Religion’s double-edged sword cuts through Libya

One of my (several) major problems with religious faith, particularly that faith which is based on scripture, is that it can be used to justify or condemn just about any action. Like a fortune cookie, a Tarot card reading or an astrological prediction, scripture is vague and contradictory enough that a wide variety of interpretations can be said to have equal validity. It is for this reason that people as day-and-night different as Shelby Spong and Fred Phelps can both call themselves “Christian” and claim to be “followers of Christ”. They have both read the same document diligently and came out with wildly different interpretations, both of which they can defend with equal fervor.

It is for this reason that a government that is based on religion is pretty much guaranteed to get caught in its own hypocrisy – not because religious people are inherently hypocritical but because the scriptures do nothing more than give the illusion of divine justification for one’s a priori decisions. Moammar Gaddafi is learning this lesson:

Violence flared up even before the Friday sermons were over, according to a source in Tripoli. “People are rushing out of mosques even before Friday prayers are finished because the state-written sermons were not acceptable, and made them even more angry,” the source said.

Libyan state television aired one such sermon on Friday, in an apparent warning to protesters. “As the Prophet said, if you dislike your ruler or his behaviour, you should not raise your sword against him, but be patient, for those who disobey the rulers will die as infidels,” the speaker told his congregation in Tripoli

Contrast this state-sponsored co-opting of religion, not to mention Gaddafi’s full-throated endorsement of an Islamic Europe, with what he said in a long, rambling, and mostly incoherent speech last week:

Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has said in a speech on Libyan state television that al-Qaeda is responsible for the uprising in Libya. “It is obvious now that this issue is run by al-Qaeda,” he said, speaking by phone from an unspecified location on Thursday. He said that the protesters were young people who were being manipulated by al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, and that many were doing so under the influence of drugs.

So when Islam is used as justification for his continued reign, it is a good and useful thing. However, when it is used as justification for violence (as is al-Qaeda’s whole reason for being), it is a bad thing. Mosques are to spread pro-government propaganda as decreed by Allah, but are to be bombed when used against the government, supposedly under the same authority. It should be stated unequivocally that there is no truth to Gaddafi’s assertion, or at least no evidence to support it. Given that he is becoming crazier and more disconnected from reality, it is probably wise to just assume that everything he says is a self-serving lie.

The tragic thing in all of this, aside from the thousands of people dead and the thousands more injured by pro-government forces and foreign mercenaries, is that both sides are claiming that Allah favours their cause rather than the other. It means that no matter what the outcome, it is because of Allah, rather than placing the credit (and blame) where it firmly belongs – on the people of Libya.

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I missed Valentine’s Day!

Well… maybe “missed” isn’t the right word. I’m mostly indifferent to the passage of Valentine’s Day, mostly because I’ve successfully managed to avoid being in a relationship for many years, and while I am happy for my friends who have coupled up, the prospect doesn’t really appeal much to me. As with all things though, just because I don’t like something, it doesn’t mean I have cause to stop other people from doing it (unless it directly harms me or someone else).

This, among many other reasons, is why I will never be elected to office in Malaysia:

Islamic morality police in Malaysia have arrested more than 80 Muslims in an operation to stop them celebrating Valentine’s Day. Officers raided budget hotels in the central state of Selangor and capital, Kuala Lumpur, detaining unmarried Muslim couples who were sharing rooms. The religious authorities in Malaysia say Valentine’s Day is synonymous with immoral activities. Those arrested could be jailed for up to two years if convicted.

While I like the idea of punishing people for religious hypocrisy (can you imagine what our society would look like if you were legally obligated to practice what you preach?), I am less in favour of doing so in a country where you can be declared Muslim by legislative fiat. I am even less in favour of laws being passed for reasons of morality, particularly when the religious are the ones deciding what is moral and what isn’t.

I’m sure that the lawmakers in this case think that they are acting to maintain a sense of good, chaste morality for the benefit of all society. While I would challenge them to demonstrate such a benefit, I would also point out that the religious sex fetish does little to prevent “immoral” sexuality, and seems to go a long way toward compelling the kinds of behaviours that they claim are so anathema, whilst simultaneously making people less likely to engage in the kinds of risk-reduction that prevent real harms from occurring.

Here’s the kicker line:

Human rights groups say actions such as the Valentine’s Day ban harm Malaysia’s image as a moderate and progressive Muslim-majority state.

