Courtesy of iStock 

 

By Jacob McNair

 

Mary Hynes sits with a cup of tea in a cozy, burgundy-walled studio at CBC’s Toronto offices. She’s interviewing Paul Bramadat, a professor at the University of Victoria, about his study of the spiritual demographics of Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest region encompassing British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. It’s a segment for her radio show Tapestry, where she talks to Canadians about religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychology, and all other aspects of the “messy business of being human.” Even though Bramadat is phoning in from across the continent, Hynes keeps the tone personal—as if he’s sitting right there with her. While Bramadat’s initial answers revolve around mechanics and data, Hynes’s informal, caring tone and questions pry him away from his prepared answers. When asked about the area’s distinctive spiritual trends, he notes, “the influence of what I call ‘reverential naturalism,’ which is to say, that being out in nature is not just a place where one does a spirituality or religion, but it is a medium through which [spirituality or religion] is done.”

Hynes asks for an example, commenting, “I guess the image that’s coming to my mind is, you have everything! You have the ocean, you have the mountains. You know, this part of the world is pretty spectacular in terms of natural beauty. So how does that shape a sense of spirituality?”

“I moved here about 10 years ago, and most professors teach, and were taught, that everything is a social construction–”

“Sorry, where did you move from?” interrupts Hynes.

“I moved from Winnipeg, where I spent about 30 years of my life, but I’ve lived also in Quebec, and in the Hamilton area.” Bramadat goes on to describe how, on moving to B.C., he noticed a number of drivers unironically using a B.C. licence plate with the motto, “The Best Place on Earth,” which was offered by the government from 2007 to 2011. He believes it “does really capture the way in which people think about this place, and so it just led me to think, ‘Well, is there anything about this place which might be distinctive from the various other places I’ve lived?’ I love the prairies, I love that landscape, but it’s a place of horizontal and somewhat elusive beauty. It requires your attention. In Cascadia, the beauty doesn’t really require your attention—it reaches in and kind of grabs it.”

“I know your focus is the historical and political context,” says Hynes, taking an even more personal tack, “but that’s exactly what I’m going to ask you to step away from for a couple of minutes, because I’m wondering about a time you might have felt being taken out of yourself. Having a moment that was so arresting, so sublime … so kick the prof to the curb for a second and just be Paul: tell me about a time when you were just gobsmacked by the geographical place you were in.”

“Well, one of the real challenges to this question,” Bramadat replies, “is not just that you’re asking me to not be a religious studies professor; the bigger challenge is how frequently it happens. So when I used to run, I’d be running with my son who would be, say, eight years old, and we’d be running along the oceanside, and there would be Mount Baker in the distance, and seagulls and seals and maybe a whale, and the pounding of the surf, and I would actually stop him, and I would say,”—Bramadat’s voice drops to a whisper—“‘Max. Look at this. Pay attention. This is not normal.’ And he had been here for three or four years at this point, and he would just shrug his shoulders and say, ‘Dad, this is just Saturday.’

“Having those moments as a parent, where you’re trying to pass on this sense of majesty and the sublime to somebody for whom this is just what his neighbourhood looks like,” Bramadat continues, “that’s tricky, but certainly, when I’m on my own, there are moments when I just stop, get off my bike and stand there, and just think, not just, ‘My goodness, am I ever lucky,’ but ‘What is happening here? How am I being challenged to see myself not simply as a consumer of this moment, but rather as something that is transformed, transfixed by that experience?’”

Spiritual encounters like this—whether or not they involve a distinguishable God—are part of the lives of millions of Canadians, even in British Columbia, where about 44 percent of the population is non-religious, nearly double the overall Canadian average according to the 2011 National Household Survey. Yet all too often, the statement, “We don’t get religion,” made by The New York Times’s executive editor Dean Baquet to NPR in 2016, seems to hold true in Canada as well. “We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.”

A recent Angus Reid survey, for example, found that a majority of Canadians in seven provinces (except B.C., Ontario, and Quebec) believe religion should have at least “some influence” on public life, and 48 percent believe religious communities are at least “as relevant as ever” in addressing social issues like poverty and homelessness. But in a country where religious diversity is being driven upward by newcomers from around the world, the number of survey respondents who said they “didn’t know anything/understand very little” about a particular religion increased sharply for non-Judeo-Christian religions: 67 percent of respondents knew little or nothing about Hinduism, and 74 percent about Sikhism. Forty-six percent of respondents said they knew nothing or understood very little about Islam, and about the same percentage said the same about Judaism. But while only 12 percent believed Judaism was damaging Canadian society, 46 percent believed Islam was, and nearly two-thirds believed Islam’s influence to be growing in Canada.

