Friday, September 20, 2013

Mystery priest revisited

Remember the mysterious and possibly angelic priest, who turned out to be a mundane human? He's visiting the victim of that car crash, who turns twenty today. The young woman suffered fifteen broken bones and a lacerated liver and spleen, so it really is remarkable, and worthy of much glad celebration, that she survived to see her twentieth birthday.

But rather than credit the many, many people who strove to get her out of the smashed car and who worked to save her at the hospital, her family "credits two occurrences for her survival: Katie's plea for first responders and witnesses to 'pray out loud' as she lay with her head on the pavement and the arrival of a mystery priest, later identified as Rev. Patrick Dowling, who anointed her with oil and prayed at her side." Her mother says, "We are so thankful for the simple message our Katie spoke from the very beginning -- for everyone around her to pray out loud. That message went around the world, and was propelled by the mystery priest we now know as Father Dowling, who just happened upon the accident and he offered his prayers." She adds, "There are so many reasons she should have perished. When you see the pictures from the crash, you say to yourself, 'God is good.'"

Sigh. I know that religion often helps get people through dire circumstances such as these. And it was decent and kind of Father Dowling to get to the victim and pray with her, given that she wanted and needed his prayers. I don't doubt his support helped buoy the victim in her hour of need. But when it's all over, I wish people would give a little more credit where credit is due-- to the ordinary humans who race to help injured people, and those at hospitals who work so hard to help put battered and broken bodies back together-- rather than giving all the credit to God.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I admit it, Fox News, you made me look

Not actually atheist related, but this amused me. Headline on a Fox News article: Blue-footed boobies suddenly expand range in California. 

The short version (#2 on the list):

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Courtship (or how to oppress your children)

Jessa Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting has begun a "courtship." What does that mean? Her father explains, "Courting is getting to know each other in a group setting, both families spending time together and the couple setting goals together to determine if they are meant to marry." He contrasts this with dating, in which "a couple with often pair off alone and that sometimes leads to a more physical relationship." In this case, the two young people asked permission to communicate via text and phone, and their mother is "overseeing" their correspondence. (This article clarifies that both Mom and Dad are reading all the young people's texts.) They are allowed "side hugs" of thirty seconds or less as hellos and goodbyes, and no other physical contact. Jessa's father has been approached by many men about courting her, and this is the first one he has approved.

What's disturbing about this (and purity culture and "courtship" in general) is that Jessa is twenty, and the young man who is courting her is eighteen. Although they are nominally adults, they are being pushed around like pawns on a chessboard, their every action is being monitored and controlled by their parents, and they are being watched like hawks to make sure nothing normal untoward happens. Jessa is actually being told whom she may and may not associate with, and exactly how she may interact with the few people her parents allow her to meet. It's an oppressive and creepy way to treat grown children.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Polygamy again

Here's an article on another polygamous family in Utah, who all withdrew from Mormonism. They will be featured on a new reality show on TLC tonight. None of the five wives seem to have been child brides (though it's hard to tell because only the husband's age is given), and three of them work outside the home. Altogether they have twenty-four children spanning from ages two to twenty.

I have nothing against polygamy, but I'd like to see polygamy advocates encouraging true polygamy-- multiple men and women together, rather than always a polygynous arrangement-- and a little less emphasis put on reproduction. That's almost five kids per wife, yikes (and yes, I have four kids and I'm aware I'm being hypocritical here:-). Surely it's possible for men and women to live together in more varied combinations and not have so much emphasis on having lots and lots of kids. It is nice to see an emphasis on "consenting adults" and wives who are working as something other than stay-at-home moms, though.

Miss America, not American enough

Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American to be Miss America, was crowned last night, and some people immediately took to Twitter to show their cluelessness and racism. There were tweets saying things like, "If you're #Miss America you should have to be American" (she's a native of Syracuse, NY) and, "Well they just picked a Muslim for Miss America. That must've made Obama happy" (neither Davuluri nor Obama is a Muslim-- but why would it be a problem if Miss America were a Muslim?). It was even implied she was somehow related to terrorists: "Miss America right now or miss Al Qaeda?" CNN's headline accurately calls this "racial slurs," while Fox News' headline calls it "controversy." Is a bunch of stupid people tweeting obnoxious things really a "controversy"?

In any event, how disappointing that a brown-skinned person can't accomplish something in this country without it being suggested she's a terrorist or was by definition born elsewhere. Conservatives don't make themselves look any better by spouting this sort of nasty racist crap.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A big honkin' cross

In Mississippi, a church wants to build a humongous (110 feet!) cross on their property by I-20. "The project is sponsored by 'Crosses Across America,' a non-profit group that builds giant crosses along the nation’s highways." (The pastor is quoted as saying "They were led by the Holy Spirit to seek a location in Mississippi. 92,000 cars a day travel along the Interstate 20 corridor. Those are people who need hope, who need inspiration." Because obviously the people in those cars have never seen a cross before. But I digress.)

The city's planning commission voted it down, apparently mostly because it is, as I said, humongous (it is eleven stories high, whereas the tallest structure in the city right now is two stories). Although the local law says an "auxiliary structure" can only be twenty feet high, the planning commission has offered a very reasonable compromise of permitting a 50-foot cross. The pastor complains, "Our problem with that is that we want to make an impact. We want to make a statement. And it’s on church property."

Alas, it's a longstanding rule of law that we do not have an absolute right to do anything we want with our property. My daughter would love to keep a horse on our third-acre lot, but the city, quite rightly, won't allow me to do so. Nor would it be kind to the horse, but that's beside the point. At least a 110-foot cross doesn't produce large quantities of manure, but there are other considerations involved in zoning. As the Rolling Stones pointed out, you can't always get what you want.

You will be unsurprised to learn that advocates of the cross are crying persecution (there were "accusations on social networking websites that the no-vote was an attack on Christians"), and have launched a Facebook page to support the cross.

"Medical science is phenomenal"

Here's a nice story about a seventeen-year-old diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma who got to meet the (now former) Pope via the Make-a-Wish foundation. Now, at nineteen, he is in remission and attending a Jesuit college with an eye toward the priesthood. When one Catholic blog tried to suggest that the audience with the Pope was the reason for the young man's recovery, he said, quite sensibly:

"I credit all the years of medical research and the training of all the doctors going to school -- all that definitely cured me. But God was behind it, helping me go through the treatment. Medical science is phenomenal. It would have been a death sentence 30 years ago, but in less than a year, I am back on my feet."

He added, "Every time people see cancer and the pope, they assume it's a miraculous healing. Chemo helped me fight the cancer. Make-A-Wish helped me fight the chemo. Knowing the pope was in my future helped me get through that, and in a small, non-miraculous way, helped cure my cancer."

It's really nice to see a story which doesn't label the remission a "miracle," but which credits medical science and the hard work of doctors instead.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"Only white people"

A pastor at a racially diverse church in North Carolina (in north Charlotte, where I used to live) sent out an email to worshippers (for which the church subsequently apologized) asking that "only white people" perform as greeters. The email stated that "first impressions matter" and added that the church wanted "the best of the best on the front doors." Apparently they were trying to maintain a racial balance and wanted to appeal to white visitors-- the church's apology explained that the pastor "noticed our front door greeting team was no longer reflecting the racial diversity of our entire congregation, and she wanted potential visitors to see people like themselves upon entering our church." But the phrasing ("best of the best"? Really??!) was undeniably offensive.

The surprising twist here is that the pastor who sent out the email is black.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Target acquired"

I had a brief conversation with a guy in a restaurant today. I was talking to my elderly father about the various military personnel in the restaurant, and wondering why the Navy guys wore green camo, instead of the usual blue camo, and the guy next to us kindly explained why they sometimes wear green. (He wasn't really barging in on our conversation; even with hearing aids I have to speak pretty loudly for my father to understand me!). I noticed his shirt said something like, "Old pilots never retire; they just find a new target," and I almost struck up a conversation with him, because I guessed he was retired Air Force, and my father was in the Army Air Forces in World War II. I thought better of it, because no one really wants to talk to my dad about World War II, as the conversation can get painfully long and involved. So I kept my silence.

As the guy got up to go, I glimpsed the word "atheism" on the back of his shirt, and had a brief moment of excitement. I haven't met many "out" atheists. But then I saw the back of his shirt read, "Target acquired," and beneath it was a target symbol including various words such as atheism and "Mohamadism"-- presumably bad things he wanted to get rid of (if not literally shoot at). I was very grateful I hadn't continued the conversation at that point. Imagine the awkwardness: "Hi, I'm an atheist, and I'm one of the targets you want to take aim at."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"The yuck factor"

People keep quoting the post from the Gospel Coalition's Thabiti Anyabwile about gay sex. I've ranted about it on Friendly Atheist and Love, Joy, Feminism, so I'll rant about it here, too. Anyabwile says that fundamentalists need to:

"Return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth... I think it would be a good thing if more people were gagging on the reality of the sexual behavior that is now becoming public law, protected, and even promoted in public schools....That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling–either at the descriptions above or at me for writing them–that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, 'I feel dirty' moral outrage is the gag reflex. It’s what you quietly felt when you read 'two men deep kissing' in the second paragraph. Your moral sensibilities have been provoked–and rightly so. That reflex triggered by an accurate description of homosexual behavior will be the beginning of the recovery of moral sense and sensibility when it comes to the so-called 'gay marriage' debate."

