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.

The Failures of Organized Skepticism

I recently read this article on the failures of organized skepticism (link from the JREF Forums), and figured it merited some discussion, as it brings up a pertinent point. Skeptics aren't always perfect paragons of logic and truth, and can often be wrong. Skeptics often disagree with one another on many issues, and if the diversity of religion has taught us anything, it's that everyone can't be right. I was reminded of this on Saturday, when a good skeptical friend of mine and I got embroiled in a debate over global climate change (I was saying it's largely anthropogenic and a serious issue - he begged to differ). Also, a skeptic is first and foremost a human being, and is thus susceptible to confirmation biases, self-justification, wishful thinking, cognitive dissonance, group thinking, and - yes - even the occasional reliance on faith.

The article, written by Jim Lippard for The Arizona Skeptic and posted on Free Inquiry's website, highlights some cases in which skeptics have not thoroughly researched a claim, or grossly misrepresented a creationism debate to confirm their own biases. There are other historical examples of skeptical fudging - creationists often point to Ernst Haeckel's falsified drawings of embryos, which were intended as evidence that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in his book God's Debris (available free online), offers a somewhat comical description of "The Skeptic's Disease" in an imagined conversation between a delivery worker and an old man who knows everything. I will reproduce the entire chapter here:

“I have some friends who are skeptics,” I said. “They’re in that Skeptics Society. I think they’d tear you apart.”
“Skeptics,” he said, “suffer from the skeptics’ disease— the problem of being right too often.”
“How’s that bad?” I asked.
“If you are proven to be right a hundred times in a row, no amount of evidence will convince you that you are mistaken in the hundred-and-first case. You will be seduced by your own apparent infallibility. Remember that all scientific experiments are performed by human beings and the results are subject to human interpretation. The human mind is a delusion generator, not a window to truth. Everyone, including skeptics, will generate delusions that match their views. That is how a normal and healthy brain works. Skeptics are not exempt from self-delusion.”
“Skeptics know that human perceptions are faulty,” I argued. “That’s why they have a scientific process and they insist on repeating experiments to see if results are consistent. Their scientific method virtually eliminates subjectivity.”
“The scientific approach also makes people think and act in groups,” he countered. “They form skeptical societies and create skeptical publications. They breathe each other’s fumes and they demonize those who do not share their scientific methods. Because skeptics’ views are at odds with the majority of the world, they become emotionally and intellectually isolated. That sort of environment is a recipe for cult thinking and behavior. Skeptics are not exempt from normal human brain functions. It is a human tendency to become what you attack. Skeptics attack irrational thinkers and in the process become irrational.”

The important distinction of skepticism is that it involves a constant refinement process that makes us aware of our weaknesses and limitations, and encourages others to point out the flaws in our arguments and demand proof. If we are good and honest skeptics, we should be eager to learn where we have gone wrong, and make admission for our mistakes. It is notable that the errors of skeptics are usually detected and publicized (as in the article linked above) by other skeptics using the tools of skepticism. The approach is not perfect, but it's the best method we've got in pursuing truth.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

God Is No Good

Christopher Hitchens has been working hard of late to take on the mantle religion and faith's most vitriolic opponent. This should hopefully give believers a reprieve from bagging on the more mild-mannered and easy-going Richard Dawkins, and even Sam Harris, since I'd say Hitchens is more along the disagreeable lines of a Madalyn Murray O'Hair. He's a well regarded writer/journalist/commentator, and his previous works include The Missionary Position, an exposé on Mother Teresa and why she gets too much credit. His recent book, God is Not Great, takes on the big, imaginary man himself, and blasts the role of religion in... well, everything.

Hitchens is excellent at producing sound bites, and some of them are quite apt. For example, I love his distillation of why personal experience and anecdote are not evidence for truth claims: "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." However, Hitchens can also get caught up in ad hominem attacks, hyperbole, misrepresentations, rude interruptions, and other unhelpful debating tactics. The first time I saw him was in an episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, and I must admit that on first site of the surly, smoking man, I thought, "ugh, what an unsavory character."

