Vile child-rapist Tony Alamo is going down!

In the wake of recent, more interesting news, the child-sex trial of cult leader Tony Alamo — whose followers used to circulate his full-color newsletters under windshield wipers all around Austin and elsewhere — has been playing out largely under the radar. What stuns me about all of this is not just the ghastly spectacle of a senior citizen “marrying” little girls as young as eight or ten. It’s the way in which Alamo — or, shit, any authority figure at all — can exert such a powerful and hypnotic hold over his followers that the very parents of these little girls themselves became active participants in the violation of their children.

This is the authoritarianism of religion taken to its sickest inevitable extreme, and it illustrates the profound danger of accepting absolute authority as a concept in the first place. And I see this whole trial as a perfect chance to engage mainstream Christians, who, I suspect, would not hesitate to condemn Alamo’s actions in the strongest possible terms. Yes, what Alamo did to these girls is unspeakably appalling, no less so than that he justified it by claiming it’s what God wanted. But look at scripture, and you’ll see episodes of child abuse either directly prompted by divine command (Abe and Isaac) or carried out with tacit divine approval, such as the scene in Genesis 19 in which Lot offers his two virgin daughters to a lust-crazed mob (who, being gay, say no thanks).

Lot’s daughters don’t seem to have been all that offended at being offered as sexmeat by their father, since, later in the same chapter, they get him drunk and fuck him. Those biblical family values, I tell ya! Anyway, the point is: Is what Alamo did to children in the name of God any more reprehensible than what God either orders or tolerates seeing done to kids in the Bible, and the way their parents are so agreeable to it?

Science fiction story

I’m sure this is not terribly original, but here’s my story.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky.  Appearing on every television screen, radio, and pool of water, the ships broadcast the following message to everyone:

“Greetings, citizens of Earth! We are a race of life forms so vastly superior to you that our ways cannot be understood by your puny human brains. We also possess knowledge of morality that is advanced far beyond your own understanding and cannot be refuted by any of your Earth philosophers.

“According to our high moral standards, which we cannot explain to you, you all deserve to die the most painful deaths imaginable.  We shall now execute this sentence. Your insides will be melted, and your eyes will explode in their sockets. Your children and spousal units will be vaporized before your eyes. Your planet will then be incinerated.

“However, our laws also require mercy, and therefore you will have one chance to save your own miserable lives. If you become our slaves and do as we say from now on, you will be transported to another planet and allowed to survive. However, your unrepentant family members will still remain behind and be destroyed.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this movie many times. It involves the entire human race justifiably uniting to fight off the alien menace. Depending on what kind of movie it is, either we’re victorious or everybody dies for nothing.

Now the question I have is: How is this scenario any less outrageous if you rename the alien beings “God”?

Superior Christian morality!

Ted Haggard’s back in the news. This time, it’s been revealed that his megachurch New Life knew full well of Haggard’s homosexual proclivities, and that, in addition to the gay drug-dealing male prostitute situation, they paid a 20-year-old church volunteer a bunch of hush money to keep him from telling anyone about his own assignations with Haggard. Of course, the church wants you to think it wasn’t hush money.

“This was compassionate assistance. It was to help him move forward, not a settlement to keep him quiet,” said [Brady] Boyd, senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Uh huh. Just some “compassionate assistance” to a young guy who happened to be in a position to embarrass the church publicly with news about some pillow biting with the pastor. Unless Boyd is implying that all of the church’s young members get “compassionate assistance” to pay their college tuition, moving expenses, and, uh, counseling, as a matter of course, and that this guy was no different than any other church member in that regard.

But wait, no, that can’t be the case, can it? Because the article also reveals that this “compassionate assistance” came as the result of a settlement between the church and the young man’s attorney.

So we have a pastor abusing his position of power for sexual favors, a church lying about the incident as well as their reasons for settling with the young man in question…gosh, it all just seems so wrong…somehow!

But wait, I forgot. I’m an atheist, and so I don’t have any valid “objective standards” for determining right or wrong. So I guess all this is okay, then. I guess it’ll just be easier if I remember the mantra: if Christians do it, it’s moral. Hey, that rationale worked for Nixon: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” Right? Right. And let’s not forget the second mantra either: Do as we preach, not as we do. Life is suddenly so much easier, isn’t it?

Ray is preaching my stuff!

I just checked the latest post from Ray Comfort and submitted the following response. I’m doubtful that he’ll post it and I’m very doubtful that we’ll ever have any sort of dialog…but, darn it, I just can’t stop trying. I guess I’m a bit more masochistic than I thought.

For those that don’t want to read Ray’s post, the short version is: the OT and NT gods are the same, righteous, perfect and equally stern in their pure justice. This version has only a single change…I’ve actually provided the link to the wiki, as I can pretty much do whatever I want to do here. :)

Thanks, Ray…for (almost) preaching the very sermon I’ve been preaching for years.

