Monday, December 20, 2010

The important secular contribution of Christmas

The U.S. Census Bureau presents some interesting facts about the Christmas Season (December 2009):
  •  Sales at department stores rose 45% over November
  • Bookstore sales were up 98%
  • Jewelery store sales increased 135% over the previous month
  • $30 billion in sales for on-line and mail order shopping, more than any other month in 2009
  • On-line and mail-order shopping consisted of 21,895 businesses (as of 2008), employing 332,405 people 
And here in San Diego County, retail sales are 9% ahead of where they were last year:
Since the beginning of September, retailers have added 3,700 workers, compared to 1,100 last year. By November, there were 500 more workers at retail stores than the previous November, marking the first year-to-year gain in monthly employment in the retail industry since August 2007.

      Sunday, December 12, 2010

      San Diego's Holy Men at work for the Season

      Back in 1984, San Diego Chargers defensive back Miles McPherson used religious faith to help overcome drug addiction, and then entered the ministering field himself in the early 1990's.  First he founded an evangelical organization called "Miles Ahead", and then in 2000 he created The Rock Church.   The first service drew over 3,000, and the nascent church quickly found a place in the modern megachurch movement.  Today The Rock Church boasts an average weekly attendance of around 12,000.  Fun Fact:  The Rock Church facility on Rosecrans Street is 443 feet long and 45 feet high, just like Noah's Ark (300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, 30 cubits tall, with a cubit about 0.5 m).

      Like other modern megachurches, The Rock Church presents a positive message and a focus on good works without much political commentary.  Yes, at base they are trying to believe in tales that are as made up as Star Trek (but with less applicability to the modern world).  But they are also able to motivate large charitable campaigns, such as park clean-ups, involving thousands of person-hours of work.  And this week was their annual Christmas-themed event of giving away 10,000 toys and 60,000 pounds of food.  So good for them, and let's hope that they can keep their beliefs in place.  As Humanists, however, we can also see that religion is bound to take over more and more of one's life and interfere in society.  Also, just as the religious feel compelled to proselytize, we can argue for the need to use secular reasoning when setting policy.

      Thursday, December 9, 2010

      Your representatives at work

      In 2005 a group of Congressional Representatives gathered to form the Congressional Prayer Caucus, which lists among its goals as protecting our dwindling right to pray and the acknowledgment that the history and laws of our country have a basis in the Divine.  Among its 68 members is California's own Gary Miller,  representing part of the in-land Los Angeles metropolitan area. 

      Now this group has issued a letter with 48 signatures of Representatives (although not Gary Miller's) to chide President Obama for his lack of religious content in his speeches.  In particular, Obama called the national motto "E pluribus Unum" rather than "In God we trust".  Then he left out "Creator" when reciting a line from the Declaration of Independence.  As the letter points out:

      “Once may be a mistake. But twice is a pattern. These omissions and inaccuracies are a part of a larger pattern we are seeing with the President where he is inaccurately reflecting America and undercutting important parts of our nation’s history,” said Forbes. “Trust in God is embedded into the fabric of society and history in the United States. If we allow these threads to be pulled, we will begin to unravel the very freedoms that birthed America.”
      This group could be merely exercising personal choice and freedom to worship as they please.  But leaving religion within personal boundaries is rarely achieved.  That they would state that religion and the right to pray is under attack in itself is evidence that they see a more central role for religion in society and law.

      Wednesday, December 1, 2010

      Confidence or arrogance?

      An atheist group has put up a billboard with the image above in New Jersey, prompting some accusations of insensitivity.  In response a Catholic group has placed a billboard nearby this one stating "You know it's real, this season celebrate Jesus."  Most passing drivers take little notice:

      The Post found a few motorists who actually paid attention to billboards enough to have an opinion. One woman said, "We agree, Jesus is the reason for the season," but a Catholic man said he wishes the Catholic League didn't get into this pissing contest. "It doesn’t need to be plastered on a billboard," said Michael Gerber. "I should be able to celebrate in my own way. And if it’s tit for tat, it defeats the spirit of Christmas."
      Are atheists becoming arrogant?  Are they the mirror image of fundamentalist believers?  All religions are implicitly (or explicitly) calling all other religions incorrect.  And the religious would say that atheism is yet another belief among many, and while it may believe itself to be special, is not.  An atheist would counter that atheism is not a belief but a lack of belief. 

      The Humanist position is mostly outside of this argument.  Humanism looks to secular reasons upon which to base law and society.  People can still have their beliefs in revealed thruths if they find comfort in them.  Some of the religious find this position unacceptable;  all of society must follow the precepts of their religious truth.  This is what leads to the "mostly" in the previous statement.  Whether arrogant or not, or even if a particular religion turns out to be true, Humanists work to keep religion from encroaching into secular areas.

      Thursday, November 25, 2010

      Evoking tolerance to excuse intolerance at the international level

      As it has every year since 1999, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic states, has proposed a ban on the defamation of religion at the United Nations.  Last year the vote was 81 to 55 in favor, while this year the vote was a less favorable 76 to 64.  The resolution has changed over years in search of a workable formulation:
      The resolution was amended from versions passed in previous years in an attempt to secure support from Western nations. Instead of defamation of religion, it speaks of "vilification." It also condemned acts of violence and intimidation due to "Islamophobia, Judeophobia and Christianophobia."
      Last year's resolution, as in previous years, focused on Islam and did not mention Judaism and Christianity.
      The United States and the other non-Muslim states have generally opposed these resolutions as a limit on freedom of speech.  As the US envoy to the UN committee noted
      "The resolution still seeks to curtail and penalize speech," he said. "The changes ... unfortunately do not get to the heart of our concerns -- the text's negative implications for both freedom of religion and freedom of expression."
      Within some of the 56 Islamic states, themselves hardly exemplars of freedom and tolerance, any statement that the beliefs of Islam are not true is vilification and unacceptable.  The argument reduces to one of worldview.  On one side, religious law supersedes secular rights, while the other side reverses the order.  A Humanist would look to secular reasoning above revealed law.  So from a Humanist perspective these seemingly tolerant, accommodating and pacific resolutions are not advisable.

      Sunday, November 21, 2010

      Don't take religious proclamations too seriously

      The Catholic Church has proscribed the use of any birth control devices since the beginning, and has reaffirmed this doctrine in modern times.  According the Papal encyclical "Castii Connubii" of 1930:
      ...any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
      The 1966 Papal Commission on Birth Control voted 30 to 5 to allows some use, but Pope Paul VI vetoed this result.  His reasoning including, among others, that such a ruling would allow forced sterilization by governments, and would encourage the abuse and exploitation of women.   But the overriding reasons were simply moral. 

