Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Does God Exist? Why Or Why Not?

Jason Boyett over at Beliefnet is asking that age-old question and soliciting responses. He frames the issue by giving a rundown of some of the best-known arguments for God: The Ontological, the Transcendental, the Teleological, and the Anthropic arguments. The board wasn't crowded with responses, so I thought I'd weigh in with my own opinion:

The mere fact that we have to continually ask this question is a good indication that there is no God. If there is one, then he/she/it has decided to exist at such a remove from our affairs as to be undetectable and inferred only by stretched arguments as detailed in your introduction. Many people have personal experiences and strong convictions that convince them there is a God (I once shared such beliefs - I'm judging none of my brothers or sisters here), but understandings and definitions of God are countless and often mutually exclusive. It makes more sense to think of God as a place holder word for the things we do not understand or the things we wish to be true.

I feel no need to substitute the genuine mystery of how our universe came to be with anyone's ancient myths. There's no reason to think that our fore-bearers had any greater purchase on truth than we do now; in fact, we should reasonably expect that they had understanding limited in comparison with our own. With science, our knowledge is improving at an admirable pace, and it's the best we can do to objectively learn about the universe. One by one our poor ancient guesses are being replaced with evidence-based explanations; often counter-intuitive to the intuitions we evolved for survival. Our religions come from charismatic individuals who have told us with straight face their teachings come from the almighty. We have seen it in modern times with the likes of L Ron Hubbard, David Koresh and Joseph Smith, and we can extrapolate backward that similar individuals convinced their contemporaries with claims of special knowledge. I demand better.

We would live forever if we could, and we would like there to be a supreme law-giver who rewards good, punishes evil, and defines both. I say "we" because those options sound good to me as well. And yet I am content to live in the real world where I only get to live once. I am thankful that I have won the genetic lottery to accomplish even that. There is ample opportunity to live, love, do, and share. I am also content to admit the truth - morality is tough, rarely straight-forward, and is something we need to struggle to agree upon and improve upon. The march of history, while filled with setbacks, is encouragingly advancing on the trajectory of civil rights and a widening circle of regard for our fellow humans, our animal cousins, and our planet.

I wish you all the best as we ponder these wonderful questions together.

Weigh in yourself, here or at the original site.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Morality and the Bible

For the third year in a row, my friend Jerry invited me to speak at The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills. This talk is titled "Morality and the Bible".

Direct link to the MP3 here. The service was moderated by Howard Richman, who gave a perfect introduction that included two scriptures that I reference in the talk:

"If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted.
"If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you."
- Leviticus 26:21-22,27-30 (NIV)

"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' they said. 'Go on up, you baldhead!' He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths."
- II Kings 2:23-24 (NIV) (Read my previous commentary on this passage)

Funny enough, after the discussion Howard had prepared a joke from the comedian Emo Philips, the same comedian I quoted! What a hilarious coincidence! I had just read it to my wife last night:

When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realised, the Lord doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me ... and I got it!

In my presentation, I refer to some quotes from the 19th century by advocates of slavery; arguments derived directly from biblical morality. Here are those quotes and some additional ones:

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America

"There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral." Rev. Alexander Campbell

"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Rev. R. Furman, D.D., Baptist, of South Carolina

"The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined." United States Senator James Henry Hammond.

"If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I'm afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution: Vaughn Roste, United Church of Canada staff.

"... under the same protection as any other species of lawful property...That the Ten Commandments are the word of G-d, and as such, of the very highest authority, is acknowledged by Christians as well as by Jews...How dare you, in the face of the sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments--how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job--the men with whom the Almighty conversed, with whose names he emphatically connects his own most holy name, and to whom He vouchsafed to give the character of 'perfect, upright, fearing G-d and eschewing evil' (Job 1:8)--that all these men were slaveholders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?" - Rabbi M.J. Raphall (circa 1861)

Another point I'd like to make here that I did not address in the talk is one that Sam Harris has made. Any person reading this, simply by virtue of being born in the 21st century, is eminently more qualified in knowledge about how the world works than any author of the Bible. The authors of the scriptures had no more access to information than any of us do. In fact, they had far less.

One of my favorite things about the Unitarian Church is that they provide time after the talk for a question and answer session. We never got to ask the pastor questions about his sermon (certainly not in front of the congregation) when I was growing up! A couple good points came up about the golden rule, which I neglected to address in my already-overly-long talk. It doesn't work for masochists (who enjoy pain being inflicted on them), and in general someone else may not appreciate having done to them what you want done to you. It could be a generally better heuristic to try to think in terms of what the other person would want and do that, or simply ask them. As Howard summed up with another classic joke:

Before you criticize your enemies, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

10 Reasons Gay Marriage is "Wrong"

Hey everyone! Sorry I've been missing in action over the past year... I've had a lot of stuff worthy of posting, but just kept putting it off. Hopefully I'll be more reliable going forward. The following was being passed around on Facebook, and I thought it was incredibly brilliant. It really captures the absurdity and illogic of waging a campaign against same-sex marriage:

1) Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.

2) Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

3) Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

4) Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can't marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.

5) Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Brittany Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.

6) Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn't be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren't full yet, and the world needs more children.

7) Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

8) Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That's why we have only one religion in America.

9) Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.

10) Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven't adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Humans Did Not Descend From Apes

I ran across a post by John Shore of the Suddenly Christian blog titled, "If We WERE Descended From Apes, At Least I Wouldn’t Have To Work." His commentary is meant to be humorous, detailing how he is personally averse to labor and how this relates to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. But I thought the premise itself was worth a reply, as so many Christians I speak to are confused about this point of our relation to the apes (and all life, for that matter). And some seem just downright fearful of the prospect.

For example, I attended a Whitworth College alumni event (my pastor told me about it - I am not an alum) titled, "Christian Evolutionist: An Oxymoron?" Whitworth biology professor Craig Tsuchida gave an excellent explanation of how evolution works and various ways Christians can reconcile their faith with science. Afterward, a member of the school's board repeatedly asked Professor Tsuchida questions about our relation to the apes. She had a pained look on her face, and misunderstood his answers, rephrasing the question in an attempt to be told there was no connection between ourselves and the apes. If she had spoken her true feelings, I suspect the line of questioning would have been more of a plea, "Just tell me I'm not related to those damn, dirty apes!"

