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The Theist Files (2466) [Sep. 17th, 2006|10:26 am]
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2466) New Wave Of Religious Insanity Sweeps Across India (Aug 21) - According to Topix.net and the Associated Press, “Hundreds of thousands of Indians thronged temples across India on Monday in the belief that statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk.

“‘I put a milk-filled spoon to Ganesha's mouth and he drank it,’ exclaimed Akhilesh Shukla, a trader in Lucknow, capital of northern Uttar Pradesh state.

“He was among the countless devotees who carried milk in glasses and pitchers to northern Indian temples where Hindus worship Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good fortune and wisdom; Shiva, the destroyer, and Durga, the goddess of strength.

“‘It is a miracle,’ said Sudhir Mishra, a priest at a Shiva temple in Lucknow. He said that at least 10 liters of milk had been offered at his temple on Monday.

“‘Look at the floor it is fairly dry. Where's the milk gone? It should be visible on floor. Can you see that.’

[According to Yahoo News and the AFP news agency’s version of this story, “‘Even Shiv's lingam (revered phallus) drank milk. I feel blessed by the god,’ said visitor Rukmani Devi.”]

“But others dismissed the milk-slurping gods as the work of less miraculous forces - surface tension, which pulls the liquid toward the statues, and capillary action, through which the milk is leached into the statues by tiny pores on the surface of the stone.

“‘Milk disappears the same way water reaches the top of a tree through roots,’ said A. K. Sharma, a professor at Lucknow University.

“Indian folklore is replete with tales of miracles, and sociologists said the frenzy over the latest such incident should be viewed through sharp contrasts in education among India's billion-plus people.

“‘Many people in India straddle two different worlds - one world of scientific education and high-tech jobs versus another steeped in their centuries-old beliefs in supernatural phenomena. And they see no contradiction in this,’ said Abhilasha Kumari, a sociologist at Jamia Milia Islamia university in New Delhi.

“The drinking gods craze came after thousands of Muslims flocked to a bay in Bombay late Friday and early Saturday to drink ‘sweet water’ - ordinarily brackish water that was noticeably less salty than usual.

“Scientists said recent heavy rains had lowered the salinity of the water, and officials urged people not to drink from Mahim Bay where the water is reportedly contaminated by raw sewage and industrial waste. Nearly two days later, on Sunday evening, milk was offered to a statue in the town of Bareilly, also in Uttar Pradesh, and the idol absorbed the liquid.

“As the word spread through television reports, crowds swarmed temples in dozens of cities, just as millions did during a similar episode in 1995, when authorities were forced to deploy extra police to control crowds. Some parts of the country also faced a milk shortage.

“At that time, a group of scientists visited a temple in New Delhi and fed a statue milk tinted with dye. The milk was quickly absorbed by the idol, and soon permeated the stone, leaving the statue coated by a colored, milky film.”

According to an Aug 26 bulletin from Sanal Edamaruku and his Rationalist International organization, “India is facing a series of mass ‘miracles’ these days. One by one, they are breaking out like epidemics, throwing changing segments of the population into frenzy. Sanal Edamaruku is leading the greatest rationalist counter campaign that has ever been fought, cutting the heads of the hydra as they appear. The battleground is the Indian television scene, especially the Hindi language channels, where ‘miracles’ are bombing in as ‘breaking news’ from all over the country.

“What is happening? It started 18th August Friday night at Mahim near Mumbai. Young Muslims, after the Friday prayers visiting the Mahim Dargah, burial place of a Muslim saint at the seaside, discovered that the water in the Mahim Creek had turned sweet. The news spread like wild fire and within hours hundreds, soon thousands, of gullible came to see Allah's great miracle. They jumped into the allegedly sweet sea water and started drinking it! A dangerous situation emerged as the water in the Mahim Creek is among India's filthiest and most contaminated waters. 1000 million liters of sewage are flowing every day into the creek and the water is absolutely not potable. But people gulped it in hysterically, fed it even to little babies.

“In the night itself, at 1.30 a.m., Sanal Edamaruku started a non-stop television campaign for reason. He warned people from drinking the dirty water, called upon the authorities to stop the access to the creek, explained the reasons for the change of taste (which occurs during every Monsoon) scientifically. At noon, the tide started to turn. By evening, the hysteric crowds had melted down to a small group of fanatics. The ‘miracle’ that may have caused longtime health damage to thousands of people, was over.

“But the next day, the Hindu temples in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi celebrated their own miracle. The statues of the Hindu gods started drinking milk again as they did in 1995! When the new milk miracle subsided under the weight of Sanal Edamaruku's explanations and demonstrations in the TV channels, it was the turn of the Christian miracle mongers. Virgin Mary started shedding tears in a church in Cochin, Kerala. Soon, the image of the Hindu saint Shirdi Sai Baba (not the curly haired god-man!) appeared in the seepage spots of a multi-storied building wall in Surat (Gujarat). Last night, an olive tree in a monastery in Madhya Pradesh started flowering and two young girls got possessed in Uttar Pradesh.

