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:


(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!


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."