To see what I'm talking about, watch Christopher Hitchens on the Daily Show.

And, speaking of Jerry Falwell (see previous post), here's Hitchens's not-so-subtle expression of disdain for the departed reverend: Hitchens in conversation with Anderson Cooper.

It's tough when you agree with someone on many points, but dislike their presentation. Must be how most Christians felt about Jerry Falwell. (Thanks to Brandon for the links!)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

So Long, Falwell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

Rev. Jerry Falwell passed away two days ago on May 15, 2007, at the age of 73. Founder of both the Moral Majority (a major political force in the 1980s) and Liberty University (a training ground for religious rhetoricians and government interns), Falwell dedicated his life to advancing fundamentalist Christianity and combating serious enemies like Tinky Winky the purple Teletubby, an imagined Jewish Antichrist, Hustler magazine, homosexuals, feminists, civil libertarians, and stem cell research. I'm not sure exactly what to say about this guy, so I'll let him speak for himself. Here are some potent quotables from the reverend:

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" (After the events of September 11, 2001)
"[The Bible is] the inerrant Word of God, and totally accurate in all respects."
"I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved."
"AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals."
"Thank God for these gay demonstrators. If I didn't have them, I'd have to invent them. They give me all the publicity I need."
"I do question the sincerity and non-violent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left wing associations."

Learn more on MSNBC, NPR, Beliefnet, Beliefnet's Timeline of Falwell's Life, Beliefnet's interview with Richard Land, and good ol' Wikipedia (where I got most of the quotes).

Limbo Comes Out of Limbo

As does this blog. My apologies for the paucity... nay, the absense... of posts in the last couple weeks. I've been incredibly drowned in work (Simpsons Movie) and side projects. It has certainly not been for want of things to write about. I will do my best to catch up.

In pope news, Benedict XVI has resuscitated the age-old theological quandary of what happens to the souls of babies who die before being baptized into the Church. If they are born with original sin, passed down from Adam and Eve by virtue (pun intended) of being born, then shouldn't they go to hell since they haven't consciously chosen Christ? That was Augustine's conclusion (that babies would be mildly condemned). This doctrine has never been an easy pill for grieving parents to swallow, but the obvious alternative would be to admit that humans are born into a state of grace. The Church couldn't have that, so it assembled its best minds to create the speculated answer of: Limbo! Because God is loving, unbaptized babies find themselves in a loophole where they are not in communion with God, but remain in eternal happiness regardless.

Of course, the pope will focus next on giving us a numerical value of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. While we anxiously await his spectacular speculations, let's work on some real problems like global climate change, population, and women's rights.

More on ABC News.

For more misadventures of the pope, read about his recent trip to Brazil, in which he canonized Galvao. Galvao is known for inspiring the practice of writing a prayer on rice paper and delivering it in the form of a pill. These are made on a daily basis, and the text on the rice paper reads, "After birth, the Virgin remained intact. Mother of God, intercede on our behalf." 5,000 miracles have been attributed to Galvao as a result. The pope also took time to warn about the age of hedonism, premarital sex, abortion, rock music - you know, the usual.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What to do with a spare Bible

Check out this site and see some of the interesting artwork created with books as the subject and medium. I don't think any Bibles were harmed in the making of these pieces.

(Thanks to Greg from the book club for the link.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Author to Prove God's Existence

Ray Comfort, the best-selling author of "God Doesn't Believe in Atheists", and Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame, have challenged the makers of The Blasphemy Challenge to a debate on ABC
in which they plan to prove, scientifically and without the use of faith, the existence of God. Kirk Cameron puts evolution in his cross hairs, "Evolution is unscientific. In reality, it is a blind faith that's preached with religious zeal as the gospel truth. I'm embarrassed to admit that I was once a naïve believer in the theory. The issue of intelligent design is extremely relevant at the moment. Atheism has become very popular in universities--where it's taught that we evolved from animals and that there are no moral absolutes. So we shouldn't be surprised when there are school shootings." This should be fun. The debate airs on Saturday, May 5th.

