Exploring the boundaries of church/state separation

I’m posting in advance my topic notes for The Atheist Experience today. Expect them to be a bit scattered, as I’m writing this more as speaking notes than as a carefully planned essay.

Note: I am a new-ish member of Chorus Austin, which will be presenting the Bach B-Minor Mass on November 4. My intention is to play a portion of the music as the intro to the show. Follow the above link if you’re interested in tickets. Although this is an overtly religious piece, I think it’s a great piece of music.

A few words about Bach

Wikipedia: Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of one of the most extraordinary musical families of all time. For more than 200 years, the Bach family had produced dozens of worthy performers and composers during a period in which the church, local government and the aristocracy provided significant support for professional music making in the German-speaking world, particularly in the eastern electorates of Thuringia and Saxony. Sebastian’s father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist and trumpeter in Eisenach, a town of some 6,000 residents in Thuringia.

Important contributions of the church to history (direct and indirect)

Cathedrals: Talking about one of my favorite novels, Pillars of the Earth. The initial main character, Tom Builder, relies on the church for his livelihood, and his lifelong dream is to build a cathedral.

Wikipedia on Cathedral architecture: The church that has the function of cathedral is not of necessity a large building. It might be as small as the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. But frequently, the cathedral, along with some of the abbey churches, was the largest building in any region.

There were a number of reasons for this:

  • The cathedral was created to the Glory of God. It was seen as appropriate that it should be as grand and as beautiful as wealth and skill could make it.
  • It functioned as an ecclesiastical meeting-place for many people, not just those of the town in which it stood, but also, on occasions, for the entire region.
  • The cathedral often had its origins in a monastic foundation and was a place of worship for members of a holy order who said the mass privately at a number of small chapels within the cathedral.
  • The cathedral often became a place of worship and burial for wealthy local patrons. These patrons often endowed the cathedrals with money for successive enlargements and building programs.

The Renaissance was an explosion of art, science, and creativity. And where do modern scholars partly pinpoint the origin of the Renaissance? They consider the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) to be the first writer to embody the spirit of the Renaissance.

Protestant Reformation: Luther, taking the revival of the Augustinian notion of salvation by faith alone to new levels, borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible, echoing the reformist zeal of the Conciliar movement and opening up the debate once again on limiting the authority of the Pope.

Printing press: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1447. Wikipedia says: “Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe — in large part, owing to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting on February 23, 1455. Even so, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system.

Art: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Need I say more?

Christianity’s Place in Modern Schools

A really lame joke I heard… A dog had followed his owner to school. His owner was a fourth grader at a public elementary school. When the bell rang, the dog sidled inside the building and made it all the way to the child’s classroom with him before a teacher noticed him and shoo’ed him back outside, and closing the door behind him. The dog sat down outside the door, whimpering and staring at the closed doors and not understanding in the least as to why he was refused entry. Then – God appeared beside the dog, patted him on the head to comfort him, and said, “Don’t feel bad fella’…. they won’t let ME in there either.”

My alternate punchline is, “So the dog replies: ‘Yes, but I exist.'”

Anne Graham, Billy’s daughter, was interviewed shortly after 9/11. Interviewer Jane Clayson asked her “How could God let something like this happen?” She replied “I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?”

These two comments speak worlds about the evangelical opinion on separation of church and state. They seem to believe that if you are not spending every minute of every day talking about God, then you are performing an act directly hostile to their religion. That would mean that if you teach math, but your lesson plan actually instructs in math and doesn’t mention that math comes from God, then it’s godless math and the school is endorsing atheism.

Religious people often accuse us atheists of trying to completely eradicate God from school and forbidding government officials of expressing any religious beliefs. That is not true. (Ad lib topics: personal prayer vs. school-led prayer; personal statements vs. official government statements; during hours proselytizing vs. after-hours)

The words “Separation of Church & state”: no, as fundies love to point out, the words don’t appear in the Constitution. The first amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the phrase was apparently coined by Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free e
xercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Jefferson ought to have known what was meant by the First Amendment; it was written by his close friend James Madison, who had earlier worked with him on a Virginia bill that served as a template for the First Amendment. The Bill was called “A BILL FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Jefferson’s draft of the bill reads in part: “We, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief.”

In 1785, Madison wrote letter denouncing “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”. Madison argued: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

Throwing some bones to the ACLJ

A few discussion topics — just because I’m quoting ACLJ doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with them, it just provides some food for thought.

ACLJ on “See you at the pole”

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the rights of students to express themselves on public school campuses and organize groups to hold events such as See You at the Pole. In 1969, the Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students have the right to speak and express themselves on campus. Then, in the 1990 Mergens case, the Court held that Bible clubs and prayer groups can meet on public secondary school campuses. The case interpreted the Equal Access Act which Congress passed in 1984 to insure that high school students were not discriminated against in the public schools because of their religious beliefs. The Court ruled that public secondary schools that receive federal funds and allow noncurriculum related clubs to meet on campus must also allow Bible clubs to meet on campus during non-instructional time. In this context, Bible clubs should also include prayer groups and events like See You at the Pole. As Justice O’Connor explained, writing for the Court in Mergens, “if a State refused to let religious groups use facilities open to others, then it would demonstrate not neutrality but hostility toward religion.”

