Christian leaders condemn overturning of Prop 8

As most people who follow the news likely know, California’s Proposition 8 (the ban against same-sex marriage in that state) was just overturned last week in federal court. There will of course be appeals, but this is a major step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage not only in California, but if it survives appeal, possibly at the national level.

Since Christianity is all about love, they are throwing their full support towards gay marriage, right? (Did you detect a note of sarcasm there?)

Here is a link to an article by Christianity Today (which I saw posted in a few freethought-friendly places) which provides some reactions from the Christian community. To be fair, there are some quotes that are fairly neutral or even supportive of LGBT community, but here are a few gems to give you an idea of the other side of the coin.

Majorities are unstable, and while traditional marriage has the upper hand now, it may not in 20 years. [What is going to happen, LGBT people will suddenly become a majority in the next 20 years? Now that’s what I call evolution! Or will they just corrupt the rest of God-fearing people by then?]

Because gay marriage is less than God’s best for relationship, we need to equip ourselves to minister to those who will choose it and later realize it might not have been the best decision. [Will they also equip themselves to minister to those who will choose and later realize it was the best decision of their life?]

At stake in the debate is the very nature of marriage itself. Thinking biblically does not allow us to regard marriage as merely prudential or preferential (I like strawberry, you like pistachio), but as a covenantal union of one man and one woman established by God for a purpose that transcends itself. [Comparing the love and devotion of two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together…to liking pistachios. It’d be hard to make a more ignorant or belittling comparison. Although  “my cute little strawberry” does sound like a nice pet name.]

The Bible makes clear that marriage is God’s idea rather than a social contract that we are free to renegotiate based on changing social trends. [So if we have to follow God’s ideas on marriage, does this mean we’re sticking with the whole you-must-marry-your-rapist thing dictated in the Bible, then? (Deuteronomy 22:28). If we mustn’t follow social trends when it comes to marriage, should we also wear BC-era wedding attire?]

The gospel is deeply serious while Judge Walker’s decision is a jumbled mess of sloppy thinking […] [That’s funny; I would have said the exact opposite.]

Hopefully this ruling will lead society towards understanding of those who are not in the mainstream, instead of the continuing legacy of bigotry towards the “Other” that religions too often help perpetuate.

Love never fails [A post in memory of my mom]

A universal sentiment for atheists and believers alike.

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly last month. She died from what appears to have been a massive stroke. She had just seen a doctor, and while she had a few relatively minor health issues (as many 50-somethings do), she had just seen a doctor a few days prior to her death. There was nothing to indicate to her doctor or to any of her friends and family that she would suddenly be gone.

I simply could not believe the devastating news at first; this was nearly everyone’s reaction upon hearing it. It just didn’t make sense. From what my stepfather told me, my mom had a very fun night the previous night and had gone to bed happy. He goes to work early in the morning, so as was often the case he didn’t wake her up when he left and just let her sleep.

When he arrived home, she was already dead and had apparently never gotten out of bed. I mention this because it means she very likely died in her sleep and either did not suffer at all or suffered only very briefly. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, my father died just a little over a decade ago after several years of painfully battling cancer. The suffering he went through made me question the existence of an all-powerful, loving God. My mother at least was hopefully not a victim of lengthy, unbearable, meaningless pain before she died. Although it is always difficult to lose a loved one, knowing they went as quickly and painlessly as possible is some comfort.

As you might expect, her death brought up a whole swirl of religious thoughts among her grieving family and friends, myself included. (I will go into these more in detail shortly, including the pastor who nearly ruined my mother’s funeral.) Not being religious at all anymore, and feeling certain that my mother isn’t in a “better place,” brought both comforting and distressing feelings in me. I know that dying is a natural part of life, and that helped me to some extent. A number of people said it didn’t seem or feel “fair” that my mother died so young.

I will admit that a part of me felt, and still feels, that way. Logically, however, I know that there is no cosmic fairness that determines when and how someone dies. Death is just a part of life, and we all will eventually die. Somewhat coincidentally, I had just become acquainted with George Hrab‘s song “Everything Alive Will Die Someday,” which helped comfort and remind me of death being a natural part of life.

But the other side of atheism is knowing that my mother isn’t in some magical place looking down on us, either finally at peace or having fun in paradise. I knew that other people (including family) saw the wake and funeral as a chance to see loved ones and celebrate her life on Earth — and for many if not most gathered there, what they believe to be her new life in heaven. A couple people have said they don’t know exactly where she is, but hope that she’s somewhere.