      Now Pope Benedict XVI has stated  in an interview that, in some cases, condom use may not be prohibited.  A Church spokesperson is downplaying the significance of the change:
      Lombardi noted that the pope emphasized the church's main advice in the fight against AIDS -- sexual abstinence and fidelity among married couples. He cited Benedict's words that the church "of course does not regard it (condom use) as a real or moral solution."
      As for the idea that this use is not a "real" solution, this is an example of changing the facts to fit the conclusions.  Of course condom use is a real solution to lower the spread of AIDS and to reap the benefits, economic and otherwise, of limited family sizes.  The bottom line is to live your life as you see fit by rational principles.  Following rules that make little sense simple because someone says he had a vision can lead to regret.  As society changes, those visions tend to update as well.

      Tuesday, November 16, 2010

      Doubt in the pulpit

      From a non-Faith-based perspective of life, doubt about religion is inevitable.  Holy Books describe frequent and undeniable interventions from Higher Powers over often small matters.  Yet supernatural events that are reliable and repeatable do not occur.  There are no booming voices speaking to us from the sky.  These pages have earlier described the doubt this caused in Mother Theresa, who found some comfort in the idea that the apparent absence is a test.   Others who have devoted their lives are also feeling doubt, although like Mother Theresa, they have strong motivations for not publicly sharing these uncertainties.

      Now a project led by philosopher Daniel Dennet is seeking out and interviewing professional clergy that have lost faith.  As explained in the video below, the motivation is to learn more about faith by studying when it breaks down.  And someone who has devoted his life to his faith, and then loses that faith is a clear case of that breakdown.  Why does it happen?  In the example given in this article, the path to faithlessness went through a close study of the Bible:
      Jack said that 10 years ago, he started to feel his faith slipping away. He grew bothered by inconsistencies regarding the last days of Jesus' life, what he described as the improbability of stories like "Noah's Ark" and by attitudes expressed in the Bible regarding women and their place in the world.
      After learning the history of the Bible, how it was assembled, its origins in various mythological stories floating around in the ancient world, and the different versions, one does not have to be a hardened cynic to conclude it is the work of Man, not of the Divine.  As Dennett explains in the talk, the people he found in the project tended to be bookish and were largely swayed by these types of written arguments.  But the study is still small, as of the talk (from last year) there were only six subjects.  Perhaps more practical, Mother Theresa-style doubters will also appear.  But the results are already interesting to those interested in religion as a psychological and social phenomenon.  This video is recommended for the description of the lives of doubting clergy, including how they maintain their positions while also keeping some measure of self-respect:

      Monday, November 8, 2010

      Cartoon disproves Darwin?

      "Megamind" is an animated movie about superheroes and supervillains that apparently has more meaning than most of us realize.  Part of the story involves a character brought up in a prison and destined to be a villain, yet he overcomes this conditioning.  A Christian movie reviewer finds this to be of particular interest:

      And truthfully, this is a moral worth praising, for it reflects the biblical premise that each man and woman is an autonomous moral agent, responsible to God for his or her actions (Romans 14:12; Revelation 2:23b), regardless of upbringing, economic station or even genetics.
      It counters secular socialism's sociological garbage that makes victims of us all and would squash the American dream, which contends anyone in a free society through hard work and diligence can improve his station.
      Apparently, in the mind of this reviewer, those who believe in a mechanically-functioning world without supernatural influences are against the idea of free will.  Only the true believers who think that Higher Powers have created us (and everything about us), are watching and are influencing, are the ones who believe in freedom.  Needless to say, a Humanist would disagree.  The reviewer is assuming a link between secularism and Marxism, which is apparently the source of confusion.

      Sunday, November 7, 2010

      Positions from revelation against positions from rationality

      This past week the Pope had a few unkind words concerning the non-religious, specifically in Spain:
      “The renaissance of modern Catholicism comes mostly thanks to Spain. But it is also true that laicism, a strong and aggressive secularism was born in Spain, as we saw in the 1930s,” the Pope said on board his plane just before arriving in the northwestern coastal city of Santiago de Compostela.
      Catholicism is still the official religion of Spain, yet there have been considerable steps away from a religious basis for government policy.  To have a convincing counter-argument, the Pope must draw upon more reasons to oppose gay marriage, available abortion, birth control, etc., than revelations and Natural Law.  But those are the domains within which religions operate, so the Pope is stuck calling for people to do what he tells him because that's how things should be.  A Humanist, however, sees the churches as places that can give inspiration to some, and help to others, but should not be given the power to impose their self-created morality on others.

      Thursday, November 4, 2010

      Kerfuffle involving our Holy Men

      In 2006, the Ethiopian army took the Islamic Courts Union out of power in Somalia.  That was a group trying to exert strict Sharia law in Somalia (and into neighboring countries).  An remnant called Al Shabaab (The Youth) survived and now has control of parts of Somalia, imposing a Taliban-like society.   They have declared war on the UN, relief workers, other African governments and anybody not sufficiently Islamic to their standard, and are not above using Al-Qaeda-like tactics.  The US State Department designates Al Shabaab as a terrorist organization and therefore illegal to support.  A seemingly distant situation from America's Finest City, but there is a connection.
      This week, the redundantly named Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud appeared in court to face charges of collecting and sending $9,000 to Al Shabaab.  Imam of a local Masjid (near El Cajon Blvd a little east of the 15), Mohamud is a leading figure in the local Somali community.  Two other local Somali immigrants were also charged.  They pleaded not guilty, and what happens with the case remains to be seen.  But Al Shabaab does offer an interesting example of the conflagration that religious fervor can inspire.

      Monday, November 1, 2010

      Our local church releases records

      The erosion of the separation between church and state goes both ways.  A San Diego judge has ruled that the 10,000 documents from the Catholic Diocese of San Diego's case can now be available to the public.  In September of 2007, the Diocese agreed to pay $198.1 million to abuse victims, but sought to have the records kept from the public.  After three years, the church lawyers could not delay the release any longer, and they are all out for perusal.   As expected, most of the documents are routine,
      But the pages that do involve allegations show a pattern that has become common to clerical sexual abuse cases in other dioceses: Victims and their families were often ignored or called liars; diocese officials transferred priests when allegations were made but never contacted the police; and the San Diego Diocese found parishes for priests being transferred from elsewhere in the country to avoid allegations.
      Meanwhile, the Diocese of Los Angeles, which reached a $660 million settlement, also in 2007, is still holding up the release of their documents.  The Humanist position is not to necessarily denigrate one religion over another, but to point out that while religions can help some people, they should not receive special legal dispensations due to their supposedly holy missions.

      Tuesday, October 26, 2010

      On this day in California religious history...

      The Erie Canal opened in 1825, creating a link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, with fundamental effects on the shaping of the country.  New York City and Chicago (founded 1833) became large trading centers connecting the vast inner country with the Atlantic Ocean.  New Orleans, at the base of the Mississippi, saw its fortunes slip as it was replaced as the entry point into the continent.  Along with the economic restructuring came a rise in fortunes along the canal, and western New York state blossomed with prosperity.   With that prosperity came an interesting flowering of religious fervor.