“In permanent action, Sanal Edamaruku has been debunking the various paranormal claims blow by blow during day and night in more than forty special television programs this week, most of them live, many repeated several times. There may not be many among the millions of TV watchers, who did not see him several times explaining, demonstrating, warning and encouraging to overcome all transcendental temptations.

“So far, we have not been able to keep track with the running TV events and inform our readers in time. Today we can announce a major TV discussion with Sanal Edamaruku about the new miracle wave in India. (Also India's two leading astrologers and a scientist participate in the discussion).”

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Three Cheers For Pat Berger! [Sep. 17th, 2006|10:25 am]
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And another three cheers for OD diarist Deve for directing me to this sweet NPR story about her!

An Atheist Antidote to Religious Fanaticism


(Weekend Edition Sunday, September 10, 2006)


Brought up as a Methodist, Pat Berger, 78, had never been particularly religious.


But for the resident of Manhattan's Hell's kitchen, the attacks of Sept. 11 served as a wake-up call about the dangers of violence in the name of God.


"I really realized that it is all chance, and it is all random," she says. She remembers learning that a woman in her son's apartment building died in the twin towers because she happened to walk into a meeting at the wrong time. "There is no one watching out for anybody," Berger says.


Berger says she'd had a passing knowledge of the history of wars and violence engendered by religious differences: the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition. But the terrorist attacks brought that history into focus.


"And I thought, all of this for some -- you know, the imaginary Harvey, the imaginary rabbit," Berger says. "That is how I started to think of this supposed person who held our fate in his hands. Well, I didn't buy it."


On most Saturdays, Berger can be found with other members of the New York City Atheists at a stand in Columbus Circle, in front of the Time-Warner building. She engages passers-by, hoping to interest them in the group's literature promoting atheist thought. Many seem receptive to Berger's message, though she occasionally gets hassled or lectured.

You can hear what else Pat had to say to NPR by going to their website and clicking on the Listen link.

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ANTItheist.net And The NO God Network [Sep. 15th, 2006|01:57 pm]
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Columbus Atheists Speak Out! [Sep. 15th, 2006|01:51 pm]
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Vashti McCollum (1912-2006) [Sep. 14th, 2006|06:53 pm]
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Vashti McCollum died on August 20. If you’re an American atheist or humanist, she may be one of the most important people you’ve never heard of.

The Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times News Service did a good job summing up her life and significance in a story by Jon Thurber that was published last week.

Here are the key passages (with a few parts underlined for what I hope are obvious reasons):

Vashti Cromwell McCollum, the Illinois housewife whose objection to her son's taking religious training in school led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the separation of church and state in public education, has died. She was 93....

James McCollum, the first of McCollum's three sons, was in fourth grade in a Champaign [Illinois] school when he was required to take religious classes during the normal school day. The classes were held on campus and taught by a former missionary to China and were mainly a Protestant program.

Although his mother and father John, a professor of horticulture at the University of Illinois, resisted the idea at first, they allowed him to attend the religious classes during that school year. James McCollum told The Los Angeles Times on Sunday that he was initially interested in seeing what the classes were all about but then found them boring and silly.

The next year, he decided he didn't want to go on with the religious training, and his parents supported him. His decision was met with ridicule from other students, but primarily from a teacher who criticized him for keeping the class from being 100 percent in compliance with the religious curriculum.

Vashti McCollum went to the superintendent of schools but was told that there was nothing to be done about the requirement.

After gaining the support of a local Unitarian minister and some financial backing from a group of Jewish businessmen in Chicago, she filed suit against the Champaign school board in July 1945. Six months later, a three-judge circuit court panel upheld the instruction. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld their ruling a year later.

But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and on March 9, 1948, the justices delivered an 8-1 decision saying that the religious education classes in Champaign's public schools violated the constitutional provisions for separation of church and state.

Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black stated: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between the church and the state which must be kept high and impregnable.”

While the final decision was in her favor and set historic precedents, the road getting there was not easy for McCollum or her family. “It was traumatic and expensive,” she told The St. Louis Post Dispatch some years ago.

She lost her job as a part-time dance instructor in the physical education department at the University of Illinois. And while her husband had tenure in his university position, which kept him from getting fired, his promotion to full professor was delayed by “10 or 15 years,” James McCollum told the Times.

Threatening phone calls were received at the family home in Champaign. On occasions the house was pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables. In school, young James was taunted by his peers, and was sent by his family to live with his mother's parents in Rochester, N.Y....

