Can we get some of that here?

Romania has the right idea for all the wrong reasons:

Romanian witches and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison time if their predictions don’t come true. Superstition is a serious matter in the land of Dracula, and officials have turned to witches to help the recession-hit country collect more money and crack down on tax evasion.

I would love to see a law like this passed here, but applied equally to psychics, reflexologists, homeopaths, and any other profession that is in the business of making predictions based on tools that “can’t be measured by science”. Even if they can’t be measured, certainly we can test to see whether they work or not, right? Just like doctors have to keep scrupulous records of the prognosis and outcome of every patient they treat, and are subject to litigation if they make unreasonable predictions and promises, so too should be tarot card readers and other charlatans.

But of course Romania is doing this to separate the “real” witches from the “impostors”. Here’s a hint: they’re all impostors.

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The ongoing battle for cultural accommodation loses two skirmishes

Regular readers may recall last month’s discussion over the kirpan, a piece of Sikh religious iconography that has been the subject of recent debate in the Quebec legislature:

While it would be a complete failure on our part to refuse to recognize the impact on the Sikh community (as a manifestation of privilege) of such a ban, we also must respect the fact that Canada is a secular nation, meaning that religious symbols are not to be given any kind of legal standing.

Finding equally compelling arguments on both sides of the issue, I was forced to swallow the bitter pill of compromise and suggest that a reasonable accommodation would be to allow kirpans that could not be used as weapons – either because they were locked or because they were too small (some are worn like lockets around the neck and are less than an inch long). I dislike advocating compromise, because it is usually a sign that both sides have given up trying to convince the other and are trying to get out of the room in time for lunch. In this case, I found myself stuck between two secular principles and unable to arbitrarily pick a side.

It seems that the Quebec legislature suffers from no such quandary:

Quebec’s governing Liberals voted in favour of an opposition motion to ban ceremonial daggers from the provincial legislature. The Parti Québécois tabled its motion Wednesday — requesting the government prevent Sikhs from carrying their ceremonial daggers into the national assembly building — and the legislature voted unanimously in favour.

The Opposition PQ was more strident and applauded the building’s security details, while stressing the party’s view that multiculturalism is a Canadian but not a Quebec value. PQ MNA Louise Beaudoin urged Sikhs to make a “little bit of an effort” and demanded the Liberal government clarify its position on religious objects in the legislature.

It’s nice to see that despite our differences, lawmakers can all agree that there is no room for accommodation of any of those weird foreign practices. Certainly no middle ground to be found between respecting individual freedoms and the secular nature of the state – that would be ridiculous.

Sikhs, predictably, are unhappy with the ruling:

The World Sikh Organization of Canada is disappointed with the Quebec national assembly’s decision to ban Sikhs from wearing a kirpan in the legislature. Arguing that multiculturalism is under threat, Canadian Sikhs pointed out that the Supreme Court of Canada decided in 2006 that the ceremonial dagger, traditionally worn underneath the clothing, is an article of faith — not a weapon.

While I sympathize with their feelings on this issue, I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever someone tries to claim that the kirpan isn’t a weapon. It is true that the religious dictates requiring Sikhs to wear kirpans do not require them to be viable as weapons, but to say that the kirpan isn’t designed with that purpose in mind is willful ignorance masquerading as tolerance. The question is whether or not the religious belief surrounding the weapon allows it to be exempted, under the assumption that nobody will ever use it for violence. That would be a stupid decision made for a stupid reason.

There have been accusations of racism/xenophobia that accompany this decision, and for the most part I tend to agree. There have been exactly zero incidents of someone being attacked in the Quebec legislature by a kirpan, so passing a law that bans them isn’t motivated by self-preservation so much as the wish to make a statement that people who look and behave different must fall in line. Again, I think a reasonable accommodation could have been made here, and failing to pursue that (with a unanimous decision it’s hard to argue otherwise) is strongly suggestive to me of a pervasive attitude that precludes the idea of accommodation.

