From the “God Beat” to the “None Beat”

As newspapers have transformed into “new media,” and the economics of the media industries don’t make the same sense, companies have tightened their belts and laid off staff. One of the casualties has often been the “god beat,” reporters covering news about religion in their regions.

Stating this on RD is superfluous, as readers are often here precisely because of these shifts. However, the recent Pew Research Center report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” brings the question of the “god beat” back, but with a twist.

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein gave a retweet to this one:

We certainly need more skilled reporters who are knowledgeable about religious traditions in all their amazing and wacky manifestations. And in response to the Pew report, there were plenty of straightforward pieces in major outlets, generally by people who didn’t quite know what to write except just to relay what was already clearly stated by Pew.

For those who did know what to write, Sarah Posner’s lessons from the Pew Report here at RD, are useful takeaways. Apart from an overwrought headline (“millennials leaving church in droves”) CNN’s Daniel Burke was able to get into some nuances of the survey results. And Emma Green at Atlantic took the time to note the complexities of religious identity revealed in the report, especially with a rise in interfaith marriages and religion-switching.

As Green reminds us, “Not everyone in America is ditching religion, but people are finding more and more flexibility in the institutions that once reinforced steady religious practice, like marriage.”

The Pew report was certainly one of the more thorough ones in years, and their ability to do two nearly identical polls within seven years reveals important trends. What continues to go missing are the denominational differences of the unaffiliated.

The Pew report makes clear that “unaffiliated” can mean atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Three useful, if not overly general, categories. Speaking on the Diane Rehm show on Wednesday, Kim Lawton, managing editor for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, was clear that even among the unaffiliated many still “believed” in god or a higher power, but simply don’t connect with traditional religious institutions.

For now we can hold off on challenging the corollary assumption that everyone sitting in temple and church on Friday nights and Sunday mornings are believers and “theists” (they aren’t).

With new shifts in the religious landscape of the United States, however slight or severe they are, we also need writers on the “none beat.” That is, we need good writing by people who can make sense of the unaffiliated, not just in the knee-jerk way of saying “we are becoming more secular,” or as the New York Times piece by political reporter David Leonhardt offers its silly title “The Rise of Young Americans Who Don’t Believe in God” (which is not what the Pew report indicated—the report was about religious affiliation).

With that, journalist Steven Weiss and I briefly exchanged some potential categories for the unaffiliated on Twitter. Feel free to add your own and perhaps we can get these installed to help flesh out the next Pew Report.