According to a press release issued by the American Humanist Association on Aug 24, “McCollum continued on through her life to fight for religious freedom and Humanism. She was elected to the American Humanist Association board of directors in 1952 and served as president of the AHA from 1962 to 1965. She has won numerous awards and recognitions, including the prestigious John Haynes Holmes Award (now the Holmes-Weatherly Award) from the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice and the AHA Distinguished Service Award in 1991. She also wrote eloquently of her 1945 legal battle and the ensuing community assaults and indignities she and her family endured in One Woman’s Fight....


Vashti’s story is a reminder that many of the rights we atheists enjoy today weren’t graciously given to us by Christians out of the goodness of their hearts but were won by people willing to stand up and demand them in the face of intense opposition. We forget this at our peril....

(NOTE TO SELF: The next time someone suggests that the Ten Commandments be posted on a courtroom or classroom wall or chiseled into a block of marble on public grounds, suggest that a portrait or statue of Vashti be put there instead since Christians seem to need to be reminded not to violate the separation of church and state far more than atheists need to be reminded not to kill or steal.)

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Monday School: Why Bart Changed His Mind [Sep. 14th, 2006|06:51 pm]
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Hey, it’s suddenly the first Monday of September! What better time to snag a fresh book bag, don some new clothes, and head back to Monday School? It’s STILL “The Rational Corrective To All That Nonsense They Tried To Teach You Yesterday” now that I’ve polished the floor and cleaned the blackboards for the first time in months - but it’s YOUR responsibility to remember to come to class with a notebook, a pencil, and an open mind.


Now sit up straight and pay attention - or not. It’s your choice. (Just like it’s my choice when it comes time to decide who gets a cookie later. ‘Nuff said.)

Today’s Lesson: Fundamentalists CAN Change Their Minds

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Christians - even fundamentalist Christians - are capable of revising their beliefs for the better. Exposing them to facts and logic is one way we can help them along. Telling ourselves that they can’t change and that sharing facts and logic with them is therefore an utter waste of time is self-defeating and NOT helpful.

Do I have any evidence to back up these claims of mine? Yes.

Exhibit A: Dan Barker. Dan is now an atheist and the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation but that wasn’t always the case. According to the bio on that website, “Dan became a teenage evangelist at age 15.... He received a degree in Religion from Azusa Pacific University and was ordained to the ministry by the Standard Community Church, California, in 1975. He served as associate pastor at a Friend's (Quaker) Church, an Assembly of God, and an independent Charismatic church. Dan was a Protestant missionary in Mexico for a total of two years. Dan maintained a touring musical ministry for 17 years, including eight years of full-time, cross-country evangelism.... Following five years of reading, Dan gradually outgrew his religious beliefs. ‘If I had limited myself to Christian authors, I'd still be a Christian today,’ Dan says.... He announced his atheism publicly in January, 1984.”

Exhibits B-Z+: Edward T. Babinski’s Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. Some 33 former fundies explain how and why they abandoned their old beliefs. About half ended up as atheists or agnostics. You can learn much more about them and this book in a series of four entries I posted back in the spring of 2003. Those entries start here.

And now a new exhibit: Bart Ehrman.

I’ve written about Ehrman before - perhaps most notably here and here.

I’m now reading one of his latest books, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Ehrman details his religious history in his introduction. That history starts off like this: Episcopalian childhood; a “born-again” experience when he was about 14; enrollment at the very conservative Moody Bible Institute, where he majored in Bible theology and completely embraced the idea that the Bible was the inerrant word of gOd. After getting a degree there in three years, he went to Wheaton (Billy Graham’s alma mater) and then Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a very devout Christian (as this history indicates) and his goal was to acquire all the tools he needed to go forth and share the “good news” of Jesus with the rest of the world.

A funny thing happened along the way, though. The more he studied the Bible, the more doubts he came to have.

“There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired - down to its very words,” he writes. “As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later - in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this.”

That’s obviously a big problem. And things only got worse for Ehrman as time went on.

Christian visitors to this diary sometimes tell me that if I’m confused about the Bible it’s because I haven’t taken the time to read it in the original Hebrew and Greek. Well, Ehrman went on to master both languages. It didn’t help. Far from it! And Ehrman recognized that even if such study had helped, there was a fundamental flaw in any system of salvation that required such an undertaking. “If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure time to learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original? What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?”

(NOTE: The problem is even worse than Ehrman indicates if one takes the Bible literally. According to its Tower of Babel story, gOd himself purposely afflicted humanity with a multitude of languages to keep us ignorant and relatively powerless. What sense does it make for this gOd to then attempt to bestow salvation on humanity in a way that this curse of a multitude of languages foils? Does gOd’s right hand not know what his left hand is doing? Is gOd a sadistic deity who once again is in effect hardening Pharaoh’s heart so he can smite him for having a hard heart? Or is it a reflection of the same sort of cruel mindset which prompted the Bible’s authors to quote Jesus himself as saying in Mark 4:11-12 and elsewhere that he speaks in parables in order to confuse people and deny them salvation? Whatever the explanation, it pretty much destroys the idea that the gOd of the Bible is all-good or omni-benevolent.)

