Easier to do if you keep the content in a box.
“Religion” is less like the old joke about blind wise men trying to relate to an elephant than it is like the newer joke about trying to nail Jello to a tree. The truth is that it’s a process, like everything else, but people keep trying to chunk it into compartments. Ethics, ritual, politics, status, wealth, virtue, and even eternal life. Therefore, when some complain that there are no good reporters of religious phenomena, it’s no wonder. Most reporters are kids under the supervision of old white male editors, with another contingent that have built a reputation about one aspect, like many social justice issues that sponsor publications.
The situation is further complicated by people with place-based, ecologically justified systems moving to a different location on the face of the planet and trying to hang onto ways developed in quite different situations. And then there is the factor of — well, what to call it? Erudition? Knowledge of various types from anthropological discussions of why naked people dance in the dirt counterclockwise, to hair-splitting arguments of concepts like the Trinity that were inventive political compromises in the first place (wonderfully vulnerable material for the self-styled “A” theist debunkers).
All this has been swept aside by the power of science, a method of thinking that follows logic rather than emotion or attachment to the past, but has now been challenged by the inevitable deep convictions of the subconscious that were formed soon after birth. Awareness of this has been created by neurology science, so now how does science deal with it? Much is in a state of questioning and testing. Only a small percentage of the earth’s population has the education to participate.
Education is the product of stability and prosperity. Both — all three — of these are challenged by our present situation. The Jello slips through our fingers. Reporters are supposed to deal in facts and the basic questions of who, when, how, and so on, but the magnetic forces of culture come from deep inchoate places that even formal religious leaders don’t quite grasp — in part because their energy is taken up with political jostling of worried people.
Since the deep shifts of human experience are better handled by artists and philosophers, reporters turn to some other aspect at a turn of the dial: the institutional politics. Much of the internal patterning is invisible to outsiders, so they must rely on experts, but also when a “religion” — especially one that has claimed a merger or alliance with a nation or has an historical identity as an institution — is interacting with the laws and practices of a larger culture — even in such simple matters as wearing a headscarf on one end or a condom on the other — a reporter finds it easier to discuss matters on an obvious level. Political or historical rhetoric.
One of the best entities dealing with these things is Martin Marty’s “Sightings,” newsletter from his base of operations at the U of Chicago Div School. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-religion-public-life Marty is often turned to by journalists looking for clarity and common sense. One can sign up for a twice-weekly automatic mailing.
“Religion Dispatches” is daily and also academic in tone, self-described as “your independent, non-profit, Webby-nominated source for the best writing on critical and timely issues at the intersection of religion, politics and culture. Catholic ex-nuns, secular religion journalists, evangelicals and post-evangelicals, Muslim novelists, Mormon feminists, scholars of Talmud—these are RD’s writers, but also its readers.” In my experience they tend to focus on institutional matters, not deep philosophy.
Their website is “religiondispatches.org” and you can find there the directions for making your own submissions. It would be interesting to see what they do with submissions from contemporary Native Americans. In my experience academics in Southern California (this website is located at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles) are heavily liberal and so respectful of “spiritual” matters while totally uninformed about the experienced background and issues of reservation people that they are likely to wander off into the weeds. “Indian Country Today” http://religiondispatches.org/about/ might be the antidote, but the issues are deep as geology and hot as volcanoes.
Though I know nothing about reporters who deal with Russian Orthodox matters or the issues of Buddhists, Taoists, or Hindu, I can guarantee that there’s plenty to write about and that it might be as dangerous as entering the arguments of Islam across the planet. Much of that territory is still small-scale tribal, family groups that have been in one place for many centuries. How would anyone even find them, aside from geo-locators with military uses?. So much about religious matters is about outright destruction, rooted in the psychological/neurological/mammalian territoriality and drive to control or eliminate the “Other.” Lately there is a landslide of thought about the “Other,” and the eternal puzzle of why we love the exotic but kill “trespassers” even if we have to bomb them in their homes.
The scientific ability to prevent conception, create conception in a glass dish, conceive a child from three parental sources, make a whole animal out of a skin cell, have all challenged our previous moralities. In much of the world to muddle the inheritance patterns across generations is as much a source of violence as war — often IS the source of war, but also wealth.
Now we’re facing the possibility that someone may enter the genome of an egg and change characteristics — WHICH characteristics? With how much control? To cure disease or produce monsters? We are doing what we only imagined a god could do. But if we are so powerful, why can’t we eliminate HIV-AIDS, Ebola, and the common cold? These are religious questions produced by science. At least the way we divvie up the territory at present.
If we could throw a switch tomorrow and eliminate all religious institutions on the whole planet, what would be the result? Chaos or peace? My guess is that affinity groups would begin to form at once, possibly around genetic families as they unfold into generations. That’s what happened before. Much of the rest has to do with the human brain’s operation, which is in terms of metaphor as Lakoff and his friends have explained. The people in the desert would tell us about the oasis. The people in the forest would talk about paths and streams. All the people would talk about each other, which is why metaphors of childbirth, death, and falling in love form alongside the metaphorical potential of things like violence or being lost or coming home.
We are in the midst of a massive universal re-alignment of knowledge. It takes courage and we badly need more and better reporting. Nailing Jello to a tree is something we can imagine even if we’ve never tried it. But if we don’t save the elephants, we will only have their memory, fading.