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God is Dead. And Imaginary. And Irrelevant.

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Sunday Sermonette: Happy New Year [01 Jan 2017|09:51am]

Here’s a poem by the brilliant Digital Cuttlefish, who can be found over in the Freethought Blogs. He called it,

Arguing God in the New York Times

We can’t disprove a God, you know,

Cos God can’t be defined.
The God you claim cannot exist
Exists within my mind

My God cannot be fathomed, and
Will never be undone
Each heart perceives Him differently
But God is only One.

We disagree on details, like
His numbers, or His name,
But clearly, all believers know,
Their Gods are all the same

(What’s more, divine diversity
Is clearly heaven-sent:
Whatever God you just disproved
Is not the one I meant!)

A Godly game of whack-a-mole;
Forever un-disproved;
Each time you bring the hammer down
Too late! Cos God just moved!

A question, though, occurs to me—
I find it rather odd—
Why label this cacophony
“A shared belief in God”?

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Sunday Sermonette: The Baby Must Die! [25 Dec 2016|06:38am]

One of the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s best books was Hogfather. The 20th book of his sweeping Discworld series, It’s the story of an annual winter festival remarkably like our own. Pratchett reminds us on the first page, “But it was much earlier even than that when people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood.

The very oldest stories about Solstice holidays are always to do with blood. Something, or somebody, will leave his blood on the snow in propitiation to the sun god. Something, or somebody, has got to die so that life will return to the dead and frozen earth.

We’ve become more civilized and sophisticated. In place of slaughtering a bull or strangling some unfortunate and unloved member of the tribe, we use red and green colors to symbolize death and rebirth. We make up elaborate stories for children about a magical man from the North Pole who rewards good children with presents. (At least the children of more well-off families. Santa seems to conflate poverty with naughtiness.)

And we tell the story of the birth of a child in a manger 2000 years ago, visited by shepherds and magi from the mystic orient, heralded by angels and a magical star.

The important thing about Jesus isn’t that he was born, or the irregular nature of his conception. The important thing for Christians is that roughly three decades after that birth, he was tortured to death to propitiate a bloodthirsty deity. Just like the stories that went before.

The very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood.

Pratchett didn’t believe in gods, but he did believe in people, especially in their endless search for meaning. He puts his most profound words into the mouth of Death, who always speaks in capital letters. This conversation is between Death and his granddaughter, the skeptical and rational Susan.

“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"


"So we can believe the big ones?"


"They're not the same at all!"


"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"


Children can’t really distinguish between magic and reality until age 6 or 7 - about the time they figure out the truth about Santa Claus. But the holiday time is still fun and the stories are still meaningful even when you no longer believe they are literally true. You don’t have to be a child to enjoy Christmas.

There may never be peace over all the earth, but there’s peace where we live, and it’s pleasant to simply enjoy it. I’ve no idea if a babe was born in a manger two millennia ago, but there was a babe born in the night who may well save the world. It doesn’t take a grisly sacrifice to appreciate love, contentment, and the knowledge that all winters melt eventually into spring.

Happy holidays to all. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Yule, and Happy Hogswatch!
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Sunday Sermonette: Be Our Guest! [18 Dec 2016|08:03am]

It is hard to be a Christian. Those who follow the Gospel are the most oppressed people on earth. They are persecuted, scorned, and insulted just as their Lord was, and they know that someday an ignominious cross awaits them. That day draws ever closer.

Last week, Christianity suffered its greatest defeat since the Fall of Constantinople. It didn’t make the front pages - what do you expect of the atheist liberal media - but it was right there in the Religion section, assuming your godless newspaper still even has one. It wasn’t the War on Christmas. Bill O’Reilly declared victory in that struggle earlier this holiday season. No, this is an attack on the fundamental pillar of faith itself: the Holy Bible.

Two lines of the vast Marriott Hotel organization will no longer place Gideon Bibles in their nightstands.

Marriott used to be such a good Christian (OK, Mormon) company. JW Marriott started out with a root beer stand; his son Bill commanded a hotel and motel empire. Since the early days of chain hotels and motels, traveling salesmen were the most faithful customers. From the turn of the twentieth century, Gideons International. a Christian evangelical group, has tried to meet the perceived spiritual needs of men far from home by placing a Bible within easy reach. The Gideons used to distribute New Testaments to school kids. And everyone has seen their Bibles in hotel rooms.

Like complementary shampoo, Scripture was just another service. As recently as twenty years ago, Anne Curtis, communications director for Choice Hotels in Silver Spring, Maryland (a Marriott brand), said tradition has created an innate demand for the Bible in its 3,000 U.S. hotels.

"People check into a hotel and expect to find a Bible, and not just a Bible but a Gideon Bible," Curtis said. "We are in the business of providing rooms; the Bible is a nice extra."

But the Marriott family no longer runs the chain. The CEO is now Arne Sorenson, a registered Democrat who favors LGBT civil rights and openly opposed North Carolina’s disastrous transgender bathroom bill. And now he’s taking the Bibles out of bedside table.

In fact, Sorenson, child of Christian missionaries, is a Christian of the old-fashioned sort, the kind who paid attention when Jesus warned about public displays of piety. It’s been getting harder to find a hotel room that has any holy scripture in the nightstand. They used to be universal - Bibles, Books of Mormon in the Marriott chain, the Teachings of the Buddha in the Nikko chain, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in places where Christian Science had influence, even a Scientology tract by L. Ron Hubbard. Now you can’t find a religious book in more than half of American hotels and motels.

It’s not a sneaky plot to secularize America. The vast majority of religious texts are never touched. Why would you bother? If a guest wanted the Bible, or the Buddha, or the Bhagavad-Gita, they’re as far away as the smart phone in their pocket or the tablet in their carry-on luggage.

Five years ago, the Marriott chain eliminated adult movies from its in-room service offerings. Religious groups tried to take credit, but Marriott made it clear that the decision was based on economics and technology. More guests access adult content on their mobile devices rather than pay for premium adult channels.

The things we now expect in a hotel is quiet, a comfortable bed, and good WiFi. If we need religion or porn, we all know where to find it.
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Sunday Sermonette: Io, Saturnalia! [11 Dec 2016|11:59am]

It’s a very busy weekend, and I just don’t have the time to compose a Sermonette. Here’s an oldie but goodie I’ve dusted off and tuned up a bit.

Io Saturnalia, citizen!

In a few short days, the Northern Hemisphere will be at its furthest angle from the sun. We know this because of a Greek named Eratosthenes who lived long ago. The Greeks themselves say it was from somebody from even further back: Pythagorus or Aristotle. Their ideas about how they ought to govern themselves are ridiculous, but I'll say this for them, they're an educated people. 

Everybody in the Empire has a holiday to mark the Winter Solstice. The barbarians in Trans-Alpine Gaul believe that the sun is going away, and so they encourage it to come back by lighting bonfires and holding great feasts with much singing and drinking and wenching. I talked to one barbarian who told me they didn't really believe the sun would go out, but it was a fine excuse for a good party. Barbarians aren't stupid, you know. The cider that was put by in October has developed into a pretty decent tipple, and there are other potent beverages as well. Animals that they don’t want to keep through the winter are slaughtered and smoked, salted, dried, or roasted. The offal is minced for sausages, puddings, and pies. The deep midwinter is coming, and not everyone will make it through to spring. What better reason for a feast do you want?

