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Archive for April, 2007

This might be the most messed-up stories I’ve ever heard. It starts in 1988, when Charlene Riling, a lesbian, goes to get an AIDS test at a county health department. I won’t say any more than that about the story, you’ll just have to listen to it. This story begins at minute 6:35 and is 15 minutes long.

http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=123

On a side note, there are quite a few Christian ministries aimed at turning people straight. My personal opinion (as an ex-believer, of course) is that these ministries are supported by lots of hope which is fueled by (a) the belief that homosexuality is a very bad lifestyle, and (b) that there is “wonder working power” in God. I remember hearing some interview a while back where the journalist was talking to a couple parents who had brought their son to one of these “cure homosexuality” ministries. I had to laugh because the journalist asked the parents if they thought it would actually work. The parents replied that they really thought it could work, and they were generally upbeat about the potential for success. Then the journalist asked the son what he thought about the program (he had apparently been there a short while by this point), and he replied that the whole thing was stupid and he had absolutely no intention of “turning straight”. As long as the ex-gay ministry is being paid by the parents, it’s going to stick around.

Of course, if it were actually possible to “pray out” homosexuality, I suspect we’d never hear about Ted Haggard’s name in connection with “male prostitute”. Further, I’ve heard of some cases where very high-profile figures in these “ex-gay” ministries have been caught doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing (to the embarrassment of themselves and the Christian ministries holding them up as positive ex-gay examples).

My own opinion on homosexuality? If you’re gay, stop fighting it and just enjoy life. As a non-believer in any religion, I’m certainly not going to tell you it’s morally wrong if you aren’t hurting anyone, and I see no reason gay people shouldn’t enjoy life with someone they love (just like straight people).

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I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”

http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/2007/04/is-karl-rove-atheist.html

I have to begin wondering to what extent some of the leaders in the conservative right are not true believers at all (my earlier post about O’Reilly’s admission that theism is unfounded, but useful — is another example). A while back, one staunch conservative I argued with claimed that religion was useful for society, and it was important that society does not become secularized (he seemed to avoid the question of whether religion was actually true). Personally, I see no problem with a more secularized nation. In fact, some countries in the world (like Sweden) are very secularized, and nothing has fallen apart. In any case, regarding belief, it seems that some conservatives view theism as unfounded wishful thinking, but also think it’s a useful tool for societies. With that view, they’ll never push atheism and will probably not acknowledge their own non-theistic beliefs (except, perhaps in whispers) because the myth of theism is supposedly too important. It reminds me of some Roman views on the subject – “How many has the fear of divine punishment called back from crime!” (Cicero) – that it was important to constructs myths of gods in order to keep the uncivilized people from doing wrong.

Besides, religion is an important tool for getting votes for the Republicans. All of this is reminding me of the story a while back involving David Kuo (Republican, right-wing Christian). He was the second in charge for Bush’s “Faith Based Initiatives” program. He quit because they realized the whole program was being used as a cheap way to get votes. He believes the Republican Whitehouse had no intention of actually making the program work.

“According to Kuo, Karl Rove’s office referred to evangelical leaders as ‘The Nuts’.”

Also, according to Kuo’s book:

Every other White House office was up and running. The faith-based initiative still operated out of the nearly vacant transition offices.

Three days later, a Tuesday, Karl Rove summoned [Don] Willett [a former Bush aide from Texas who initially shepharded the program] to his office to announce that the entire faith-based initiative would be rolled out the following Monday. Willett asked just how — without a director, staff, office, or plan — the president could do that. Rove looked at him, took a deep breath, and said, “I don’t know. Just get me a f—ing faith-based thing. Got it?” Willett was shown the door.

There’s much, much more in this video:

Interviewer: “You write [in your book] that in the Whitehouse staff that people roll their eyes at the evangelicals. They call them nuts. They call them goofy. Is that really what the attitude [is]?”
David Kuo: “Absolutely. You name the important Christian leader, and I have heard them mocked by serious people in serious places.”

More Videos with David Kuo:
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=David+Kuo&search=Search

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Heretics

This is an older story from This American Life. It’s about an up-and-coming pastor of a megachurch in [Oklahoma*] who started to think a little too much about his Christian beliefs. He started thinking some of the same thoughts that I did — if Christianity is true, then billions of people will not only go to hell, but will go to hell without even a chance to hear about the Christian religious that “could have saved them”. It’s really an ugly situation. Of course, if you think a little too much about Christianity, you can start to see problem after problem. I guess that was my problem – I was a bright kid who thought a little too much about my religion, I refused to sweep the problems under the rug, and was always honest with myself.

