Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grieving with God... or not

There's a great editorial on CNN entitled, "Why must the nation grieve with God?" It discusses the apparent expectation that whenever there is a national tragedy, we must all come together to pray. From the editorial:

"Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

"We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for 'calling them home' seems beyond the pale...

"...the question that needs to be asked is why, as a nation, do we have to institutionalize the notion that religion must play a central role at such times, with the president as the clergyman-in-chief?"

Exactly. No one would argue that many people derive comfort from their religion in times of grief. But having the president offer prayers, without even acknowledging that some of us don't worship a deity, is more annoying than comforting. The endless discussion of religion in the media doesn't help, either. Some members of the families of the victims may not be religious, and there are certainly nonreligious people in America trying to come to grips with this tragedy. Offering some thoughts of a more humanistic nature might help comfort them. Offering religion up as the only possible consolation doesn't.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A menorah, but no Christmas tree

Oddly enough, a local city park in Virginia Beach, where I grew up, has displayed a menorah every Hanukkah since 1981, but Christian symbols there have been erratic (at various times there have been a nativity scene and a Christmas tree, but no one has bothered to do it regularly). It appears that the menorah is provided by a Jewish group that says it's "publicizing the Chanukah miracle." Someone this year asked about it, and the city told him he could put up a display, with the caveat that if he used lights, he had to provide an electric generator and $500,000 worth of liability insurance (this is probably why the Jewish group is the only one to have bothered). He did so, and now there's a Christmas tree up there, too.

This is interesting to me because the menorah has been there for years and years, and no one's argued about it. (In Googling, I did find one editorial about it, mostly complaining that if we evil atheists argue about nativity scenes, we should argue about this, too-- a point I find hard to dispute, even though I disliked the editorial in general.) It's prominent, too, being displayed along the major interstate that runs to the Virginia Beach waterfront. One of the articles adds, "Those interested in displaying a symbol - a menorah, Christmas tree or manger scene, for example - must apply with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, which takes requests on a first-come basis." It appears that the city has no awareness that religious symbols in a public park may be a problem. After all, it's a tradition.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fox News talks about evolution

A surprisingly positive video from Fox News about evolution, letting Bill Nye talk quite a bit and explain his position, is here. The best argument the host comes up with is arguing that 46% of Americans believe in young-earth creationism (which Nye points out means we simply aren't teaching science well enough), and the comment, "There's no evidence of that spark that created actual life... why can't that be God?"... an observation which is irrelevant to a discussion about evolution vs. creation. But as far as I can tell (as a nonwatcher of Fox News), John Stossel seems to be a libertarian rather than a religious right-winger, so that probably accounts for it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it

According to a recent survey, "Thirty-six percent of Americans say that the severity of recent natural disasters indicate that we are at the precipice of Jesus’ second coming and the end of the world." Fifteen percent believe the world will end during their lifetimes.

What a scary and negative world these theists live in. If there's one thing I'd really like to eradicate about religion, it's the idea that God is a savage, capricious monster who's going to wipe out the world just for the hell of it. All too often, the fundamentalist version of God makes me think of Q, but without the sense of humor.

I know that these theists would assert that some people (probably including themselves) will be saved, and that the "end times" are proof of God's glory and mercy, rather than proof that he's a vicious son-of-a-bitch-- but to me, it seems like an infinitely depressing viewpoint. What's the point in working for a better world if God can just get up one morning and decide to wipe it all out? And why would anyone worship such a nasty, destructive deity, anyway? Would you really want to go to a heaven where perfectly decent people were excluded and left to burn in torture forever, just because of their religious beliefs, or because they just didn't measure up somehow? I sure wouldn't.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Proof of Noah!

Just as I suggested in this post, some people are already taking the "Noah's flood" story as proof of the Bible. Case in point, the always precise and careful journalism of Fox News:

"Robert Ballard, the underwater archaeologist famed for discovering the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, claims to have found evidence of the biblical flood that Noah fled, surfing the waters for 40 days and 40 nights, according to Genesis. He says the Black Sea was once merely a freshwater lake -- until an enormous wall of water from the Mediterranean 200 times more powerful than Niagara Falls swept it and everything else away. Including Noah and his ark."

The Fox article links to the ABC article I cited previously, and if you can read above kindergarten level, you already know that's really not what the ABC article says. Nowhere does it claim that the archaeologist actually thinks he's going to find Noah's ark, or proof that Noah himself actually existed, or even that it was a worldwide flood, as the Bible indicates. What Ballard seems to be saying is that there was an abrupt flood in the Black Sea region, precipitated by the melting of glacial ice, which eventually inspired the stories of Noah and Utnapishtim.

Of course, none of this means that six-hundred-year-old Noah actually existed, that God wiped out all humans but eight, or that there was a magical ark that could somehow hold two specimens of every species on the planet. Ballard doesn't seem to be claiming any of this, but because of ABC's sloppy "reporting" (designed to promote their special rather than to clearly convey facts), it's pretty much inevitable that credulous fundamentalists and the brilliant reporters of Fox News will jump on this and claim it as "proof."

More on Santa Monica

Here's a good editorial explaining why it's not a tragedy for Santa Monica to have its nativity scenes relegated to private property, and pointing out that it's not only atheists who find such displays on public land inappropriate:

"The First Amendment includes two key clauses. One protects the right of every American to the "free exercise" of his or her religion. The other prohibits a government "establishment" of religion. Together they reflect a philosophy that has served us well over the past two centuries: that the best protection for religion and religious people is to give the individual both the power and freedom to practice as they choose, and to give the government neither. The idea that not having a religious display in a public park threatens religion is, to me, ludicrous. Christianity is strong enough in Santa Monica to survive the threat of a handful of atheists. There are many, many private places — shopping malls a block away, churchyards, front yards and the rest — where the birth of Jesus is celebrated."

Exactly. It's always nice to see that some people who aren't atheists "get it."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Evidence Noah's Flood Happened"... not so much

ABC (which is, not coincidentally, promoting a show called "Back to the Beginning," about the so-called history of the Bible) starts off an article entitled "Evidence Noah's Flood Happened" thusly: "The story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood is one of the most famous from the Bible, and now an acclaimed underwater archaeologist thinks he has found proof that the biblical flood was actually based on real events." The article is accompanied by a photo that's a "replica of Noah's biblical boat."

Thousands of fundamentalists probably read exactly that far, and no further. But of course if you read further, you discover that the archaeologist in question is talking about floods not caused by the wrath of God, but by the melting of the ice caps. He has found a submerged city in the Black Sea, and says there may have been an abrupt flood in that region, and "the land that went under stayed under."

According to the article, "The theory goes on to suggest that the story of this traumatic event, seared into the collective memory of the survivors, was passed down from generation to generation and eventually inspired the biblical account of Noah."

All very fascinating, but of course it's not "proof" of anything. One could just as easily claim it's "proof" of the story of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh, except that if you wrote that, most people wouldn't know what you were talking about (and it also wouldn't help ABC promote its special). It's not a new idea, anyway. Most scholars believe that the Noah story, as well as other flood stories, are derived from some historical flood or floods. The only thing new about this idea is that this was supposedly a quick rush of water around the "right" time (5000 BC or thereabouts), and that there is actually a shoreline to excavate down there.

Down near the bottom, the author of the article admits, "Ballard does not think he will ever find Noah's Ark, but he does think he may find evidence of a people whose entire world was washed away about 7,000 years ago." Fascinating, but hardly "proof" of the biblical flood story. But how many fundamentalists will hold this up as an example of science "proving" the Bible? Probably quite a few.

Yep, that's unconstitutional, all right

Sometimes it amazes me that it requires a judge to determine that something is unconstitutional. This is one of those times: "A federal judge ruled that North Carolina's new 'Choose Life' license plates are unconstitutional because the state does not offer a pro-choice alternative."

