A Religion Reporter's Crisis of Faith

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When he accepted the religion beat at The Guardian in 2000, reporter Stephen Bates thought his new beat would be predictable, easy and safe. Seven years later, exhausted and thoroughly appalled, Bates has decided to leave his post.

ROBERT SMITH, host

When you read the writing of Stephen Bates, a reporter at The Guardian newspaper, it would be easy to think that he was a war correspondent. He writes about nasty bitter feuds, threats of violence, hatred. He almost sounds shell-shocked, saying he's seen too much, too close.

But Bates wasn't reporting from Baghdad. He was until recently the religion correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. In September, he announced he was moving on - as he put it, for the good of my soul, I need to do something else.

Stephen Bates joins us by phone. Hello, Stephen.

Mr. STEPHEN BATES (Reporter, The Guardian): Good morning, Robert.

SMITH: So let's go back to a more innocent time seven years ago before you became a religion reporter. What did you think it was going to be like?

Mr. BATES: Well, actually, I though it was going to be a rather quiet job, actually. I thought that religious people more or less agreed with each other these days. They're all pretty ecumenical and thought the best of each other and of the world outside. And I certainly found out that that wasn't quite the case.

SMITH: Now, you were actually raised religious yourself.

Mr. BATES: Yes, I'm a Catholic by birth and upbringing. Yes, that's right.

SMITH: So, you're a religion correspondent for seven years, finally fed up. What pushed you over the edge?

Mr. BATES: I - there were partly professional reasons, of course, there were. I thought I'd done the job for long enough. But, certainly, what push me towards deciding on doing something else with my life was the feeling that the whole religious debate, particularly in the - both the Catholic and the Anglican Communions, was so vicious and nasty that I already wanted to go and do something else. I thought I'd seen too many nasty things going on, particularly in the Anglican Communion - which, as you know, is driving itself apart over homosexuality - and too many people behaving in a very secular, political manner, very mendacious and very hypocritical.

SMITH: Well, what do you mean by nasty? How did things get nasty?

Mr. BATES: They've certainly been pretty threatening. You only have to look at the blogs these days to see people saying things like I wouldn't waste a bullet on the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. They send excrement to each other in the post. They accuse each other of not being Christians, and they behave in a thoroughly nasty and objectionable way, in my opinion.

SMITH: Now, as a reporter for The Guardian, were you sort of tasked to be skeptical about religion, to mock it in some way? Or you were supposed to have sort of a believer's point view of it?

Mr. BATES: Not at all. Neither of those, in fact. The Guardian reports religious affairs as it reports other issues across the world and across subject matters, where we don't give religion any special preference or special consideration. It has to fight its way into the paper as any other story does, on merit.

SMITH: But as, personally, as someone who is religious, could you be skeptical - I'm sorry - journalist and still keep that faith?

Mr. BATES: Yes, I think you can. I think you can separate the two reasonably well. It certainly ultimately was not the case with me, because I felt I saw too many nasty things going on to close up, and I decided I wanted to change. And actually seeing the way people believe - behave towards each other made me feel that it was time for a change.

My wife is a keen and devoted Anglican Evangelical, always says about these guys, certainly the anti-gay lobby within the evangelical community of the Anglican Communion. The trouble with these guys is, she says, they don't read the Bible, because they don't know anything about love. And I tend to agree with that.

SMITH: Was this nastiness ever turned against you, people writing in to the paper?

Mr. BATES: Oh, I got the odd nasty e-mail. But, you know, you get used to that and you deal with it.

SMITH: What will you cover now that you're not covering religion?

Mr. BATES: I'm writing about other things. It was quite interesting, your news bulletin just had a little item about the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Well, I've just come back from that ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Funnily enough, another religious, quasi-religious story, and I should be writing about that this afternoon.

SMITH: You know, covering the monarchy takes a sort of different kind of faith. Do you think after seven or eight years of that, you'll be calling for the abolition of the monarch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BATES: Well, no, I don't think so. I think she does a pretty good job. She is getting on a bit, though, so it's going to be an interesting time as we come towards the succession and what should happen next. She's been queen for so long here that most people can't remember a time when she wasn't queen.

She ascended to the throne in 1952, and her prime minister would have been, her current prime minister, Gordon Brown, would have been one in those days. The Archbishop of Canterbury was about two. So, you know, even very senior people in the country these days can't remember a time when the Queen wasn't the queen. And maybe when she finally goes, there ought to be a national debate about who succeeds her.

SMITH: Well, quickly, do you have any advice to your successor as religion writer at The Guardian?

Mr. BATES: Well, we've appointed a very interesting successor, a woman reporter called Riazat Butt who, as you can tell from her name, is a Muslim. And she's the first Muslim correspondent of a British national newspaper. And the first religion - Muslim religious correspondent of the British national newspaper. And I think she'll do a pretty good job, but she's got a very steep learning curve. But then a lot of 30, 35-year-old reporters in this country have a steep learning job with religion, even if they're brought up as Christians.

SMITH: Well, we wish her luck. Stephen Bates is a reporter for the British newspaper, The Guardian, writing down mostly about the royals after reading about religion from 2000 to 2007. Thanks, Stephen.

Mr. BATES: Thank you very much, Robert. Have a good day.

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