The price of religious tyranny is ruined lives

You remember the Warren Jeffs/Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints scandal, don’t you? Sure you do.

As you might recall, Jeffs was nabbed after a couple of years on the run. He ruled his little cult like a tyrant, forcing teenage girls into marriages with men upwards of 50 years of age, or even their own cousins of similar age, and telling them they’d lose their chance at “salvation” if they didn’t comply. The FLDS lived in these remote, isolated towns straddling the Arizona-Utah border, and were the classic closed community. Lately they had been building a compound in central Texas, scaring many of the locals with the possibility of another Branch Davidian blowout in the offing. When rescued from the life imposed on them by Jeffs, a number of former FLDS teenagers reportedly had to be taught such basics as how to bathe.

Now there’s a new tragedy that’s emerged as a result of all this fundie polygamist inbreeding. Babies born to FLDS cultists are afflicted with an extremely rare genetic disorder called fumarase deficiency. According to the news article, it’s “an enzyme irregularity that causes severe mental retardation brought on by cousin marriage.” Among children born with the condition, “brain cells fail to receive enough fuel to grow, multiply and function properly because of a missing enzyme needed to generate energy from food, causing severe mental retardation and muscle control problems.” Lovely. Evidently the condition is so rare out in the real world, where normal people live, that the FLDS community in Arizona can claim fully half the world’s cases of fumarase deficiency!

In Jeffs’ tinpot holy dictatorship, in addition to being forced into multiple marriages, young people went without education. Needless to say, free inquiry was not allowed. Religious tyranny is the only way you can get a group of people blindly to accept engaging in repugnant and potentially deadly behaviors, all in the belief it’s what God wants. Unfortunately, the price for rejecting reason in favor of lunacy is often too high to pay.

Hovind’s descent into insanity is complete

Going, going, going….gone. Such is the state of Kent Hovind’s mind behind bars. His latest missive on the CSE blog is a bizarre script in which he imagines himself to be in a dialogue with God. This is perhaps the most detailed and explicit first-hand evidence we’ll ever get of the extent to which fundamentalist beliefs lead inexorably to actual, irreversible mental illness. Read this one little excerpt, and imagine blustery Terry Jones in the role of God, and a hapless Michael Palin as Kent. Remember, you gotta do the voices.

KH: Lord, I’m outside enjoying Your glorious sunshine on a gorgeous day in South Carolina. I really need the sunshine for my health. Thank you, Lord! What is my next assignment while I’m here?

GOD: One step at a time, son. I’ll guide you. What happened after lunch today?

KH: I was sitting in the sun writing to you and Don came over and sat down to talk. He sure was eager to learn about the Bible. He gladly asked You to forgive his sins and trusted You as Savior.

GOD: Yes, I was there with you. Don is twenty-seven years old. His life will do a complete 1800 turn during the next twenty months in prison. I have big plans for him, son. Thanks for being obedient to my leading, son. Sometimes, I have a hard time getting you to listen to me.

KH: I know, Lord. Sorry about that. I have another question, Lord. Why did you let them more me five hundred miles away from my family?

GOD: I know this is hard for you. How many men in there are away from their families?

KH: Nearly all of them, Lord. Some only see their family once a year—and some not at all. I know what you are going to say, Lord, that now I know how they feel and can be a better witness to them, right?

GOD: Very good, son. You are starting to get the picture!

KH: But, Lord, five hundred miles away?

GOD: You are still in America, son. Would you prefer…Siberia?

KH: Oh, no, South Carolina is just fine! Hey, Lord, why did you let me slip on those steps in Atlanta and bruise my ankle so badly?

GOD: I needed you to see the new prison doctor that just came from India. He knows almost nothing about Me, son. I know you didn’t have much time with him, but you did tell him about your Website. He will look at it and read the “How To Be Saved” article. That will start him on the road to salvation later this year.

I’m sorry about the bruise, but you can’t see the doctor in there unless you are hurt. Would you rather I break it next time—or bruise your head?

KH: No, Lord! The ankle was a great idea.

I guess it was obvious to God that Kent’s head has already taken a little too much damage!

Jet-setting, “faith-healing” fraud Hinn still begging for money

This guy just keeps getting more and more vile. Ol’ Pastor Benny Hinn, whose bogus “faith-healing” extravangazas were thoroughly exposed in this Canadian television documentary, is claiming that he’s four months in arrears on his airtime bills to TBN, which he says total $450,000 each month. As if Paul Crouch, who’s entirely complicit with Benny in fleecing the gullible, would ever kick his cash cow pal off the air.


The face of sleaze.