This is what passes for “moderate” and “progressive” when we talk about Muslim theocracy. How sad. Again, as I said back in August, it’s a state that is making small inroads, but it’s still a crime to be gay there. If this is what is considered “moderate” and “progressive”, we’re clearly grading on the mother of all bell curves.

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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.


Please don’t be… aww crap

There’s a phenomenon in the black community, whenever someone sees a headline like this:

Man, 21, arrested for drug possession and assault

We immediately flinch and say “Please please please don’t be a black guy.” It’s a reaction to the fact that, nearly without exception, whenever a black man makes the news it’s because he’s a gang-banger arrested for some crime. The problem is that this event reflects such a small proportion of the black population, and yet the fallout is something we all must deal with. We are all tagged with the crime, as our culture unconsciously (in most cases) links the man’s skin colour to his propensity to commit crime. As a result, I get distrustful looks from old ladies when walking the streets at night, and am assumed to be the one in my group of friends who sells drugs.

I’d imagine that Christians are starting to get an appreciation for that phenomenon when they see headlines like this one:

Charity chief convicted of sexual assault

Given the number of Christian organizations, leaders and celebrities that have been exposed doing decidedly un-Christlike things in the past little while, you’ve got to imagine that Christians are more than a little concerned every time someone makes the news for doing something really evil.

I guess we can both say “oh shit” in unison:

The head of two Toronto-area organizations that were stripped of their charitable status after submitting “falsified” documents to federal regulators was sentenced this month for sexual assault for inappropriately touching a teenager, CBC News has learned. Daniel Mokwe was sentenced Jan. 13 to time served — two nights in jail — and given two years probation.

The victim, a minor at the time of the assault, told Det. Richard Petrie of the Toronto Police Service that she knew Mokwe was a pastor. As a result of the incident, she lost her faith in God and would never enter another church again, she said.

Yep, he’s black and Christian. His “charity organization”, Revival Time Ministries (which sounds like a children’s television program on a god-bothering channel) had its licensed revoked after Canada Revenue (the Canadian equivalent to the IRS) found a series of irregularities in their bookkeeping. Mokwe had another charity called “Save Canada’s Teenagers” – the irony should not be lost on anyone.

If I were a lesser blogger, I could score a few cheap points off of pointing out that Jesus didn’t keep Mokwe from being both financially and sexually corrupted, and that this is “proof” that Christianity is just as empty as all religions. I think the point to be made here is larger than that one though. Daniel Mokwe is undoubtedly a bad person, using the auspices of a charitable organization and his position as an authority figure to abuse both the tax code and, more devastatingly, a young girl. The problem is the source from which Mokwe derives his authority – namely, his position as a pastor. His parishoners, and likely those who donated to him, placed trust in him at least partially based on the fact that he claimed a personal relationship with YahwAlladdha. They essentially granted a portion of the trust that they placed in the deity itself in the hands of a man who told them he is tight with the almighty.

I can’t harp on this issue enough, it seems. The problem is not religion per se. The problem is that we take it seriously. If I told you I had a special insight into a voice in the sky, as revealed through interpretation of Beowulf, you’d (quite rightly) think me a lunatic in need of some therapy. However, if I tell you instead that I am granted authority by Yahweh based on the Bible, all of a sudden my cup doth overflow with credibility. Why? Why do people who claim a particular brand of magical thinking get a free pass into positions of trust? Why indeed, since they seem to have no lesser frequency of violating that trust than someone who is a non-believer?

It is there where the difference between the “don’t let him be black” and the “don’t let him be Christian” arises. Black people don’t claim to be morally superior, or to have a conduit to absolute truth based on the colour of our skin. Christians, however, do claim such superiority. Christianity has been made synonymous with honesty and righteousness over generations, despite all evidence that such association is a big steaming pile of turds. It relies on this borrowed heft of asserted uprightness in order to be made a member of the conversation. Why on Earth would we listen to a bunch of nutjobs who think that the only possible explanation for a woman giving birth without having sex with her husband is that God did it, or who think that a book written by amassing the third-hand account of people who claim to have known a particular Palestinian carpenter decades before the fact is the literal word of the almighty? When evaluating those claims at face value, they can be, and should be, dismissed as nonsense.

As long as we keep re-applying the thin varnish of respect to the rotting woodwork of religion, we will see scam artists like this perpetrate their fraud again and again.

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I’m not sure how to feel about this

Life isn’t easy or clear-cut. Inevitably, we will find ourselves confronted with a position wherein our beliefs come into conflict with each other. Whether that is something mild, like when I had to choose whether or not to go to church with my relatives at Christmastime, or something more serious like whether or not to marry the love of your life in her/his family’s church – same conflict with far higher stakes.

