December 15, 2009

Praise the Lord, but give your money to me

Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts died Tuesday in Newport Beach, Calif., at 91, from complications from pneumonia.

He's most famous for claiming on television in 1987 that God "would call him home" if viewers did not send him millions of dollars.

The obituary in the New York Times said:
He was the patriarch of the “prosperity gospel,” a theology that promotes the idea that Christians who pray and donate with sufficient fervency will be rewarded with health, wealth and happiness. Mr. Roberts trained and mentored several generations of younger prosperity gospel preachers who now have television and multimedia empires of their own.
The hucksters who implore you on TV to max out your credit card so that God can reward your devotion with wealth, those are the ones whom he trained.
As for his purported ability to heal, according to the obituary in New York Times: "Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and other religious denominations questioned the authenticity of the healing. In the mid-1950s, in a step that would become familiar, a group of Arizona ministers offered to pay $1,000 to anyone who had been healed by Mr. Roberts and could provide medical proof. They received no response."
Some of the comments to the NYT obituary:
  • He invested early in the American religion bubble and cashed out a rich man.
  • I remember him as one of the white evangelical leaders who fought tooth-and-nails against MLK and Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (along with Jerry Falwell).
  • One of the great American confidence artists. The mullahs of Iran have nothing on him.How many people did he brainwash out of their hard earned money?
  • One of the greatest flim-flam artists of all time!
Seems like Roberts was in the habit of talking to God or receiving visions from God. He founded Oral Roberts University in 1963, obeying a command from God. (Apparently God had no objection to his self-aggrandizingly naming it after himself. Why didn't God demand that it be named after, say, Jesus?) In 1977, according to Wikipedia, he had a vision from a 900-ft. Jesus to build City of Faith Medical and Research Center and the hospital would be a success. It operated for only eight years before folding.

Also from the wikipedia entry:
Harry McNevin said that in 1988 the ORU Board of Regents "rubber-stamped" the "use of millions in endowment money to buy a Beverly Hills property so that Oral Roberts could have a West Coast office and house." In addition he said a country club membership was purchased for the Robertses' home. The lavish expenses led to McNevin's resignation from the Board.
There's a sucker born every minute, and in the USA there are more charlatans to take advantage of them than in any other country in the planet.

December 11, 2009

Rick Warren gets his comeuppance

Uh, Pastor Rick, you know that commandment that says you shouldn't bear false witness?

You just violated it.

Huffington Post explains:
On Thursday night, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow reviewed Rick Warren's video condemnation of an anti-gay law in Uganda. While she said the statement was "better late than never," she stated that the famous pastor came up a little short.

In his message, Warren claimed to be incredulous that his public opinion on the issue should matter. Maddow showed a clip of Warren saying he never campaigned on the issue of Proposition 8 -- followed immediately by a clip of the pastor telling supporters to vote yes on the gay marriage ban.

Here's the video:


Gotcha.

(By the way, I violently disagreed with Obama choosing Warren to speak at his inauguration. If he had to choose a Christian religious figure, why didn't he go with evangelical Christian and social-justice advocate Jim Wallis instead?)

Rick Warren has sold tens of millions of books selling his "softer" version of Christianity. That means he leavens extreme views about social issues (stem cell research, evolution, same sex marriage, abortion, etc.) with a show of concern about environmentalism and fighting poverty.

See his debate with Sam Harris (author of The End Of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) in Newsweek, where he:
spoke out in favor of creationism. He also said that brutal dictators such as Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot were all atheists, when questioned on whether religion is beneficial to society. In 2005, during the Terri Schiavo controversy, Warren stated that withholding feeding to Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state, was "not a right to die issue". He then called Michael Schiavo's decision to remove her feeding tube, "an atrocity worthy of Nazism", and while speculating about Michael's Schiavo's motives, put forward the idea that Schiavo wanted Terri to die because, if she regained consciousness, she might have "something to say that he didn‘t want said."
I saved the best part for last. Here is a video of philosopher Daniel Dennett's secular rebuttal to Rick Warren.

Christmas Carols and blind faith

But I thought Tea Partiers believed in limited government. Now they want the government to impose the singing of Christmas carols on U.S. schoolchildren? Never mind that many of them, children of U.S. taxpayers, belong to other religions like Judaism, Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Apparently, Merry Hyatt, of the Tea Party movement, wants to crap on the U.S. Constitution. More likely she hasn't read it. (Do these people read anything? I'm afraid to ask.)

The text of the first amendment is as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Read Rachel Weiner's blog entry on it in the Huffington Post.

Not even the cemetery is safe

From the New York Times comes this disturbing article by Simon Romero about robbers looting graves for human bones. Why are they doing such a gruesome thing?
Accompanying Venezuela’s soaring levels of murders and kidnappings, its cemeteries are the setting for a new kind of crime wave. Grave robbers are looting them for human bones, answering demand from some practitioners of a fast-growing transplanted Cuban religion called Palo that uses the bones in its ceremonies.
Palo, according to wikipedia, on two main pillars: 1. The veneration of the spirits of the ancestors. 2. The belief in natural ("earth") powers.

