Letters to the Editors

The Next Christianity

In "The Next Christianity" (October Atlantic), Philip Jenkins projects a cogent scenario of an ascendant Southern global Christianity. It would exercise in the twenty-first century a supranational influence on all of Christendom. He suggests persuasively that a more conservative, even obscurantist theology will place serious strains on the forward-looking, liberating impulses emanating from Northern churches. These influences, he says, may even outweigh concurrent intrusions from an only slightly less rapidly growing Islam.

In his discussion Jenkins only once mentions the Enlightenment—that seminal event in Western history that was ultimately anchored in northwestern Europe and in North America. It incubated the industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It spawned in evolving Christendom, Jenkins correctly notes, "such fundamental ideas of modern society as the state's obligation to tolerate minorities and the need to justify political authority without constantly invoking God and religion."

We have seen in the twentieth century how some of the roots of the Enlightenment have projected outward to the developing rich countries, East and South. Here has occurred a revolution in living standards, strengthened by the increasing accessibility of quality advanced education, notably in America, for numerous future world leaders. Might not the forces unleashed by the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment gain worldwide accessibility in the twenty-first century and ultimately serve as a powerful defense against the effects of retrograde religious dogma?

Chester Low

Middleburg, Va.

Philip Jenkins treats the Christian faith in North America monolithically, using such designations as "the Northern liberals" and "the liberal West." Such broad strokes could leave the impression that the distinctions about which Jenkins writes exist only between Northerners and Southerners, and not also among Northerners themselves. In truth, a great many Christian believers in North America may, on certain key points such as taking the Bible seriously and even to a large extent literally, find more in common with at least some Southern Christians than with many fellow Northerners. This does not diminish the accuracy of Jenkins's overall picture of worldwide Christianity, but it may suggest that this picture is more nuanced (and perhaps, therefore, more interesting) than his article suggests. If and when North meets South, the encounter may be marked not only by glaring clashes but also by curious convergences out of which may emerge new global relationships among otherwise diverse Christian groups.

The Rev. Scott Hoezee

Calvin Christian Reformed Church

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Philip Jenkins accurately points out the profound demographic shift of Christianity toward the Third World, particularly in Africa. However, the competition between Christianity and Islam, particularly in Africa, may be the real story. Currently the world has about 1.9 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims. But as your The World in Numbers section points out, further growth in population will be very uneven in the next fifty years. Projections suggest that the Muslim population will at least double, to 2.7 billion, by 2050, while the Christian population will grow by about 50 percent, to about 2.8 billion. Surging African numbers will not fully compensate for stasis or decline in developed Christian countries.

These projections may also overlook two key trends. First is the creation of a Muslim Europe, with immigrants giving rise to Muslim minorities of 10 or 20 percent in France, Germany, and other European nations. The other trend is the impact of AIDS.

AIDS could have profound consequences for the relative performances of Christianity and Islam, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Muslim North and West Africa has been largely spared the devastation that has torn through Christian East and South Africa. Not only are Muslims less likely to engage in social practices that lead to viral transmission (an imperfect defense at best), but circumcised males in Africa become infected and pass on infection at substantially lower rates with a similar level of viral exposure. Unless Christian Africa can find a way to halt the HIV epidemic, the demographic ascent of Christianity may be significantly blunted.

Nayyer Ali

Huntington Beach, Calif.

Philip Jenkins's observations of the differences between the Northern and the Southern Church are compelling. One of the differences he points to is that the Northern Church tends toward intellectualism and liberalism and is predominantly from the First World, whereas the Southern Church is predominantly conservative and resides essentially in the Third World.

The failure of the Northern Church is that it has no way of reconciling its current position, on the top of the human pyramid, with the teachings of the early Church fathers. Today the United States has far more in common with first-century Rome than it does with the first-century Church. Jesus did not come to heal the healthy.

Peter Boehmer

Monhegan Island, Maine

Philip Jenkins replies:

I take Chester Low's point about the possibility of a new Enlightenment, though I would dearly like to see a future that avoided the extremes of both religious fanaticism and secular utopianism. Peter Boehmer raises what may be a central issue in this whole matter: namely, the "eye of the needle" problem of whether Christianity can be reconciled with wealth and power.

Scott Hoezee objects that I draw a false distinction between the liberal West and the not-so-liberal South. As it stands, this is a fair objection, and I have written in greater detail about exactly this point elsewhere, chiefly in my book The Next Christendom. He might also have added that African churches (say) are nothing like monolithic: there are liberal and modern-minded churches south of the Equator as well. Yet I believe that the broad distinction I draw is valid.

