“The Church Of Self-Worship” (or, “are you faster than a unicorn?”)

You don’t believe in gods or demons,
Spirits, souls, or elves—
You’ve got to worship something,
So it has to be… your selves!

You don’t believe in hell or heaven,
So I’ve heard you say
You say my God is make-believe—
To whom, then, do you pray?

You look to find life’s meaning
With no God to help you search
You call it “Sunday Fellowship”—
We both know, it’s a church

Nearly everything you tell me
You can see, I’ve had to change
But there’s one thing I see clearly—
Your religion sure is strange!

So my aggregator keeps trying to point me to a story someone wrote about the “atheist church of self-worship” (nope, not gonna link). Now, the Sunday Assembly is not for me, but I have nothing against it whatsoever for the people who enjoy it. But, please–it is not an atheist church (that label was not chosen but was thrust upon it by others), they do not gather to worship anything at all, and they are not the ultimate in egotists, worshipping themselves in place of a god.

It’s as if there is a narrative that must be followed–that the writer can get to the point of “they don’t believe in God”, but can’t follow that path one step further. Whom do they worship, if not God? To whom do they pray, if not to God? Why would anyone gather with like-minded others on Sunday morning, if not to bother God?

It’s like one person claims that unicorns are really really fast; another says “you know, unicorns don’t exist”, and the first concludes “you think you are faster than a unicorn! How presumptuous of you! What arrogance! What ego!”

And no, that makes no sense. Neither do the “atheists have made gods of themselves” crowd. It’s just annoying.

Templeton Funded Research Finds Science & Religion Compatible (or, that evangelicals have their own definition of “science”)

Evangelicals will tell us, they are unafraid of science;
They assume it proves the bible to be true.
There’s a scientific method into which they put reliance
But it looks a little strange, to me and you.

They’ll evaluate hypotheses experimentally
Then, conclusions will be carefully inspected:
Do results remain consistent with the bible? And we see,
If they’re not, then the conclusions are rejected.

Perfect science, thus, can never be at odds with Christian thought,
Clearly, science and religion coexist!
Any finding not agreeing with the bible, as it ought,
Is a finding simply stricken from the list!

When you’re truly doing science, then you do the work of God
He’s the author of the evidence you read
It’s a different sort of science, so at first it might seem odd,
But a Bible/Science mix is what you need!

The latest headline out of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago is that there isn’t really a any contradiction between Science and Religion… at least, when you (as the Elaine Howard Eklund did, supported by a Templeton grant) poll people to see what they think is the case.

It sounds all friendly and promising… until you look a bit deeper into the results, and realize that a good many people are using a very loose definition of “science”. For instance (as reported by phys.org),

* Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
* 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
* 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

I regularly read, in comment threads, claims that “actual science disproves evolution”, that there is a conspiracy by atheist scientists, who simply ignore the copious evidence of God’s existence. Science, I am told, has proven an afterlife, and ghosts, and dowsing, and ESP, and free energy, and more. So I am not in the least surprised that a poll of evangelicals shows that most of them have no problem with science as they understand it.

I also once read, in an actual print journal, an explanation of the scientific method that was remarkably like what you might find in science textbooks… but with one further step. After you crunch your numbers and draw conclusions, you “compare your answers to biblical truth.” I shit you not. So, yeah, when you do science this way (the right way!), it is impossible to find disagreement with biblical principles.

I have seen it argued that, were it not for God keeping everything following His laws, we would see pure chaos, so the fact that we can do science proves that God is there, doing His thing. But since God is always there, the laws are constant–that is, since God is constantly and consistently intervening, it looks like He is not intervening at all. And since you can trust God to keep the clockwork going, it is perfectly fine to do science without explicitly invoking (nor denying) His influence.

But that view, in which everything is a miracle, has no place for miracles as explanations for specific phenomena. That first bullet point quoted above would include the possibility that God could intervene at any point. “Then a miracle occurs!” would be a standard model, not the (arguably) most famous science cartoon ever. How exactly would that work? How would incorporating miracles into scientific explanation work? It can’t, that’s how. Can people believe that it does? Certainly, so long as they redefine either god, or science, or both.

