By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) – The challenge was directed at the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the impassioned message, laced with Islamic phrases, sought a much wider audience.
The statement came from Barak Barfi, a spokesman for the family of slain American journalist Steve Sotloff. Sotloff, who reported for Time and other publications, was beheaded in a video ISIS released on Tuesday.
Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. On behalf of Steven Sotloff's family, he had tried to secure the journalist's release.
On Wednesday, Barfi stood outside the Sotloff family's Miami home, with dozens of microphones and cameras thrust before him, and stepped into a fierce war of words between ISIS and the rest of the Muslim world.
"I am ready to debate you with calm preachings," Barfi told al-Baghdadi, directly addressing him in Arabic. "I have no sword in my hand and I am ready for your answer.”
Speaking briefly to CNN on Thursday, Barfi said he doesn't expect the reclusive ISIS leader to accept the invitation. But his challenge had other aims, the young scholar said.
By Dorrine Mendoza, CNN
(CNN) – Author Anne Lamott says she begins her day by checking the news as soon as she wakes up.
“If the world is coming to an end that day I am going to eat the frosting off an entire carrot cake: just for a start," she wrote in a recent essay on her Facebook page.
Lamott, the best-selling author of several books about spirituality, describes her specialty as topics that "begin with capital letters: Alcoholism, Motherhood, Jesus.” But in recent days, global events have been foremost on her mind.
“The last two weeks have been about as grim and hopeless as any of us can remember,” she wrote, listing events like the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster in Ukraine, Palestinian children killed by rocket fire while playing football on the beach and protests against young refugees showing up at the U.S. border.
Lamott posted her response to those events on her Facebook page on Sunday; the essay quickly received more than 18,000 shares and thousands of comments.
“I used to think that if the world — or I — were coming to an end, I’d start smoking again,” she wrote. But that's going too far, Lamott said, settling for the simpler pleasure of sweet pastries.
Despite tragedies both deeply personal and worldly, Lamott said she turns to a hard-won, if somewhat restless faith.
Opinion by Craig Detweiler, Special to CNN
(CNN) – It is understandable why Breanna Mitchell’s sunny tweet from Auschwitz as “PrincessBMM” would spark a viral outcry.
A tour of a concentration camp, where so many Jews lost their lives, may move us to take photos or post responses – but few would include smiles, or selfies.
But Mitchell is not the first teenager to generate Internet outrage by her response to the Holocaust.
When Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House last year, he wrote in the museum guest book, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a Belieber.”
While many have ripped into Mitchell and Bieber for their insensitivity, I don’t think they intended to be disrespectful to the dead.
Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices (mobiquity!), adolescent mistakes and hard lessons that used to be learned in private can quickly devolve into public drubbings.
This is what happens when new technologies clash with ancient understandings of the sacred. The problem is so pervasive that a Tumblr site, “Selfies at Serious Places” is dedicated to such faux pas.
We have very few spaces that our culture considers sacred, where an association with the divine results in a feeling of awe or reverence. Death may seem especially abstract to young people who haven’t been shown how to grieve, mourn or respect the dead.
So how might we help the emerging generation to develop a digital decorum that accounts for sacred spaces? Can we incorporate electronic ethics into religious instruction?
Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.
But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.
The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.
They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.
“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.
The Wisconsin-based foundation co-sponsored the event with the Triangle Freethought Society, which draws its members from this state’s tech-heavy Research Triangle.
The nonbelievers came from as far afield as Ireland and France, but most described themselves as refugees from the heart of the South - atheist anomalies amid fiercely devout friends, family and neighbors.
We wanted to know what it’s like to be a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt, so over the course of the weekend we asked some of the folks here to share their secrets.
They had a lot to say, and some of their advice overlapped, but we came away with eight top tips. Some said they wished they’d had something like this list when they began their foray into religious infidelity.
So, without further ado, here’s a “survival guide” to being an atheist in the Bible Belt:
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) We can blame the Internet for plenty: the proliferation of porn, our obsession with cat videos, the alleged rise of teen trends like – brace yourself – eyeball licking.
But is it also a culprit in helping us lose our religion? A new study suggests it might be.
Allen Downey, a computer scientist at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, set out to understand the national uptick in those who claim no religious affiliation. These are the “nones,” which the Pew Research Center considers the fastest-growing “religious” group in America.
By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) Careerist clergy. The super rich. And now we can add another pelt to Pope Francis' collection: Internet trolls.
In statement released on Thursday, the Pope said the Internet and social media are making people across the world "increasingly interdependent."
"The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity," Francis said. "This is something truly good, a gift from God."
At the same time, though, all those tweets and texts and comment streams can cause people to "lose our bearings," said the 77-year-old pontiff.
"The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression," Francis said.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - It's official: Pope Francis is the most talked-about person on the planet.
More folks have been chatting about the popular new pontiff online this year than Edward Snowden, Kate Middleton or even the Internet's favorite bad girl, Miley Cyrus.
That's according to the 14th annual survey from the Global Language Monitor, a Texas-based company that trackers top talkers on the web. The GLM says their rankings are based on an analysis of English-language blogs, social media and 275,000 electronic and online news media.
The GLM broke their research into three categories: top words, top phrases and top names.
Besides being the Internet's top name, the Pope's Twitter handle, @Pontifex, was the fourth most talked about word thus far in 2013.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - With his penchant for crowd-pleasing and spontaneous acts of compassion, Pope Francis has earned high praise from fellow Catholics.
Hell, even atheists love him - as amply demonstrated by the surprising displays of affection tweeted after the Pope publicly embraced a severely disfigured man on Wednesday.
MORE ON CNN: Why the pope's embrace of the disfigured man is so powerful
Here's what some atheists had to say on Twitter:
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) –"Yo mama..."
Whenever I heard those two words while growing up in inner-city Baltimore, I knew something bad was about to happen. Trading insults was a childhood ritual. But everyone understood that one subject was off-limits. You didn’t talk about anybody’s momma unless you were prepared to start swinging.
Now that I’m all grown-up, I’ve discovered a new arena for combat: The reader’s comments section for stories about religion.
When I first started writing about religion for an online news site, I eagerly turned to the comment section for my articles, fishing for compliments and wondering if I had provoked any thoughtful discussions about faith.
I don’t wonder anymore.
When I look at the comment section now, I see a whole lot of “yo mamas” being tossed about. Readers exchange juvenile insults, condescending lectures and veer off into tangents that have nothing to do with the article they just read.
For years, I’ve listened to these “holy trollers” in silence. Now I’m calling them out. I’ve learned that the same types of people take over online discussions about faith and transform them into the verbal equivalent of a food fight. You may recognize some of these characters.
You might even recognize yourself.
Opinion by Hemant Mehta, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Articles and books about why millennials are leaving Christianity often focus on what churches are doing "wrong."
They're anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education and anti-doubt,
to name a few of the most common criticisms.
I don't disagree with those critiques, but there's another side to the story.
While Christians have played sloppy defense, secular Americans have been showing off some impressive offense, giving young Christians plenty of reasons to lose faith in organized religion.
For instance, atheists dominate the Internet, rallying to thriving websites and online communities in lieu of physical meeting spaces.
Even a writer for the evangelical magazine Relevant admitted that “While Christianity enjoys a robust online presence, the edge still seems to belong to its unbelievers.”
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.