Apparently, Cubans have been going to Venezuela shortly after Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, according to the Christian Science Monitor. (Or the first wave of Cubans were fleeing the revolution in the early 1960s, according to the New York Times article.) They "provide invaluable aid in areas where Cuba's socialist revolution has made internationally recognized strides, such as health and education." But the influx of Cubans also have led to unintended consequences.

Practitioners here of Palo contend their religion is misunderstood and demonized because of the reports of chaos at the Cementerio del Sur.

They acknowledged the importance in their religion of human bones, which they place in a cauldron called a nganga, along with earth and sticks, and dedicate to a spirit, or mpungu. But paleros, as the religion’s adherents are known, shield many of their practices from outsiders.

“We must take care since it is easy to blame paleros for all the ills of Venezuela,” said Samuel Zambrano, 34, a palero leader.

Every day, it seems, brings further proof of the mayhem that religion brings.

Believers know, just know, that their religion is the best one, and all who don't believe in their religion are doomed. Their holy book, whichever it may be, is the only right one.

There is not one shred of evidence to back up their beliefs, but "you have to have faith." On the other hand, when it comes to something that is backed up by tons of evidence (like evolution), they cast the evidence aside because it's not in their holy book. And for those who believe in creationism (or "intelligent design"), check out this presentation by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, at the 2006 Beyond Belief conference.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on examples of "Stupid Design"




It does not bother them that their holy book is full of examples that the people who wrote their holy book apparently knew less about science than the average fourth-grader today.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

I don't care if people believed weird things so long as they don't force us to believe them as well or obey their religion's teachings. But when they seek to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us, I feel I have to object. And you should, too.




December 7, 2009

Oy! A rabbi in Montana!


Montana?

The article, Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana by Eric A. Stern, was on the New York Times most-emailed list.

I think the real lead is somewhat buried, so don't stop reading until you get to the end. Montana now has three rabbis -- two in Bozeman and one (LOL) in Whitefish:
They were all at the Capitol on the first night of last year to light a menorah in the ornate Capitol rotunda

The menorah was lighted and Hebrew prayers chanted, while the officer watched from a distance with his dog. He figured he would let it all go down and then move in when the ceremony was done. The dog sat at attention, watching the ceremony with a peculiar expression on its face, a look of intense interest. When the ceremony was over, the officer approached the Hasidic rabbi.

“I’m Officer John Fosket of the Helena Police,” he said. “This is Miky, our security dog. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Miky, pronounced Mikey, is in a Diaspora of his own. He was born in an animal shelter in Holland and shipped as a puppy to Israel, where he was trained by the Israeli Defense Forces to sniff out explosives. Then one day, Miky got a plane ticket to America. Rather than spend the standard $20,000 on a bomb dog, the Helena Police Department had shopped around and discovered that it could import a surplus bomb dog from the Israeli forces for the price of the flight. So Miky came to his new home in Helena, to join the police force.

The problem, the officer explained, was that Miky had been trained entirely in Hebrew.

The upshot was the Hasidic rabbi wound up "helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue."

It's a good read. A real feel-good story. I heartily recommend it.


December 2, 2009

2nd look: "30 Days" episode

Meditation teacher Jonathan Foust mentioned this episode of "30 Days" in his class recently. You have to give the guy (Dave Stacy) credit for his willingness to be ultimately open-minded. It was a very intense 30 days. He began his journey at West Virginia airport, where he was stopped by security because he was wearing Muslim garb. He had never been discriminated against or profiled before. At the beginning, he felt like a fish out of water. He really had trouble praying the Muslim way. But after 30 days he saw the Muslim-American community of Dearborn as compassionate and good people, and he realized the folly of stereotyping a whole community because of the evil actions of some.

Pardon me while I rant

Can you be good without a belief in God? I think the more pertinent question is can you be good with a belief in God.

In the Nov. 28, 2009, issue of the Washington Post, Columnist Cal Thomas wrote this in response to the American Humanist Association's new "Godless Holiday" campaign:

Actually, no God, BIG problem, because that would mean this life is all there is and, thus, without purpose or meaning and without hope for anything beyond this life. And if there is no God the very idea of "goodness" becomes relative and subject to change. Even dictators think they are doing "good."

The bigger question is: If one can be "good" without God, why bother? Indulge yourself. Be selfish. Be promiscuous. Cheat on your spouse. Cheat on your taxes. Lie and steal. Hate and destroy your enemies. If there is no God, who is to say anything is bad . . . or good?

Let's examine Thomas's argument, which is not even original in its speciousness. It's a rehash of tired old tripes that every agnostic regularly hears.

1. If a belief in God makes us good, let's examine how belief in God makes for a better society. This is what Pitzer College sociology professor Phil Zuckerman found: "We definitely find much lower concentrations of atheism and secularity in poorer, less developed nations than in the richer industrialized democracies." The following paragraphs contain data shamelessly cribbed from Zuckerman's Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.