Eklund has not found that science and religion are compatible. Rather, she has found that people’s definitions of “science” can be modified as needed to fit.

TV Snake-Handler Dies (Spoiler: Not Old Age)

There once was a pastor
Who handled some snakes
For goodness’ sakes—
He handled snakes!
(He knew the stakes)

There once was a serpent
With venomous bite
Oh, what a plight!
A venomous bite!
(And deadly, quite)

The pastor, he handled;
The serpent, he bit
With a venomous spit
He bit and bit
(And wouldn’t quit)

The pastor’s behavior
Had faith as its source
With no remorse,
His faith was his source
(He died, of course)

Via Doubtful News, we hear the utterly predictable news of the death of a snake-handling pentecostal preacher, from (naturally) snakebite.

In an era of sophisticated theology, yes, snake-handlers still exist. Though, frankly, not a lot of them, despite how often the same group makes the news. Usually, for dying by snake bite.

I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like to be from a family where you pretty much all eventually died from completely preventable, proudly public, dangerous behavior. Do the extended relatives admit their connection? Are they proud? Ashamed? Anyway, my condolences to the family–may this be the last one to die in this manner.

“Sports Chaplains” Hunting Big Olympic Game

I’ve come all the way to Sochi
With an overarching goal-
I’m not here to win a medal—
No, I’m here to save your soul:

Have you ever heard the story
Of the savior on the cross?
Who redeemed us all from sinning
Through his sacrifice and loss?

I can see it in your eyes—you’re
Too polite to walk away;
So you’re gonna hear a story
I can talk about all day

You have shown your dedication
You’re the best at what you do
Every moment here is precious
Let me waste a bunch for you

You are here for competition
On your skis, or skates, or board
But myself, I’m on safari—
Hunting athletes for the lord!

I’ve got lots of pins for trading;
By the waterhole I lurk—
Yes, I’m here among the heathens
Doing missionary work

And I hope I bag a trophy—
Grab some big, athletic name—
Or it’s just a paid vacation
Hunting Big Olympic Game

Via NPR this morning:

There are probably fewer American fans in Sochi than at previous Winter Games, partly because of concerns about security, and partly because of the time and expense it takes to get to the Russian resort town on the Black Sea.

But Americans are represented there, with gusto, by a group of evangelical Christians who call themselves the International Sports Chaplains. Members of the group have been going to the Olympic Games since 1988.

On a recent sunny day at the Olympic Park, with bands playing and fans strolling around the venues, the chaplains move through the crowd in teams of three or four.

Reminds me of the cult recruiters I’ve seen on campuses; similar tactics, and many of the athletes are roughly college age. Sometimes they advertise their purpose, but often it is a bait-and-switch tactic:

When people see the pins, they want to trade, Gardner says. He says trading pins is a good opportunity, because he’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got a pin I’ll give to you, it’s got a story. Can I share with you that story?” Through the pins, they share the Gospel.

Gregory tells the story to a young volunteer near the entrance to the park. “See this dark area on the pin?” she asks. “That represents those choices that we make that are probably not the best choice. I want to tell you that red represents that God loves us and that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. And when we accept his love and his forgiveness in our life, he makes us clean and white, just like snow.”

Next Olympics, I want to be an atheist chaplain. My only duty would be to intercept christian chaplains on the hunt. Throw myself between the athletes and the hunters.

Religion Means “This Law Doesn’t Apply To You”

My religion won’t allow it!
We consider it a sin!
If a gay man wants to shop here,
Why, I dare not let him in!
It’s infringement on my liberty—
Repression at its worst—
You’re a bigot, if you force me
Not to be a bigot first!

I’d kill animals humanely—
All my cattle, sheep, and goats—
But the Torah says, specifically,
I have to slit their throats
I’m opposed to simple stunning
But that’s all the law allows
All I want is my exception,
For my right to torture cows!