This particular pastor (Carlton Pearson) talks about his break with the evangelical, fundamentalist movement because it just seemed like an ugly, broken system unworthy of a loving God. I came to the conclusion that God didn’t exist or didn’t care – somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. He, on the other hand, maintained his belief in God, but thinks that everyone goes to heaven. That belief made him a heretic in the eyes of the evangelical movement. Pastors (many of them nationally known) and people around him stopped talking to him as a result. It’s really a fascinating story.

30-second Promo:
http://audio.thisamericanlife.org/promos/304.mp3

Full 1-hour program:
http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=304

* Thanks, NewTrollObserver, for the correction.

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Charismatic Christianity

I realize that many Christians don’t follow fundamentalist Christianity. This post is mainly about the fundamentalist Christianity that I grew up with, the type of Christianity that is probably the fastest-growing type of Christianity in the US. For people within the movement, it’s described as “being alive” (full of emotion, speaking in tongues, religious experiences, etc), in contrast to a pew-sitting, boring version of Christianity. Unfortunately, it seems to be among the least reality-informed version of Christianity. It leans heavily towards literal interpretations of Genesis, promotes faith healing, and tends to evoke “religious experiences” in people. When I was in high school, I began to think that these religious experiences were much more psychological and sociological than having anything at all to do with anything divine. A good preacher and a willing congregation could work themselves up into an emotional frenzy. Unfortunately, because people have “religious experiences” in these situations, they believe that it has something to do with God.

Now, I don’t think that all preachers and evangelists are greedy crooks or anything like that. I think there are some who know they are working the crowd into a religious frenzy, but they sincerely believe in God. They exaggerate their stories a little bit, they hone their intonations, they setup the conditions to evoke “religious experiences”, and they think something real is going on. Some of them cheat a little bit here and there, but it’s all for God’s glory, right? If they cheat to can make things seem a little more miraculous, well, they’re only helping to “lead people to God”. In many cases, I think preachers get carried away by the crowd and the crowds “confirm” the divine nature of the whole charismatic movement.

In the following videos, there are some evangelical preachers. The first one is Peter Popoff – a very popular preacher in the 1970s. He was caught by James Randi using a radio headset to get “miraculous” information about people (broadcast by his wife). Obviously, he was cheating and he knew he was cheating. People in the crowd didn’t know he was getting information offstage from his wife, so they perceived his “amazing insights” to be divinely inspired information. Perhaps Peter Popoff was cynically playing the crowd, or maybe he just thought it was okay to cheat a little bit if it leads people to God. Either way, he produced a false sense of divine intervention, and he knew he was cheating by getting radio transmissions from his wife. If, like me, you don’t believe in the Christian God, then these videos show how someone takes something that they believe, cheats to help other people to believe, and essentially sets-up a conduit to lead people to believe in a false God.

What’s really disturbing about some of these evangelical stage performances is when people walk up to the stage and throw their medicine bottles onto the stage (not shown in this video). They are praying for healing, they are demonstrating their faith by not taking their medicine anymore, and are depending on God. (“And [Jesus] said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” Matthew 17:20)

Touching on more of the stage performance aspects of evangelical Christianity, we have Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe was in a documentary (“Marjoe”) back in 1971 that ended up winning the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary. He had a long history of preaching – going back to the age of 4 years old. Excerpt from wikipedia:

Marjoe Gortner (born January 14, 1944 in Long Beach, California) is a former evangelical minister who first gained a certain fame in the late 1940s and early to mid 1950s when he became the youngest ordained preacher at the age of four, and then outright notoriety in the 1970s when he starred in an Oscar-winning, behind-the-scenes documentary about the lucrative business of Pentecostal preaching.

When Marjoe was three, his father, a second generation evangelical minister, noticed his son’s talent for mimicry and overall fearlessness of strangers and public settings. His parents claimed Marjoe had received a vision from God during a bath and began training him to deliver sermons, complete with dramatic gestures and emphatic lunges….