So many Christians (and many non-Christians) dismiss the Old Testament view of God in favor of the cheek-turning compassion of the New Testament version. The mistakenly think that the NT version is better, softer or more kind.

There’s just one tiny area where we disagree (actually, there are several beyond this, but I’m only addressing the comparison)…you think the OT and NT versions are equally good, righteous and perfect. I don’t.

While some non-believers might agree with you, but opt for ‘equally bad’ as the appropriate description, I simply don’t agree. The NT doctrine is far worse.

Your cartoonish oversimplification of the wages of OT sin being “Hell” is not consistent with Jewish tradition and not Biblically supported without anachronistic reinterpretation of the OT. The very understanding of death and what happens after death is rather nebulous in the OT and much more vivid in the NT. This renders the NT version of God far worse than the OT version – because the immoral doctrines of original sin is compounded by the unjust concept of eternal punishment for finite ‘sins’ (though you’ll probably point out that sins against a God are necessarily infinite…that’s just a convenient interpretation that isn’t supported theologically, logically or Biblically).

The idea that it is just to punish people for their thoughts, doubts or disbelief is a perversion of any reasonable concept of justice. The system is further polluted by the claim that it rewards belief, regardless of, or in preference to action.

While you’ll find this sad, possibly offensive and may even refuse to publish it, I have no problem at all asserting that my moral values are superior to those of any character in the Bible, including the various characterizations of God. In fact, I’d argue that the God of the Bible may be one of the least moral characters in that entire collection of ancient writings.

When you sacrifice your humanity, your decency and your rational sense of justice in order to claim that the tyrannical acts of a more powerful being are intrinsically just, appealing to the banality of ‘might makes right’ – you’ve lost the battle.

The Euthyphro dilemma begins to make this point about fiat-morality…but it’s worth extending.

If you’re so impressed with the Sermon on the Mount, I’d be curious to hear your take on my response to it.

Inequality via threats

In my August 10th Atheist Experience co-host gig (episode #565), I talked about the alleged “threat” of equality and why there was such a shrill opposition to it. California is a hot spot right now in that battle and there has been an interesting development there.

Some context: In May, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state must allow same-sex marriages under the state Constitution. Not surprisingly, conservatives (Christians mostly) have mounted an effort for a vote amending the California State Constitution known as Proposition 8. The main opposition to the proposition is ProtectMarriage.com. Much of their literature refers to a popular vote they had on same sex marriage in the state (Proposition 22 in 2000, a DOMA-style initiative), which got 61% of the vote. That was about the majority inflicting its will on the minority. California Supreme Court overturned the old Proposition 22 with this ruling.

In their usual style, proponents of inequality have trotted out the usual lies and scare tactics. The incomes of conservative Christian demagogues hang in the balance. If gays have full rights and can marry, these people lose a feared enemy and their churches (income sources) become split over biblical interpretation over gay rights. Let’s throw in polygamy, too, while we’re at it and re-open that old slavery thing, just for good measure. [Addendum: I have recently been informed that the Mormons have funded 77% of the work on the initiative, most from out of state. They have also funded a number of similar efforts since the first Hawaii battle over same-sex marriage recognition.]

Apparently, with all the liberal voters coming out in droves this election (thanks, George!), the Proposition 8 proponents are getting a little desperate. Their latest gimmick is to figure out who supported the other side and write little threat letters extorting money from them. One such letter, sent from ProtectMarriage.com to a San Diego Realtor recently surfaced. In it, they make the jaw dropping extortion threat:

“Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage. You would leave us no other reasonable assumption. The names of any companies…that choose not to donate…to ProtectMarriage.com…will be published.

…We will contact you shortly to discuss your contribution.”

Apparently, the threat of equality is so scary to these people that they are willing to threaten others. I sincerely hope this Nazi-style coercion tactic backfires on these thugs and they all have to scramble to find honest jobs sometime soon.

Today’s Show – Moral Judgment

Today’s show discusses moral judgment, particularly with respect to the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. Though by no means the final word on the subject, both made significant contributions to our understanding of moral development.

Piaget’s model for moral development included only two stages. He observed that children younger than 10 or 11 consider moral dilemmas in a more rigid way than older children. Older children have a much more nuanced view of rules and moral judgments.