I think this particular aversion is based in [misplaced] pride, and it seems to extend from the same mindset that put Earth at the center of our first planetary models. But I don't buy the premise - that being related to apes, or being classified as animals, makes us somehow less valuable. First, imagine the worst possible human being (yes, I know who we're all thinking of). We are far more closely related to him than to any modern ape, but does that really affect the way we see and define ourselves? Surely, the horrible acts committed by humanity are a blight upon us all, but that just means that we are capable of both good and evil. No one wakes up and says, "I am distantly related to a criminal, so I might as well go murder and steal."

My second observation is that being a subset of the category "animal" need not sully the word "human." Why not simply expand our understanding of the word "animal" to encompass all that we find good about humans? I remember my sister and I trying to convince our mom that people were animals. My mom would say, "I just don't like that word." My sister had a quick repartee, "Well, we're not vegetables or minerals."

I should also make the third point that animals in general (and apes in particular) and not necessarily so bad. They, too, perform acts both good and evil by our standards. Chimps, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans all demonstrate love for their children, reciprocal altruism, and some even aid hurt members of other species. There is much more to be said about this, but I will briefly recommend Frans de Waal's book Our Inner Ape.

So, in the comment section of John's blog, I wrote the following:
Just a technical note for clarification… we are not descended FROM modern apes. We share a common ancestor WITH modern apes, the same way you share ancestors with your cousins, rather than being descended from your cousins. As to whether our shared common ancestors would be classified as apes, well, that’s simply a taxonomy question. The various species, genera, families, and other categories we place animals in are convenient groupings that help us organize, but do not capture the continuum of evolution. If you held your mother’s hand, and she held mother’s, and so on for about 300,000 generations back (approximately the time we split from chimps and bonobos), you’d have a chain about 216 miles long, and the individual at the other end would not be called human. However, you would never identify two individuals along the chain for whom you could say that one was human and the next was not.

It’s well enough to find inspiration from ancient tales like those in Genesis, and apply the insights of their authors and their times to our lives, but I’d recommend making that endeavor part of a fuller and more robust outlook. We are storytelling animals, and we want to be part of a narrative. What better narrative is there than the one that shows us where we REALLY came from, and demonstrates that we are cousins with all life? It is not merely a beautiful, humbling and awe-inspiring story, but one that is demonstrably true.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The World Is Just Awesome

My friend Stacey sent me a link to this video, a commercial produced by the Discovery Channel, and I thought it so perfectly captured why life is worth living. We live in an amazing world, with so much to do, learn and enjoy. Just this short clip is, I think, more powerful than any of the traditional explanations of our purpose and place. I especially enjoyed the cameos at the end by Adam and Jamie of Mythbusters and Stephen Hawking.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Happy Pi Day!

Since 1988* people have been celebrating the number pi (π) on March 14th, or 3.14. Some celebrants are more precise, and wait for 1:59 PM and 26 seconds to begin their festivities, as pi approximates to 3.1415926.

Of course, any numerical expression of pi is approximate, as pi is an irrational number (it cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers), and thus it never stops and never repeats itself. Pi is also a transcendental number. As I hope all of you know, pi (pronounced like "pie", hence the visual pun to the upper-right) is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The history of mathematical progress in finding more precise values for pi is a fascinating one (In the Bible, 1 Kings 7:23-26 gives the value as 3), and pi currently has been calculated to over a trillion places. You can see pi up to a million places here. Pi (π) is a greek letter, an abbreviation for the greek word for perimeter.

Pi has long held a sentimental value for me. When I was in fourth grade, my dad (who is a high school math instructor), offered extra credit to students who could memorize 35 places of pi. He and I decided to have a contest to see who could learn the most places, and I (with my 9 year old plastic mind) was able to memorize 105 to his 65 (I can currently rattle off 120 from memory). This has served no practical purpose in my life, but it has been an excellent conversation starter and ender. The closest it came to being useful was in high school, when my good friend Frank told Brian, his fellow football team member, that I knew 105 places. Brian was skeptical, saying I was probably bluffing and offered a $10 bet to prove it. Frank took the bet, and Brian approached me with a printout from the internet. Frank won the $10. Pi memorization is an age-old nerd exercise, and the Guiness Book of World Records tracks the individuals who have memorized the most. Apparently Daniel Tammet is the current record holder, with 22,514 places.

(More on Pi and Pi Day at Wikipedia, and Science Friday's tribute to Pi Day here.)

*I was not aware until I started writing the post, but Pi Day began in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium! You can see video of their 20th annual celebration here. The Exploratorium was one of my favorite places to go as a kid, with interactive science demonstrations that you weren't just allowed to touch, but encouraged to touch! Highly recommended if you're in the SF area.

Awkward Bible Passages Part VI

"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again."
- Deuteronomy 13:6-10 (NIV)

This one starts out so nicely, evoking images of our closest loved ones. Ah yes, my brother, my son or daughter, the wife I love, my closest friend. But it's all down hill from there. We are instructed by Yahweh that if anyone, no matter how close to us or loved by us, should try to lead us away from him to worship other gods, then it's okay - nay, necessary - to murder her. And not just to hand her over for others to murder - we ourselves must be the first to put her to death (and then everyone else gets to join in).

Once again we see the jealous Yahweh (he freely admits as much - see here, here, here, here and here for a few examples) throwing a hissy fit because his tiny creations might worship some other god. There are quite a few problems with this, but I will mention some of the most salient:

1) Why the insecurity? Why does Yahweh need to be so jealous, anyway? He has lots of followers; is it really such a big deal if a few go astray? I'm not sure if his feelings are just hurt, or he doesn't feel appreciated, or what - but this seems awfully petty (and anthropomorphic) for the supposed creator of the universe. As Roy Zimmerman says in his brilliant song Jerry Falwell's God, "...If people are jealous and judgmental and vengeful and violent, maybe it's because you made them in your image."

2) Where's the free will? I thought the reason God allowed suffering was because he wants us to have free will. But how free can our wills be if we are threatened by force to remain believers? "You have two choices... you can believe in me, or you can DIE AT THE HANDS OF YOUR LOVED ONES!!" That's not really much of a choice. And it's rather immature. It's like telling your children, "You have two options... you can stop arguing, or I'll drive this van off the cliff." The subtext is clear... there's only one option.

