Wheelchair miracles

One of the best-known pieces of media in the skeptical canon, is a video in which James Randi debunks faith healer Peter Popoff. In the 1980s, Popoff ran a scam where he called out people’s names in a crowd, described their diseases, and claimed to heal them by laying on hands. James Randi and his associates demonstrated that Popoff did not get these names from divine revelation, but instead got them from his wife, who had collected that information beforehand and was speaking to him through an earpiece.

Under media fire, Popoff’s ministry declared bankruptcy in 1987–but rebooted again in the late 90s. As far as I know Peter Popoff is still at large, now on the Black Entertainment Network.

I want to talk about a particular kind of miracle that Popoff is said to perform: allowing people in wheelchairs to walk again. Back when I was more invested in the skeptical movement, I had heard that they just had fully mobile people seated in wheelchairs, and thought “well that explains it”. This is the explanation currently offered by Wikipedia:

Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic “cures” were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff’s assistants prior to broadcasts.[10]

But years later, I had a quiet realization: such fraudulent tactics aren’t necessary, because many people in wheelchairs can in fact walk!

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Retrospective on Hobby Lobby

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014, on the (then recent) Burwell v Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, which ruled that owners of for-profit corporations could withhold certain healthcare benefits (i.e. contraceptives) if their owners had religious objections.  I was reminded of this one because of Trump’s recent rule allowing federal contractors to discriminate based on religious views.  While only tangential to the present issue, I thought it was a good explanation of the rationale behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and how one might argue around religious exemptions.

As I may or may not have mentioned before, my boyfriend has a law degree.  So I get to hear a lot of lawyerly opinions on the recent Burwell vs Hobby Lobby decision, both from him and his friends.  And they seem to contrast with the opinions I get from atheist blogs, where there’s lots of panicking about the consequences, but very little explanation of the mechanical details of the decision.

The Hobby Lobby decision was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law from the 90s.  The RFRA says,

Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

Laws specifically targeted against religions are already unconstitutional, but the RFRA adds religious protection from neutral laws.  For example, if a company bans hats among employees, that is a neutral rule that disproportionately affects certain minority religions which mandate wearing hats.
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The burden of proof and God

Because I recently discussed a blog post from March 2013, I was wondering what *I* was writing around the time.  So here’s a blog post from that period.  Please note that my opinions from six years ago do not necessarily reflect my current opinions.

One of the more tedious arguments concerning gods is the argument over who has the burden of proof.  Whereas many atheists argue that the theist must first make the argument for the existence of gods, their opponents argue that this is a cop out.  For example, on NY Times:

Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.

I take the side of atheists; I think theists have the burden of proof.  This is not about giving atheists an unfair advantage in the debate, nor is it about making a “no-arguments” argument.  In fact, I do not believe it is an advantage, fair or otherwise, at all.  It’s simply about who takes which role.

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Religion as an axis of oppression

Earlier, when I was talking about the death of the New Atheist movement, and I mentioned the idea that New Atheism contained an implicit critique of social justice norms. In social justice, it is common to treat religion as just another axis of oppression, similar to race, gender, or orientation. Religious minorities, such as Muslims, are seen as an oppressed group. However, New Atheism problematized the social justice framing by pointing to the harm caused by religion. New Atheism wanted to make it socially acceptable to argue about religious beliefs.

So, I’m curious how this all rolled out, especially among readers who participated in New Atheism and then shifted towards social justice. How did you view religious minorities around five years ago? Have your views changed since then? If so, why?

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Seeing Job from both sides

The interesting thing about the biblical story of Job is that it permits diametrically opposed interpretations. From an atheist point of view, it’s a terrible story about how terrible God is. From a Jewish or Christian point of view, they may have multiple ways of reading it, but they certainly wouldn’t see it as a terrible story about a terrible God.

But what I really want to talk about is A Serious Man, a 2009 black comedy by the Coen brothers.  A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, and just like Job it permits diametrically opposed interpretations.  But unlike the book of Job, people on both sides can enjoy A Serious Man.

The book of Job

The book of Job is about a man named Job who has had a very fortunate life.  Satan tells God that the only reason Job praises him, is because of Job’s good fortune and wealth. God accepts the challenge, and allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health. But Job still remains faithful to God. Thus proceeds a TL;DR dialogue between Job and his friends, where they argue that Job must have sinned, and should repent. At the end, God speaks to Job, and he doesn’t need to explain himself, he laid the foundations of the earth! In the end, Job is blessed with twice as much wealth as he started with, and with new children.

The book of Job is a popular target among atheists, because it’s just so easy. God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet. God’s defense is like an abusive parent saying “Who was it that brought you into this world?” And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children. I have to strain to see this story from the other side, but we’re gonna try.

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The evil of theodicy

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2012.  I don’t always agree with stuff I wrote so long ago, but I mostly still agree with this one.

Earlier a commenter told me I should stop bashing religion. This left me wondering, where did they see me bashing religion? I feel like I’ve mostly said neutral things about it lately. I should do more religion bashing!

The problem of evil asks: How can there be a all-powerful and all-good god if there is evil in the world? Obviously this only applies to religions with an all-powerful and all-good god, and I might as well say that I’m thinking of Christianity in particular.

I’m not sure I’ve ever talked about the problem of evil before. I don’t really like it, because there’s no math involved. And the argument is too sprawling, with a multitude of rebuttals. In fact, we even have the word “theodicy”, which means a defense against the problem of evil.

Most theodicies are not very compelling, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how theodicies, above and beyond being bad arguments, are also evil arguments. That is, many theodicies involve defending evil, or denying the existence of certain kinds of evils.

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Educating atheists on religious aces

This is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

Recently, I wrote an article for A Trivial Knot about how aces are affected by Evangelical Christian beliefs about pre-marital sex. This is an important topic, but also an iffy one for me to talk about. While I’m ex-Christian, I’m not ex-Evangelical, and the experiences described are not so similar to my own. Basically, I’m repeating and condensing stories I’ve heard from primary sources, such as the Aces in the Church zine and various bloggers. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it at all, except to boost other voices.

But the fact of the matter is that a lot of atheists, especially politically active atheists, already have their own prejudices and presumptions about the experiences of religious aces. I have this platform that reaches a moderate number of progressive atheists, so I feel at least a bit responsible to get them on the right track. Also, atheist activists are not such a friendly group that I want to just send them to primary sources.

This was fresh on my mind at the 2017 SF Ace Unconference, so I attended a session for religious aces. The personal stories shared in that space were confidential and I will keep them that way. I did, however, ask them if they wanted me to share any particular message with my atheist readers.

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