Kohlberg used Piaget’s model in developing his more detailed six stage model of moral development. His model consists of:

  • Stage 1 – Obedience & Punishment – rules exist, are fixed, and are handed down by some authority figure (parents or “God”). Something is wrong if you get punished for it; if you don’t get punished, it’s not wrong.
  • Stage 2 – Individualism & Exchange – rules are no longer seen as fixed. There is still a preoccupation with punishment, but it’s now seen as a risk to be avoided and not the determinant of whether something is right or wrong. There is also an emphasis on fairness, and a belief that it’s okay to break a rule if someone is being “unfair.”
  • Stage 3 – Good Interpersonal Relationships – children at this stage are usually entering their teens. The focus at this stage is on motives – a consideration of someone’s motives, good or bad, informs moral judgments about their behaviors.
  • Stage 4 – Maintaining Social Order – this is the law & order stage. The concern in this stage broadens to encompass considerations of society as a whole instead of just interpersonal relationships. The focus is on how laws help create a smoothly functioning society. Most adults stop at this stage of development.
  • Stage 5 – Social Contract & Individual Rights – this is the beginning of thinking about society in a theoretical way. There is a recognition that different groups within a society may have different values, but that certain basic rights must be protected. Furthermore, there must be a democratic process for changing laws for the betterment of society.
  • Stage 6 – Universal Principles – this is a theoretical stage in which there is an attempt to define the principles by which a just society operates. In this society, decisions are based on equal respect for all. For example, a majority would not get to vote on restricting the rights of a minority.

This is a very high-level summary of the Piaget and Kohlberg models, but it does provide some background for the work they did on moral development in children and adults. Their work, plus some interesting facts about neurobiology, make it clear that human moral judgments are not arbitrary as some theists claim and are not dependent on religion. Religion, in fact, adds about as much to moral development as it does to evolution.

So what does contribute to moral development? Our evolutionary legacy as social animals is one thing. Our capacity to reason is another. On an individual basis, moral development has its genesis in good parenting, brain development, and practice. Kohlberg was very clear about this last requirement – moral development is not a matter of simply growing up. And handing someone a set of rules and convincing them to follow them will not improve their ability to make moral judgments. This is a higher cognitive skill that is built up step-by-step over a lifetime.

Fortunately, humans have been doing this for our entire evolutionary history. We don’t need fictional characters from Bronze Age myths dictating to us what is right or wrong. We are fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own.

“Wanted”: In which I take a dumb summer action flick entirely too seriously

I saw “Wanted” over the weekend, and it was more or less what I was expecting: dumb action movie, neato “Matrix”-like special effects, pretentious effort to hammer home some kind of deep pop-philosophical message. Unfortunately, since this is a relatively new movie, I’m frustrated by my desire to talk about the things that bugged me about it. So here I am, blogging it.

So, this post is going to spoil the movie, a lot. If you haven’t seen it yet, and have the intention to, I would strongly recommend that you just stop reading this post, bookmark it, and come back here to discuss when you are finished.

Ready? Spoilers ahead, stop reading now.

Morgan Freeman leads an elite group of super-assassins called “The Fraternity,” which has been operating for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. Members of the frat are periodically ordered to go kill somebody they never heard of. Most of them have several natural abilities which, for all practical purposes, are magical superpowers. They can slow down time, shoot bullets in such a way as to curve around obstacles, and there are magic hot tubs in the headquarters which can heal all wounds, bruises, and breaks within a matter of hours. And of course, they have the almighty power of Angelina Jolie’s Hotness, which is undoubtedly one of the deadliest forces on the planet.

It is eventually revealed that there is a loom, or a series of looms, which have a mystical hotline to some sort of entity which tells them who to kill. A persistent TCP/IP connection to the gods, if you will, forming a cloth-based internet. The looms weave bits of cloth which, due to imperfection in the threads, contain coded messages in binary form that identify the next target. (We can only assume that the frat has been aware of ASCII for hundreds of years.)

Nobody knows how the powers that be pick the targets; but we are given to understand that they have impeccable judgment about who will soon deserve to die. Angelina Jolie (a.k.a. “Fox”) explains that when she was a kid, a frat assassin failed to kill a target, and that target brutally murdered her father. So trust the loom.

The twist, though… hang on a second…

ONE MORE SPOILER WARNING: If the above description has not already turned you away from the movie, I’m really about to totally reveal major plot details!

The twist is that Morgan Freeman is corrupt and so is the organization. They stopped listening to the loom years ago, and now Freeman picks his own targets to suit profit and convenience motives. Devious! So in the end, the message is “don’t blindly trust authority” — which I approve of.

BUT, even as the plot exposes Morgan Freeman as untrustworthy, it still implies that the magic loom is always right to the end.

Now come on, this is a pretty transparent religious allegory. The loom is the Bible. Morgan Freeman is a fallible priest who reads the Bible and hides the truth from others. You can’t trust human religion, but you sure can trust the messages you hear direct from God. Okay, the analogy is flimsy, and maybe it’s not specifically the Christian religion that is being vindicated. But you know what I’m talking about; lots of people say “I don’t follow organized religion because it’s just man-made. But do believe in God and have a personal relationship” yadda yadda yadda.