Despite all this, there are few Canadian journalists assigned to religion beats who have developed the expertise to discuss religion and spirituality in depth.

The modern religion beat is messy and diverse, not institutional enough to cover using older methods. I’ve spoken to some of Canada’s remaining religion reporters—both newcomers and old hands—to find out how they’ve learned to cover the spiritual journeys of modern Canadians.

 

“We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.”

 

Much of Canada’s remaining religion reporting comes from the denominational press, who are, in some ways, closer to the complexity of lived religion than any other news publication: from The Anglican Journal to The United Church Observer, from Muslim Canadian News to Testimony Magazine of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, reporters at religious news organizations know the tension between the doctrinally-unified identity of the religious body they’re reporting for and the diverse on-the-ground lives of the members they’re reporting on.

Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the Canadian Jewish News (CJN)—the country’s only national Jewish paper—has a lot of experience with the messiness of the religion beat. The CJN mandates the representation of Canadian Judaism’s diversity. As Goldstein points out, “different Jews approach their Judaism in very different ways. For some, it’s a deep-seated religious belief; for many others, it’s cultural connections; and for a large swath of both of those people, there’s a middle area where there’s some religion and also a lot of cultural interest and connections.”

In terms of representation, this has meant abolishing unsigned editorials so that all opinions in the CJN come from a distinct source, including, for a time, political editorials by Mira Sucharov, a writer known for being critical of Israeli policy. Religion, however, has been the chief way in which the CJN encapsulates its readers’ diversity. Every weekly issue of the paper includes “Rabbi to Rabbi,” a dialogue between rabbis of different denominations (and genders) on issues from cremation to mental illness to the Super Bowl. The back of each issue also includes multiple commentaries on the week’s Torah readings. Even if the CJN isn’t read outside the Canadian Jewish community, it allows different parts of that community to engage with each other’s understandings of faith.

Where the CJN caters to any level of religious devotion, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation has one foot past the line between news and outright evangelism. You realize this immediately on walking into the office, where Jesus and the saints watch over you from virtually every shelf, wall, and cabinet. Founded in 2003 by Father Thomas Rosica—a Roman Catholic priest—and financed entirely by donors (including the Gagliano, Longo, and Weston families), Salt and Light pitches its video, magazine, and radio content as primarily for teaching non-Catholics about the faith, as well as for continuing the education of its Catholic audience. After walking through Salt and Light’s quiet, spacious new offices in Toronto, past the boardroom from which the chapel is always visible through a glass wall, I meet Rosica in his office, together with Emilie Callan, Salt and Light’s community outreach ambassador.

Rosica intends Salt and Light as a rebuttal to accusations that Catholic media has an inward-focused, “ship-is-going-down” outlook, that it has given up on the wider world. Instead, while Salt and Light does cover Catholic news like current events in the Vatican or canonizations, its real goal is to report on the work of people in the Church that are doing and saying things right now that will capture the world’s attention, especially the work of young people. ‘They would be the torchbearers because people will listen to young people who speak about the faith better than they’ll listen to [older nuns and priests],” he says, sliding a stack of Salt and Light magazines across the table. Although most of the articles are written by people of different ages (with content written in Cantonese, Mandarin, French, and Italian), the latest issue is a “youth edition” written almost entirely by young adults, and the articles are about everything from the importance of giving young laypeople the opportunity to get involved in their parishes to the experiences of a young Catholic lesbian.

Rosica and Callan also see Salt and Light’s role as helping to improve the secular news coverage of the Church. “That’s a real responsibility for Catholic media,” Callan says, “because Catholic language is not part of our culture, necessarily. It’s not as well known.”

Rosica adds, “One of the goals here is that we’re training young Catholics to speak for the faith.”

Rosica isn’t one to heap criticism on the secular media. He frequently acts as an official source—including a four-year stint as English language media attaché during the Benedict-Francis transition—and has never felt prevented from getting a Catholic message across. However, he says that he does find himself pushing for reporters to dig deeper and do more research in stories about Catholicism. “My role with the media is to say, ‘I want you to be a good journalist.’ One of the things I do is when a journalist gets the story right is I call them. No matter how complex, how difficult the story is, ‘You did a good job at this,’’’ he says, “and if they don’t, I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, why’d you do this?’ ‘Well, I had to get it done right away,’ or whatever. One of my roles is providing names for people when there’s a story and coaching media on how to go about things so they don’t hang up the phone on you.”

