Log in

Sunday Sermonette: I Want To Believe

A middle-aged man stands uncomfortably at a podium in a large meeting hall. Though unused to public speaking, he has an important story to tell, a very personal story. Something happened to him, something remarkable. It changed his life.

A number of people in the congregation nod in recognition as he mentions specific details. Though they come from all walks of life, they clearly believe they’ve had the same extraordinary experience. Other people listen to the speaker with longing, hoping that they, too, may someday share.

In the back of the hall are tables selling books and taped lectures. Although the subject matter is serious, there is a sense of good-humored fellowship among the members. Outside the hall, they know, are skeptics and scoffers and closed-minded unbelievers. They will know the truth soon. A great and universal revelation is imminent. For now, coffee and cookies will be available shortly.

At the podium, the middle-aged man finishes his account of how tall grey aliens abducted him from his bedroom, took him aboard their spaceship, and conducted what seemed like scientific and medical tests on him before returning him. The audience applauds.

Anyone who’s studied the phenomenon will confirm that UFO abductees are not crazy and they’re not lying. They truly and sincerely believe that extraterrestrials have taken and studied them. Other UFO enthusiasts, including retired military officers and college professors, believe that the government knows all about the alien threat and is covering it up to avoid panicking the population. The overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy is the absence of evidence.

The key word is “believe.” There really is not much difference between UFOlogy and Christianity. Yet one is the most popular and respected religion in the country, with adherents at the highest levels of society, industry, and government, and the other is science fiction nonsense, whose believers are widely regarded as cranks and kooks.

When asked why they don’t accept the claims of the alien abductee, most people will tell you that they too have had dreams, but dreams aren’t reality. They’ll tell you how false memories work, and how easy it is for humans to both be deceived and to deceive themselves. While they’re sure that the person claiming alien abduction is both sincere and intelligent, sincerity and intelligence are not proof against error - a college professor can be just as easily misled as a country bumpkin. They’ll point to the scientific facts. While there very well may be other life in the universe, it is necessarily very, very far away. Even one of our closest neighbors, Proxima Centauri, is 25.8 trillion miles away. Imagine how long it would take and how much kinetic energy would be required to reach it. If the alien abduction claimant expects his extraordinary story to be believed, they’ll say, it will require some truly extraordinary evidence.

Why isn’t the same skepticism brought to bear on the claims of religion?

Father Joseph Crissman: So you believe in this sort of thing?
Fox Mulder: Let’s just say, I want to believe.
        -- The X-Files

P.S. Atheism is not a movement or a doctrine, it is merely a position on the question, “Do you believe in the existence of a god or gods?”. It is possible to be an atheist in regard to gods and a believer in alien visitors. The Raelian religion, a UFO sex cult, claims to be atheist. Still, many people are atheists because they strive to be skeptics, and find the claims of UFOlogy to be almost as completely lacking in evidence as the claims of Christianity.


Sunday Sermonette: Theodicy

God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent - it says to right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.
— Robert Heinlein

Last week, I mentioned that in my conversation with a hospital chaplain as to why I did not believe, I found in the Problem of Evil evidence that the Christian God does not exist.  The argument is best summarized by David Hume’s paraphrase of Epicurus:  

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?

The chaplain didn’t defend God’s behavior, but theological justification for a God who permits evil exists.  It’s called theodicy. 

The first justification is usually Free Will.  Here’s C.S. Lewis’ explanation in The Case for Christianity:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right…If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil 

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is 
also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of 
automata — of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.

This doesn’t explain natural disasters and their attendant suffering: droughts, famines, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, et cetera.  It also doesn’t hold water in Christian theology.  Most Christians believe that God did create beings who do not have free will: angels.  And then he created humans so he could have creatures who would, of their own free will, love him.   That story falls apart when you consider that at least a third of those angels rebelled against God and were cast down with Lucifer.  How did they do that without free will?  If angels do have free will after all, wouldn’t that mean that the devil and his minions can change their minds and repent?  You really can’t have it both ways.

Another answer to why God permits evil is the one given to Job, my favorite book in the Bible.  Job is a poem that tries to answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  God’s answer: “Because I said so, that’s why. Now shut up and eat your spinach."

Plato told a story of a young man named Euthyphro, to whom Socrates asked the question (paraphrased for monotheists): “Is it just and good because God approves, or does God approve because it is just and good?”  If the latter, then God is subject to a higher moral code.  Job takes the former view: God may be arbitrary and capricious, but we cannot judge because he is God. As a ferocious old hymn by Isaac Watts put it, 

Shall the vile race of flesh and blood 
Contend with their creator God?
Shall mortal worms presume to be
More holy, just, or wise than He?

Besides, only God can see all ends.  Perhaps being stricken with cancer might help you build a stronger character.  But how can anyone justify the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust? What possible good can come from the rape and murder of children?  How does the terrorist killing of over a hundred people in Paris benefit anyone?  The idea that only God can judge good and evil is nonsense.  If God exists, and we are made in God’s image, then we must be able to judge good from evil, justice from injustice, too.  Otherwise how can we be culpable for anything?

