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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

You can't keep San Diego's Holy Men down

San Diego's own Anwar Al-Awlaki has written a glossy call for religious-based violence called "Inspire".  Styling itself as the Summer 2010 newsletter of a group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the issue contains a hefty dose of current American culture and of revolution.  There are lists of recommended assassination targets (still those cartoonists), praise for bombers such as Umar al-Faruq (the underwear bomber), and bomb-making instructions (removed from the linked PDF).  And overhanging everything is unquestioning and exclusive religious truth.  There may be some political arguments, but the quickest of perusals shows that religious truth is the main justification and the primary motivator.  The goal is to rid the area (Yemen?  The Arabian Peninsula?  The Middle East?  The world?) of fitnah, disbelief, and establish strict Islamic law as they interpret it.  Pity those who find themselves under such a rule, as even Saudi Arabia is too Westernized for them.  And putting it all together is one of San Diego's holy men.

Born in New Mexico while his parents were here from Yemen, Awlaki obtained a Master's degree in education from SDSU and served as the Imam at a La Mesa mosque from 1996 to 2000.  During that time he had contact with Omar Abdel Rahman, now in prison for the World Trade Center attack of 1993, and was investigated by the FBI who did not turn up enough evidence for an arrest.  After 9/11, authorities began looking at Awlaki again since he had close contact with two of the hijackers at the La Mesa mosque.  An arrest warrant was issued, but the US Attorney's Office in Denver rescinded the warrant, for reasons that are unclear.  The story sounds like a bureaucratic mess-up.  The result is that Awlaki was able to leave the country and now lives in Yemen.

From his base in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to advocate for his revealed truth as another San Diegan driven to change the world by, and for, religion.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church coming to San Diego again

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church will be in America's Finest City next week to picket ComicCon.  Their objection is apparently to the competition that non-religious mythology poses to their mythology:
Are you kidding?! If these people would spend even some of the energy that they spend on these comic books, reading the Bible, well no high hopes here. They have turned comic book characters into idols, and worship them they do![...Bible verses...] It is time to put away the silly vanities and turn to God like you mean it. The destruction of this nation is imminent - so start calling on Batman and Superman now, see if they can pull you from the mess that you have created with all your silly idolatry.
It may seem unfair to point to them as an example of the religious, but who is to say they are wrong?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A local pastor ventures forth

Newt Gingrich, who has been building a campaign against the secular, socialist machine, has named Jim Garlow to be head of Renewing American Leadership.  Jim Garlow is the pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, located about five miles east of downtown San Diego.  Renewing American Leadership is part of a trend in political evangelicalism to link the success of the USA in an idealized past with religion:

"I believe Speaker Gingrich has created an essential vehicle for educating our nation about its profound and unique Judeo-Christian heritage, the foundation upon which our liberties are based and upon which they depend," Garlow said.  "I am truly honored to be partnering with Speaker Gingrich and his team and look forward to what we will accomplish.
Leading up to this appointment Garlow has been active with the Family Research Council, another organization trying to impose religious thinking into politics.  Garlow and the Family Research Council, for example, opposed the health care overhaul bill as anti-biblical.  This is despite the Skyline Wesleyan Church's website, which assures us that nearly all Jim Garlow cares about is charity and helping others. 

Whether good or ill, the evangelical political trend marches onward, obliging humanists to at least remain conscious and aware.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A link between reading the Bible and financial acumen?

A ministry known as Maximum Generosity has teamed with religious publisher Christianity Today International to give us the second annual "View from the Pew" survey.  By surveying more than 1,000 Christians, the survey concluded that regular readers of the Bible have less debt than others.  A humanist would be skeptical of these results, there are many counter examples, while remaining open to the idea of positive psychological benefits to religious study.

A pastor commented on these results:
"The first reason would be that discipline in one's spiritual life often leads to greater disciplines in other areas of one's life, including how someone manages their finances," he wrote.
This is not controversial in itself to a humanist.  But we would point out that other forms of study other than religion also provide discipline, goal-setting practice, memorization exercises, etc.  Also, some of those other fields carry a lot less baggage than religion.  But the commentary continues:
"The second reason is that those who consistently spend time in the Scriptures are tapping into God's wisdom and guidance for their daily financial decisions."
This conclusion is from faith since the Scriptures require so much interpretation to apply to daily financial decisions.  What did Jesus have to say about car loans?  That takes a lot of processing and could go many ways.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Belief without evidence is not good practice

Through the Looking Glass, chapter 5:
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Religions ask us to believe many things that make no sense when compared with the world we see around us.  No evidence or data is presented;  someone had a vision, so we must put aside our doubts and believe.  But this is not good practice for dealing with worldly matters.  How many examples can you think of?