 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that reporters outside the field of religious journalism aren’t as comfortable diving into these communities—even to dig up less evangelistic stories than those produced by Salt and Light. Religion scholars like Joyce Smith, a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, have theories about why religion journalists have increasingly struggled to wrap their heads around Canada’s changing religious landscape.

“Religion seldom gets covered on its own terms, and by that I mean that it’s generally in a hyphenated context with something else,” Smith comments. “It’s religion and education; or religion and bioethics; or religion and Middle-Eastern-conflict. It’s always religion-and, and there’s not a lot of coverage of the religion. So, what happens in religious communities? What are people’s beliefs and how are they evolving?”

A big reason for the decline of religion reporting over the past few decades is that religion reporting of the mid-20th century was overwhelmingly institution-based: in fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, the ultimately unsuccessful progress of unification talks between Canada’s Anglican and United churches was covered by many prominent publications, including The New York Times, made some front pages, while smaller papers often reported on Sunday sermons in local churches. Smith notes that the United States saw a temporary increase in the number of dedicated religion reporters after the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and the police siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993.

Canada, however, lacked comparable events that stirred newsrooms to reconsider the place religion occupies, and only the biggest papers maintained it as a beat. In the West, the Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, and Calgary Herald; in the East, the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette, as well as Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Star, Telegram, and (the Telegram’s successor) Sun. When the wave of newsroom job cuts hit in early 2010, the religion beat seemed hyper-specialized and irrelevant according to the old reporting models. It was an easy cost to cut.

As a result, reporters are often in the awkward position of not even knowing what they don’t know. “Most journalists are coming at it from what I might call a ‘secular perspective,’” says Justin Tse, a B.C.-born scholar of Chinese Protestantism at Northwestern University in Illinois. “They want to look at the diversity of religions that are out there, but [think] those religions should be housed in institutions, and that basically the way to tackle a religion story is to look at institutions.”

The problem is, Tse isn’t sure that’s how religious communities operate. “I feel like people who go to religious communities often make use of those institutions for their family life, their own personal well-being, their social life, or even to connect with God. But I don’t feel like those religious institutions are a totalizing disciplinary force on people’s lives.”

In Tse’s academic research, he’s interviewed Chinese-Canadian evangelical Christians about their views on social issues like same-sex marriage. “I ask them, ‘How did you get into the sexuality issue? Was it your pastor who sort of preached this from the pulpit, or was it from the Bible?’’’ he says, “and they say, ‘Well, we watched the news, and we got concerned about it, and then we pressured our pastor to address this because he wasn’t addressing it.’ That’s not disciplinary action! That’s not institutional formation! That’s someone making use of the institution as a sort of nodal point in a wider array of everyday relations.”

It’s precisely this messy religion, says Tse, that makes religion reporting so important. It’s not so much to monitor big institutions, but that a multicultural society like Canada’s relies on the coexistence of different groups of people, even when they disagree on issues as fundamental as faith.

 

“That’s a risky thing for a lot of people, because they’re depending on my judgment, and that runs against the ethic of ‘Just lay it all out there.’ Let the reader decide what’s right, what isn’t right.’ But I think in this particular case, in order to report what is accurate, I have an obligation as a reporter to distinguish between the different voices because there simply are voices that are less legitimate than others.”

 

Even more so than their colleagues in the denominational media, journalists in the secular press have had to learn how to cover the changing realities of religion in Canada on the fly. Modern reporters like the following three have figured out ways to make their beats flexible enough for the diverse and de-institutionalized world of North American spirituality.

One of Canada’s last old-style religion writers was raised an atheist.

“I was taught that all religious people were kooks,” says Douglas Todd, who’s written for the Vancouver Sun for 33 years, nearly his whole career. “Then I discovered, as I got older, that quite a few are kooks, but quite a few aren’t.” As a young journalist in the 1980s (after briefly studying theology in California), Todd asked his bosses at the Sun if he could cover the religion beat. Since it was unassigned at the time, they let him take it. “It used to go either to the new reporter who couldn’t say no, or it went to the office alcoholic who they didn’t know what to do with,” he explains. He’s since won a National Newspaper Award, as well as multiple awards from groups like the Religion News Association.