Until the time he was a teenager, Marjoe and his parents traveled the rural United States, holding revival meetings. As well as teaching him scriptural passages, Marjoe’s parents also taught him several money-making tactics, involving the sale of supposedly “holy” articles at revivals which promised to heal the sick and dying. By the time Marjoe was sixteen, he later estimated, his family had amassed maybe three million dollars…

In the late 1960s, Marjoe suffered a crisis of conscience — in particular about the threats of damnation he felt compelled to weave into his sermons — and resolved to make one final tour, this time on film. Under the pretense of making a documentary on the evangelical and non-denominational faiths, Marjoe assembled a documentary film crew to follow him around the Southern United States during 1971; unbeknownst to everyone else involved — including, at one point, his father — Marjoe gave “backstage” interviews to the filmmakers in between sermons and revivals, explaining intimate details of how he and other ministers operated. After sermons, the filmmakers were invited back to Marjoe’s hotel room to tape him counting the money he collected during the day. The resulting film, Marjoe, won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary, although the distributor refused to allow it to be screened in theatres south of Des Moines, Iowa, for fear that it would spark a backlash from The Bible Belt.

In his documentary, he talks about working the crowd into a frenzy, how to setup the conditions for people to have religious experiences, practicing his techniques like a performer, and getting people to trust him. For Christians wanting to believe in the emotional evangelical movement, he is simply a false prophet. For those of us who have left the church, it shows just how much of this is a performance. I don’t believe that anyone is having a real religious experience, but I do think that there is a set of conditions that can be setup to make people feel like they are having a religious experience. I thought it was interesting, for example, that he talks about bringing someone up on stage, gathering a small group of people around them speaking in tongues in order to get that person to speak in tongues, and then touching them abruptly in order to make them be “slain in the spirit” (i.e. fall over, ostensibly due to the overwhelming power of God). I think that preachers use this fact – not necessarily cynically (as Marjoe does in his documentary), but either because they get themselves swept-up in it, or maybe because even when they have doubts about its authenticity, they believe the experience actually “leads people to God” (which is a good outcome in their minds). Based on the quotes before and after these videos, they were obviously uploaded by actual believers eager to simply categorize him as a “false prophet” rather than going deeper and questioning the authenticity of these experiences in general. It does, however, raise the question: “If this self-acknowledge fake can evoke these types of responses in religious people who believe he is a true believer, doesn’t it show that it’s possible for these experiences to be conjured up by psychological and sociological means? Doesn’t it show that religious experiences in these conditions cannot be used as evidence of the divine?”

More links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSdI8ag1k0A
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6O0p4ZDnDoQ
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zHqKI4X8bA

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You have to laugh at this. Bill O’Reilly talks about people believing things that they *want* to believe without evidence, and how that is horribly destructive to them and people around them. But, he wants to illustrate his point by talking about theists (i.e. people who *want* to believe in God without evidence or in-spite of evidence). Oh, but he wants to justify theists beliefs while condemning “liberal extremists” for doing the same thing. (And, no, I’m not a believer in 9/11 conspiracies.)

This is so typical of right-wing radio/TV. They say “X” is bad, very bad, horrible — when liberals do it, but it’s perfectly fine when people do “X” for some cause that they actually believe in. I’m betting most right-wingers don’t even stop to think about the way these guys use double-talk.

It also raises the question of whether O’Reilly is a closet atheist — whether he believes theism is useful for societies, but fundamentally false.

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Why I am not a Christian

Some time ago, I stumbled upon a website called “Letters From Leavers“. It’s essentially a website setup by Christians that asked the question, “Why did you leave the church?” Presumably, they want to remedy the situation. Hopefully, they want to understand it, and maybe it will lead Christians to stop using the tired old excuses that people who leave Christianity want to live in sin, or had a bad experience with a leader in the church and misapplied their hurt by leaving the religion. There’s quite a few people that I know personally who left the church, and quite a few famous people, too. Michael Shermer comes to mind (he was a hard-core Christian Fundamentalist, now he runs Skeptic Magazine and speaks out against creationism, psychics, and blind religious faith). Admittedly, quite a few of the people had bad experiences with the church (power struggles, betrayal of trust when a pastor or priest was involved in sexual abuse of a child, etc). I never really thought “people behaving badly” was a particularly good reason to leave a religion (although, one would expect that Christians would behave better – I mean the New Testament does talk about all that “you are a new creation in Christ” stuff which doesn’t really appear to be true). I went ahead and submitted an article. I tried to keep it short – there are so many things I could talk about, but I left a very large part of those out. Here is the text:

I was raised in a Christian family, went to Christian school, and a Christian college. I didn’t have any bad experiences with the church, or with Christians, and I didn’t I didn’t stop believing because I saw hypocrisy in the church or among the televangelists. My interactions with Christians has been largely positive. The problem I had was with Christian theology, the question of whether Christianity was true, and the basis for belief in Christianity. My whole “losing faith in Christianity” took years.