This issue of religious behaviour functioning in secular society may become the defining issue of our discourse in the next little while. With the Supreme Court wrangling over the constitutionality of bans on polygamy, the Ontario provincial court grappling with veils on testifying witnesses, and now the kirpan issue, can we throw one more log on the fire?

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says a private members bill that would force people to show their faces when they vote is “reasonable.” A Quebec Conservative backbencher, Steven Blaney, rekindled the debate over veiled voters on Friday with the tabling of a bill that critics decry as an attempt to divide the electorate.

It is tempting to try and weigh the merits of this kind of issue and try to figure out if it is indeed reasonable. I would argue that asking someone to identify themselves in order to vote is very reasonable, and if that cannot be done by means of facial identification and there is no other alternative, requiring someone to show their face is perfectly fine. However, such a view of this issue ignores the real purpose – this is simply an attempt to find wedge issues in anticipation of an upcoming election. Unless there is a suspicion that voter fraud is happening at such a level that national-level legislation needs to be enacted, then this is simply an argument for argument’s sake. It’s a typical tactic of the Harper government that is about as transparent as it is utterly meaningless.

However, there is a larger point to be gleaned in all of this. Canada has to decide how it wants to define itself – as a rigidly secular nation where immigrants have to learn to adopt our customs, or as a place where accommodations are made as often as possible to ensure that everyone feels welcome. Both of these approaches have their merits, but I’m more optimistic about the second one working out as a long-term strategy.

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The religious right

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (also sometimes called the Constitution of Canada) guarantees all Canadians the following:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

While there is a great deal of haggling over what this actually means (more on that in a second), at the very minimum it says that any Canadian person is entitled to hold their own private beliefs (whether religious or otherwise), and is allowed to express those beliefs openly without fear of official government infringement. This is the part of the Charter that gives me warm fuzzy feelings, incidentally. Pretty much everything else is good also, but this particular part makes my nature rise.

Personally, I favour this minimum definition – you’re allowed to believe and say anything you like, just so long as you don’t a) break the law in doing so, and/or b) try to forcibly compel others to adopt your beliefs. Other interpretations of the “freedom of religion” clause seem to think that you’re allowed to do pretty much whatever you want as long as you can find a religious justification for doing so. Both interpretations are, strictly speaking, in line with the wording of the Charter; however, the second one is both dangerous and stupid. Dangerous, because pretty much anything can be justified by claiming religious origin, and stupid because it leads to things like this:

A judge has thrown out a legal challenge that claimed Canada’s marijuana laws violate the freedom of religion provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The challenge was brought by two Toronto men — Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani — who are reverends in a group called the Church of the Universe… The church uses the drug as a sacrament and argues the law infringes on their freedom of religion rights under the charter.

Trying to claim that the right to religious freedom grants religious adherents freedoms that transcend those of the general populace is absurd. This particular church is obviously a bunch of crazies who think that marijuana is God’s “tree of life” (I am not making that up), but that’s really not that far a step above Rastafari who believe in ganja’s powers to cleanse and refocus the mind. Rastafari isn’t too many steps beyond Orthodox Judaism or anyone who keeps kosher, believing that the milk of a animal cannot be consumed with its meat through some kind of totemic magical properties that make it “unclean” to do so. Orthodox Judaism lies well within the mainstream view of religion, and its dietary restrictions are surely no more absurd than the requirement for Muslim women to cover up, or the Catholic admonishment to abstain from meat on certain days of the week.

Happily, the judge appears to agree with my assessment of where “religious freedom” begins and ends, which is that even the most pious and sincere religious conviction does not trump the law:

“I do not accept that providing cannabis to people in the basement … was a religious act,” she wrote. “They may well believe that providing [marijuana] to others is a good thing to do. That does not, however, transform its distribution into a religious belief or practice.”