      The Burned-Over District was what Presbyterian minister Charles Finney called the area, since there had been so many fervent religious movements there that there was no kindling (potential converts) left.  Two of the most memorable groups that started there were the Mormons and the Millerites (followers of William Miller that eventually disbanded, although some started the Jehovah's Witnesses).   Why the upsurge at that place and at that time?  Besides the prosperity, New York State in the 1830's was both close to civilization while still retaining some of the character of a frontier.  At the time the unknown wilderness was Illinois and Indiana.  While most of the population went about their lives, the area may have attracted, and encouraged, the adventurous and the individualistic.

      California in the mid- to late-twentieth century had taken on the burden of the Burned-Over District, perhaps due to the same mixture of prosperity and lingering frontier atmosphere.   The link between California and cults and minor religions of all types is legendary, with many noted in previous entries on this page.  With the rise of the modern information age, however, physical centralization is becoming less important.  People with unique ideas must no longer gather in one locale.  And much of California's rapid growth is in the past.  Like upper and western New York state, California is not the adventure it may have been in the past.

      Thursday, October 21, 2010

      A winnowing of Southern California's holy men

      While the Saddleback Church is reaching new heights of prosperity, others in the area are not on an upward trend.  Earlier we found faith healer Benny Hinn asking for two million dollars in donations to keep his operations running.  Now the OC's original megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral, has filed for bankruptcy, declaring a $36 million mortgage and at least $7 million in other debt.  Some are blaming the turn in fortunes on an inability to move with the times, which is ironic considering this church's innovative origins. 

      The story begins in 1955, when Robert Schuller, a 34 year-old midwestern minister living in Orange County, opened a church in a former drive-in theater.  Rather than preach about sin and condemnation, he stressed a positive message, meant to inspire and give hope.  While not at the level as the prosperity churches of decades later (prayer will help you win the lottery), Schuller did present an attitude that anything is possible (prayer will help you work to achieve your goals).  The positivity, and the recognition of the emerging car culture, propelled the church's expansion.  The message went even further with the "Hour of Power", a weekly television sermon that began in 1970.  The result was the Crystal Cathedral, built from 1977 to 1980. The 1980's and 1990's were the good years for the church, but then things began to slide, with a lot of the blame going to the aging look of the service and the television show:
      Schuller and family "stayed with the organ when everyone had gone to the rock 'n' roll band. He stayed with the robes when everyone else was reinventing themselves as bishops. In a time when most megachurces are going multisite and to smaller venues, he kept building bigger buildings," Thumma said.  [Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research]
      The rise and fall of these churches further underscores the message that religion is a human, and not a divine, enterprise.  Whether Rick Warren is more correct than Robert Schuller concerning the divine is irrelevant, what is important is their ability to market.  These churches are commercial feel-good enterprises, and the recognition of this would clear up a lot of problems (i.e., people under the impression they have the real truth).

      Sunday, October 17, 2010

      So may unsaved, so little time . . .

      The website of the Mission to Reach Unreached People points out:
      Almost 2 billion people (27.9% of the world) are still essentially cut off from access to the Gospel.
      This problem will only grow worse, so the Mission is on the case:
      We plan to stimulate the creation of hundreds of long term strategy teams globally. These strategy teams will work with Christians from around the world to encourage a broad set of innovative strategies (word evangelism, deed evangelism, prayer evangelism, business evangelism, and even miracle evangelism efforts) in the effort to promote transformational church planting movements.
      The website is notable for the extensive guide to the Unsaved Peoples of the world.  For example, we can learn that the Bolon of Burkina Faso number 25,000.  Yet only 3% are Christian adherents and the percentage of Evangelicals is at a minuscule 1.45%.   To alleviate this situation, the page recommends praying for churches, Bibles and other tools of ministering. 

      Many aspects of this Mission, and the website, strike a Humanist.  First is the absolutist nature of the goal.  Everybody in the world must be an Evangelical Christian.  Or, to be more specific, everybody in the world must have Evangelical Christianity exposed to them as an option.  When it comes to your eternal soul, ignorance is not excuse!  If you haven't accepted Jesus for any reason, you will suffer forever.   Another interesting feature is the detail and care that the Mission has devoted to this project.  No group is too small, and no one in the entire world is not under consideration.  This is bottom-up organizing, putting people on the ground in the towns and villages, gaining converts one-by-one. 

      The power of religion to motivate is undeniably impressive.  But how much of that motivation is to do useful things?  Running a school or clinic, helping with irrigation and inoculation, etc., are constructive activities, but replacing local beliefs with alien myths is not.

      Thursday, October 14, 2010

      Another accusation of discrimination, although it didn't work

      The US Supreme Court has refused to hear, without comment, an appeal by the Association of Christian Schools International in a case against the University of California.  At issue is the University's refusal to allow college credit for the Bible-based science classes taught at 800 religious high schools in California.  As an examiner for the University found:

      Biology texts, one professor concluded, teach students to reject any scientific evidence that contradicted the Bible. A history text declared the Bible to be the "unerring source for analysis" of past events, in the view of another expert, and gave short shrift to women, non-Christians and some ethnic groups.
      A US District Court judge ruled in 2008 that the University had a legitimate basis for denying the credit.  And this year the US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, noting that the University had allowed credit for courses from other religious high schools, as long as they upheld academic standards.  But the Association contends that not recognizing their anti-science as science is counter to freedom of religion:
      "In the Ninth Circuit," they said, "religious speech in religious schools is less protected than commercial speech, flag burning and pornography."
      This notion, that others must recognize your religious beliefs as true or else be accused of discrimination, has appeared often before on these pages, both on domestic stories, and for those abroad.

      Sunday, October 10, 2010

      A decade of being driven to a purposeful life

      Native Californian Rick Warren founded the Saddleback Church in 1980 after graduating from the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.  The first service was in an high school auditorium, and the church would rotate through various Orange county venues and tents for about its first ten years.  Hence the nomadic name, although the current facility, built in 1995, is quite nice.  With an average weekly attendance of 20,000, the Saddleback Church is one of our largest mega-churches.  (San Diego's own megachurch, The Rock Church, has a weekly attendance of 12,000.)  With success has come not only affluence, but also influence.

      Rick Warren has become a regular figure on the national stage, for example giving the invocation at the 2009 Presidential Inauguration.  His views have drifted away from the right on some issues, for example in 2006 he signed a statement backing taking action on global warming.  But on most issues he is on the side of the evangelical right, based always in revealed truth.  His prominent book, The Purpose Driven Life, includes a chapter titled "The Reason for Everything" which explains the situation quite plainly:
      It’s all for God.
      Not only were you created by God; you were created for him, too. The ultimate goal of the universe is to show the glory of God. It is the reason for everything that exists, including
      you. God made it all for his glory. Without God’s glory, there would be nothing.
      Rick Warren is a religious absolutist.  All aspects of life must be governed by religion.  And while not outright declaring himself a prophet, his writings show a certainty about what the Higher Powers are thinking and planning.  And he, and his followers, are part of that plan.