Basically, these plates offer citizens an opportunity to express their opinion on abortion, and "the legislation also mandated that money raised from the sale of the specialty plates would go to a nonprofit that supports crisis pregnancy centers." All of which would be fine, except "North Carolina lawmakers voted down amendments that would have created pro-choice alternatives such as 'Trust Women. Respect Choice.'" This amounts to legislators promoting one political point of view and suppressing another. It doesn't take a judge to see that's wrong.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Atheists are communists, and other howlers

This opinion piece on Fox News about the Charlie Brown Christmas play and the Santa Monica nativity scene gets it all wrong, quite spectacularly. It states that atheists are seeking to "destroy the spirit of Christmas" (trying to stop governmental bodies from promoting a particular religion is not the same as trying to eradicate Christian displays on private property). It claims Charles Schulz was "no stranger to standing firm on faith" (yes, he did insist on that long Biblical quote remaining in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but the author ignores or is unaware that by the eighties he stated that he'd "come around to secular humanism"). It twice dismisses atheists as a "vocal minority" (polls show that unbelievers are a rapidly growing group, and besides, that's irrelevant anyway-- rights apply to everyone, not just the majority group). It falls back on the hoary old chestnut of stating "Atheism is part of the Communist and Socialist doctrines." It even laughably cites David Barton as an authority. In short, it reads almost like a parody or a Poe, but since it's on Fox, I'm guessing it's intended seriously.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Santa Monica's nativity scene

The Christians in Santa Monica are getting around the ban on nativity scenes in the public park by participating in living nativity scenes and singing, not to mention handing out cocoa and cookies. This doesn't count under the ban, as it's not a permanent display (though it's going on from now till December 23).

Quotes from Christians involved:

"The nativity scenes have been a positive thing for the whole community... and we want to keep it that way."

"We're here to communicate the true message of Christmas, which is Jesus."

"We just want to give back to the community and share with them what we believe is the true message of Christmas."

Note again that the previously displayed nativity scenes are still going to be visible, just on private land. So it's not as if Christmas has been exiled from the city of Santa Monica forever. But to listen to these people, you'd think the lack of a nativity scene was a catastrophe that must be remedied at once.

I'm no lawyer, but I would think this would certainly be permissible as free speech (though one would think a permit might be required for something of this duration and magnitude). But of course if the city doesn't object, then atheists also have a right to go hand out cocoa and cookies in the park and put on a display.  They should put up a sign: Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies!

"There is no scientific debate on the age of the Earth"

When asked about the age of the Earth last month, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida answered less than brilliantly: "At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries."

He stated today that he was taken aback by a sudden shift in the conversation, and didn't feel he'd explained himself adequately because he was "caught off guard." In today's comments, he firmly repudiated young-Earth creationism: "There is no scientific debate on the age of the earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively, it’s at least 4.5 billion years old...I was referring to a theological debate, which is a pretty healthy debate. The theological debate is, how do you reconcile with what science has definitively established with what you may think your faith teaches...Now for me, actually, when it comes to the age of the earth, there is no conflict.” 

Here, slightly different quotes clarify further: "Science says it’s about four and a half billion years old, and my faith teaches that that’s not inconsistent...I still believe God did it...that’s how I’ve been able to reconcile that and I think it’s consistent with the teachings of my church. But other people have a deeper conflict and I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever we believe."

So he doesn't believe in YEC. Good for him. My only concern now is wondering what he means by "in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever we believe." I have no argument with this statement, as long as he is talking about my right to teach my children in my own home (I sincerely doubt many people in America would argue with this concept). When I start trying to teach other people's kids wildly incorrect information via the public school system, however, then that becomes a problem. It's still not entirely clear to me what Rubio means here. As long as he isn't saying "creationism should be taught as an alternative to evolution in public schools because many Americans want it taught to their children," I have no further argument with him on the topic.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Update on the War on Charlie Brown Christmas

The church involved in the Charlie Brown Christmas play uproar (which I previously talked about here) has cancelled its matinee performance (which was apparently aimed solely at schoolchildren). The pastor didn't hesitate to whine about it, though (note that this is Fox News, hence the ridiculously biased and overwrought terms such as "plight," and the headline blaming the cancellation on "atheist outrage"):

"The story brought national attention to the plight of church members — who simply wanted to put on a special holiday presentation for school children. 

"Caldwell (the church's pastor) praised what he called the 'courageous stand' that the school’s principal took in 'not succumbing to the pressure of one complaint voice to the Arkansas Society of Free Thinkers and the media.' 

"He said it was clear 'Merry Christmas Charlie Brown' did not pose a constitutional issue.

Of course, right after that the article adds, apparently without irony:

“'Christmas is a Christian holiday — hence it’s (sic) name – Christmas,' the pastor wrote in his statement. 'Our program addresses its origins with light-hearted songs and theatre. The context of the birth of Christ is broadly described in both Old and New Testament texts.'”

Well, golly, that clarifies it. Of course there's no constitutional issue here. It's a program describing the birth of Christ in overtly Biblical terms, and a performance targeted specifically at public schoolchildren. How on earth could those silly atheists think there's anything unconstitutional here?


Vandalism of religious symbols

A large menorah displayed in Miami Beach (described in the video as a "tradition") has been vandalized with the words "You killed Jesus." It's been torn down three times in its history, and was first vandalized eleven years ago to the day. The article indicates it's in a "public space," but it's not clear to me whether they mean public in the general sense (as in where people can see it), or on government-owned land. Judging from the video, I suspect it's actually on private land, but it's hard to tell. (This article says that the Miami Beach Chabad house is "responsible for the display," but that still doesn't clarify the question.) It's also not clear to me whether there are other religious symbols there (outside of a dreidel, mentioned in this article). If it's on private land, there is no reason any other religion should be represented. If it's on government land and there are no other religious symbols on display, it shouldn't be there, but that certainly doesn't justify the nasty vandalism and the ugly message.

Toning down the religious message

From this article: "Viewed by many voters as anti-science and too conservative on social issues such as gay marriage, the Republican Party is in danger of losing young and less religious voters for years to come." The article discusses how even young evangelicals are changing (less worried about the supposed "war on religion," more worried about climate change) and suggests that the Republicans will become increasingly irrelevant if they don't moderate their tone and message.

Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said, "We plan to reach out with a softer, pro-family agenda—less emphasis on the sexual points, more talk about family." (As if they don't talk about family enough-- whenever you see an organization with the word "family" in it, you can be almost certain it's a group with a strong evangelical flavor.) Alas, he added, "It is true that gay rights activists have stolen that language of 'family' we've used successfully, and now use it for their purposes."

Stolen? Really? Who knew that term could only be used by conservatives? I would say it hasn't been "stolen," but rather reappropriated by some liberals, who are probably pretty damn tired of seeing it (and words like "marriage") misused.

More on "conversion therapy"

According to this article, "A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked California from enforcing a first-of-its-kind law that bars licensed psychotherapists from working to change the sexual orientations of gay minors, but he limited the scope of his order to just the three providers who have appealed to him to overturn the measure."

The judge's reasoning seems to have been that psychotherapists' First Amendment rights outweigh the rights of minors not to be put in danger. Uh... what? First of all, I'm certainly no lawyer, but I don't see the First Amendment as applying to psychotherapy. Psychotherapy isn't an expression of opinion; it's a way of helping patients. The question here should simply be whether this form of therapy is efficacious or not.

And second of all, how on earth can the right of minors not to be harmed not be paramount? Freedom of speech has its limits; the old example of not shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater seems to apply here. My freedom of speech rights don't extend to the right to actively harm others. I don't see why these people's First Amendment rights should outweigh the wellbeing of minors, either. But it appears the judge felt that the argument that conversion therapy does damage was based on "questionable and scientifically incomplete studies," so presumably that explains that. Never mind that according to the article, conversion therapy "has been rejected as unproven and potentially harmful by all the mainstream mental health associations." The judge apparently knows better than mental health associations.

In any event, this is only a temporary injunction until a trial can be held, though the judge did state he thought they should win the case on constitutional grounds-- and he's the one who will be holding the trial. One may hope that in the long run, sanity-- and the safety of minors-- will prevail. One suspects the case will have to go to appeal before that happens, though.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What war on men?