Absurd. This guy is actually proposing, straight-faced and seriously, that all religious fundamentalists need to do is describe what happens in gay sex, and Americans will all suddenly be horrified by the dreadful reality of it, realize their mistake, and rush to outlaw gay rights. Is he really so naive that he thinks Americans aren't already conscious of how sex in all its various forms works? And is he really so naive that he doesn't realize a lot of straight Americans are not at all revolted by gay sex?

I've mentioned slash fanfiction and gay erotica elsewhere, but let me offer a concrete example of how revolted Americans fail to be by descriptive gay sex. J.R. Ward has written a long series of heterosexual paranormal romances/urban fantasies, all of which are pretty hot. When she finally wrote a book getting two of her guys together (which many fans had been waiting for), the book was a number one New York Times bestseller. (And that was the hardback release-- when the paperback releases in October, that one will probably sell plenty of copies, too.) Odds are most of the readers of this book were heterosexuals, and odds are most of them were not revolted (the book has over 1600 reviews on Amazon and a 4.4 star average). And while this book did unusually well, there are lots and lots of gay erotica and erotic romances out there, and many if not most of their readers are straight.

Thabiti, most of us already know what gay sex involves. We're not stupid. And unlike you, we also realize that straight sex involves many of the same activities that so repulse you (manual stimulation, oral sex, anal sex, and so on). If we need to ban gay sex, we'd better ban straight sex while we're at it. Good luck on that.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wiping out disease

Here's an article on eight deadly diseases we've pretty much wiped out, at least in the US. How? Every one of them has been eradicated, or close to eradicated, by vaccination. Horrors like smallpox, polio, and rabies have been eliminated, or significantly reduced, due to vaccines. Anti-vaxxers really ought to be required to be educated on the statistics of death by these diseases before vaccines were developed, and made to look at pictures of people suffering from them, before they decide not to vaccinate their kids.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

God's moral law

Here's an opinion piece on Fox News by Todd Starnes complaining that we're raising a nation of "savages" (no doubt meant in an entirely nonracist way *rolls eyes*) who kill people and kittens for fun. The reason? Starnes consulted with "noted author" and pastor Robert Jeffress, who explains the root cause of the violence plaguing our society:

"Parents have absolutely failed in their most basic, fundamental responsibility as parents...And that is to instill God’s moral law in the hearts of their children....As long as you continue to tell teenagers they are nothing but a biological accident, we shouldn’t expect them to act in accordance with a Creator-God who has basic laws concerning life and death...Our culture continues to deny or marginalize the existence of God...We shouldn’t be surprised that teenagers would ignore the most basic laws of God – like thou shall not kill."

I am taking these words to heart and will immediately make sure my children are acquainted with the Word of God. I think I'll start with the story of Abraham being told to murder his own child by God Himself, then move on to the story of Exodus, in which the Hebrews were told to lay waste to all the inhabitants of the civilizations they encountered (except for the girl virgins they kept as sex slaves), then discuss the forty-two children who teased Elisha and were ripped to shreds by bears (again sent by God Himself). That's only a start, but surely that will be sufficient to help show my kids that violence isn't the way, and prevent them from falling into "savagery."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Women are treated with respect"

Here's an article about a British "model who regularly bares almost all," who met a Tunisian man and will be converting to Islam when she marries him in the spring. She says her husband told her that "once we are married my body is for his eyes only," and she adds, "These are the kind of values I love about their culture... Women are treated with respect and they also respect themselves and their bodies. They don’t do one-night stands or casual flings."

Uh-huh. Personally, I think a woman can "respect" her body and still have casual sex, and I think a woman can be married and let other people see her body as well (she covers up from shoulders to ankle for her future in-laws when she visits them now, so we're not talking about parading around in sexy lingerie, but about covering all of her). But it's her choice-- and once she actually makes it, I suspect she'll have a hard time getting out of it. I have a feeling that a woman brought up in a liberal and relatively sexually free culture is going to have a hard time making this transition, but I could certainly be wrong. I just hope she doesn't regret it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Atheists are smarter

This article says, "Religious people are less intelligent than non-believers, according to a new review of 63 scientific studies stretching back over decades." There are various possible explanations offered, such as more education-- or as fundamentalists would put it, secular humanist brainwashing-- less need for the psychological benefits of religion due to higher self-esteem, and the fact that intelligent people are apparently more likely to get married. It's also possible the researchers are dead wrong, which does happen from time to time:-).

But assuming this is true, I think the most likely reason is simply that people who become atheists in this society are likely to be smart, determined, and analytical, simply because they have to swim against the flow of society and shed the mythology that's been inculcated in them since birth. It takes a certain level of smarts to shrug off your cultural conditioning and think for yourself. None of which means that some atheists aren't dumb as plums.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

You can't name your baby "Messiah"

A judge in Tennessee has ordered a seven-month-old's first name changed. The parents were in court because they couldn't agree on a last name, but the judge decided they couldn't keep the first name "Messiah," either. She felt the name could "put him at odds with a lot of people" in the mostly Christian county and said,"The word Messiah is a title and it's a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ." The mother says she will appeal, because as she said, "Everybody believes what they want so I think I should be able to name my child what I want to name him, not someone else."

The article mentions in passing that "Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration's annual list of popular baby names." I guess more judges better get busy and change the names of all those other Messiahs, too. We wouldn't want parents to have the right to choose names for their children, after all. Next thing you know people will start getting the crazy idea that this is a free country. Can't have that!

Friday, August 9, 2013

A guardian angel

Here's a story about a crash victim, a nineteen-year-old hit by a drunken driver, who was trapped in the front seat of her car until a "guardian angel" showed up. Quote:

"...With her vital signs failing fast, she asked rescue crews to pray with her. 

"That's when first responders say a man who looked like a Catholic priest seemed to appear out of nowhere, despite a 2-mile perimeter blocking the scene. 'He began to pray and use the anointing oil,' New London Fire Chief Raymond Reed said. 'There was a calmness that, to me, seemed to come over the entire scene.'"

Firefighters say their equipment kept failing, and that this "angel" told them to remain calm and that their equipment would now work. At that moment the neighboring fire department arrived, with tools that worked. The priest/"angel" then disappeared before anyone could speak to him. One of the responders said, "I think that this time I've actually witnessed a guardian angel at work."

I will not speculate on what actually happened here, except to remark that if he really were an angel, one would imagine he might be able to get the victim out of her car without the need for a second fire department to arrive. The article refers to his presence as a "miracle," but as far as I can tell he did nothing but pray and anoint-- the fact that the new fire department arrived at that point should surely be attributed to them with thanks, not to him. I imagine "calmness" would be expected if the people he were praying over (victims and firefighters alike) were Christian.

In short, it's fortunate that the victim happened to be Christian, so that his presence was a comfort for her, rather than more stress added to the already horrifically stressful situation. Someone of another faith, or no faith whatsoever, might have found being prayed over and anointed to be distressing rather than comforting.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Two interesting science articles

Here, an article about the feasibility of designing a space station like the one in "Elysium." Quote:

"The premise is totally believable to me. I spent 28 years working on NASA's International Space Station and retired last summer as the director of ISS at NASA Headquarters," Mark Uhran, former director of the International Space Station Division in NASA's Office of Human Exploration and Operations, said. "When I took a look at the Elysium space station, I thought to myself, that's certainly achievable in this millennium."

And here, an article about NASA scientists trying to test a theory on the origins of life on Earth. Quote:

Imagine Earth 4 billion years ago. The world was covered in an acidic ocean, its bottom studded with mineral chimneys or hydrothermal vents. These were not ordinary chimneys. They had pores that allowed selective molecules to pass through, setting up a chemical gradient. 

The vents were the origins of all life on earth, according to a 25-year-old theory proposed by Mike Russell, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that is gaining traction in the astrobiology community. NASA’s Astrobiology Institute has invested $8 billion in proving the theory.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Awesome photographs of the earth and space, here. (Yes, it is a Fox News link, but no crazy stuff, just a lot of cool pictures!)

Life at the top

Here's an interesting story about a monk in Georgia (that's eastern Europe, not the US) who has been living at the top of a natural pillar since 1991. Maxime the monk says, "It is up here in the silence that you can feel God's presence." As a young man, the monk "drank, sold drugs, everything," but he decided he needed a change, and became a monk-- and a pretty extreme one, at that.

