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.