Here’s a good indicator of how the mainstream media look at the religion the great majority of Americans hold. The headline writer for E! News felt constrained to put the word prayers in scare quotes in the headline of a story on actor Dennis Quaid:
Quaid Seeks "Prayers" for Ailing Babies
The article reported on a grave illness facing the newborn twin children of Quaid and his wife, and noted that the actor’s representative had sent the following statement to E! News: "Dennis and Kimberly appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers and hope they can maintain their privacy at this difficult time."
The word prayers deals with a phenomenon the editors at E! News find so foreign and dubious that they feel a need to encase it in what are called scare quotes, to ensure that readers do not think the publication endorses such a mad concept.
As the Wikipedia notes, the use of scare quotes "is often intended to provoke a negative association for the word or phrase enclosed in the quotes, or at least a suspicion about the appropriateness or full truth that might be presumed if the quotes were omitted."
Clearly the quotes were not being used as a means of attributing the word to Quaid, for two reasons.
One, it’s perfectly clear that the headline is referring to Quaid’s request, so no quotes should be used. Note that in the headline on the Nov. 26 E! News story, "Lost’s Kim Pleads Not Guilty," the words not guilty are not enclosed in quotes.
Two, the headline does not refer to an actual quote from Quaid or even express an action attributed to him in the story! The use of the word prayers was by Quaid’s representative, not Quaid himself.
That E! News thinks all sorts of very strange behaviors are perfectly all right and don’t need to be enclosed in scare quotes, but thinks prayer is something it cannot risk its readers think it takes seriously, says a lot about that publication and what it thinks of its audience. It also reveals a lot about where our culture is today.
Update (11/27, 4:10 pm.): Interestingly, a couple of readers of the E! News article pointed out in the comments section the oddness of the use of quotes around the word prayers in the headline (although they did not know the journalistic significance of the use of such quotes, being non-journalists, and did not recognize that the word in quotes attributed to Quaid is not said by Quaid in the story), as I found out shortly after writing this piece. To see the readers’ comments, click here.