I remember going to church when I was in high school (my parents, strong Christians, always took us to church every Sunday, and we usually went to “youth group” on Wednesday nights, too). I had been throughly convinced in the truth of Christianity, but late in high school, I started to have doubts about it. At church, people were speaking in tongues, there was faith healing (though the healing never quite seemed to “stick”), people “talked to God” (but I never saw any profound insight which might actually indicate that they were talking to a higher power), and I began to look out over the congregation and think that maybe everyone was just working themselves up into a religious frenzy. My parents would say, “The Lord was really moving today at church”, but I began to think that what I was seeing was not a spiritual phenomena, but a sociological one. As I learned more, I learned that these kinds of “spiritual” experiences happened in other religions, and especially in the Afro-Caribbean Voodoo ceremonies. These experiences, no matter how real they seemed, were not good evidence for Christianity.

People all over the world believe in their own particular religious traditions. Whether they are Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or some other religion, many of them are believing in the religion that they were raised to believe. Their social circles – their friends and family – likely believe in the same religion. Some of them devoutly following their false religions because they sincerely believe in those religions are true. They aren’t rejecting God, they’re just sincerely deceived. When they get to heaven, they’ll be shocked to find out the truth. Because they didn’t accept Jesus Christ, they will be doomed to eternity in hell. The whole thing seemed like a vastly unfair shell game – pick which religion has the Truth under it, and after they die, they’ll be punished or rewarded based on how well they *guessed*. It doesn’t have to be this way, however. God has the power to tell everyone about the truth of Christianity. These people would like to know the truth, and (according to Christianity) God wants to save them. So, why can’t God send angels to tell people the truth? Why can’t God manifest the truth of Christianity for all to see, thereby saving people from eternal torment? It’s well within God’s power to do so, yet He doesn’t do it. Christians may protest that God tells people the truth if they pray or that the evidence is available, but I don’t believe that. I was a Christian. I remember thinking about these issues when I was younger, when my faith was falling away. I prayed to God and ask God for answers, but more and more it seemed that I was talking to no one at all. I prayed for a sign, just so that I could know that the Christian God existed because I was starting to doubt. I just needed something to hold onto. Nothing ever happened. I had to seriously consider the possibility that perhaps I was the one believing in a false religion. Maybe no God answered because I was praying to a non-existent God.

Some Christians may argue that the threat of hell for unbelievers should drive Christians to missionary work – to make sure that people don’t die believing in a false religion, but no one can reach everyone, and we can’t go back in time to save those people who have already died. Further, there is the problem of authentication. If we tell someone about Jesus Christ, what evidence do we have to help them believe? If they fail to convert, can they really be blamed for not rejecting their traditional religion – the religion of their youth, their culture – when we don’t have anything to point to showing the clear truth of Christianity over their religion? God could remedy this situation, but He doesn’t. And those people in the Americas who lived between 30AD and 1500AD, they had no possibility of hearing the Christian gospel. All those people in all those years had the possibility of salvation in the sense that Jesus had already died, but until 1500AD there was no communication between the Old World and the New World. All those generations, probably numbering between 250 million and 500 million people, were doomed to hell from the moment they were born, despite the fact that salvation actually existed. God could have remedied the situation by sending angels to teach them about Christianity and salvation, but He didn’t. What a wonderful confirmation of the truth of Christianity it would’ve been if Europeans encountered Christians in the New World, their version of Christianity taught by angels. But, that didn’t happen. Instead, it seems that Christianity is just a religion passed between men, with no divine authentication.

What about the people who live in Saudi Arabia – where the government have banned the teaching of any religion except Islam? They will likely never hear any decent explanation of Christianity, and is it illegal to convert from Islam. Yet, those people are going to hell? Some Christians might “explain” that it is a demonic system, but that doesn’t mean that those people living under that system should go to hell. The Saudi government believes it is doing the population a favor by giving special rights to the “true religion”: Islam (which is actually a false religion). God could remedy this situation. He could show that Islam is not the true religion, he could show the people that He is the true God. Saudi Arabia could be changed if Christianity were authenticated and Islam refuted. But, that doesn’t happen, and those people have very little opportunity to hear or convert. Ultimately, millions of people are being sucked into hell because of it.