All of Africa is religious, as is also the Middle East (except Israel, where 75% are not religious. Isn't that interesting?). All of Latin America is religious, except for Argentina (39% say religion is unimportant in their lives).

Rates of atheism and secularity are markedly high in Europe, according to Zuckerman. Sweden (up to 85% non-believer) and Denmark consistently rank near the top of the most atheist countries in the world. In North America, 28% of Canadians are secular. Among Americans, the more educated they are, the more likely that they are to be atheist, agnostic or secular.

Would you rather be stuck alone as a stranger in Sweden or in Saudi Arabia? Data have consistently shown that in terms of societal health (which measures education, health care, crime rates, etc.), the more "atheistic" countries are better than more religious ones.

2. If there is no belief in an afterlife or divine punishment, why bother to be good? When was the last time you said to yourself, "I'd better not do this evil thing because I don't want to go to Hell." Be honest. I've never used that reasoning myself, and I was raised Catholic. I don't need a celestial dictator to frighten me into being good. The average Swede or Dane, I'm sure, don't even think of Hell in their daily life, and they have no trouble being for the most part ethical and good people.

3. We're wired by evolution to be good, because it's in our self-interest to cooperate with one another. We are wired by evolution for empathy and altruism. In societies, altruism benefits the giver because when others see someone behaving altruistically, they are more likely to give to that person. Nicholas Wade wrote in an article called "We May Be Born With an Urge to Help" that:
Babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.
... When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help ... The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior. (Underscoring mine.)
"When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion," President Lincoln said. I agree.

4. If we believe "God" had told us something, it's easier to be evil. Let me tell you a story. Once there were a group of men who, based on what God supposedly told them, flew two planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Need I say more?

U.S. physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg sums it up this way: "I think on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil. But for good people to do evil -- that takes religion."


November 4, 2009

Everything is O.K. until the apes stand up

That pesky issue of evolution. Again.

On Nov. 2, 2009, the New York Times published an article called Creationism, Minus a Young Earth, Emerges in the Islamic World.

Apparently, the problem is not evolution, it's human evolution.

For many Muslims, even evolution and the notion that life flourished without the intervening hand of Allah is largely compatible with their religion. What many find unacceptable is human evolution, the idea that humans evolved from primitive primates. The Koran states that Allah created Adam, the first man, separately out of clay.

Pervez A. Hoodbhoy, a prominent atomic physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan, said that when he gave lectures covering the sweep of cosmological history from the Big Bang to the evolution of life on Earth, the audience listened without objection to most of it. “Everything is O.K. until the apes stand up,” Dr. Hoodbhoy said.

What jumped out at me is the notion that "a negative reaction to evolutionary theory could reflect a struggle to retain cultural traditions and values against Western influences," according to Salman Hameed, who convened the two-day conference here at Hampshire College.

That makes sense to me.

The article by Kenneth Chang goes on to say that "in the West, where non-Islamic influences are strongest, Islamic creationism may be stronger in reaction to the outside pressure." For example, "high school students at Islamic schools in and near Toronto were far more doubting of evolution than students in Indonesia or Pakistan."

In other words, the more a minority feels under threat by the majority culture of the Western society, the more it clings to its own culture. The more the minority feels beleaguered, the more it clings to its beliefs. And the more the minority clings to its beliefs (especially beliefs that are wrong), the more potential for conflict with the majority culture.

Ergo, the more tolerant the majority culture is toward minorities, the less minorities feel the need to cling to their own beliefs, etc., etc. And the less the majority culture has to fear from its minorities.

Chew on that, Lou Dobbs.

(Photo by David Jonathan Ross. Photo credit: Darwin's finches on the Islamic symbol in art work used at a conference in Massachusetts about the acceptance of evolution among Muslims.)

How to lose friends and offend everybody

If you were listening to NPR on Oct. 19, 2009, you may have heard this: A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists
Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.

Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows, among other paintings, one entitled Divine Wine, where Jesus, on the cross, has blood flowing from his wound into a wine bottle.

Another, Jesus Paints His Nails, shows an effeminate Jesus after the crucifixion, applying polish to the nails that attach his hands to the cross.
It's no wonder that believers were offended. I was offended, and I'm not a believer.

You don't have to defend reason and science by insulting all religious observance. I don't know about your country, but a lot of believers in the United States belong to the "cafeteria" variety. They have mainstream values, they pick and choose what religious tenets they agree with, and they quietly don't obey the rest. (Ever heard of Catholic couples who use birth control? Or Jewish people who eat bacon?) They adhere to various forms of what is known as the Golden Rule ("Don't injure or harm others. Period.") and don't believe that people who don't agree with them should die.

Most people just follow the religion of their parents and their culture. Life is busy and full of obligations, we are all under a lot of stress, and we shouldn't get down on others because it never occurred to them to question their (and their parents') religious and cultural beliefs. They are not stupid. Not everyone has the leisure, education, interest, etc., to question their or their parents' religious beliefs. They're too busy putting food on the table for their families. As long as they obey the Golden Rule and don't impose their views on others, leave them alone.

