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Where is God? Women journalists talk about violence and religion

Photo from United Nations / Flickr

Editor’s note: This article is the ninth in a 12-part series of stories based on interviews with 35 women journalists who cover violence around the globe. Because women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms were used here.

Does God exist?

For some women journalists who have covered violence, God is very much alive, and religion offered a source of comfort for the horrific events they’ve witnessed.

For other journalists, their work has made them question how a caring deity could allow such cruelty and suffering.

Yet, even journalists who did not believe in God had faith in humanity and had seen the goodness and resilience of people during tragedies.

“I’m Catholic,” said Denisa, a journalist who covered violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “For me, God exists. Jesus exists.” Although she witnessed violence firsthand, Denisa never questioned God.

“What happened in my country is not about God. It’s about people. . . . I know God is very nice. It’s people. Some people, they love violence. . . . It’s a very beautiful country. We have good weather, good food, good people. I know some day (violence) will end.”

Among the 35 women interviewed in this series, 10 said they were members of an organized religion, although two women said they did not have a very strong faith. Seven women said they believed in God but did not practice a particular religion. Fourteen women said had no religious views, although some grew up in religious households. Four did not disclose religious views.

Questions for God

For women who did describe themselves as religious, their work sometimes made them doubt. Some struggled to reconcile the goodness of God with the evil of violence.

“Sometimes, covering events like these make you question your beliefs. Other times, the coverage strengthens them,” said Adira, a journalist who has covered violence in her home country of Pakistan. “I guess in times of disappointment, death and depression, you lose parts of your belief, but then your realize your beliefs also give you hope.”

Hannah, a Ugandan journalist whose interest in reporting on domestic violence grew from her own sister’s abuse, said she had a strong religious faith. Yet, she struggled between how she should feel and how she really feels.

“My faith says never revenge . . . that you forgive those who do you bad. . . . But really how do you forgive a person batters your sister every now and then for nothing bad she has done to him?”

Esin, a Pakistani journalist, said the violence she’s seen in her home country has led to lots of questions about her religion, Islam.

“When these people are killed, it’s the will of Allah? God or Allah wants these children to be burned beyond recognition . . . so you need DNA testing to identify them?

“Religion does not have all the answers. Why have you taken this child’s life, this woman’s life, in such a manner? In religion, I’m told to be patient, this is the will of God. I don’t want to be patient. I want answers,” Esin said.

Esin often wonders why she lived and others died during violent events. She questions the existence of God and God as just and fair.

“Am I more privileged? If God exists why is He or She letting this happen? It’s very confusing.”

Charlotte has covered domestic violence and she has covered the mass shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, U.S., where nine people died at a prayer meeting after a white supremacist opened fire on them.

“I’ve always wrestled with the notion of why do bad things happen to good people. . . . These events made me think about that question more.”

“If God is good, why would he allow that to happen?” Charlotte asked. “Why would he allow children to be raped and murdered? This makes me question. I’m not convinced at all that good is always at work. . . . I don’t see it (religion) any more as an omnipotent good God.”

For some, a stronger faith

Yet, another reporter said, in spite of the violence she’s witnessed, her faith had grown stronger.

“I’m Catholic. I practice. I’m there (at church) every Sunday,” said Olivia, a U.S. journalist who covered the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Florida, which left 49 people dead and 53 wounded.

“I’m a big proponent of everything has a plan, everything has a reason,” Olivia said. “I think I maybe even grew in my faith more, rather than turning away and blaming God. There’s a reason, and we’ll get through.”

Emine, a Turkish journalist, said she does not follow any organized religion but does have a faith in God that has grown stronger.

For some, conflicting views

Other journalists, irrespective of their religious views, had conflicted feelings about God. Is God good? Does God have a divine plan? Some were conflicted.

“It’s made it more difficult to believe there is a God who would want people to suffer like that,” said Elizabeth, a U.S. journalist who has covered conflict in the Middle East. “At the same time, after quite a lot of close calls, it’s tempting to think there might be a purpose to my having been left alive.”

Isabelle expressed similar feelings of ambivalence. She grew up in the United States in the Baptist church and participated in mission trips to help others during the summer. Yet, her work as a journalist gave rise to questions.

“The longer I spent in the Middle East, the less sure I was about what I believed,” she said.

Martina, an Argentine-born journalist working in Mexico, said when she’s traveled to a village to report on rape or murder she wonders why God allows violence to continue.

“There have been moments where I think, ‘Where is God here?’ It’s made me jealous of people who have a deep faith. . . . You go to these villages. People are like, ‘God will provide,’ and you think, ‘No. Stop justifying this.’ You get angry and frustrated. In Latin America, I got frustrated with the church for not stepping up. You get frustrated with the church, who says no abortion to a kid who got raped.”