I’m just looking for a loophole;
There are laws I won’t obey!
I believe in equal treatment,
Sure, but not if someone’s gay!
It’s my right—well, it’s my privilege,
It’s my “free expression” clause
To read, “Only if you want to”
When interpreting the laws

From the first link:

The bill notes that businesses can refuse services and goods only if it furthers a civil union, domestic partnership, or same-sex marriage. The person or business would just have to say it was against their religion. For example, if a same-sex couple wanted a cake for their wedding reception, a bakery could refuse to cater to them.

But… good news!

Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) suddenly pulled his sponsorship of the so-called “Turn the Gays Away” bill on Thursday after the controversial proposal was subject to national attention.

From the second link above:

The Danish government has banned shechita, saying “animal rights come before religion”.

Denmark’s Agriculture and Food Minister Dan Jørgensen yesterday signed a regulation preventing Danish slaughterhouses from applying for an exemption to pre-stunning, which effectively bans any religious slaughter in the country.

President of the European Jewish Congress, Dr Moshe Kantor, said: “This attack on basic Jewish religious practice in Denmark puts into question the continuance of community life in the country and follows strongly on the heels of persistent attacks on Jewish circumcision.

Really, though, doesn’t it sound completely reasonable, that you shouldn’t have to follow a law if you really, really, really don’t want to?

Conversation With A Christian…

So… I had a long talk yesterday with someone. It was a ranging conversation, in which we touched on some issues near and dear to FtB readers (I doubt, though, that this person knows FtB exists). He lives in Texas, so one topic was what an idiot Rick Perry is, and republican politicians in general. He was at a loss to explain how any poor person (or any thinking person) could ever vote Republican, other than manipulation of religious views and tribalism….

Which led to a discussion of the republican and tea-party views on creationism and evolution—he offered that no one he knew was a short-earth creationist, but did think that people who thought evolution was “how god did it” were clearly a sort of creationist themselves, and misunderstanding important aspects of the theory. And anyone who thinks humans are special creations “clearly didn’t have a good comparative anatomy class”.

He’d been reading about the writing of the constitution—not Barton (he’d never heard of David Barton, and was appalled at the blatant attempt to influence lawmakers with disinformation), but Waldman’s “Founding Faith”, and when I told him of Chris Rodda’s takedowns of Barton, he put that on his list. He has faced up against people who want prayer in school, and found that the moment he starts talking details—which faith gets to pray on which days, for instance—the demands start to wither and die before he even has to tell them “no”. He knows of, and approves of, the Jefferson bible.

Seems to me there was quite a lot more in this conversation—it was nearly 2 hours—but I can’t think of it at the moment.

Oh, yeah, there was one other topic. He’s on three committees for his church, including the search for a new pastor—the current one is retiring. He’s a very active lifelong believer, and as knowledgeable about the history of the writing of the bible as he is about, say, first amendment school prayer cases, or evolution. He has read not only quite a bit of sophisticated theology and apologetics, but quiet a bit of critical history as well. Frankly, I’ve heard him argue against religious positions far more often than for them (he argues the position supported by evidence, and more often the religious view was being argued out of ignorance).

But he is a Christian, and in his experience more Christians are like him than like the stereotypical yahoos like Rick Perry. I am at a bit of a loss to understand why he is a Christian, but he certainly is one. And I don’t know whether his observation—that he is a more typical Christian—is at all true. (His brother, for instance, is a biblical literalist.)

Sorry, no point here, just thinking out loud…

Which Team Is God’s Team?

You can hear the pundits prattle
Over Denver and Seattle
As they set off to do battle
In the Super Bowl today

And I’m left a bit befuddled
Cos the logic’s gotten muddled—
As I see the players huddled
Not for football, but to pray

Seems a strange thing in this setting,
But I think what I’m forgetting
Is, the Super Bowl means betting
So they’re working on the odds

We can’t tell at the beginning
Which team’s virtuous, which sinning,
But they’ll show us all, by winning,
So we’ll know which team is God’s!