Here's an excellent response to Suzanne Venker's "addled rant" against feminism I posted about the other day, stating that most men "aren't nearly as unhappy or resentful as Venker suggests." My favorite paragraph:

"Truth is, in her efforts to exalt men, she actually insults us. Who says we can't be happy with fully equal female colleagues and coworkers? Who says we can't enjoy the joys of shared parenthood? Who says that we are biologically programmed to be both rapacious testosterone-driven animals and lazy remote-hogging couch potatoes unable to lift a finger in the kitchen?"

Good questions. Why would anyone in this day and age believe that most men are looking for June Cleaver clones? And even assuming there are men out there who want such wives, what self-respecting woman would want them?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The War on Christmas, Frosty style

It's hard to believe anyone would think a nativity scene belongs on a public school campus, but apparently a Florida town is up in arms after the local school decided not to put up a nativity scene this year. They're still acknowledging Christmas-- in a secular way, with Santa Claus and Frosty-- but evidently that's not enough.

A (thankfully) former board member said with a straight face, "There are people in the community that are threatening to sue the school board (over separation of church and state issues), and it costs a tremendous amount of money to defend something you know you will lose...It’s not that we’re against it; it’s just that the federal law prohibits it." She also called it a "tragic thing" and added, "I know it’s hard to see this happen, because it feels like we’re losing a freedom, but this is the state of affairs in this nation."

What people like this seem unable to understand is that it's a very good state of affairs. Why on earth would anyone think a nativity scene belonged on display at a public school?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Conservative arrogance

I got this as a forwarded email from a highly conservative family member today:
Do conservatives really believe that the country would fall apart without them? The level of arrogance and egotism here is truly breathtaking.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

God plays the lottery

Here's an article about people praying to win the lottery. There's a long discussion about whether this is "right" or not, but the article ignores the main issue-- if millions of people pray to win the lottery, but only one wins (or rather two), then there's no real efficacy in praying, is there?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rick Warren on gay marriage

Evangelical Rick Warren on gay marriage (video at link): "I have all kinds of natural feelings in my life, and it doesn't necessarily mean that I should act on every feeling.... Just because I have a feeling doesn't make it right."

He uses this as an analogy: "Sometimes... I feel attracted to women who are not my wife. I don't act on... just because I have a feeling doesn't make it right. Not everything natural is good for me."

Not exactly the same thing, is it? As a heterosexual, he's allowed to fall in love and find a significant other and marry. He can have that important human connection in his life without people telling him he's a sinner. Sure, by his lights he's not allowed to sleep around, but he has bonded deeply with another person and formed a family group. He has intimacy in his life, and can enjoy it without feeling guilt.

What he's saying is that gay people aren't sinning if they're attracted to others of the same sex, but only if they act on those attractions. (He's apparently ignorant of Jesus' own words: You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.) Effectively, what this means is that in order not to "sin" by Warren's rules, gay people must go through life not just celibate, but without ever making any sort of deep intimate connection with another person. They must go through life alone.

Personally, I'd prefer to live in a world where people could find significant others and form family groups and live the way they want to without being told that they're sinners for doing so.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Conversion therapy does not work"

Two men from orthodox Jewish families have filed suit against a gay conversion therapy center called JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, which was supposed to help gays "struggling with unwanted same-sex sexual attractions." It's a consumer fraud lawsuit, alleging that it increased the risk of "depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior," while providing no benefits. The descriptions of the "therapy" involved are really quite horrific. When one of the young men quit, the counselor warned him that he would "lead a life of unhappiness in that unhealthy lifestyle," which is ironic considering how awful the therapy sounds.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Surrender to your femininity (and become June Cleaver)

Here's an absurd feminism-bashing opinion piece from Fox News. Feminism, it posits, is good for men but bad for women, because while it allows men access to free sex (which is somehow not a benefit for women), it harms women by leaving them "saddled with the consequences of sex" and unable to find a man to marry. Men, you see, are justifiably angry with women because they're not women any more.

From the article: "...the so-called rise of women has not threatened men. It has pissed them off. It has also undermined their ability to become self-sufficient in the hopes of someday supporting a family. Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA. But modern women won’t let them."

Uh-huh. Of course. When I look around, I never see guys in the workplace any more *rolls eyes*. Have men all been replaced by female workers while I wasn't looking? Or is the point more that men are threatened (or rather "pissed off") when their wives work, and would like their wives to stay at home and become June Cleaver?

The article ends with this absurd statement: "Fortunately, there is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs.

"If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork."

It isn't clear exactly what we have to do to surrender to "nature" and "femininity," but I'm thinking June Cleaver (or possibly the Stepford Wives) again. Whatever the point may be, I can safely say I wouldn't be interested in a guy who thinks that feminism and the equal treatment of women are some sort of problem. It's no skin off my nose if those guys don't want to get married-- who wants them anyway? What the author of the article fails to understand is that there's a reason those guys crawled into the woodwork to begin with.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Porn is just a substitute for God

This article both amused and annoyed me. Full disclosure: This kind of thing tends to get my back up because I'm a writer of erotic romance (better written than 50 Shades, in my humble opinion, but alas, with slightly fewer sales:-). I admit I'm not a 50 Shades fan, but more because I don't care for the submissive young woman angle than because I have any objection to sexytimes.

The basic premise of the article is that when we read erotica, we're not really looking for sexual titillation, but rather a closer relationship with God. The author says, "We are both spiritual and sexual beings. And behind every sexual longing, I believe there’s an even deeper spiritual longing." She also cites familiar fundamentalist ideas: "... when we divorce physical pleasure from emotional connection, such as when we selfishly strive for orgasm through pornography, masturbation or illicit sexual encounters rather than cultivating sexual ecstasy with our marriage partner, sexual ecstasy is only 'half-baked.'" She states that she doesn't believe fantasy is evil, but the use of the word "selfish" clearly indicates that she wants to steer people away from reading erotica.  Perhaps it's not evil, but she obviously thinks it's wrong.

Are humans really "both spiritual and sexual beings"? Or are we simply evolved to enjoy sex because otherwise we wouldn't reproduce? If the latter is the case, then maybe we should learn not to think of erotica and masturbation as "selfish" and sinful, but simply as pleasant and natural human interests.

I admit to feeling dismay that this person describes herself as an "advocate for healthy sexuality and spirituality." I really dislike "experts" who go around telling people that masturbation and erotica are "selfish" and wrong, and that the only true path to sexual fulfillment is via marriage (and probably only the heterosexual variety, at that). Making people feel guilty about their normal sexual impulses leads to all sorts of bad outcomes, and in my view is far worse than reading erotica and enjoying it. "Healthy sexuality" includes masturbation, pornography, erotica, and all sorts of other things that would probably make this woman's hair curl.

In any event, when I write an erotic romance, I really don't believe I'm sublimating a desire to grow closer to a nonexistent deity. I write about sex because I like sex. I imagine my readers read my books because they like sex. There is nothing wrong or selfish with this, and it doesn't show a deeper longing for "spiritual" contact. It simply means that humans like sex, just as they are evolved to do.

Friday, November 23, 2012

God made her do it

God moves in mysterious ways... sometimes at 100 miles an hour. A Florida woman stopped for going 100 mph in a 30-mile-an-hour zone explained herself to the cops this way:

"...she was speeding 'because I was letting the Lord spirit guide me,' according to a police report. She attributed her lengthy horn blowing to 'the Lord telling me to do it.'"

She also struck two vehicles while evading the cops, which one supposes was also the Lord God's will. For some reason, the authorities failed to accept the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and charged her with reckless driving anyway.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The War on Charlie Brown Christmas

Here's the usual War-on-Christmas stuff from Fox News: Students at a Little Rock, Arkansas public school were invited to a performance of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" at a local church (and by invited, I mean notes were sent home from the school, and a school bus was to shuttle kids to and from the performance). Parents could opt out and students were not required to attend, but "at least one parent objected to the field trip and contacted the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, a self-described community of atheists, agnostics and humanists."

The article describes this as "a constitutional controversy." It is unclear from this article, however, what the Arkansas Society has done to spark a "controversy" besides posting about it on their Facebook page and talking to the local TV station (which you'd think conservatives would applaud, since they're supposedly such big supporters of free speech), and in fact the school system says there is no controversy. Perhaps the Arkansas Society is threatening to sue, but this is not stated in the article.