      This weekend the Saddleback Church begins the "Decade of Destiny", which apparently involves two months of study and prayer and then ten years of blessings.  And the Church will increase its outreach, founding ten satellite churches around California.  Once again speaking like a prophet he lays out the underpinnings:

      In preparation for the campaign, Warren studied every verse in the Bible that speaks of God's blessing.
      He first stressed that nobody deserves His blessings.
      "It's totally a gift," the pastor and bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life said. "He [blesses] because He's a good God, not because you're good."
      Moreover, God enjoys blessing His children, he added.
      "God wants to bless you. He's not holding back. He's waiting on you."
      Though God's blessing cannot be earned, there is a premise to every promise, Warren noted.
      "They're not automatic," he said of blessings. "There's a condition. ... God promises and actually guarantees that He will bless your life if you do what He says."
      And so the Saddleback Church is on the march.  They will do good things, help people, contribute to the common welfare, etc.  But they will also oppose the rights of others to abortion, lifestyle (i.e., gays), right-to-die, etc.  And they will draw more people into their way of thinking, in which they have the absolute, 100%, no doubt allowed, truth about how everyone should live their lives.

      Monday, October 4, 2010

      Belief can be useful, but is it necessary?

      In his latest work, Christian author Philip Yancey asks What Good Is God? For those too eager to wait for the book, he gives examples in an interview:

      Yancey said if someone in Africa was asked what a Christian is, they may answer, "Well, I'm not sure, but there's this hospital van that comes here once a month and has a cross on it and they treat our wounds."
      Another might say, "Well, I'm not sure but there are these folks called World Vision and they dug a well for my village and now we have something to drink.”
      "And then others will tell about churches that come in and help transform a society by speaking against drunkenness and corruption," Yancey added.
      "I wish skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had the same chance to hear stories of transformation from social outcasts who hit the very bottom and now credit God for the strong grace that saved them in the most literal sense," Yancey wrote.
      But the ability of religion to offer psychological benefit to those with particular needs is well established.  Once the needs diminish, the religion frequency follows.  As Yancey notes:
      In his book, Yancey acknowledges how Christianity can be good for society but also notes how, as that society achieves a level of comfort and prosperity, its citizens feel less need for religious faith.
      So religion can play a role in making the world a better in some places and at some times.  But as Humanists we have (at least) two questions.  Can people find the inspiration to do good and the psychological strength to face adversity through means other than religion?  And what comes with the good effects of religion?  Are those well-diggers also banning contraception, condemning people born with homosexual inclinations, fighting science, etc. ?

      Monday, September 27, 2010

      Proselytizers look at the non-religious proselytizers

      Charles Taze Russel was a minister and Biblical commentator who found, like many Christian sects, that he had discovered the true essence of Christianity and that everyone else was wrong.  His voluminous writings led to the creation of the Watch Tower Society, which later became the Jehovah's Witnesses.   Among their beliefs, the one that usually caught the observer's eye was that the End Times would come early in the 20th Century, but when the end did not come this aspect of the religion receded.  Although, for a while, the world headquarters of the new age was to have been here in San Diego.  The part of the religion that an observer would be most familiar with today is the door-to-door missionary work that is required of members.  Like Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses are on the streets, knocking on doors, spreading the faith, and giving away away reams of Watchtower and Awake! magazines. 

      The November 2010 issue of Awake! deals with the new atheists.  As the introduction states:
      A new group of atheists has arisen in society.  Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.
      On the whole, the issue retains some fairness and applies a gentle push toward their own religion.  The first article repeats the canard that Antony Flew, the pre-eminent atheist before the rise of the new atheists, found religion in his final years.  Actually, he allowed the possibility of Deism (a Divine Clockmaker who designed the universe and set it in motion) while rejecting the other supernatural parts of religion.  The article then continues to use the argument that since science can not presently give a confirmed explanation for the universe, religion is a viable alternative.  The next article has a somewhat fair acknowledgment that while the godless Communists committed heinous acts, the history of religious nations in the area of human rights is checkered at best.  Although those religions were not true:
      At this point, a distinction must be made between true worship—that is, worship that is acceptable in God’s eyes—and false worship.  True worship would help people to
      fight against base inclinations.
      Still applying the soft sell, the article concludes with a few Biblical references and the idea that all morality comes from above, and neither the so-called believer or the atheist can dodge the True Will.  It is left to the next article to deliver the goods.  The article is an interview with a Czech biologist who found that the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses made so much sense that he was forced to abandon his atheism.  The rest of the magazine has some interesting articles on a wide range of topics and is probably effective as a recruitment tool.  What proselytizers are selling is not miracles (although some are),  they are selling psychological benefits such as a sense of community and rules to guide your life.  The logical arguments only have to be passably good in order to support the lifestyle framework.  Can humanism provide this framework without the supernatural underpinnings?

      Monday, September 20, 2010

      Belief in political office, required?

      As of September 14, Julia Gillard is the Prime Minister of Australia.  During the election candidate Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party (which is actually conservative in American terminology) was careful to proclaim his strong Christian beliefs, as would seem to be required.  Gillard, however, took another tack during a radio interview:

      FAINE: Do you believe in God?
      PM: No, I don't Jon, I'm not a religious person.
      Amazingly, the radio station was not struck by lightning.
      Gillard hastened to add she was brought up a Baptist, attending the Mitcham Baptist Church. Why, she even won catechism prizes for remembering verses from the Bible.
      ''But during my adult life I've, you know, found a different path,'' she declared. ''I'm, of course, a great respecter of religious beliefs but they're not my beliefs.''
      Meanwhile, in the USA, a 2007 poll found that 62% of respondents would not vote for an atheist candidate and there are currently no public atheists in Congress.  This article takes a look at the differences between Australia and the USA and posits several reasons for why this could happen there and not here.   First, Australia has a larger religiously unaffiliated population (31% them, 16% us) and few regular church-goers (7.5% them, 40% us).  Second, while stating her lack of beliefs, Gillard is quick to heap praise on belief and churches as positive social institutions.  And her positions are, in general, not opposed to the religious.  She is opposed, for example, to gay marriage.  And lastly, her Labor Party really only received 38% of the vote.  That was enough to put together a coalition in a parliamentary system, but would not be enough to become a President, Governor or Senator over here.  So for the foreseeable future there is little chance of someone winning high office in America without a profession, even insincere, of faith.

      Monday, September 13, 2010

      San Diego as a Mormon port? A big maybe from history

      An interesting article in the Voice of San Diego points out that the Mormon Church once had designs on San Diego.  Back in the late 1840's, the Mormons facing persecution back east traveled west to freedom.  The Prophet Joseph Smith first led his flock from New York state (the burned-over district, so named because so many religious movements were starting up there in the early 1800's) to Illinois.  But there was trouble with a splinter group, and while awaiting trial for starting a riot, a mob appeared and lynched Joseph Smith.  Brigham Young became president of the Church and led them even further west to the Salt Lake area.