The more I looked around at the world, it seemed devoid of God. I remember being in college (a Christian college) when my friend Emily told me about her sister and brother-in-law. Emily thought the world of her brother-in-law. They were strong Christians, but one day a drunk driver hit their car killing him, but leaving Emily’s sister alive. Why? In some sense, it would’ve been more merciful for them both to survive or die (together in heaven). Instead, he died and she survived. I remember hearing how Emily’s sister tried to pickup the pieces of her life and find another godly man to marry. The last I heard (many years later), the sister was dating an overbearing Christian man, and the whole situation was bad. I just had to shake my head and think how God never seemed to actually do anything. Looking at the world and watching people’s experiences, I came to the conclusion that either God didn’t exist, or He simply didn’t care.

I remember when the tsunami hit in Southeast Asia a few years ago. Over one-hundred thousand people dead, many of them children. This was caused by a deep underground earthquake – a movement of the earth – the planet that God supposedly created. This was not some evil that mankind thrust upon their fellow man. It was caused by a problem in the planet. When that earthquake occurred, it took a few minutes before it hit Indonesia. Then it took another few hours before it his Sri Lanka, India, and East Africa, causing deaths in each location. If God is all knowing, not only did he knowingly create a planet that would convulse in a way that would kill hundreds of thousands, but he knew the tsunami would occur before it happened. After the earthquake occurred, and the deadly waves moved across the ocean, God knew that they would hit the shores, causing massive deaths. It’s hard for me to know that God saw all of this happening before and during this whole process and He didn’t do anything. God could’ve blocked the waves, He could have sent angels to warn people. If I had been in the position to know that this tsunami would happen, if I could’ve warned people before the waves hit, I would’ve been frantically warning people like crazy. I would’ve been screaming my lungs out, and if people still died I would’ve been crushed by the thought that maybe I could’ve done more, maybe I could’ve tried harder. But, God didn’t do that – He didn’t do anything, and more than that, He built this flawed planet. And after the disaster, God sees the results – the dead bodies, distraught parents, grieving families, confused orphans, the crushed lovers. Again, I am brought back to the thought that God doesn’t exist, or He simply doesn’t care. The tsunami, as terrible as it was, is nothing compared to eternal torment in hell. Yet, God fails to authenticate Christianity as the true religion. I don’t understand that – unless Christianity and all the religions that profess heaven and hell (including Islam) are simply false religions.

That is the reason I am not a Christian. The lack of authentication, the lack of divine action doesn’t make sense, and all the arguments and “evidence” for Christianity can be explained away as coincidence, rhetoric, psychology, or the simple desire to believe in a nice story that simply isn’t true. I can’t help but think that if Christianity were true, it would mean that billions of people will end up in eternal hell not out of rejection of God, but out of a God’s failure to authenticate Christianity as the true religion.

(Note: I realize that Mormons believe that Jesus Christ did go to the Americas to preach the gospel after his resurrection. Of course, there is nothing to substantiate this claim, and the Book of Mormon makes plenty of strange claims that have not held up to scrutiny.)

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From the LA Times:

Vatican panel condemns limbo to eternal dustbin

Catholic doctrine states that because all humans are tainted by original sin, thanks to Adam and Eve, baptism is essential for salvation. But the idea of limbo has fallen out of favor for many Catholics, who see it as harsh and not befitting a merciful God.

In the 5th century, St. Augustine declared that all unbaptized babies went to hell upon death. By the Middle Ages, the idea was softened to suggest a less severe fate, limbo.In his Divine Comedy, Dante characterized limbo as the first circle of hell and populated it with the great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as leading Islamic philosophers.

The document published Friday said the question of limbo had become a “matter of pastoral urgency” because of the growing number of babies who do not receive the baptismal rite. Especially in Africa and other parts of the world where Catholicism is growing but has competition from other faiths such as Islam, high infant mortality rates mean many families live with a church teaching them that their babies could not go to heaven.

Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director for doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the document “addresses the issue from a whole new perspective — if we are now hoping these children get to heaven, there is no longer any point in worrying about limbo.”

I was brought up protestant (not Catholic), but you really have to wonder about these guys. They had a doctrine for centuries, they believed it, they claim to have a “personal relationship” with God (that term being rather ambiguous), and that the Pope is God’s representative on earth, yet now they change the doctrine (oops, guess we were wrong about that whole “limbo” thing). It just goes to show how the church is just making stuff up as they go along, and now they’ve decided (based on popular and personal opinion) that it’s kind of harsh to put babies in limbo. Yet, they claim to have divine guidance. So, which is it – were they wrong about limbo for centuries (and their supposed “personal relationship with God” involved no actual communication with the highest members of the Catholic church), or are they wrong now (despite their supposed capability to get communication from God)?

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