There are the usual complaints in the comments ("atheist(s) LOVE to ruin Christmas for everyone, especially kids," "Christmas is Christian holiday. If you don't like it get your own," and so forth and so on). But come on. Pretty much anyone who's ever lived in America for more than a couple of years is aware that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has a heavy-handed Christian message. By treating it as a field trip and using school buses to shuttle the kids back and forth, the school system is in fact giving the appearance of promoting Christianity. And the school system knows they shouldn't do that; the communications director for the school system was quoted as saying "the school district does not 'promote or encourage students to support any religious affiliation.'"

No one is saying that parents shouldn't be allowed to let their kids watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on TV a thousand times, or that the church shouldn't be allowed to give the performance. They're simply pointing out the school should not appear to promote a performance with a strong religious message.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Case in point: a "historical" display

In my last post, I talked about how difficult it was to differentiate a truly "historical" monument from the argument, "We've been doing it this way for years! Waaaah!" Fox News illustrates by bashing atheists for asking that there not be a "14-scene Christian diorama" set up by churches in a public park-- something that seems pretty egregiously unconstitutional to me, but which is being defended for this reason: "It's a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home, something like our savior had to hunt for a place to be born because the world was not interested."

Uh-huh. That's sad. Very sad. Why don't the churches involved simply use their own land? No one is saying they can't. Of course they can. So what's the big deal? Presumably because it's a "60-year-old tradition," atheists just need to sit down and shut up. Who cares if it's constitutional? It's tradition!

This particular debate has been covered extensively on Friendly Atheist. Basically what it seems to boil down to is that the city tried to do the right thing by offering a lottery. Atheists won most of the slots, and used their spaces to put up (what I personally think were obnoxiously in-your-face) anti-religious displays. Most of the displays were vandalized, and an uproar ensued. The city has tried to avoid the entire issue, quite sensibly, by stopping this tradition-- which, not incidentally, has earned Santa Monica the title "the City of the Christmas Story."

The article goes on to say, "The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee argues in its lawsuit that atheists have the right to protest, but that freedom doesn't trump the Christians' right to free speech." Perhaps, but if the city has to go back to allowing nativity scenes, I hope they'll also be compelled to put up other displays-- and that atheists will try a little harder to produce more serious and less antagonistic displays.

It's worth noting, however, that Fox News engages in rather typical wild-eyed rhetoric by suggesting atheists are "push(ing) Christmas out of the city of Santa Monica" in the first paragraph, as if when the city decided not to allow these religious displays in a public park, they had banned Christmas entirely. Look out, citizens of Santa Monica! Those wicked atheists will be coming for your Christmas trees and your wreaths next!

ETA: When Friendly Atheist picked this up, he linked to the very same story in the Washington Post. It's an AP story, so any slant can't be blamed on Fox News. It's sad when I can't tell AP reporting from Fox News reporting.

Friday, November 16, 2012

More on historical crosses

A commenter who identifies himself as a Riverside atheist who supported keeping the cross commented on the situation over at the Friendly Atheist blog:

"Mt. Rubidoux was originally owned by Riverside Pioneer Frank Miller, he built the cross as a monument to Father Serra who was a very important person in early California history.  President Taft commemorated the Serra Monument in 1909.  Frank Miller and the Miller family owned Mt. Rubidoux until the 1955 when he gifted it to the City of Riverside as a park with a 30 year condition that the Cross remain in place...  

"As an atheist I see the Serra Monument in a proper historical context and can observe that this was important to many of the early settlers of my community even if I no longer believe in the religion which they did.   There are many other churches and religious icons on public property which are maintained to to their historical importance."    

He likens tearing down the cross to the radical Muslim removal of statues and monuments (which I discussed here). It's an interesting point. There are crosses and religious monuments with sufficient historical gravity that they should probably remain on public land (I'll again throw out the Cape Henry cross in Virginia Beach as an example). The Riverside cross seems particularly difficult to me because it seems to loom over the town in a really dominating way (the Cape Henry cross is actually on a military installation, and you have to show ID and registration just to be allowed to see it).

I would not like to see atheists become so radical that we advocate tearing down genuine historical artifacts. The problem is that the "history" argument gets pulled out too readily by those with Christian privilege-- for example, all those Ten Commandments monuments left over from the 'fifties are supposedly "historical" and thus sacrosanct. It can be quite difficult to differentiate between a monument with genuine historical significance, and one that is not really of any historical value or interest.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Of crosses and history

From Fox News comes this story of Riverside, a California city, which is being challenged by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State because it displays a thirty-five-foot cross on city land. One citizen wondered, "It’s been up there for over a hundred years, so why is this happening now?" Which is exactly why stuff like this has to be challenged-- because if it isn't, then it becomes "historical" and people argue that it must be kept. The citizen undercut his "historical" case a bit by adding, "Anything that has to do with Jesus Christ or our Christian faith – people are always going to have a problem." But the problem isn't that it's a Christian symbol, but that it's a Christian symbol on public land.

A columnist for the newspaper echoed the historical line of thinking when he wrote, "It’s not about religion. It’s about history." It is unclear, however, what is "historical" about the cross aside from the fact that it's been there a long time. I've blogged before about Virginia Beach's Cape Henry cross, and its image on the Virginia Beach city seal, which perhaps could justify the argument that "it's historical," based as it is on the supposed actions of the first Englishmen to stand on that spot. But what's the big historical story behind the Riverside cross? The article doesn't explain. It does mention that the cross is "home to one of the nation’s longest running Easter Sunrise services," which would seem to emphasize the idea that it's about, you know, religion.

The Riverside newspaper has a slightly more balanced article, admitting that not everyone in the area approves of the cross. "Some speakers (at the city council meeting) quoted the Bible and questioned why some religions are openly recognized while Christian symbols are under attack. But others said as non-Christians, they see the cross as excluding them." One man was quoted as saying, "The cross holds no religious significance to me. It's all part of the mountain as it is." But the fact that others quoted the Bible suggests that many see it as the religious symbol it is.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The destruction of idols

This is fairly horrifying-- Islamic fundamentalists are calling for the destruction of the Pyramids and the Sphinx:

"Weeks after the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi entered office as Egyptian President, calls began to rise for the destruction of those 'symbols of paganism' -- the Egyptian Pyramids.

 "That was in late June and early July, but following last week's U.S. presidential election, Islamic clerics again demanded the destruction of one of the Seven Wonders of the World."

Here, Murjan Salem al-Johari is quoted as saying,"Muslims must implement the rules of Sharia and we will destroy the statues of Sphinx and the Pyramids because they are idols."

Wow. It's horrifying to consider that religious extremists would want to destroy some of the most glorious relics of the ancient world. It's even more horrifying to consider that they might succeed. It's hard for Americans to imagine that anyone thinks this way-- at least it's hard for me to imagine-- but fundamentalist Muslims have destroyed other historical monuments (such as the 1500-year-old Buddha statues in Afghanistan) without remorse.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Romney's loss

There's a very good article here offering a possible explanation for why Romney lost-- a perception of GOP extremism that turned off moderate voters. "...even a clumsy candidate might have beaten Obama if not for a simple factor that could not be overcome: the GOP’s growing extremism...the party has to present a more conciliatory and reasonable face to sell itself to swing voters. To do that, it must elevate its own moderate voices, cut loose its theocrats, and liberate itself from the domination of Tea Party know-nothings."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More on voting in churches

To follow up on my last post, here's a well-written article on why we should stop using churches as polling places, from the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Although federal law prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, they have the right to speak out on ballot referenda and on other issues, from abortion to zoning. All of this church-based political activity makes me uneasy about casting ballots in houses of worship, especially those festooned with political signs."

