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And the underlying narrative is . . .

17 January 2014

Underlying message: Muslim births as the front-page lead in last Friday's Times

Underlying message: Muslim births as the front-page lead in last Friday's Times

"THE killing underscored the increased debate about when to use smartphones in public," The New York Times wrote on Tuesday, although this wasn't actually the conclusion that many people will have drawn from the death of Chad Oulson in a suburban Florida cinema during a matinée performance of a film called Lone Survivor.

Mr Oulson was shot dead by the customer behind him, a retired police officer who objected - one can safely say "violently" - to his texting his daughter while the film played. The New York Times report made no mention of debates about gun violence. Instead, it treated the matter simply as one of smartphone abuse, devoting the last portion of the story to related anecdotes about celebrities who had been criticised for texting in films. Yes, criticised, often on Twitter, but not actually shot, which might be thought the newsworthy element of the Oulson story.

This is a particularly bare-faced example of something present to a greater or lesser degree in all news stories. They do not just tell you the facts, or something quite like some of the facts. They make it clear which larger narrative the facts are supposed to fit into. Absolute certainty about how to do this for every story is a large part of the Daily Mail's recipe for success, but all newspapers do it more or less consciously.

In the case of The Times's splash about the Muslim birth-rate, this was more or less unconscious. The headline was low key: "Rise in Muslim birthrate as families 'feel British'". But the lead was clear: "Almost a tenth of babies and toddlers in England and Wales are Muslim, a breakdown of census figures shows."

The story played down what seems to me the incontrovertible message of the statistics, which is that, in 30 years' time, practising Muslims will far outnumber practising Anglicans, on present trends. There was a quote from a knowledgeable sociologist of religion: "'It's not inconceivable,' said David Voas, Professor of Population Studies at the University of Essex."

But the crucial comparison that would have made the story come alive was with the latest C of E figures, which show that the baptism rate has fallen to ten per cent. If ten per cent of babies are baptised in the Church of England, and another ten per cent are raised as Muslim, this means the Church of England will clearly become the minority faith, simply because baptism is a far worse predictor of adult religiosity than being born a Muslim.

This may, of course, change in the future. But the overwhelming change in religious allegiance between the last two censuses was from "Anglican" to "None", and I haven't seen any sign that this is changing. There wasn't any significant change from Muslim to None, nor between the religions.

MEANWHILE, the sidebar to the Times story on the web supplied the larger narrative in which the story is to be read. It was a list of four headlines: "Anti-Muslim hate crimes 'surged after Lee Rigby murder'"; "British Muslim tells of his life as an MI5 informant"; "Muslim jail population doubles"; and "It's 40 lashes if you carry on selling alcohol, Muslim patrols warn shops".

No human editor chose these stories. They will have been picked by a computer, sorting through the recent stories tagged with "Islam" or "Muslim". But it is precisely the automatism of the process that makes it so revealing of how Muslims appear in the media, and thus to everyone without any personal experience of them.

RICHARD DAWKINS had his own answer to the problem. He wrote to The Times demanding that it stop referring to "Muslim children", and say, instead, that these unfortunates are "born to Muslim parents".

"Babies and toddlers are too young to know what they think about origins, moral philosophy, or the meaning of life: too young to know whether they have a religion at all. Imagine an article telling us the proportion of babies that are fiscal conservatives, ornithologists, or golfers.

"If, as a matter of fact, the majority of babies do grow up to share the religious opinions of their parents, that is a tendency to be noted and perhaps deplored, not prejudged by sloppy language. Please could Times journalistsbe encouraged not to label defencelessinfants with the religious opinions of their parents?"

As usual, one is struck by the way in which his style of atheism reproduces everything that made triumphalist Christianity obnoxious. But there are deeper ironies. He loathes Islam, and has called it the greatest force for evil in the world today. But, in so far as all his propagandising has had an effect, it has tended to weaken Christianity by encouraging nominal Christians to turn into nominal Nones, while it makes Muslims feel more embattled, excluded, and angry. And that, in turn, can only weaken their motives for apostasising.

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