Todd believes the early 2000s were close to a golden age of religion reporting. It was stronger in the U.S. due to a rising awareness of evangelical Christian political influence, he adds, but it was also present in Canada when religion journalists could draw significant publicity and funding from religious philanthropy groups, such as the John Templeton Foundation: “It seemed like all the major papers had religion reporters—some had two.”

Todd survived having his beat cut by making it very broad, very early on. In the 1990s, he redefined the beat as “religion and ethics” to encompass all kinds of philosophical and ethical issues in non-religious stories, which inspired him to write a book about ethical dilemmas in 1994. By the early 2010s, his coverage of Vancouver’s religious landscape revolved around growing immigrant communities of Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, and Chinese-Christians that it wasn’t much trouble when he was asked to take on the diversity and immigration beat as well.

Good religious journalism, for Todd, has to be balanced and respectful, willing to “delve into complexity” and report someone’s beliefs without mocking them so readers can evaluate them on their own. Whether he interviews a “far-out” or “not so far-out group,” Todd says that “they come away quite happy with the story about them, but other readers think, ‘Those people are crazy!’” That’s his definition of success: the subjects feel their beliefs came across accurately, but readers can still be critical.

Todd writes with non-religious readers in mind, assuming that religious people won’t need to be persuaded of his articles’ relevance, and uses a lot of data to prove the importance of his stories. After all, he notes, most of his editors have been non-religious. According to Angus Reid’s religion survey from November 2017, 75 percent of Canadians believe in God. The 2011 census found that 2.85 percent of Vancouver’s population is Sikh, and Todd thinks it’s important to understand that community. He’s also covered less institutional spiritual trends and movements—from mindfulness to yoga to neopaganism—but ultimately finds his broad approach to the beat most helpful. “Sometimes I talk about religion as the ‘meaning beat,’ so I write about the meaning of something,” he says. “I try to find the philosophical, moral hook to a story.”

 

Thomas Morton may not be a classic religion reporter, but he did simultaneously join three groups that some people refer to as cults. He’s worked with Vice Media, known for its unconventional approaches to journalism, for 14 years, and has spent a lot of that time getting to know members of religious groups and other subcultures. He joined the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, and Adidam for a month in 2006, and wrote about balancing all three while trying “to be a good practicing member of each.” By the end, he found himself developing strong opinions on the merits of their religious practices, and it felt less like an article and more like something he was genuinely trying out.

Since then, he’s applied those same techniques to his work, perhaps most famously in 2015 when he participated in a Pentecostal tent revival in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He even helped set up the tent, which took about three days rather than the couple of hours the preacher thought it would take. This ended up working in his favour, wearing away the initial unfamiliarity before the revival even started. “There’s something to be said for talking to people while you’re doing a physical activity,” he says. “It puts people at ease because they have to focus whatever degree of their attention on the thing and you get a little more of a candid answer.”

“I don’t really balance [reporting with participation]. I try to participate as best I can,” Morton says of his experience at the revival. “I very intentionally don’t pretend to do anything, I didn’t pretend to speak in tongues. I just allow what observations I can to slip out as they do as a participant.” While Morton was open to speaking in tongues, and refreshed himself on the Bible while in Arkansas, it didn’t happen. He did, however, feel a pull to ask the preacher if he could preach at the next meeting. “That wasn’t something I’d gone down to Arkansas planning on—it hadn’t even really been in the back of my mind. It just kind of came up and I don’t know if that was a genuine calling from God or just an idea I had, and I was like, ‘Well, what’s the fuckin’ difference?’

“When you hang out with the country sort of evangelicals, so much of the stuff is, ‘God told me to stop by your house and check in on you,’” he says. “The obvious question is, ‘Do you have any thoughts that God isn’t telling you? And how do you determine when something’s God speaking to you and when something’s just an idea you’re having?’ and then, ‘Is there a difference?’ and I think it’s just a matter of what you call things.”

Morton sees his and Vice’s brand of first-person journalism—religion-based or otherwise—as a response to the failure of the classic idea of journalistic objectivity. He believes it turned stories into “fact-delivery devices” which lacked the colour needed for a sense of place and character, and unrealistically pretended that journalists have neither personal beliefs that inform their coverage or natural emotional reactions to what they cover. “I think [this style of journalism is] helpful for communicating some of the things that aren’t communicated by facts alone,” he says.