The final breaking point for Ehrman came when he was a student at Princeton and he was required to read Mark in the original Greek and then write a paper explaining the meaning of a passage. Ehrman chose Mark 2 and Jesus’s version of the OT story in which David and his men violated OT law in a time of need by eating bread reserved for the priests. The problem is, Jesus gets the story wrong. Ehrman tied himself in knots trying to explain this problem away. His professor wrote in response, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” Bam! “Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened,” Ehrman says.

Suddenly he saw the Bible in a new light. Suddenly he was able to see that when Jesus claims in Mark 4 that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds on earth, Jesus was wrong there, too. And when Mark 14 says that Jesus was crucified the day after Passover and John 19 says that he was crucified the day before, hey - no need to bend over backwards trying to explain away the inexplicable. The Bible is simply wrong.

And of course that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Once one accepts the fact that the Bible can be wrong, hundreds and hundreds of similar contradictions and other errors become obvious.

“In short, my study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigation into the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinking of my understanding of what the Bible is,” Erhman sums things up. “This was a seismic shift for me. Before this - starting with my born-again experience in high school, through my fundamentalist days at Moody, and on through my evangelical days at Wheaton - my faith had been based completely on a certain view of the Bible as the fully inspired, inerrant word of God. Now I no longer saw the Bible that way. The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs.”

Ehrman is just one of the latest in a long line of devout Christian scholars who have approached the Bible with a love of gOd and a thirst for knowledge only to end up in a very different place than they expected. It’s a place that’s often far closer to the atheist point of view than to that of the Christian fundamentalist.

If those fundamentalists know something that Ehrman doesn’t, they need to tell us exactly what it is.

And if they don’t volunteer the information on their own, we need to ask them to produce it and defend it or revise their beliefs accordingly.

I sincerely believe that we hold the winning hand here. All we need is the courage to play it.

(For more details on the cards in that hand, check out my very first Monday School lesson.)

(And *Cookies* to everyone who has read down this far!)

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The Theist Files (2431-2435) [Sep. 6th, 2006|08:18 pm]
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The Theist Files (2431-2435) [Sep. 6th, 2006|08:17 pm]
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Harris & Dennett & Dawkins - Oh My! [Sep. 4th, 2006|12:05 pm]
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The latest issue of Newsweek includes a story that focuses on the atheism of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Although author Jerry Adler approaches their views with what I found to be a generally shallow mentality cloaked in a snide, condescending tone, at least they’re finally getting a bit of the attention they deserve.


Here’s the story itself (along with a few comments of my own):

The New Naysayers

In the midst of religious revival, three scholars argue that atheism is smarter.

By Jerry Adler


Isn’t “naysayer” a pejorative term only slightly better than “wet blanket” and “stick in the mud” and “party pooper”? Why not a title like “Heralds of a New Enlightenment?” instead?


And what religious revival might Newsweek be referring to in its sub-title? I’ve regularly posted articles describing the collapse of Christianity in Western Europe as well as the decline in many American denominations, such as the Lutherans. And I’ve also often cited studies showing that Americans who call themselves “non-religious” have increased sharply since the early ‘90s and represent one the fastest growing groups. Newsweek needs to provide good evidence of a religious revival, not merely assert it. As near as I can tell, it doesn’t.

Sept. 11, 2006 issue - Americans answered the atrocities of September 11, overwhelmingly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual.

Several sources have told me that this turning to faith and religion was extremely short-lived. The latest was The Christian Post, which posted an article entitled Study: Faith in America Unchanged Five Years after 9/11 on Aug 29. Here’s how it opens: “NEW YORK – As the nation comes to the remembrance of the 9/11 tragedy five years ago, a study released today is revealing how Americans have not risen with more spiritual fervor as many Christian leaders had expected.


“Drawing from surveys conducted before the attacks and after, The Barna Group found that the faith of Americans is virtually indistinguishable today compared to pre-attack conditions. Although church attendance spiked on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks, numbers had leveled back to those of pre-attack days in a matter of months and have not changed ever since.


“Half of all Americans said their faith helped them cope with the shock and uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. At the same time, Americans were also less likely to believe God is the perfect, all powerful Creator who rules the world. Data from October 2001 further showed that Americans were less likely to feel a responsibility to share their faith, less willing to reject the notion that good works can earn salvation and more likely to believe that the devil is merely a symbol of evil.


“In the past five years, the proportion of adults who identify themselves as Christians, evangelicals, non-evangelical born again Christians, notional Christians, atheists and agnostics, and non-Christians has not changed. The latest study also revealed that Americans' intensity of commitment to their faith, whether being ‘absolutely committed,’ ‘deeply spiritual’ or not, has remained the same.”