I don’t feel this way, however: I know with about as much certainty as possible that my mother, as much as I love her, simply doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure most people who knew her don’t share my views on this, though. What was at least a somewhat comforting occasion to most was downright depressing to me. The wake and funeral felt to me overall as a sort of meaningless death ritual taking place around the rotting corpse of my mother. That was very difficult for me. I did what I felt was right though and played along for the most part, talking to loved ones and recounting memories of my mom.

Memories of her and her life will live on as long as we let them, but my mother herself is no more. On good days, I take time to remember and even laugh about fond memories of my mom, although there is still a great deal of sadness that I’m sure, if my experience after my dad’s death was any indication, will take quite some time to subside.

I was surprised actually at the wake and funeral, how few people actually said she was “in a better place.” Maybe it’s become too cliché now to say. Most people either said that they were very saddened and sorry for our loss, and/or their thoughts or prayers were with us. Their sentiments were appreciated. While the wake, conversations, and sympathy cards did include some “God” talk, there was only one thing that very much upset me, and it turned out that it upset some other people as well.

My mother had become more religious in recent years, but still was not a bible-thumping, church-every-Sunday sort of person. There was some basic Christian imagery and words chosen for the wake, but also some more general themes (peace, love). I think this reflected her well and I’m sure is what most of the family wanted. The chapter that was chosen to be read at her funeral was one that I thought was appropriate for a group of family and friends who are nearly all Christians, but also as a general message, too: 1 Corinthians 13.

As many believers and nonbelievers alike will recognize, this is the famous chapter that includes the lines “Love is patient, love is kind […] Love never fails” and ends with “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Of all of the Bible verses that could be used, I was happy this one was chosen since it includes one of the most universal (as opposed to dogmatically-Christian) sentiments in the Bible, at least as it is widely taken by many people. The power and importance of love is a warm way to remember a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and so many other roles she filled for the people she loved and who loved her so much.

But the pastor officiating the service did not leave the verse at this. In his message, he told my stepfather, me, and the rest of assembled grieving loved ones that my mother’s love did fail, and that our love for her also failed. He paused after each of these pronouncements, I presume to allow the full effect of his words to sink in. He then continued, saying that human love always fails, and that it is only Christ’s love that saves us.

I was shocked and infuriated that he would use those verses to deliver a message so dark and drenched in dogma at my mother’s funeral. My mother, despite any faults she may have had (who doesn’t have faults?), was perhaps the most loving person I have ever known. She very well may have believed some sort of afterlife, or specifically in heaven, or even in Christ’s saving love for her. But there isn’t anyone in that room who knew my mother who would actually think she would have approved of a pastor telling her husband and children that her love had failed us, and that our love had failed her. It felt like a hijacking of her funeral.

Fortunately, immediately after the service, when the funeral director was giving directions to the cemetery, he added a few much more positive words to end on a more upbeat and compassionate note. It was still a Christian message, but focused on life and death in nature, and love and memories. A few family members mentioned afterwards that they thought the pastor’s words were overly dark and “depressing.” So even some devout believers felt that message was just too much and inappropriate, although they didn’t put it in those words. My wife also agreed with this and we talked about it briefly. It gave me some comfort to know that I have loved ones who are not totally blinded by what was surely a valid, though cruelly heartless and insensitive, interpretation of their religion at my mother’s funeral.

But here’s what’s most important: I don’t feel the pastor, despite his best efforts to evangelize instead of comfort, ruined the commemoration and celebration of my mother’s life and love. In spite of the pastor’s words, and how difficult her sudden death has been on me and on my family, how much she’ll miss, how much we’ll miss her, there is something that comforts me. Not religion, but love. My mother is dead. But my mom loved me, and as long as I live, I will love her. Life ends, but love never fails.

Woman sentenced to death by stoning

An Iranian woman, after already being lashed 99 times for adultery, has now been sentenced to be stoned to death. It’s hard to believe such barbaric punishment can occur in the 21st century, but Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani, who is a 42-year-old mother, has exhausted all her legal options and could be put to death any day for her alleged crime.

According to CNN

Ashtiani, 42, will be buried up to her chest, according to an Amnesty International report citing the Iranian penal code. The stones that will be hurled at her will be large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill her immediately.