This applies in equal measure to all attempts to circumvent the laws and statutes of society in the name of “religious expression”. Christians like to claim persecution when they have to treat LGBT people as though they are full human beings, entitled to the same level of jobs, services and treatment that anyone else is. This ruling speaks to that issue as well – your beliefs are fine so long as you keep them in the comfort of your own head. The second you bring them out into the open and begin contravening the laws of the land, you’re no longer entitled and must obey the same rules as everyone else. The irony is of course lost on the religious that the same rules that prevent them from discriminating against others also protect them from the selfsame discrimination they worry that we secularists are going to inflict upon them.

I think they should relax – the Charter already prohibits the things they’re worried about. Can’t relax? Ask the guys at the Church of the Universe – they might be able to help you out…

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I loved the first Austin Powers movie. The world was abundantly ready for a spy parody, and Powers hit the mark perfectly. Since its rapid decline (along with the equally rapid decline of my respect for Mike Myers, I’m sad to say), I don’t think about the franchise much. However, a recent news item reminded me of one particularly outrageously funny scene from the first movie.

The story? This:

An iPhone and iPad app that helps Roman Catholics seek forgiveness for their sins has been sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Confession: A Roman Catholic App, developed by Little iApps in South Bend, Ind., received an “imprimatur” — an official publication licence from the church — from Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Indiana Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the company said in a news release.

The scene? This:

It’s a little too on the nose, actually. The decrepit old man chasing around a younger one in a vain attempt to convey both paternal authority and familial affection. The Church has been chasing its own youth for years now, to no avail (and no, that is not an abuse joke – those aren’t funny; people were really hurt by that shit). The ultra-conservative attitude of the church toward pretty much every topic under the sun continues to alienate their younger members, to the point where some of their formerly-revered institutions are starting to resort to means of recruitment that are… less than dignified.

I remember my last confession. It was just over 10 years ago at a Holy Thursday mass that I attended with my parents. For those of you who don’t know, Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper before Jesus’ arrest, torture and execution at the hands of the Romans. It was a custom at our church to engage in feet washing, to emulate the portion of the last supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Basically, the act is supposed to be a form of humility before your fellow man – a recognition that we are fundamentally no better than each other and a reminder to do service to one another. The religious overtones aside, it is actually a really nice gesture that is at least 2 degrees of separation from worshiping God.

At any rate, after the foot washing, we were all encouraged to complete the sacrament of Confession in preparation for Good Friday. Traditionally, confession is done behind a screen to protect the anonymity of the confessing parishioner, but given the sheer number of people, the priest decided to relax that rule and offer confession in the open. If you didn’t feel comfortable, there was no coercion, and priests were brought in from other parishes if you didn’t feel comfortable talking to someone who knows you personally. Being 16 and having pretty much nothing of real substance to confess, I went to Father Peter (his line was shortest – I guess not everyone had consciences as clean as mine). Halfway through confessing my “sins” (jealousy, the occasional porno), I realized I felt a lot better about the whole thing. Before the penance and the absolution that followed, I realized that confessing my inner turmoil to another person and having him listen and sympathize (although I hated Fr. Peter’s guts, he was remarkably tolerant and understanding toward me) was a great help.

Any actual value that can be drawn from confession of “sins” (a concept I don’t personally believe in anymore) comes from having a sympathetic ear. As useless as having God forgive your sins is, confessing to a phone strips away the only part of the act that has any merit whatsoever. The Vatican apparently thinks so too:

The Vatican put its foot down Wednesday over the idea of “confessing” by iPhone, after news that U.S. users can now download an application for the Apple gadget that helps the faithful gain absolution.  “It is essential to understand that the rites of penance require a personal dialogue between penitents and their confessor . . . It cannot be replaced by a computer application,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists.