Read the original article on ChristianNewsWire. (Thanks, Wendy!)

Update: The debate went ahead as scheduled, and you can see it on the ABC website. If you've followed these sorts of things in the past, you will have heard all the arguments before. Needless to say, God was not proven 100% and irrefutably, and it's a pity that such a high-profile forum featured the arguments of Christians who don't even accept evolution.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Psychics Fail to See Complete Shutdown

From CBS3 in Philadelphia: A sweeping raid by Licenses and Inspections led to misfortune for Philadelphia fortune tellers as all psychic businesses were shut down due to a decades old city law.

The seers, including five fortune tellers, were unable to foresee the issuance of cease operation and stop work orders from L&I Wednesday. Psychic Monica was stunned to see the notice that her license was revoked, essentially shutting down her business. "Unfortunately I wasn’t able to predict this," said Psychic Monica.

Read the rest of the article here. (Thanks, Wendy!)

Update (2/27/08): Another article about the same event on MSNBC.

Portraits of Mass Consumption

Take a look at some of these startling and sobering images by Chris Jordan. They help to visualize some of the mind-boggling statistics of just how much stuff we use each day: soda cans, plastic bags, cell phones, vehicles. The list goes on and on.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Awkward Bible Passages Part III

"When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

"However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

"When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls."
- Deuteronomy 20:10-20 (NIV)

For the third installment of Awkward Bible Passages (that's right, the titles use Roman numerals - you did not miss 99 installments), we find the Lord of Hosts (literally, Lord of Armies) commanding things that are better described as immoral and despicable, rather than merely awkward. There is no justifying these words, so let's just look at the laundry list of atrocities. Nations that are far away from Israel get the special treatment of a "peace" option. This means that all their people will become slaves of the Israelites (wait, I thought the moral of the Exodus story was that slavery is bad). If they refuse, the men are murdered, and the women/children/livestock are taken as plunder. I'm going to go on a limb and say that this also encouraged rape - even if they married the foreign women, taking a wife by force after murdering her husband is not consensual in my book.

The nearby nations - six entire tribes/cities are named - don't even get the option of slavery. God commands the Israelites to completely obliterate them, leaving nothing alive that breathes (including women, children and livestock). Fruit-bearing trees are valued above human life, as they can be of use in feeding the Israelites.

The words of a loving God to his chosen people? You decide. Either God did not inspire the Bible, or he is not good at all.

When Parents Attack

Yikes! This is an extremely frightening video clip of a Catholic mother's response when her son admits he no longer believes in God. I don't know if this is real or not, but it's certainly not comfortable to watch. Warning, there is some harsh language here. Notice how the man sitting nearby (I assume he's the dad) avoids getting involved. This makes me all the more thankful that my own parents were far more understanding and gracious when I told them I no longer believe in the supernatural. As a parent myself, I realize the importance of communicating to my son that my love for him will never be affected by his beliefs, whatever they may be. When he's old enough, that is - he's only five now. (Thanks, Sherri!)

Stark Contrasts

Most of you have probably heard about this already, but hopefully it bears repeating. It has long been understood that, for a politician, denying the existence of God is career suicide. An oft-quoted Gallup poll in 1999 revealed that, when asked whether they would vote for an otherwise qualified candidate who happened to be an "X", Americans responded thusly: African American (95%), Catholic (94%), Woman (92%), Jew (92%), Homosexual (59%), Atheist (49%). Granted, all these numbers were up from 1978 levels, but being an atheist was still the surest way to lose support. [source]

In October 2006, the Secular Coalition for America initiated a contest offering $1,000 to anyone who could identify the highest-ranking U.S. elected official who holds no belief in God. The result was the public identification (with his permission, naturally) of Pete Stark, a Democratic U.S. Representative of San Francisco's East Bay, as a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist. A well-respected politician who, at the age of 75, has held his current position since 1973, Pete Stark made a statement that, "Like our nation's founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services."