Today’s story is an example of such a conflict that I’m struggling with right now:

Key websites of the Tunisian government have been taken offline by a group that recently attacked sites and services perceived to be anti-Wikileaks. Sites belonging to the Ministry of Industry and the Tunisian Stock Exchange were amongst seven targeted by the Anonymous group since Monday. Other sites have been defaced for what the group calls “an outrageous level of censorship” in the country.

An erstwhile free speech advocate like myself is driven to support the message of Anonymous, which is that speech should be free everywhere, even (perhaps especially) when it embarrasses governments. The internet is one of the crowning achievements of the human species – bringing information down from the heavens and into the hands of the commons (at least those commons who can read and have access to a computer and a signal). When a sovereign government violates the human rights of its people, there is little that can be done, at least officially. Because of the intricacies, twists and turns of international politics, it may not be possible to issue a trade embargo, withdraw diplomatic ties, or even write a strongly-worded letter of condemnation.

That’s where a group like Anonymous could conceivably come in. While there may be no official punishments possible when governments (or multi-national corporations) step out of bounds, there are a lot of “off the books” things that some group of private individuals can do. Anonymous is illicitly punishing the offending governments by crippling their internet capacity. It is poetic justice at its most awesome.

Of course, on the other hand I am also a believer in the rule of law, that people should not be taking the laws into their own hands. Anonymous is not a group of angels, intent on ensuring that the righteous prevail and the wicked are punished. It just so happens that one (or more) of their goals happens to coincide with my own. If Anonymous was a group that was committed to doing things that I disagreed with (like, oh I don’t know, distributing porn to kids or defacing memorial webpages), I’d think them a group of undisciplined thugs who are abusing the internet to accomplish mean and feeble acts of vandalism and victimization of innocent people. In that circumstance, I’d be among the first looking to find a way to curtail their ability to commit these crimes.

And so while I cannot give my blanket support to the actions of Anonymous, they have not earned my blanket condemnation either. This is problematic for me; not simply because they must be one thing or another, but because their actions both support and defy some close-held principles of mine. I like to think of myself as a ‘principled’ person, so being stuck in limbo in this way is acutely unpleasant. It is made even more unpleasant by the fact that they’re going after my least-favourite dictator:

Those attacks were reportedly in retaliation after the president’s wife Grace Mugabe sued a Zimbabwean newspaper for $15m (£9.6m) over its reporting of a cable released by Wikileaks that claimed she had made “tremendous profits” from the country’s diamond mines.

The attacks, which started in the run up to the New Year, hit the government’s online portal and the official site of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. “We are targeting Mugabe and his regime in the Zanu-PF who have outlawed the free press and threaten to sue anyone publishing Wikileaks,” the group said at the time.

That’s right, our old fart-sniffing Gigli afficionado Robert Mugabe himself! This is a man who has made it a federal crime to insult him (hence the childish barbs in the previous sentence – on behalf of every Zimbabwean who can’t say it her/himself), and has attacked the very heart of free speech in a country that desperately needs better and less evil leadership. How could you not cheer on a group of people who goes after such sleaze with such gusto? By remembering that many members of that group are sleaze themselves?

Sadly, life is not as clear-cut as Hollywood would have us believe. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my enemy too. Sometimes our principles do clash, and there is no way to resolve the conflict happily. That’s why there’s alcohol.

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Blasphemy – not a victimless crime

I spoke in error this morning, and so it is time for me to post one of my rare but fun retractions.

In my discussion I made the claim that blasphemy is a crime that doesn’t hurt anyone. After all, while sticks and stones do what it is they do, criticizing or insulting someone, much less an idea, has never resulted in the injury or death of anyone, right?


The governor of Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province, Punjab, was assassinated Tuesday in the country’s capital, Islamabad. Salman Taseer was shot by a member of his personal security detail while in Kohsar Market, a posh area of the capital popular among foreigners, authorities say. “[His security guard] confessed that he killed the governor himself because he had called the blasphemy law a black law,” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

I guess we have to amend the saying to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but when my fuckhead Islamitard of a backstabbing coward bodyguard shoots me with a bullet, I die.”

Of course with the usual lack of awareness of irony that usually accompanies the religious, the bodyguard is probably willfully ignorant of the fact that his actions have brought greater insult and shame upon Islam than any words spoken by any blasphemer ever could. In a single act of cowardice and small-minded idiocy, clouded and draped in the faux righteousness that always accompanies violence done for religious purposes, this man has made a lie of the claims that Muslims follow a religion of peace, that Allah punishes infidels, and that Pakistan is anything other than a backwards, barbaric hellhole made so by the forces of religious piety.