3) Why does he remain hidden? If God is so insistent on being believed, then why doesn't he act like he exists? Why make the world seem chaotic and indifferent? Why let good things and bad things happen to good and bad people without any overriding pattern or justice? Why let there be other gods to worship? Why not just show up on a regular basis and confirm your existence? If blind faith is required, and punishment is death, then it just seems like Yahweh's trying to lure people in by entrapment.

4) There are other ways. Immediately killing a person to stave off deconversion is hardly the best option here. If I were a god, I could devise a better, moral way to handle the situation. First of all, I'd trust in my believers to think for themselves. I wouldn't be worried that someone else's mere suggestion could turn them away from me, especially because I wouldn't make myself so hard to believe in in the first place. Perhaps I'd give my follower the words to entice the loved one to believe in me instead, rather than killing her.

Of course, modern Christians and Jews do not adhere to this passage, and I've never heard it mentioned, let alone endorsed, in a sermon or Sunday School class. But here lies the rub: if we can all recognize this command as immoral, then why would Yahweh attribute it to himself in his word? And why would anyone persist in saying the Bible is a source of morality if we must purposefully ignore this kind of nonsense? If the Bible is the word of God, then God is as immoral as it says he is.

The image above is one I created after getting the idea that it would be funny to have an inspirational photo (like one of the Footprints in the Sand pictures) that looks like a beautiful scripture verse until you actually read it. I figured the Deuteronomy passage was ideal, because the first few lines sound so sweet and gentle. I've already given this, in a 5x7" frame, as a gag gift to some of my Christian friends, and they've gotten a kick out of it (or so they told me). The photo was taken by my wife, and shows the cliffs in Santa Cruz just down the street from where I was raised. I added the cross (it was actually just a sign warning people to stay away from cliff edges), for extra effect. I'll make prints available on a future site I'm building.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Evolution and Christian Faith

My presentation on February 11, 2007 at Westminster Presbyterian Church entitled "Evolution and Christian Faith" (read more below):

Part 2 (More Q&A):

Every year, churches around the world celebrate Evolution Sunday, an effort resulting from the Clergy Letter Project, in which over 11,000 fair-minded clergy members have signed a statement affirming evolutionary theory as confirmed truth that cannot contradict Christian teaching.

I approached my pastor in late 2006, mentioning that the following February would be Evolution Sunday, and that we as a church might want to spark a discussion of how evolution can be reconciled with Christian faith. I offered my services to give a lecture or participate in a panel, and honestly didn't expect it to go anywhere. Instead, I was surprised when he asked me to explain the issues involved. We met later in his office, and I provided my own explanation of evolution and intelligent design. I quoted some of the prominent people of faith who have endorsed evolution, and argued that Intelligent Design is not only bad science, but bad theology also. Once again, to my surprise, he said, "Yes, we should do this."

A couple weeks later we had a meeting with half a dozen elders of the church. We watched the pro-Intelligent Design film Case for a Creator (based on Lee Strobel's book of the same name), and then talked at length afterward about the arguments for and against. At that meeting, I was open as a someone who does not believe in the supernatural (and I can't stress enough how much I was impressed by everyone's open mindedness in listening to me), but it was agreed that if I included that information in my speech, some in the audience would stop listening and a) start worrying for my soul, or b) become furious with me.

As I put together the suggestions from that meeting and the various references I'd read (I was surprised to find just how much attention I had focused on the Evolution/ID divide), the message of the speech became clear: evolution is confirmed and compelling truth - a Christian should always be willing to embrace new truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is to re-evaluate core beliefs. One book I had recently read was Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters, which is a great primer on the debate that also serves to emphasize that very point. Shermer states it beautifully:
It should not matter how God created life whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of Gods works command awe regardless of what processes He used. We have learned a lot in four thousand years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Theists and theologians should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors.
It was still difficult for someone like me, being free of supernatural beliefs, to tell a group of believers how they should approach their faith. After all, don't I believe that a thorough understanding of evolution refutes the arguments for God's existence? Well yes, I do. But those arguments are separate from the scientific evidence supporting evolution itself, which is demonstrable truth. If we can agree on that, then how we reconcile those facts with our own beliefs is another matter, and an area that I promised to avoid when giving my talk. The bottom line is, I'd hate for someone to reject good science because they are afraid of the consequences of questioning held assumptions. As I state in the talk, the outcome of honest inquiry can only be positive: either our previous understanding is confirmed, or we toss aside old beliefs to embrace new truth. And whether or not I personally think evolution and Christian faith are compatible, there are clearly many sophisticated believers who have managed to make the claims consistent to their satisfaction (Kenneth Miller, Pope John Paul II, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Francis Collins among them).

And so, on Evolution Sunday 2007, I gave my presentation after the regular services at Westminster Presbyterian Church. It's by no means a perfect speech - there's a lot of things I'd like to change or state differently - but I think the underlying messages got through to a lot of people and impacted them positively. There was some negative reaction as well, but I think that was the idea; to kick-start the thinking process.

The most common question I still receive from both religious people and fellow skeptics is, "Why do you still go to church?" I think this presentation is one of the best answers I can give.

Judge Jones Wins Religious Liberty Award

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! As you may already know, February 12th is the birthday of Charles Robert Darwin. He was born in 1809 (coincidentally, on the same exact day as Abraham Lincoln), making this his 199th birthday. He published (after many years' hesitation) The Origin of Species in 1859, so next year will mark both the bicentennial of Darwin the man and the sesquicentennial (no relation to the sasquatch) of his most famous book.