Of course Fr. Lombardi and I likely agree for strikingly different reasons. I think that talking to someone about your problems helps put them in perspective and helps you to put words to your feelings. Both of these things are wonderful and important steps to resolving problems. The mumbo-jumbo about God forgiving you and the token penance of a few muttered prayers is just dross plastered over the process to reinforce the Church’s superiority complex. If you’re going to replace the one part of the process that makes it at all worthwhile, you might as well save $1.99 and just forgive yourself.

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Black history in Canada moment: the prairies

This year for Black History Month, I have decided to do a bit of research into black history in my home and native land, Canada. Since there are 4 Mondays in February, I am going to focus on 4 different regions of the country. Last week I looked at British Columbia. This week, I am focusing on the prairie provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Anyone who has been to the prairie provinces knows that they are a place unlike any other in the world. Canada’s early history is inextricable from the frontier and mass settlement across its middle territory. Canada’s present, certainly, relies heavily on its ability to produce abundant agriculture including grains, vegetables, soy products, corn, and cattle. Worn almost completely flat by glacial retreat, the prairie provinces are rich in soil, but sparsely populated. Even casual students of Canadian history know that none of this development would have been possible without the federal government’s policy of actively courting immigrants to settle on nearly free land.

Once again, our casual history of the prairie provinces overlooks the contribution and longevity of the black population.

Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, black history in the prairie provinces seems to be sparked by events in the United States. When the state of Oklahoma was created in 1907, strong segregation laws were passed that marginalized black Oklahomans. This act, coupled with the Canadian government’s policy of trying to attract immigrants from the United States to the fertile and largely uncultivated prairies, inspired black Oklahomans to migrate north and settle in Canada. Between 1907 and 1911, more than 1000 African-American settlers moved into Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Of course, no good thing goes unpunished. Frank Oliver, federal minister of the interior, passed the Immigration Act in 1911, granting the government powers to restrict immigration to certain ethnicities. This policy goes a long way to explain the ethnic makeup of Canada – ethnicities can be traced like tree-rings to “date” when families probably arrived in Canada. As was the case everywhere, black immigrants were not welcomed with open arms, many forced to pay something akin to the Chinese “head tax”. The Immigration Act would essentially choke off black settlement in the prairie provinces for the next 60 years until Caribbean countries were declared “desirable”, and a large wave of Trinidadian, Guyanese, Jamaican, and other West Indian immigrants entered Canada.

It is interesting to note that black families who settled in Alberta were able to maintain their homesteads at a rate significantly higher than average. One potential explanation for this phenomenon is that families that were prepared to endure the hardships involved in getting there in the first place were both more resilient and more stubborn than people whose passage was easier. However, the small number of black settlers meant that the black presence in the prairies was then, and continues to be, small. Calgary is a notable exception, with a black population of 2.2% (slightly below the national average, but much higher than in most other Canadian cities).

A friend of mine pointed me toward a black pioneer of a different stripe – Dr. Alfred Shadd. Born in Raleigh, Ontario in 1870, Shadd was one of those multi-talented and dedicated individuals that kind of makes you feel bad every time you spend a Friday on the couch eating Cheetos. Doctor, teacher, farmer, editor, and politician, all in one amazing black package. It is important to remember that after the outset of Confederation, the prairies were much like the Wild West – a largely untamed area that was far removed from a centralized government and many steps behind in the level of technology that was enjoyed by the major cities in the east. As a result, it was possible for men like Shadd to achieve a greater level of success out of sheer necessity.

This same friend knew about Shadd because an ancestor of hers ran against him in Kinitsino in Saskatchewan’s first federal election. A strong supporter of decentralized government and greater chez nous provincial control, Shadd ran as a conservative. He lost the election by fewer than 60 votes (a result my friend attributes at least in part to a campaign by racists to ensure that a black man didn’t hold office), but still led a remarkable life. It is interesting to note that Shadd and the man who defeated him (one Thomas Sanderson) were actually great friends and remained so after the election.