People continued to be cruelly tortured and killed like this because of religious dogma. Some Muslim apologists claim that since stoning for adultery isn’t in the Koran, that it’s not an Islamic but rather a cultural practice. While it’s true that the Koran doesn’t condone stoning for adultery, it is condoned in hadith writings which are meant to interpret and give guidance to Muslims about the Koran. While interpretation and application of hadiths can vary (notably between sunnis and shiites), the fact remains that this practice stems from Islamic tradition.

Even worse are the facts that

• there is no conclusive proof that the woman actually committed the crime she has been sentenced to death for.
• she has already been punished for her alleged crime (99 lashes), and

According to the Guardian:

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of “judge’s knowledge” – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Amnesty International has a campaign trying to get Iran to abolish stoning, but there appears to be little chance it will work in time to save Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani or at least 10 other people who as of 2010 are awaiting stoning.

Debating whether or not there is a god may be an interesting intellectual enterprise, but in the meantime the horrible crimes committed in the name of supernatural beings goes on. Governments, no matter whether they claim to be Islamic, Christian, or secular, should not be punishing people based on religion.

Photo source: Amnesty International

God Is Not Great (and other songs)

If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out George Hrab‘s new album Trebuchet, as previewed for free on his own Geologic Podcast as well as several others (Dogma Free America, American Freethought, Skepticality, etc.). There are a number of skeptic/freethought tunes on it, insightful lyrics, and a great variety of musical styles. Just bought my own copy and am loving it. Check it out at:

http://www.geologicpodcast.com/the_geologic_podcast_episode_170
https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/hrab6

Image source: http://www.geologicpodcast.com/the_geologic_podcast_episode_170

Big Butter Jesus burns to the ground

Big Butter Jesus, aka Touchdown Jesus, a giant Jesus monument in southern Ohio made famous in part by comedian-songwriter Heywood Banks, just burned to the ground after being hit by lightning Monday night. Some were saddened by the fire, while others were amused that God would send a lightning bolt to consume a monument to his Son in fire. (God did allegedly send the real thing down to die a torturous death and burn in hell for 3 days, so I think setting the Jesus statue ablaze is nothing in comparison.)

This is big news; it made the mainstream newswires, which is how I found out about it. Fortunately no one was hurt, but it sounds like tons of people stopped by on the highway to see the giant fireball burn.

To look at the thing, in photos at least, you just kind of assumed if it wasn’t made out of butter, it had to be made out of something solid. Certainly somebody must have realized that making a huge flammable statue with a metal frame was not a good idea. I guess not. According to Yahoo News/AP, “it was made of plastic foam and fiberglass over a steel frame.” The steel frame is all that is left now of the $300,000 statue officially called “King of Kings”. But never fear: the church says “”It will be back, but this time we are going to try for something fireproof.” (that’s an actual quote, by the way, from co-pastor Darlene Bishop.)

I found out about the monument thanks to a friend who showed me Heywood’s song a few years back. I thought it was hilarious. My wife, who’s a Christian as I’ve mentioned before, thought the song was hilarious, too. The song is often in my head when reading about various Christian wackiness. Here’s a link to the lyrics; it’s funnier if you just listen to it before reading the lyrics, in my opinion.

Heywood Banks was asked about the fire, and according to Daytona Daily News he said he has concocted new lyrics to the song in light of it burning down (“extra crispy Jesus!”). No YouTube or audio of this version seems available yet, but when it comes out I’ll be sure to post it here.

Image sources: http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Lightning-strikes-Jesus-statue-Ohio/ss/events/us/061510lightningjesus#photoViewer=/100615/480/urn_publicid_ap_org4d3393dbfb36415fbb259184b3a8d6e2 ; http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Dayton-Daily-News-lightning-King-of-King-thunderstorm/photo//100615/480/urn_publicid_ap_org_b8bd107213aa4e03a8cbb7d90584d889//s:/ap/us_lightning_strikes_jesus_statue;_ylt=Anli0fY6DBOdEojribnAFmJH2ocA;_ylu=X3oDMTE5bGZwZGlsBHBvcwMxBHNlYwN5bl9yX3RvcF9waG90bwRzbGsDZmxhbWVzc2hvb3R1

Opt-out required for school prayers? Teacher fired for 2nd time

It is against both Tennessee and U.S. law to lead public school students in prayer. But some people just won’t stop breaking the law and trying to find ways around it. Should students have to opt-out in order to be spared from teacher-led prayers?