To celebrate this august holiday, the American Humanist Association has awarded Judge John E. Jones III the Religious Liberty Award. For those of you who are not familiar with Jones's name, you may be surprised to find a secular organization lavishing praises on a man of faith who is a Republican judge appointed by George W. Bush. It all becomes clear when you learn that he presided over the trial of Dover v. Kitzmiller, which became a huge impediment for the Intelligent Design movement. It becomes clearer still when you read the brilliant decision he wrote after wading through copious evidence and weeks of testimony. Near the end, the decision reads:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources. [emphasis mine]
If you want to learn more about the Dover trial and the people and issues involved, I heartily recommend the book Monkey Girl by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Humes. It is a book we read in the monthly book club at CFI Los Angeles. He frames the entire situation with a recap of the long-lived debate between science and the readers of Genesis, describes the school board meetings that led to the curriculum change, and sets the stage by introducing all the people we saw in the news coverage as well as the individuals and organizations who worked behind the scenes. It is a fascinating story, especially when you learn how abysmally little the school board members knew about the science of Evolution, or even the Intelligent Design they were so eager to replace it with! Again, from Jones's decision:
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.
The funniest anecdote comes from the last day of the trial (quoted from pg. 327 the hardback edition):
Pat Gillen, soon to return to Ann Arbor and the offices of Thomas More [the firm representing the school board], had one more question to ask: "By my reckoning, this is the fortieth day since the trial began, and tonight will be the fortieth night, and I would like to know if you did that on purpose?"
"Mr. Gillen," Judge Jones responded with a smile, as the courtroom erupted with laughter and applause, "that is an interesting coincidence, but it was not by design."
What a brilliant response! That really sums it all up, and I join the AHA in saluting Judge Jones for his work in the service of religious liberty. (Thanks to Greg for the link that led me to the AHA news.)

Rediscovering the Bible (Sermon)

My good friend Jerry (who happens to be a more faithful reader of this blog than I am a writer of it) is a fellow skeptic who I know from our various overlapping interests at CFI. He also attends a Unitarian Universalist church, and has told me about it in the past. I was very impressed by what I heard: the Unitarians manage to preserve the social atmosphere of mainstream religion (think potlucks and network of friends), and the social activism (think charity work and donations to good causes), without any of the dogma or supernaturalism we've come to associate with church. The emphasis, instead, is on acceptance and affirmation of all individuals, and celebration of everyone's personal journeys.

Though I was always very interested in visiting (and have been wanting to experience more varieties of religious experience), I usually wanted to spend my available Sundays at my regular Presbyterian church. Then, late last year, Jerry invited me to come and speak about the Bible. I eventually picked a date in January, and decided I'd talk about how I learned to appreciate and enjoy the Bible more when I learned to read it critically. Two weeks before I was scheduled to speak, I came to get a feel of what I was in for.

I must say, I was impressed. One of the first things I saw, in the fellowship hall, was a stack of flyers welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered couples. For someone from an evangelical background, this seemed like an amazingly huge step forward for mankind. No church I'd ever been to before would advertise acceptance of gay people, let alone have a nice picture of two men embracing affectionately. If they did accept gay people, it would be with a "don't-ask-don't-tell" style approach, or a "let-us-try-to-fix-you" policy.

Another thing that impressed me was that after the lecture, which was about the naturalist John Muir, there was a question and answer period! As someone who usually has something to say, it's always been difficult for me to sit on my hands after a sermon and have no outlet to respond (well, I can talk about it with a buddy or email the pastor). But think of a church where you can get up afterward and tell someone you disagree!

So, on January 27th, 2007, I came to speak at Jerry's church. I first talked to the children, reading pieces of Richard Dawkins's letter to his daughter on Good and Bad Reasons for Believing (I really should have tailored it and made it more interactive), and then gave my talk on "Rediscovering the Bible." You can listen to the full audio of my talk here (or right-click the link to save the .mp3 file):

20080127 Ross Blocher - Rediscovering the Bible - UU Church of Verdugo Hills

The talk seemed to resonate well with a lot of the members there, a lot of them having been raised in conservative religious traditions as well. I got a lot of great feedback, and even someone who chose to disagree with me! I plan to attend again this Sunday to hear my friend Jim Underdown talk about the similarities between miracles and paranormal claims.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Doo Dah

Since 1976, Pasadena has been home to the Doo Dah Parade, a counter-cultural alternative to the pomp and circumstance of the Rose Parade. I hadn't heard of the Doo Dah until my friend Stacey suggested that we at CFI-LA (The Center for Inquiry Los Angeles) be involved. She formed a committee, and we eventually settled on the theme of Science vs. Nonsense. Our "float" ended up as a chain gang of scientists, scholars, upright apes and intellectuals being harassed and harangued by a rag-tag cadre of religious fundamentalists, a Scientologist, a psychic, and other proponents of illogic. We passed out Red Hots candies and copious amounts of CFI bookmarks.

I was dressed as a television evangelist, replete with full suit, slicked back hair and a Bible to thump. Originally I was going to be a priest, but my outfit was pretty crummy and we already had a pope (Jay) and my friend John had a great priest/Creflo Dollar getup. This turned out to be fortuitous, as who should I see at the pancake breakfast but Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping! You may have read my previous coverage of his media campaign. I saddled up to the pompadoured man and he agreed to take a picture with me!

My friend Charles was recruited to be our Muslim cleric. I must take the blame for this, as I imagined early on that his long beard, dyed black, would be perfect for the part. He took care of dying (the beard), and I visited a couple websites to learn how to wrap a turban. I had no idea how involved this would be! First of all, there is no one standard way to make a turban. I was expecting something akin to the "Windsor knot" of turban-wrapping. Instead, I found it to be quite the art form that is a very individualized expression of the person wearing it. Turban-making also requires an extremely long piece of cloth. I was able to get a large white sheet from the thrift store, cut it into strips, and then sew two strips together to make a 17 by 2 foot cloth that was folded length-wise and then wrapped around Charles' head. All things considered, I'd say it turned out pretty darn well for my second attempt!

After our breakfast, we headed out to stand in line for the parade to begin. And stand in line we did - for nearly two hours! Though we had plenty of visual oddities to see, and people to meet from other floats, the sun was blazing and we got so uncomfortable that one of our marchers had to get a ride home. At least I had God's word to stand on, but this will certainly be a lesson to us in the future.

Another lesson we learned was to bring amplifiers if there's any intention of playing music. We had a boom box all set to play Stevie Wonder's "Superstition", but the sound was drowned out by the general crowd noise and the Raelians in front of us who were blasting Edwin Starr's equally-catchy "War". I had always liked "Superstition", but was never aware of the great lyrics. Here are some of the highlights:

Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders bout to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.
Very superstitious, nothin more to say,
Very superstitious, the devils on his way,
Keep me in a daydream, keep me goin strong,
You dont wanna save me, sad is my song.
When you believe in things that you dont understand,
Then you suffer.... Superstition ain't the way.
Once we got started up, the parade itself was only about five blocks long. This was still enough to prove quite tiring, though, what with my running about, waving a Bible, passing out bookmarks, getting into balloon-sword fights with the other cast members, and shouting things like, "Praise Jesus!" and, "It's easier to change the Constitution than to change the Word of the living God!" (a little reference to Huckabee). All of this in a suit jacket. Suffice it to say, afterward I was very sweaty, tired, and ready to go home.

