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.)