ACLJ on school prayer:

As a general principle, teachers retain their First Amendment rights in public schools. The United States Supreme Court has held that “teachers [do not] shed their constitutional rights . . . at the school house gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). However, public schools have broad authority to safeguard against Establishment Clause violations. Generally speaking, teachers represent the school when in the classroom or at school-sponsored events and, therefore, should take care to avoid Establishment Clause violations. Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517, 522 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. den., 515 U.S. 1173 (1995). The Establishment Clause prohibits a state entity like a public school from endorsing religion or coercing students to participate in religion. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). Distilling multiple court decisions, the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools (issued by Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education in August 1995, since then reissued and still in effect) address the position that teachers’ and administrators’ should take:

Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.

Having said that, however, the Establishment Clause does not prohibit all religious instruction in public schools. “[T]he Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.” Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980) (citing Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)). In fact, the Supreme Court has recognized that it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” Abington, 374 U.S. at 225 (1963). Please note, however, that school boards or other officials may not be compelled to utilize such curricula. Rather, school officials are given substantial discretion in choosing their own curricula.

Jay Sekulow answering a question about religion in the workplace: “First of all, the workplace is not a religious free zone especially a county agency, which is covered by the First Amendment. There have been a series of cases-we had one of them recently decided by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit-dealing with religious freedom in the workplace. It applies: A Bible is not a forbidden book or having a mug that has a Scripture reference on it is not illegal; having a personal conversation during your break time about your faith, one on one, is not to be treated as contraband nor is it to be called ‘inappropriate conversation’-even if somebody happens to overhear it.”

Warning: you will need a shower if you click this…

Just when you thought you’d seen everything: here comes the Christian Boylove Forum.

Christian Boylove Forum participants believe that a distinction must be made between feelings of attraction (which are not chosen) and behavior (for which one must be held responsible). We believe that boylovers can control and channel their feelings so that their relationships with boys are beneficial and honor God. We are strictly opposed to any treatment of children which is contrary to the love that God intends us to have for them. This includes the manipulation, coercion and abuse of children.

If this means they’re hoping their forum will prevent pedophiles from actually acting upon their urges, more power to them. But, you know…eew!

(PS: Since they seem to be of the idea that pedophilia isn’t a choice — quite likely sadly true — I wonder if they split from mainstream Christian thought concerning whether or not adult homosexuality is a choice?)

Recent Christian cinema not benefiting from Passion halo-effect

Christian conservatives often like to complain about the sinful depradations of godless librul Hollywood, and how the entertainment industry as a whole is a repellent den of sin that is “out of touch” with the American mainstream. The wild box office success of The Passion of the Christ two years ago was trumpeted — by such mouthpieces as ersatz critic Michael Medved — as an undeniable indicator that if only the movie business made more Christian movies, the money would come pouring in like the Flood itself.

But it seems as if Passion was an of-the-moment cultural snapshot, released at a time when Bush’s poll numbers were still high and middle America was flush with the notion that we were really on the side of the angels in the War on Terror, our moral high ground unassailable. This facade has long since shattered, and anyway, Passion‘s $370 million box office take was more the result of media-manufactured controversy over its content than a genuine display of a sincere cultural shift towards preferring Christian entertainment.

Fox Faith (“Films You Can Believe In”) is a new theatrical distribution shingle from Rupert Murdoch, where the goal clearly is to cater to the Christian conservative base that has made his propaganda house, the Fox News Channel, the highest-rated cable news network.

However, their maiden release Love’s Abiding Joy did not exactly explode out of the starting gate like a greyhound its opening weekend. (Possibly the vomitrocious romance-novel title didn’t help.) Opening on 207 screens, a respectable release for an independent film, Joy only scraped up a dismal per-screen average of $704, for a total opening weekend take of $145,895. Compare this performance to that of Shortbus, the new, unrated movie by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), which includes — among other things — several scenes of unknown actors engaging in actual onscreen sex. Opening on a mere half-dozen screens (this is called a “platform” release), it drew a whopping $17,984 per-screen average. So while Love’s Abiding Joy made it to 34½ times as many screens, Shortbus did nearly 87 times more business!

So while Donald Wildmon and John Ashcroft and other evangelical leading lights love to wring their hands at Hollywood’s evil drug-crazed, sex-happy, Janet-Jackson-boob-flashing ways, offering dire warnings about the vast sums of money being lost because the industry isn’t offering True Americans the wholesome Christian entertainment they really want — in reality, Christians aren’t backing that up with their dollars. Like everyone else, they’d rather see Jackass Two instead.