Nayyer Ali disputes my numerical projections regarding the relative status of Christianity and Islam in the next half century. Briefly, I am using United Nations projections as well as U.S. Census data; where there is a discrepancy between the two, I usually err on the side of conservatism. And I most certainly do take account of the horrifying impact of AIDS: my figures would be worthless otherwise. I think it is important to draw from as large a "basket" of projections as possible, at every stage seeking to understand the bases for forecasts and the possible sources of error. In short, I stand by my figures.

This having been said, both demographic and religious projections are of necessity subject to error, and the religious balance may well be reshaped by political trends. In Rwanda the appalling behavior of some Christian leaders during the 1994 genocide has driven hundreds of thousands of people in that country to convert to Islam; local Muslims acted heroically in trying to prevent mass murder. In presenting my statistics I claim no sense of prophetic infallibility: things may well change. But the picture I present in the article represents what is at the moment the most likely scenario.

American Ground

This past June I flew from Chicago to Dallas aboard American Airlines. I found myself seated among a group of American Airlines flight attendants en route to a business meeting in Dallas. I began a conversation with the flight attendant seated next to me. As we became comfortable speaking to each other, I asked her if the events of 9/11 had changed her feelings about flying. She turned to me and with quiet dignity told me that her best friend had been an attendant aboard Flight 11. She told me how her friend had called their office in Boston, and how she had listened in as her friend tried to relate where her hijacked plane was heading. This beautiful blonde lady held back the tears I saw accumulate in her eyes as she told me what her friend had said: "I see water, I see buildings, oh, my God!" And then the line went dead.

I was shocked when, while reading William Langewiesche's "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" in the September Atlantic, I came across this exact story and read her friend's last words almost exactly as they had been related to me. Reading the article helped me to understand just how important the events of 9/11 have been to our lives, and how many people were personally affected.

Janie Paine

Rockford, Ill.

For someone who is accustomed to sandwiching her reading between other activities, I was amazed to find that I simply could not put William Langewiesche's articles down. I devoured them during my morning bus commute and continued reading as I walked along busy downtown streets from the bus stop to my office, glancing up only at the crosswalks to make sure it was safe to cross. The depth and breadth of Langewiesche's coverage—from the technical details of the engineering feat that was the WTC to the varied and complex range of human emotions manifested before, during, and after the tragic attack of 9/11—was magnificent. I appreciated his compassionate attitude toward all those who suffered and struggled in the aftermath, even as he let us see the less than noble side of human nature. I didn't go to New York after 9/11 to see the site, and now I regret that I never saw with my own eyes the scale of the destruction and cleanup operations, which Langewiesche depicts so brilliantly. However, I do feel that I have been there—albeit as Langewiesche's imaginary travel companion—in a way that I never could have been just standing on the viewing deck. I thank him for describing a world and a period of time that with each passing day slip deeper and deeper into the realm of America's collective myth.

Shoshanah Dubiner

San Francisco, Calif.

Just a note to say thank you for publishing the three-part "American Ground," by William Langewiesche, the third installment of which was the best of all.

Having read those pieces, I believe I now have a very special insight into the physical implications of the disaster on September 11 and the year following that those who did not read the articles will never quite have. What happened on that day was bad enough; however, we should all be aware of the further disasters that were prevented by the ingenuity and daring of those who were suddenly thrust into positions of responsibility.

These articles are a piece of Americana, ranging from the descriptions of the depths of our national spirit to insights into the field of engineering that should be read by amateur and professional alike.

You assigned the right man to the job.

Herb Weinberg

Colorado Springs, Colo.

W illiam Langewiesche does a disservice to the many Bechtel men and women who were helping out at Ground Zero and elsewhere in Lower Manhattan within hours of the attack. In the October issue Langewiesche (or an unnamed source) mischaracterizes discussions between Bechtel people and New York City officials about the possibility of Bechtel's playing a larger role in the recovery and cleanup effort. In fact city officials expressed concerns about site safety, contractor coordination, accountability, insurance, and indemnification—efforts and issues that might be managed more efficiently by a private-sector company with experience in disaster relief. Impressed by our effectiveness on site, and mindful of our global credentials for disaster relief, City Hall asked Bechtel to submit a management proposal to support the World Trade Center recovery and cleanup effort. Bechtel did exactly that—but not before offering the names of other firms we felt were also qualified to do what needed to be done. The Department of Design and Construction asked another company to submit a proposal, which was ultimately accepted.

Cliff Mumm

President, Bechtel Construction Operations

Frederick, Md.

Editor's Note:

A long electronic document was recently sent to this office concerning William Langewiesche's "American Ground." The document, written by Rhonda Roland Shearer, the director of a group she calls the World Trade Center Living History Project, was also sent to at least one newspaper, and is available on the Web. The document takes angry exception to Langewiesche's characterization of the efforts at the World Trade Center site and levels many charges at the author and his reporting. For the record, The Atlantic stands behind William Langewiesche and his reporting, and is proud to have published his exceptional series of articles.