Christians argue that suffering is just part of life, which is why it was so important that God, in the form of Jesus, suffered so terribly.  Mel Gibson made a very popular torture porn film called The Passion of the Christ which detailed that suffering in technicolor.  But how much did Jesus suffer, exactly?  According to the Gospels, he was arrested on Thursday night and was dead by Friday afternoon.  We all know people who have suffered a lot longer.  And in Jesus’ case, he didn’t even stay dead. Jesus had a really bad weekend for your sins.  

There are no new arguments to justify God’s total disregard for human suffering and evil, just the same old ones glossed and paraphrased.  But here’s the thing with studying theodicy: if you’re honest, you have to consider three possibilities.  First, that God might be justified.  Second, that God might be a horrible monster.  Or third, that maybe, just maybe, God doesn’t exist.  

You either have a God who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a God who simply watches it and says, "When you’re done, I’m going to punish you.”  If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.
— Tracie Harris


Sunday Sermonette: The Chaplain's Visit

I recently spent a week in a very nice hospital. The trouble was, except for a little discomfort from the surgery, I was feeling just fine. Hospitals are terrible places to feel good in. I’m not often bored - life is too damned interesting - but being tied to an IV pole in a hospital bed isn’t the most thrilling experience either.

When I was admitted, I was asked about my religious needs and told the nurse I was a friendly atheist - I had no objections to anyone else’s religion. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when a chaplain showed up a few days into my stay.

I like hospital chaplains. It’s a job I’ve done in the past, so I have some appreciation of how difficult it can be. They very often serve as ombudsmen, outside of the hospital’s chain of command, but with greater knowledge of who might be able to help in a particular circumstance. I’ve known some wonderful chaplains in my time. I welcomed him and asked him to sit down.

We had a very pleasant conversation. He was an elderly gentleman, probably in his seventies. He lived only a few miles from where I do, so we talked about the town and the neighborhood. At the end of our chat, he asked if I’d like to join him in a prayer.

“I’m not a believer,” I told him, “but you’re welcome to pray if you want to.”

He seemed surprised, and asked why. “I really don’t want to offend you,” I said, but he was genuinely curious. So I told him.

There is no evidence, I said. This world, this universe, looks very much as you’d expect a non-directed cosmos to look. There are plenty of people who claim that a god or gods exist, but they offer no evidence for their assertions and they mostly disagree with each other. This suggests to me that they’re deceiving themselves.

There is, however, some evidence against the kind of God in which Christians believe, and that’s usually called the Problem of Evil. As the philosopher David Hume paraphrased the Greek philosopher Epicurus:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?

Given this lack of proof, I cannot believe.

“That’s what faith is for,” he said. “Yes,” I said, “but I do not consider faith a virtue. If we were in a park and saw a sign on a bench that said ‘Wet Paint,’ what’s the first thing we’d do? Touch it to be sure, right? And we do that in every area of our lives - we test, we confirm, we experiment, we study. Why is this one question, what some would say is the most important question in life, treated differently?"

“If you believed, then you’d know.” he said. “I have believed in many things,” I said, “not all of them true. I’m really very good at fooling myself. How can I distinguish an unfounded belief from self-deception? That’s why I need evidence."

“Not everything is a scientific question,” he said. “True, and if we were talking about a God outside of space and time, we could not expect to find evidence. Neither would we care. But the Christian God supposedly manifests in our reality. That’s his special claim to fame. And that means that those claims are testable. If the only way to know that there is a God is to believe as hard as I can that he exists, what is the difference between an invisible God and a non-existent one?"

We wished each other well, I thanked him for his kind visit, and he left, still shaking his head. I’ve no doubt he saw me as just another poor self-deluded sinner grasping at any rationalization to cling to my benighted opinions - a nice man, to be sure, but sadly misled. I saw him much the same way. But it was very nice of him to drop by.


Sunday Sermonette: Thank Goodness

Sorry for the lack of a Sermonette last Sunday.  I was tethered to an IV tree in a hospital bed, fighting off an infection.  It’s from that experience I draw today’s Sermonette.

We live in a nation of base motives and vague threats.  Let me give you an example.  Two parents were just charged with criminal neglect here in my little corner of the world.  When they wanted to return from the beach to the campsite a quarter mile away, their two sons, aged 7 and 9, pleaded to be allowed to stay and play on the beach.  Their parents gave stern warnings not to go near the water, warnings they obeyed, and let them play unsupervised for an hour. The police sergeant who filed the criminal charges wondered what might have happened if some nameless, faceless sexual predator had happened across two young boys playing on a well-populated public beach.  I know when I was their age, I had unsupervised play all day - I just had to be home by dinner.  When we went to the beach, we’d leave my parents with the younger sibs and head a quarter mile or so down to a stream that fed into the ocean.  We’d clamber over the rocks and swim up the stream to the pond, halted only by the yucky soft pond muck underfoot.  This was considered perfectly normal and indeed necessary.  But now every stranger is a danger, even though statistics show that we’re all much safer now than fifty years ago.