(PS: Jesus Camp, excellently reviewed by Russell in the preceding post, is doing respectably, picking up 25 screens in its fourth weekend to a per-screen average of $2,748. Word is getting out.)

What to do if you’re middle-aged, Catholic, female, and can’t find a husband

This is really kind of sad. 42-year-old Lori Rose Cannizzaro of East Aurora, NY, admitting to herself that “Dating wasn’t working. I wasn’t connecting. Not that I never wanted to be married or never wanted children,” has chosen to “consecrate her virginity” in a strange Catholic ceremony.

People deal with loneliness in all kinds of ways, some positive, some destructive. I can see how some folks might defend Ms. Cannizzaro’s choice — and I’m all for freedom of choice — as a positive one, channeling her loneliness so that she feels a stronger connection to Jesus or God or what have you. Indeed, it’s a well-understood trait of religious belief that it provides insecure people with the sense of security (a placebo, perhaps, but it’s there) that comes from thinking you have someone watching over you and looking afer you.

But I worry that there’s some potentially psychologically damaging role-playing involved in this kind of thing.

The rite is available only to virgins, who agree to abstain from sex so they can dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ in what the association describes as a mystical marriage and a profound spiritual blessing. Each woman wears a band on her left ring finger as a symbol, much like a wedding band.

So what we have here is a way for lonely women who can’t find a husband to play like they’re married, even down to wearing a pretend wedding ring. Yet at the same time they’re told their virginity makes them pure and sanctified, which doesn’t sound like a statement with very flattering implications for Catholic women who do marry and procreate. Or perhaps they’re “sanctified” in a different way.

When I was a younger guy, I went through bouts of loneliness, as most people do. I decided the problem was that I was placing too much importance on the notion of Having a Partner as a key ingredient of Happiness. Once I realized it wasn’t, not only was I happier in all the areas of my life that do matter — friendships, career, hobbies — but, voila, it became easier to make those personal connections I’d previously found so elusive.

Ms. Cannizzaro may feel like she’s done the right thing for herself, and I hope she’s happy. But will her pretend wedding ring really take away that pang she likely feels in her heart whenever she sees a happy young couple strolling hand-in-hand through the park, or leaning closely together to talk and laugh over a couple of lattes at Starbucks? And to be honest, she’s cutting off her options. 42 is not necessarily past the average person’s sell-by date; who’s to say she might not have met a charming widower or gentleman at some church or social function next week, or next year, or when she’s fifty? It’s never too late for people to find romance if they want it.

I’m afraid that here we see Christianity &#151 with its never-too-subtle message that unmarried people are better off denying their sexuality at all times if they possibly can &#151 offering someone a false sense of “happiness” that may work for a while, but is sure to lead to greater unhappiness once the bloom is off the rose, so to speak.

After all, if it was such a great choice for lonely women to do this, you’d think there’d be more than 2000 of them worldwide lining up for these “consecration” ceremonies, you know?

I guess free speech is okay until someone gets hurt, huh?

Seems as if everyone is falling over themselves not to offend those twitchy Muslims these days. The latest casualty in the rising free-speech death toll is the annual festival of satire in Valencia. I didn’t know anyplace had an “annual festival of satire”. Sounds like a swell idea. Of course, this year, censorship has kicked in hard, which is bitterly ironic, since such a thing seems to negate the very purpose and function of satire.

According to the linked article, this festival has been going on for four centuries — clearly one of Europe’s many fine long-standing traditions — and, in it…

giant sculptures of the high and mighty are placed in the streets for the public to mock before being destroyed in an orgy of gunpowder and flames. It has survived attacks by the Roman Catholic church, various puritanical rulers and the Franco dictatorship.

Well, it looks like it isn’t surviving Al Qaeda and its wannabees. Guess which figures of the high and mighty won’t be publically mocked this year. If you said anything to do with Islam, go to the head of the madras.

You see, our fine turbaned friends have figured out something very special and important in terms of controlling behaviors and tearing down freedoms. All you have to do is threaten extreme violence, then occasionally follow through on it, and people will go all cowardly and lily-livered on you faster than you can say “Allahu akbar!” Of course, what you’ll end up with is a global reputation as a gang of psychotic, hair-trigger lunatics, which will be the sort of outrage that can only be answered with even more reactionary violence. But in the end you’ll get what you want: entire populations cowering in fear, terrified even to say “Hi, how do you do?” for fear you’ll whip out your AK or trigger that explosive vest your mom knitted you. For all the decadent West’s bleating about its precious “freedoms,” it’s obvious they’re all too willing to check them at the door when faced with the thought that you might just go bugfuck and blow them up, right, Muslim brethren?

Note the phrasing used by the mayor of Valencia in his not-too-veiled warning to the festival: that artists should “temper freedom with a sense of responsibility” when referring to religious subjects.

