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.


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