The roughly 8-10% of the U.S. population that doesn't believe in God was delighted to find that at least 1 of the 535 members in the House and Senate (0.187%) openly shares their views. Of course, others looked less kindly upon this development. The Christian Seniors Association declared it "A sad first in the history of Congress," and issued a press release urging other members of the House of Representatives to state their belief in God at the conclusion of speeches on unrelated matters. Well, you can't please 'em all.

Read more from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Pete Stark's Congressional site.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Roy Zimmerman Teaches Creation Science 101

Roy Zimmerman is one of my favorite singers; an irreverent political satirist / folk guitarist in the spirit of Tom Lehrer. If you've never heard him before, join the 589,880 others who have seen his excellent comedic distillation of the Creationist movement: "Creation Science 101." I was there when he performed it (at the 2006 Skeptics Society Conference "The Environmental Wars").

If you like that, check out some other favorites of mine: "Defenders of Marriage," "Jerry Falwell's God," and the new gem, "Ted Haggard is Completely Heterosexual." Still not satisfied? Find more of his videos on YouTube, or visit his website to purchase CDs.

There's One Place Like Home

A newly-discovered extrasolar planet, dubbed Gliese 581 C, orbits a red-dwarf star 20.5 light years away from us and one-third the mass of our own sun. So far, it is the best candidate for a planet like our own potentially capable of harboring life. This is the smallest planet of the three known to exist in that solar system, yet it still weighs in at five times the mass of Earth. And even though Gliese 581 C is 15 times closer to its sun than we are to ours, that star is a lot dimmer, placing the planet within a "Goldilocks zone," or habitable zone, meaning its temperature ranges are anomalous to Earth's (32-104 degrees Fahrenheit). Computer models also predict that Gliese 581 C is either rocky or perhaps covered in liquid water. We'd have a better idea if the planet's orbit passed between its sun and our instruments. Of all the extrasolar planets found so far, this is the smallest one yet. As planets don't emit light, they must be detected by their subtle effects on a distant star's light or wobble to its rotation.

Read more on MSNBC or The New York Times

Why Do Atheists Let Bad Things Happen?

If you have grown weary of rational thinking, the antidote can be found in a blog entry by Dinesh D'Souza titled, "Where Is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?" In it, D'Souza points to the recent and horrific shooting at Virginia Tech (in which 32 individuals died), and wonders why atheists have been so poorly represented in public ceremonies commemorating the tragedy. Because Richard Dawkins hasn't been flown in to give a talk to the grieving families (in typical form for believers lacking arguments, D'Souza attacks the eminent British zoologist, in this particular case with a straw man representation of Dawkins' moral foundations), society needs something more than what science has to offer. Of course, this is in no way an argument for the truth claims of religion (though I wonder if D'Souza even realizes this), let alone a specific religion. But it is interesting that D'Souza attempts to foist religion's problem of theodicy (why does a good God allow evil things to happen, especially to innocent people?) upon atheists.

A proper and qualified response has already been written by a professor at the school, "An Atheist at Virginia Tech", and I recommend that you read it. I'd like to add a few thoughts of my own:

The reason believers flood into churches after disasters like school shootings, September 11th, or the 2004 tsunami, is that they want to be reminded why God is good. The reason they need to be reminded is that God does not seem particularly real or good at such times. God is a lot easier to believe in when everything is going well (or when we are able to ignore misery elsewhere in the world), but when grief comes rushing into our lives, believers fight to hold onto their notion of God all the more. The ministers tell them that we live in a world of physical laws, and that these laws cannot be abrogated all the time (God is only credited for intervening when particularly good things happen or when disaster is avoided). But surely an omnipotent God could have foiled the killer's plan in the first place, or turned Cho Seung-Hui's life around before he became homicidal, or enabled someone on campus to stop the act, or even cause the bullets to miss or the guns to jam. If any of these things had happened to prevent the violence (sometimes murder plots are foiled), God would have been given ample praise. There are even some ministers who, in the aftermath of tragic events, play the blame game and try to figure out who sinned, as the terrible event must be punishment from that same loving God. That is another way to reconcile a "good" God with reality, but a particularly unsavory one in my estimation.