Case in point: This church, which chose to leave up a huge anti-abortion display although (or perhaps because) it was being used as a polling place. The election coordinator had been told they'd take it down, but the church decided to leave it up instead. Technically it did not break the law, but some voters unsurprisingly found it "offensive." The election coordinator said, "We feel badly that we didn't realize that this wasn't going to be taken down this weekend, otherwise I would have tried to make other accommodations... After you advertise a polling place, it's very difficult to change."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I voted

This morning I voted at the local polling place-- the police/fire station. Behind me in line, people were complaining about the lack of parking (a valid complaint-- I had to park out on the street and walk quite a distance, even though the line was short enough that it only took me half an hour to vote). Being fairly new to the area, I asked them where the previous polling was done, and they told me it had been at a Baptist church.

I'd like to think this suggests Virginia is phasing out using churches as polling places, but my father told me his polling place is a Presbyterian church. So maybe not.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"Judeo-Christian values"

In a conference call with evangelical voters (sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition-- see this post for more about them), Paul Ryan said yesterday that re-electing Obama would put us on "a dangerous path...a path that grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great an (sic) exceptional nation in the first place."

It's no surprise that Paul Ryan, and the evangelical voters he was appealing to, believe this country is all about "Judeo-Christian values." Presumably those of us who hold other values need to sit down and shut up, or possibly leave the country entirely. I doubt those Deist Enlightenment thinkers would have been welcome, either.

He also said, "...that's how the Lord sustains me...It's the prayer from my pastor, my family, with my family, and also it's the prayers that are offered to me from perfect strangers that I know are out there praying, for Mitt and myself, and our families, and our families are doing great." I guess no one was praying for the Northeast when Sandy hit, or presumably they'd all be "doing great" too. Or is it only politicians God looks after?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

On souls

I posted the following comment on a post on Friendly Atheist about "the illogical concept of souls," and thought it was articulate enough to repost here:

As a Lutheran, I believed in souls. But I also realized that if I had a soul, my dogs certainly did too-- and in fact they stood a much better chance of making it into heaven, being far more worthy than I am (aside from a certain sinful habit of stealing food off the counters). They seemed clearly self-aware to me, if not as mentally advanced as humans, and so I would have declined to go to any heaven that wouldn't let my dogs in.

I no longer believe in souls. It was one of the hardest things about religion to give up, though. I liked the comfort of believing I'd see my husband again. But alas, what's comforting is not necessarily realistic. It seems obvious to me now that self-awareness is tied into the brain, and does not outlast it. In fact I find it difficult to understand why I ever thought differently. The things we can convince ourselves to believe...

The Prince of Egypt

Back when we were Lutheran, The Prince of Egypt was one of our favorite movies. One of my daughters requested that we see it this week, so we pulled it out, dusted it off, and watched it. I still enjoy the music and the animation, but the religious content-- errrrghhh.

I remember trying to justify God's actions to my kids as a Christian, but even as a believer it wasn't easy. (Some people have no such reservations; this review applauds the movie, saying, "The triumphant result is a story that Christians can wholeheartedly applaud: a magnificent retelling of the Exodus story that gives full credit to the saving works of God.") God, in Exodus as well as in The Prince of Egypt, is no better than the Pharaoh, and quite arguably worse-- he visits pain and suffering on innocents, and both the first Pharaoh and God slaughter children with no apparent remorse.

God is also noticeably a small god, not an omnipotent one-- he doesn't know whom to smite and whom to pass over without a little guidance from lamb's blood, and he doesn't simply do the obvious thing, which would be to appear to Pharaoh himself and avoid all that messy plague business. And it's interesting to note that one of God's lines from the Bible regarding the tenth plague (And there shall be a great cry in all of Egypt, such as never has been or ever will be again!) is attributed to Rameses. When the line sounds equally reasonable coming from the mouth of God and the villain of the movie, you have a problem.

In short, I don't think watching The Prince of Egypt, or reading Exodus, is likely to create believers out of my kids. If you watch it with an open mind, it leaves you reeling with shock that anyone could possibly believe that God is one of the good guys.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Yesterday on the interstate, I drove past a huge truck with enormous pictures of an aborted ten-week fetus (or so the text indicated) plastered all over it. It was for an organization called, which says on its website that its mission is "graphically exposing the injustice of abortion." In other words, grossing out people in the hopes of evoking a visceral response.

Yes, it was a pretty disgusting image. But a removed tumor would be just as gross, and I wouldn't want to see a huge image of that on a truck, either. Emotional appeals are what you pull out when you're unable to make a solid logical argument.

Friday, November 2, 2012

On being an atheist

When I started this blog about a year ago, I was trying to still balance myself between the atheist and Lutheran labels (hence the name of the blog). I didn't believe in Christianity any longer, but I still felt some attachment to the church I'd been involved with for years, and felt that I should probably expose my children to religious education to a certain degree. I no longer feel that way. I don't go to church or take communion, and my children know how I feel (and they don't express any longing for church, either). We talk about religion, but my children are picking up my anti-religious bias, which is perhaps unavoidable.

What about my family? Well, the interesting thing is that when we moved here three years ago, it was taken for granted that we would go to the family church, where everyone else goes. But I was too ill for a long time to attend regularly, and when I felt better, I realized no one else in the family was going, either. They don't even go for Christmas Eve services, which was the family tradition for a long time, and no one talks about religion any more. As far as I know, they're all still believers-- but far from devoted ones. I suspect my husband's death undermined their belief, too. Under the circumstances, I really don't feel a need to explain myself to them. That old saying about letting those without sin cast the first stone seems to apply here. If they ask, I'll tell them, but since two of my children have not been through confirmation classes, it seems that they surely must suspect at this point. Perhaps they really don't want to know for sure.

I do sometimes consider the path that led to my deconversion. My husband's death was a major factor, certainly, exacerbated by my pastor's feeble efforts to explain that the evil in the world, and by extension his untimely death, was due to original sin (which made no sense, as no Lutheran I know believes in the literal truth of the Garden of Eden story). My daughter's intelligent and skeptical questions forced me to look at what I believed, and to find it lacking in logic. My long illness kept me away from church and gave me time to reflect, without having religion shoved down my throat every week.

But perhaps the most important factor was that we moved, which led to switching churches. I admit that I loved my old church. We had a lot of friends there, who supported us through my husband's illness, and I greatly enjoyed singing in the choir. (I am a solid but not spectacular alto, with a voice that sounds better in a chorus than as a solo.) We never attended the new church enough to feel that we belonged there, and I never got involved with the choir due to my illness. I wonder if it would have been as easy to walk away if we still attended our old church. I worry that I would still be nurturing strong doubts, but perhaps pushing them down into my subconscious, just so I could continue with the fun of singing every week. In short, I worry that under other circumstances, I would be a hypocrite.

Then again, maybe I'm not giving myself enough credit. Maybe eventually I would have walked away from our old church, too. I like to think that's the case, anyway.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Crushing irony

WWJTD posted a link to this story today. A New York man prayed at a crucifix for months, asking that his wife be cured of ovarian cancer. She eventually recovered, and he "attributed the cure to his devotion to that cross." In the spirit of gratitude, he got permission to clean the "long neglected" crucifix. Alas, the poorly maintained statue dislodged and toppled onto him, crushing his leg, which had to be amputated.

This is the sort of thing that can only be explained by either random chance, or a really capricious and mean-spirited god. I'm much happier believing the former.

Fox News and climate change

Pity poor Fox News. They try to deny the reality of climate change in this headline,  Dems push climate change issue in wake of Sandy, but some scientists skeptical, and yet if you read the article you learn that even they had a hard time finding skeptical scientists.

They did manage to get one meteorologist with NOAA, Martin Hoerling, saying "the immediate cause (of Sandy) is most likely little more that the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm." But notice he's not denying climage change, simply saying it wasn't the immediate cause. They also say he said "Sandy wasn’t boosted by global warming" and "the storm merely revealed natural forces at work," but these are not direct quotes, and may simply be someone's interpretation of his actual words. Without a direct quote it's hard to tell.

Other scientists quoted in the article are even less decisive: "The ingredients of this storm seem a little bit cooked by climate change, but the overall storm is difficult to attribute to global warming." This guy seems to be quite clearly saying that global warming was in fact a contributor, and he obviously believes warming exists, which makes him seem less "skeptical" than Fox probably intended.