Stylites (pillar saints) were once common in the area, but the practice was abandoned a long time ago. Maxime has a small cottage at the top (though he originally slept in a fridge), as "it's more about isolation than suffering." His followers send up food and supplies via a winch. With age, his ability to climb the 131-foot ladder is fading, and when he can no longer climb the ladder, he intends to stay at the top till he dies.

People do some pretty extreme things in the name of religion, but looking at the photos, it doesn't look all that crazy. It's a beautiful view, and there's something to be said for isolation. I do suspect, though, that remaining atop a pillar for twenty years could cause anyone to hear the voice of God, just out of sheer boredom and loneliness.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

"Why millennials need the church"

Here's an article on CNN's Belief Blog about why young people need the church. Rachel Held Evans writes, "Like many millennials, I left church because I didn’t always see the compassion of Jesus there, and because my questions about faith and science, the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism were met with shallow answers or hostility." But she's returned to church, and most of her reasons might resonate for believers, but probably not for anyone else.

Some of the most compelling reasons she lists boil down to community and healing-- "local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless." Can't argue that too much; although caring for the sick and the needy is not something that must be done by churches, in our society it does tend to be left to the religious. And the ill and needy must be taken care of one way or another.

Other reasons she lists are not particularly compelling unless you believe. Confession and reminding yourself we're all sinners-- thanks, but I can do without the idea that without Jesus we're all doomed to a fiery hell. If there's one thing I regret about my time as a Lutheran, it's that I let my kids internalize this ugly, scary message. Evans writes, "The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride." Maybe, but this seems like something young people can manage to talk about on their own.

Leadership... well, mentors are all around us, and I rarely met anyone in church who was especially wise. Communion-- yeah, I can do without the ritualistic cannibalism, too. Confirmation and union with Christ similarly don't matter to me. These are things that my atheist self sees as silly, meaningless ritual, and I'm grateful to have left this all behind me.

Overall, this is more of an article about the "spiritual but not religious" young people who've left the church but who continue to believe than it is about nonbelievers. And left unexplained is why doubting young people might not be better off simply turning to atheism, and meeting their needs for community and helping others elsewhere.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fire the sinner

A gay high school teacher in California was fired from a Catholic high school after a newspaper published pictures of his wedding. The school knew Ken Bencomo was gay, and he even brought his partner to school events and introduced him as his partner, but apparently seeing it in the paper was too much for the school to take.

I admit I don't know what the legalities are here; private schools can fire you for "moral" reasons and often make you sign a contract, but they don't seem to have had an issue with his gayness, just with the fact that it got in the paper. The school is quoted as saying, "While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values."

But legalities aside, isn't religion just lovely? Nothing says "love the sinner" more than firing him. But there's a nice part to this story, too. "Meanwhile, some of Bencomo’s former students had planned a protest march for Thursday. St. Lucy’s graduate Brittany Littleton, 23, told The Sun of San Bernadino she expected hundreds of people to attend." Littleton is hoping (rather optimistically) that the school will give Bencomo his job back. Even if the school itself can't treat a gay man like a human being, it's nice that his former students can.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fox vs. NBC

I know, I know, it comes as no surprise to any of you that Fox News and NBC News have a slightly different slant to their reporting. But this one amused me. Fox News says (this is currently the number one trending article on their site):

Archeologists conducting excavations at the site of a church in Turkey have unearthed a stone chest containing a relic that may be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. 

While NBC News says:

Turkish archaeologists say they have found a stone chest in a 1,350-year-old church that appears to contain a relic venerated as a piece of Jesus' cross. (emphasis added)

The NBC News article goes on to point out that there were plenty of "cross" relics floating around the ancient world. Sure, the relic could be a part of the cross on which Jesus was supposedly crucified, but the odds are against it. As far as I can tell, the archaeologists are not actually claiming this fragment might really be from Jesus' cross, as the Fox News article implies, though it's admittedly hard to be sure without further information. They are quoted as saying simply: “We have found a holy thing in a chest. It is a piece of a cross."

I'll add that I can't find a real quote from the archaeologists anywhere. Here's another article from the Hurriyet Daily News which NBC apparently based their story on, with an odd insertion in the quote from the archaeologist:

“We have found a holy thing in a chest. It is a piece of a cross, and we think it was [part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified]. This stone chest is very important to us. It has a history and is the most important artifact we have unearthed so far."

But what did the archaeologist actually say? The insertion of [part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified] is clearly not the original quote. Did the archaeologist actually imply they thought this was really part of Jesus' cross, or was that implication added by the journalist? Unless there is something very special about this stone chest (like it melts faces when it's opened), I find it hard to believe any serious archaeologist would suggest a wood fragment was part of Jesus' actual cross without much more data.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sex, contraception, and fundamentalists

Libby Anne has a post up about contraception, and how some people feel that contraception "perverts sex" and allows women to be "used by men"-- as if women don't have any actual interest in sex themselves. Fundamentalists have some weird, mixed-up ideas about sex, but one of the weirdest is that men are sexual beings and women aren't. I write erotic romance aimed at women, and I can tell you, a lot of women are strongly interested in sex. Trust me on this.

The weird evangelical attitudes toward sex help explain why they aren't in favor of contraception. I've always wondered, why are the people who are most opposed to abortion not fanatically in favor of contraception? If we could teach kids to always, always use contraception, make it cheap and easy to get, and make Plan B readily and cheaply available, we could significantly cut down on the number of abortions in this country quite quickly. Of course there will still be medical conditions that require abortion, and changes of mind, and I am not advocating the prohibition of abortion here. I'm just saying that if these people could start fighting for contraception instead of against it, we could cut way, way down on the need for abortions.

But they won't, because they still have the naive idea that if we can stop people from using contraception, we can stop them from having sex. They refuse to see that it doesn't work that way, and that people-- women and men both-- like sex. They like to claim that abstinence has the only 100% success rate in preventing pregnancy, but the truth is that abstinence is the birth control method most likely to fail.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fathers as best friends

I've been reading Kate's guest posts on Love, Joy, Feminism (originally posted at Time to Live, Friend) about So Much More, by Anna Sophia and Elizabeth Botkin. Today's chapter is about how your father is supposed to be your best friend and confidant.

This makes me look back on my childhood and roll my eyes. My father was an alcoholic who abused me emotionally. (He was also an atheist, which has no relevance one way or the other, except to acknowledge that he probably isn't the sort of father the Botkin sisters have in mind anyway.) He started drinking after work every day, got drunk every single night, and wound up in a shouting match with my mother (also an alcoholic) and yelled cruel things at me on a daily basis. He was the last person I'd have wanted for a best friend. (I'll add that he's moved in with us in his old age, because there's no one else to care for him, and we get along okay now that he's no longer drinking. "Honor thy father and mother" isn't a good idea because God supposedly gave it to Moses on the mountaintop; it's a sensible rule that generally makes society run more smoothly, and one of the few Commandments that still generally works today.)

But I digress. Sweeping pronouncements like “Our fathers are supposed to be dear, trusted confidantes and friends….our knights in shining armor, our protectors, our guardians, and they are even supposed to represent God to us” don't work for everyone. Even if I were to accept this as a general rule (which I don't; the purity movement makes father-daughter relationships seem weirdly creepy and incestuous, in my opinion), there are still an awful lot of girls out there like me, whose fathers are not fit to be "dear, trusted confidantes and friends." This is because fathers are not mystical beings who are all created by God to be perfect friends and confidantes for their daughters. They are individual humans, with their own virtues and faults, the same as anyone else. Some men make great fathers, and some are abusive emotionally, physically, and even sexually. Telling girls that they should always trust their fathers and be best friends with them doesn't work for girls with abusive fathers, who can plainly see that their fathers are not the best of all possible role models.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Surprise, surprise

Fox News recently showed its bias (surprise, surprise) in an online interview with Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Apparently the interviewer couldn't get past the fact that Aslan is a Muslim. The very first question was "You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" and it went downhill from there. Buzzfeed called it "The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done"... which is really quite impressive when you consider the sort of crap Fox does on a regular basis.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wikireligion and controversy

Here's an article about the ten most controversial Wikipedia pages (judged by the numbers of "reverts," i.e., the number of times things were changed back) according to a study. Mohammed, Jesus and Christianity all made the top ten on the English list. Another religion-related item in the top ten was circumcision. Wow, people argue a lot about religion. Who knew?

I should add that the #1 most controversial page wasn't about religion, but about that other controversial subject, politics-- specifically, the page on George W. Bush.

Modern Christianity

Christianity moves along with the times, just like the rest of us. Two articles that show that it's not all about handwritten scrolls any more:

The Bible app, which has logged 60 billion minutes of reading time since its introduction in 2008. Many of us have everything on our smartphones (music, books, internet). So of course having a Bible app only makes sense. There are in fact hundreds of apps of this sort, but this particular one is supposed to be particularly user-friendly. The problem with it, of course, is that people can't tell if you're reading your Bible during Bible study, or surfing the internet.