Anyone in the area of Edmonton who cares to do so should visit the Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, one of the few established historical burial places for black settlers in early Canada. There is a similar cemetery in Chatham, Ontario that I have visited myself (more about that next week), although the Shiloh site is not as rigorously maintained. Sadly, because black history was not (and still is not by many) considered worthy of preservation, it has declined greatly and is more totemic than informative. However, it remains an indelible link to the real contributions that black Canadians made to the foundation of Canada.

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Mubarak steps down

Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle…

Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president of Egypt, after weeks of protest in Cairo and other cities. The news was greeted with a huge outburst of joy and celebration by thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the heart of the demonstrations.

It’s not over yet. There still remains to be seen what kind of government forms in the absence of a dictator, but compared to revolutions like France and the United States, this one is pretty bloodless. I’m going to keep watching.


B.C. Ferries cracks down on… wait, what?

Sometimes things happen that are so stupid that I’m not quite sure what to say:

Ferry riders using BC Ferries free WiFi service are out of luck if they want to buy condoms online or research where to get an abortion. That’s because BC Ferries online web filters are designed to block any websites about “sex education and abortion”, along with those for sites like pornography, hate speech and piracy.

Although I’m puzzled as to the circumstances under which you’d need information about abortion or condoms on a 2-hour ferry ride, I’m even more baffled by why anybody would bother to block such sites. Were there complaints lodged against frequent abortion searchers? Did someone abandon their laptop and have some poor Amish kid who’d never heard of condoms before wander over and accidentally see a picture of something that suggested sex?

From a consequentialist point of view, this is really a non-issue. Information about abortions and condoms is easily available just about anywhere in the major cities, and given that most kids have ready access to the internet at home and at school, and get semi-decent sex ed in their high school classes, banning access to these kinds of sites really won’t have a negative impact on anyone. The part that’s disturbing is the company these sites supposedly keep:

The list of blocked content categories includes typical filtered items like “child porn”, “hate speech”, “illegal activities” and “non-sexual nudity” along with bandwidth-hogging content like “streaming media” and “file transfer services”. But the list also includes any sites about abortion, a legal medical service in B.C., and sex education, which is part of the B.C. curriculum.

BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said the ferry corporation decided to block such material because it feared websites about abortion or sex education might contain inappropriate photos.

Is Craigslist filtered? Is Reddit? Is 4chan? If you want to find inappropriate images, those are pretty decent one-stop shops. Not only that, but depending on your definition of “inappropriate”, Google image search will yield some… well you be the judge.

It seems like a bizarrely arbitrary line to draw, and this particular grab-bag of issues smacks of political gamesmanship.

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A dream of a time that never was

There’s a lot of rhetoric in conservative circles about the need to “take the country back”. It’s become a favoured battlecry for that depressingly lackwitted abdicator of responsibility, Sarah Palin. For some reason, this line resonates in the minds of her followers. Those of us who were paying attention in history class are therefore moved to ask “back to what?” My mind personally goes back about 50 years to a time when my parents wouldn’t have been allowed to marry in many parts of the country, and where my dad wasn’t allowed to vote. I have no particular nostalgia for the 1950s or 1960s (as I point out every time Mad Men is discussed).

Our entire history as a civilization is a series of circumstances where people worked their asses off to make things suck just a little bit less. The 1900s saw us struggling to deal with the backlash of the industrial revolution, the 1910s saw the world thrown into the chaos of war, 1920s saw an attempt to recover from the war and the ramifications of women’s voting rights, the 1930s saw us in the grips of major economic collapse, the 1940s saw yet another war, the 1950s were marked by horrible racial segregation and conflict, as were the 1960s. The 1970s we struggled with a paranoid overreaching state grappling with its own citizens, and more economic uncertainty and human rights issues marked the 1980s. The 1990s saw us coming to grips with technology that far outpaced our public knowledge and comfort. The past decade was defined by global war, food shortage, political instability, and even more overreach by a paranoid state.