See more of my DooDah pictures on Flickr, or the set posted by Paula (who played our Scientologist). She also posted video here.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Jesus - With You Always

The creepiness of the "Jesus - With You Always" website is matched only by its sincerity. I remember a friend at college first introducing me to the page. Even as a Christian at the time, I felt vaguely unsettled. Showcasing 33 pencil renderings, the site has enjoyed immense popularity, boasting 2,447,073 hits at the time of this writing. The artist behind the drawings, Larry Van Pelt, was 50 when he was awoken one night with the distinct conviction that he must produce artwork depicting ordinary people doing ordinary work, and Jesus standing there beside them.

And so, without any artistic training, he set about to meet God's 10-year deadline. Van Pelt practiced sketching, took art lessons, and eventually created 20 drawings of people performing their everyday vocations and avocations. Then, he found a 33-year old (Jesus was allegedly 33 when he died - a numerological significance that may also explain the quantity of images currently on offer) model who looked the part, was willing to grow a beard, and - best of all - was a Christian! (Side note: this is indeed remarkable, as up until The Passion of the Christ, no major feature film Jesus was played by a Christian). So Van Pelt added Jesus to all of the images, and has continued on ever since, releasing new images and posting them to the website. He derived the title from Jesus' promise in Matthew 28:20, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." It reminds me of a shirt I used to wear that, in the style of the Visa logo, said "JESUS - he's everywhere you want to be."

Artistically, the drawings generally have nice line quality, and look to be tracings from photographs. However, Jesus is often at the wrong scale (executive, juggler) or just disappearing awkwardly and suddenly, like he got cut in half (golfer, bodybuilder, jogger). One can't fault Van Pelt much for this, as he admittedly only became an artist to complete these drawings and, as I said from the start, there is definitely an endearing sincerity to the work he's done here.

What none of the drawings can avoid, however, is an all-pervading creepiness. I don't know about you, but the thought of Jesus standing around all the time is unnerving. In some drawings he's lending a helping hand to a professional, but you can't help but imagine that, if he bumped the person's arm, someone could end up getting hurt (dental assistant, welder, surgeon, construction). And even if he's invisible to begin with, I'd still want Jesus to stay in my peripheral vision, and not lurk behind me (forest ranger, trucker, expectant, student). At other times, his expression is unclear or just plain giddy (bodybuilder, guitarist). And a clown? In color?!? Clowns are scary enough without Jesus getting involved.

And if Jesus is with us always, one's imagination is quick to suggest the other times when Jesus might be watching. Is he there when you're on the toilet or getting dressed? What about other times that you normally expect to be alone, like when you're enjoying time with a sexual partner, or all by yourself? I imagine this might provide motivation not do anything sinful, but no one can help going to the bathroom. And it's poor motivation, anyway, to be moral just out of fear of being seen.

The further theological implications of this are clear. Where is Jesus, what is he doing, and what expression is on his face when a child is raped by a priest, when a bus goes off the road and kills four youth group members, or when an African already suffering from AIDS contracts a guinea worm infection? This is the standard problem of theodicy, but an ever-present Jesus makes the contrast all the more revolting. Does anyone else see the plot of a horror film shaping up here?

So don't think about it too hard: just enjoy the unintentional comedy, have a chuckle, and feel a slight shiver up your spine.

Update: Thanks to reader evilpoet for pointing me to the hilarious parody website What Would Jesus Do For A Klondike Bar? The captions had me cracking up.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Amazing Show!

I have another podcast to recommend: The Amazing Show, starring James Randi and brought to you by the folks at itricks.com. For those of you who do not know already about James Randi, he is the grand old man of Skepticism. Originally billed as "The Amazing Randi" when he performed as a magician and escape artist (at a recent Google lecture he jokingly referred to himself as only "mildly astonishing"), Randi began focusing his efforts over the years on debunking performers who claimed to have supernatural powers. An expert on how the human mind is deceived, Randi sees through such tricks, and has publicly debunked such flim-flammers as Uri Geller and Peter Popoff. Randi is also famous for offering a $1,000,000 challenge to anyone who can prove paranormal abilities under proper observing conditions.

The Amazing Show is a series of interviews in which Randi shares memories about past events and the people he has dealt with. He's lived a long, fruitful, and interesting life, and there is much of interest here. He talks about his interactions with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Penn and Teller, and even Alice Cooper. I was particularly interested in his recollections of Steve Allen, as the Center For Inquiry in Hollywood where I'm involved houses the Steve Allen Theater, and I learned a lot about him reading Inventing Late Night.

I am happy to say that I met James Randi at the 2005 Skeptics Annual Conference (on Brain, Mind and Consciousness). We talked primarily about digital cameras. This isn't a flattering photo of either of us, but I'm proud of it and I'm glad to have met such a great mind.

14-Year-Old Jehovah's Witness Dies

Dennis Lindberg, suffering from leukemia at the age of 14, was given a crucial decision to make: receive a blood transfusion, or face near-certain death. For most of us, this would be a pretty easy choice - take the blood. But Dennis was a Jehovah's Witness, and for the majority of that religion's members, blood is a holy substance that is not to be transferred or taken in (for the scriptural support of this doctrine, read Wikipedia's take).

Let me state clearly that I am proud to live in a country where we afford people the religious freedom to make such decisions. And I don't mean that in some kind of Malthusian sense of, "Let the crazy people kill themselves." Nothing like that. Rather, beliefs should never be forced on anyone, or forcibly removed - it should be the right and responsibility of each individual to hear the arguments and make his own decision. As the Qur'an says, there should be no compulsion in religion.

The tougher question is, do we draw the line anywhere? What do we do when such a decision will lead to one's death, as in this case? Or when family members make the decision for children who are too young or adults who are unable to decide for themselves? It's a tricky situation, where religious freedom bumps up against commonly-shared, secular morals. We would all agree that if a religion demands child sacrifice, we should step in and save the children.