Newsweek’s reporting seems pretty sloppy in comparison....

Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil libertarians. Sam Harris, then a 34-year-old graduate student in neuroscience, had a different reaction. On Sept. 12, he began a book. If, he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion—something that had been going on since long before 2001, of course—then perhaps the problem was religion itself. The book would be called The End of Faith, which to most Americans probably sounds like a lament. To Harris it is something to be encouraged.


This was not a message most Americans wanted to hear, before or after 9/11. Atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6—only 2 percent answered "don't know"—and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll—which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.) "The End of Faith" struggled to find a publisher, and even after Norton agreed to bring it out in 2004, Harris says there were editors who refused to come to meetings with him. But after winning the PEN/Martha Albrand award for nonfiction, the book sold 270,000 copies. Harris's scathing Letter to a Christian Nation will be published this month with a press run of 150,000. Someone is listening, even if he is mostly preaching, one might say, to the unconverted.


This year also saw the publication in February of Breaking the Spell, by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, which asks how and why religions became ubiquitous in human society. The obvious answer—"Because they're true"—is foreclosed, Dennett says, by the fact that they are by and large mutually incompatible. Even to study "religion as a natural phenomenon," the subtitle of Dennett's book, is to deprive it of much of its mystery and power. And next month the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) weighs in with The God Delusion, a book that extends an argument he advanced in the days after 9/11. After hearing once too often that "(t)o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Christianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam."


Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition. (In the spirit of scientific evenhandedness, both would call themselves agnostic, although as Dawkins says, he's agnostic about God the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.) They ask: where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur'an. "Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible," Harris writes, "and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." He asks: How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? How does it advance our understanding of the universe to suppose that it was created by a supernatural being who communicates only through the one-way process of revelation?


These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the "theodicy" problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress.

A “work in progress” even after thousands of years of hard work, I might sardonically emphasize.


And the fact that believers have “well-practiced replies” to our other arguments doesn’t mean that they’re good replies. I wish Newsweek had taken the time to cite one or two specific ones so readers might have the opportunity to weigh their strengths and weaknesses for themselves.

Neither author claims much success in arguing anyone out of a belief in God, but they consider it sufficient reward when they hear from people who were encouraged by their books to give voice to their private doubts.

Yes, well, I’VE argued people out of their belief in gOd and I’d be very surprised if these guys aren’t having some success doing the same even if it’s hard to document. For many of the atheists I’ve met in real life, the works of Carl Sagan had a tremendous impact, yet he never knew it. Newsweek could have done a much better job analyzing and reflecting upon exactly why millions of Americans have rejected theism. If it’s not because of the facts and arguments presented by people like Harris and Dawkins, why is it? Hmmm?

All the same, this is highly inflammatory material. Dawkins acknowledges that many readers will expect, or hope, to see him burning in hell (citing Aquinas as authority for the belief that souls in heaven will get a view of hell for their enjoyment). Harris says he has turned down requests for the rights to translate "The End of Faith" into Arabic or Urdu. "I think it would be a death sentence for any translator," he says. Harris himself—who traveled the world for a dozen years studying Eastern religions and mysticism before returning to finish his undergraduate degree at Stanford—asks that the name of his current university not be publicized.

And are these fears misplaced? If not, what does that tell us about theists?

These authors have no geopolitical strategy to advance; they're interested in the metaphysics of belief, not the politics of the First Amendment. It's the idea of putting trust in God they object to, not the motto on the nickel. This sets them apart from America's best-known atheist activist, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a controversial eccentric who won a landmark lawsuit against mandatory classroom prayers in 1963 and went on to found the group now called American Atheists. When a chaplain came to her hospital room once and asked what he could do for her, she notoriously replied, "Drop dead." Dawkins, an urbane Oxfordian, would regard that as appalling manners. "I have no problem with people wishing me a Happy Christmas," he says, expressing puzzlement over the passions provoked in America by the question of how store clerks greet customers.

Ok, how sad is it that “America’s best-known atheist activist” was murdered 11 years ago and no one as capable of attracting media attention has come along to take up the cause?


And how much longer will news outlets like Newsweek further the myth that she alone got prayers banned from American public school classrooms? As Rob Boston’s Why The Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation Of Church & State explains, “Briefly, the myth goes something like this: Until 1962, prayers occurred in every public school in America. Madalyn Murray O’hair, an atheist, filed a lawsuit and had them all removed. Millions of people in fundamentalist churches all over America believe this story. There is only one problem with this scenario: It isn’t true. As history indicates, several states had already removed school-sponsored devotional exercises, some as early as 1890, long before O’Hair arrived on the scene. Secondly, O’Hair’s case was only one of three cases heard by the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 concerning school prayer” (p. 122).