Atheists do not waste time with these imaginary problems. Nor do we answer senseless brutality like that committed by Cho Seung-Hui with senseless explanations and speculation. Instead, we focus on real ways to comfort and explain. We comfort the grieving in whatever way we can, with long hugs, letters of consolation, and expressions of sympathy. We try to explain by looking for clues in the psychology and environment of the killer, and construct ways to prevent such horrible loss in the future. We remember how fragile life is, and we are reminded to cherish the ones we love who are still living. We commemorate the dead, share stories about why we loved them, and do what we can to carry on their legacies. We don't try to make sense of their loss, because it was a senseless act that caused it.

At the same time, we realize that the other 90% of the population does believe in a God, and we do not interrupt their prayers or sermons. There is a time for discussion and debate, and another person's period of intense personal grief is not that time. (Thanks to Wendy for the links.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

The God Disillusion

From the New York Times... I just read a review of the book Easter Everywhere, the memoir of a woman whose father was an on-again, off-again Lutheran minister. He had serious doubts, and out of his own uncertainty would never give his daughter a straight answer when she tried to get his input on difficult theological questions. He'd give her some candy, or change the subject. As a result, she spent years trying to resolve the problems herself. It is sad to see the sort of confusion we artificially pile on when we assume theology is a proper explanation, and yet can't make heads or tails of how it really explains the world. It seems to force adherents to block out contrary evidence and cling to fundamentalism, or embrace a wishy-washy faith that doesn't even care to ask tough questions and challenge assumptions. I can't tell you how many Christians I've heard say, "I don't really care how the world was created." What? You don't?! Why ever not? Are you made of wood?

This is one of the reasons that I care enough to keep talking with believers and writing blogs and whatnot. It's less a matter of who's right and wrong; rather, who has given up the desire to fight and struggle for understanding.

The God Disillusion (Thanks to Scott for the link)

Deep Astronomy

Need a dose of perspective? Looking for a sense of awe? See this video about the Hubble's deep field photography.

The Hubble Deep Field (Thanks, Wendy!)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Respect the Believer, Question the Belief

I think some readers have gotten the false impression, primarily from my participation in The Blasphemy Challenge, that I am somehow hostile to persons of faith. I should make it clear that many of my best friends, and people I look up to in many ways, are believers. Three years ago I too was a believer, and I don't think I was much less moral or intelligent then. There is little correlation, and certainly no causation, to be drawn between an individual's belief set and her capacity for kindness or intelligence.

Christians have long faced a PR problem when taking a stance against what they see as sin in the lives of others: how to show proper disdain for actions they consider sinful while still showing care and love to the individuals they wish to help find happiness. Stated otherwise, how to be in the world and not of it. From this perceived conflict came the phrase, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

As non-believers of conscience, we face a similar problem: how to take a stand against unnecessary superstition while not demeaning the people who feel they need it. To accomplish this, I wish to promote a parallel attitude and aphorism: "Respect the believer, question the belief."

If we are to engage in open discussion and really work toward truth, we have to get past the barriers that make us afraid to question assumptions and ideologies. In accepting The Blasphemy Challenge, I took a stand not against people of faith, but the tactic of fear and the corrosive notion of blasphemy. No belief worth having should be so fragile and indefensible that it need be defended by proclaiming as blasphemer, heretic or fundamentalist anyone who offers dissent.