Kingstone Comics, which aims to "to produce premium quality comics and graphic novels that bring fantastic biblical action and adventure stories to life," in an effort to keep teenaged boys and young men interested in Christianity. The author of the article (who is the CEO of Kingstone Media Group) writes, apparently straight-faced, "It might seem odd at first—Christians and comics—because this publishing niche is often associated with the sexualized gore and graphic violence many religious leaders (and others) warn against." Yes, because there isn't any sexualized gore and graphic violence in the Bible...

What do we get out of religion?

Cross Examined has a great post today entitled Religion: Billions into a Black Hole. It's an interesting piece that throws some light on a topic I've been thinking about lately-- what would a world without churches look like, and how much money would we as a society save if we weren't throwing a hefty chunk of our income toward church?

Religion does have its benefits, of course. Helping the needy is a big one, though as Cross Examined points out, it's impossible to know what percentage of money tithed goes to helping people. Since churches don't have to account to anyone, there's no real way of knowing. When I went to church, I was happy to think that my money was going to help people in need. Now I suspect I would have been better off donating to a charity.

Hands-on work is another big one. My daughter went down to New Orleans and helped with the cleanup after Katrina. So did lots of other Christians. Helping with disaster relief is something churches do that's very worthwhile. Like a lot of other mission work, it can be a way of spreading Christianity, so it's not done entirely out of a sense of selfless love. Nevertheless, it's certainly one of the more worthwhile ways in which churches spend their money.

Another one, as one of the commenters points out, is religious ceremonies, particularly weddings and funerals. These may be technically unnecessary (you can get married anywhere, and funeral homes will provide a funeral if you don't have a church), but they matter to the people involved, and thus provide value to the congregation.

And then there's music. I belonged to the choir, and it was a pleasant and enriching part of my church life. There was the cost of buying music, as well as the cost of buying bells (they had a great little bell choir there), the expense of buying a piano, and an eventual plan to buy a big pipe organ for the new sanctuary. All this costs money, but it's also a true benefit of church. Where else do people hear good music on a weekly basis? (I never liked the "contemporary" service much, so I'm talking here about good old Lutheran hymns as well as the excellent church music that's chosen by a talented music director.) If churches ever go away, maybe people will be motivated to come up with some secular alternative that allows them to play music together regularly. The one thing I really do miss about church is the choir.

Helping the needy and music are two places I didn't mind spending my money at the time. I also didn't mind contributing to the upkeep of the church (I figured they had to pay the mortgage and utilities just like me), but of the building of new facilities there is no end. I remember my own church, which had been built in the sixties (I called it "the Brady Bunch church" with affection, because it looked very much as if Mike Brady had designed it), grew out of its original sanctuary not long after I joined and had to build a new one. It was costly-- upwards of a million dollars-- and consumed much of the church's money and attention for quite a while. And this was only a relatively modest Lutheran church. I've seen some spectacular monuments to "God" (or possibly to the congregation's collective ego) among nondenominational churches. The Rock Church in Virginia is a good example, as is what I used to think of as the Pink Cathedral in Charlotte. There's a fine line between building a facility that's large enough and useful, and constructing a white elephant. Lately I see more and more nondenominational buildings that look like office buildings, and the cynic in me wonders if this is deliberate, so that in case the church fails, they'll be able to resell the building to a business.

It's a given, though, that if we weren't all going to church, we'd no longer need church buildings. Sometimes I look around at all the churches and wonder what would happen to them in a world without religion. Some of them (like almost any downtown church, or in Virginia the early Episcopalian churches) have spectacular architecture and historical significance, and we certainly wouldn't want to tear them down. But there are too darn many of the things to turn them all into museums. A church could be useful as a secular gathering place, but how about in downtowns where there are literally dozens of them? I honestly don't know what all those big buildings could be used for if the society went entirely secular. It's an interesting question I haven't found an answer to yet.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Blaming society's downfall on Muslims, Mexicans and welfare moms

An ultra-conservative family member sent me this (the first entry in the thread) as a forwarded email message. I told him a while ago to stop forwarding me this stuff, because I really do not want to know how the extra-conservative mind works, but sometimes something slips through. I can hardly believe anyone would send out this jaw-droppingly racist screed to all their friends and associates, but apparently my family member saw nothing wrong or inappropriate in its content.

The forwarded item is about the supposed destruction of Detroit due to welfare and immigration. It's several years old, but I imagine it's making the rounds again due to Detroit's recent bankruptcy.  I think it's clear that Detroit has big problems, but being from an entirely different area of the country, and not being an economist or sociologist, I won't presume to speculate on what contributed to its issues. This author, however, has no trouble placing blame on several things, including welfare and the conservative delusion that women have babies so they can have new cars:

"A new child meant a new car payment, new TV, and whatever mom wanted."

Mexicans and Muslims:

"As the crimes became more violent, the whites fled. Finally, unlawful Mexicans moved in at a torrid pace. Detroit suffers so much shoplifting that grocery stores no longer operate in many inner city locations.

"Today, you hear Muslim calls to worship over the city like a new American Baghdad with hundreds of Islamic mosques in Michigan...Immigration will keep pouring more, and more uneducated third world immigrants from the Middle East into Detroit, thus creating a beachhead for Islamic hegemony in America . If 50 percent illiteracy continues, we will see more homegrown terrorists spawned out of the Muslim ghettos of Detroit . Illiteracy plus Islam equals walking human bombs."

And "multiculturalism" (far-right Christians tend to be indifferent to First Amendment rights and believe that women should be subservient, but the irony seems to be lost on the author):

"As their (Muslim) numbers grow, so will their power to enact their barbaric Sharia Law that negates republican forms of government, first amendment rights, and subjugates women to the lowest rungs on the human ladder....Multiculturalism: what a perfect method to kill our language, culture, country, and way of life. I PRAY EVERYONE THAT READS THIS REALIZES THAT IF WE DON'T STAND UP, AND SCREAM AT WASHINGTON , AND OUR STATE, CITY, AND LOCAL LEADERS THIS IS WHAT AWAITS THE REST OF AMERICA."

I presume my family member sent this out with the intention of scaring people. It worked-- I'm definitely scared. But probably not in the way he intended.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Get Real With Jesus"

Spotted this picture on Tumblr: A guy holding a sign, presumably outside of Comic-Con in San Diego, that reads, DON'T BE COMIC CONNED... YOUR LIFE IS NOT FICTION. GET REAL WITH JESUS.

It's true that my life is not fiction (if it were, it would probably be more interesting). But as for Jesus, his life was probably for the most part fiction. I think I prefer the Doctor Who or Supernatural or Star Trek fandoms... the fans may get vicious about shipping,  and debates about which showrunner is the best, or dissecting misogyny and racism in their favorite shows, can get heated, but at least for the most part they are aware they're discussing fiction. The same can't be said for the Jesus fandom, alas.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Am I really an atheist Lutheran?

When I started this blog, I was still wavering about my feelings on religion. I knew I was an atheist and no longer believed in God, but I wasn't ready to disclose this to my parents-in-law and family. I was not generally attending church due to protracted illness, but if I did happen to go I was still taking communion-- not because I believed, but because not taking communion when you've always taken it is like wearing a big blinking neon sign.

Things have changed. I'm no longer ill thanks to some awesome medication (Crohn's disease can't be cured, but Remicade certainly seems like a cure so far), and so there are no excuses to be made. But no one else in the family is going to church either, which gave me confidence. (Which is worse-- becoming an atheist, or not going to church when you still believe?) I had a nice discussion with my father-in-law a while back and told him outright I didn't believe in God. We had a quiet and serious discussion, and he told me that he still believed in God, but that he was angry with him. So he was in no state of mind to be judgmental.

That being said, I still teach my kids to politely bow their heads when prayers are said at family dinners, but I notice that no one's saying them anymore. I don't know if that's out of courtesy to us, or because the rest of the family's faith is slipping, too. I discuss why I don't believe with my kids, but try not to brainwash them (though I admit I will be very, very unhappy if any of them ever become evangelical Christians). I'm no longer really an atheist Lutheran, just an atheist who used to be a Lutheran.

Be fruitful and multiply

Libby Anne's latest column made me think. A lot of evangelicals think they're supposed to let God give them all the children they possibly can. Why? Well, the Bible does say that God blessed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and told them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it."

But here's the problem. Even if you believe the Bible literally, we're not in the Garden of Eden anymore. Moreover, God gave those instructions to the human race when there were (supposedly) exactly two humans on the planet. But God in all his omniscience can't have failed to notice that despite being cast out of the Garden naked and defenseless, we humans have rather cleverly managed to struggle to the top of the food chain and eradicate a lot of things that kill us, thus increasing the population quite drastically. God is presumably not oblivious to the fact that the Earth is in fact pretty well filled now.