Of course, if Benny’s so hard up for cash, what the hell’s he doing buying a $46 million Gulfstream jet? What’s he doing staying in lavish hotel suites costing up to $4000 a night, and living in a palatial $10 million mansion? If he’s so broke, why doesn’t he sell off some of his $1000 designer suits and pick up a few things from the Men’s Wearhouse instead? Why not trade in his $80,000 Mercedes SUV for a Corolla? Hinn’s ministry reportedly raises in the neighborhood of $100 million every year (compare that to the pittance a group like the National Center for Science Education has to subsist on, and feel the steam emerge from your ears), and its finances have gotten the IRS’s attention. Really, at a cool hundred mil a year, Benny could meet his broadcasting bills to TBN with ease, and still have $94,600,000 to play with.

Benny whines that it’s the evil secular media that distorts his spending. But that isn’t the case. Hinn has refused to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. A Christian watchdog group, MinistryWatch.com, has issued a warning about associating with or donating to Hinn’s ministries. Among their conclusions:

[Facts presented] on NBC DATELINE – coupled with MinistryWatch.com’s previously stated concerns about Hinn espousing the self-serving “prosperity theology” message – has caused MinistryWatch.com to recommend that donors consider redirecting their gifts to one of the many biblically-based ministries that are not only more transparent in their dealings with the public but also treat donor’s funds as a sacred trust dedicated exclusively for the Lord’s work.

I’ll say it again with glee: This swine should be in prison. But I suspect that, unlike Kent Hovind, he’s probably just a bit smarter about hiding anything he could get really nailed for from the proper authorities. Sadly, our culture’s insistence upon treating religion, no matter how absurd or exploitive the practice of one might be, with “respect” means we can’t exactly criminalize the guy for standing up on a stage and lying to idiots that he can cure them of any ailment they’ve got (including AIDS) as long as the cash buckets are appropriately filled. Am I wrong in insisting that’s gotta change?

Only religious “morality” would condone “honor killings”

Hi all. I’ve had a very busy last couple of weeks, and that’s kept me away from blogging here as often as I’m used to. A shame, because there has been plenty of good stuff going on worth discussing. But a number of the other top-notch atheist and science blogs have been covering them just fine.

Today I stumbled upon this piece on CNN that reminded me why I needed to get back in the saddle and do my very small but enjoyable part in the growing atheist pushback against religious horror around the world.

The very concept of “honor killings” ought to be oxymoronic. Naturally, it would be a concept that would find a welcoming home in the grisly world of religion. In England, a Kurdish man has been convicted of the murder of his own daughter, because, apparently, she brought “shame” upon the family by leaving her first husband from an arranged marriage and falling in love with someone else. Only in the diseased and violent world of Islam would falling in love be considered shameful and dishonorable, and strangling your own child be considered right and proper.

Now, please don’t waste time in the comments section arguing about how this sort of thing is not indicative of the behavior of all Muslims, how most Muslims are fine folks who aren’t terrorists or shoe bombers, and who would find this incident utterly appalling. I know this. In fact, having grown up in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as a child, and thus surrounded by more Muslims in their native habitat than most Americans would ever dream of, I know it better than many people.

The point I’m raising is that, without something like an extremist religion requiring people to live by perverse distortions of what consitutes “moral” behavior, and backing those benighted ideas up with threats of violence, woe, and divine wrath, you simply would not see this kind of thing going on. Religionists often like to accuse atheists of lacking a moral sense. But who’s out there in the world slaughtering their own daughters (or, in the “milder” cases, simply sentencing them to be gang raped) under the notion that one is restoring your family’s “honor”? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the atheists.

Religion distorts moral precepts by tying them to whether one is or is not making a capricious and vindictive invisible magic being happy. On an even simpler scale, religious morality is about nothing more than obeying a list of rules to the letter in the hopes of winning a spiritual kewpie doll labeled “immortality”. Very little is mentioned in religious circles about the actual real-world consequences of good or bad behavior having much of a bearing on whether or not said behavior is moral or immoral. In fundamentalist Christianity, morality is especially confused, because while fundamentalists will bleat all the live long day about how our society’s morals have gone to hell in a handbasket, most of them will state in the same breath that salvation is possible only through faith and not “works”. In other words, it doesn’t matter one whit whether you’re a good person or not, all that matters is membership in the club. You’d think this view would make morality an utterly irrelevant topic for Christian fundamentalists, but it wouldn’t be the first inconsistency they’ve preached.

As for this situation…well, let me just say that I’m glad absurd PC ideas about “respecting” religion are still drawing the line at murder. But think of other appalling behaviors that have been enabled because the spectre of religion gave them its support. A prime example would be the Catholic child molestation scandal of a few years back. As Bill Maher pointed out at the time, would any parent entrust the well-being and care of their children to a bunch of aging bachelors if it weren’t called religion? Likewise, would any parent go against all of their innate, biological drives towards nurturing and protecting their own children from harm — indeed, to the point of wilfully and gleefully killing them in cold blood — if there weren’t a religion providing such perverse concepts as “honor killing” to help numb their consciences to the enormity of their deeds? Sure, there have been child-killings by parents where mere mental illness, and not religion, has been the key factor, such as Susan Smith. But then there are Andrea Yates and Dena Schlosser, two mentally ill women whose religious fervor only exacerbated, rather than corrected, their conditions. If God really existed, would he not have seen what was wrong with the minds of these women, and either fixed their malfunctioning cortexes, or at the very least, done something to save the babies before they were butchered? Oh yeah, I forget. God can’t interfere with that “free will” thing. Sorry, kiddies.