As we approach game time, and every conceivable bit of trivia has been milked for its own 2-hour sports-TV retrospective, one of the variables examined is the role religion plays among the players. Yesterday’s NJ.com article “Super Bowl, 2014: Religion runs deep for many NFL players and teams” examines the phenomenon:

Each Friday afternoon, about 10 players from the Seattle Seahawks gather around Karl Payne in a room deep inside the team’s headquarters in Renton, Wash. They come carrying Bibles, notebooks and pens, dressed in their team-issued blue-and-gray sweatpants and T-shirts for an hourlong Bible study.

Payne might lead a discussion on the Book of James, outlining lessons about controlling what you say, how the price of your soul is the same as the next man’s and how challenges can either bury people or spring them to success. Or he might open a discussion, inviting the men to share their thoughts and talk about the issues they are confronting.

I have heard fairly often about the strong role of religion in sports–from controversy over prayers before games at public high schools, to a recent article on a very religious college coach in Connecticut, to Tim Tebow–but it seems to me a subject with more popular than scientific writing. The above quote, for instance, describes what the article calls a team where, in particular, several players are driven by their religion. But in a nation of 80+% Christians, the 10-player bible study group represents under 20% of the 53-player roster. Naturally, more players are Christian than attend the study group, but is having a couple handfuls of very devout players unexpected? Or simply reflective of the population from which players are drawn?

Clearly, not all NFL players are Christian, or even religious. Tebow’s requests for others to join him in prayer have not always been welcome, for instance. I have not been able to find, in any journals of sport, psychology, & religion, any information as to actual numbers–are professional (american) football players any more religious than anyone else? (Vyse reports that superstition is more prevalent among better athletes–more chances to pair success with a superstitious behavior, so no surprise there–but there are good reasons to suspect that athletic superstitions are quite different from institutionalized superstition.)

I have written before about this silliness. At least, I always assumed it was silliness to think that praying about football would matter–especially when fans and players on opposite sides desire opposite outcomes–but no less than William Lane Craig assures us that nothing is too trivial for God:

I think the overriding thing I want to say is God’s providence rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event. That includes every fumble, every catch, every run. All of these things are in the providence of God, and therefore, we should not think that these things are a matter of indifference. These are of importance to God as well even though they seem trivial.

And I don’t want to hear about praying for everybody to be safe and uninjured, and to do their best. If you wanted them safe and uninjured, enough to do more than to pay lip service, there are real world things that can be done. As is, the very hits likely to be cheered the most also happen to be the ones most likely to cause brain injury.

Which cannot be treated with prayer.

Rendering Unto Caesar

A little-known sacrament, hidden from view,
But it’s there if you happen to search…
Is the sacred ability—really, God’s right—
For a renter to park at a church.

The law is the law, and the rule is the rule,
Though enforcement has been, well, relaxed…
For over a decade, they’ve taken in money
But this year, their profits are… taxed!

University parking is scarce as can be;
The demand far outstrips the supply
Local businesses often will lease out some spots—
If they’re taxed, they don’t often ask why.

But churches are used to more delicate treatment
They’re not just a business, their business is God’s
And churches, of course, enjoy tax-exempt status—
It’s not like the faithful are frauds!

The church provides parking, on tax-exempt land,
That sits empty the rest of the week
So it’s “render to Caesar”, and time to pay up,
The end of their non-paying streak

They’re grudgingly paying their taxes this year;
The power of Christ can’t compel—
I still have a question they don’t want to hear:
Can we sue for back taxes as well?

Oh, the little things that show up in my aggregator! A couple of churches had been renting out parking spaces in a university town, and are shocked–shocked, I tell you–to receive a tax bill for their commercial and non-religious enterprise.

Two churches in downtown Durham that rent parking spaces to students and other motorists received an unpleasant surprise last year: A property tax bill.

Leaders of St. George’s Episcopal Church and Community Church of Durham say they’ve leased parking spaces for more than a decade without issue. Both plan to challenge the $2,737 assessment.

Ten years of windfall profits! If they didn’t expect to be taxed, they couldn’t have been making much money from them–as churches, this was probably very nearly a charity, right?

Durham Tax Assessor Jim Rice discovered last year the churches were not being taxed for the parking leases. At the time, he said, each church leased 30 spaces for $600 each.

Rice set the value of each church parking lot at $90,000. Based on that figure, the churches owed $2,737 for the 2013 tax year. Both have paid the tax bills.