I said on Libby Anne's blog that I imagine God's latest words would be, "Haven't you people heard of birth control?" But I suppose an evangelical would find that presumptuous. It's true that we don't know what God thinks nowadays, because he never speaks to us directly as he allegedly did in the Bible. The evangelical answer to that is typically, "All the answers are in the Bible." But it seems to me that maybe evangelicals ought to consider the possibility that conditions on Earth have changed enormously since the Bible was written. "Be fruitful and multiply" made sense when humans were few. But there are over seven billion of us on the planet now. Things have changed.

At any rate, if there is a God, maybe he's no longer speaking to us because he wants us to use our brains and think a little. And one of the questions I really wish evangelicals would consider more seriously is that of overpopulation. The honest truth is that even if we believe in God (and I of course don't), we really have no idea if God would frown upon birth control or not. It wasn't even a concept when last he supposedly spoke to us. So assuming he'd be opposed to it seems just as presumptuous as assuming he'd be in favor of it.

In matters in which the Bible is silent, it seems to me that even religious humans should use their brains, rather than trying to interpret the Bible to render an opinion on something that hadn't been thought of two thousand years ago.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Christian Nation, finished

An update to my prior thoughts on Christian Nation. I finished it today, and I'm pleased to say that around 75% through the book (I'm reading it on my iPhone), it became pretty creepy and interesting. The author finally eased off on the "lawyer stuff" (the long, thoroughly detailed description of how the "Christian Nation" came to be, complete with endless lawyerly explanation) and got down to drama and action. It still wasn't quite as gripping as it should have been, but the last quarter was decent enough reading. It seems to me that if the first part of the book had been cut down and made less like an essay, and had the characters been somewhat better drawn, it could have been a good book. As it is, it's a long, hard road to get to the good stuff.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pat Robertson, still crazy after all these years

Since I grew up in Virginia Beach, Pat Robertson has been an embarrassment to me as long as I can remember. When I was young, back in the Dark Ages before cable, we had five local stations-- the ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS affiliates, and the Christian Broadcasting Network.When I watched reruns of Gilligan's Island on CBN, they bleeped the word beer. Even as a kid I recognized this was on the wacky side.

Yesterday Pat Robertson said there should be a "vomit" button on Facebook to respond to pictures of gay men kissing. But that's far from the craziest thing he's ever said. Here's a nice list of some of Pat's greatest hits. My favorite? I guess it'd have to be this one:

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

Maybe it's not quite as wacky as bleeping the word beer, but it's darned close:-).

Monday, July 8, 2013

Christian Nation

I bought Christian Nation: A Novel the minute I heard about it, because it sounded like a fascinating premise. Although I don't really think there's much chance of dominionists taking over America and making it into a "Christian nation," I do think that a lot of what is depicted in this novel is an accurate reflection of what the dominionists want. As such, it seems like a useful concept for a novel: Look, this is what evangelicals would like the United States to look like. Terrifying, isn't it?

Unfortunately, it's not living up to the premise, not by a long shot. I'm currently about halfway through, and the book is, sadly, dull as dishwater. Frederic C. Rich is a lawyer, not a novelist, and it shows. Oh, boy, does it show. Rich doesn't really seem to grasp the novel form. The book (written as a fictional memoir) suffers from immense swathes of tell, don't show: This happened. Then this happened. And then this happened. The narrative is only rarely broken up by "dialogue" that's really just the wooden characters speechifying, talking in a stilted way real human beings don't. There's no character development, no genuine effort to give the characters three dimensions. It reads like a history book, and a dry one at that.

In short, it's not at all what I had hoped for when I read the synopsis. Since I own it, I'm slogging my way through it, but it's not a particularly enjoyable experience. I will say that I've been having nightmares about it, so in some way it's disturbing. But I attribute that more to the general scariness of the concept than the writer's execution of the storyline.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"Virgin Tales"

Here's a piece on an upcoming documentary on Showtime called "Virgin Tales." It "follows the Wilson family, American Evangelical Christians who believe not only in waiting until their wedding night to have sex, but even to share their first kiss." The Wilsons, not incidentally, are the founders of the Purity Ball, and in their family Dad is in charge, while the women are "life-givers." It sounds like an interesting look into the more radical patriarchal side of the evangelical movement, and airs on July 23 at 7:30 p.m. if you're interested (and if you have Showtime!).

Friday, July 5, 2013

The commandments of the golden calf

Most of the Old Testament doesn't make a lot of sense if one tries to read it as "history." The Exodus story in particular is full of logical holes, and one of the biggest is the story of the golden calf. God works numerous horrifying but impressive wonders, gets his people out of Egypt, and guides them across the desert with a pillar of fire by night, and a cloud of smoke by day. Moses uses the power of God to part the Red Sea, and the Israelites pass safely through, while Pharaoh's soldiers are drowned. God provides them with miraculously fresh water, manna, and quail as they travel. They see lightning and hear thunder at the top of Mount Sinai, and are given the commandments of God via Moses.

And then, after all that, when Moses is gone from them for a little while, they immediately forget about God and demand that Aaron fashion them a golden calf... and then they worship it.

Um... what? How dumb are these people, anyway? They've seen God do wonders that would convince pretty much any atheist that God was real. They've had God marching through the desert beside them, in the guise of a pillar of fire. God has given them food out of nothing, and water out of rocks. And yet they turn around and worship a silly little golden calf. How could anyone be so stupid as to disbelieve at that point? It makes no sense.

Well, it makes no sense if read literally. The Hebrews would have to be dumb as stumps not to recognize that Yahweh existed, if the story of Exodus were literally true. When you've been escorted through the desert by a pillar of fire, and fed by the hand of God, you don't suddenly begin to worship an inanimate object. The obvious answer to this conundrum is that these miracles grew in the retelling, as stories usually do, and seem much more incredible in the final written version than they really were to the Hebrews. (That's assuming the Exodus ever actually happened at all-- there is no archaeological evidence of a large group of people passing through this region, and a group this size tramping around for forty years would surely leave behind massive evidence.)

Read less literally, this is more reasonably interpreted as the story of two different priesthoods battling for supremacy. Perhaps a small group of Hebrews left Egypt and wandered around, and some of these events actually happened, in less supernatural form, but there was a religious divide. It would hardly be surprising if some of the Hebrews still followed the religion of their forebears, while others had picked up Egyptian traditions after several hundred years. Bull worship was common among cultures of this time and place, so this could easily be a religion some of the Hebrews had learned from the Egyptians.

Had the golden calf side won, all those miracles would probably be attributed to his glittery goodness and held up as proof of his power, and the Hebrews would have abided by whatever commandments the golden calf (or more accurately his priesthood) declared to be law. But because Yahweh's priests won, the Old Testament claims all those miracles for him, and his commandments (or rather his priests' commandments) became the law. This scenario makes far more sense to me than the rather silly notion that all these stories should be taken as literal truth.

Ohio School Board changes their mind

Friendly Atheist reported that the Springboro, Ohio School Board thought better of their Christian-based course on the Constitution. Good for them, and better for all the people who complained. But the real wonder is that anyone on a school board would think this was a good idea, or even remotely constitutional, to begin with.

And people wonder why atheists have to be "militant"!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"From Biblical absolutes to humanistic relativism"

Just a little more on that "Constitution" course the School Board in Springboro, Ohio is offering as a summer course. Here's a handy link showing just what the course involves. It purports to help students "(l)earn the role of civil government by considering the U.S. Constitution and its limits on government." To do this, the lecturers "establish the premises for properly understanding the Constitution, by exposing students to the Biblical Worldview of America’s Founders and the writings that influenced them."

Of the twelve lectures, one is devoted to "The Religious Beliefs of the Founding Fathers," and one can safely infer that the rest of the lectures are based heavily around Christianity. In fact, the eleventh lecture deals with "The Crisis of the Constitution: From Biblical Absolutes to Humanistic Relativism," and then the twelfth lecture is entitled "Reclaiming the Constitution: How Do We Approach the Restoration of the American Constitutional Republic?" One guesses the answer has to do with getting rid of that troublesome "humanistic relativism." But one really doesn't have to guess, as the synopsis adds helpfully: "By gaining an understanding of the foundational principles and the worldview of America’s founders, students will see that a worldview revolution has occurred which has caused the Constitution to be widely misinterpreted and misunderstood in today’s world. The course concludes with a roadmap for restoration of our Constitutional Republic."

I'll say it again-- it is outrageous that any public school system would think this was a reasonable use of taxpayer funds, or an appropriate course to teach in public schools. It is pseudohistory shown through a distorted evangelical Christian lens, propaganda rather than history, and it has no business being taught in any public school.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"There is a God, the God of the Bible"

Friendly Atheist has a post about a summer course on the Constitution, from the Institute on the Constitution, which was approved by the Springboro School Board in Ohio. The flyer talks about our "Godly American heritage," which should have been a clue to the school board that this was not appropriate for public schools. But even better is the website for the Institute on the Constitution, which can be found here and which says this in its header: "There is a God, the God of the Bible. Our rights come from Him. The purpose of civil government is to secure these God-given rights."