      Brigham Young's dream was to create a country called "Deseret", covering what is now much of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, which was nominally under Mexican ownership, but practically empty.  And a country could use a port, so he sent some followers to settle in San Diego.  But Manifest Destiny would foil his plans.  In 1846 a US Army patrol ventured into Mexican territory, probably to provoke a response, and after the Mexican army attacked the Congress declared war.  In February of 1848, with the US Army occupying Mexico City, both sides signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, selling the southwest to the USA.  The American government was particularly against the Mormons' insistence on polygamy, so their territorial claims came to nothing.  California became a state on September 9, 1850.  And after then-president Wilford Woodruff had a revelation that Jesus Christ was ordering the Church to abandon polygamy, Utah became a state in 1896.

      Was there ever a real possibility that San Diego could have become part of "Deseret"?  Probably not since the Mormon population did not develop fast enough to take over the area and missed their opportunity.  Perhaps if the Mormons had shown up here a few decades earlier it could have happened...

      Wednesday, September 8, 2010

      Using the freedom of religion argument to impose one's will (again)

      Joel Hanson, the Nevada Independent American Party candidate for attorney general has filed suit against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 for violating a plethora of his constitutional rights.  For example, forcing him to purchase something is a form of slavery, a violation of Amendment 13.  And the graduate from Brigham Young University, who has been practicing law for three decades, is also worked up over his loss of freedom of religion, the suit
      cites Bible passages as if they are legal statutes and makes the argument that the plaintiffs are religious Christians, and that part of their sincerely held religious belief is that "all forms of Socialism are abhorrent and contrary to [the] Christian faith." Hansen writes that he believes that "Socialism and its twin brothers Communism, Fascism, are State/Civic religions" and that "Obamcare[sic]/PPACA, an admittedly socialistic and compelled system of belief, violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment."
      According to Hanson, six lawyers spent three months working on this lawsuit.  And, also according to Hanson, Republican Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle is aware of the suit and supports it.  

      From a religious standpoint, the suit may be correct.  There is no real authority or absolute decisions in religion, so who is to say Hanson is wrong?  You may argue that Jesus was actually a socialist, yet it's all a matter of belief with no way to reach a definitive conclusion.  But there are limits to your ability to declare yourself exempt from laws.  It will be interesting to see what the judge who dismisses this case will write on the matter.

      Sunday, September 5, 2010

      Cognitive dissonance theory and life

      Cognitive dissonance theory holds that the human mind is unable to hold contradictory beliefs and will strive to eliminate the contradiction.  The motivation is so strong that if the path to reality is closed for some reason, the mind will instead go further into unreality.  There are many examples:
      Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.
      Numerous experiments have indicated that this theory is valid and a better predictor of behavior than other theories.  In one early test, researchers asked subjects to rate common objects, and then to pick one to take home among a set they rated equally desirable.  Upon being asked to rate the objects again, they showed a preference for what they had picked.  One explanation is that their minds had created rationalizations to change their views of reality and diminish the mental discomfort of having staked an unsupportable claim.  Interestingly, psychologists have also performed this experiment with capuchin monkeys and obtained the same result.

      The application to supernatural beliefs is obvious, and that was the original presentation of the cognitive dissonance theory in Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails, which examined doomsday movements such as the Millerites and a contemporary UFO-based group.  A belief that the world will end on a specific day (October 22, 1844 for the Millerites) and the continued existence of the world is a clear contradiction.  Yet those who were in the movement too deeply to renounce it and walk away produced elaborate rationalizations and became more devoted. 

      This effect is evident in many human endeavors, both large and small.  Once we make a commitment that is difficult to back out of, yet we encounter a problem, a simple solution is to find a way to believe and then carry on as before.  While easy to spot in others, it is worth taking a moment to consider how cognitive dissonance shapes our own lives.

      Tuesday, August 31, 2010

      No respite for the holy

      Mother Teresa, who's name is a synonym for holy work, came here to San Diego in 1992 to have five blood vessels leading to her heart unblocked.  But, into her eighties by then, the health problems continued and she died in 1997.  She led a long and eventful life, and humanists can appreciate her zeal for charitable work, if not always her methods.   But another aspect interesting to humanists came to light a decade after her death.

      Born in what is now Macedonia to an Albanian family in 1910, she left home at 18 to become a missionary, never seeing her family again.  After years of teaching in Calcutta, in 1948 she had a calling to start a mission for the sick of the slums.  Whether this calling was a feeling or a genuine vision would become part of the problem.  For although the mission grew, she did not feel any holy presence.  As letters published in the 2007 book Mother Teresa:  Come Be My Light show, the doubt was there for the last several decades of her life.  In 1953 she wrote to her Archbishop:
      Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'
      And in 1955:
      Such deep longing for God — and ... repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. — [The saving of] Souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.
      And similar writings for the next four decades.  She wrote about Jesus as "the Absent One", her "spiritual dryness" and her lack of satisfaction from prayer.  All the while, the Missionaries of Charity that she founded continued to grow, as did her renown, largely triggered by a popular 1969 documentary about her work.  By her death the group had over 500 missions around the world, and she had collected accolades and prizes from nearly everyone.  But, as she wrote after receiving one honor (the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1962):  "This means nothing to me, because I don't have Him."

      This is a dilemma that the religious must face.  No matter how devout you are, you will never hear a clear voice telling you what to do, you will never see a definite supernatural miracle, and you will never have a resolution of your faith.

      Thursday, August 26, 2010

      New killers: atheist doctors

      An article with the eye-catching title "Atheist doctors 'more likely to hasten death'" informs us:
      Terminally-ill patients would be well advised to find out the religious beliefs of their doctor, according to research showing the effect of faith on a doctor's willingness to make decisions that could hasten death.
      The article refers to a British survey of 4,000 working doctors which found, among other results:
      Regardless of specialty, those doctors who described themselves as "very or extremely" non-religious were generally more likely to have incorporated sedation into the treatment of dying patients, and twice as likely as religious doctors to have been involved in decisions intended to hasten the end of life.

      There is no indication that these doctors are doing anything illegal or unethical, they are instead considering all options for the overall benefit of the patient.  Perhaps a better title for the article above may be "Religious doctors allow their beliefs to restrict medical options".

      Tuesday, August 24, 2010

      On this day in San Diego history...

      On August 24, 410, the Visigoths entered the city of Rome, signaling the coming fall of the Roman Empire.  The name "Visigoth" is a creation of historians centuries later to signify an amalgam of peoples that originated around modern Romania and would eventually conquer most of Gaul and all of the Iberian peninsula.  So did pagans defeat the Christian Empire?  No, the Visigoths were also Christians, but they were of the Arian variety.  Arius had disagreed with the conclusions of the Council of Nicea on subjects so obscure and technical as to have no possible measurable influence on anyone's life (Arians argued that Jesus was divine, but of a different substance than the Father, whereas the Nicene Creed declares them to be absolutely the same).  But back then the differences seemed important, and so religion was a factor in the various wars that put Europe into the Dark Ages.  The only prominent Christian group with similarities to the Arian heresy in modern times is the Jehovah's Witnesses.