Our brave soldiers have their own big feast at this time. They say it's to celebrate some god from Persia, a good warrior god who is probably just another guise of Apollo. A centurion told me that the Persians had a crazy old prophet named Zoroaster who preached there were two forces in the cosmos: light and darkness, good and evil. The light was the light of some god named Ahura Mazda and the darkness was a demon named Ahriman, and the two forever contend for dominance. But that's all theology. The important thing is that the sun is the life-giver, as virile as a bull, and represented by a god called Mithra. Mithra was born from a virgin, said the centurion. Those who are baptized in the blood of a bull received special blessings, and there's plenty of roast meat and wine at the festival of the Unconquerable Sun.

Those aren’t the real Roman holidays, though. The real holiday, as we all know, is dedicated to the god Saturn. There is a sacrifice to the god at his temple and a great public feast. We give gifts to each other, especially to the children. The Divine Augustus liked it so well he extended the holiday to a whole week. Gambling is legal, the songs and the wine flow in rivers, and the girls…  There will be many a swelling belly come spring, I can tell you. Ah, it is truly the greatest of festivals. The celebrations of the barbarians are but pale imitations.

But now I hear of a cult of Jews and slaves who are trying to take Saturn out of Saturnalia. They don't believe in the good Roman gods like Apollo or Augustus or even that Thunderer from the northern provinces. They refuse to offer proper sacrifice to Jove and the emperor and the gods who protect the City. They say there’s only one god, except that he had a terrorist son who we executed for rabble-rousing. They're atheists, that’s what they are. Why, only yesterday I was walking in the Forum, and what did I hear some filthy little fish-sauce merchant say? Not a proper seasonal greeting like "Io, Saturnalia!"  No, it was “Merry Christmas." 

Look, this is a Roman nation, and we worship Roman gods. If the Christian atheists don't want to celebrate Saturnalia, let them exile themselves back to the Provinces where they came from.
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Sunday Sermonette: It Was Never a White Christmas [04 Dec 2016|09:29am]

The first volley of the American War on Christmas was fired not far from where I'm sitting. In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed:

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.  (Since spelling was optional in the 17th century, this is edited for readability.)

We'll have no "Merry Christmas" here, declared the Puritans. It's a work day like any other.

There’s no mention of Christmas in the Bible. Sure, two Gospels have a birth narrative, but there’s no description of any sort of feast or celebration to mark the event. That idea came from the pagans and the papists.

In 1681, following the liberalization of religion in Britain under King James II, the Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, Sir Edmund Andros, lifted the ban on Christmas. Puritan preacher Samuel Seward sourly noted in his diary that mere secular authority couldn’t force him to celebrate Christmas.

Carts came to town and Shops open as is usual. Some, somehow, observe the day; but are vexed, I believe, that the Body of the People profane it, - and, blessed be God! no Authority yet to compell them to keep it.

But only two years later, the War on Christmas was declared lost by the Reverend Increase Mather (he of Salem Witch Trial fame). People were celebrating, a thoroughly un-Christian thing to do.

The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth …

To be sure, Christmas was a time of riotous excess. Gangs of men and boys went “wassailing,” which involved banging on doors demanding alcoholic beverages, fueling further disorder. You can still hear traces of it in the old carols. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that Christmas became a family holiday, with adults giving presents to children rather than carousing in the streets. This was due in no small part to the most popular poem in American literature, A Visit From Saint Nicholas, written by Clement Moore in 1823. Moore invented the version of Santa Claus we still know. Illustrator Thomas Nast drew upon Moore’s poem to give us the indelible image of Santa - a jolly fat man with a twinkle in his eye, a pipe, and a bagful of toys for children.

According to Pat Robertson, it is this happy family time that the grinchy atheists are trying to destroy.


It's utter bullshit, of course, as is all of the ginned-up "War on Christmas" malarky. We'll see protest buttons to "Remember the Reason for the Season!" (pro tip: it's axial tilt) and hear from Fox News how some heartless atheist has sued to keep a municipal government from erecting blatantly religious displays in front of Town Hall. And we'll hear more from preachers complaining that their particular form of holiday greeting is not being given enough public lip-service, which might annoy Bruce Banner God. You don’t want to make him angry.

Christmas is entirely manufactured. Everything about it is based on myth and folk-tale, from the fictional Gospel stories about a man and his pregnant wife being compelled to travel to the village of an ancestor who’d been dead for a thousand years to answer a world-wide census that Caesar Augustus never decreed during the time when Herod the Great (died in 4 B.C.) was king and Quirinius was governor of Syria (6 A.D. - 12 A.D.). I won’t even get into the trip into Egypt to avoid the mass infanticide which no one but the author of Matthew records.

The latest outrage in the War on Christmas occurred in Bloomington, Minnesota. The Mall of America hired an African-American Santa this year. Newly emboldened by the Trump election, white supremacists are incensed at the suggestion that a mythical character based on a Turkish bishop and intended to celebrate the birth of a swarthy Middle-Eastern Jew isn’t white.

By the way, the holiday favorite “White Christmas” was written by a Russian Jewish refugee fleeing the Tsar’s pogroms.

Merry Christmyth to all!
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Sunday Sermonette: To Be or Not To Be [27 Nov 2016|09:39am]

Atheists are not the most popular people. To the religious, we’re fools (it says so in the Psalms - twice!) who push God off his throne so that we may supplant him. We lack morals and deny God so that we can sin without let or hindrance. Even the moderate accuse us of arrogance, though we’re not the ones making claims to be besties with the Creator of Universes. By considering only natural evidence, we are called closed-minded to the possibility of undefined supernatural evidence. Let’s face it, they don’t think we’re very nice people.

But according to a study published last year in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal, the real reason atheists are unpopular is that we remind them of their impending deaths.

Humans have the unique (so far as we know) ability to comprehend and anticipate our own mortality. There will come a day when we will cease to be, when everything we ever were or hoped to be will vanish save in the memory of our friends and loved ones, who will themselves die not long thereafter. This prospect of utter annihilation terrifies most people - it’s called Existential Dread. As a race, we have created cultural myths that reassure us that we are valued and important beings living in an ordered and meaningful universe. Some of these myths involve us being reborn into another plane of existence, or another life, where we would life forever. The afterlife must be wonderful, because so few people ever come back to complain.

A team of researchers assembled 236 American college students, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews, as well as 34 self-proclaimed atheists. Two groups were formed. The first were asked to write down, as specifically as they could, what they think would happen to them physically when they die, and describe the emotions the thought of death aroused in them. The second group were given a similar task, but instead of death they were asked to consider extreme pain.

After a brief distraction, all were asked to rate on a 1-100 scale how they felt about atheists or Quakers, how trustworthy they thought each group was, and whether they’d allow a member of either to marry into their family.

Atheists were viewed more negatively than Quakers, but the negative reaction was more pronounced among people who had written about their own deaths.

The second experiment involved 174 students. Two thirds were asked to write how they felt about dying or extreme pain, the remaining third were asked to write down, as specifically as they could, what atheism meant to them. They were then given a test to determine whether they had mortality on their minds with a word completion test, where the word fragments could be either death-related or neutral. COFF** could be completed as COFFIN or COFFEE, e.g.