“But Crommunist,” comes the predicable whine “this is not the true face of religion. Religion tells us to be good to one another and show respect for our fellow creatures. This man was clearly not acting as a true follower of YahwAlladdha!” I find this claim as tedious as I find it false. This was not a man who is conveniently using his religious beliefs as a shield for his homicidal tendencies – he believes just as fervently as missionaries feeding the hungry or charity groups teaching literacy in developing countries that what he is doing is the manifest will of a deity he has never seen and never will, because the deity doesn’t exist.

This is why I am unmoved by the whinging and wheedling voices of the accommodationists and religious moderates who clamor obsequiously for “tolerance” and “understanding”, meaning that I must not criticize religious beliefs out of deference for the hurt feelings of the faithful. If “tolerating” religion means that I have to make the same piss-poor excuses for acts of horror that very clearly have their genesis in theistic belief, I refuse. While I recognize your right to believe whatever nonsense you want in the privacy of your own head, I am not going to stop pointing out how dangerous your nonsense it. I am not going to pretend that there is a “real” version – a version that nobody seems to manage to actually put into practice, and in no way follows from your scripture – that is above criticism. I am not going to be nice and pretend that you’re “one of the good ones” just because you haven’t murdered anyone. The ideas are dangerous, and they deserve nothing but scorn and ridicule.

Tragically, Mr. Taseer learned the price of such a stance when taken in a place where religion is allowed free reign over reason. I am deeply saddened by this despicable act that brings shame on all Muslims everywhere, and all religious people by extension.

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Movie Friday: Imaginary Friends

A while back I wondered aloud at the complete lack of self-awareness and sense of irony demonstrated by religious people – consistently using arguments that refute their own position, all the while blissfully unaware of their hypocrisy. It’s funny, but oftentimes utterly depressing – sometimes these cognitive dissonances are so slippery that logic just slides right off.

For a great example of this, let’s talk to Fr. Jonathan Morris of Fox News:

Now I know you caught the punchline at the end, but let’s back up a bit first.

First, a “study” says that people who pray do better than those who don’t, and a completely reasonable mechanism is proposed. The hypothesized mechanism seems to be supported by the fact that it doesn’t matter who or what you pray to, the effect size is similar. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if the effect came from the human mind rather than from a supernatural source.

And then Fr. Morris gets his hands on it and says “If God really does exist, there’s going to be feedback.” So is there feedback, Fr. Morris? “Well of course these studies aren’t going to show that.” Why wouldn’t they show that? People who pray to the proper god will have better outcomes than people who pray to a heathen god, or who pray to a stick (which, of course, they don’t).

And then there’s the delicious bit of irony at the very end, where Fr. Morris rightly identifies belief in an imaginary friend as a product of a diseased mind. It is here (and only here) that I think he and I might find some common ground.

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Love the sinner, hate this meme

I am officially back from vacation, with a full buffer and a great deal of enthusiasm. I enjoyed my time in Ontario, but I am glad to be back and bringing you the good stuff once again. Happy New Year!

When I was in high school I had a string quartet. We were called The Four Quarters and we played gigs in various places around southern Ontario. Our second violinist was raised in a conservative Christian household, was home-schooled, and was about as fond of religious bottled phrases as I am fond of butter tarts (which is to say a lot). She once shared with me her outrage over some guy who was told he wasn’t allowed to discriminate against gay people at his print shop. I expressed my bafflement that this was a problem for her – wouldn’t the Christian thing to do be to love all people? I still remember her response:

Her: As a Christian, I love the sinner but hate the sin
Me: Um… Jesus wasn’t really into hate.
Her: I don’t hate gay people, I just hate the sin
Me: Still, hate… not exactly very Christlike

It was the first time I heard the whole “love the sinner,  hate the sin” trope. At the time I was still a believer, albeit a much more liberal one than she was. I had never seen anything wrong with being gay, and hadn’t yet read the lovely passages in Leviticus and the letters of Paul that called gay sex an “abomination”. Even then, I knew it was a stupid phrase, because it’s still hate, and hate is not represented anywhere in Christian scripture. The only story we have that even comes close to touching on the subject is the one about Jesus and the adulteress, from which we get the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s a nice story, provided you don’t think about it too much, and ignore the fact that it’s not in any of the other gospels, and couldn’t have been from an eyewitness, and probably got snuck in after the gospel of John was written, and probably never actually happened. The relevant point here is that sins should be forgiven. It doesn’t say anything about hating sin.