Just ignore the more benign forms of religion and only reserve your firepower for the more virulent forms. We nonbelievers don't need to create enemies. We can argue that reason and science is on our side, but we don't have to offend potential allies (and believe me, some religious people are potential allies). If you insult people, you will end up in the lonely position of preaching to the choir, because nobody else will listen to you.

To the atheists who say there are no benign forms of religious observance, I beg to disagree. You can believe all you want that a Pink Unicorn created the universe, and it's none of my business as long as your beliefs stay inside your head. Your freedom to act on your beliefs ends at the point where my nose begins. If you try to restrict my freedoms in any way (or influence politics in such a way that will restrict my freedoms), that's another thing altogether.

So, agnostics and atheists, if you do your best to tamp down the anger between believers and non-believers, you can have a civil (and even cordial) conversation. And that's what I call a good start.

(The photo was by Dianna Douglas/NPR)

October 29, 2009

A "Collision" of beliefs



Is Christianity good for the world?

Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, author of the book, "God Is Not Great," went on a debating tour last fall with evangelical Christian Pastor Douglas Wilson. They filmed their debates. The result is a documentary called Collision, directed by filmmaker Darren Doane.
“I loved the idea of putting one of the beltway’s most respected public intellectuals together with an ultra-conservative pastor from Idaho that looks like a lumberjack.”
According to the Collision website, Hitchens and Wilson “ended up at the bar laughing, joking, drinking. There were so many things that they had in common”, said Doane. “They agreed on so many things. Except on the existence of God.”

This is the trailer.

Collision opened in the United States on Oct. 27, 2009.

October 24, 2009

Palin, Dobson and the rest of the evangelicals

According to journalist Max Blumenthal, the 2008 Republican nominee for president John McCain chose Sarah Palin because he had to placate the Christian right.
"When John McCain won the nomination, he knew that he needed to bring the Christian right around. ... There is no other way that he was going to win the Republican base considering how loathed he was for denouncing Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as agents of intolerance."
And we know how that turned out.

Here's an excerpt from the book. Pulitzer-winning novelist Jane Smiley called Blumenthal's book "terrific, but also, of course, appalling" in a Huffington Post review:
Republican Gomorrah is a frightening book because it is clear to all of us on the outside that the various Republican operatives who surround James Dobson and his ilk have no consciences and will stop at nothing. They invoke the name of God for purposes that shame God absolutely--hurting, destroying, maiming, and damning others who either don't accept their beliefs or don't acknowledge their power and righteousness. Of course that is frightening.
She goes on to say that the book "reminds me of a Scottish novel called The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner by James Hogg, in which, once a man believes he is among the saved, he can commit any sin he wants to and be sure he will go to heaven."



Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! interviewed Blumenthal about his book, Republican Gomorrah. (The transcript is here.)

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3


Blumenthal talks about his book in great detail, chapter by chapter, on fora.tv. I recommend it highly.

Look who was reading Republican Gomorrah? Meghan McCain, the de facto leader of the Republican Party's moderate wing.

October 22, 2009

Lazy agnostic's guide to evolution, Part 2

American Freethought has kindly posted the last six chapters of Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

So, here are the summaries of the 13 chapters of the book. Just scroll down to the bottom.

http://todayinreligion.blogspot.com/2009/10/lazy-agnostics-guide-to-evolution.html

BTW, Richard Dawkins recently appeared on the Colbert Report.
Richard Dawkins on The Colbert Report

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Richard Dawkins
www.colbertnation.com
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Whoa, dude, I'm so confused

In today's comics, from one of my favorites, Non Sequitur:

The Hijabi in the White House

As Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson -- a.k.a. the congressman with guts who shot to fame with his "if you get sick, Republicans want you to die quickly" speech -- said the other day:
"I understand what the (President Obama is) doing, and you know, people attack him and he turns the other cheek, just like a good Muslim would do."
He's only joking, of course. Obama has always said he's Christian.

(I, for one, have my doubts. I suspect he's preternaturally calm and unflappable because he's a secret philosophical Buddhist, in the Stephen Batchelor vein. After all, his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng has described herself as a philosophical Buddhist.)

But from NPR comes an October 22, 2009, report sure to drive right wingnuts into a frenzy: Faith-Based Council Produces Muslim Celebrity.
Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim, is one of 25 people President Obama tapped to advise him on faith issues. She may have met the president exactly once, but to Muslims, she's a celebrity — thanks to the headscarf, or hijab, she wears every day.
The Egyptian-born Mogahed is not, repeat not, the Islamic adviser to the president. She has repeatedly denied being so. She is "not there to represent Islam." She's just one of 25 people tapped by Obama to advise him on faith issues.

She's sharing research "we've done on the opinions of Muslims around the world," Mogahed says. Right now, "those opinions have swung sharply in favor of the United States."

So far so good. But scroll down to the comments section of the NPR report and you will see that we are still a country divided by the belief in a common God. (Beware: There are some truly ugly comments.)