Yet, Martina said, her faith has helped her get through these difficult times.

For some, rejection of religion

Some journalists did not believe in God and rejected the idea of any kind of deity.

Madeline, a U.S. journalist who worked in Afghanistan, described herself as an atheist.

“People who say everything happens for a reason, you’ve never met a woman had nine children and they fucking starved to death.”

Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist, described herself as a lapsed Catholic and said rejecting religion was “one of the most liberating things ever” because it allowed her to “see the world as it is” and not through “this haze of religion.”

“Most of the wars I’ve covered have been religious wars,” Ella added.

She and other women observed that religion has been used throughout history to justify harm—and they resented that.

“Every blast that takes place now is going to be in the name of Allah, and they’re calling it an act of faith,” said Esin. People who commit violence in the name of Allah have invented a “new dictionary” where old words are twisted to have incorrect and hurtful meanings, she said.

Another journalist agreed.

“I am a Muslim woman,” said Alima, a journalist in Afghanistan. “When I cover violence cases, I thought, ‘Why (are) Muslims doing such bad things and make violence against humans, specifically women?’”

The goodness of humanity

While some journalists rejected religion, they did believe there was goodness in humanity, and they had seen that grace and love in the worst of times.

“I don’t believe in God,” said Julia, a Belgian journalist who covered violence throughout Africa. “I really tried. I finally realized that (if God) could even exist, I don’t want to believe in him or her.”

Yet, her work covering violence made her believe in human kindness.

“I clearly distinguish faith from religion,” Julia said. “I prefer faith in human beings because I also saw beautiful things during these events. I saw people, in very difficult situations sometimes, reveal their true nature, risk their own life for the best and to build a better place to live. Not because they were afraid of God or hell, but because they know it’s the right thing to do.

“I want to have faith in that because it’s more enlightened, strong and lasting than blinded religious dogmas. We can have faith without being religious. And we can believe in something even if we don’t believe in God,” Julia said.

Adilah, a British journalist who covered the Middle East, said she’s an atheist, and while her reporting has not changed her views on religion, she does have faith that people can and will be good to each other.

“I believe in humanity, still believe in goodness. I don’t mean I don’t believe in anything. I mean I absolutely do not believe in may organized religion, anything that comes out of any human’s mouth, but how could we possibly know? I certainly don’t believe in religion or any man-made idea of God.”

Stella, a U.S. journalist who has covered crime and sexual assault, was raised Catholic but does not hold strong religious beliefs. But, “I have seen how faith helped some people heal.”

While not all journalists believed in God, some believed they had been guarded from harm.

Emma, a journalist who has covered mass shootings in the United States, said she does not belong to any organized religion, but she does consider herself a spiritual person.

“I have made this spiritual request for protection for myself and my children and for guidance in helping me cover these stories and present the truth,” she said.

Anna, a U.S. journalist, was raised Protestant, said she carried a cross and a “lucky” coin.

“I prayed a lot while I was in Iraq. . . . I carried what I thought were lucky things in my pocket every day. . . . These will protect me. . . . Even if you’re not that religious, you want so speak to someone. I prayed to my grandfather a lot.”

Journalism and religion--common goals?

Paul Glader, a journalism professor at The King’s College in New York, says that journalism and religion share common ideas: Both challenge the powerful, both work on behalf of the powerless, both examine the powers of evil in society, both seek to safeguard liberty, and both exist in cultures that can privilege lies and exaggeration.

Mary, a journalist in the Philippines, agreed that journalism and religion can do good. The Catholic teachings she learned as a child align with her journalistic goals of helping others, she said.

“Because I’m a product of Catholic school, they have instilled . . . Christian values, which are compassion, diversity, respect for peace,” Mary said.

For some journalists, their work offered an education to learn about religions other than their own. Sarah, who was raised Protestant in her home country of Canada and worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said her coverage of violence has made her more tolerant of others’ views.

“I do have more respect for people’s religion because I what I lived through,” Sarah said.

Caroline, a U.S. journalist who has covered violence in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, also does not have religious faith, but “I try to learn about the faiths I’m covering. It hasn’t affect me or mine (faith), but I have been interested to figure out how faith figures into response to violence.”

Journalists’ diverse views on religion mirror the wide range of religious beliefs around the globe. The Pew Research Center has found that worldwide, poorer countries have higher rates of religious populations than do wealthy countries. Women are more likely than men to express religious views, and younger people are less likely to be religious than their older counterparts.

Next: Journalists talk about covering violence and what they’ve learned about life and death.