Whatever the answer, Dennis was 14, and probably old enough to understand the factors involved. The matter was brought before a judge, who said, "I don’t believe Dennis’ decision is the result of any coercion. He is mature and understands the consequences of his decision... I don’t think Dennis is trying to commit suicide. This isn’t something Dennis just came upon, and he believes with the transfusion he would be unclean and unworthy." A few hours after the decision was made to allow Dennis to refuse the transfusion, he died.

Read the original article at msnbc.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scary Bible Stories 2007

Happy Halloween, everyone! In early celebration of the macabre tradition, CFI Los Angeles held an event on the 24th entitled, "Scary Bible Stories!" A performance of the same name had been held in 2003 (long before I got involved at CFI), and I was asked for this incarnation to submit some good examples of gruesome, horrifying and spooky passages from the Bible. This being a specialty of mine, I compiled a long list of entries from the Old and New Testaments (that's right, even the NT has scary material). I threw in an episode from the apocrypha and two entries from non-canonical gospels for good measure. An anonymous friend provided a passage from the book of Mormon. I ended up as emcee of the event (that's me on the right with the periwinkle bathrobe and shepherd-like head covering). We took turns reading passages aloud, commenting on the absurdities of the texts, and a few people even provided dramatic readings. In the picture, Wendy and Spencer share a dialogue incorporating text from Genesis 2 and 3 with some commentary on Biblical chauvinism. Later, Jim and Karen dramatized the plight of Noah’s neighbors in Genesis 7.

At the risk of spoiling some of my future editions of Awkward Bible Passages, I will make the list available here in pdf. Be forewarned that there's lots of scary stuff in the Bible: incest, cannibalism, child sacrifice, genital mutilation, chopped up body parts, genocide, impaling, burst intestines and more! Certifiable Halloween material, to be sure.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Awkward Bible Passages Part V

The LORD said to Moses, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain." So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD...

Then the LORD said: "I am making a covenant with you... Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. Do not make cast idols.

"Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

"Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk."

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant — the Ten Commandments.
- Exodus 34:1-5,10-28 (NIV)

Now, you may ask what's so awkward about the above passage, other than being awkwardly long for a blog entry. After all, you've read the ten commandments before. (The full passage is even longer, so I recommend reading Exodus 34 in its entirety.)

But read it closely; these aren't the Ten Commandments you're used to. The Decalogue we all know so well was originally given to Moses in Exodus 20 (remember that whole golden calf ordeal?). Those original commandments can also be found in Deuteronomy 5. The awkwardness in Exodus 34 is that the Lord says, "I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets," and yet completely forgets what he commanded the first time around. Note the addition of maxims such as, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk." Truly words to live by; words that should be prominently displayed in our courthouses, don't you think? Gone are the previous injunctions against killing, stealing, and adultery (some of the few useful - though entirely obvious - morals presented in the original). These have been replaced with dietary guidelines and commands to observe certain feasts. God does remain clear that he is jealous, and will not tolerate idols.

Obscure as this passage may be, you might remember this event as the Sinai visit from which Moses emerged with a so-called radiant face. Turns out, the translation of the Hebrew "karan," which is often rendered as "rays" that emit from Moses' skin, is more literally translated as "horns" [Jonathan Kirsch]. Hence, the Israelites may have had trouble looking at his face not because it was too bright, but because it was grotesque. This is the translation St. Jerome used in his Latin Vulgate edition. It helps explain the classical depictions of Moses that include horns coming from his forehead, such as the famous sculpture by Michelangelo, or this 1518 baptismal font [above].

Returning to the Ten Commandments... I memorized the standard commandments when I starred as King Josiah in a fifth grade school play. To this day, I sing the song, "Count To Ten" when I want to recall a specific number. Here's a sample: "One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart. Two. Don't bow down to idols, that's not smart. Three. Never take the Father's name in vain. Four, keep the Sabbath holy; six remain." And so on it goes. (As an aside, some scholarship suggests that the Torah was compiled around 632-609 BCE, when Josiah "found" it in the temple, especially since the Israelites did not acquire a written language until a few hundred years after Moses supposedly died circa 1235 BCE [Thomas Robinson].)

Speaking of memorization, a reader (Peter) pointed out to me something I had never known: Catholics memorize a different set of commandments than Protestants do. He sent me this website on the "Catholic deception", which I highly recommend for humorous reading. It's written by a Protestant who's hip to the clever Catholic conspiracy to remove the prohibition against idols and graven images, and make up the difference by splitting the last commandment into two. Maybe he's on to something... it is indeed the Ten Commandments that Catholics (and apparently Lutherans) learn. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the Ten Commandments to see how they are divvied up by the various branches of Christianity. The confusion is somewhat understandable, as the original texts do not present an ordinal list denoting where one commandment ends and the next begins. To illustrate the point, try breaking down the list in Exodus 34 into ten distinct commands. There's a few ways to do it.

For a little bit of trivia: how many commandments, total, are in the Torah? Answer at the bottom of this post. Hint: the "Torah" consists of the first five books of the Bible - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are also referred to as the Pentateuch, and authorship has traditionally been ascribed to Moses (though modern scholarship postulates a number of authors vastly post-dating Moses, who is dubious even as a historic figure).

Whether you're using the originals, or this alternate list in Exodus 34, there's not much to the Ten Commandments themselves. The useful morals are quite obvious, and certainly don't need to be codified or spelled out for a modern audience. "What's that? Killing is bad?? Brilliant!! Why didn't I think of that?" The director of CFI Los Angeles (and friend of mine), Jim Underdown, gives a great presentation on the shortcomings of the Ten Commandments. You can find a very brief synopsis online, along with Jim's Eleven Strong Suggestions, which I think will prove far more useful in your day-to-day life.

My friend Sherri also had a good insight about the Ten Commandments: isn't it odd that in common depiction the tablets look like gravestones? Something to ponder.

(Thanks to Peter for the inspiration, and Wikipedia for the images.) Answer: 613.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Psychic Wins the $50,000 Paranormal Challenge?

On May 6, 2007, the Independent Investigations Group conducted a public test of the psychic Nigel Britman (and yes, that's me keeping score at the chalkboard). The audience was shocked to find Mr. Britman choosing from five Zener cards with a much higher success rate than would have been expected. Did he win the $50,000 paranormal challenge prize? Was he cheating? How should tests of paranormal ability be properly conducted? Read the report and watch the entire event to find out.