      Back in the 1920's, the president of that group, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, was wintering in San Diego for health reasons and the church built him a mansion for that purpose (they maintained that the funding came from wealthy friends, not the rank-and-file).  Rutherford dubbed the 10-bedroom, 5100 sq ft,  mansion Beth Sarim, and declared that it would house the Biblical princes once they returned to Earth.  Yes, San Diego was to be the headquarters of the New Earth.  But the princes did not turn up and the upkeep was a drain, so the Watchtower Society later sold the property.  You can still see it at 4440 Braeburn Rd. (San Diego Historical Landmark #474)

      Sunday, August 22, 2010

      Drive-up church opens near LA

      A small group of people have put up a sign in a clearing near the road in rural Loma Linda offering a prayer group.  While numerous media accounts are calling this "drive-through prayer", this is really drive-up prayer:
      "People can stop by and unload what they have and it keeps them from having to go to church," he said. "It's 20 minutes and you go away. There's no long-term commitment."
      If the 20 minute commitment is really all that the partakers sacrifice, then this could be a constructive use of religion.  The user gets a psychological boost and then gets on with life.  The accounts present the prayer sessions as positive and devoid of the usual religious baggage (the exclusivity, the judgmentalism, the political cross-over).  If it remains like this then they could be providing a useful service that can benefit some people.

      Sunday, August 15, 2010

      New target: Theory of Relativity

      Some religious conservatives of late have turned their wrath on Einstein's theory of relativity.  Relativity has joined evolution as counter to their beliefs and they are trying to refute it.  Conservapedia's "Counterexamples to Relativity" page offers many arguments, including:
      The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.
      In Genesis 1:6-8, we are told that one of God's first creations was a firmament in the heavens. This likely refers to the creation of the luminiferous aether.
      Their problem with the theory of relativity seems to be the word "relativity", which sounds close to "moral relativism":
      So where did moral relativism gain its footing in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles?
      It actually started in the 1920s when a belief began to circulate in the U.S. that there were no longer any absolutes, specifically, of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge and above all of human value. This belief system was built on the work of at least two prominent scientists: Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.
      (Note:  this last article in a religious conservative site is actually arguing that Einstein's theory of relativity is being incorrectly applied to morality and sociology (by secular liberals).)

      Thursday, August 12, 2010

      Faith healing in India: wrong demons

      India has a relatively underdeveloped health industry in general and mental health industry in particular, as a recent article explains:

      Faith healers and temple doctors are by far the most socially acceptable way to try to cure mental illness in India. There are hardly any psychiatrists — and a mere 37 mental institutions to serve the country's whole population of 1.2 billion.
      But even if there were more professionals, it might not matter. Psychiatrists compete not with each other but with healers and gurus.

      The rituals described in the article seem pretty useless to an unfamiliar American reader, and yet they are so fully ingrained within the culture that most do not even think to question them.  Perhaps the outsider who reads about this will see the inefficacy of blind faith and question his own beliefs.  But, in a word:  nope.  Here's one response to the article:
      These faith healers have the right idea, but the wrong religion. Christianity believes in deliverance from demons, which cause mental illness. Demons are cast out in Jesus' name. It works; I have done it. psychiatry is atheism masquerading as science; they think mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances. This is a big lie foisted on us by the drug cos to sell drugs. In truth, the psych meds cause mental illness; the antipsychotic drugs often have the side effect of causing psychosis. The drug handbooks admit this. this is because ALL drugs are openings for unclean spirits, or demonic oppression. This includes psych meds, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, lsd, pot, etc. what's going on in India is that they are worshipping demons, and demons don't cast out demons, so it doesn't work. charging for faith healing is a scam. Many new age therapies also charge, and this is not really from God. The Holy SPIrit, which testifies to Jesus being the savior, heals, for free. You can't charge for it. It is forbidden. The God of the new testament doesn't make mistakes, or have side effects.

      Tuesday, August 10, 2010

      Prop. 8 and judicial oversight

      The recent court decision overturning California's ban on same-sex marriage (proposition 8 on the last ballot) has raised the ire of many in the religious opposition.  Previous entries on this board have pointed out that the base of this thinking lies in religious intolerance masquerading as tolerance:  my religion dictates what you can and can't do, now respect my religion.  As a more legalistic argument, opponents are calling this ruling anti-democratic, since Prop. 8 did pass an election
      Thus, a single district court judge cast aside current law, ignored precedent, and exalted his own secularist morality ahead of the moral judgment of a majority of voters in the most populous state in the union.
      But the role of the judiciary in protecting minorities from the majority is well-established.  And the religious have benefited from this as well.  In 1940 the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses expelled from schools for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag were out of luck and would have to seek remedy in elections by changing the law.  But the Court reversed this in 1943 (in the middle of WWII), ruling that a minority could expect protection under the law.  And, of course, the Mormons faced persecution in the nineteenth century for their beliefs about subjects including marriage.  They were not protected by the courts, for which there is still bitterness

      On the subject, a group member writes:

      Yes, opponents of gay marriage often cite the fact that a majority of the citizens of various states have voted for a ban against it, and that, in their view, no "activist judge" has the right to overturn the will of the people.
      What ignorance of the Constitution. The judicial branch was designed to serve as a protector of individual and minority rights. Our judges, especially the appellate and supreme courts, are supposed to review laws passed by the people's representatives in Congress, and, among other things, decide whether these laws violate the basic principles of our supreme law, the Constitution. That is their primary function.
      In any elementary course on American government we teach that the legislative branch makes our laws, the executive branch makes sure they are carried out (executes them), and the judicial branch interprets our laws. Why do we need judges in the first place? Because the law is complicated, and needs experts to examine it carefully and to interpret it in light of the Constitution. If all we need to determine what is legal is to hold a referendum of popular opinion, why have a Constitution at all? Why have judges?
      Judges are supposed to be independent in order that they be impartial. That's why federal judges are appointed for life: so they won't have to fear for their jobs if they make decisions that are constitutionally sound but unpopular, and they won't be badgered out of office by the rule of the mob.
      One of the worst things that has happened to the judiciary in the U.S. is that in many state systems judges are elected rather than appointed. The Constitution originally intended for the legislative branch to be responsive to public opinion, but for the judicial branch to be impervious to it. When state and local judges are elected by the majority they tend to promise to be "tough on crime," because that's what the public wants to hear, and to make fewer and fewer unpopular decisions based on principles of fairness, understanding, wisdom, and discernment.
      Unfortunately, these finer points of law -- that are not difficult to understand; they can be taught in a single one-hour class -- are beyond the comprehension of most of our native-born citizens, who are largely ignorant of our democratic process, and who would never be able to pass the test on U.S. Government that we require of our naturalized citizens.