Under "Who we are," the site adds: "We believe that by understanding the way in which the framers of our Constitutional Republic viewed their relationship to God, to other sovereign states, to their families and to each other, we can gain valuable and practical insight into the foundational principles of America...Let us, first of all, thank God for the freedoms that He has allowed us to retain and let’s begin to recover the lost tools of self-government by learning about our place in His history... participants in the Institute on the Constitution series can begin and continue the challenging but rewarding and Godly task of restoring our lost freedoms and passing on our Constitutional heritage of freedom to future generations of free Americans."

Oh, sure, that's appropriate material for the public schools. Of course it is. Because the Constitution is all about God and the Ten Commandments, and everyone in colonial America was an evangelical Christian. Everyone knows that-- it's just those nasty secular humanists who distort history and pretend Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine didn't believe every bit of the Bible literally. Thank heaven for the Institute on the Constitution, who will help us restore our lost freedoms and make sure everyone knows there's only one god, and that America's all about Christianity! (Anyone who's not Christian should obviously just go somewhere else. Shoo! Shoo!)

*Headdesk* Why on Earth would a school board think this was an appropriate class for public schools? Seriously? Why???

Monday, July 1, 2013

Go, and sin no more

Today, Deity Shmeity talks about morality, and whether it's objective or subjective. He concludes that a moral standard is necessary, and says, "I define right conduct as simply that which benefits others more than it harms. Wrong conduct is obviously that which harms others more than it benefits."

Well put. It is possible that there is no objective right and wrong, in the grand scheme of things ("nature, red in tooth and claw" is predicated on harming others, after all, and like it or not we are part of nature), but in order for us to have a functioning society, there must be rules. And most truly sensible rules boil down to what is usually called the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or as the Wiccan Rede puts it, "An it harm none, do what ye will." Heinlein touched on this concept with his usual bluntness: "Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other 'sins' are invented nonsense." The Golden Rule was not invented by Christianity, though Christians like to pretend it's exclusive to their religion; it has appeared time and again in numerous ethical traditions.

This rule allows an egalitarian society to flourish without too much conflict. Of course people will "sin" and harm others, because people are not perfect-- a point on which Christianity is correct, though to me thinking of people as born sinners who should all go to a fiery eternal damnation without Jesus' intervention is a bit much. But we all do wrong sometimes, even if our wrongs are only failing to return library books on time and occasionally parking in a loading zone, and this is why laws and punishment are necessary. It would be nice if our laws were based more on the Golden Rule, and less on silly religious ideas, especially as the latter often actively do harm people.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

In the beginning, God created the heavens and Mars

This article discusses the idea that astronomy has slowly undercut humanity's belief that we are central to the cosmos, and discusses the possibility that life (in this solar system, at least) might have actually originated on Mars. How could that happen? The article explains:

Now evidence indicates that billions of years ago, Mars had water and atmospheric conditions that could, theoretically, have supported life. Meteor strikes have meanwhile caused serial ejections of material from Earth to Mars and from Mars to Earth, meaning it's possible (possible) that microbial life actually originated on Mars, which subsequently became inhospitable to it, and landed from there on Earth.

This is highly speculative, of course, but still, it's an interesting idea. Not only are we humans more or less afterthoughts in the grand scheme of things on Earth, rather than the central and primary creations that the writers of the Bible assumed, but the origin of life may have actually been elsewhere. It's hard to see how the Bible could be used to explain that, isn't it?

The "marriage revolution"

Here's an article on how conservative Christians are girding themselves to deal with "the marriage revolution." Essentially, they realize that gay marriage is bound to be legalized across the country, but they're not happy about it. The article makes reference to the florist who refused to provide flowers to a gay couple's wedding in March, who says, apparently straight-faced, "I was not discriminating at all. I never told him he couldn’t get married. I gave him recommendations for other flower shops."

I also found this statistic interesting: "When Christian researchers at the Barna Group asked Americans aged 16-29 what words best describe Christianity, the top response was 'anti-homosexual.'" But that apparently doesn't discourage religious conservatives. The president of the so-called National Organization for Marriage says optimistically, "I don’t believe most Christians are going to give up the fight. And they are more energized than ever."

Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said that the first step "is learning to defend traditional marriage without demonizing gays and lesbians." What these people don't seem to get, though, is that there's no way to say "marriage equals one man and one woman" without offending gays (and anyone who supports gay marriage) and, yes, demonizing gay marriage. You can't call heterosexual marriage "traditional" and "God-designed" and claim it's the only moral possibility, and then say in the next breath that you don't want to denigrate gays. It just doesn't work.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

For God so loved the world...

Christian theology revolves around the notion that God created this planet, and the people on it, deliberately, and that he loves us as his own children (despite a rather nasty effort at drowning the population once upon a time). Some fundamentalists believe literally in the Bible, but even liberal Christians tend to believe that God made creation with us in mind, and that he loves each of us in a personal and highly attentive way. God notices each sparrow's fall, Jesus assures us, and we humans are worth so much more than mere sparrows.

This sort of thinking made sense back when people believed the Earth was the center of the universe, that  the visible planets revolved around the Earth, and that stars were set "in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness." But our understanding of the universe now is somewhat different, and decidedly clearer, than that which our nomadic forebears possessed.

According to this article on Universe Today, the Milky Way (which is an average-sized galaxy) is believed to consist of approximately 400 billion stars. The observable universe (that part of the universe which we can see) contains more than 170 billion galaxies, which means there are approximately a septillion stars in the universe-- a number so large that human minds can't begin to comprehend it. Even Douglas Adams, genius that he was, didn't quite get the idea across with his famous explanation that space is "vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big."

The article goes on to explain that the universe may be much bigger than we can actually observe-- possibly infinitely large. And then there are all those other possible universes as well. So why do we still imagine God created all this impossible vastness just for us? It seems pretty clear that we're no more than a very small and very irrelevant grain of sand in the cosmos. If there is a god, it seems highly unlikely he created all this for us, and that our tiny planet is somehow central to his great plan.

In fact, it seems profoundly unlikely this hypothetical god has even noticed us.

A slippery slope... and why not?

Here's an article on Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia gubernatorial candidate and VA Attorney General, who filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court that "laid out an argument against the constitutionality of allowing same-sex couples to marry." The article says that Cuccinelli and Greg Zoeller, the authors of the brief, "used a novel justification to make their point in one section of the 55-page brief — namely that gay marriage could lead to polygamy."

Specifically, they wrote: "Responsible parenting is not a justification for same-sex-couple marriage, as distinguished from recognition of any other human relationships. It is instead a rationale for eliminating marriage as government recognition of a limited set of relationships. Once the natural limits that inhere in the relationship between a man and a woman can no longer sustain the definition of marriage, the conclusion that follows is that any grouping of adults would have an equal claim to marriage."

This may or may not be a "novel justification" in law, but it's hardly a new idea if you spend any time on the internet and read the foaming-at-the-mouth ravings of anti-gay commenters on any Yahoo article. Such commenters often rant angrily of the slippery slope effect. "If you let gays marry, then people will be able to marry their five-year-old children, or their dogs, or fifteen neighbors!" Since marriage has to involve consenting adults, there is no real danger of anyone being permitted to legal marrying small children or animals. But the "slippery slope" issue as it pertains to polygamy is a legitimate one, and in fact it raises the question, why not?

Polygamy is not an unusual or shocking idea. It's been practiced by many human cultures, although because men have traditionally had most of the wealth and power, it's almost invariably polygyny rather than polyandry. Furthermore, it's clear from how many people "cheat" in supposedly monogamous relationships that seeking multiple partners is not an unnatural tendency by any means. It's also a popular subject in erotica (you can find examples by searching on Amazon for "menage"), and there are people who engage in polyamorous relationships all over the United States. You can even make a very reasonable argument that it's a Biblically sanctioned form of marriage (not that atheists care, but many of the people foaming at the mouth should).

In short, there's nothing innately wrong with polygamy, though a lot of Americans have a knee-jerk opposition to it because the only polygamy they've ever heard about is radical Mormon men living in isolation with ten barely adolescent child brides. Clearly, men marrying children is wrong, whether they marry one or a dozen. But polygamy, a form of marriage in which men and women can love and marry freely-- what's wrong with that?

Apparently quite a lot, judging from the Wikipedia article on the subject. In practice, polygamy often seems to typically involve child marriage. An extensive quote from Wikipedia:

"Polygamy has been condemned as being a form of human rights abuse, with concerns arising over domestic abuse, forced marriage, and neglect. The vast majority of the world's countries, including virtually all of the world's developed nations, do not permit polygamy, and there have been growing calls for the abolition of polygamy in many developing countries...Many international human rights organisations as well as Women's rights groups in many countries have called for its abolition where it still lingers. The practice has also been explicitly ruled to be a violation of the internationally binding ICCPR, for polygamy violates human dignity and equality, and the United Nations has thusly recommended that the practice be abolished everywhere by sovereign states."