Getting The Religion Beat Out Of Us

William Lobdell is a respected local [Southern California] journalist who I've listened to often on my favorite station, KPCC. What I didn't know is that he used to be the religion beat reporter for the LA Times. In this poignant article in a recent Sunday edition, William Lobdell describes the process that led him to find faith, to report on religion, and eventually to lose his faith. I use the words "faith" and "religion" carefully here, because it was the church's abuses, and not some aspect of his personal walk, that led him away from belief.

Though he was eager to write about religion, and found many positive things to report on, Bill Lobdell was shocked to encounter what my pastor refers to as "the three-ring circus of God stuff." Sexual abuse by priests - the church's campaign to cover their tracks and intimidate victims into silence - a priest's avoidance of child support on a technicality - the exorbitant excesses of the TBN Network and false healers like Benny Hinn. All of this gave religion a bad taste in Lobdell's mouth, and provided him an excuse to attend church less and avoid committing as a member of the Catholic Church. He came to see his past religious experience as the product of being ground down and made emotionally raw at a vulnerable time in his life.

I admire Lobdell's writing and his honesty, and respect the path that has lead him to become "an agnostic, leaning toward atheist" (as he described himself in a live chat following the article's publication). I was intrigued, however, by his approach to disbelief and how different it was from my own. When I set out on my own process of questioning, I made sure to separate out the actions of fellow believers. I wasn’t interested in examples of hypocrisy, or how others had treated me (Dr. Laura Schlesinger, for example, switched from Judaism to Christianity because she didn’t like how the Jewish community treated her – a terrible way to choose a belief system), or even the success or failure of Christian communities. I was more interested in the truth claims themselves (miracles/providence/resurrection/prayer/angels/biblical inspiration/virgin birth), and how well they meshed with the real world – all that other stuff seemed ancillary. It was the factual and logical truth that really mattered to me. After all, if there really is a God, and Jesus is his son, no amount of hypocrisy by co-religionists should keep a believer from being a follower of Christ.

As a result of his approach, it seems like Bill Lobdell is still on shaky ground – he wants to believe, but simply can’t. He says in the transcript, “I got a lot of crap from atheists for using the phrase ‘gift of faith,’ but that's how it feels to me. I just don't have it anymore.” Though I have no desire to give him crap, it seems Bill Lobdell has what Daniel Dennett would describe as “belief in belief.” It goes something like this: “I don’t personally believe, but I think believing in general is a good thing, and I recommend that others aspire to having faith.” In other words, he just hasn’t thought hard enough about the reality of the truth claims involved or grappled with the tough questions toward a conclusion. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why would a loving God allow his representatives to commit such abuses of power? When one truly disbelieves, there is no envy for the 'gift of faith.'

My guess is that a significant portion of the world shares Lobdell's "belief in belief" - floating somewhere between fully believing and fully disbelieving. It seems to me like Lobdell is just weary and [understandably] scarred by the whole subject, and I don’t think he’s settled yet on what the truth is. Here's hoping that he's able to find some solid answers, and some happiness along the way. (Thanks to Wendy for the link, and to Paul for kicking off the discussion)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Santa Fe Ghost: Less than Meets the Eye

I was listening to a recent episode of Skepticality (another great podcast I heartily recommend) in which Derek and Swoopy interview Benjamin Radford about his investigation of the Santa Fe Courthouse ghost video. The original footage of an orange blob moving across the field of a courthouse security camera achieved insta-fame on YouTube, where it garnered over 100,000 hits in its first month online. The only problem is that the shape looks more like a small spider crawling on the camera lens than anything paranormal. It has tiny little legs and moves from one edge of the frame to the other without disappearing or flickering.

Instead of casually dismissing the footage (as I just did in the above paragraph), Benjamin Radford decided to test the "bug" theory by replicating the same effect on the same camera at the same time of day. He used a ladybug (which required him to obtain and bring tons of the critters), and replicated the footage quite convincingly. Now that's what I call an investigation.

Kudos to the Irvine Mosque

When I see leaders of the Islamic community interviewed on radio or TV, they are frequently accused of silence in the face of terrorism by their co-religionists. The question usually takes the form of, "Why didn't you release a public statement denouncing that attack?" The response is, "We did, but no one picks up those stories." It seems the underlying sentiment is that Muslims in America are sympathetic to acts of terrorism, or perhaps are worried that they might draw the ire of other, more militant Muslims by speaking out against them.

After hearing this sort of exchange numerous times, I was heartened to hear about the leaders of the Islamic Center of Irvine. After Craig Monteilh, age 44, converted to Islam and joined his local Mosque in Irvine, he began making references to Jihad and showed willingness to partake in attacks on U.S. military targets. Instead of ignoring his behavior, or encouraging it, Mosque leaders notified officials and obtained a restraining order against Monteilh.

My hat's off to the Muslim community in Irvine for doing the right thing. Read more at LATimes.com.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What Would Jesus Buy?

In the new documentary "What Would Jesus Buy?", produced by Morgan Spurlock (of "Super Size Me" fame), Reverend Billy and the 35-person strong Stop Shopping Gospel Choir preach a message of anti-consumerism. They make a good point, after all - the Jesus of the gospels seems like he would be very much against our rampant consumerism and fascination with shopping malls and one-click ordering. Shouldn't we be selling all our possessions, slipping through eyes of needles, and decrying these dens of thieves, or is the prosperity gospel the true teaching of Christ?

Apparently one of the hurdles for the creators of the documentary is finding a way to market and sell something so firmly against marketing and selling. And how do you get Wal-Mart to put your film on its shelves when the main character has performed an exorcism on the chain's Arkansas headquarters?

Clearly, this film shares my sense of humor. Read more from the Union Tribune. Thanks to Scott for the link!

Update (11/24/2007): Check out "Jesus Hates Coffee" on Current, and see Reverend Billy exorcise Starbucks of its demons.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Why God Never Received Tenure

I got this joke in one of my daily Beliefnet emails, and thought I'd re-post it here.