This, translated, means simply “Don’t dare do anything to piss off the Muslims, because we all know how they get!” Congrats, mayor, in one fell swoop you’ve neutered your 400-year-old festival, given religious radicals exactly the kind of control over your culture (and minds) they’ve always wanted, and sent the world an unambiguous message: Religious terrorism works!!!

I wonder how long it is before the Christian Right in this country catches on?

PS: If you’re Muslim and reading this: Mohammed can eat my balls!

The Christian Fantasy

In a recent forum debate with a Christian, the subject of the “burden of proof” was raised and the frustrated Christian was complaining that it seems “unfair” that Christians should bear that burden simply because they’re making the claim. Don’t atheists bear a burden of proof? Shouldn’t they have to disprove God? Don’t “both sides” bear the burden of proof?

While he eventually agreed with my explanation, he was still unwilling (unable may be more accurate) to provide any evidence to support his claim. He then made an accusation intended to impugn my character…which backfired. Trying to get back to the burden of proof issue, I asked him to provide evidence or argument to support the Christian fantasy.

Realizing that I had just made my own claim/accusation, I thought I’d give him an example of how one actually defends a position. Enough people enjoyed the following that I thought I’d post it here, as well. Without further ado, my defense of the position that Christian religious beliefs are fantasy…

Fantasy: an imaginative or fanciful work, esp. one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters.

Any story with unicorns would be considered fantasy. Does one need to prove that unicorns don’t exist in order to relegate them to the realm of imaginative or fanciful? Of course not. Stories containing unicorns are fantasy until unicorns are demonstrated to exist.

The same is true for stories with magic (supernatural, not prestidigitation). Do we have to prove that magical spells that allow one to become invisible or fly don’t work in reality? Of course not. Stories with supernatural magic are fantasy until such time as supernatural magic is demonstrated to exist.

Does a story have to be entirely imaginative or fanciful to qualify as fantasy? Of course not. Portions of the Harry Potter books take place in England, a real place, and involve many mundane items and characters we witness in daily life (beds, fireplaces, castles, etc.) Thus, the reality of some portion of a story has no bearing on whether the story is classified as fantasy. (The common examples is that Spider-Man lives in New York and the reality of that place infuses the story with a “sense” of reality, but those elements don’t take Spider-Man out of the “fantasy” realm.)

Does a story have to be predominantly fanciful to qualify as fantasy? No. If someone were to write a book (and I’ll bet someone has) that had an ordinary schoolgirl in the real world, who had a unicorn as a pet – the book would be on the fantasy shelves even if everything except the unicorn were mundane. Thus, any story which contains a single fantasy element could be fairly classified as a fantasy.

Do religious stories, which certainly include fanciful, supernatural elements typically get exempted from the fantasy category? Yes….but only by the implied fiat of believers. We are trained to generally afford religion a “hands off”/”special category” respect that it simply hasn’t earned.

The Ancient Greek gods are now considered fantasy and mythology, because almost no one considers them to be real. Stories of druidic magic are considered fantasy by anyone who doesn’t believe in druidic magic.

As no supernatural claim has ever been proven true (and anyone who can do so will earn a quick $1M – oh, and they’ll completely change the world we live in, more than any person in history), those who believe in the Christian religious stories are no different from those who believe the Hindu religious stories, the American Indian religious stories, the ancient Greek/Celt/Roman/Norse religious stories…or those who believe druidic magic is real.

The Christian religious stories contain supernatural elements that would be described as magic by any non-believer (creation, parting of a sea, virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water, water to wine, multiplication of food). The fact that believers prefer to label them miracles is largely irrelevant, as religious miracles are supernatural.

This alone supports the idea that Christian religious stories can be classified as fantasy. Add in giants and other fanciful creatures, and the claim is strongly supported.

Just as we don’t have to disprove unicorns and “Expelliarmus”, we don’t have to disprove the claims of the Bible. Until they can be demonstrated to be true, they fall in the same category….

Fantasy.

Astrogenericus

Good post right now over at Skeptico, where he tries to corner some astrology believer who, typically, generally plays dodgeball with every hard question Skeptico throws at him. In the comments section, someone (not a believer) pointed out Astro.com, which touts itself as “the best (computer-generated) horoscopes world-wide.” Naturally, they don’t explain the way in which computer-generated horoscopes are any different than any other, or what methodologies they use to reach their conclusions. But as the Skeptico post and subsequent comments thread makes clear (for all those who didn’t already figure it out), this shite’s all made up anyway.

So for the hell of it I went over and entered my personal information to be “surprised by the clarity and depth of these comprehensive and accurate interpretations.” I entered everything except the hour of my birth, which I don’t actually know. This is what was spat out for my daily reading:

Weak, transient effect: It is unfortunate that this influence is so brief, because it gives you such a pleasant sense of well-being. Today during the day you feel very warm and friendly to the people around you, and you are willing to offer emotional or physical support to anyone who needs it. You are generous and giving. People will warm to you, and you should get from others exactly what you give, that is, warmth and affection. You are likely to attract basically happy and positive people with whom you will have an enjoyable time. This is not the result of a “Pollyanna” view of reality that refuses to recognize trouble and pain in the world, but of a real sense of belonging and oneness with others. In a very important sense you feel that helping others helps you. On another level this influence indicates a concern with the general welfare.