Far from providing a sound and rational set of moral precepts to follow, religion most often provides flimsy justifications for people to do whatever they were inclined to do in the first place. In most cases, both religious and non-religious people will do what’s right and proper anyway, because we have evolved as a social species, and it’s in our genes that group cooperation is what will ensure species survival. But when people wish to do wrong, historically, they’ve had a good friend in religion to give them all the excuses they need. I fully expect that, in prison, Mahmod Mahmod will be able to lay out his prayer mat and bow to Mecca as often as he likes, secure in the twisted confidence that what he did to his daughter was right and proper, and suffering no pangs of remorse whatsoever, other than to think of the Western secular judicial system that sentenced him as a horribly corrupt tool of Satan. When Dawkins says that a strict religious upbringing can be comparable to child abuse, the sad, wasted life of Banaz Mahmod, whose only “sin” was love, will loom large as an exemplar.

Testing the supernatural

One criticism that is often applied to intelligent design is that it is fundamentally untestable and hence can never be scientific. But is this really true?

The classical notion of God is definitely untestable. A being that is intelligent and omnipotent, and doesn’t want to be found for its own reasons, can do whatever it wants to avoid being found. It can hide indefinitely, and it can even plant false evidence to trick people into reaching the wrong conclusion about the origin of the universe. That’s kind of what true believers are required to believe, in order to explain away the overwhelming lack of evidence for God.

There is an assumption among ID promoters that they don’t need to come up with ways to test the properties of the designer; all they have to do is detect objects that have the property of being designed, and the nature of the designer can remain comfortably outside the domain of scientific inquiry. However, that’s not necessarily true unless you assume that the designer is godlike — which of course they do, even though they lie and say that they don’t.

But I don’t think that this property of being hidden from investigation should be true of all supernatural events in principle. What does it mean to be supernatural? I think the usual understanding is that it’s something that exists outside the realm of the natural universe. But does this mean that a supernatural thing can do absolutely anything with no limits? Not necessarily. If the supernatural thing lives in its own universe, or its own metaverse, then that universe is probably subject to its own rules and limitations. Those rules wouldn’t necessarily be the rules of our universe, but they’d be rules nonetheless, and would require anything in that universe to behave in a way that is, at least in principle, also predictable.

Is it possible to test what the rules are? Well, it depends. Really, the interesting question at work is whether the other universe can interact with this one. If it can, then it ought to be testable in some way. If it can’t, then there is really no reason to care about it.

In the 90′s there was this sci-fi show called “Sliders” about a small group of people who figured out how to “slide” into parallel universes. These universes had parallel versions of all the main characters (except in universes where the characters died or were prevented from being born), and they had separate histories. In one world, the British won the war of independence, and America remained a colony owned by a preserved monarchy. In another world, the patriarchal society was reversed, women ran the world, and men were considered weaker and often objectified as sex objects.

These universes had apparently always existed, but until sliding was discovered, they were completely irrelevant to this one. If you asked me right now, “Is there a universe where Kazim is the popular and successful pastor of a megachurch?” I would say “There could be, but who cares?” For the time being at least, “sliding” is total fantasy. If Pastor Kazim can never meet Atheist Kazim, and vice versa, then we have no effect on each other’s lives, even potentially. I don’t rule out the possibility entirely. I can imagine it easily. The problem is, there are so many different implausible things for me to imagine, that there’s very little point in treating any of them as true without evidence.

If we ever proved that a supernatural entity did exist, it would only be because that entity interacted with the natural universe in some detectable way. Either a physical manifestation of something appears and does something, or we develop technology that can peer into the supernatural realm and see it there. Either way, there is an exchange of information between the two. And if that exists, then suddenly the supernatural thing is detectable by natural means. By some definitions, that would mean that the supernatural thing has become “natural.” That’s why I’m wary of calling things “supernatural”: the definition is vague and kind of fragile.

But if we’re slightly less ambitious in our assumptions about the designer’s identity, there’s no good reason to assume that we couldn’t learn about it through experiment. It presumably stuck its finger into our universe at certain points in history, and altered the universe in detectable ways. (Remember, if it didn’t do this then it’s irrelevant — just like Pastor Kazim may exist but is currently irrelevant to me.) If it did something we can detect, then we can see what the changes were and come up with likely mechanisms for how it interacts with our universe.

The only reason ID has to remain non-science is because they’ve set up a boatload of assumptions that make it non-science. As soon as they get creative and come up with hypotheses that can be confirmed or disconfirmed in some way, then they could figure out a way to do some legitimate research.

Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that.