I think Obama should dispense with the faith-based council. (Not to mention, if there is any taxpayer funding involved, it would be unconstitutional.) The founding fathers believed in the separation of church and state. Of course, Obama won't, because we as a nation make the mistake of believing that religious faith is a good thing, and he doesn't have the balls to stop paying lip service to religion. But for so long as we continue to enshrine religion in the public arena, the "us versus them" religious infighting among Americans will never end.

Teen dies in exorcism

An 18-year-old girl died in 2008 in what police are now calling an exorcism rite.

According to the Washington Post, Rayoung Kim was "pummeled and smothered" in her bedroom, in the ancient Korean rite of kut. In Korean culture, a shaman or "mudang" (typically a woman) communicates with spirits to drive out evil. Rayoung Kim was a Centreville High School student who may have had mental health issues, say law enforcement sources quoted by the Washington Post.

The article by Tom Jackman quotes John Goulde, director of the Asian studies program at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., as saying that some highly educated people use mudangs or shamans, preferring them to modern approaches like psychotherapy.
The shaman can sometimes be connected to a Pentecostal or charismatic church, and "it's a highly emotion-packed form of religion," Goulde said. "It's very cathartic. It makes them feel good and generates support."
What is appalling about such exorcisms is that it is "extremely rare for murder or manslaughter charges to be filed in relation to religious rituals. In the past 10 to 15 years, only a few cases have been prosecuted in the United States."

That also goes for parents -- who are, for example, Christian Scientists or Jehovah's Witnesses -- who refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. I'm with the camp that says parents should be held accountable for harm to their children every time they refuse standard, life-saving medical treatment. If you are an adult and, based on your religion, you refuse medical treatment, that is your business. But people who refuse medical treatment for their minor children should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

As one wag put it:
If their God actually existed, he would send people like this to Hell for murdering their children. ... And to keep them from dragging down the average IQ of Heaven.

October 17, 2009

Lazy agnostic's guide to evolution

Now, I have to get something off my chest first. Creationists always say that "evolution is only a theory -- even scientists say that it's a theory."

What is made abundantly clear is that creationists don't know that the word "theory" has a different meaning in science from what it means in ordinary English.
  • A theory in ordinary English is an educated guess, more or less based on observation. (More like a hypothesis.)

  • A theory in scientific terms summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. Basically, a theory is an accepted hypothesis. According to Wikipedia, a theory "has no equally acceptable or more acceptable alternative theory, and has survived attempts at falsification."
(Don't get me started on what else creationists don't know. It would take multiple lifetimes. They are like Sarah Palin, who thinks dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together 6,000 years ago, and who famously belitted fruit fly research during the 2008 election. Watch Richard Wolffe ream Palin: "The most mindless, ignorant, uninformed comment." That's starting about 5:00 into the video clip.)

Now for the main event.

John C. Snider of American Freethought (let's give him a big hand) is sitting down to read Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

Snider is trying a different tack. Instead of writing a review, he is making summaries of the 13 chapters of Dawkins' book.

What Snider has written so far:

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 1: Only a Theory

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 2: Dogs, Cows and Cabbages

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 3: The Primrose Path to Macro-evolution

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 4: Silence and Slow Time

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 5: Before Our Very Eyes

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 6: Missing Link? What do you mean, 'missing'?


The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 7: Missing Persons? Missing No Longer


Updated on Oct. 22, 2009 with the rest of the chapters:

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 8: You did it yourself in nine months

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 9: The Ark of the continents

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 10: The tree of cousinship

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 11: History written all over us

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 12: Arms races and 'evolutionary theodicy'

The Greatest Show on Earth, Chapter 13: There is grandeur in this view of life


Yes, but God told me . . .

If you claim you spoke to God, or you are God, or you're the son of God, there's a fair chance someone would take you to a psych ward and you would probably get heavily medicated.

People who claim to be God are usually dismissed as nuts. People who claim to have spoken to God or have gotten a message from God (Abraham, Saint Paul, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, etc.) or claim they are related to God are maybe either psychotic, delusional or con men. A current example of a huckster is Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, the guy in Bill Maher's movie Religulous who says he's Jesus reincarnated. He's obviously a con man.

Buddha, on the other hand:
  • never claimed to be God
  • never claimed to be a relative of God
  • never claimed to have spoken to God or received a message from God
In fact, he never even mentioned God in his teachings. (His teachings are mostly about how to meditate your way to better mental health. So, I guess you could say that Buddha was the first psychotherapist.)

The reason Buddhism is even classified as a religion is people tend to deify him. But he never claimed to be more than an ordinary man. He never claimed to have magic powers. (See
Stephen Batchelor, a former monk and the author of Buddhism Without Beliefs.)

So, was Buddha the only founder of a major religion who wasn't psychotic, delusional or a con man?

What do you think?

Good news: Some priests don't rape little boys


The Rev. Henry Willenborg, a Roman Catholic priest in Quincy, Ill., in 1987 performing the baptism of his son, Nathan.

Bad news: Some priests choose to commit sexual misconduct with women. In fact, according to a study cited by the article below, 20% of priests have ongoing sexual relationships with women, and 8% to 10% more have occasional heterosexual relationships.

