Religion, ridicule & reality TV

A few weeks ago, Laura Kwerel, a producer for Interfaith Voices, interviewed me about National Geographic’s TV series Meet The Hutterites.

Our Q&A airs this week on 60+ radio stations in the United States and Canada:

Tale of Two Stories

This feature story about the illegal ivory trade — with a special focus on China — was recently posted at The Atlantic:

The Atlantic story on elephant poaching

This cover story on the same subject — but which focuses on the Philippines (not China) and the use of ivory by religious communities (i.e., Buddhists and Catholics) — was published by National Geographic in October 2012:

NGM Blood Ivory cover

Length of The Atlantic‘s story, in words: 12,700+
Number of times the “Philippines” is mentioned: 3

Length of the National Geographic story, in words: 7,500+
Number of times the “Philippines” is mentioned: 18

What The Atlantic says about the Philippines (all three mentions):

  • … The rest goes to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian friends of the United States, in routine disregard of the ivory ban that the United States led a generation ago.
  • … The prospect of sanctions came up the last time around, when, as the Bangkok Post recounts, the conference identified three African nations, along with transit countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and top markets China and Thailand – as making insufficient efforts to curb the trade.
  • … They need to trust us on this one, as do Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and every other friendly or dependent government in the Asia-Pacific region, and more “promising steps” such as Secretary Clinton noted last November aren’t going to cut it.

What National Geographic says about the Philippines (only 4 of 18 mentions):

  • “The Philippines is a favorite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory.” 
  • When I ask how new ivory gets to the Philippines, he tells me that Muslims from the southern island of Mindanao smuggle it in.
  • During my five trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia recommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. 
  • Corruption is so bad in the Philippines that in 2006 the wildlife department sued senior customs officers for “losing” several tons of seized ivory. 

What a political cartoonist in the Philippines says about Bryan Christy, who wrote the National Geographic cover story:

political cartoon about NGM coverage of Blood Ivory

Number of times National Geographic mentions “Buddhist”:  10
Number of times The Atlantic mentions “Buddhist”: 0

Number of times National Geographic mentions “Catholic”: 8
Number of times The Atlantic mentions “Catholic”:  0

Number of times I’ve asked Bryan Christy for an on-the-record Q&A so he can describe in detail his fieldwork for this story: 6
Number of times Bryan Christy has responded or acknowledged my requests: 0

What might explain National Geographic‘s willingness to punch well below its weight class, and beat up the Philippines instead of China?

Chris Johns Terry Adamson China National Geographic Liu Xiaobo

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM’s new publishing partnership in the People’s Republic of China. (2007)

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society


Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do

Then again, maybe they do know.
{ How can they not? }


Jenny Daly, president of T Group (quoted above), includes the following TV shows on her production credits: “Fashionista Diaries” for Soapnet, “Night Club Confessions” for Fox Reality and “Pageant Mom’s Unleashed” for E! Entertainment.  Also: “Love is in the Heir”, “Fight For Fame”, “Last Bride Standing”, “Starveillance,” “Diary of an Affair,” “Fake-A-Date,” “Friend or Foe,” and “Party Crashers.”

Given that resumé, Ms. Daly seems like the obvious choice to handle a six-part National Geographic series about faith-based communities.


How many people of faith will these four men
be able to offend in six hours?
Stay tuned…

“You won’t be missed” (encore presentation)

{ first posted June 21, 2011 }

Why is the National Geographic Society’s (new-ish) mission
to inspire people to care about the planet
if the planet doesn’t give a whit about us?


Mother Gaia

Mother Gaia, by *Humon


Our rebuttal:

My parents taught me a simple truth:
 Your life is a reflection of your priorities

“We sing this for the brave ones

who brought about this great change in Eastern Europe.
But I also sing it for the brave ones who failed,
back then, for that minute,
to bring about great change in China.”




The National Geographic Society goes to China:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)



John Fahey National Geographic

Preach it, Brother Martin!

National Geographic magazine has an Executive Editor who focuses on the environment (Dennis Dimick); an Executive Editor for science (Jamie Shreeve); and a Senior Editor devoted to the environment (Robert Kunzig).

Why, then, doesn’t National Geographic have a staff editor who focuses on religion? That’s the question to ponder as you watch and listen to Martin Palmer, Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions & Conservation, as he challenges a crowd of environmentalists at a recent World Wildlife Fund symposium hosted by National Geographic:

{The cover inset is mine.}

PZ Myers: The One-Man Brand

When National Geographic acquired ScienceBlogs a few months ago, NG executives and editors immediately faced a problem: How could they justifiably showcase PZ Myers — the marquee talent at ScienceBlogs — when Myers spends much of his time taunting and vilifying religious people?