And when will news outlets like Newsweek take the time to point out that many religious leaders - including Martin Luther King, Jr. - agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision that banned teacher-led prayer in the schools?


And why rope Dawkins into the War on Christmas controversy that’s largely a fiction created and promoted by theists? Why not question the Christians behind this “war” rather than leave the impression that “atheist eccentrics” are somehow responsible?

But if the arguments of Dawkins and Harris are familiar, they also bring to bear new scientific evidence on the issue. Evolution isn't necessarily incompatible with faith, even with evangelical Christianity. Several new books—Evolution and Christian Faith by the Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden and The Language of God by geneticist Francis Collins—uphold both.

Well, they try to uphold both. Do they succeed? Not that I can see. How can they? Nature and evolution are “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel” in the words of Charles Darwin; Christians define gOd as the all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good creator of everything (including nature and evolution). There’s an irreconcilable contradiction here, and if Christians (and Newsweek reporters) can’t see it, that says a lot more about them than it does about atheists like Dawkins.

But to skeptics like Dawkins—and to Biblical literalists on the other side—Darwin appears to rob God of credit for his crowning achievement, which is us. In particular, evolutionary psychologists believe they are closing in on one of the remaining mysteries of life, the universal "moral law" that underlies our intuitive notions of good and evil. Why do we recognize that acts such as murder are wrong? To Collins, it's evidence of God's handiwork—the very perception that led him to become a Christian.


But Dawkins [among many, many others] attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests—say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness—but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.


But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

Yes, well, Newsweek’s Jerry Adler seems to have spent far too little time familiarizing himself with the tenets and findings of modern psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology. What else might explain Adler’s naive emphasis on talking to theists who obviously spout contradictory nonsense they simply cannot support with evidence? Instead of leaving readers with the impression that they ought to take what theists say at face value, he would have been much better off recognizing that there is often very little overlap between what people say, what they believe, and what the truth happens to be. Has he never heard of Freud? Or cogitive illusions??

It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are attacks on religious "moderates" as well—indeed, the very idea of moderation. The West is not at war with "terrorism," Harris asserts in "The End of Faith"; it is at war with Islam, a religion whose holy book, "on almost every page ... prepares the ground for religious conflict." Christian fundamentalists, he says, have a better handle on the problem than moderates: "They know what it's like to really believe that their holy book is the word of God, and there's a paradise you can get to if you die in the right circumstances. They're not left wondering what is the 'real' cause of terrorism." As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading.

Maybe because a non-literal reading produces even worse problems? Like allowing the Bible to mean whatever a reader wants it to mean?

He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath? Obviously our culture no longer believes in that, he adds, so why not agree that science has made it equally unnecessary to invoke God to explain the Sun, or the weather, or your own existence?


Even agnostic moderates get raked over—like the late Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist who attempted to broker a truce between science and religion in his controversial 1999 book "Rocks of Ages." Gould proposed that science and religion retreat to separate realms, the former concerned with empirical questions about the way the universe works, while the latter pursues ultimate meaning and ethical precepts. But, Dawkins asks, unless the Bible is right in its historical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm? And can science really abjure any interest in the claims of religion? Did Jesus come back from the dead, or didn't he? If so, how did God make it happen? Collins says he is satisfied with the answer that the Resurrection is a miracle, permanently beyond our understanding. That Collins can hold that belief, while simultaneously working at the very frontiers of science as the head of the Human Genome Project, is what amazes Harris.

What amazes me is that Gould could make his suggestion that scientists ought to limit themselves to empirical questions while letting theologians and others decide how to use the power and technology they unleash. Scientists did that in WWII and what did our great “moral” leaders give us? The Holocaust and Hiroshima.


How can we not apply the scientific method to moral questions? How can we idly sit by and allow people like Collins to not only believe in absurdities like Jesus’s rising from the dead 2000 years ago but use that absurdity as a basis for telling the rest of us how we ought to live today?

Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a "movement." American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than $1 million.

But if one takes seriously Newsweek’s own figures indicating that 6% of Americans are atheists, that’s some 18 million people. And the 16% or so of Americans who call themselves non-religious works out to about 48 million people. Only Catholics and Baptists are more numerous. Focusing on American Atheists rather misses the point.

On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.

Ack! Ack! Ack! Is Porco a Unitarian or what??


How about if we just grow up and learn to get along without fuzzy thinking and goofy rituals instead?

Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world—for "the people who want to know that they're going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.

HA! As if people haven’t gotten hurt much more badly (and for a much longer period of time) by the competition between religions and the need to choose the “right” one!


Instead of subtly implying that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are in effect pouring gasoline on a fire, Newsweek might have been better off suggesting that they’re the ones trying to douse the flames of religious fanaticism with buckets of cold facts and logic. After all, when was the last time you’ve heard of scientists going to war to settle a disagreement in physics or chemistry - or saying that a colleague deserves death and ever-lasting punishment for being wrong?