Now here’s what I want to know. We’ll take it for granted that we can’t trust Morgan Freeman, because he’s a shifty old bastard anyway. (Although he did play God explicitly, twice.) But even knowing that, what on earth is our justification for trusting the loom? Just because it was right on at least one occasion?

Nobody in the brotherhood seems to know much or care about who the looms are connected to, or the mechanism by which the connection remains secure. What’s to stop Satan, or perhaps Loki, from setting up his own spoofed IP address that leads to a server that he controls? How do we know that the man behind the loom isn’t evil or capricious, or that he doesn’t just possess a wacky sense of humor?

Certainly, like Yahweh, there’s no indication that the God Of The Loom is periodically dropping by to explain himself to each member. So while you can argue that our hero was wrong to trust Morgan Freeman, you can’t really argue that he could have interpreted the message and been confident in the answer. In fact, the only reason he believes the loom is trustworthy at all, is because Fox (Jolie) tells him so by anecdote. Would that be enough evidence for YOU to start killing strangers?

Suppose it’s Loki. Loki isn’t evil, he’s just sort of “chaotic neutral.” No reason he can’t tell the truth sometimes and lie sometimes, just to maximize his amusement.

Or suppose it’s Faust. This characterization of the devil surely wouldn’t hesitate to pull the wool over the eyes of Fox, leveraging the tragedy of her father’s death to make her believe that it was somehow the fault of not killing enough people. Surely it’s right in character for him to say: “Look here. You want to avenge your father? You can have damn near omnipotent powers. Slow down time… kill people more or less with your mind… instant regeneration. All you have to do is sign right here.”

And that, in a nutshell, is a basic problem with believing anything based on faith. It’s not just fallible human translation that’s the problem. Even if you’re The Real God Of The Loom, and think some people need killin’, why on earth would you choose to communicate through a medium that is so abstruse, and obviously begging to be abused? And if you’re a mortal being ordered to kill somebody by a friggin’ loom, what level of extraordinary proof should you require before you actually accept that you’re being asked to do a good thing?

This is the Euthyphro dilemma writ large. You say you’re good because you’re doing what a god wants? Well, how do you know that the god is good?

A few other random observations in closing:

Those magical hot tubs are awesome. They can apparently bring people back from the brink of death most of the time. (Though, mysteriously, some guy dies dramatically right next to a hot tub and nobody thinks to dump him in there.) I think that if the goal of the Frat is to save the world, they would do a LOT more good by simply releasing the hot tub formula to the world and letting everybody benefit from it. I’m just saying, that seems a little more efficient than picking off bad guys one victim at a time. But no… we have to save it for newbies in training who need to recover because people in our organization like to intentionally beat the stuffing out of them.

Final point, memo to self: If 3 million dollars ever mysteriously appears in my bank account, the very first thing I’m going to do is set up a different account, that no one knows about, in a place with an excellent reputation for security, and transfer all the money out immediately. When somebody can put money in your account, they can also take it back. Duh.

*puke*

From the odious Billy Graham:

Jesse Helms, my friend and long-time senator from my home state of North Carolina, was a man of consistent conviction to conservative ideals and courage to faithfully serve God and country based on principle, not popularity or politics.

In the tradition of Presidents Jefferson, Adams and Monroe — who also passed on July 4th — it is fitting that such a patriot who fought for free markets and free people would die on Independence Day. As we celebrate the birth of our nation, I thank God for the blessings we enjoy, which Senator Helms worked so hard to preserve…

From a comment following Graham’s disgraceful encomium: “Jesse Helms fought for FREE PEOPLE??? (emphasis mine) Would those be the white people who wanted to be FREE of having to associate with black people?” Uh huh. Seems fitting that a homophobic, racist piece of shit should be eulogized so fulsomely by an anti-Semitic piece of shit, eh?

Whoops, there goes our Cuss Rating.

Ken Follett on secular ethics

On page 426 of Ken Follett’s latest novel, World Without End, I came across a neat quote. The story, which is a sequel to Pillars of the Earth, takes place in 14th century England, in a town that is mostly managed by monks from the local cathedral. A monk named Godwyn has devised a scheme to bilk the townspeople out of a bunch of money.


Caris wondered whether he believed that any deceit was pardonable provided it was done for the sake of God’s work. Surely men of God should be more scrupulous about honesty than laymen, not less?

She put the point to her father, as they hung around the court, waiting for their case to come up. He said: “I never trust anyone who proclaims his morality from the pulpit. That high-minded type can always find an excuse for breaking his own rules. I’d rather do business with an everyday sinner who thinks it’s probably to his advantage, in the long run, to tell the truth and keep his promises. He’s not likely to change his mind about that.”