Once again, we seem to be defining polygamy as a way of subjugating and abusing women. Perhaps it's often been this way in practice (and so, I would add, has monogamous marriage, which often treats women as property rather than as people), but there's no reason it should be this way in the United States if legalized (at least no more than monogamous marriage, which also can lead to abuse and subjugation, alas). Voluntary polygamy among consenting adults seems to me no more likely to lead to abusive situations than voluntary monogamous relationships. Indeed, it might lead to less abuse-- abuse thrives on isolation, and it's likely easier for an abuser to dominate and subjugate one spouse than five or six of them. Of course, this wouldn't be true of a single man with numerous women from a church that tells them they must submit to their husband's will. I will admit I'm thinking here of true polygamy-- several men and several women in a group-- without the taint of fundamentalist religion involved. To my knowledge this has never been tried on a large scale before.

Unlike gay marriage, however, there are some practical issues with legalizing polygamy. Our society is set up on the assumption that every person can only have one spouse (at a time, anyway!). If polygamy were allowed, the tax system would have to change, and so would health insurance (you could hardly expect insurance companies to cover ten spouses for the price of one). Divorce and wills would become far more complex-- dividing up property amongst ten people, and determining custody of children, is not as easy as splitting it up between two. These are difficult, but not insuperable problems. And they are very probably problems we will have to deal with, sooner or later. If several consenting adults want to marry each other, why are they less entitled to that right than any two consenting adults?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Faith healing is murder

Here's an article on a couple who've been charged with third degree murder in the death of their baby, who died of pneumonia because they believed in "faith healing" rather than proper medical care. The kicker is that they were already on probation for a similar 2009 death of a child (the charge then was manslaughter). They are members of a church "teaches that healing comes from prayer and that reliance on medicine or doctors demonstrates a lack of faith in God."

The wife was released on bail, but the husband remains on jail, because the judge apparently bought the defense attorney's argument that the wife "was less culpable in her children's deaths because of church teachings that a wife must be 'submissive to her husband.'" Shouldn't law matter more than church doctrine? I think women should be held responsible for their misdeeds exactly as men should. Women are not children, and the law shouldn't treat them as such. Unless he was abusive, it's hard to justify this. But then again, we get into a sticky gray area, as I tend to think pretty much all religious belief that women should be "submissive to their husbands" equates to abuse-- emotional, if not physical.

The judge also justified his decision by saying that "I have to think about the welfare of these (seven remaining) children...These children have one mother and one father, and I don't think it's necessarily a good thing that for months, they have had virtually no contact with either parent."

Say what? I think it's a damn good thing, personally. These are people who are allowing their children to die. Calling it "faith healing" and trying to give it a glaze of respectability by labeling it religious doesn't justify it. The "welfare" of the children is best served by keeping the parents as far away from them as possible. If these people had allowed their children to die because they were busy watching a SyFy marathon of "Star Trek" and couldn't be bothered to take the kids to the doctor, would the judge have the same attitude? I suspect not. I doubt the mother would be out on jail, and I suspect (though I admit to not knowing anything about law) that the charges might have been tougher, too. I would certainly think letting a baby die should be more than "manslaughter."

We as a society need to stop letting this happen. I don't know how. At a minimum we need tougher penalties for parents, no second chances, and maybe some penalties for churches who teach this crap, too (could they be charged with fraud? could the pastor be charged as an accessory to murder?). At the very least, parents who've let a child die because of "faith healing" should not be allowed within a five-mile radius of their other children ever again.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A conservative Christian lexicon

A list of words and phrases co-opted by ultraconservatives that have happened to jump out at me lately. Snark warning. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, you keep using these words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean:

Marriage. Real marriage only involves one man and one woman. Gay "marriage" (notice the quotes) is, of course, not real marriage. The idea of gay "marriage" undercuts the true, God-given meaning of marriage and will eventually destroy our society and probably lead to the fiery destruction of the whole world as well.

Family. Two parents and as many children as God chooses to give them. Gay parents with children are very decidedly excluded from this definition. Any group with "family" in the title is properly outraged at depictions of sex in the media (though sexual content in the Bible is of course perfectly okay). It's not enough to shield your own children-- other people's kids need to be shielded as well, whether those kids' parents agree or not. (If those parents are okay with sexual content in books and on television, they're probably secular humanists, and their kids really need help anyway.)

Freedom of speech. The freedom (for conservatives) to say what one wants, without any limitations, and without pushback or argument from those who disagree. For example, Christians have the freedom (and indeed the obligation) to say gay sex is icky. No one else has the right to argue with them.

Religious freedom. The right to push one's religion on others, no matter the event or holiday. Since this is a Christian nation, this only applies to Christians (and of course only Bible-believing Christians count-- liberal Christians, Mormons, and other weirdos are not entitled to an opinion). Also, the right to freely discriminate against gays, interracial couples, or anyone who uses birth control. Again, no discussion or debate can be permitted, because any sort of argument unjustly undercuts this right. If I run a restaurant, for example, I have the unfettered freedom to deny service to gays because they're sinners, but no one has the right to boycott my restaurant to protest my actions. Summed up in the popular expression, "Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion," which means "I have the right to tell you about my religion, but you don't have the right to tell me about yours."

A life of rebellion. In which women go back to living as they did in the nineteenth century, eschew feminism, and accept that their best destiny is to stay home with the kids. Rebel, ladies, and do another load of laundry.

The homosexual agenda. Any acknowledgement that gay people exist. Articles that mention gay people, depictions of homosexuality in the media, and commercials that show happy, smiling gay people who don't appear to be going directly to Hell are all examples of this, and symptoms of the terrible decay of our society.

The liberal agenda. Similar to the above, except an acknowledgment that other yucky things exist as well-- for example, a Cheerios commercial depicting a happy interracial family. Also a symptom of cultural decay. Things were so much better in the fifties!

Purity. Accepting that once you have sex before marriage, you're like a filthy glass of water someone's spat into. Sex is dirty and bad and stomach-turning till your wedding night-- then you're going to love it. If you don't, tough.

Historical revisionism. The erroneous assertion that American history didn't revolve exclusively around Christians and Christianity, and that our Constitution is not based directly on the Ten Commandments. Also, an emphasis in historical studies on people of non-European descent-- people whom everyone knows had no real effect on our history whatsoever. And finally, also the deliberate attempt by liberals to recast Christian founding fathers as deists and Enlightenment thinkers, rather than Biblical literalists.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

God and genocide

During the last week of school, my high schooler and middle schooler both had units on genocide. (I remember when the last week of school was mostly relaxing, watching videos, and having pizza parties. Studying genocide seems like an odd way to round off the year. But I digress.)  I asked them if genocide could ever be a good thing.

They both looked rather horrified at the question, and answered, "Of course not."

"So," I said, "did God ever commit genocide?"

This led into a discussion of genocide in the Bible-- the Flood came readily to their minds, but we touched on the Hebrews' trip to the Promised Land, too, and all the peoples they supposedly killed off along the way with God's blessing and encouragement. We talked about how bad God's supposed behavior was, and how a god worth worshipping couldn't possibly commit genocide.

Back when I was a Lutheran, I had to try to explain Biblical stories like the Flood and the Plagues to my kids. But I never managed to explain satisfactorily, to them or to myself, how a merciful and loving God could do such things. As a liberal Christian, I eventually concluded these stories probably weren't literally true, because those actions were so clearly not the actions of a good entity. I figured the people back in Old Testament times just didn't have a clear grasp on the nature of God, and thus attributed things to him that really weren't his fault. (You don't have to be a mythology expert to perceive that less scientifically sophisticated peoples tended to attribute every bad aspect of nature, from winter to floods to volcanoes, to the actions of deities.) I also had to assure myself no one could possibly actually go to hell, because an eternity of suffering as a punishment for a relatively very brief life didn't make any sense to me either.

The problem, as I've said before, is that once you throw out all the cruelty and horror from the Bible, there's really not much left to believe in. What really astounds me is that people can believe in the literal truth of the Bible-- from casting two virtually newborn people out into the harsh world, unarmed and helpless; to drowning almost the entire population; to God's "chosen people" moving across a land, murdering and raping anyone they come across; to God in his "love and mercy" throwing hapless souls into hell for an eternity of burning in agony-- and still somehow imagine that God is worthy of worship.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Texas' "Merry Christmas" law

This article states that Texas Governor Rick Perry just signed the "Merry Christmas" bill into law. The law "removes legal risks of saying 'Merry Christmas' in (public) schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, so long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected." This article clarifies that the law says "a school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including 'Merry Christmas,' 'Happy Hanukkah,' and 'happy holidays.'" Perry was quoted as saying, "Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion," a popular conservative line that apparently means "religious freedom means we ought to be free to shove our religion down other people's throats as often as possible."

