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."

And yet more on the valedictorian

In this Fox News article, valedictorian Roy Costner IV is quoted as saying he spoke the Lord's prayer at his high school graduation because "I want this to glorify God. I want to use this as a witnessing tool and I hope others will stand up for God in our nation."

Is a graduation really the appropriate place for a "witnessing tool"? I think this is the most annoying thing about this trend of insisting upon uttering public prayers everywhere-- "witnessing" takes away from the event itself. A graduation should be about, you know, graduation. It's a ceremony to celebrate young people's achievements, and to rejoice that they're moving on to adulthood. Why must prayers be inflicted on a captive audience that way? No one is telling anyone they can't pray before and afterward with their family-- I'm sure plenty of kids and their families do. But why force everyone to listen? It may not be unconstitutional (it probably isn't, if it's genuinely student-led), but it's rude.

People like this seem to have a hard time understanding just why it's rude, probably because Christianity is the dominant religion in America (and especially in small towns), and Christians tend to assume that everyone else is Christian too. But imagine a Wiccan valedictorian getting up in front of a large crowd and reciting the Long Rede, or a Muslim student quoting extensively from the Koran. It's hard to imagine there would be cheering, and it's easy enough to imagine that there might be a coldly disappproving silence punctuated with booing and hissing, and that some people might actually walk out. It's also easy to imagine that the school administrators wouldn't just quietly sit there and ignore the incident. Security could be called to escort the student off stage, and there might be repercussions afterward as well.

In this scenario, it's unlikely that students would be publicly praising the valedictorian for his or her courage, and parents and the school administration would probably be scrambling to make sure it never happened again. And I wouldn't blame them. A graduation isn't the place for proselytizing-- it makes the event all about the proselytizer, rather than the kids who are graduating. If you want to "glorify God," there are plenty of opportunities to do it on your own time. You don't need to take away from everyone else's moment (and coincidentally make a media star of yourself) to do it.

If only Christians could understand that people of other beliefs are just as uncomfortable about having Christian prayers shoved in their faces as Christians would be if forced to sit through Wiccan or Muslim prayers, America might be a better place. Let's hope that other kids won't be inspired to "stand up for God" in this fashion, and that most graduations continue to focus on the graduates, rather than on "glorifying" God.

I don't call that a "tussle"

On Fox News, I saw the following headline: RELIGIOUS TUSSLE: Atheist Display to Rival 10 Commandments at Court. I was immediately concerned that the agreement to display an atheist monument alongside the Ten Commandments monument in Bradford County, FL must have hit a snag.

But no, when I clicked on the link, it was just a rundown on the atheist monument that will be erected there, with this rather nice conclusion:

"The Community Men's Fellowship, the group that erected the Ten Commandments display, made a Facebook post in March that thanked those who supported the monument and stated, 'God worked this out...We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don't be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It's their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that's what matters,' the post read."

There was, of course, a bit of a "tussle" in the past, but a reasonable solution has been reached (though I join a lot of atheists in preferring no monuments of a religious nature on public land rather than a clutter of varied religious/secular monuments), and the Community Men's Fellowship are being good sports about it. Good for them.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Supporters of religious freedom"

Buried in this AP article on a same-sex couple suing a bakery which wouldn't sell them a wedding cake is this sentence: As more states move to legalize same-sex marriage and civil unions, the case highlights a growing tension between gay rights advocates and supporters of religious freedom.

Um, that's kind of a loaded phrase there, isn't it? "Supporters of religious freedom" makes bigotry sound dignified, almost noble, as if the bakery is courageously standing up for a brave and just cause.  Apparently these people aren't bigots; they're merely supporting religious freedom-- and who in America could possibly be against that? Furthermore, the whole sentence seems to suggest that "gay rights advocates" and "supporters of religious freedom" are two discrete and distinct groups, like two circles in a Venn diagram with no overlap. Is it impossible to want gay rights and religious freedom? Does supporting one require trashing the other? Or is there a false dichotomy being hinted at here?

Mark Silverstein of the ACLU points out the problem with this in the next paragraph: "We are all entitled to our religious beliefs and we fight for that. But someone's personal religious beliefs don't justify breaking the law by discriminating against others in the public sphere."

Exactly. If this bakery claimed their religion prohibited them from selling a wedding cake to an interracial couple, would the AP still characterize them as "supporters of religious freedom"? Somehow I doubt it. But in this case, the AP seems to have swallowed and regurgitated the phrase without analysis or thought, which is unfortunate.

He has received his reward in full

Remember the South Carolina high school student who tore up his pre-approved speech and instead offered up the Lord's Prayer in his valedictory speech? Here's another article on him on CNN. He's quoted as saying, "I wanted to stand up for God. This is what God wanted me to do," and added, "Taking prayer out of schools is the worst thing we could do."

 The FFRF disagrees, and calls what he did "unconstitutional" (highly debatable, in my opinion) as well as "aggressive" and "supremely rude" (no argument here). Students in his class (who are apparently mostly Christian) applauded him and said what he did "took a lot of courage."