I am reminded of a quote attributed to French philosopher Denis Diderot: “Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.’ This stranger is a theologian.”


Apparently Newsweek is on the side of that theologian. How sad....


I hope this article manages to do some good regardless.

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The Theist Files (2426-2430) [Sep. 3rd, 2006|06:14 am]
atheist under ur bed

2426) Shiite Mob Torches Kurdish Party Office After Cleric Criticized (Aug 11) - According to WorldWide Religious News and the Associated Press, “About 50 gunmen in the northern city of Kut stormed the office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by President Jalal Talabani, beat up the guards and set the building on fire, said police Lt. Othman al-Lami. The attackers accused the party's official newspaper of criticizing Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yacoubi.

“The raid in Kut was another demonstration of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divisions that have exploded into violence, mostly between Shiite and Sunni Arabs. It came a day after a suicide bomber killed 35 people in front of Iraq's most sacred Shiite shrine, the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.

“Pamphlets distributed by the attackers in Kut said the Kurdish newspaper accused al-Yacoubi of trying to ‘ignite a war between the Arab Shiites and Kurds’ by claiming that Kurds are targeting other ethnic groups. The largely Sunni Kurds are a separate, non-Arab ethnic group....

“A Sunni extremist group, Jamaat Jund al-Sahaba or Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions, claimed responsibility for Thursday's bombing of the shrine.

“In a statement posted on an Islamist Web site, the group warned that ‘our swords are capable of reaching deep in your regions’ and accused Shiites of killing Sunnis....

“Iraq's rising sectarian and communal violence is claiming about 1,000 lives every month in the Baghdad area alone, raising fears of all-out civil war.”...

2427) Teachers Allege Pulpit Power Trip As Conflict With Pastor Results In Cancelled School Year (Aug 11) - According to Gallatin, Tennessee’s News Examiner newspaper, “The senior pastor’s desire to control his church’s school led to a fallout with staff and the eventual cancellation of the school year at College Heights Christian Academy, former teachers said Thursday.

“Pastor Jeff LaBorg and a supportive pastoral council at College Heights Baptist Church canceled the school year Monday.

“Church leaders explained and defended their decision during a town-hall style meeting Wednesday night at College Heights.

“At a May 25 school meeting, LaBorg told faculty members ‘the honeymoon is over,’ and if they wouldn’t respect his authority in ‘full submission,’ they were invited to ‘pack up their Bibles’ and ‘resign today,’ according to former College Heights teachers, Jeanne Wood and Cloris Denney.

“The following month, 25 faculty members exercised that option, including Wood and Denney....

“The teachers say LaBorg continued scolding them at the May 25 meeting: ‘Remember that God opened up the ground to swallow murmurers, and I will pray for God to do that to those who murmur. And I have the power to do that.’

“Denney and Wood, both broken-hearted, said they didn’t feel they could continue teaching under LaBorg’s leadership.

“‘College Heights was a great and wonderful place, and LaBorg destroyed it,’ Denney said in an interview with The News Examiner.

“Wood said she was concerned with the closure’s effect on students.

‘This was our ministry,’ she said. ‘It breaks my heart to see how these children have been hurt.’

“The mass teacher resignation at College Heights prompted many parents — including LaBorg — to place their children in different schools, which dropped enrollment to 150 for the expected school year....

“At a church service Wednesday night, a visibly distraught LaBorg said he made the decision to relocate his children, prior to closing College Heights, because he felt it was in his children’s best interest....

“The school cancellation is a culmination of problems which started brewing between the faculty and the pastor, after teachers started asking questions about the church’s supposed purchase of 60 acres to be used for the school’s relocation.

“In October, LaBorg told the staff that the church had purchased 60 acres through their fund-raising efforts. School staff and families connected to the school threw a party to celebrate the event, but their celebration was for naught, Wood said.

“No land was ever purchased, despite what was announced to the congregation and school in College Heights’ March newsletter, which stated, ‘We have purchased 60 acres to begin the relocation process!’”...

2428) Pastor Charged With Raping Adopted Daughter Kept Videotapes Of Her Naked (Aug 11) - According to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper and the SAPA news agency, “An Eastern Cape pastor, charged with having raped his adoptive daughter, kept videotapes showing the alleged victim naked in a bath, The Herald Online reported on Friday.

“His other two daughters told the Port Elizabeth High Court on Thursday they discovered the tapes in the pastor's study. They also testified that they found two holes in the ceiling of their bathroom, as well as two video cameras in the ceiling. They followed the wires to their father's study, where they came across the videotapes.

“One of the daughters said they watched one of the videos, and saw images of their young adoptive sister naked in the bath. They decided to tell their mother about it, but not the sister. After confronting their 54-year-old father about the videotapes, a meeting of the family decided to ‘close the book’ on the matter on condition that he went for psychiatric help....