This seems to be yet another law that feeds the Christian persecution complex by "legalizing" stuff that isn't illegal anyway, as Friendly Atheist pointed out way back in December of last year, when the law was first proposed. As far as I know, school districts have always been able to teach kids about the "history of traditional winter celebrations." History is fine-- the real issue is proselytizing, and, the big problem is that this sort of history often emphasizes Christmas and its religious aspects at the expense of other celebrations. (I saw no mention of Yule or Kwanzaa in either article, though for all I know they could be mentioned in the law itself.) The fact that it's being called the "Merry Christmas" bill does not bode well for Texas' commitment to teaching about "traditional winter celebrations" other than Christmas. (Nor does the fact that the Kountze High School cheerleaders were invited to the signing, and Perry reportedly said the law was for believers like them.)

I'm not a fan of the idea that nativity scenes are okay on public property "so long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected," but it does seem to follow the current rulings laid out by the courts, and FFRF seems to be generally okay with displays along these lines, more as a compromise than as an ideal. But as Friendly Atheist pointed out, unless the law clearly states that these displays must be equal in size and prominence, then you could have a ten-foot Nativity scene with a tiny little two-inch menorah and a half-inch secular symbol, and that would presumably be okay under this law-- but not, I would think, under any sensible court's ruling.

And I haven't heard of teachers being sued for saying "Merry Christmas." I do wonder if they will be discouraged (subtly or otherwise) from saying "Happy Yule" or "Happy Kwanzaa," though. Alas, Texas is not generally known for its tolerance of other belief systems. Buried down in the Fox News article is this revealing tidbit about Texas lawmakers:

During the last Sunday of the legislative session on May 26, Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, gave the Texas House's daily prayer. 

"We are fortunate to live in a country where we have the freedom to exercise the religion of our choosing while also being free from having any religion imposed upon us," said Howard, herself a Unitarian Universalist. 

Her words prompted some conservative lawmakers to hold their own, separate prayer session moments later.

If Texas lawmakers can't bear to even listen to a Unitarian prayer extolling religious freedom without holding another prayer session moments later, they're not exactly models of tolerance toward different religions, are they?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Southern Baptists and Scouting

The Southern Baptist convention meets this week, and is widely expected to present a resolution against supporting the Boy Scouts. Many Scout troops, of course, have been sponsored by Southern Baptist churches, so this will be a blow to the Scouts. One church in Georgia has already decided to stop sponsoring a troop it has sponsored for thirteen years, and its pastor explains that "that the problem with the new policy is not that it would allow gay Scouts, but that it would not allow Scout masters to counsel those Scouts to 'live a life of sexual purity according to Scripture.'" The new policy "'condones homosexuality as being consistent with the Scout oath of duty to God and moral uprightness.'"

Yeah, I can see the problem. No doubt these kids would be far better off being told they're immoral pondscum for being gay, and would benefit by having authority figures try to push them into a life of lonely abstinence. Sadly, they're being deprived of this wonderful and uplifting message, and are being told they're just fine the way they are instead. What a terrible thing to do to children *rolls eyes*.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Another valedictorian, another outcome

From Friendly Atheist. A valedictorian in Texas, probably inspired by Roy Costner, began to deviate from his preapproved speech and had his microphone turned off as a result. He apparently began to talk about "freedom of speech" as well as God, Jesus and his religious faith. The school says that the decision to cut off the mike had nothing to do with the religious content of his speech, as "other students were allowed to make religious comments which had been pre-approved." They were also all warned in advance that if they deviated from the pre-approved speech, the mic would be cut, as his was.

Judging from the things he said, this young man seems to feel that the pre-approval of speeches constitutes a violation of his right to freedom of speech. He said, "I worked hard to earn the right to address you all tonight as valedictorian and have the constitutional right, like any of you, to freely speak." But that's not really the case, is it? Valedictorians don't have a free and unlimited right to use their moment in the spotlight for anything they want to discuss, and never have. No reasonable person would support the right of a valedictorian to lecture for ten minutes on her theory that the Holocaust never happened, or to talk about how great he thought Fast and Furious 6 was, or to discuss the care and breeding of Australian Cattle Dogs. Nor would any reasonable person agree that a valedictorian should have the right to harangue the audience for three hours on any subject. The right to speech in this case is granted and limited by the school, and that's as it should be, or kids could get up on stage and derail the graduation ceremony with any craziness that came to mind.

So yes, of course this young man has a right to freedom of speech in general. He can go around praising Jesus all day long on the streets of his town, if he likes. But the school has a right, and in fact a responsibility, to limit the length and content of valedictory speeches and ensure that they are appropriate to the occasion. "Freedom of speech" isn't really the issue here, as it's not unreasonable for the school to ask its speakers to abide by certain rules, up to and including pre-approving the speech for length and content. If you want to talk at length about Jesus, or give a two-hour lecture on how to breed Australian Cattle Dogs, or whatever, you are free to do it on your own time.

In this case, as the school had no way of knowing what the young man would say, and as he'd been warned in advance that he needed to stick to his pre-approved speech, it was entirely reasonable of them to cut the microphone.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Challenges to remaining Christian, and why I didn't

Daylight Atheist lists the "biggest challenges to remaining Christian," as compiled by evangelical blogger Peter Enns. The points are listed here, in bold and italics, and my own thoughts follow. As I was a liberal Christian, not a fundamentalist one, some of these had more of an effect on my long, slow deconversion than others:

1.The Bible, namely inerrancy. This was less of a problem for me than it would have been for an evangelical, as I never believed in the inerrancy of the Bible. When I was a child, my Episcopalian mother, who had also been an English teacher at the local college, would often rant that the creation story was clearly intended as a metaphor, and would complain that fundamentalists "had no sense of poetry." When I became a Lutheran as an adult, believing in the literal truth of the Bible from beginning to end would have been way too much for me to swallow. Fortunately most ELCA Lutherans don't believe this anyway. I did have some issues, though-- as I've said elsewhere, the difficulties of trying to explain to my oldest child why I took some parts of the Bible as literal truth and not others eventually caused me to admit that there was no real logic in my position. In some ways it may be simpler to be a Biblical literalist-- "this is all the perfect, inerrant Word of God" may be an easier logical position to defend than, "Some of this is just stories told by unsophisticated Bronze Age nomads, but some of it is Absolute Truth." Either way, it can be a stumbling block for anyone who allows logic to override their faith.

2. The conflict between the biblical view of the world and scientific models. Again, never a huge issue for me, as I never took the Bible to be literal, and never believed in a 6000-year-old universe or a real worldwide flood or anything like that. I did find myself with a logical problem when it came to evolution, though. If evolution is really directed entirely by random natural selection, then God could have had nothing to do with the development of the world at all (save possibly to put it in motion, as deists believe). If God directed natural selection, on the other hand, then the evolutionary theory was in fact flat-out wrong, as it wasn't random at all. In short, I found it impossible to reconcile natural selection with the idea that God had designed this world, and humanity, deliberately. Also, it became more and more obvious to me that humans could have had very little to do with the world's existence, since we showed up many billions of years after it was created. This suggested that humans were not high on God's to-do list, if he even existed.

3. Where is God? A number of you, largely in emails, wrote of personal experiences that would tax to the breaking point anyone’s faith in a living God who is just, attentive, and loving. This was the big one for me. As my husband lay dying of cancer in the hospital, my pastor tried valiantly to explain to me why a decent, kind, gentle man with four small children would be stricken by cancer at a young age. "Original sin" and "the Garden of Eden" was the best he could do, none of which made any sense to me. First of all, no Lutheran I knew believed in the literal truth of the Garden of Eden. But assuming he was speaking metaphorically, and merely meant the general sinfulness humans are prone to, that still didn't explain why God would strike down this particular human. If it wasn't God's hand at work directly, then where was God? Why didn't he intervene? What had my good, hard-working, church-attending husband ever done to deserve a slow and painful death by cancer, any more than anyone else did? The obvious answer was that he didn't deserve it, and the realization that it was simply random chance eventually helped me make sense of it all, far more than belief in God's supposed plan for our lives did.

4. How Christians behave. It bothers me now, but it didn't bother me much then. I had a lovely church community that helped me through my husband's death, and they were all pretty nice people. I rolled my eyes at the fundamentalist ideas I read about, but thought of them as a small, radical fringe group without much real effect on politics. I am more aware of their influence on public policy now, and it worries me, but it had no particular effect on my own deconversion because I honestly wasn't paying enough attention.

5. The exclusivism of Christianity. As a liberal Christian, I worked my way around this one. I never wanted to think that nonbelievers were going to hell, nor did I like to imagine that the presumably merciful God of Christianity would allow it. I felt that the assurance that "with God all things are possible" meant that everyone would be saved in the end. After all, "for God so loved the world that he gave his only son..." so naturally if he loved the world that much, everyone had to wind up in Heaven in the end. Again my teenaged daughter came to the rescue by pointing out it was Jesus  himself who said those who didn't believe in him would go to hell (which he repeatedly describes as a place of fire and torment), and if I didn't take Jesus' words literally, what did I actually believe, anyway? I eventually concluded that the answer to that question was, "Not much."