 

Hynes remains a strong believer that “the human search for meaning is important all by itself—it doesn’t need to be tethered to the day’s political news to merit rigorous investigation.” Nonetheless, she understands why news media might shy away from it. “Especially now, when newsrooms are under such strain, I don’t think a lot of them are looking for creative ways to launch new beats,” she says. “It can be really hard to achieve the right tone. Because it’s so subtle, and I think as with a lot of journalism the tendency is to approach things in a black-and-white way, and I think that’s deadly, because the beauty of this beat resides in the grey areas.” She compares the beat’s difficulty to having to make parliamentary coverage relevant to someone who thinks that Parliament Hill is a fairy tale that some people need as a crutch to get by.

Hynes isn’t sure that Tapestry was ever a pure religion show. When she took over, in 2006, the producers told her that the show’s “three pillars” were religion and spirituality, philosophy, and psychology. She’s kept it that way—much like Todd does with his writing—out of the belief that it connects with people who aren’t religiously affiliated or didn’t grow up with it. “I think the experience of humans as meaning-seeking creatures is pretty universal, and I think religion is one way people try to find meaning, but it’s only one way,” she says. For Hynes, her long-time practice of holding her electric bass during moments of great stress has felt just as “sacramental” as any religious rite.

The Tapestry crew spends a lot of time putting shows together, which means a lot of work, both finding a diverse array of guests and keeping track of those guests to make sure the show stays diverse. The most difficult part, Hynes says, is balancing all the different axes of diversity. An episode one week could feature a white, liberal Christian figure, and the next episode could feature a Black conservative Christian figure. The two episodes could be wildly different in the issues they tackled—but it would still be two solid weeks of Christian theology.

Hynes thinks the rise of the religiously unaffiliated only makes Tapestry more relevant, especially because they are so often still looking to find some meaning in their lives. “We try to get a lot of those voices on the radio, because often if people are trying to work through this stuff in their own lives, they have given it a lot of thought,” Hynes says, “and they can become quite eloquent about why, ‘Well, this is why I grew up in my parents’ religion and had to walk away, but I didn’t want to be left with nothing.’” Hynes believes that ultimately, many people find it hard to escape questions about the purpose of their brief lives: “On the one hand, those can sound like the drunken 3 a.m. dormitory conversation, but on the other hand, there’s a reason why those questions have engaged young people in the middle of the night for many, many years.”

 

“I was taught that all religious people were kooks,” says Douglas Todd, who’s written for the Vancouver Sun for 33 years, nearly his whole career. “Then I discovered, as I got older, that quite a few are kooks, but quite a few aren’t.”

 

Religion journalists don’t always realize how much their sources have riding on their stories.

Journalist Steven Zhou converted to Islam in 2011, and has published articles in major Canadian publications. He’s now an associate editor at The Islamic Monthly, an American magazine that he also contributes to as a columnist. He knows how much his community is under public scrutiny, how people rely on the news to tell them who Muslims are, and how to distinguish which voices are legitimate within the community. To him, that means journalists can’t just be knowledgeable—sometimes they must consider taking a side.

“I try to distinguish between the voices that are legitimate and the voices that I think are illegitimate,” Zhou explains. “And that’s a risky thing for a lot of people, because they’re depending on my judgment, and that runs against the ethic of ‘Just lay it all out there.’ Let the reader decide what’s right, what isn’t right.’ But I think in this particular case, in order to report what is accurate, I have an obligation as a reporter to distinguish between the different voices because there simply are voices that are less legitimate than others.

“For over 1,000 years, the ‘luminaries’ of the Islamic tradition have been saying that killing innocent people, in any instance, is not okay,” he says. “But then comes along all these modern people who  say, ‘Well, actually, we know better. Even if we’re all accountants or traffic engineers or something, we’re going to look at the religious scripture and say it says something quite different.’” Zhou firmly believes that telling readers when one side of a disagreement has the backing of history and scholarship and the other one doesn’t is the only way to be fair both to the readers and to the people in the story.

Does that involve a lot of background research and risky courage? Yes. Do most journalists have both the time and energy to invest in doing that? No. But good religion reporting is no less necessary even though, in a time of thinly stretched newsrooms, it seems like an unfixable problem; in fact, it’s precisely because it seems like such an impossibly shadowy area that journalists have to fight hard to bring light to it. As Zhou points out, “It’s an uphill battle—like so many things in journalism, right?”