On the other hand, I have sympathy toward many criticisms of The Blasphemy Challenge. Its result is often to anger and to offend, and certainly this is not helpful. When broaching these subjects in person, my attitude and set of arguments vary from person to person and time to time, depending on a variety of factors. Sometimes it is good just to hear someone out, and at other times a little bit of good-natured parody is appropriate. At other times, the truth just needs be said outright, with no sugar coating. The difficulty in posting a statement online is the loss of ability to perform that customization, and those for whom the message is not tailored are left only to be offended.

To those individuals, I wish to state my intent to engage in real discussion. I don't dismiss you, and if you have arguments in favor of belief, or supporting evidence, I'd like to hear it. I can be swayed by reasoning and evidence. I proved that three years ago.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Awkward Bible Passages Part II

"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. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria."
- II Kings 2:23-25 (NIV)

In this, our second installment of Awkward Bible Passages, we find the prophet Elisha (not to be confused with Elijah, who got swept up to heaven by a whirlwind earlier in the chapter) innocently making his way to Bethel. At least 42 young people emerge from the town (must have been a really boring town) to ridicule Elisha's follicly-challenged head. This is clearly a sensitive issue for Elisha, and he calls upon the almighty to defend his pride. Yahweh sees it as fit punishment to unleash two bears upon 42 of the youths (presumably, the worst offenders). The King James version says the bears are she bears, and we know mother bears can be especially edgy, but surely they did not confuse Elijah's bald head for one of their cubs? One also wonders why the bears were able to attack 42 of the youths. If you were an incorrigible and unscrupulous youth and saw your comrades mauled by the bears, surely you'd flee for safety. The bears would have to be pretty darn fast or unrelenting to maul 21 apiece. Try to visualize this scenario; it's hard to do. Some try to defend this passage by saying the "youths" were in their twenties or thereabouts, not children. Like that somehow makes being maimed by a bear fair punishment for teasing a bald man.

Update: Come to think of it, why didn't Elisha just call upon the Lord to give him more hair? That would have still shut the youths up, without anyone getting mauled.

Biggest Conspiracy Ever

No matter what you believe... No matter what you've been told... They are here. The biggest secret in the history of our world is about to be revealed! Words you were never meant to hear... "It's clear we're dealing with a cosmic Watergate." Photos you were never meant to see... Video you never knew existed... People you were never meant to meet... "Essentially, everything you'd want to know has been covered up." Things you were never meant to know about... "We are dealing with a big, big story."

This is only a smattering of the hyperbole you'll feast upon at the website for the documentary Fastwalkers. (Thanks, Wendy!)

Early Christian Writings

Have you ever thought, "It would sure be interesting to read those alternate books that didn't make it into the Bible!"? Or have you pondered in quiet moments, "When were these books written, anyway?" Well, wait and wonder no more! The website Early Christian Writings is a wonderful and free resource with links and information on everything from The Gospel of Thomas to the Anti-Marcionite Prologues, and the writings of early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Polycarp and Origen. Witness the birth of specific concepts, such as the Trinity (Theophilus, and later, Tertullian), Satan as the snake in the Garden (Justin Martyr), or purgatory (wait, no, that was invented much later). Get a better feel for the order in which the books of the New Testament were written, and how they fit in with alternate accounts.

I particularly recommend reading The Infancy Gospel of James (how would Caravaggio have depicted the tale of Mary's fiery vagina in Chapter 20?) and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Jesus was quite the enfant terrible in his youth!), both written circa 140-170.

Jesus Was No Vegetarian

In its latest ploy for attention, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has been driving around in an Airstream trailer modified to house a sculptural (if not scriptural) representation of the last supper. Instead of his traditional disciples, Jesus is flanked in Dallas artist Greg Metz's art piece by the likes of Paul McCartney, lesbian singer K.D. Lang, Gandhi, Einstein, Kafka, and Leonardo da Vinci. The table before them is spread with a healthy looking assortment of plastic vegetables. On the opposite side of the trailer, visitors are confronted with horrific photos of the worse abuses in slaughter houses. Inside, they can catch a screening of the film "Meet Your Meat," narrated by Alec Baldwin.