“The Summerstand pastor, who is in custody, is charged with the rape, between 2003 and 2005, of his adopted child while she was between the ages of 15 and 17. He is also accused of indecent assault involving sodomy and the use of sex toys on the teenager, as well as crimen injuria for spying on the teenager and his own daughters in the bath.

“The pastor was arrested on May 18 last year after the adopted daughter reported the alleged abuse to her boyfriend, who reported it to the police.

“He pleaded not guilty to rape and other charges, but guilty to incest.”

2429) 15,000 Protestants March In Northern Ireland After Night Of Catholic Rioting (Aug 12) - According to Canada’s CNEWS website and the Associated Press, “LONDONDERRY: About 15,000 Protestants paraded through this predominantly Roman Catholic city Saturday following a night of Catholic rioting.

“The parade ended without any clashes between rival mobs.

“Northern Ireland police said rioters in the Bogside, the major Catholic district beside central Londonderry, hijacked and burned at least two cars and threw about 50 Molotov cocktails at police, who were wearing flame-retardant suits, body armour and helmets. Nobody was reported injured.

“The trouble came hours before Saturday's parade in Londonderry by the Apprentice Boys, the city's major Protestant fraternal group. Their annual march through Londonderry's central square and atop its 17th-century walls, which overlook the Catholic Bogside, has inspired violent clashes in the past.

“On Saturday, about 700 police officers kept the Protestant paraders - about 10,000 Apprentice Boys and about 5,000 members of approximately 130 accompanying bands - apart from Bogside Catholics opposed to the march.

“On opposite sides of the central square, police erected high tarpaulin screens to prevent Catholic protesters from being able to see the drum-thumping procession, or for Protestant celebrants to be able to see the Catholic crowd.

“Police said the screens appeared to have deterred direct conflicts between rival groups, who in past years have traded salvos of bricks, bottles and other objects across the square.

“The Apprentice Boys' annual march commemorates the city's survival during a 1689 siege by forces loyal to the deposed Catholic king of England, James II. The group is named in honour of 13 teenage apprentices, all Protestants, who bolted the city gates in front of the advancing Catholic forces at the start of the 105-day siege.”

2430) Evangelicals Urge Kenya’s National Museum To Hide Evidence Of Evolution (Aug 12) - According to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, “Powerful evangelical churches are pressing Kenya's national museum to sideline its world-famous collection of hominid bones pointing to man's evolution from ape to human.

“Leaders of the country's six-million-strong Pentecostal congregation want Dr Richard Leakey's ground-breaking finds relegated to a back room instead of being given their usual prime billing.

“The collection includes the most complete skeleton yet found of Homo erectus, the 1.7 million-year-old Turkana Boy unearthed by Dr Leakey's team in 1984 at Nariokotome, near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

“The museum also holds bones from several specimens of Australopithecus anamensis, believed to be the first hominid to walk upright, four million years ago. Together the artefacts amount to the clearest record yet discovered of the origins of Homo sapiens.

“They have cemented the global reputation of Kenya's Great Rift Valley as the cradle of mankind, and draw in tourists and locals to the museum's sprawling compound on a hill above Nairobi.

“Permanent exhibitions cover Kenya's cultural and scientific history from pre-history to independence. A snake park was added in the early 1960s.

“As part of an ongoing expansion funded by the EU, the National Museums of Kenya, which manages the country's cultural sites, is conducting a survey to determine what visitors to its Nairobi headquarters most want to see.

“Church leaders aim to hijack that process. ‘The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact,’ said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, the head of Christ is the Answer Ministries, the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya. ‘Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory.’

“Bishop Adoyo said all the country's churches would unite to force the museum to change its focus when it reopens after 18 months of renovations in June next year. ‘We will write to them, we will call them, we will make sure our people know about this and we will see what we can do to make our voice known,’ he said.

“Dr Leakey said the churches' plans were ‘the most outrageous comments I have ever heard’.

“He told The Daily Telegraph: ‘The National Museums of Kenya should be extremely strong in presenting a very forceful case for the evolutionary theory of the origins of mankind. The collection it holds is one of Kenya's very few global claims to fame and it must be forthright in defending its right to be at the forefront of this branch of science.’

“Calling the Pentecostal church fundamentalists, Dr Leakey added: ‘Their theories are far, far from the mainstream on this. They cannot be allowed to meddle with what is the world's leading collection of these types of fossils.’

“The museum said it was in a ‘tricky situation’ as it tried to redesign its exhibition space to accommodate the expectations of all its visitors.

“‘We have a responsibility to present all our artefacts in the best way that we can so that everyone who sees them can gain a full understanding of their significance,’ said Ali Chege, public relations manager for the National Museums of Kenya. ‘But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists or researchers on the other, saying the opposite.’”

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