Those who had been considering their own deaths were more likely to think of mortality-related words than those who had written about pain. Oddly, the third of the group that had written about atheism were also primed to come up with death-related words.

Atheism = death, apparently. Our very existence raises doubt about the comforting belief in everlasting life.

I remember a similar study on homophobia back in the Seventies. It found that gay people were frightening in part because they weren’t seeking vicarious immortality by having children. It’s interesting that as lesbians and gays have become mainstream, marrying and either having or adopting children, they have become much more accepted in the broader society.

Sadly, the only way atheists will become more accepted is if our comforting religious myths lose their appeal. I’ll probably be long dead before that happens.
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Sunday Sermonette: Happy Holidays [20 Nov 2016|07:38am]

We spent Election Night in the home of a dear friend. She’s transgender, liberal, a lawyer, and an excellent hostess. She made a vegetarian lasagna and we brought some snacks. After dinner we settled down to watch the returns come in.

As it grew later and states we thought were would quickly turn blue stayed resolutely “too close to call” or worse, our spirits sank and the light veggie lasagna weighed heavily in the pits of our stomachs. How could we have been so wrong?

I dealt with it by reassuring myself that I lived in a liberal blue state. No matter what happens to ObamaCare, we will still have RomneyCare - it’s been the law in Massachusetts for over ten years. We’ll still have marriage equality - that’s been the law for over 12 years. We live in one of the more liberal enclaves.

We had choir practice on Wednesday night. Getting together with a couple dozen friends to sing always makes me feel better. A couple days later, a friend lit a fire in her back yard pit and invited a bunch of us over to sing old folk songs. We had a couple guitars, a mandolin, and a ukulele between us, some great kale soup, and Tom Paxton’s “Lament for a Lost Election.” It’s pretty simple, you may have heard it. Sing along with me now: “Shit!”

I began to think that we might get through the next four years.

But I was quickly reminded that I’m an financially comfortable old white cis male in a heterosexual marriage. I’m always wearing my big invisible cloak of privilege. I learned that a few of my LGBT friends have already been harassed, right here on the Cape, in what we like to call the big city of Hyannis. Our transgender neighbor who made the lasagna was followed around Home Depot by a couple of unpleasant people making unpleasant comments. The Unindicted Co-Conspirator’s old boss, one of the top lawyers in the country and a dignified Asian-American gentleman, was hassled in a gas station near Boston.

If the newly-emboldened deplorables, the racists and homophobes and xenophobes and misogynists, the so-called “Alt-Right” white supremacists, feel they can vent their hate with impunity here in liberal Massachusetts, what must it be like in redder states? If a wealthy and powerful older man can be the target, what hope do the kids have? At times, this feels like a foreign country, and not one of the nicer ones.

This was the first post-factual election. Facebook and Twitter provided a megaphone for distortions, slander, and outright lies. A truly appalling percentage of what came out of the winning candidate’s mouth or Twitter feed, or spoken by his surrogates, was demonstrably false. By the time you managed to fact-check, assuming you were one of the minority who did, people had moved on to the next outrage.

Many of us atheists know from personal experience how easy it is to be fooled, and how easily we fool ourselves. We know the first casualty is trust in objective facts. We were taught that they were less important than relying on an invisible and ill-defined higher Truth. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding,” as it says in Proverbs 3:5. Without facts, we cannot be free. If we accept things as True rather than confirming they are in fact true, then there is no basis to criticize those in power, because Higher Truth always seems to be on their side. “If nothing is true,” wrote Professor Tom Snyder of Yale, “then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

It’s going to be a tough four years. For some of us, it’s going to be a tough four days, as we face the prospect of Thanksgiving dinner with triumphal family members steeped the resentful conspiracy theories of Breitbart and Fox. Arguing with relatives is not necessarily speaking truth to power. We’re all going to need kindness to get through this. We all have more that unites us, no matter what the divisive demagogues say.

Although it’s a crass commercial advertisement, I cannot help but enjoy the sentiment of the following.

Happy holidays!
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Sunday Sermonette: Now Boarding [13 Nov 2016|09:06am]

Sooner or later, any conversation about religion comes down to faith. Faith is a virtue. Without faith, it is impossible to be saved. Church leaders and saints are praised for their great and unshakeable faith. The apostle who required proof is disparaged as “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus told him, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

I was a believer for decades. I had faith in God. I prayed to him, joined my fellow believers in worshipping him, taught about him, and gave money to support his church. Doubt? Sure, I had doubts just like everyone else, but I was taught to believe from birth, and taught the mental control to derail any train of thought bound for Infidel Station. Besides, there were all these other believers around to lend me their strength. The Nicene Creed begins with “WE believe in one God,” not “I believe.” Faith is sustained in community.

What exactly is meant by “faith”? Do non-believers have faith in science? Is faith the same as trust? Do you believe in love? (Cue autotuned Cher.)

This is where we get into equivocation: playing games with the meanings of words. Science is not a static thing, it is a method by which knowledge is organized in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the natural world. It requires no faith in gravity to see that every time I drop something, it falls to the ground. One testable step at a time, scientists have built on that observable fact to explain and predict the movement of galaxies. The practice of science is the very antithesis of taking things on faith.

Faith is not trust, because trust is usually justified by experience. If you received an email from a person claiming to be the widow of the late Nigerian Finance Minister, asking your help to commit international bank fraud, would you trust it? Of course not. People who do are pitied as incompetent to manage their own affairs. Trust without experience is seldom given for anything important. “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first,” goes the old Arab saying.

I have faith that my wife loves me. Again, this is not the same sort of faith. I see it in her face, and experience it in her acts. If you want to be clinical, love can be detected in our internal neurochemistry.

What exactly is meant by “faith”? Simply this: Faith is believing in something without proof. Mark Twain may have said it best. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Is there any other area of life in which belief without proof is considered a good, sensible, or praiseworthy thing? Any at all? “I believe the water in this quarry is deep, therefore I will perform an amazing high dive,” says the future paraplegic. “I believe this warm egg salad that’s been sitting in the sun all day is perfectly wholesome,” says the person who’ll be spending the next couple days in the bathroom. “I believe the smiling guy who promises a 50 percent annual return, so I’m investing my life savings,” says the incipient pauper. “I believe Trump will be defeated by an overwhelming majority,” said a whole bunch of us last Tuesday.

We have words for people who believe things without proof. Sucker. Dupe. Gullible fool. Except when the faithful start talking about God. But only their God. Zeus does not exist, he was a myth. Ba’al does not exist, he was a legend. Thor does not exist, except in comic books. But my God is an awesome God who reigns forever.

Why? Because we believe, that’s why. That’s enough.

It’s not enough, and believers know it better than anyone. Asserting that a proposition must be accepted without reason is simply intellectual bankruptcy. So believers don’t think about it. We tell ourselves that it’s not wrong to doubt - after all, Thomas doubted, and he was an apostle - but it’s a sin to dwell upon it to the point of unbelief. We sing louder, pray more fervently, and join the rest of the congregation in Not Rocking the Boat.