The most e-mailed article in the New York Times today was A Mother, a Sick Son and His Father, the Priest.

It's about a Franciscan priest who fathered a son with an Illinois woman, Pat Bond, who had come to him for marriage counseling. The Franciscans required her to sign a confidentiality agreement, but she's willing to break it now that she and her son are battling cancer.
With little to lose, they are eager to tell their stories: the mother, a once-faithful Catholic who says the church protected a philandering priest and treated her as a legal adversary, and the son, about what it was like to grow up knowing his absentee father was a priest.
It's a compelling read. This is the audio slide show that came with the article.

Update: The Franciscan priest, Rev. Henry Willenborg, has now been suspended by Bishop Peter Christensen, who leads Willenborg's diocese of Superior, Wis. Something that jumped out at me:
The bishop said he had been warned by Father Willenborg’s superiors that The Times would report that Father Willenborg had fathered a son. But he said he decided to suspend the priest after reading accusations in the article that the priest encouraged the woman to have an abortion the first time she became pregnant by him, and had sex with another woman who was young enough to be in high school. (Italics mine.)
Whoa! Willenborg's superiors had warned Bishop Christensen that he had fathered a son (a clear violation of the vow of chastity) and it was evidently not enough to punish the errant priest. It was the suggestion of an abortion (just the suggestion, because Pat Bond didn't go through with it) and a case of statutory rape that did it (because the church is only interested in covering its backside against potential lawsuits). It's another example of self-serving behavior. The Catholic church really needs to be called out in a public forum every time we find reports like this.

(Did the Bible ever mandate celibacy for priests? Or is it just a cockamamie human idea? Because we're getting proof every day that it doesn't work.)

October 5, 2009

Whom would Jesus threaten?

Former Reagan White House lawyer Mikey Weinstein is suing a Dallas-based evangelical Christian religious organization and wants Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former U.S. Navy chaplain, to "stop asking Jesus to plunder my fields ... seize my assets, kill me and my family then wipe away our descendants for 10 generations."

According to the Dallas Morning News, the lawsuit also asks the court to stop the defendants
– Klingenschmitt and Jim Ammerman, the founder of the Dallas-based Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches – from "encouraging, soliciting, directing, abetting or attempting to induce others to engage in similar conduct."
Weinstein, 54, said his family has received death threats, had a swastika emblazoned on their home in New Mexico, animal carcasses left on their doorstep and feces thrown at the house
A little background: Weinstein, who's Jewish, is a former Air Force officer who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to battle the evangelical fundementalist right wing efforts to proselytize in the U.S. military.

Klingenschmitt, 41, and Ammerman, 84, have denied the allegations.

There is a 2007 movie called
Constantine's Sword that deals with "the mingling of religion and violence, following former Catholic priest James Carroll as he tracks the trail of blood that leads from the Crusades to America's foreign policy in the Middle East." Mikey Weinstein is in this movie. If you don't have the DVD in your local video store, don't despair. It's on youtube.

The full "Constantine's Sword" playlist

Part 1:

October 3, 2009

New poll: 27% of Americans not religious

Stop the presses: A new Parade magazine poll now says 27% of Americans said they don’t practice any kind of religion.

As the article says, Americans are separating spirituality from religion, and have become more "moderate and tolerant in ways that would have astonished our grandparents".
20% of respondents said they go to services anywhere from once a month to a few times a year. Combine them with the 50% who rarely or never attend, and an interesting contrast appears. Although 45% of respondents considered themselves religious, 70% of them said they participate in organized religion sporadically or not at all.
Other things that jumped out at me:
  • 69% of Americans believe in God. That doesn't mean the rest are agnostic or atheist. Only 5% of respondents didn’t believe in God, 7% weren’t sure about the existence of God.

  • 12% didn’t believe in an afterlife.

  • 12% of respondents said that their own religion was the only true faith.

  • Just 7% of respondents said they were attending religious services more often during this recession, and 10% of respondents said they’ve been going less frequently since the recession began.

  • 59% said faith can help solve the world’s problems and offer hope to the suffering, while 41% said religion has too often led to war and suffering.

  • 58% said religion and politics should not mix at all. Just 15% thought religion should be a key factor in political decisions.
The poll involved 1,051 respondents from May 8-12, 2009. The story is called "How Spiritual Are We?" by Christine Wicker and was published in Parade magazine on Oct. 4, 2009. Wicker is the author of the book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church.

August 29, 2009

Ex-pastor: 10 Things I Hate About Christianity

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Jason T. Berggren (right), a devout Christian, a former pastor and a former heavy-metal Christian rocker has written a book entitled "10 Things I Hate About Christianity."

Normally I would would find a review and drop this in the book section of the Today In Religion website, but it's just as easy to list the 10 things and be done with it.

Here they are:

1. Faith: “There is no evidence for what we believe. That’s why it’s called faith. God doesn’t appear at the mall with Jesus to buy you sneakers.”