One of the more emotional matters raised by Ms. Shearer's document concerns looting at the World Trade Center site, and the account of the discovery of stacks of blue jeans inside a fire truck recovered from the rubble. Ms. Shearer vehemently denies that such an event took place, explaining that the jeans were spread all around the area, and did not originate in the ruined truck, and she cites several eyewitnesses to back up her understanding of the story. For this and other reasons, primarily of interpretation, she argues that Langewiesche's work is libelous, and that the book that resulted from it should be withdrawn and shredded. Because of the emotional register of this one issue in particular, we asked William Langewiesche to reply.

William Langewiesche replies:

"American Ground," my history of the World Trade Center recovery project, is, as many readers and reviewers have noted, overwhelmingly a positive one. However, some aspects of the response—small, and on the scale of the cleanup relatively unimportant—did not fit the images that were being publicly portrayed. The story of the jeans is obviously one of them. Having been told it at the time by an eyewitness, I found other eyewitnesses who, uncoached, repeated the same details. As a writer committed to reporting on the Trade Center project with clear eyes, and as accurately as possible, I felt it was necessary to include it. Omission, however comfortable, would have been propagandistic, and implicitly insulting to readers. I was of course aware of the sensitivity of this incident. The description I included was short, and tightly contained to the scene on the "pile." It provided no identities of any sort—by location, date, unit, or name—and it engaged in no speculation. During the five months of exhaustive fact-checking by the magazine, the story was verified by multiple eyewitnesses. We have since gone back to those sources, and found others who were at the scene—all of whom repeat the core of the story.

The World Trade Center disaster was unquestionably a highly traumatic experience for all Americans, and the emotions that arose in its wake were powerful and heartfelt. However, once I was given special access to the site, and had made a commitment to stay there day in and day out, I saw my role as attempting to write something like a history in the present tense. This entailed a certain mental distance—observing the scene without a prior overlay, and trying to get beyond the acute emotionalism that was coloring and distorting understandings both inside and outside the project. It was predictable that the results of such an approach would offend a certain number of people who, whether for lack of information or for emotional reasons, subscribed to a completely different view—the essentially cartoonish one that has received so much publicity, and depicts the Trade Center project in simplistically heroic terms. I do not perceive the project that way, and never have. Rather more impressive, I felt, was another sort of American greatness that emerged at the site—a complex weave that included diverse acts and motivations, and also a culture of improvisational genius that seemed particular to our country, and enormously encouraging about the future. There was no need to engage in propaganda —and if there ever is, then I am not the right person for it. I wrote about the Trade Center experience on the assumption that the most honest possible description—warts and all—would in the long run serve history and The Atlantic's readers best.

Homeland Insecurity

Charles Mann ("Homeland Insecurity," September Atlantic) states that if FaceIt has a 99.32 percent success rate on faces it matches with terrorists, then 170,000 people will be mistakenly identified as terrorists each year at Boston's Logan Airport. This is wrong. The success rate is based on matches, not on the number of people who use the airport. If, out of the 25 million people who go through the airport each year, a thousand are identified as terrorists, only about seven would be mistakenly identified. My question is, What is the chance that a terrorist would not be matched?

Jeremy Hambly

Seattle, Wash.

Charles C. Mann's article includes a minor error: the claim that INTELINK, SIPRNET, and NIPRNET are encrypted and not connected to the Internet. This is true only of INTELINK and SIPRNET. NIPRNET may or may not carry encrypted data and is generally connected to the Internet. Access to NIPRNET from accounts without .gov and .mil addresses is frequently shut off during times of worm or DoS activity, but otherwise it is accessible.

Matthew Kennedy

Arlington, Va.

I am writing to correct an inaccuracy in "Homeland Insecurity." Charles C. Mann states, "In March [of 2002] CERT/CC, a computer-security watchdog based at Carnegie Mellon University, warned of thirty-eight vulnerabilities in Oracle's database software." This statement is incorrect. CERT listed nineteen potential vulnerabilities, not thirty-eight, of which several were not security vulnerabilities per se but failures to configure the software properly. It is also important to note that at the time the advisory was issued by CERT, Oracle had already issued either security patches or workarounds for all identified potential vulnerabilities.

Mary Ann Davidson

Chief Security Officer

Oracle Corporation

Redwood Shores, Calif.

Charles C. Mann replies:

As Jeremy Hambly's letter suggests, I failed to express my argument clearly. Let me try again. Face-recognition software employs a number of criteria for matching faces. These criteria can be applied with greater or lesser stringency, which leads to greater or lesser likelihood of false positives and false negatives. If the criteria for declaring a match are made more stringent, the percentage of false positives will go down but the percentage of false negatives will rise. If the criteria for a match are less stringent, the opposite will happen.