No one reading this is going to say, “Ah, now I understand. I have been wrong to accept things without proof. Maybe there is no God.” There is no blinding light on the road to Damascus for atheists. Reasoned argument and scientific facts can be - and are - presented every day, and yet most people still claim faith in a God. But every now and then, a question gets through. A train of thought begins. It might not make it all the way to Atheism Junction, but it gets further than before, clearing the tracks for another question, and another.

So here’s a question: If someone you trusted told you that a soldier killed in Afghanistan and buried in Arlington National Cemetery rose from the dead, would you have faith? Or would you, like Thomas, demand proof? Was Thomas wrong to insist on evidence? Why or why not?

All aboard!
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Sunday Sermonette: Voting and Vice [06 Nov 2016|06:15am]

The Roman Catholic Church has been a powerful political bloc in this country for decades. Cardinals and archbishops are often considered kingmakers. Just look at the Al Smith Dinner in New York, or the annual Red Mass that begins the Supreme Court session. The Catholic Church does not think highly of the idea of a wall of separation between church and state.

Here in Massachusetts, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has contributed almost a million dollars to defeat a ballot initiative that legalizes recreational use of marijuana. I’m having a hard time figuring out why.

The Prohibition of alcohol under the 18th Amendment was the result of efforts by Protestants: Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The Catholic Church was (and is) the church of immigrants: Irish and Italians who liked their wine and beer. They were against Prohibition, and indeed may have worked to undermine it. Grape production in heavily Catholic California increased by 700 percent during Prohibition. Altar wine was exempt, but only priests partook of the chalice. The laity received the Eucharist only in the form of the host, the blessed bread wafer. We can only assume that priests were saying Mass far more often.

Marijuana is also associated with Catholic immigrants. Americans knew the drug as cannabis, and used its tinctures in patent medicines. Politicians, aided by the media, whipped up public fear of immigrant Mexicans and their disruptive ways, including their use of “marihuana.” Mexicans became the scapegoat of the 30s, and draconian laws banning “marihuana” was the instrument used to control and deport them.

But for some reason, the Roman Catholic Church has joined with the establishment, regardless of those anti-immigrant laws. Perhaps they fear a threat to their monopoly on being the opiate of the masses.

In heavily Hispanic San Diego, the Immaculate Conception Church took politics one step further. In the weekly church bulletin, parishioners found a notice last Sunday. "It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat," the insert read, with the words underlined and bolded. "If your bishop, priest, deacon or other parishioners tell you to do so, you must walk away from them. Your immortal soul and your salvation are at stake." Despite the fact that the Republican ticket is headed by a thrice-married adulterer, self-confessed assaulter of women, self-confessed tax cheat, and foul-mouthed xenophobe, they threaten anyone who votes for the other party with everlasting hellfire. The reason is that the Democratic platform is pro-choice.

Bishop William Murphy of Long Island was more circumspect. “Support of abortion by a candidate for public office, some of whom are Catholics, even if they use the fallacious and deeply offensive ‘personally opposed but . . .’ line, is reason sufficient unto itself to disqualify any and every such candidate from receiving our vote.”

It is, of course, illegal for a tax-exempt organization like a church to promote partisan politics, but it’s unlikely that the IRS will pursue the matter, since they have failed to do so in the face of open provocation from several Evangelical pulpits. The Republican candidate has been anointed as God’s Chosen One by politicians and preachers such as the wild-eyed Michelle Bachmann and disgraced Jim Bakker.

Come to think of it, Bakker gave up on his PTL Club ministry after he was imprisoned for fraud and conspiracy. His new racket is selling powdered food in plastic buckets to survivalists. According to NBC News, sales of “long term foods” have tripled in recent days. Preppers do not agree on whether they’re stockpiling against the revolt of the urban poor and race riots in the cities if Trump wins, or World War III if Clinton prevails.

I hope the recreational marijuana bill passes. We’re going to need all the help we can get.
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Sunday Sermonette: People Who Need People [30 Oct 2016|09:55am]

If you ask me what my religious beliefs are, I will tell you I am an atheist. I do not believe in the existence of god(s), nor of the supernatural. This is not a positive belief that there are no gods or phenomena that might be called supernatural, this is the lack of belief. In the thousands of years of human civilization, no one has offered compelling evidence to support supernatural claims. In the scant hundreds of years of the Enlightenment, we have found nothing that admits of a supernatural explanation. There’s nothing of which we can say, “We used to believe this had a rational, material explanation, but now we think it’s magic. I simply see no reason to believe, but I’m perfectly willing to entertain any facts you might have.

If, on the other hand, you asked me where I go to church, I’d tell you I’m a member of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist. Why on earth would an atheist join a church?

The fabled criminal Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks, replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Church is where the people are. I don’t believe in gods, but I do believe in people.

A little over two years ago, I sold my dwelling of twenty years and bought a condo 100 miles away. Shortly thereafter, I retired. In those two moves, I lost virtually my entire social network. Having good friends and neighbors is one of the key ingredients for a long and happy life.

There are many ways to meet people, but some of them are harder than others. There’s the local pub, for example. Americans don’t have the pub culture of Ireland or England, but convivial places can be found. Trouble is, pubs are usually where established friends hang out, not where you go to meet new friends. There are affinity groups - you could meet people around a common interest, like yoga or stargazing. provided of course that you like twisting yourself into a pretzel or own a telescope.

A couple friends recommended the Unitarian Universalists as a good group of people, so I checked them out. I found some very nice people who I wanted to get to know better: liberal, intellectual, tolerant, welcoming. Some of them were atheists, some neo-pagan, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and so on. And they have great music.

I’m very fond of choral singing. I’ve sung in chorales and choirs most of my life. The difference with this choir is that the music was so eclectic - from classical to Broadway to the Village People. The choir director is a delightful and talented musician, and there are about two dozen singers - eight in the bass and tenor sections alone, which is remarkable.

The thing that makes choir different from more professional vocal groups is that it is made up of people who like to sing, not just the highly talented or professionals. Not everyone necessarily reads music (though it’s a big help), and not everyone has a perfect voice. There’s an alchemy of group singing where the whole of blended voices is greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s a lot more going on at First Parish, but the choir is enough for me, at least now. I’ve met a lot of wonderful folks. People who, like me, believe in people.

“I believe we’re all one family and need each other in times of grief and gladness. And I believe in the power of human ingenuity and people of goodwill to make a difference in the world. This is my credo as a Unitarian Universalist. It’s what Superman and I have in common.”
— Christopher Reeve
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Sunday Sermonette: What Causes Atheism? [23 Oct 2016|01:06pm]

Religion is in decline in America. The White Christian voting bloc has collapsed under the weight of its own hypocrisy, with some still supporting the candidacy of a vulgar narcissist who has even less commitment to Christianity than he does to marital fidelity. More clear-eyed Christians have backed away from the Republican nominee, leading to much confusion in the ranks. The Christian Post provides a good example of the turmoil. They published an editorial decrying Trump as long ago as last February, saying “Trump, an admirer of Vladimir Putin and other dictatorial leaders, may claim to be your friend and protector now, but as his history indicates, without your full support he will turn on you, and use whatever power is within his means to punish you.” Then they published a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t op-ed in August. The most recent op-ed from October 3 is a guarded endorsement of Clinton.