The mobile unit has proved very effective thus far, but critics have pointed out that Jesus (at least, according to the gospels) was no vegetarian. Consider the following verse from Luke 24:41-43: "He asked them, 'Do you have anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence." Read the original articles:

Jesus is a Vegetarian in PETA Campaign
Was Jesus a Vegetarian?

The Antichrist May Drive A Hybrid

Wait, stop the press! I guess Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye were wrong. According to Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, 78, in a Lenten speech given at request of the Vatican, the Antichrist will be "a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist." This environmentally friendly Antichrist will destroy Christianity from within by watering down its doctrines and reducing it to an ideology. But at least he'll help cut carbon emissions by 80% in 2050. Cardinal Biffi, the retired Archbishop of Bologna, cited the revelations of Vladimir Solovyov, a 19th century Russian philosopher and mystic. I guess we have to take this seriously, because when's the last time you've heard of Solovyov getting something wrong? What's that... you've never even heard of Solovyov? I think we can still safely rule out Britney Spears as the Antichrist.

Article at The Times (thanks to SA for the link)

Britney Spears is the Antichrist?

Aw, man. When I started a blog (all of two days ago), I didn't think I would ever write anything about Britney Spears. Oh well; I couldn't pass this up. Allegedly, while in rehab, she wrote the numbers 666 on her forehead, ran about screaming, "I am the Antichrist!", and even tried to hang herself with a bed sheet. Of course, there's no way she can be the Antichrist. As eminent theologians like Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye have informed us, the Antichrist will probably be a Jew from Romania, and possibly a clone.

Read more at news.com.au (thanks to SA for the link)

Rabbi Wants to Renew Animal Sacrifice

Animal sacrifices should be renewed on the Temple Mount, a member of the radical Sanhedrin organization told Ynetnews.

In ancient Israel and Judea, the Sanhedrin served as the highest court in the land, and was made up of 71 top judges. Now, a group of fringe rabbis say they have reformed the group, although the organization has received no recognition from Israel's official religious authorities.

"In the Torah there are around 200 commandments [Ross's note: that's nearly a third of the 613 commandments in the Torah!] dealing with animal sacrifices," said Rabbi Dov Stein, of the Sanhedrin organization. "The Torah of Israel demands animal sacrifices. When the people of Israel were in the Diaspora, it couldn’t be done. But now, there is the supreme institution, the Sanhedrin, made up of experts, and it can be done. The new Sanhedrin, like the old, will educate the people of Israel on how to keep and safeguard the Torah."

Read the rest of the article here (thanks to SermonAudio.com for the link)

Non-Religious Funerals on the Rise in Britain

More than 30,000 funerals in Britain last year were nonreligious, as families turn increasingly to "celebration-of-life" ceremonies rather than church services, according to new figures.

The rise is being attributed to people's growing willingness to admit that they are non-believers, and to their desire to avoid "hypocrisy".

Ten years ago, a funeral without a minister of religion and reference to God was virtually unheard of but increasingly, services are presided over by a "celebrant" and involve poems instead of psalms, while mourners are often asked to wear something bright rather than black.

Read the rest of the article here (thanks to SermonAudio.com for the link)

Robert Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll [1833-1899] was a popular orator of the 19th century who spoke boldly and artfully about the virtues of reason, the vices of religion, the rights of women, and the cruelties of slavery. It is amazing to hear a voice from over a century ago that still holds so much currency. It is equally amazing that so few people have heard of him. Do yourself a favor and listen to these recordings (read and produced by James Carr of Simi Valley, CA) with your feed aggregator of choice (read: iTunes).

http://becominghuman.hipcast.com/rss/robertingersoll.xml

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Awkward Bible Passages Part I

"The people of Samaria must bear their guilt,
because they have rebelled against their God.
They will fall by the sword;
their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
their pregnant women ripped open."
- Hosea 13:16 (NIV)

Welcome to my new series, Awkward Bible Passages. This will be a showcase of selections from the Bible difficult to reconcile with Christian theology, incredibly violent and hate-filled, commonly overlooked, or just plain not-fit-for-Sunday-School. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there is plenty of material ripe for the picking. It may behoove you to memorize some of these, and show them to your believing friends. They will often be accompanied by my own commentary, though some [such as the one above] speak for themselves. Note, these gruesome lines from Hosea are claimed to be the words of Yahweh spoken through his prophet.

"Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand." – Mark Twain

I'll do my best to keep things in context, and references are linked to biblegateway.com's website for quick reference. Unless otherwise noted, all citations are from the New International Version (NIV), © Zondervan.

Science and Faith Explained


Win $50,000!

Now that you've finished your taxes, wouldn't an extra $50,000 just hit the spot? Well, here's your chance! All you have to do to qualify is demonstrate paranormal or supernatural powers. And what might those be, you ask?

Here's a few abilities that have historically been claimed, but no one has ever demonstrated under observable conditions: levitation, mind reading, telepathic communication, telekinesis, remote viewing, dowsing, faith healing, foretelling the future, or talking to the dead (and getting them to talk back).

There's many more! If you know someone who says they can do any of the above, and you're tired of saying, "that's nice," or "good for you," you can say "prove it," and direct them to The Independent Investigations Group website. IIG West is located in Hollywood, CA, and will help the applicant design a mutually agreed upon testing protocol. If you pass their test and win the $50,000, you can apply for James Randi's $1,000,000 challenge. Think of all the money you or your laws-of-physics-defying friend can rake in! Don't need the money? Donate it to your favorite charity!

Many people have the idea that "someone out there" really has the ability to do these things. Well, we'd like to find them. Spread the word.

The Blasphemy Challenge

My response to The Blasphemy Challenge. If you haven't heard of this yet, it's a public campaign from the Rational Response Squad encouraging non-believers to openly deny the existence of the Holy Spirit. In Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, Jesus warns that, "Anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." Doing just that on the world wide web, I hope to make it clear that Jesus' warning is one false dilemma I won't be losing sleep over. It's too late to secure a DVD copy of "The God Who Wasn't There" for the mere cost of your immortal imaginary soul, but it's never too late make a statement and a stand for reason.

The Atheist Blogroll

In my never-ending quest to mimic the Anonymous Coward, I have not only created a new blog on Blogger, but have added the Atheist Blogroll to my blog as well. Bear witness to its beautiful scrolling powers! Thanks to Mojoey for the valuable service.

Beware the Mormon Jesus!

I stumbled across this humorous video on IFILM - it's an animated exposé, made by Christians in the 1970s, deriding the false theology (is that redundant?) of Mormonism:

What Mormon Theology is Really All About

I never saw this film in my youth, but I may as well have. In my protestant (Assemblies of God) church, we were taught that Mormonism is a cult. My aunt is a Mormon (I'm told she was converted after an attractive Elder proselytized to her), and she raised her children in the LDS Church. I remember talking to my cousin, when we were about 9, and found that he didn't even know who Adam and Eve were. I figured that Mormon churches had a tactic of hiding the crazy stuff until the children were older and already self-identified as Mormons. I pitied my cousin's brainwashing, and tried to warn him about spirit babies, the new worlds that Mormon couples would inherit in the after life, Jesus going to the American continent, and the multiple levels of heaven and hell. I see that didn't have much effect: years later he was overseas performing the requisite missionary training.

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, has within the last year abandoned the Mormon belief of his upbringing. He still remains active in the church and has not informed his family, or other members of the church, of his apostasy. I have been disabused of the notion that young Mormons don't learn their theology, as he is very knowledgeable of Mormon belief and practice and is now my answer man for questions about Mormonism. I guess my cousin just wasn't paying close enough attention in Sunday School.

Updated Update! If you've seen the video (it's a clip from the film "The God Makers" (Thanks, A.C.)), please read the comment posted on this blog by An Anonymous Coward to get the full story of how well (and poorly) it represents Mormon theology.