Um, so basically I’m a nice person who tries to be nice and get along with everyone around me. Well, yes, but I fail to see how I needed astrology to tell me that. This is, of course, a wholly generic “reading” that can and does apply to most people in most life circumstances. But because of the Forer Effect, the woo crowd who actually believe this drivel will think this assessment applies uniquely to them, and will dutifully be amazed and surprised. Perhaps they’ve had a fight with their spouse, or have been sassed by the kids, or are feeling underappreciated at work. So they hear the stars tell them they’re really, really nice, and they’re relieved! And they tell everyone, “I don’t care what you say, I just know astrology works.”

This is elementary psychological manipulation; there’s not even any level of sophistication or finesse to it. It’s feel-good pabulum for the drive-thru, instant-gratification culture. How sad it is that there are so many people lacking in basic self-esteem that they will grasp things like this only to hear the most trite, greeting-card level personal compliments to get them through the day.

Go on, head on over to Astro.com and try yourself, and see how accurate their assessment is of you.

Discussions, reasonable and otherwise…

I get a lot of e-mails at my various addresses and some of them are requests for discussions or debates from people who are convinced that something I reject (god, supernatural, afterlife, etc) is not only true, but easily provable if I’ll just have a discussion with them.

The most recent of these requests came from an Austin resident (we’ll call him Larry) who stumbled across our TV show a few weeks ago. His initial mail to me included the following:

“I’m a Christian but I’m not trying to redeem you. I respect your decision. Instead, I’m merely seeking a rational discussion of objective facts because the world seems to be operating under a strange delusion and I thought maybe you could help me sort things out.”

Fair enough. I’ve had some really productive discussions with believers in the past, so I thought I’d give this guy a chance. I’m curious about what people believe and why – and I’m a big fan of “objective facts”, so this discussion seemed to be one I might enjoy.

I’ve taken clips from his e-mails and summarized my responses to constructed the following pseudo-dialog, which gives an accurate picture of the discussion without expecting anyone to read a dozen long e-mails:

“There’s not an organized religion on the face of the earth that advocates/believes the God of the Bible yet atheism perpetuates the fallacy that there is.”

I clarified what atheism is (and isn’t) and that I’m not making a value judgment on whether or not someone is a “true Christian”, I simply refer to people by the titles they choose.

“When I first saw you on TV I thought, “Here’s my kinda guy!” I appreciate your taking the time.”

“All religions/denominations–no exception–are variations of Baal worship calculated by men to lead people away from the God of the Bible and under the oppression of theocracy. Baal is self-worship, the “imagination of men’s hearts,” and this includes making the God of the Bible out to be anything you want Him to be.”

I pointed out that he’s really just claiming that he’s a “true Christian” while others aren’t – something he’ll need to justify, not just claim. I also corrected many other misperceptions about atheism and tried to get him to better define some of his claims to avoid confusion.

“Atheists claim that Bush and his cabal are Christians yet it’s common knowledge that Bush was “born again” into Yale’s Skull & Bones and the cabal worships Asherah each summer at the Bohemian Grove.”

I pointed out, again, that atheists don’t claim that Bush is a Christian, I simply use the label he’s chosen. Additionally, I don’t believe in Asherah any more than YHWH and I have no method for determining how any other individual is going to view someone else’s religious claims. At this point, I’m a bit concerned about where this conversation may be headed. Larry has made several “absolute” statements and has started to refer to his own value judgments and opinions as “common knowledge”. Unfortunately, my concerns seem to have been justified…

“…history shows this country was set up as a Masonic (Baal) institution from the git-go.”

“The very concept of “one nation under God” is Masonic theocracy.”

“I recently had a Baptist friend tell me that I was going to hell because I believe Christ fulfilled all prophecy. Such is the effective brainwash of the Southern Baptist Convention. My friend would rather believe the Pharisee Scofield’s interpretation of the Bible instead of the Word of God.”

“…the world is relentlessly, systematically going under the bondage of Talmudic law and I see organized atheism as contributing its fair share to speed the process, but you are a gentleman and a scholar and I hope to hear from you soon.”

I informed Larry that I wasn’t interested in unsupported conspiracy theories and that I thought we were going to have a rational, intelligent discussion about theology and doctrine. We had a quick side-discussion about his thoughts that Christ had fulfilled all prophecy. His religious beliefs mirror those of the Southern Baptist Convention with one huge exception; he believes that the “second coming” occurred in the first century and all of the current “end-times” beliefs are heretical nonsense which is part of a global conspiracy perpetrated by Pharisaic Jews.