The article ends on this wishy-washy note: "But the science is anything but clear cut. Michael Mann, a Penn State University scientist who has been studying the climate for decades, said that ocean waters were about 1 degree warmer thanks to manmade climate change, one factor that clearly caused Sandy to swell." In other words, it ends with a reference to a scientist who does firmly believe that climate change exists and impacted Sandy.

It makes you wonder if the headline writers at Fox News actually read the articles first.

ETA: Out of curiosity, I Googled Martin Hoerling (quoted above) and found this useful article. According to it, he is a contrarian who has "published several non-peer-reviewed reports as the lead of NOAA’s Climate Scene Investigators that claim global warming did not influence recent catastrophic extremes." He did, however, find that human-caused global warming was a factor in at least two recent events. So although he doesn't think global warming is at fault for every recent weather event, he does believe that human-caused global warming exists, and is the root cause of at least some events.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Well, this explains a lot...

A new study shows that humans are prone to seeing purpose in everything, and "that humans may have a bias for purpose-based reasoning that even scientists can't escape." Down in the article is this quote: "Even though advanced scientific training can reduce acceptance of scientifically inaccurate teleological explanations, it cannot erase a tenacious early-emerging human tendency to find purpose in nature. It seems that our minds may be naturally more geared to religion than science."

If "the God delusion" (or at least a conviction that the universe has purpose) is built into the human psyche, that would certainly help explain our desperation to hold onto religious ideas even when observed facts completely contradict them.

Atheists and "venom"

A post on the CNN Belief Blog talked about the online conversations people had about Sandy, and broke them down into four categories:

"1. God bless: It was a message expressed by well-wishers around the world....

 "2. Thank God: For those caught in Sandy’s path, the conversation was different...Those who could post online expressed gratitude...

"3. God’s wrath: A small minority saw Sandy as God’s judgement.

"4. God does not exist: Some used Sandy to question religion or at least the idea of blaming the storm on God, employing science, humor and venom."

See what they did there? Items #1 and 2 are presented as positive-- support, sympathy and gratitude are used to describe the posts. (Did no one offer support and sympathy without referring to God or prayers? I find this highly unlikely, but the writer seems to want us to believe it.)  Item #3 (which is by far the most horrible one listed) is presented without comment, which suggests a neutral stance on the part of the writer. Only item #4 gets negative editorializing thrown in: atheists may be funny, but they're also venomous. Bad atheists!

Frankly, I don't think the aftermath of a hurricane is really the time to be posting one's religious or anti-religious beliefs. A simple message of support (which does not have to include phrases like "God bless" or "my prayers are with you") seems more appropriate. Even so, I can understand the thought processes that led to this post: "Praying won't do any good. Send some aid or go volunteer if you really want to help. Talking to your imaginary friend won't do anything." Seeing so many people praise God after he supposedly sent devastation on such an epic scale is frustrating. The "God's judgment" quote, on the other hand, comes from Westboro Baptist Church. I can't understand the thought processes of anyone associated with that church at all, and don't wish to try.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A religious president

CNN Belief Blog has an article about President Obama's "deepening faith." In 2004, when asked if he prayed, he answered, "Uh, yeah, I guess I do." But now "a handful of spiritual advisers close to Obama say that his time in office has significantly deepened his faith." Interestingly, he seeks counsel from Kirbyjon Caldwell, a megachurch pastor who counseled George W. Bush. The article says that Obama "has become more evangelical in his habits" and "now begins each morning reading Christian devotionals on his Blackberry." The article hastens to add that he still has a liberal viewpoint and believes in the "social gospel," and resists labels such as "evangelical."

It is, of course, unclear how much of this is slightly exaggerated, given that we're in the last days before an election, and a lot of conservatives still cling to the notion that Obama is a Muslim, which misconception the administration would doubtless like to dispel. But given the fact that he's supposedly praying with a group of Christian ministers before his debates, and beginning each morning reading devotionals, one must assume there is a good deal of truth in the article.

I don't think one should base one's vote on a person's religion-- it's not as if there are a lot of atheists one can vote for anyway-- but religion does have an effect on how one governs. As Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, "I’d be remiss if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends... I must try - imperfectly, but I must try - to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation." Our religion, or lack thereof, helps define who we are.

And yet, as I've said before, I think we tend to interpret the Bible in the way that supports our own values, and thus our religion often follows from our values rather than the other way around. I suspect Obama's evolving religiosity presents no problem to liberals as long as his core values remain unchanged. And in any event, Romney is no less religious, and his religion has a more distinctly conservative flavor.

I doubt the president's deepening religion matters to liberals as long as his politics remain more or less consistent, and I very much doubt the more radical conservatives will ever believe Obama is not a Muslim. This issue, therefore, probably will not matter to the outcome of the election. But as an atheist, I admit it makes me a bit uncomfortable to have to decide between two men with such strong religious outlooks. All the effort they invest into their religion seems to me like a waste of time and energy that could better be expended on the real world. I hope to see more secularly-oriented politicians emerge on the national stage in the future.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


If this isn't depressing, I don't know what is: An AP poll has found that the majority of Americans harbor prejudice against blacks. "51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Written in the stars

Check it out: "Astronomers have catalogued 84 million stars at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy using an enormous cosmic photo snapped by a telescope in Chile, a view that is billed as the largest survey ever of the stars in our galaxy's core."

And that's just the bulge at the center of the galaxy, and just what we've managed to catalog so far! There are billions more stars in the Milky Way-- not to mention the other billions of galaxies out there. All those stars, many (if not most) with planets... who can look up into the unimaginably vast sky and really believe Earth was specially created by God?

The Huron Carol

The Huron Carol ("'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime") has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. My mom loved it and sang it every Christmas, and so I love it too. It's a bit of an obscurity in the Lutheran church, but I always used to pester my choir director to work it into the hymns once during the Christmas season, and she usually humored me and did so. I also have a lovely children's book with the words and illustrations, which I always used to pull out and sing to my younger kids at Christmas.

Last year, despite the fact that I was firmly in the atheist camp by that point, I got a great version of this hymn by the Canadian Tenors from iTunes. My oldest asked me why I wanted it, given my lack of belief, and I explained that it reminded me of my mother, and besides, a good story was still a good story. After all, we still read the Greek myths even though we don't see them as any sort of truthful reflection of reality. In any event, our family still celebrates Christmas, in a secular sort of way, and the kids ought to know where the holiday comes from (and yes, that includes learning about the pagan holidays the Christians ripped off, too!). And it is still a lovely song, which I enjoy belting out at the top of my lungs when no one's around to hear me.

Yesterday I broke house rules (which state no listening to Christmas songs till after Thanksgiving) and listened to the Huron Carol. It occurs to me that ironically, this hymn constitutes a very good proof that there is no God and no Christ. If you're not familiar with it, it's a song written by a Jesuit missionary in Canada, which supposedly put the Christmas story into a form the natives (the Huron) could understand and relate to. It was originally written in Huron as "Jesous Ahatonhia" ("Jesus, He is Born"), and the English translation begins like this:

'Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled 
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead
Before their light the stars grew dim 
And wondering hunters heard the hymn:
Jesus your King is born, 
Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria. 

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round 
But as the hunter braves drew nigh 
The angel song rang loud and high:
Jesus your King is born, 
Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

The English version was written in 1926-- entering public domain just last year-- and may not be a terribly faithful translation, for all I know. But the point nevertheless stands that the Huron had never heard of this story till the Jesuit missionaries told them about it. They had their own beliefs and their own gods. This song was of course designed to convert the natives and make them believe that Jesus was born for them as well as the rest of the world. But if that were really the case, and if Jesus' birth had truly been such a world-shaking event, then wouldn't God have already made this declaration to the Huron? Indeed, wouldn't he have told people everywhere?

Of course Christians will argue that he delegated them to spread the good news-- but that seems like a ridiculously ineffective means of spreading what is supposedly crucially important information over the face of the earth. It means that the Huron people weren't informed of this life-changing, soul-saving news until the 1600s. In other words, it took over a millenium and a half for them to learn about it. If Jesus mattered all that much, surely an omnipotent God who loved his creation so could do a better, more efficient job of getting the word out?

