It's a Big World, After All

Does anyone know how many commencement orators have said in speeches during the past month what we’re taught in song: "It’s a small world, after all"? The standard line is that improved travel and communication are showing billions of people that we’re all the same.

Actually, the opposite is true: The world remains huge and is getting larger as individuals assert diverse religious views and carve out specialty occupations, avocations and lifestyles.

The world is expanding because of economic advance. Hundreds of millions of people now are free to plow new furrows rather than work the family farm. Three centuries ago, daily economic life for almost all people was similar: Rainfall, wildlife and the quality of land varied, but farmers in all those places could readily understand what their counterparts were doing. Now, we have thousands of different callings.

The world has also become vaster as we’ve learned more about differences in religion. More people now know that Islam is very different from Christianity not only in its theology but its anthropology. Muslims see humans as naturally good and able to attain heaven by following the rules. Many Muslims see some humans as godlike, able to bring together in their own persons (as Muhammad supposedly did) political, military and religious excellence.

A few journalists have noted that it’s a big world. For his book "The New New Journalism," Robert Boynton asked writer Susan Orlean: "What kinds of subjects are you drawn to?" She talked about "the profile I did about a gospel group. It was astonishing for me to glimpse a world that was so fully developed — with its own stars, sagas, myths, history, millions of devotees — that I, in my narrow life, I had no idea existed."

The problem is that many journalists, unlike Orlean, lead narrow lives. One, Lawrence Wright, acknowledged this in Boynton’s book: "Reporters rarely take beliefs seriously … the whole idea of belief is a little repugnant to them." He added: "When they are confronted with someone who is genuinely captivated by belief, reporters take pity on them by not writing about their beliefs."

Maybe that’s because only 10 percent of reporters and editors at leading publications attend religious services weekly (compared to 40 percent among the general public). Furthermore, attendees favor generally theologically liberal churches or synagogues where they are unlikely to see beliefs changing lives. It’s no surprise that reporters, as a friendly gesture, leave out belief: In describing an otherwise attractive person with a huge pimple, why emphasize the pimple?

Sometimes "small world" journalists do note theological differences, but in an "oh, by the way" manner. For example, the (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union stated, "Muslims believe in all of God’s prophets, including Jesus Christ. However, they believe Muhammad was the last and final prophet." Oh, that’s all? What about Christ being not just one among many prophets, but God?

To religiously illiterate reporters, these are matters of abstract belief but have little practical importance. "Big world" journalists, though, know enough to point out that different beliefs about God have consequences. To return to Islamic anthropology: Those who yearn for a caliph, a new Muhammad perfect in every realm, do not create the separation of powers that is needed to keep democracy from becoming tyrannical.

Commencement speakers often speak sweet nothings, but journalists should know better. (And if a presidential candidate says or implies that it’s a small world after all, don’t vote for him. What he doesn’t understand about other religions and societies could kill us.) We need more curious folks like Orlean, who said, "I have a kind of missionary zeal to tell my readers that the world is a more complex place than they ever thought."