According to WLBT news, “A Franklin County High School teacher was fired on Tuesday for leading her students in prayer in the classroom,” At first this sounds like good news, because the school board did not renew her contract because of her illegally leading prayer in school. But the news is not entirely good.

Apparently, teacher Alice Hawley had been fired “over 15 years ago”…for doing the same thing: leading prayers in class. “A few years later” she was asked back. So at least 15 years ago, she was let go because she was leading students in prayer. Then she was asked back, let’s say 10 years ago as a conservative estimate since we’re not given exact figures. That means she very well may have been leading class prayers for the past 10 years until a student or parent complained, or someone outside the school found out.

The principal was allegedly aware of what the teacher was doing, at least according to one student. “And sometimes our principle [sic: principal] comes and he’ll bow his head and he’ll pray with us.” If the principal was coming in and praying, he obviously was aware of the practice at some point before the teacher was let go; and since he actively participated in the prayers he may very well also be breaking the law, depending on the circumstances.

But in addition to subjecting some students who may be of different religious faiths or no faith at all to the teacher’s prayers, it’s the teacher’s defense that particularly irks me. One of her students said her policy was that if a student objected to the teacher praying:

“She said you can leave a letter an anonymous email, or just tell her raise your hand in class,”

So apparently, if the student is presenting the situation accurately, this teacher thinks that it’s okay if she imposes religious prayer upon her students, who are minors, so long as she tells them they can raise their hand to complain or leave an anonymous letter if they object. What she apparently doesn’t get is that she is in a position of authority, and that as a public school teacher, she is also acting as a representative of the government. She is not allowed to advocate religion. For her to say that the default is prayer and that you have to complain to stop it, when most or all of your other classmates support the prayer, is clearly a violation and an undue burden to put on a minor.

The video shows several students with shirts or writing on their arms saying “I broke the rule, I prayed in school” in support of their now-fired teacher and her prayers. What happens if a kid does not wear such a shirt, or does not actively support their teacher? Will they be singled out overtly or subtly and treated differently?

Teachers and other people hired by the state or federal government should not be forcing religion on anyone, especially not children. Children should not be forced to protest in order for the law to be upheld; the adults should be doing this on their own. I am glad the teacher got fired, but appalled that she was rehired in the first place, that this was the second time she had to be fired for the same thing, that the principal appears to have known about such prayers and even participated in them, and that her leaving has now further brought students into the fray. Hopefully whoever is hired to replace Hawley will start off their tenure by setting a good example for their students: respect for both students’ rights and the law by not leading classes in prayer.

Where’s Jesus’ birth certificate?! (Photo)

While my wife and I were traveling through Arkansas this weekend, I decided we just had to pull over to take a picture.

I couldn’t help but laugh at this. I’m assuming there were two separate intended messages here:

• I haven’t seen enough proof that Barack Obama was really born in America, and therefore he shouldn’t be President.
• Jesus Christ is my savior, since he definitely died on the cross and rose again for our sins.

My reading of this scene, however, is

• People may say that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, but
• We don’t even have solid historical evidence of his birth, death, or resurrection, so how do we know he even existed?

My wife, who is a Christian, also understood right away why putting these two symbols together was pretty funny, since the result is almost certainly not what was intended in rural, highly Christian Arkansas.

By posting this photo, I am not necessarily claiming myself that Jesus never existed (although many before me have made such claims, understandly given the Bible can’t even get his stepdad Joseph’s ancestory right). It would be nice, though, if people became skeptical in a more productive way than being an Obama birther. They could start by demanding that their god or their church give them better proof of the “greatest story ever told” than a very deeply flawed Bible

Quiz Show

Thanks to Dwindling In Unbelief, I just watched a funny video by nonstampcollector about contradictions in the Bible. The next time someone tries to tell you the Bible is inerrant, this should be a fun and educational way to show them that it’s most certainly not. I like the fact that the relevant passages are displayed each time an answer is given so that believer and non-believer alike can fact-check. Enjoy!

Protecting victims not in the name of God, but in the name of Justice

I could not believe this headline when I saw it.

Irish cardinal to stay on despite abuse concerns (AP via Yahoo News)

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, is refusing calls to step down even though he is involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse (assault and/or rape) cases.