Ironically, this hymn meant to convert the Huron is a reminder that there is no God, and that Jesus (if he ever existed at all) didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.  If any of the mythology it presents so beautifully were true, then the Huron would already have known this story. A loving God would surely have seen to that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gasp! You mean this isn't a Christian nation??!

I don't listen to the radio much, and I particularly don't listen to the rednecky type of station if I can help it (I'm a classic rock sort of girl, not a talk radio and country gal). I was in a tack shop today, however, and heard an egregiously idiotic ad on the country station they had running. It announced it was paid for by the so-called Faith & Freedom Coalition, so I came home and Googled for it.

The full text can be found here, but it was about "Obama's war on religion," and this is what caught my ear: "Obama claimed in a Muslim country that America is not a Christian nation." Gasp! Seriously? The leader of this country actually dared to state that this is not a Christian nation? The horror! The horror!!!

The rest of it is stupid too (if Obama actually said Congress had better things to do than reaffirm "In God We Trust" on our money, he was entirely correct), but the idea that these people are trying to claim this as a Christian nation raises my hackles. You utter morons, what country do you think you're living in? Apparently it's not the same country I live in, because this is not a Christian nation. It's a secular one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

And yet more on yoga

There's a somewhat more extensive Yahoo article here. The lawyer involved elaborates on the "religious" aspects of the classes:

"'On the wall there was a poster that showed the Ashtanga, or 8-limbed deity. There are words showing what the limbs are,' he said. 'The ultimate goal is to be absorbed into the universe, which is called Samadhi. They had a poster depicting that. Fundamentally it is a Hindu religion being taught through Ashtanga yoga.'

 "Children are also being taught eastern meditation techniques to calm themselves, where one clears the mind of all thoughts, poses that were imparted by Hindu deities, and in one class were trained in drawing mandalas, according to Broyles."

Not a ringing endorsement for God

Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said Tuesday that a baby resulting from rape is a gift from God:

 "'I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happened (sic),' Mourdock said."

Good reason not to believe in God, isn't it? Of course, later he clarified:

"Mourdock further explained after the debate he did not believe God intended the rape, but that God is the only one who can create life. 'Are you trying to suggest somehow that God preordained rape, no I don't think that,' Mourdock said. 'Anyone who would suggest that is just sick and twisted. No, that's not even close to what I said.'"

Riiiiggghhhht, because "God intended it to happen" bears no resemblance to "God preordained rape" *scratches head in confusion*.

More on yoga

Friendly Atheist has a post on the California Ashtanga yoga story, too, with quite a few comments. There is a good deal of debate there over whether yoga must be taught with spiritual/superstitious components. However, the real point is that this class is being funded by the Jois Foundation, whose website is here. There is a good deal of pseudoscientific, superstitious info on that page, including some details about how yoga somehow generates "internal heat" which burns up "impurities in the body." Most atheists would, I suspect, be dismayed to see any class being taught by a Christian group that had such blatant pseudoscience on its website.

So, does this mean the classes as taught in California are unquestionably religious in nature, and thus unconstitutional? No. We don't have enough data to know exactly what's being taught there. I do think, however, that we have adequate information to understand the concern of the parents who are complaining and threatening legal action. A simple web search shows that this particular form of yoga does have some superstitious underpinnings, and most atheists wouldn't take the word of the school district that all religious aspects had been removed if it were a Christian group teaching the class. As a result, I honestly don't feel that these particular parents in this particular situation should be mocked.

Fitting the narrow view

There's a good editorial here by Roland Martin, a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, ripping on Billy Graham and his ilk for "perverting" the Bible:

"What has happened over the last 30 years is the religious right has perverted the Bible to fit its narrow view of what Christians should pay attention to. Abortion and homosexuality. Nothing else matters."

He suggests that those on the political left may be following "Biblical values" just as much:

"The teachings of Jesus Christ are filled with examples of him helping the needy, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and wounded, and taking the haves to task for ignoring the have-nots."

As Heinlein once said, "The Bible is such a gargantuan collection of conflicting values that anyone can prove anything from it." I suspect the values that readers draw from it say more about the readers than the Bible itself. That being the case, I'm annoyed by fundamentalists who think their view of the world is somehow more valid than anyone else's, all because their beliefs are supposedly biblically based. I don't think they've "perverted" the Bible so much as used parts of it to support their views, while Martin uses other parts of it in the same way. It might be easier if we just skipped the Bible and stood proudly on what we believe, simply because we think it's right.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Indoctrination in the schools

From Fox News again (yeah, yeah, I know, but it's a great place to find out how the more rabid theists think): Some parents in a California school district are concerned that their kids are being "indoctrinated" in eastern religions via free Ashtanga yoga classes (funded by the Jois Foundation, "a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga (sic) yoga"). The attorney called it "unconstitutional," even though the district insists that all religious content has been removed.

Having checked the Ashtanga Yoga site, though, I admit I can see where the parents are coming from. This page discusses spiritual practices associated with this form of yoga, and this discussion about why practitioners should not practice at certain phases of the moon is certainly less than scientific-- in fact I'd call it religious, or at least superstitious, in nature. If all the religious content has been removed, then why is the Jois Foundation still funding it? Is Ashtanga yoga still Ashtanga yoga if it's just poses and breathing?

I confess I'd be wary of this too, just as I'd be wary of a similar program funded by Christians, even if it supposedly had all the religious content removed.

On the removal of crosses

Fox News reports here that LSU sent out a photo of the Painted Posse, "Christian students who paint their bodies with LSU school colors and small crosses for home games," in an email about a football game. LSU Photoshopped out the crosses on their chests in an effort not to offend students of different beliefs. When called on it, they responded:

"'We don't want to imply we are making any religious or political statements, so we air-brushed it out,' the school said in a statement. 'Only one of the students, who didn't appreciate it, actually contacted us about it. So next time, we'll just choose a different photo.'

"Going forward, the school plans to steer clear of photos with religious overtones when it sends out emails promoting athletics."

I'm glad they've learned from their error. The school doesn't want to look as if it's promoting Christianity, and I applaud that. But Photoshopping out the crosses wasn't respectful to the students. Simply avoiding this sort of photo entirely is the smart way to deal with it.

In any event, doing something like Photoshopping out religious symbols only encourages the Christian persecution complex. The Posse is now encouraging students to come to the next game and "wear a purple or black shirt and wear a large cross, a shirt with a cross on it or face paint a cross on your face. The media will be everywhere and my goal is to have a campus of crosses." Because, you know, no one in the media has ever seen a cross before...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

No longer a cult

After a meeting with Mitt Romney, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has changed its website so that it no longer refers to Mormonism as a "cult." They explain the change this way: "We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign."

 In other words, they still think it's a cult, but because they're hoping for Romney to get elected, they're willing to pretend they believe otherwise... for now.

Monday, October 15, 2012

How far we've come (and how far we have yet to go)

This article about the Luvs commercial featuring breastfeeding made me smile. When I had my first baby, seventeen years ago, I was a committed breastfeeder. (None of my babies ever drank from a bottle.) I was fairly shy about breastfeeding publicly, because I'm really not the activist type, but sometimes I had little choice.

One day I went with the family to an amusement park, and the baby needed feeding. I sat down in a quiet corner, facing a wall, and with a blanket over the baby. Even so, an employee bore down on me, told me that it was a family park, and made me go into the handicapped stall in the restroom to feed the baby. It was not one of my happiest mom moments. It was made still more irritating by the fact that back then, the amusement park allowed people to smoke everywhere, so the message I took away from this was that the park thought a glimpse of discreet breastfeeding would somehow harm children, but that second-hand smoke wouldn't.

I'm sorry that we're still debating this topic seventeen years later, but glad that the discussion is becoming more positive.

Well, THAT'S a relief. Or not.

Here's a study showing that the HPV vaccine won't encourage your teenage daughters to race out looking for casual sex. Wow, what a relief!