2. Prayer: “You do it, and it feels like it doesn’t accomplish what you want it to accomplish. You wonder: What’s really changed? Sometimes God takes time and asks us to accept no.”

3. The Bible: “So often you read something and wonder, is that trustworthy? Is it helpful? Does everything always have to be so boring and confusing?”

4. Sin: “Am I really so evil or so bad that I have to think of myself as sinful? Of course, we’re all only two or three decisions from ruining our life completely.”

5. Rules: “Why are there so many rules, and do I have to keep them all? There is too much to keep track of.”

6. Love: “It feels too hard to love everyone all the time.”

7. Hell: “Why would a loving God create hell?”

8. Answers: “I don’t always like the answers that Christianity gives. Do I have to accept them?”

9. Church: “Everyone says go to church. But how does that make me a better person?”

10. Christians: “Why are Christians so crazy, annoying and judgmental?”

Dan Harris of ABC News did a news feature on Berggren. (link).
Berggren also has a website (link).

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August 21, 2009

UFO Religion Founder Sponsors Go Topless Day!

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Mark this on your calendar! August 23rd is Go Topless Day in several locations around the United States. The event is being sponsored by Rael (formerly the French sports car journalist Claude Vorilhon), who founded Raelism, the largest UFO religion in the world.

I doubt you are really interest in Raelism theology, but here it is anyway.

From Wikipedia:
Followers of the movement believe that Raël, received special knowledge and instruction for mankind from the creators of life on Earth, human-like extraterrestrials called Elohim whose technology enabled them to appear as "angels" or "gods" in the eyes of ancient people. Raëlians believe that previous visitation from Elohim sparked the founding of many major religions humanity knows today.
I have no idea what the above has to do with going topless. Details of the topless event can be found at GoTopless.org.

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Meditation without borders

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I just finished reading "How God Changes Your Brain." (One of the authors is Dr. Andrew Newberg, associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania). I was about to blog about it when I found this Reuters article. Not wanting to wear out my own brain, I am going to quote the Reuters article and then add something of my own.

According to the book, meditation and similar practices (repetitive prayer, or contemplating a benevolent God for example) can change your brain in a positive way. Conversely, you can stimulate the part of your brain involved in such emotions as anger and fear by focusing on a vindictive God. Newberg verified the changes with MRI scans.

From the Reuters article:

"In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life — be they religious, scientific or psychological — your brain is going to grow," says Newberg, head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It doesn't matter if you're a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist."

So even if you don't believe in God, it's possible to experience what some religious people are experiencing by following their practices. Sam Harris, an atheist, and Robert Wright, an agnostic, have similar views about meditations as Newberg, who meditates but has never practiced a specific religion (link).

Sam Harris, who is a well-known atheist who's also working on a Ph.D. in neuroscience, touched on this in an article entitled Killing the Buddha. He advocates dropping the religious aspects of Buddhism and saving the good parts.

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world — truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence —these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not.

Robert Wright, the author of "The Evolution of God" and an agnostic wrote a New York Times article entitle Self, Meditating. He describes his experiences at his first week-long silent meditation retreat.

The experience changed the way he looked at the world.

"When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it."

So we have an atheist, an agnostic and someone who has never practiced a specific religion — all enthusiastic about meditation. They each approached the subject from different points of view, but they come to the same conclusion




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August 15, 2009

Prosperity Gospel Preacher Still Raking It In

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New York Times (August 15, 2009)

Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (and others) are still preaching the "prosperity gospel" and still taking money from people who can least afford it.

From the New York Times article.
Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the “prosperity gospel” movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message — that if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold — is reassuring to many in hard times.
The Copelands' ministry pulls in about $100 million a year. The Times gave one example of a family that is $102,000 in debt and gave the church $2,000 for a new jet and $1,800 to upgrade the ministry's TV equipment.

Much of the money goes to bankroll the Copelands' lavish lifestyle (enormous houses, jets, Rolls Royces, etc.). All of which violate IRS guidelines which require that pastors' compensation be "reasonable".

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, opened an investigating into the Copelands and other prosperity gospel ministers in November 2007 (wikipedia). It's still not finished!

Note to Senator Grassley:
Instead of running around the country ranting and raving about how the proposed health care bill will allow the government to pull the plug on grandma, why don't you wrap up the prosperity ministry investigation. (Youtube)

Here is a CBS News report on Copeland.




Here's a link to a blog I did about Reverend Ike. He was one of the first prosperity gospel ministers, and in my view still the best. The link has a video of Ike in action. You can compare Ike's preaching to Copeland's (below).



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August 12, 2009

1969

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There have been a rash of articles celebrating and demonizing the 40th anniversary of the summer of 1969. Here's yet another one. I hope you will find it a little different.

I look at the summer of 1969 as the culmination of several years of social disruption followed by a slow remolding of values in the 1970s and 1980s. If I may get a little "new age," there was a cosmic rip in the social fabric of the country, and something new emerged. A lot of what happened was bad, but a lot of what emerged was pretty good, at least from my point of view.

I think arguably the most disruptive of years during the sixties were 1968 and 1969.

