
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To: Heuristic Hiker
13 posted on 03/04/2003 8:08:59 PM PST by Utah Girl
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To: Mr. Mulliner
Egad Mr. Mulliner; what a piece.

Maybe our free press can only attack one religion at a time, albeit the one that formed the foundation of the great experiment. An experiment that seemed to perform beyond anyone's wildest expectaions until they(the media) began their assault. This amoral bunch will not be content until they have brought down the church. Then they can go to work of the other guys...


14 posted on 03/04/2003 9:29:06 PM PST by ForGod'sSake (ABCNNBCBS: The axes of evil........hatchet men for Dims!!!)
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To: scripter

Buddhist pedophilia has a long background and is still a concern, Mr. Siemon-Netto reported: "Some 2,500 years ago, the outrageous behavior of one pandaka (homosexual, in Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) prompted the Buddha to ban the ordination of such men." UPI included Mr. Zwilling's citation of 20th-century "incidents where members of the Bob-Dob, an order enforcing discipline among Tibetan monks, fought each other over boys."

In The New Republic, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote that his view of Buddhism "was shaped by the American media, which usually portrays Buddhists as pure, serene, and incorruptible." But then he attended a Buddhist seminar in Bangkok and spoke with Thais who told him of "saffron-robed Buddhist monks guilty of graft, lechery, and other crimes." Mr. Kurlantzick first "chuckled skeptically at their tales," but then found that the stories of rape, orgiastic sex, and murder were true, and "especially shocking because so many Westerners assume Buddhism to be fundamentally different from other faiths. It isn't.... Not that any of this is undermining Buddhism's reputation in the West.... American disciples won't let reality get in the way of their preconceptions about the religion."

15 posted on 10/28/2004 5:15:50 PM PDT by Coleus (Roe v. Wade and Endangered Species Act both passed in 1973, Murder Babies/save trees, birds, algae)
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