His comments could easily be viewed as anti-semitic, though I’m sure that he’d claim that he doesn’t “hate” Jews – just everything he thinks they stand for. The scope of his conspiracy accusations make Larry an “equal-opportunity” bigot and afford him the opportunity to claim that he’s fighting the good fight against evil – and not simply spewing venom against those who disagree with him.

“You say that absolute, literal Bible belief is impossible. I say it’s a piece of cake and I encourage you to challenge me.”

At this point, I provided examples of contradictions, inconsistencies and logically incoherent passages in the Bible which make literal belief impossible or raised doctrinal contradictions. I asked a number of conventional, difficult questions specifically designed to show that he doesn’t really have an absolute, literal belief like:

  • Do you believe that unruly children should be stoned?
  • Do you feel that infinite torture is a just punishment for a finite crime?
  • Do you believe that it is just to punish someone for the crimes of others?
  • Is slavery morally correct?
  • Would God accept human sacrifices?
  • Have you sold all of your belongings and given them to the poor?
  • Do you have health insurance? If so, why – if prayer can heal?
  • How many languages existed prior to the Tower of Babel?
  • If God cursed Cain to be a wanderer, how is it that he immediately settled down and established a town?
  • If Abraham’s mental picture of God included the concept that God could, would and did demand that he kill his own son, why do we currently punish people who commit similar crimes that they claim were ordered by God?

I also asked Larry to provide his definition of a “true” Christian and to justify why his definition is correct while others aren’t. Larry was so thrilled that I bothered to seriously consider his claims and compose responses to his e-mails that the subject line of his next e-mail read “An Answer To A Prayer!” and his entire response was:

“God sent me you! I’ll be back to you soon!”

His next response didn’t really address any of my questions, though he promised to do so, repeatedly. In his last e-mail, he explains why he didn’t, but we’ll get to that shortly.

“I love atheists because they’re such an integral part of God’s Plan (I Cor.11:19 AV).”

He also included a few quotes from an eschatological encyclopedia that supported his idea that the Jewish concept of God is fictional and sets the Jews up as the ultimate divine authority.

I was a bit frustrated that Larry had avoided all of my questions. I tried to explain that he still hadn’t demonstrated anything and had simply responded with more unsupported claims, hoping that the authority of an encyclopedia would sway me more than the authority of the Bible. I reminded him that no book, be it the Bible or an Encyclopedia is “proof” of anything – the reliability of the contents must be established before they can be considered an authority or reliable source.

“Matt, I think you’re ready for the next step. There’s a little booklet on the Web that reads like I wrote it. Just Google “Charlie Samples The Greatest Hoax.” After reading it, I assure you I will address any loose questions you may have.”

“By the way, don’t atheist organizations get tax-exemp
t status from their oppressive Christian theocracy because they’re religious institutions? I thought so.”

I cleared up the tax-exempt status question and pointed out the case law which defines atheism (non-belief) as protected by the First Amendment yet doesn’t establish it as a Church. Additionally, many secular organizations have had difficult getting proper tax-exempt status in various states (including Texas) specifically because atheism is not a religion.

While I agreed to review “The Greatest Hoax”, I pointed out that I’d been doing most of the work in our discussion while he still refused to answer questions and some of his comments had started sounding snide (the “I thought so” comment was only one example).

“I apologize for any possible trace of snideness/sarcasm because I’m sincere when I say I appreciate your time and I have prayed to have a dialog with someone like you. You are a very sharp cookie! Have a great weekend!”

While working on my review of “The Greatest Hoax” (and waiting for any hint of an answer to the questions I raised) I pointed out that I had been a bit baffled by claims that God could take action in the material world yet these actions were somehow beyond the scope of empirical confirmation. After all, for someone who has a literal belief in the Bible, it’s clear that God interacts with the physical world on many occasions – in distinctly observable ways. Pillars of fire, parting of the sea, wrestling with humans, walking on water – all of these are testable interactions.

“I agree with you. There’s either a true, supernatural, DEMONSTRATABLE God OR there’s every conceivable concoction of god that the mind of man can conjure, i.e., there is no God.”

It’s a bit rude to consider this the “gotcha” moment, but it appears to have been the case. I immediately asked Larry if he could demonstrate God’s existence and he assured me that he could – and would. Great! Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe he’d finally drop the conspiracy stuff and provide the evidence for this “demonstrable” God… it’d go a long way toward getting us on the same page.

“Christ said He is the way, the truth and the life. If He is not the truth then He can’t possibly be the way and the life. Conversely, if He is the truth then, by definition, He most certainly is the way and the life. Let’s prove Him first THEN ask Him some questions.”

Great! Please prove him and I’ll be happy to address your other questions and comments. Larry replied that he wouldn’t actually provide proof of God until after I’d submitted my analysis of Charlie Samples pamphlet. I immediately pointed out that this felt dishonest and that if he had absolute proof of God he may actually have a duty to provide that proof to any interested party without caveats and stipulations.