“For whatever reason, they were never assessed in the past,” Rice said of the church lots. “There is no reason the taxes should not have been assessed.”

Other non-profits in town are taxed when they profit from leasing property–including another church that leases office space. No persecution here, just a case of presumed privilege, and an assumption that the rules don’t apply.

Frankly, ten years worth of back taxes would likely help the town… I doubt very much that they will go after the money, though. Even if it is legal, it will be viewed as attacking churches.

Yet Another Case Of Ignorance = God

Science looks for laws by which
The real world is constrained
But, gee willikers—free will occurs,
Which physics can’t explain!

So… physics must be incomplete;
A reasonable conclusion—
Of course, there is another one:
Free will is an illusion.

A writer over at The Daily Paul (don’t laugh!–their motto is “Peace, Gold, Love”) demonstrates the problem of “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. And a pet peeve of mine along the way.

I don’t claim any special aptitude or deep understanding of the popular level physics I read, but I was well on my way to adopting the atheist position as my default simply because God was not mentioned as anything intellectually serious anywhere in my searching. To me God was just a made up person, and had no explanatory value.

I never heard of any logical or intellectual arguments for God’s existence, and never knew such a thing existed. There is just no information on that kind of thing available to a regular, non religious child. Public education, popular media, television, science books, all more or less assume atheism.

I was a comfortable atheist for over 15 years, not giving it much thought as a controversial matter, and simply enriching and coloring in my atheism with reading on biology, evolution, and science.

I spent my time and mental energy exploring every other area of contention and controversy — my true passion — and especially political and historical controversy, with a free open mind and the strongest stomach for unpalatable Truth I’ve ever come across.

A simple understanding of popular level physical sciences… and an unquestioned belief in a free mind. Really, it was only a matter of time until one or the other had to go. And since his passion was political (and, given where he’s writing, we can assume Libertarian), the notion that his own thinking was constrained by the same laws that describe the rest of the universe was inconceivable.

You can never know, so you have to either accept God as the ultimate answer, or else maintain a posture of permanent skepticism, and bear all the heavy weight of that skepticism your whole life, holding off all the temptations and comforts offered by a final answer, and the peace it brings.

I accepted that some people throw in the towel earlier than others and that atheism was a privilege of the few, requiring intellectual strength and hardiness.

But finally I actually started listening the the strongest proponents of theism and their strongest arguments, and realized that the matter is far from settled, and that there are powerful philosophical arguments for God, and also powerful defeaters for belief in naturalism, not least of which was the requirement that you adopt a total skepticism of all our reasoning and thinking faculties on a belief system where the mind is formed haphazardly for survival.

And since he feels he has a free, functional, and rational mind, clearly physics and biology cannot be trusted. Free will as a gateway drug to theism.

The thing is, all too many who look to science, for matters of religion or mind, are looking at the wrong sciences. Yes, there is a lot of pseudoscience under the big tent that is psychology, but the areas of sensation & perception, memory, and learning are where we can find that just because our thinking feels free, that doesn’t mean that it is. Turns out, the stuff between our ears does act the same way the rest of the universe does. No magic, either free-will or god, needed to intervene.

I Need Some Advice…

For an upcoming funeral. The deceased was a Christmas-and-Easter churchgoer; most (a slim majority) of the extended family are atheist, with a mix of religions (mostly various Protestant Christian) a strong minority. And one daughter, Catholic, who wants to sing The Lord’s Prayer at the memorial.

The question I was asked, and which I am passing along to you… can you think of a compromise song? Something that won’t have either the religious or the atheist half of the attendees rolling their eyes?

Hmmm.. the lord’s prayer? Last time I was at a family gathering of a substantial number of people, just saying the lord’s prayer was hilarious, with a handful of us just looking around for the other atheists in the crowd, and two strange moments when different versions of the prayer collided–”debts” versus “trespasses”, and “for thine is the kingdom…” which only half the people said. When even the prayer named for your religion’s savior divides rather than unites the various Christian sects, there has got to be something better to sing to a diverse group.