Church attendance is shrinking, especially in Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. Just a glance at Sunday attendance shows mostly people my age or older. While churches have long been accustomed to young people falling away in their late teens, they always came back when they had children. This is no longer the case. The fastest growing segment of the religious landscape are the Nones, those who profess no religion and don’t seem to care. What could possibly have caused so many people to no longer believe in the creeds and confessions of older generations?

Some pastors believe it’s all because of arch-atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and the Supreme Court. In 1962, the Court ruled against school prayer in Engel v. Vitale. In 1963, this was followed by a declaration that public school-sponsored Bible reading was unconstitutional in Abington School District v. Schempp (which consolidated Murray v. Curlett, since Schempp was a Unitarian Universalist which outnumbered declared atheists at the time). These decades-old decisions cast God out of the public square, cry the pastors. World Nut, er, Net Daily quoted Christian author Jonathan Cahn: “It is the continuation of what took place in the 1960s when America began consciously and officially removing God from its public square – and particularly from the lives its children. You cannot do that without reaping a mass harvest of consequences. And it is the absence of God that allows for the presence of darkness. … If a nation’s high court should pass judgment on the Almighty, should you then be surprised God will pass judgment on the court and that nation? We are doing that which Israel did on the altars of Baal,” he cried.

Marshall Connolly of the Catholic Say website massaged data from a recent PRRI study on the growth of Nones and blamed divorce. “Divorce rates reached about 50 percent in the 1980s. Since then, children from those divorces have grown up. At the same time, the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated has risen from 5 percent in 1972 to 25 percent today.” Connolly does not link to the study, which can be found here. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Catholics are more likely to have left the Church over its treatment of LGBT people (39%) and the clergy sexual abuse scandal (32%). I’m not sure how Connolly fits that into his divorce theory.

My very favorite comes from fundamentalist Catholic blogger Michael Voris, who blamed Martin Luther: “Protestantism eventually gives way to atheism, because philosophically, it is atheism. What, after all, is atheism? It is a-theism, no God. What does Protestantism, with its me-centered theology, produce? That you become your own God. You determine your morality. You determine the meaning of Scripture. You determine your own theology. There is no longer room for God, because the individual assumes the throne — kind of the working definition of atheism.” I don’t know which is worse, his understanding of Protestant belief or his understanding of atheist non-belief.

There is one theory none of the Christian publications or bloggers have considered. The reason that Christianity is in decline and the Nones are increasing just might be because there isn’t the slightest shred of evidence that any such being as the Christian God exists. There hasn’t been a single new discovery or argument made for the case in hundreds of years. Those that exist are rationally impoverished and logically incoherent. Heck, even I figured that out eventually, and my parents are still happily married and sent me to a parochial grammar school where we prayed every day.

The so-called Four Horsemen, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, did not discover atheism, they just wrote about it at a time when a lot of people were already questioning. It turns out that there are more atheists than Unitarian Universalists (some of whom are also atheists, by the way), and still more people who just don’t think the question of whether gods exist is important or is at best purely personal.

I call it progress.
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Sunday Sermonette: The Apotheosis of Me [16 Oct 2016|09:26am]

Revelation is subjective.

In the beginning, the world was without form and void, and darkness moved across the face of the waters. Then, three-score years ago tomorrow at 3:29 p.m. in what I would later call Eastern Time, I was born. And there was light. And it was good.

The uncircumcised Philistines groped in the darkness of blinkered superstitions. My advent brought The Truth to the world I created. My first acolytes, the high priest and priestess of my one true religion, worshiped at my temple night and day. They brought me gifts and sacrifices in hopes they would be blessed with my favor. They feared my displeasure, and were dismayed at my wrath.

Fortunately for them, I was a merciful and beneficent god. They seldom tasted the lash of my discontent. I blessed them with happiness and joy, and they brought me other disciples who supplicated themselves before me.

These new devotees were older. It’s funny how churches and temples the world over are disproportionately filled with the elderly. Perhaps they are cramming for the final exam. The new disciples also brought gifts and offerings. I was pleased with them, and blessed them with happiness as well.

But the human heart is perverse and feckless above all else. My people strayed from the path of righteousness and went a-whoring after other gods. One day they desecrated my sacred temple with a new goddess. They made obeisance to her, and brought her the sacrifices that by right were mine alone. They chanted my sacred hymns to her. Even the elderly disciples turned from The One True Way and worshipped this false goddess.

I was exceeding wroth, and threatened to smite them all for their disobedience and faithlessness. They heeded me not, but shewed unto me the face of a new goddess whom they called my sister. How quickly they forgot my First Commandment. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.

Many years have passed. Perhaps they think that their first god sleeps, that he no longer concerns himself with the actions of his chosen people. They are mistaken. They will learn. Their Lord is not mocked. My will be done.
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Sunday Sermonette: Birds of a Feather [09 Oct 2016|07:47am]

As I write this, Donald Trump’s latest outrage has come to light, though there may well be a new one by the time you read this. Trump is on tape in 2005 discussing his attempts to seduce married women and that his star status means that women allows him do anything to women, even commit sexual assault. It’s disgusting, especially when you consider that he was in his late 50s when the tape was made, and newly married to his third wife.

His first so-called apology was that this was “locker room banter,” and expressing regret if anyone was offended. Locker room banter? Perhaps, if you’re fourteen years old in an all-boys school.

This was clearly unacceptable, so another followed late Friday night, ten hours after the tape was aired. It took 90 seconds, and most of it was justification, deflection, defensiveness, and the bizarre charge that the Clintons are worse. Did I say fourteen year old? The excuse, “But so-and-so said it too” makes it sound more like a seven-year-old.

I’ve said it before: we’re a gregarious social species, so we have worked out some ways of coping with mitigating offense along the eons. Dueling is no longer an appropriate response. There are many forms of apology, but most people would agree that a sincere apology must contain the following elements:

  1. Acknowledgement of the offense. “I said an offensive thing.”
  2. Acceptance of responsibility. “It’s entirely my fault.”
  3. Acknowledgement of the pain or injury caused. “I hurt you.”
  4. Judgement. “I spoke without thinking.”
  5. Statement of regret. “I’m very sorry I said that.”
  6. Statement of future intentions. “I will try not to be so thoughtless in future.”
Trump’s apology was sadly lacking. But there was one group that seemed ready, indeed eager, to grasp that straw: evangelical Christians. Not all of them, but a number of the most well-known names.

Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition said, “People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defund Planned Parenthood, defend religious liberty and oppose the Iran nuclear deal. A ten-year-old tape of a private conversation with a talk show host ranks low on their hierarchy of concerns.”

That’s rather different from what Reed said back in 1998 when Bill Clinton was President. “Character matters, and the American people are hungry for that message. We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.”

Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas was slightly more censorious. “I said at that time, with Trump sitting next to me, I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday School teacher,” Jeffress said. “But that’s not what this election is about.” Then he repeated some Republican talking points about Secretary Clinton before concluding with the Christian Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card , “The fact is we’re all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and God doesn’t grade people according to their level of sin.”

This was repeated by Roman Catholic David Bozell, who first lambasted a man who isn’t running for office, Bill Clinton. “Bill Clinton’s history of being a sexual predator, including affairs with interns, dwarfs any locker room banter,” he said. “The clip is unfortunate, but then again, we’re not electing saints in November.” Apparently we’re also not electing candidates whose husbands were not saints, either.