However, I had promised to review the Samples’ pamphlet and with all of his dishonest ducking and dodging, I didn’t want him to be able to claim that I hadn’t more than lived up to my end of the discussion. So I provided him with a lengthy analysis of The Greatest Hoax.

Larry responded with a handful of bible verses and added the “Global Bank” to his Pharisee/Talmudic Jew/Mason/Rhodes’ scholar/Illuminat/Olam Ha-ba/New World Order conspiracy, adding the Rockefellers and Rothschilds (along with anyone who has “old” wealth and influence).

Um, where’s the beef? I’ve answered his questions, provided an analysis of a 30-page manifesto and patiently pointed out that his nonsense lacks any support – while I wait for him to do anything he promised to do, specifically in proving that God exists. I told him that if his next e-mail didn’t include a proof that God exists or if it included unsupported conspiracy claims, our conversation was over.

“No offense, but I have heard your same canards and derash Bible exegesis from so many different sources that I want to hurl vomit out of my nose. I honestly think you all check in everyday with a centralized disinformation source that could only, of course, be traced back to Tavistock. I teased you with reponses to those “dilemmas” because I didn’t want you to tuck-tail on me and I SURE didn’t want you to bog us down! You need to find God first THEN your dilemmas will be answered!”

So, Larry admits the he’s a liar. He isn’t interested in responding to the questions I posed and only “teased” me with responses to string me along so he could help me find God. Yet he still refuses to demonstrate that God exists and now expects me to “find God”. Looking back at his original message, it’s clear that he was lying from the start:

“I’m a Christian but I’m not trying to redeem you. I respect your decision. Instead, I’m merely seeking a rational discussion of objective facts because the world seems to be operating under a strange delusion and I thought maybe you could help me sort things out.”

Larry continued his little tirade with:

“YOU need to educate youself that the supernatural concept of “evil” exists and when you do THEN you will have found God! THAT’S HOW I FOUND HIM! I will guide you, my brother, but you’re going to have to do some homework. I can’t wet nurse you. The first step is to quit washing that magnificent brain of yours with the twaddle of Pharisee whores like Voltaire and start getting in touch with the REAL world.”

Hmm, so I need to simply accept that supernatural “evil” exists and then I will have found God? Where’s this “demonstrable” evidence for God? Wouldn’t it be quicker to just accept that God exists, rather than accepting evil to find God?

It’s a bit sad that when his true nature is finally revealed, he goes off on a rant which includes even more conspiracy nonsense. Voltaire is a Pharisee whore? I suppose Ingersoll was also? It’s amazing how many atheists and freethinkers must have been Pharisee whores. I suppose I’m just another one.

I found it particular amusing that his first two sentences are sufficiently ambiguous to allow the reader to view it as “when you find evil, you’ve found God”. Oddly, if the Bible is an accurate representation of the “one true God”, I could agree with that statement.

Larry concludes with one final conspiracy theory and seems to think that I’m actually going to continue the discussion, despite the fact that I was very clear that a response like this would end the discussion.

“The Jesus Seminar was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. What an amazing coincidence! Could it have been conducted with “preconceived” notions? I’m all excited! Come on, let’s go!”

My response: “Yes, let’s go. You go your way, and I’ll go mine. This conversation is over.”

I’m sure Larry is still convinced that God sent me to him, and I’m convinced that Larry is insane. While he didn’t opt to use the secular New World Order conspiracy theory, (which is more fun because it’s just like Larry’s except that reptilian aliens are controlling the key players) he’s still a nut.

In conclusion, I’m sure that Larry discovered some of the same biblical problems that many atheists have discovered (which would explain his refusal to address them) – but his refusal to give up supernatural beliefs promoted rationalization instead of rationalism. When it was obvious that Jesus’ comments were directed at 1st century people and that he promised to come back in their lifetime, Larry just took Jesus at his word. For him, the second-coming came and went – and he’s managed to create this collage of supporting nonsense – which forces him to accept more and more craziness.

At one point during the discussion, I followed a few links that led to a conspiracy site. After about 15 minutes, I wa
s so overwhelmed that I nearly cried. A minor anxiety attack, to be sure, but it was simply so sad that so many people seemed willing to accept any wild claim if it had the ability to explain any of their observations.

The thought process seems to be similar to; ‘The world is evil – so there must be some evil behind. Some people have lots of money and power, so they must be promoting this evil.’ Etc.

I’ve never been happier that I managed to “escape to reality” than I’ve been during the past couple of weeks.

Busted!

Some quick good news: da Feds have captured Warren Jeffs, the fugitive leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church. Jeffs is, naturally, playing the “religious persecution” card. Of course it’s persecution to object to the idea of 50+ year old men swapping around barely pubescent girls as sex toys. Check the comprehensive listing of articles about the activities of Jeffs and his disciples over at Rick Ross’s cult-watchdog site.

