Seeing Things: Funny Papers

People read newspapers for many reasons. The purest spirits go straight to the sports or the comics. In my adopted home, Washington, D.C., national politics (it’s a company town) starts the morning for many poor souls. You can tell when someone with the habit hasn’t scanned the day’s Washington Post: shaky hands, shifty eyes, fear of being unprepared in the office conversation. In my youth I often succumbed to that degeneracy of taking the newspaper seriously. Now that I am an elder statesman, I have discovered the most consistently amusing way to read it: for its clumsy forays into philosophy.

Many of my friends, including this magazine’s editor, are gifted professional philosophers, and I mean no disrespect in using the word. Philosophy is a profession, however, that everyone feels qualified to practice without a license. In the old days when newsmen drank and smoked, journalistic philosophy was hard-boiled. Since journalism became gentrified, we get something of a very different kidney at breakfast: the philosophy of the cultural aristocracy.

My benchmark is the New York Times. Most of its writers know just enough to be a menace—that is, they have been to a university and can carry on what appears to be a reasonable conversation about almost anything. But they live among a tiny elite on a paved-over island that takes itself to be the sum and summit of human life.

For instance, Times writer Richard L. Berke, a self-confessed gay man, revealed a few months ago that, unlike the situation during his early closeted days at the paper, about three-fourths of the editors who now determine what appears on the front page are openly homosexual like him. Most of us see the Times as a dominant cultural force, but its editors think of themselves as an embattled archipelago in a sea of prejudice. Hence, the tendency of the Times to push certain stories, such as those about scoutmasters who oppose the Boy Scout ban against openly gay leaders—a tiny sect if there ever was one. It doesn’t even occur to the Times editors that this is news bias; they think they are combating bias.

Their strongest biases involve religion. Using that fine-edged double standard that makes modern liberalism such a delight to observe, publications like the Times erupt whenever they believe that certain favored minorities—gays again, but also racial groups—are inadequately represented in television, orchestras, or university faculties. That a sympathetic orthodox Christian character rarely pops up in a Hollywood movie or Broadway show—though we are living in a country almost 90 percent Christian—does not trouble the bean-counters. Christianity for them is the source of bias, never its object.

Just before President George W. Bush, an unabashedly enthusiastic Christian, took office, Natalie Angier, a Times science writer, lamented the coming religious onslaught in a Sunday magazine article, “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist.” Of course, on West 43rd Street it was not exactly a daring confession or, if truth be told, all that lonely. Letters poured in claiming to have been much moved by its wishy-washy grumbling. (If you have a taste for vigorous atheism, it’s better to go back to the old Victorians or a real genius like Bertrand Russell.)

The curious philosophical note, however, was the touchingly naive belief by writer and readers alike that science, the kind Angier writes about, has much to say about religion. Genuinely philosophical minds know that science and religion are two different realms. But for the influential crowd that writes and reads the Times, science is a substitute religion.

One letter in response to Angier’s article contained this memorable sentiment: “The 50,000 dancing atoms that make up a single period on this page—such commonplace miracles are wondrously sufficient for my experience of metaphysical awe.” Thank God (or maybe not) for the Times. Without those letters, who would know such exotic human specimens exist? We all experience a thrill when we first learn that 50,000 dancing atoms occupy a tiny dot. But 50,000 dancing atoms, like 50,000 dancing periods, or 50,000 dancing bears, cannot seriously inspire “metaphysical” awe.

The truly scientific conception of nature admits that there are awesomely beautiful natural phenomena, but—at least from a purely scientific perspective—nature is a meaningless process that gives birth and slays, preserves and obliterates remorselessly, without love or hatred or the slightest remembrance. If the dedicated atheist wants to forget about this, no one can stop him. But that is no reason why the rest of us should. The strictly scientific view of the world presents itself as broader than the religious, but it is actually much narrower, stopping on a dime just when it should be warming up for the real thing.

Witness the recent hoopla in the newspapers over the mapping of the human genome. Scientists and journalists alike instructed us that not only are we far less genetically different from worms and mice than was once thought, but that this new knowledge is a “blow to human pride.” Strong words. But it is hard to think that they will make much of an impression on any but the hopelessly gullible.

When we ask in the fine old English phrase, “Are you a man or a mouse?” we want to know something that genetic similarities cannot settle and that makes an absolute difference to us. Scientists claim that even within the human species, individuals differ genetically from each other by only about 0.03 percent. That sounds minuscule. But (granting genetic determinism for the moment), when you think of the distance between Mother Teresa and Stalin, perhaps the numbers don’t tell the real story.

Former president Bill Clinton used to cite similar genetic figures to encourage us to be tolerant of everyone. But like our journalist philosophers in the New York Times, our politician philosophers would generally do better to stick to what they really know. Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land fight despite their common humanity. Genetics have virtually nothing to do one way or the other with human conflicts, which belong to the realm of good and evil, justice, and God’s actions in human history—the traditional subjects of real philosophy. No scientific discoveries will ever replace that sort of study. And the journalists who use pseudo-sophistication to try to distract us into believing that they are deep thinkers can be amusingly dizzy when we encounter them early in the morning, but they are a pernicious influence to be resisted throughout the rest of the day.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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