David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network tweeted, “This just in: Donald Trump is a flawed man! We ALL sin every single day. What if we had a ‘hot mic’ around each one of us all the time?” Are you trying to tell us something, David?

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told the Washington Post, “As I have made clear, my support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns.”

And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. (Luke 4:5-7)

And lo, the Evangelical hypocrites did fall to their knees in worship.

Each of these men claims to not only believe in God and Jesus, but to have a personal relationship with him. Each one of them claims to have spent hours in prayer asking for God’s guidance. Do you see any sign that they are more moral, more holy, or in any way better people because of their faith in God or fear of his displeasure?

No, it’s all about access to earthly power. There is quite literally nothing that Trump can do that will disqualify him for office in the eyes of the basket of deplorables.

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Sunday Sermonette: Blessed are the Merciful [02 Oct 2016|07:38am]

In the 1968 movie “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” Anthony Quinn, Pope Kiril I, has sneaked away from the Vatican and meets a doctor on her way to the room of a dying man. He has just begun saying the Last Rites when she tells him the man on the bed is Jewish. Without missing a beat, he covers his eyes with his hand and begins reciting the Kaddish. It’s a heart-warming moment, because it’s so human. It’s what any of us would do in similar circumstances, if we could.

I am an atheist. This is the only life I’ll get. There’s no judgement after death, there’s no hope for heaven, there’s no fear of hell. When the last synapse fires, nothing that I would call “me” will exist any longer.

That said, if I’m at the bedside of a sick or dying friend or relative who wants to pray, I’ll whip out a rosary in a heartbeat (or use whatever other form they prefer to address their god). It would be monstrous to argue with a sick person about religion. If they die, I will attend the wake, though I really dislike that custom. I’ll attend to the funeral and observe whatever rites apply. My own beliefs or lack of them are insignificant beside the duty of comforting the sick and bereaved. It’s just what humans do.

This is why I’m so surprised that Catholic bishops in Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada have directed priests not to perform funerals for those who chose assisted suicide. I really thought better of them.

Last year, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down a ban on medically assisted dying. In July, the federal government passed a law allowing it for those in an advanced state of irreversible decline from an incurable condition and for those facing a "reasonably foreseeable" natural death. I think that most people would regard this as a final mercy. We wouldn’t let a dog or cat or even a pet snake suffer at the end of its life.

But the Catholic Church long ago decided that the most Christian thing to do is the least loving, least respectful, least sympathetic, least merciful. A Canadian citizen at the most vulnerable time of his life is forced to choose between his charter right to a peaceful and at least somewhat dignified assisted death, and dogma of the Church.

You ask, what does the Church do about suicides now? The answer is simple: they do the human and humane thing. Yes, suicide is a mortal sin, but the person must not have been in his right mind at the time. Full knowledge and deliberate consent is required for something to be a sin. (It’s legalism like this that also enables the couple with two kids to have their marriage annulled because it lacked an essential element for the marriage to be considered valid in the first place.)

In other words, the Church is using the threat of eternal damnation to protest a secular law it does not approve. If this means being appallingly cruel to the dying and contemptuous to the bereaved, no matter. The Catholic Church answers to a higher authority. They are the conduit of God’s mercy to a suffering Earth. And that makes it right. Right?
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Sunday Sermonette: Declaring Victory [25 Sep 2016|07:53am]

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. He was only a passenger, but he climbed out of the plane in full flight gear and was warmly met by the crew members under a giant banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Iraq, was complete. All that was left to do was a little mopping up. America would be at peace again.

I just read an article by the Reverend Dan Delzell, pastor of the Wellspring Church in Papillon, Nebraska and a regular contributor to The Christian Post. Atheism is dead on arrival, and Reverend Dan is here to tell us why.

Atheists try not to think about the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Atheism has no rational answer to this fundamental question, and even considering the question has the potential to chip away at the beliefs of an atheist.

Really? I wrote a short essay on this very topic in my Philosophy 101 class, concluding that without something, philosophers have nothing to argue about. Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote a book on the topic titled A Universe From Nothing. He’s a lot less glib than I am. He’s also an atheist. “I don’t know” is also a perfectly valid answer. Do you know what’s not a rational answer? The arbitrary termination of an infinite regression by the flat and unsupported assertion “I don’t know, therefore God did it.” And not just any God, but the specific deity worshiped by most of the people in Pastor Dan’s culture and described in the very book Pastor Dan read as a child.

He goes on to say that atheism has no explanation for the development of the human mind. Neither does theism, it just halts the inquiry with “God did it.” And then he accuses atheism of having no logical rationale for why more and more people are accepting Christ as their Savior.

Up to this point, he’s been playing rhetorical games. Atheism isn’t a scientific theory, philosophy, or ethic. It’s just an answer to the question, “Do you believe in a god or gods?”

But his repeated assertion that more people are accepting Christ is flat out false. According to a recently published survey by PRRI, the single largest “religious” group in America are the Nones, and the largest subgroup of Nones are what PRRI calls “Rejectionists.” It doesn’t look like a good time for Pastor Dan to declare victory.

Of course, the truth of a proposition has nothing to do with its popularity, and vice-versa. If you want to study why there’s something rather than nothing, atheism doesn’t have an answer. I recommend cosmology.

Pundits say we’re living in a post-factual society, pointing to our modern day Baron Munchausen, the cotton-candy-haired con artist running for President. Perhaps that’s so. But I don’t have to like it, and I don’t. If fibbing is necessary to persuade me of the truth of your religion, what does that say about your religion?

Tell me how, exactly, you get from “Someone must have created the Universe” to “And therefore, my particular religion is true.” Tell me how you get from “God’s laws are perfect and immutable and the objective source of all morality” to “Well, we were wrong about genocide and slavery and miscegenation and the age, size, and composition of the universe, but God definitely disapproves of what two consenting adults do with their genitals.” Tell me how you get from “God did it” to “And therefore the Bible is true except for the parts that are allegorical, which are true, too.”

But don’t tell me that you’ve crushed atheism because it doesn’t offer easy and thoughtless answers to all questions. It only answers one.

The Digital Cuttlefish put it best:

… Therefore, Jesus

It’s possible some entity which cannot be detected,
Outside of our experience despite how we’ve inspected,
Was the first cause of the universe, and first began to move it
It’s possible, by which I mean that no one can disprove it.

And that’s why I, specifically,
Believe in Christ of Galilee

Beyond the grasp of scientists, beyond our poor sensations
Beyond the reach of telescopes, which all have limitations
Before the birth of matter, and of energy’s first pulse
There may have been intelligence—you cannot prove it false.