But back up a second and replay the story from the beginning. Assume Jesus had come to the crowd and instead wrote “Love the sinner, but stone the sin to death”. Who wants to lay odds that that woman would have made it out alive?

The problem lies in the fact that being gay, or doing the things that are a direct result of being gay, are labeled as “sin”. Whereas someone could, conceivably, make the decision not to commit adultery, there is no choice in the matter of being gay. Even if there was, while there is a clear harm from adultery (assuming the spouse isn’t okay with it), there is no clear harm to being gay, or expressing your sexuality as a gay person except insofar as all sexual expression has risks and harms, and the fact that small-minded bigots have made people feel ashamed of being gay.

“But Crommunist,” you say “it’s not me who says that homosexuality is a sin, it’s GOD! The Bible makes it very clear that is it a sin!”

Ah yes, that pesky God. You’d totally have no problem with homosexuality, but it says right there in black and white that homosexuality is an abomination. What can you do? You certainly can’t ignore the stuff it says directly in the Bible, right? I mean, if you could, for the sake of argument, ignore some parts of the Bible that don’t make any sense or are impractical, you would totally do it, right? If the Bible is the only reason that you condemn homosexuality, and you are capable of ignoring certain parts of the Bible that conflict with your personal beliefs, then you’d stop condemning it?

Well, consider it your luck day, because chances are you completely ignore lots of stuff in the Bible. Let’s start with the easy ones: if you have ever had sex for any reason other than procreation, you’re ignoring the story of Onan. Do you own a cross or a crucifix? Maybe a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or a statue of the Virgin Mary? Whoops, you just ignored the second commandment. Let’s not even get started on what happens if you catch your neighbour working on a Saturday or a Sunday.

“But that’s all Old Testament stuff,” you say. “The New Testament is where all the real rules are.” Okay, fine, but then you’re no longer allowed to talk about the Ten Commandments. Obviously if stuff in the Old Testament that doesn’t make sense can be ignored, then we can stop talking about the “thou shalt nots” as though they have any real meaning. Also we can throw out Genesis, so that takes care of creationism (and Intelligent Design, it’s hilariously-ironically-named cousin). Just so long as we don’t disregard anything that’s in the New Testament we should be okay to call homosexuality a “sin”.

Do you support school prayer, or prayer in public places, or even group prayer in church? How about take an oath of office? Do you think people should be allowed to fight to defend themselves against violent attack? How about the right of people to save and accumulate money? How about… oh I don’t know… identify someone else as a sinner*? Whoops, you’ve chosen to ignore specific instructions from Jesus himself. What about specific instructions from Jesus about whether it’s okay to fuck another dude or make sweet sweet mouth-sex to another lady? Hmm… he’s oddly silent on that one.

So since you’re cool with ignoring some parts of the Bible when they are either out-dated or don’t seem to make sense, you have no reason to condemn homosexuality as sin, right? Well… unless that condemnation is just you trying to find a lame excuse about “loving the sinner but hating the sin” to justify your a priori hatred of gay people. But you wouldn’t do that, would you?

The fact is that identifying a set of behaviours that have no demonstrable harm to anyone as a “sin” is completely arbitrary, just as if I said that it is a “sin” to hold hands in public with your spouse, or encourage your daughter to play sports. By branding such a thing as a “sin”, you’re passing judgment on people who do it, and asserting (without evidence) that there is some sort of shame in their living their lives as they see fit. In so doing, you put the lie to the completely laughable statement that you are simply “hating the sin” whilst all the while “loving the sinner”.

TL/DR: “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a false statement, since it is based on the premise that acts can be “sins” even if they harm nobody. People pick and choose which parts of the Bible they follow, so the excuse that God condemns it is also false. Calling someone a “sinner” is already condemnation, which is a direct contravention of the idea of loving them.

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*For the record, Matthew 7:1-5 has always been, and probably will always be, one of my absolute favourite Biblical passages. The idea of someone with a beam in their eye always made me chuckle, but it’s a great message to remember about hypocrisy.

It’s a miracle!

Miracles are funny things. Whenever something good happens, we call it ‘a miracle’. It doesn’t matter if there is a clear causal chain that can be followed from the beginning to the end – it’s still a “miracle” when surgery fixes someone’s cancer; it’s still a “miracle” when seatbelts and safety testing help someone survive a car crash; it’s still a “miracle” when an international team of engineers develop technology to save the lives of 33 men trapped in a collapsed mine, it’s a “miracle”.