God-given morality

Let’s face it, nobody needs God to tell them “thou shalt not kill.” Every culture that ever bothered to jot down a set of laws included some lip service to the fact that it would be a really good idea to take seriously the lives of your fellow citizens.

Of course, there has always been some disagreement about what is meant by “your fellow citizens,” and under what circumstances it becomes okay to kill them after all. Plenty of cultures, including Christian ones, make exceptions for war, capital punishment, heresy, etc. The point, however, is that having a generally applied “no killing” rule is beneficial to everyone. If killing is okay, then you might as easily be the target as the perpetrator.

I’m in a prolonged email exchange with a theist, moving at roughly the rate of one enormous letter every two weeks. I told him that we don’t need a god to establish “no duh” laws such as “don’t kill,” “don’t steal,” “don’t practice slavery,” and so on.

Finally the theist agreed with me, but by using a fairly common backpedal. “Fine,” he says. “I acknowledge that you already know, without referring to God, that you shouldn’t kill. But there’s a catch. The Bible teaches that God has built into us a sense of right and wrong, and the ability to reason. So it seems inevitable that humans will be able to construct a system that is more or less moral and just, without any reference or even knowledge of the Bible.”

This seems to imply that if there were no God, we wouldn’t know that killing is wrong. There is no evidence for this point, of course. It is no different from the common argument from design: “If there were no God, there wouldn’t be all these pretty trees!” Take an object that is known to exist, then assert that the object owes its existence to God. Works especially well with abstract concepts that people don’t fully understand, such as “love” or “logic.”

Here’s the problem: I can’t get anywhere by arguing “My moral intuition does NOT come from God!” Because the theist believes that God exists, and that God created everything. So if we both agree that you have a moral intuition, then of course he believes it’s from God. The only way he will stop thinking this is if I convince him to stop believing in God — which I really don’t expect to do.

So since I know that I will never get anywhere arguing against the divine moral sense, I’m embracing it for the sake of argument. We both believe that there we all have a mental concept of right and wrong, and it serves as a fairly good moral compass… most of the time. So we’re in agreement.

Now, MY built-in intuition about right and wrong tells me several general things which I hope you (I’m addressing the theist now) can more or less agree with. I’ll name a few. Let’s assume that whenever I say “person”, I mean “any sufficiently sentient, intelligent, self-aware being.” That should cover the future possibility of meeting intelligent aliens, self-aware robots, etc.

  1. Every person has their own feelings and desires.
  2. Like me, most people desire to pursue happiness and avoid pain and suffering.
  3. Except for the case of self-preservation, with all else being equal, it is best to avoid killing other people.
  4. It is wrong to needlessly inflict suffering on people.
  5. It is wrong to needlessly impose your will on other people — for example, through actions such as slavery and rape.

Does your own God-given intuition about morality agree with most of those? I’ll proceed on the assumption that the answer is yes.

What, then, am I to do with a Biblical passage that STRONGLY contradicts this moral intuition that you say is given to me by God? Suppose, for example, I come across a passage that tells me that God once ordered a group of soldiers to pillage a city, kill all the men (even noncombatants) and the non-virgin women, but enslave the children and marry the virgin women, whether or not they consent?

Seriously, what do I do with that passage? I really don’t believe that it can be resolved by adding context. And my moral intuition, which (as you tell me) was bestowed upon me by God, simply SCREAMS that this would be wrong today and it couldn’t have been right then either.

So I’ve got two choices:

  1. Ignore my moral intuition and accept the fact that pillage, slavery, and rape are sometimes good things.
  2. Trust my moral intuition, and recognize that some passages in the Bible completely SUCK for telling us right and wrong.

Which one do I pick?

You can say that those passages aren’t meant to be taken literally as advice for modern people, but once you’ve established that the Bible is a moral guide, you don’t have a leg to stand on when dealing with people who take the Bible more seriously than you do.

Here’s an article about Christian Reconstructionism. This is just a little taste of what these people believe:

Doctrinal leaders call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, sodomy or homosexuality, incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women, unchastity before marriage.

The Biblically approved methods of execution include burning (at the stake for example), stoning, hanging, and the sword.

You’re going to say that this is a fringe group, not representing the majority of mainstream Christians in America. And of course, you’re right.

But these people are getting their moral laws straight out of the Bible. There are parts of the Bible that you don’t recognize as still in effect, but they do. Both of you claim to be informed by the Bible, yet they believe more parts of the Bible than you do.

Now, you and I agree that burning at the stake is not a fitting punishment for the crime of reading your daily horoscope. But we can’t arrive at that conclusion simply by reading the Bible and nothing else. We have to rely on this broader moral understanding that we both have, so we can say: “That shit that’s in the Bible right there? It’s EVIL. It has no business being in our laws, or the laws of any civilized nation.”

So which is right? My “god-given” moral intuition, or the Bible?