      Sunday, August 8, 2010

      Does disbelief stem from immorality?

      A professor of philosophy at Taylor University (an evangelical college in Indiana) believes he has found the true origin of lack faith.  Dr James Spiegel has written The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief to explain his thesis.  The argument begins with the statement that rationality must lead to faith:
      God has made His existence plain from creation – from the unimaginable vastness of the universe to the complex micro-universe of individual cells, Spiegel notes. Human consciousness, moral truths, miraculous occurrences and fulfilled biblical prophecies are also evidence of the reality of God.
       A disbeliever is therefore actively rejecting what he knows to be true:
      Drawing from Scripture, Spiegel says the atheist's problem is rebellion against the plain truth of God, as clearly revealed in nature. The rebellion is prompted by immorality, and immoral behavior or sin corrupts cognition.
       Searching for a common cause, Dr Spiegel in particular singles out father/son issues:
      Some of the atheists whose fathers died include David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche. Those with abusive or weak fathers include Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire and Sigmund Freud. Among the New Atheists, Daniel Dennett's father died when Dennett was five years old and Christopher Hitchens' father appears to have been very distant. Hitchens had confessed that he doesn't remember "a thing about him."
       As a summary:
      In essence, "atheists ultimately choose not to believe in God," the author maintains, and "this choice does not occur in a psychological vacuum."
       The problem with the reasoning is that Dr Spiegel has reversed the order of the cause and effect.  His faith is what makes the existence of higher powers obvious from the vastness of space, the complexity of cells, etc.

      Thursday, August 5, 2010

      Prop. 8 and religious beliefs in society

      A judge has ruled that California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional.  And he did so using arguments that are familiar to humanists:
      “The evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples,” Walker wrote. “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”
      Humanists seek an earthly (and therefore arguable) motivation for positions on important issues.  There may be a non-religious argument against same-sex marriage, but as the judge explained, the points presented boil down to belief in revealed truth.  

      Why are humanists uncomfortable with strong religious, private beliefs in others?  Because there are too many cases in which those beliefs do not remain private, and this is one.  Since many people in this state hold a certain religious belief, others must have their lives significantly affected:
      Alliance Defense Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg, similarly, called the judge’s decision “pretty shocking” because the trial is not only about marriage but about the “fundamental freedom of having your vote count and having the liberty to express and live by your religious beliefs.”

      Wednesday, August 4, 2010

      A local finds religion

      Holly Ordway is a professor of English at MiraCosta College in San Diego County who has turned from secularism to religion and has written a book about the experience.  As an article in this week's Christian Post (which we all read) explains, she grew up in a non-religious household and viewed religious stories as made-up fables.  So why the conversion?  Dr. Ordway points to the certainty that religion offers about life:
      "On the other hand, the theistic worldview was both consistent and powerfully explanatory: it offered a convincing, rationally consistent, and logical explanation for everything that the naturalistic worldview explained plus all the things that the naturalistic worldview couldn’t."
      A humanist would not be surprised by this.  A life without doubt is a powerful incentive.  Religion helps some people some of the time.  But the next part protrudes into the downside of religion, as the demands begin:
      Her intellectual pride was broken and she was humbled by God's goodness as she began to see herself as a sinner.

      Monday, August 2, 2010

      A movie review with an interesting point

      "Charlie St. Cloud" is the type of movie that, in all likelihood, few of our group member will see.  Apparently, this movie is the latest attempt to put the teen idol of the moment into an emotional setting. But a Christian reviewer brings up an interesting point.  Most of the movie deals with notions of an afterlife and the purpose of this life:

      "I have no regrets," the paramedic says. "I have lived a full life."
      Charlie asks the poignant and well-phrased question, "Is that really any consolation?"
      Then comes the lie.
      "It's the only one there is," the paramedic answers.
      Really? That's a common sentiment, the idea that we have simply to live full lives, avoid regrets and trust that after we die it will all be OK.
      The reviewer is offended that the movie does not acknowledge the one purpose of life and the one true path to the afterlife (hint: it begins with a "J"):
      To say to yourself, "I'll go to heaven but ignore the way Jesus said to get there," is not only stunningly illogical, it's also hypocritical. It's like supposing you're playing baseball but ignoring both the rules and the umpires. It makes no sense.

      While this analysis may seem uncharitable, it does make sense.  Christians made up the story about a Christian heaven, so they can also make up the rules.  There are other afterlife stories, of course, but apparently this movie makes references to Jesus and Christianity, so they are talking about Christian heaven.  Like the copyright holders of Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter and others keeping control of their stories, the Christian establishment (which, like this reviewer is usually self-declared) guards its stories.  A ruling (by the Pope? President of the Mormon Church?  Joel Osteen?) that there are non-Jesus paths to Christian heaven would have as much real-world effects as a ruling that Santa Claus must now visit the houses of non-Christians.

      Saturday, July 31, 2010

      County funding for a ministry

      San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn (last seen in these pages urging county employees to gather for a prayer session) has been allocating county money to raise funds for a Christian-themed educational group.  This year the county has provided $20,000 to fund Life Perspective's Oct. 30 fund-raising walk through San Diego.  That walk raises over $100,000, or almost half of the group's annual budget.  The county also have this group $30,000 in 2008 and 2009.  But what is "Life Perspective"?  Their 2010 website gives only vague assurances that they teach decision making skills.  But what they do is create religious-based curricula for religious academies and home schoolers.  As their 2009 web site announced:
      Whole Life Curriculum fills this need: teaching students to understand how to relate to others and keeping God and God’s love at the center of those relationships - with family, with friends, with themselves.
      The curriculum, which starts at kindergarten, teaches about subjects such as abortion, euthanasia, gay rights etc, from the religious perspective, complete with scriptural passages.  To defend its funding, the group has been trying to obscure their purpose (including the elimination of religious references from their current website), but their goals are clear.  Have a look at the text and video in the last link.  If you live in San Diego county, you're paying for it.

      Thursday, July 29, 2010

      Wealthy holy man needs our help

      Southern California's own Benny Hinn...
      Oops ...
      Benny Hinn was one of the most celebrated faith healers of the past twenty years.  His specialty has been mass faith healing rallies where through a mixture of sensory overload and hypnosis he can make entire rows of people fall over.   Expect to see the stage area filled with people twitching on the ground at one of his shows.  He's also part of the prosperity gospel trend, so besides bringing sudden unexplained healing power, his followers can also depend on unexpected financial windfalls (but not really, of course).   Hinn's conducted charity and missions all over the world.  But he hasn't been living the life of a pauper, and that doesn't come cheap.  Hinn's ministry has taken in $200 million per year at its height. The private Gulfstream jet (dubbed "Dove One") isn't going to pay for itself.

      But despite his claims to having been chosen by the Divine, Hinn's galloping success has slowed to a crawl.  Earlier this year his wife of thirty years filed for divorce.  Now the IRS is investigating him (along with several other televangelists) to determine his ministries' non-profit status.  Offerings are down, and so Hinn has made an appeal for two million in donation to cover expenses.