In 1968, American suffered its highest casualties of the Vietnam war (16,592). Sen. Robert F Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King were both assassinated. The King assassination sparked riots in America's cities. Riots also broke out at the August 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

In 1969, the Vietnam war had its second highest American casualty rate (11,616), and demonstrations against the war were on the rise. Hippies were all over the place. There was the Woodstock concert (August 15 to 18, 1969) the Moon Landing (July 20, 1969), Senator Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick (July 18, 1969), the Charles Manson murders (August 9th and 10th) and the Stonewall riots (June 28).

Woodstock is probably what aging hippies remember if they think about 1969, but I think the Stonewall riots probably had a more profound effect on society. Stonewall was a gay bar in New York City whose patrons were routinely busted by New York's finest. That is until June 28, 1969, when the patrons rioted and kick-started the gay rights movement in the United States.

The very best video I could find on Stonewall was made by AARP! I thought that was a little odd until I realized that anyone who was in the bar when the riots broke out would have to be 58-years old or older.

Here's the video:



The most psychotic person that summer was the cult leader Charles Manson, who along with his misfit followers was responsible for the grizzly murder of nine people on August 9th and 10th, including actress Sharon Tate, who was 8-1/2 months pregnant.

Here's a video of Manson in case you're unfamiliar with his charming personality.



And let's not forget Woodstock. It was the rock concert to end all rock concerts. Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has just made a movie about it to called Taking Woodstock. It will be released this summer. Here's the trailer.





The slow unwinding

The 1970s and 1980s began a slow unwinding of some of the excesses of the late sixties as well as a rejection of the conservative attitudes that preceded the sixties. The life of Jayanti Tamm personifies that slow unwinding.

Jayanti Tamm was born in 1970 to two hippie parents who were followers of the guru Sri Chinmoy (right). Ms Tamm not only grew up in a cult, she was declared "the chosen one" by Sri Chinmoy before she was even born.

Being the chosen one in a cult is not a good thing. After spending her youth distributing leaflets declaring the gurus divinity and cleaning the cages of the zoo housed in his Queens, NY, basement, Jayanti split at the age of 25.

Jayanti wrote an August 8th Washington Post op-ed piece about her experience with the whole hippie guru thing. She also wrote a book about it called Cartwheels in a Sari. It's a good example of what can happen when vulnerable people (her parents) fall under the spell of a charismatic charlatan. And there were plenty of both in the late sixties and the seventies.

From the Washington Post article.
By the time the mud had dried at Woodstock, Swami Prabhupada had created the Hare Krishnas and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon had founded the Unification Church -- the Moonies. Communes and ashrams sprouted across America. In the 1960s, the decade now mythic for its anti-conformity, flocks of people conformed to the dictates of self-proclaimed prophets.
So there you have it. The 1960s were a pretty clean break with America's past values. It culminated in the summer of 1969. Out of it emerged the gay rights movement, the women's movement and improvements in race relations that eventually led to an African-American president. It may have also led to a backlash by those nostalgic for "traditional American values" -- the culture wars. The Jerry Falwells, Jimmy Swaggarts, Pat Robertsons and Ted Haggarts of the world didn't develop in a vacuum.

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August 8, 2009

Demographic time bomb in Israel

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An August 6, 2009, Los Angeles Times article about tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis got me thinking about demographics in Israel. It's a problem now. It is going to be a really, really big problem in the not-too-distant future.

In a nutshell, the LA Times article described problems that arose when ultra-Orthodox Jews moved into an upper-class secular Jewish neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Fights over opening a parking lot on the Sabbath, missionary-like practices directed at secular Jews and other activities led to trouble between the two groups.


This July 16, 2009, MSNBC clip about a riot in Jerusalem will give you an idea of what secular Jews are facing.


If demographic trends continue (and they will), these conflicts are only going to grow. From the LA Times article:
With birth rates nearly two or three times the national average, Israel's ultra-Orthodox community is expected to grow from 16% of the population to 23% by 2025. That's only 16 years away.
And then there are the Muslims. According to forecasts, the Israeli Muslim Arab population will grow to more than 2,000,000 people, or 24-26% of the population in less than 15 years. (link).

So, in 15 years (or less), half the population of Israel will be made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Secular Jews (still the largest group) and non-Muslim Arabs (primarily Christians and Druze) will make up the rest. The percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslims will keep increasing at a faster and faster pace.

And then there are the Palestinian Territories.

The Palestinian Territories, with more than 4 million people, is ranked 14th in population density (it would have placed much higher than 14th, but the list is topped with "countries" like Macau, Monaco, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Vatican City, etc. (link) The Gaza Strip has a yearly population growth rate of about 3.35% and the West Bank is about 2.18%.

Israel also is one of the most crowded countries in the world. It ranked 42nd in population density but as with the Palestinian Territories it really should have been much higher.

More ultra-Orthodox Jews and more marginalized Muslim Arabs in a very small and crowded space. It's going to get ugly.

The video
below (in two parts) by George Negus of Dateline is a good piece on the ultra-Orthodox community.







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