Believing in the Christian God
Is, therefore, not the least bit odd

The beauty of the universe holds all of us in thrall
No scientist would be so bold as claim we know it all
The open-minded person will admit that, just perhaps,
Some unseen causal entity lies hidden in the gaps

It cannot, therefore, be denied
It’s for our sins that Jesus died

A bit of bread, a sip of wine
Are flesh and blood, by will divine

A savior-king, of virgin birth
Who holds dominion over Earth

Belief in whom must hold the key
To heaven and eternity

Without whose love and magic spell
You’ll spend forever, trapped in hell

A god so strong, and so complex
He cares with whom we might have sex

We’ve never seen the evidence, and frankly never will
Another gap will open up for every one we fill
The less a god is visible, the more that god is strong:
As long as God does nothing, why, you cannot prove Him wrong.
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Sunday Sermonette: Our Lady of Agony [18 Sep 2016|09:00am]

A couple weeks ago in Vatican City, the whereabouts of a dead Albanian woman named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was positively fixed. The woman who died 19 years ago is officially a saint, dwelling with God in heaven. By means of this action, the Vatican also demonstrated their cupidity, mendacity, desperate need for public acclaim, and the monstrous sadism (or at least utter indifference) of the deity they claim to worship.

The woman better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a media creation. Stories told about her by a breathless press were often false, as were the stories she told about herself.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was one of her early devotees, and was largely responsible for bringing her to the world’s attention. During filming, a photographer tried to take pictures in a building Mother Teresa called Nirmal Hriday, “House of the Pure Heart.” The press were usually more accurate in calling it “The House of the Dying." It was a dark and dismal place, and the photographer doubted the pictures would show much. Then he remembered a new low-light film from Kodak and decided to try it. Back at the English preview of the film, the photographer was amazed at the clarity of the pictures. He was on the verge of giving three cheers for Kodak when Muggeridge interrupted: "It's divine light! It's Mother Teresa. You'll find that it's divine light, old boy." Muggeridge believed the photographic success was due to the presence of "supernatural luminosity." His biographer reported that Muggeridge was "absolutely convinced that this was a miracle and that the light was supernatural. . . . The incident had a great effect on him and for a time he spoke about it endlessly."

Meanwhile, apparently no one noticed the abject squalor of the place. Certainly it was a “House of the Dying,” but there was no medical attention, no palliative care, nothing but suffering neglected people gasping out their last agonized breaths.

Thanks to Muggeridge and others, Mother Teresa went on to become one of the most prolific fundraisers the Church has ever known. Who could look at pictures of desperately poor and dying people and not be moved to pity?

Mother Teresa, apparently. To this very day, when Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity are raking in over $100 million per year, the facilities at Nimal Hriday are horrific. Concrete dormitories are lined with army-style cots. The squat-style toilets are filthy with human waste, and because of a lack of something as simple as wheelchairs and crutches, the dying are forced to crawl through the foul mess in order to relieve themselves, soaking their bandages in the process. There aren’t even any hot baths. The basics of sanitation are nowhere to be found, promoting the spread of tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis C, and typhoid fever. There’s no washing machine for soiled clothing or bedding; everything is inadequately washed by hand. There is no morphine or other pain relief stronger than an NSAID used for arthritis called Diclofenac. The victims (I cannot call them patients) of the Missionaries of Charity must simply scream and writhe in agony.

And this is how Mother Teresa wanted it. As she said in a Washington press conference in 1997, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

So where does the money go, if not to the Missionaries of Charity in their 517 locations world-wide or their victims? Good question. I’m glad you asked. Have I mentioned the beauty of degrading poverty and horrible suffering being a wonderful gift to help us understand the passion of Christ on the cross? (Granted, the Gospels say he only endured it for about three hours, but it’s the same thing, isn’t it?)

Then there are the two miracles attributed to Mother Teresa’s posthumous intervention. Neither of them had anything to do with making the dying more comfortable or easing the pain of the poor. Both involved the remission of what were claimed to be tumors after medical care - in other words, the sort of thing that happens a lot. The reason the Church can consider it a miracle is that they claimed they didn’t know any other explanation. My word for that is “ignorance,” but that doesn’t keep the faithful coming back, does it?

Mother Teresa’s personal writings showed a person who wanted desperately to believe, but did not. “Where is my faith?” she wrote. “Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”

This is the sort of thing the Church loves: someone continuing to go through the motions without any of the consolations of faith. It is difficult to imagine that a loving God would deny a faithful disciple any hint of his presence for over 60 years. Perhaps it explains a little of why she wasn’t too upset by the sufferings of the dying in her care.

And now she’s a saint. She may be venerated, and you may pray to her to intercede for you with God. Though, if she’s anything like what she was in life, it won’t do you a bit of good.
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Sunday Sermonette: Die for a Lie [11 Sep 2016|08:02am]

Here’s a favorite explanation for why the New Testament stories must be true (and by extension, the Hebrew Scriptures as well, since they are attested to by trustworthy New Testament sources.)

“No one would die for a lie.”

We are told that the early apostles of Christ were martyred for their stubborn belief that a man named Jesus was the son of God, and rose from the dead. Surely they wouldn’t have died for something they knew wasn’t true.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With the possible exception of a couple disputed sentences by Flavius Josephus, they are the only evidence we have that he even existed. Evidence for the martyrdom of the apostles is even less substantial, and some of it is acknowledged by Christian scholars to be pious legend.

Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer - Walters 37113.jpg
By Jean-Léon Gérôme - Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18824108

The trouble with the Gospels is that they were not written by eye-witnesses, and their authorship is unknown. The Gospel attributed to Mark was first, written between 65 and 70 CE. Matthew was next, between 70 and 100. Luke was written about 85 CE, and John between 90 and 110 CE.

These four were not the only Gospels. We know of a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Peter, a Gospel of Judas, and a Gospel of the Hebrews. In addition, most scholars posit a source (“Quelle” in German) called the Q document consisting of sayings of Jesus, which was used as source material for Matthew and Luke’s Gospel, but has since been lost.

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in his tract “Against Heresies” in 185, liked the idea of four Gospels. After all, there are four winds and four corners of the earth, he reasoned. The book of Revelation and the Prophet Ezekiel both speak of God’s throne being supported by four creatures with four face. Four was a good number.

So, we have four Gospel stories, of which we have the original copies of none, nor even copies of the original copies. But we can trust that the resurrection story they tell is absolutely true, I’m told, because the early Christians were terribly persecuted. Certainly no one would die for a lie, would they?

I have three words in response: Mark David Karr. Mr. Karr, you may recall, confessed to the horrific slaying of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. He’d jumped bail on a child pornography charge and had fled to Bangkok. August 22, 2006, he waived extradition and was flown back to the United States. A scant six days later, the charges were vacated. His DNA did not match the DNA found on JonBenet’s body. In short, he lied about raping and killing a six-year-old girl.

But Mark David Karr was one lone nutpie. There were many early disciples.

Three more words, then: The People’s Temple. On November 18th, 1978, 918 people died in a mass suicide in Guyana, led by the charismatic Jim Jones. See also the Heaven’s Gate cult, the Branch-Davidians of Waco, and the Order of the Solar Temple, just to name a few contemporary events.

The Mormon religion has now been around for over 180 years, and has gained a certain degree of respectability despite being utterly preposterous. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were lynched (or martyred, depending on your viewpoint). Conflict between the polygamous Mormons and the United States government resulted in the creation of more holy martyrs and nearly became an all-out war with the American government.

Scientology, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, Krishna Consciousness, the Divine Light Mission of the Guru Maharaji, Moses David and the Children of God, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Aum Shin Rikyo... These are just a few of the unhinged religions I’ve seen in my lifetime. Not all of these have people willing to die for them, but people certainly have been willing to fork over their money, property, and autonomy to them.