      From a humanist perspective, Hinn offers two basic services.  First there is the psychological boost given by his preaching, which offers hope and some life lessons in the sermons.  And then there is the charitable work that Hinn performs around the world.  But the followers could buy a lottery ticket and some self-help books, and donate to established charities.  They could achieve the same effects more efficiently and with less overhead.

      Tuesday, July 27, 2010

      Miracle in Glendale

      A crying statue of Mary is attracting attention in Glendale:

      According to the homeowner, Ana Hid, who said she's a deeply religious woman, the statue started to shine, it felt oily.
      "She was shining," Hid said. "I grabbed the statue, and my hand, it was all oily."
      The reaction has been impressive, with pilgrims coming to pray or to observe:
      "Look at (how many) cars," said neighbor Kerop Jabourian, motioning to the street. "Believe me, I've never seen this here in 40 years."
      Although the comments section of this article contains some uncharitable sentiments:
      Sadly, these people also vote.

      Sunday, July 25, 2010

      Morality without supernatural origins

      Is morality a gift from higher powers?  If those higher powers do not exist, is there any reason to be moral?  A movement to study natural morality (or humanistic morality or secular morality, etc.) is developing, and one group recently held a conference on this new science (some conference materials are here). 
      As conference attendee and noted secularist Sam Harris  noted:
      The failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and values has become the primary justification for religious faith. Even among religious fundamentalists, the defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence that God exists, but that faith in Him provides the only guidance for living a good life.
      From a humanist perspective, morality is explainable without resorting to the supernatural.  There are rational reasons to behave, such as the desire to maximize the social efficiency and not be harmed ourselves.  And there are the human needs that we may call irrational:  the desire to be liked and respected, the compassion we feel for others, and the need to feel good about ourselves.  And it is up to human beings to decide what is moral and to enforce that code.  Rather than Scripture dictating morality, people have interpreted Scripture to reflect the morality of the time (e.g., slavery and stoning).  And so this naturalistic study of morality has profound relevance to our lives.

      Thursday, July 22, 2010

      Two competing stories

      For your consideration:  first we turn our attention to South Carolina, where a baby is born with a partially-functioning liver and heart:

      "We brought him to the alter and my pastors prayed for him. They anointed him on his stomach and on his heart," said Healon.
      That same week they took Ethan to the doctor.
      "The doctors took him back for an MRI and the doctors came back completely astonished because they could not believe the liver was completely healed and the heart was completely healed," said Healon.
      That was when the baby was eight months old.  Now at 23 months, the boy is still doing well, but also still undergoing surgeries.  A victory for prayer?
      Next we look to Oregon, where a grand jury is indicting a couple for withholding medical treatment for their seven-month old daughter, who is now facing preventable blindness in at least one eye.  But that is the way of their church:
      The Followers of Christ church cemetery is filled with dead children who died from treatable medical conditions. The Oregon state medical examiner's office reported that during the past 30 years more than 20 children of church members had died of preventable or curable illnesses.
       The track record of this church in this matter makes one wonder when the members will question their faith:
      Last February Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were found guilty for the criminally negligent homicide of their 16-year-old son, Neil. Instead of seeking medical attention for an easily treatable condition, the Beagley's chose prayer, with tragic and fatal consequence for their son.

      Four months prior to Neil's death, his young cousin also died at home because her parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, following the teachings of the church, refused to get her medical attention.
       Note, however, that the parents of the first story allowed medical procedures, including surgery.  The prayer was a side-issue, and perhaps it served the purpose of providing psychological encouragement.  But the parents of the second story demonstrate how difficult it is to keep religion in its proper place.

      Tuesday, July 20, 2010

      New Scientology church in Pasadena

      A glowing press release announces the opening of a new Scientology church in Pasadena:

      A 25-piece marching band welcomed over 4,200 to the Grand Opening of the new Church of Scientology of Pasadena today. Mr. David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Center and ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion, officiated, welcoming dignitaries, parishioners and guests to the Church’s new 58,000-square-foot facility.
      Among religions, Scientology is a particular derision-magnet for several reasons.  Despite the name, there is no science at work in Scientology.  The teachings of the church are wisdom that it's founder, L. Ron Hubbard declared, apparently from his revelations.  Then there is the church's origin as a system of therapy that the founder converted into a religion, perhaps for the tax benefits and perhaps for the power.  And the business-oriented nature of the church is another point of contention, selling courses and materials for in exchange for enlightenment.  Finally, there is the incredible belief system.  At the low lever, removing En-grams through auditing is primitive, amateur psychotherapy.  At the high-level, the story of Xenu and Thetans is far-fetched.

      But a humanist and a rationalist would say that Scientology exemplifies and exaggerates the negative points of all revelation-based belief systems.

      Sunday, July 18, 2010

      Religion does good case study: The Gutenberg Bible

      Printing originated in China, including early experiments with movable type consisting of wooden blocks with individual characters held together by wax.  But with thousands of characters, the technique did not go far for printing text.  The Muslim world had the technology next, but calligraphy was too central to be displaced.  It was up to Johannes Gutenberg of Germany to make the needed advancements and assemble them to create what we now call printing.  A goldsmith and builder of coin mints, Gutenberg created die from which to cast the numerous pieces of type (tens of thousands of little metal blocks of exact dimension with raised characters), and he solved problems dealing with applying ink and pressing the image.  He produced less than 200 printed Bibles around 1455, but the effect was wide and immediate.  By 1500, European presses had printed between 8 million and 20 million volumes of thousands of books.  The effect is difficult to underestimate.  Technological and scientific progress, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, government reforms, the rise of the middle class and other advancements are attributable to print.  Printing is one of the main reasons leading to the rise of Europe ahead of other parts of the world.  And it all started with a Bible.  But did it have to be a Bible?

      There is little biographical information about Gutenberg. (Yes, Gutenberg is a Jewish name, meaning "Jewish Hill" in old German.  It was also the name of the estate of Gutenberg's wealthy family, which had been a Jewish area until a pogrom in the 1200's.  His full name was Johannes Gensfleisch zu Laden zu Gutenberg, meaning Johannes Gensfleisch of Laden of Gutenberg.)  His motivation appears to have been half artistic and half monetary, not religious.  The pages are some of the best examples of artistic printing to date.  With the page and column dimensions carefully shaped into Golden Sections, and hand-drawn initial letters and flourishes added to every page (over 1,000 pages per volume).  And the print run sold for the equivalent of millions of dollars in today's money, although Gutenberg lost the money when his financial backer foreclosed.   The Bible was a hefty volume that lent itself to artistic flourishes, would show off the capabilities of his new printing technology, and that he could sell to institutions and the wealthy (the price was still tens of thousands of dollars in updated money).  So the Bible was the best candidate for print for its time.  And perhaps ironically, the Bible was able to start the force that would finally downgrade its power after over one thousand years of supremacy.