Why [the Judeo-Christian] God never received tenure at any university:
  1. He only had one major publication.
  2. It was in Hebrew.
  3. It had no references.
  4. It wasn't published in a referred journal.
  5. Some even doubt He wrote it Himself.
  6. It may be true that He created the world, but what has He done since then?
  7. His cooperative efforts have been quite limited.
  8. The scientific community has had a hard time replicating His results.
  9. He never applied to the Ethics Board for permission to use human subjects.
  10. When one experiment went awry, He tried to cover it up by drowning the subjects.
  11. When subjects didn't behave as predicted, He deleted them from the sample.
  12. He rarely came to class, just told students to read the book.
  13. Some say He had His son teach the class.
  14. He expelled His first two students for learning.
  15. Although there were only ten requirements, most students failed His tests.
  16. His office hours were infrequent and usually held on a mountaintop.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Zeus Gives Jesus What For

On May 20, 2007, a 22-foot statue of Jesus at the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado, was struck by lightning, blowing off one hand and the other elbow, damaging the feet and pedestal in the process. The statue, which draws thousands of visitors yearly, is perched at the top of a 373-step path, near "a cool spring of miraculous water [that] still flows today after Mother Cabrini found it on the barren hilltop." Of course, lightning is formed by ionization of molecules and the resulting static electricity, but that's not good enough for theologians - they need an explanation to reflect God's intentions. Why would he do such a thing to a prominent religious monument glorifying his son?

There's no clear positive interpretation, so Sister Casciano states that, "I'm not about ready to second-guess God" on Denver's ABC affiliate news. Of course, she is ready to second-guess God, because she wants to raise funds to reconstruct what God clearly wanted blown off. She pointed out that, miraculously, no one was hurt, and the quartz heart created by Mother Cabrini remained intact. Yeah.

The helpful skeptics at the JREF forums (where I found this story), offered some profound theological explanations. Here are some great excerpts:

"I suppose [God's] decided to start enforcing that 'No Graven Images' commandment."
"They'll claim that it's a miracle that the entire statue wasn't destroyed by the lightning."
"The fragments could form the face of Mary. Man, that could get really confusing."
"I think Zeus is angry about losing so many followers and has decided to drop some not-so-friendly reminders of his powers."
"It's clear that Yaweh hates hands and feet. Why else would he have put nails through Jesus'?"

I find this story particularly interesting, because I went to Woodbury University, where we had a hall named after Mother Cabrini with a fairly creepy relief sculpture of her over the doorway. The campus used to be owned by a Convent and was purchased by the school circa 1984.

To see more pictures of the damaged statue, and see lightning misspelled as "lightening" (why do so many people do that?), visit the official Mother Cabrini Shrine site.

Evidence That I Was A Believer

Yep, that's me back in 2001, when Cara was pregnant with Andrew (who is now five years old), wearing a "Jesus is Lord" shirt without irony or sarcasm. I thought this would be fun to post, just as evidence that I used to believe passionately in God and Jesus. For people who knew me back then, this is not surprising, but others may be thrown off. I was reminded of this since my shirt matches the title of my pastor's most recent sermon, "Jesus is Lord."

It is now rather difficult for me to comprehend the way I used to look at the world. Part of the reason I still go to church is to be reminded that I too was once a believer, and that I shouldn't look down on anyone else for being a person of faith. When you tell people that you used to believe, they will often dismissively state that you didn't really believe to begin with (how could you, after all, if you left the church?). I can't really argue with that, except to say I'm pretty sure that I did.

Awkward Bible Passages Part IV

"For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
- Matthew 16:27-28 (NIV)

"Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
- Mark 13:29-30 (NIV)

"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
- Luke 21:32 (NIV)

"Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book."
- Revelation 22:7 (NIV)

For our fourth installation of Awkward Bible Passages, we will celebrate with four related verses from four books of the New Testament (Thanks to Doug for suggesting the first of these). Thus far, we have stayed in the Old Testament, but there is plenty of material to be found in the last 27 books of the Bible as well.

These verses focus on Jesus' repeated promise to return quickly for his second coming. You may recognize the two middle passages from the "Little Apocalypse", also known as the Olivet Discourse, which Jesus delivers in the Synoptic ("seen together") Gospels. These are found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, and they warn of the typical fair - false Christs, the sun and moon darkening, stars falling from the sky, and the Son of Man returning in the clouds. Obviously, none of this has happened yet, and so it is very awkward when Jesus promises that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened," or that he is "coming soon" (a phrase used five times in the book of Revelation). C.S. Lewis even called the former, "the most embarrassing verse in the Bible." Christians have busily tried to make the word "generation" be seen as a metaphorical term describing the age of the church, but that ignores the clear meaning in Matthew's assertion that "some who are standing here will not taste death."

About 100 generations have passed (and passed away) since these predictions were made, and clearly we live in a world that, as Jonathan Kirsch says in A History of the End of the World, just refuses to end. The predictions in the Little Apocalypse and in the big Apocalypse (Revelation), are merely failed reinterpretations of Daniel's failed prophecies (read Randel Helms's The Bible Against Itself for more on that and the role of II Esdras). And yet, Christianity and the theological interest in eschatology have continued unabated.

The worst thing you can do to a prophecy is to attach a date or timetable to it. It is much smarter to say things like, "No one knows about that day or hour," because such open-ended predications are completely unfalsifiable. If Jesus still doesn't show up after 2,000 years, the unflagging believer can proudly state, "he may come back tomorrow!" Another tactic is to state generalities or use poetic language that applies to any time, such as "there will be earthquakes," or "there will be wars and rumors of wars." Nostradamus was expert at this. You can also use weird numerologies or ambiguous language like, "seven periods shall pass," or say something like, "If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast." That way, a bunch of theologians will busily crunch their own numbers and come up with dates or figures to match with current events. When their predictions prove false, they can say they miscalculated.

In each generation since the writing of these prophecies there have been many who are completely and utterly convinced that theirs is the end-time, and they will see the return of Christ. This has produced constant embarrassment over the years, and many churches (Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Branch Davidian) were founded by the progenitors of failed end time prophecies. Hal Lindsey published "The Late, Great Planet Earth" in 1970, predicting the world world end in 1988, and it sold some two million copies. He was unperturbed (they never are) when 1989 came, pushing back the date (another prophecy which also failed). For a list of failed end-time prophecies over the years, and a good laugh, visit religioustolerance.org.