Can you imagine the head of any other organization—the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a prime minister of a country, even the den master of a cub scout troop—refusing to step down when he admits having knowledge not only of the sexual abuse of minors, but also of efforts to coerce victims into not reporting the abuse, yet he did not come public with this knowledge while other kids were being abused?

According to the article:

In the 1970s […] he was at meetings where children had to sign oaths of silence about allegations of abuse against a Nobertine priest, Brendan Smyth, who was later convicted and died in prison.

Who else in this world, besides a so-called man of the cloth, would be allowed to continue leading an organization (with thousands if not millions of kids as members in that country, mind you) after he witnessed and kept silent about such a thing? And with 200 new allegations of abuse being brought to light between April 2009 and March 2010, who would have the audacity to declare he is going to stay on in his position?

Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Irish Catholics apologizing for the abuse in these and other cases, but

Victims of abuse said they were deeply disappointed by the letter as it failed to address the role of senior church leaders in the scandal.

But this news deeply disturbed me on the face level of sexual abuse, and the man’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his complicity in the matter, but on several other levels as well.

  • The AP article starts out by saying the cardinal was involved in “a cover-up of a sexual abuse case decades ago”. It isn’t until later that we read that “a sexual abuse case” (singular) involves “children” (plural). I find the use of the singular in the lead paragraph to be misleading.
  • Since the article doesn’t deem it worthy to mention the details of the case, I looked it up and found several sites (including a BBC News article from March) that state that it was two teenage boys, aged between 10 and 14 (is a 10-year-old a “teenager”?), who were abused. I don’t say “allegedly” because of the facts that the offender was found guilty and the Cardinal does not appear to be disputing the facts.
  • The BBC News article states that at the time Brady was a “relatively junior cleric it was not his responsibility to report Smyth to the police and that he passed all relevant information to his superiors. Smyth’s child abusing continued for many years after 1975.” The fact that he did not report the abuse and cover-up to authorities meant that other children were abused, for years.
  • The media are largely playing down the viciousness of the abuse that happened in these pedophile priest sex cases. As has been pointed out in many venues, the euphemism “abuse” in the media particularly irks me when referring to despicable rape and sexual assault of minors. “Abuse” sounds like maybe a priest touched or fondled children, which would be a serious, life-damaging event in and of itself. But Brendan Smyth was later accused of “rape”, according to a number of sites (including an article by Ireland’s public service station RTE).
  • I could not find information as to the nature of the abuse in the specific cases of the two children who were forced to sign the oath of silence, but if later children were allegedly raped, one can imagine the abuse might have gone beyond inappropriate touching. The article should have mentioned that the priest was later accused of rape. I have yet to see an American article that says a priest has been accused of rape, as Smyth was in later cases at least. For other accused rapists, and people who help cover up their tracks, do the media talk about “abuse”? Priests deserve no special treatment when it comes to reports of crime.
  • Not only do religious people not deserve a pass when it comes to reporting, they also should be equal under the law. I don’t know enough details about Cardinal Brady, but in other cases of accused rapists and abusers law enforcement and government officials have looked the other way, or given unfair and unjust treatment to accused pedophiles. I recently watched the film Deliver Us From Evil which describes an American priest (O’Grady) who abused numerous children over decades. Complaints to the police didn’t help: the church promised to keep him in a monastery away from children (which didn’t happen). If any other organization promised to keep a child abuser and raper away from children, would the law enforcement just let him go scott free, or would they be tried in the courts? He eventually was jailed, but is now free again. My understanding is that this is not an isolated set of incidents, but that some police and public officials have been knowingly letting the destruction of children’s lives go on for decades just because the accused are priests, clerics, and other religious people.
  • Lastly, when is public outcry going to be loud enough that police, government officials, and churches no longer protect rapists, abusers, and the people who cover up what they have done? It’s obvious they won’t protect children when left to their own devices, so people need to demand justice. I think some people still think the abuse is minor or not widespread, but slowly but surely the word seems to be getting out that these are not isolated incidents, but systematic cover-up allegedly going as high as the current pope (London Times, The Guardian).

The rape and sexual abuse of children is sickening and horrendous, and so is the cozy treatment the accused and their cohorts have been getting for years. The Catholic Church needs to be disabused of the notion that it is above the law and that their priests and cardinals are more important than the victims they leave behind. It is time for secular justice to get to the bottom of this and punish these criminals, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (since that apparently isn’t enough to set them straight), but in the name of justice.

Image source: Wikipedia