PZ Myers

(From Myers’ atheistic hymnal: “Fuck God.” People of faith are “batshit insane” and “self-righteous pricks” who should “grow the fuck up.” And other nastiness which, for National Geographic, is a bit “off brand.”)

The answer was this compromise: PZ’s blog posts about science still appear at NG’s ScienceBlogs site, but what you might call PZ Unplugged — his science posts plus everything else he wants to write, including his religion rants — are available at a new network called Freethought Blogs.

Given this choice, where do PZ Myers’ fans now go to get their PZ fix? Are they remaining loyal to ScienceBlogs where they can read PZ’s thoughts on cuttlefish? Or have they opted for PZ Unplugged — cuttlefish plus his meditations on public hand jobs — over at Freethought Blogs?

We don’t have access to the traffic data for PZ’s two blogs. But using comments as a rough proxy for traffic, we did a quick comparison. We looked at 19 recent blog posts that were simultaneously published at ScienceBlogs and at Freethought Blogs — same content, different sites — and compared the number of comments per post.

Here’s what we discovered:

Comment comparison, Monday, September 12, 2011 @ 11:50pm

It’s early still. Freethought Blogs is just a few months old, and National Geographic hasn’t yet brought its full marketing muscle to promoting ScienceBlogs. But the initial returns suggest that PZ Myers will find his audience, with National Geographic’s help — or without it.

Big media brands: They’re not what they used to be.


Postscript: It’s worth noting that PZ provokes his biggest reactions at Freethought Blogs when he plays the provocateur on religion:

What is she doing? (on what PZ suggests is the biblical justification for public hand jobs):  112 comments*

It made my skin crawl  (on biblical marriage): 224 comments*

Ricky Gervais in the New Humanist  (on atheism & being offensive):  310 comments*

Seems like Dr. Myers popularity has very little to do with his thoughts on cephalopods.

* total as of 10:30am on September 13, 2011

PZ Myers: The Compromise

PZ Myers

Remember PZ Myers, the biologist & blogger who taunts religious people by saying stuff like “Fuck God”?

PZ is the marquee talent at ScienceBlogs, which was recently acquired by National Geographic. Problem is, managing a stable of bloggers that includes PZ Myers is rather awkward: How can NGS showcase a guy who says religious people are “batshit insane”? That sort of bile seems rather “off brand.”

PZ told us via Twitter in early June that he was “negotiating” with NGS. Today he announced the compromise. In short: PZ’s blog posts about science will still appear at ScienceBlogs, but what you might call PZ Unplugged — his science posts PLUS everything and anything else he wants to write, including his religion rants — will be available at a new blogging network called Freethought Blogs.

Here’s a longer version from PZ, posted yesterday (July 31, 2011):

… NatGeo and I have worked out an acceptable compromise. This site on Freethoughtblogs is mine and only mine, and none of the content is in any way associated with National Geographic. Yay freedom! I can say whatever I want here! At the same time, whatever I write that I feel is compatible with the more conservative ethos of National Geographic will also appear over there — so less liberal, more religious readers can read the sciencey stuff without getting their staid world rocked. One qualifier: anti-creationism is well within the NatGeo brief, so  young-earth creationists and intelligent design cretins aren’t going to like either site. There are limits, you know.

So, if you liked the old Pharyngula exactly as it was, this is the place you want to be: update your blogrolls, change your bookmarks, redirect your RSS feeds. Other than the address, nothing has changed. This is Pharyngula Unfiltered, double espresso Pharyngula.

If you’ve been wishing Pharyngula was a little less rude and offensive, if you were constantly annoyed by the challenges to your cherished and foolish religious dogmas, do nothing at all and stick with the old site.  That will be Cool Menthol Pharyngula, or de-caf Pharyngula.

We applaud PZ & NGS for hammering out a compromise.

We also look forward to seeing what happens next: Will PZ’s huge audience move to his new site or will they stay put?

The answer will raise an even more interesting question: Are the people who have been reading PZ’s posts — and who have, as a result, made ScienceBlogs such a success — fascinated by PZ’s insights on cephalopods? Or do they love hearing him call religious people “self-righteous pricks“?

Because if they’ve congregated to watch PZ the Profane Pugilist beat up people of faith, then our Society just acquired a blogging network that’s about to lose a ton of traffic — and advertising revenue.

We’re also curious who decides which of PZ’s posts go where. For example, he posted this bit on “kooks” and “politics” at ScienceBlogs tonight:

Why is this included in what PZ calls “the NatGeo brief”?

“Bugger off, deluded fool.”


Dear John,
Do you think PZ Myers is a good online ambassador
for the National Geographic Society?


The Worldview of Nat Geo blogger PZ Myers (cont’d)

PZ Myers is the voice of Pharyngula,
part of the ScienceBlogs network,

which is operated by the National Geographic Society.


Dear John,
Your silence is deafening.

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.