FaceIt claims an "equal error rate," where the two lines cross, of 0.68 percent. Because the software identifies each passenger as either an innocent or a terrorist, 0.68 percent of the total number of passengers is the number of people who will be misidentified one way or the other. At Logan Airport, in Boston, the software would have scanned the faces of 25 million passengers last year, resulting in 170,000 false identifications. The overwhelming majority of those false identifications would have been, as I wrote, innocent people misidentified as terrorists. The additional cost and disruption, to passengers and airlines alike, of interrogating and screening those people would be enormous.

One could set the criteria to reduce that number of false alarms, but then the risk of missing real terrorists would be dramatically increased—the tradeoff is unavoidable. And a security system that either fails in its principal task or causes major disruption is not desirable.

Mary Ann Davidson is right: CERT did warn of nineteen security holes in Oracle's products, rather than thirty-eight; the organization listed them in two different forms in its bulletin, confusing me. Oracle had indeed previously released patches and workarounds, but repeatedly gluing on Band-Aids after the fact for multiple systems is so time-consuming that system administrators rarely do it. (Any home user who has tried to deal with the many security patches from Microsoft can easily imagine why.) In part, the CERT announcement may have been an effort to help administrators keep track of the torrent of security issues from the company that advertises its software as "unbreakable."

School Vouchers

In his Agenda essay on school vouchers ("Reversing White Flight," October Atlantic) Jonathan Rauch writes, "Competition would improve the performance of public schools, just as it improves the performance of people and companies." Competition often yields the lowest-cost product or service, but it makes no promise about quality, unless quality is specified and required. Remember, "competition" gave us an airport-security system that failed to stop even one of the hijackers on 9/11! If competition and vouchers would significantly improve the performance of school systems, we would be reading articles about that, instead of about the failure of charter schools, for-profit schools, and so forth.

Rauch writes, "Poor, predominantly minority children attend dysfunctional and often dangerous schools." But when we say that a school is dysfunctional, we are looking only at the symptom. The failure lies not with the school but with the community. The community is failing, is dysfunctional, if it is not demanding that the best teachers be hired and be paid accordingly, if it is not demanding that parents prepare their children to do their best in school, if it permits children to spend more than twenty hours a week on sports and work, if parents do not require that homework be finished before the TV is turned on. Perhaps that community needs pre-pre-kindergarten, and year-round school six days a week, to overcome the educational deficits of the parents. Otherwise the community is blaming the schools for the unsolved and unadmitted problems that originate in the homes of that community.

Fred Powell

Middlebury, Vt.

Jonathan Rauch errs in his argument about the positive effects of vouchers on poor and minority students. New Zealand's experience stands as the largest and oldest case study. In the early 1990s New Zealand granted all public schools complete operational autonomy and at the same time abolished attendance zones. Parents could apply to any school in the country. Vouchers followed students to their school of choice. Within a short time the best schools filled up and became highly selective in their admissions and retention policies. Hard-to-teach students, disproportionately poor and minority, were turned away and forced to return to their schools of origin. As a result, schools became significantly more polarized along ethnic and socioeconomic lines than before. Seeing the dire results, the government began to back away. New Zealand is not the United States, but it shares many of our values and traditions. Moreover, it has a sizable minority population of Maoris and Pacific Islanders, many of whom live in the inner cities. The country is still trying to recover from its grand experiment with vouchers.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

Life's Work

In her review of Lisa Belkin's Life's Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom ("The Mother Load," October Atlantic), Caitlin Flanagan pokes fun at the author's guilt and ambivalence over combining work with child-rearing. Further, she suggests, "The day will come when a modern American mother can spend sixty hours a week apart from her children without a second thought; it's almost here. Whether this day will represent a cultural advance—or a human one—is highly debatable."

I would argue that the book and the review share two fundamental but flawed assumptions about the way the world must be. First, both writers assume that child-rearing is a woman's task, not a parental task—that women, rather than parents, must make choices. Second, both writers assume that a sixty-hour week is a prerequisite for a career of note.

We will make real progress on arranging matters of family and work when we question these assumptions and shape a culture in which they are invalid. Men as well as women need and deserve the opportunity to contribute to family life and to make choices about how to balance it with work. And we need to recognize that Americans—all Americans—work too many hours. We work more hours than Europeans, even more hours than Japanese, and we have family-leave policies that citizens of other countries find horrifying.

Nora S. Newcombe

Merion, Pa.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

My review of Life's Work does not assume that child-rearing is solely a mother's responsibility; it merely comments on Lisa Belkin's attitude about motherhood. Furthermore, I have good news for Nora Newcombe: upper-middle-class men and women do have choices—lots of them—about how to combine work and parenthood. That so many of these well-educated professionals willingly arrange their lives so that they spend less time with their own children than the working poor spend with theirs seems to me a curious decision.