So what about when 29 men trapped in a collapsed mine just die there? Is that a “miracle” too?

New Zealand has begun to mourn 29 miners who were declared dead earlier after a second explosion ripped through the shaft where they were trapped. A memorial service was held in the town of Greymouth, and Prime Minister John Key said it was a “national tragedy”.

One of the regular readers of this site is a New Zealander, and I am sensitive to the fact that this might hit home for him, so I am going to do my best to treat this tragedy with the appropriate gravity. There is nothing funny about the death of 30 people, and my characteristic flippancy is targeted not at them, or at the people of New Zealand, but at anyone who wishes to credit the Almighty with only those events that are good, whilst simultaneously failing to take credit for the bad stuff.

So, trying to keep that in mind, here’s my question to those who called the Chilean rescue a “miracle”: why did the New Zealand miners deserve to die in the opinion of your god? Would they have been judged worthy if they had prayed harder? Were their families just not devout enough? Were 28 punished for the sins of 1 other? How about the reverse – were they just evil “on average”? How do you explain the great “justice” and “mercy” of your deity?

Those who criticize the evils of religion are commonly admonished to be fair, and reminded that people do good things for religious reasons too. Assuming that the evil that is done by religion is balanced out by the good (and I don’t think it is), then religion is a negligible factor with respect to goodness. However, the religious are always quick to claim that religion “helps people be good” or some such nonsense that are entirely unsupported by evidence.

It is this same wish to both have your communion wafer and eat it too that comes into play with invocations of the word “miracle”. If God can take credit for things that happen to trapped miners underground, then He has to take credit for both the success of Chile and the tragedy in New Zealand. He has to take credit for both the magic of a newborn child and the horrible reality of stillbirth. He has to take credit for both the majesty of a sunset and the devastation of a hurricane.

But of course we know that God isn’t responsible for any of these things. He’s just responsible for people failing to deal with reality, and cherry-picking their perceptions of the world to preserve the illusion of a just and fair world.

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HIS will be done, dammit!

I’m kind of flabbergasted that anyone (let alone Tony Blair) would agree with the statement that religion is a force for good in the world. Every major civil rights, scientific, social and human achievement in the history of the world has been staunchly opposed on religious grounds. The fact that they were supported on religious grounds is largely unimportant to me – all it does is demonstrate the fact that religious texts and beliefs can be used to justify anything, thus disqualifying them as a force for anything.

However, look at any group trying to retard social progress, trying to hold back the passage of time, on the side of hate and intolerance, and you will always find the justification for such stupidity draped in the garments of the faithful:

Since its debut in 1978, the New International Version — known as the NIV — has been the Bible of choice for evangelicals, selling more copies than any other version. But a 2005 gender-inclusive edition bombed after being condemned as too liberal. Translators hope their latest edition, which debuted online this month, will avoid a similar fate. They’ve retained some of the language of the 2005 edition. But they also made changes — like going back to using words like “mankind” and “man” instead of “human beings” and “people” — in order to appease critics.

Ah yes, mustn’t give them wimmins any ideas about gender equality. As everyone knows, man is the head of woman the way that Christ is the head of the church, or some such nonsense. It obviously makes for a far better world when the deeply-entrenched sexism of the past thousand or so years of western civilization continue to be propped up as the immutable will of the invisible sky-ghost that makes football players miss catches.

Of course the delicious irony of this whole situation is that they’re discussing the immutable will of the sky-ghost… as revealed through His holy books… with those tasked to translate those very books!

They also broke a promise they’d made to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, John Piper, pastor of Minneapolis megachurch Bethlehem Baptist, and other conservative pastors, not to produce a gender-inclusive NIV. In response, Dobson accused translators of distorting the word of God.

I can muster a grudging respect for those who have taken the time to learn the original languages of the Bible. They, at least, are willing to put in the effort to explore the full implications of their superstition. Most everyone, at least those who are relevant to this story, can only read English (if that). The hypocrisy required to tell the very people who make it possible for you to understand the book you’re referencing that they’re “doing it wrong” is so particular to the religious, I think it should have it’s own name. Hypocrigion, perhaps? Theopocrisy? I’m sure you can come up with something.

It is as I’ve long suspected – the Bible doesn’t make people sexist; it was written by sexists, and then used to propagate that bigotry for the future to enjoy. Thanks, guys!

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