Will people die for a lie? Of course not. They will, however, die for what they believe. If the religions of humanity prove nothing else, they prove that people can believe six impossible things before breakfast.
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Knock knock. Who's there? Not god. [06 Sep 2016|09:54am]

Huh. All that extra-hard praying right outside god's house, and yet this happened. It's inexplicable, unless…oh, wait, no, false alarm. I was worried this suggests there's no god, but clearly these poor, deceived wretches were praying to the wrong god, and so the real god smote them. Yes, that must be it. Whew. Had me going there for a minute.
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Sunday Sermonette: Starships [04 Sep 2016|08:48am]

One of the biggest problems with any religion is that the subject matter is ultimately incomprehensible.

When a Catholic priest says “The Lord be with you,” the congregation replies as one, “And with your spirit.” Do they know what they’re talking about?

Catholics have the Baltimore Catechism to define such terms as God. Question 163: What is God? is answered, “God is a spirit infinitely perfect.”

That doesn’t make much sense, so we read on.

Q. 164. What do we mean when we say God is “infinitely perfect”?
A. When we say God is “infinitely perfect” we mean there is no limit or bounds to His perfection; for He possesses all good qualities in the highest possible degree and He alone is “infinitely perfect. ”

Q. 165. Had God a beginning?
A. God had no beginning; He always was and He always will be.

Q. 166. Where is God?
A. God is everywhere.

Q. 167. How is God everywhere?
A. God is everywhere whole and entire as He is in any one place. This is true and we must believe it, though we cannot understand it.

The Baltimore Catechism goes on, but you get the gist. God is perfect, eternal, infinite, and everywhere. It is impossible for the finite human mind to imagine such a being, but even though it is incomprehensible, it must be believed.

But that collection of improbable attributes does tell us one thing. It is impossible for such a deity to need anything, desire anything, or do anything. Eternal perfection already has everything and is everything.

So why are we told that God wants the saccharine adoration of a small band of ape-descended life forms who have only recently arrived on an unremarkable rock circling a fairly ordinary star on the outer edge of one bog-standard spiral galaxy amidst hundreds of billions of such galaxies?

Aha, says the priest. God doesn’t need our worship. We need to worship God, who is the only thing worthy of worship, in order to move closer to him. Already God is whittled down to human shape. It’s now a male, it’s vainglorious, and it needs praise.

God is everywhere, infinite, and eternal. We cannot move closer to God. You and I need food, shelter, sex, and so on - God has no desires, no need for us to “move closer.” If God is who the Baltimore Catechism says God is, then we have no grounds whatever for understanding. We have no common frame of reference. We have no basis for comparison. The denizens of the anthill on my front lawn have far more in common with me than I do with God - at least they’re from the same planet.

God is love, cry the priests. Why shouldn’t he create humanity so he could love them? And since the Bible says the greatest expression of love is to die for one’s beloved, why wouldn’t God save us from our wickedness and do that too?

Like God, love is left undefined. But think about it. Is there any possible definition of love that could apply to an omnimax perfect infinite and eternal deity? Love implies need and desire, even such forms as, “I love the beauty of the Grand Canyon” or the banality of “I love cheeseburgers.” And the matter of God dying to prove his love is utter nonsense when speaking of a deathless and eternal being.

We need God to provide an objective definition of goodness and morality, say the priests. But how can a perfect, infinite, eternal God who nevertheless created a very imperfect universe and very imperfect ape-descendants on the third rock of this particular solar system do that? Good and evil are defined by humans. A perfect God with no needs or desires can’t do it. Wanting a divine trainer doesn’t mean there is one. If people want to be better, it’s up to people to do it. Otherwise we’re just trained rats in a cage.

As I said, a perfect, eternal, infinite God is incomprehensible to me. But priests? Priests I understand. We’re the same species and from the same culture. We both have imaginations, a love of stories, fondness for good food and drink and creature comforts, and a dislike of sweaty manual labor. I avoided hard work by fixing computer problems - there’s seldom much heavy lifting and it’s always air-conditioned. You don’t suppose priests, preachers, and prophets found a way to wear nice clothes and avoid hard work by telling stories about the ineffable will of the inscrutable impenetrable Unknowable, do you?
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Sunday Sermonette: Doing Good [28 Aug 2016|09:03am]

Let us open our Bibles to Psalm 14. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”

Now, let us turn to Psalm 53: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.”

Get that? Good. Now we’ll continue.

A couple weeks ago, a worker from a local orphanage came into Matt Wilbourn’s copy shop in Muskogee, Oklahoma and asked him to run off some fund-raising fliers. He did, and was moved to make a donation himself. "I filed out the paperwork and I put my wife and I's name on the paperwork," he said. "At the bottom, it asks if there is any person or organization you want to put it in memory of and I put the Muskogee Atheist Community."

The donation was gratefully accepted, right? I mean, money has no religion. Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, was famous for his ability to raise money from non-Catholics.

Nope. Someone from the Murrow Indian Children’s Home objected "She called my desk phone at work and told me that they would not be accepting our donation because it would go against everything they believe in," Wilbourn said. He was amazed. "Do things out of the goodness of your heart whether it's for religion or not, but don't let religion come between you and someone who needs help and that's what has happened here," he said.

Wilbourn and his wife took the matter to the Muskogee Atheist Community, of which he and his wife are co-founders. "All of them were in agreement that we shouldn't take the $100 back and instead raise the amount," he said. "I emailed the director of the Murrow Home and told her that I'm raising the amount to $250. No reply from her."

That’s when he started a GoFundMe page for the orphanage. As of this moment, it has raised $28,280 of what was to have been a $1000 goal. The orphanage is steadfast in its rejection. They responded, “We appreciate the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Matt Wilbourn for their thoughtful donation to the Murrow Children’s Home. This decision is not about money or personal matters. It is solely about our religious beliefs and Honoring God our Father.”

See what the Psalmist says about atheists again.

Christians believe that their God is the source of all goodness. Even if an atheist does good works and acts in a moral manner, it is only because God engraved his moral law on the hearts of all humans (Romans 2:14-15). Since the central belief of Christianity, that Jesus was tortured to death to pay the monstrously unjust penalty of infinite punishment for our finite sins, is deeply immoral, I’m not sure how such a claim can hold up.

Morality is something that evolves in any species that lives together. I can see glimmerings of it in my pet birds - you preen the head feathers I can’t reach, then I’ll preen the head feathers you can’t reach. It’s obvious among apes, and can be found in every human tribe ever discovered. We humans are taught to be nice to one another from earliest childhood. We’re taught empathy and reciprocity. By the time we’re adults, if someone tells us that a neighbor’s husband is very ill, the first thing we want to do is bring over a covered dish and offer to help. It’s just what neighbors do. It’s what good people do.

But it might offend the God who allows (or is powerless to prevent) innocent children from being abused and neglected to accept help from a non-believer’s hands. I’m sure the children be comforted to know that Jesus loves them despite every evidence to the contrary. Besides, it’s not as if the board of the Muskogee Indian Children’s Home will be missing any meals. Like the supposed sacrifice of Jesus, Christian morality is at someone else’s expense.

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