The article is preceded by this note: The valedictorian's father, Roy Costner III, appears on "Piers Morgan Live" at 9 ET tonight. His son, Roy Costner IV, appears on CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin at 2 p.m. ET Friday on CNN. The article adds that the younger Costner was "bouncing between interviews and heading to New York for TV appearances." His "courage" has apparently made him famous.

I keep remembering Matthew 6:5 (which directly precedes the Lord's Prayer in the Bible), and chuckling over the irony of it: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full."

Is this really the reward Jesus had in mind?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Abortion and "personhood" legislation

According to this, the unfortunate woman from El Salvador who was forced to go through with her pregnancy despite life-threatening problems delivered the baby (which had no brain) by c-section today. She seems to be stable, though in intensive care, and hopefully she'll be all right. The baby, of course, died five hours after delivery.

Down in the article is buried a very good point that's relevant to the US, and those who seek to pass "personhood" legislation. The Health Minister in El Salvador said: "There are cases of girls that come with ectopic pregnancies and they are left to bleed to death because here it's not allowed to terminate the pregnancy."

An ectopic pregnancy involves the implantation of an embryo in the wrong place in the body, and that would certainly constitute a "person" under "fetal personhood" legislation, which seeks to put fertilized eggs and already-born humans on the same legal footing. According to Wikipedia, about one percent of pregnancies are ectopic (most of those implant in the Fallopian tubes). What is to be done about such pregnancies if the embryo is designated a "person" with independent rights? Will women just be forced to bleed to death? Wikipedia says that in developing countries, "ectopic pregnancies are a major cause of death among women of childbearing age." If we make it impossible for doctors to treat ectopic pregnancies, it seems inevitable that they'll become a major cause of death here, too.

The myth of the resurrection

Christianity is built around the concept of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus famously said, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die".

 You could, of course, argue that conservative Christianity is especially dependent on this concept. If Jesus' body were found tomorrow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd never risen from the dead, liberal Christians (who don't worry too hard about the literal truth of the Bible anyway) would probably say, "Yes, but he lived a great life and taught us so many wonderful things!" But really, if Jesus wasn't resurrected, the whole religion crumbles and becomes meaningless, because Jesus' supposed sacrifice of death and his triumphant resurrection is at the heart of Christianity. As a Lutheran, I used to recite the Apostles' Creed every week, including these words (this is from the "green book," the LBW, which does not quite match the current version listed on the ELCA website):

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

How exactly does a "resurrection" happen? Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus was dead-- not in a coma, not in shock, but stone dead-- and yet when the tomb was opened days later, he was quite alive. Is this possible? Of course not. By that time, Jesus would have been well and truly brain dead. Wikipedia defines "brain death" thusly: the irreversible end of all brain activity (including involuntary activity necessary to sustain life) due to total necrosis of the cerebral neurons following loss of brain oxygenation.

Notice the term "irreversible" in there. I'm no doctor, but if you don't breathe, your brain stops getting oxygen, the neurons stop functioning, and within four to six minutes your brain will no longer be of any use. After two days, fairly substantial decomposition of the body would have set in (don't follow the link if you don't want to know the gross details). In short, poisons build up inside you and your cells begin dissolving from the inside out, and after two days of death the rest of your body wouldn't be of much use to you either. The people of that time understood this clearly; when Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus' tomb, his sister objects, "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days."

So for Jesus to be resurrected, God would have to reverse the decay of the body, repairing all those cells that were already destroyed internally, and to restore functioning to long-dead neurons as well. How did he do this? How could he have done this? Saying "it was a miracle" is inadequate. It defies everything we know about medical science and the body. It simply can't be done. A two-day-old corpse is very, very dead, and can't be reanimated.

So why do we pretend this is a reasonable tenet of the Christian faith, when it's clearly absurd? Why do we even admit that it might be a possibility, when it is so clearly not? It's a myth, no more likely to be the truth that the birth of Athena from the splitting of Zeus' skull, and as such it doesn't really deserve to be danced around and given tacit acceptance as a reasonable idea. As Robert A. Heinlein rather unkindly put it: "'But you must respect another man's religious beliefs!' For Heaven's sake, why? Stupid is stupid--faith doesn't make it smart."

I will say I'm not quite as bluntly rude as Heinlein was. If people want to believe in silly things, that's their prerogative. I believed them myself for a while, and I know that reasonable people can believe unreasonable things. But when people come proselytizing to my door, or ridiculous beliefs become the basis for public policy, I don't have a problem with pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, and that Jesus cannot possibly have been resurrected from the dead. Why pretend it's a reasonable belief, when it's not?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Religion, or insanity?

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Here's an article about a man who beat his two-year-old daughter to death (in a room littered with Bibles and "other religious literature"), supposedly in an effort to exorcise a demon he thought had entered her. He also stated that a "bad spirit" had entered him. The court apparently didn't accept either of these explanations, and sentenced him to over twenty years in prison, and deportation after he serves his time.