Which of these decades does Sarah Palin want us to “go back” to? Or does she want us back in the 1800s where there was no middle class, and living to 50 was considered miraculous?

Of course Sarah Palin has no idea what she’s talking about (shock! gasp!), preferring to rely on soundbyte-length policy that is completely free of any kind of scrutiny. Of course she’s merely a self-perpetuating symptom of the larger problem, like having an eating disorder that causes you to binge – she is a feed-forward mechanism that drags an already-flawed view of the world even deeper into crazy-land. It is interesting to note, however, that this kind of false nostalgia for an idyllic era that has never existed is beginning to crop up elsewhere:

Recent years have seen renewed interest in works by Norman Rockwell, the famed 20th Century American artist behind some of the most nostalgic images of small-town America… His iconic works featured a cast of kindly – and almost entirely white – policemen and soldiers, baseball players, quirky neighbours in the state of Vermont, awkward young couples, Christmas homecomings and other images of an America that seems to have receded into the past – if it ever existed at all.

I remember back in grade 6 art class when we were made to study some of the elements of Norman Rockwell’s portraits of the United States. This was well before I had any insight into racism, when my definition was more or less what everyone else thought of – police dogs and fire hoses. As a result, I took away from the images exactly what the teachers expected us to take away – cartoonish depictions of a simpler time.

Despite my history as a musician, there is very little about me that can be described as “artistic”. I have visited art museums a handful of times in my life (always at the request of someone else), and have struggled to understand why some paintings are considered “great” while others get sold for $75 at coffee shops or on the streets by homeless guys. I do, however, have a great deal of appreciation for the medium of visual art as a means of expressing new ideas, as I’ve mentioned before. In fact, that article, in which I discussed my experience with Kerry James Marshall, specifically references the surreal fantasy world that Norman Rockwell is supposedly capturing.

The fact is that there’s no truth in these Rockwell paintings. If anything can be derived from them, it’s that when those images were created there existed a fantasy of a kind of world where such things would be considered normal. Pretending that those are a depiction of reality is like using today’s pornography as an anthropological study of the relationship between bored housewives and pizza deliverymen.

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I now have a bit of a crush on Greta Christina

I hope that she won’t take that the wrong way. I do not mean to demean, but I do want to take her brain out to dinner and a walk along the seawall. Why? Because she wrote this:

But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive… and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don’t get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ’s message wrong (or Mohammad’s, or Moses’, or Buddha’s, or whoever) — and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you’re the one getting it wrong. That’s just not playing fair.

And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

In her piece entitled No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion, she hits the ball out of the park in identifying the complete lack of merit in the position of “everyone’s entitled to their opinion“, the topic of one of my very first thought pieces. She really tickles all of my skeptical pleasure-centres when she writes stuff like this:

In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” It leaves me baffled, practically speechless. (Hey, I said “practically.”) I mean, even leaving out the pragmatic fails and the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of prioritizing pleasantry over reality… isn’t it grossly disrespectful to the God you supposedly believe in? If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can? When faced with different ideas about God, wouldn’t you want to ask some questions, and look at the supporting evidence for the different views, and try to figure out which one is probably true? Doesn’t it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn’t really matter?

There are profound differences between different religions. They are not trivial. And the different religions cannot all be right. (Although, as atheists like to point out, they can all be wrong.) Jesus cannot both be and not be the son of God. God cannot be both an intentional, sentient being and a diffuse supernatural force animating all life. God cannot be both a personal intervening force in our daily lives and a vague metaphorical abstraction of the concepts of love and existence. Dead people cannot both go to heaven and be reincarnated. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When faced with these different ideas, are you really going to shrug your shoulders, and say “My, how fascinating, look at all these different ideas, isn’t it amazing how many ways people have of seeing God, what a magnificent tapestry of faith humanity has created”?

Do you really not care which of these ideas is, you know, true?

Read the whole article, but be prepared for the need to sneak off to enjoy some “personal time” afterwards.