Well, to be honest it isn't a relief for most sensible people, who realize it's a good idea to inoculate their kids against any common and easily-vaccinated-against disease, especially one that can lead to cancer. (According to the article, six million Americans become infected with HPV every year). But some religious groups have fought this one on the grounds that it would "encourage sexual activity." Which is so dumb that it's honestly sad anyone felt they had to waste time and resources on this sort of study. If you seriously won't inoculate your daughter against a cancer-causing disease for fear that the vaccination might magically turn her into a sex-crazed nympho... well, frankly, you need to get a better grip on reality.

Friday, October 12, 2012

"Religious freedoms"

Yesterday Mitt Romney met and prayed with Billy Graham, who applauded the candidate's "values and strong moral convictions." Billy Graham subsequently asked voters to "join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms."

Comparing and contrasting those three items is interesting. "Supporting the biblical definition of marriage" is code for "make sure gays can't marry," which to me seems like limiting freedom, not supporting it. Similarly, "protect the sanctity of life" means "get rid of Roe vs. Wade," which is again about limiting freedom-- in this case, the freedom of women to control their bodies. These are both at bottom religious issues. People of course have the right to believe what they wish, but the problem is that fundamentalists want to force those beliefs onto others, even (or perhaps especially) those of us who don't hold strong religious beliefs. The only "freedom" that really seems to matter to Graham and his ilk is the freedom for fundamentalists to push their way of thinking on the rest of us.

Is that really religious freedom? For them, perhaps. For the rest of us, not so much. It reminds me of something that great philosopher Captain Picard once said. It seems to me that if the theocrats ever get what they really want, control of the United States, this "could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some... savagely curtailing them for others."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Embryology? What the heck does he mean, embryology?

Someone on Friendly Atheist pointed out that Broun mentioned "embryology" in his list of Evol Bad Lies Straight From Satan. The commenter wondered what on earth he meant, and asked sardonically if Broun believed in Stork Theory. Someone else posited that perhaps he meant "embryonic stem cells." I answered over there, but will add some thoughts here as well.

I think he did indeed mean "embryology." This seems to make little sense until you realize that embryology appears to quite clearly support evolution. From Wikipedia: "Embryos in many species often appear similar to one another in early developmental stages. The reason for this similarity is because species have a shared evolutionary history. These similarities among species are called homologous structures, which are structures that have the same or similar function and mechanism, having evolved from a common ancestor." You can see how that would be awkward for creationists. Or would it?

Of course it wouldn't, because clever people like Broun realize that mainstream science is always distorting the truth to serve evil secular purposes (or just because scientists are all spouting lies for Satan). Here's CreationWiki, explaining how embryology when viewed correctly actually supports creation "science":

"While the Darwinists see these similarities as evidence of common descent, the creationist belief system causes us to generally conclude that shared structures, processes, or genes are merely reflections that they were designed by the same creator. Rather than being evidence of shared ancestry, homologies are examples of brilliant and well functioning designs that have been applied to multiple organisms, much in the same way as human designers apply concepts."

There you go. Problem solved. Now if only Broun (as a member of the House science committee) can get this clearly superior scientific information into the public schools, Satan's lies can be corrected, and the nation's healing can begin.


There's an intriguing post on secularism here on the CNN Belief Blog. A quote:

"In recent years some have made secularism into a synonym for godlessness, possibly because a few extreme atheist groups have taken to calling themselves 'secular.' Yet the idea that believers cannot be secular is incorrect and politically disastrous...

"Secularism’s mission is to maximize freedom of and freedom from religion. But unless we start speaking of it in precise terms, and bringing secular believers and nonbelievers into coalition, it won’t be able to render this service to America."

The fact that the author refers to "extreme atheist groups," and his book description refers to "atheist polemicists," makes me wary. Nevertheless, I'm interested enough to buy his book How to be Secular and take a look at it. I'll read it and report my thoughts on it when I finish.

More on Broun

Friendly Atheist on the Broun video: "Anyone who looks to the Bible as the primary guide to voting has no business serving in public office, much less serving on the Science committee." Pardon the phrase, but... amen, brother.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lies! Lies straight from the pit of hell!

US Representative Paul Broun (from Georgia) is quoted here:

 "God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says.

 "And what I've come to learn is that it's the manufacturer's handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that's the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I'll continue to do that."

I don't know about you, but I'm personally terrified that anyone holding such ludicrous views could get elected anywhere in the United States. Not surprised, unfortunately... just terrified.

Update: According to this article, Broun "sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology." I am now one step beyond terrified.

Update on the gay Boy Scout

According to this, his mom is fighting back with a petition (200,000 signatures so far) that "calls on his troop to reject the Boy Scouts of America's discriminatory policy against gays and give the California teenager his Eagle rank." He's also going to appear on "Ellen" next week. Good luck to him!

Freedom of speech (and the freedom to be tax-exempt)

According to CNN, at least 1400 pastors across the United States will be uniting in defiance of the Johnson Amendment. This amendment (an amendment to the tax code, not the Constitution) dates from 1954 and simply says that if an organization is tax-exempt, it may not endorse or oppose political candidates. This weekend those 1400 pastors will be doing so, and sending the tapes to the IRS. What they're trying to do is "(f)orce the IRS to come down on these churches so that the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose network includes 2,200 attorneys, can test the Johnson Amendment’s constitutionality."

Once again, the fundamentalists involved cast this as a struggle against "marginalization": "'Pastors understand how the so called separation of church and state, as it is currently understood. We understand how marginalized we are becoming,' Johnson said. 'We are supposed to be part of the community discussion about issues that matter.'"

That's fine with me, and no one's trying to suppress freedom of speech. Just give up your tax-exempt status first.

Friday, October 5, 2012

I always feel like somebody's watching me...

It's a giant cosmic eye! No, actually, it's a planetary nebula (which the article defines as "stars around the size of the sun that have neared the ends of their lives and run out of hydrogen and helium fuel for fusion in their cores"). Just another proof that not only is the universe more beautiful than we imagine; it's more beautiful than we can imagine.

Not spiritual OR religious

Alan Miller wrote an article for CNN called "'I'm Spiritual but Not Religious' Is a Cop-Out." I admit to having a hard time locating the main thrust of his argument, but it seems to be that "'spiritual but not religious' offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind." Christianity, on the other hand, "has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work." He feels that spirituality is mere "fence-sitting," and the implication seems to be that Christianity is better.

Here he tries to clarify his thoughts based on the comments people have left, and talks more extensively (and disdainfully) about the "new atheism." He repeatedly describes atheists as angry, and possibly a bit whiny:

"The disenchantment with belief and a commitment to some wider authority has also had an impact on the self-described new atheists, who are furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves.

"The group American Atheists describes anguish and toil as the 'first step' of 'coming out,' making the analogy with gays coming out the 'closet,' as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America.

 "It strikes me that having an opt-out plan should have something more than simply a negative, whether it's a 'spiritual' one or a 'new atheist' negative. We live in an age where many are disillusioned with institutions and humans generally, yet not so evident is a positive alternative."

I admit that despite the clarifications, I'm still not sure what the heck his point is. He claims, "I don't happen to believe in a religious 'one true way' and in fact am not religious myself," and yet he seems to be arguing that atheism and "spiritual-but-not-religious" are somehow lacking an ineffable quality of positivity which can presumably be found in Christianity.

But here's the thing. Why should "an opt-out plan... have something more than simply a negative"? What if there is simply no positive to be found? There's no point in reaching for great spiritual truths if they're in fact all just myths. Fiction is fiction, and wishing for it to be real won't somehow transmute it into fact. Certainly we can admire the creations of historic Christianity, from Bach to Michelangelo, but the fact that many great works of art and literature have been based on the Bible still doesn't mean that the Bible is true.

And yet I don't see atheism as purely negative, either. Yes, all the word means is nonbelief in religion, so in a way it's a negative stance. But I would argue that there is in fact something enormously positive, and even empowering, about acknowledging that the Bible is just another collection of myths, and that the truth is not to be found in religion. Tossing off the shackles of ancient and outdated religious beliefs seems like a very positive thing to me.