About ten days ago, I had an appointment with podiatrist about an infection in my foot.  “That’s going to require surgery,” he said.  “Outpatient?” I hoped.  “Oh, no. You just bought yourself seven to ten days in the hospital.”  

I was admitted the next morning and hooked up to the first of what would be gallons of antibiotics.  The surgery was on Friday night, which meant the lab cultures wouldn’t come back until Monday.  By Tuesday, I finally learned what I had: a virulent strep infection, the sort of flesh-eating bacteria that leads to people having extremities amputated to save them from toxic shock.  In a few more days, said the doctor, I would have been the sickest guy on the ward.

I kept my foot and all my toes intact but I cannot put any weight on this foot for three weeks.  The first of those weeks was spent tethered to the IV, a Prisoner of Podiatry, as one hospital administrator called it.  It was a very nice hospital as such places go. I had a view of Hyannis Harbor and wonderful caring nurses. The podiatrist was in every day to change the dressing.  He’s the top-rated podiatric surgeon in the area, and certainly the hardest working man in medicine.  His dedication and sense of personal responsibility for a good outcome was inspiring.  

Meanwhile…  the Unindicted Co-Conspirator woke on Sunday night with atrial fibrillation.  This is not usually considered dangerous, and she has medication to be taken until her heart goes back into sinus rhythm, which usually happens within two to eight hours.  The trouble for her is that a-fib is terrifying. She gets confused and frightened and feels like she’s going to die. When I’m with her, I can comfort her and she knows I’ll monitor her heart and call for help if something bad happens.  But she was alone, a twenty-mile drive away, and she damned sure couldn’t drive.  She made the sensible decision to have a cooler head prevail, and called 911.  From my side, when she didn’t answer texts, I checked the “Find My Friend” app and saw she was zooming down the Mid-Cape Highway. The police had arrived first and guided in the EMTs. As they do with any cardiac case, they rushed her to the closest hospital, the one I was in.  

It was after midnight.  I called for the nurse and asked her to find a wheelchair and move my IV over to it, explaining why I needed to get down to Emergency.  She made it all happen quickly, and I was there just a few minutes after my wife came in.  I was with her during the initial evaluation, able to fill in any details that she in her confusion might miss.  A doctor reassured her that she would be fine, and gave her a shot that eventually cardioverted her.  

My nurse said the Unimpeachable One would be welcome to kick back in my room until daylight, and even offered to drive her home when her shift ended, though I’m quite certain it would have been ten miles out of her way.  In the end, a neighbor insisted on driving all the way in and picking her up.

I was ready to head home on Thursday, but one obstacle remained.  Since I can’t touch the floor with one foot, I have to get around by hopping on the other, supported by a walker, and I can’t even do much of that lest I injure my good foot.  The six-inch threshold between my front walk and door posed a considerable barrier.  The manager of our condo complex said they didn’t have a ramp to loan us, but figured they probably should have.  Within 15 minutes, our maintenance crew had measured and knocked together a ramp sturdy enough for a big guy like me to hop on it.  

My neighbors have been calling, asking what they can do to be of help and just checking up. I am humbled to be surrounded by so many competent, caring people. I think most of us are caring and competent in our own spheres. Why then are we so isolated and fearful? Why does a small town policewoman think that paedophile predators prowl her beaches?  I can only blame the 24-hour news cycle.  “Neighbor helps neighbor” isn’t a headline.  It’s just reality. No gods required.  Just good people, and I am blessed and thankful to have so many around me. Thank goodness!


Sunday Sermonette: Breaking Bad

In the cable TV drama Breaking Bad, one of the major characters emerges from rehab with a fresh understanding and acceptance of his true self.  "I'm the bad man," he says.  It is probably not the lesson in self-acceptance that the rehab counselor wished to impart, but that's what he took home. It's a very Christian lesson.

The most important thing to know about the Christian faith is that you are a bad person. You're bad, wicked, depraved, and perverse. You are egotistical, selfish, and disobedient. You are a sinner.

The focus on your failings varies by denomination, but your fallen nature is central to the Christian religion. Humans are intrinsically sinful and have been from the mythical ur-ancestor parents, which apparently came as a great surprise to the supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful Creator, so God had no choice but to punish them with suffering and death. God worked out an elaborate shell game in which he knocked up a human woman with a child who was somehow completely human and yet completely God for the purpose of ultimately being tortured to death as a gruesome payment for humanity's sins. When Elvis died for my sins, at least he stayed dead. The god-man didn't really die, because it was claimed that he popped back up again a couple days later and returned to a mystical transcendent plane of existence where he lives forever. And if you shut your eyes and clap your hands and cry, "I do believe in fairies. I do believe in fairies" or something equally meaningless, you too will also suffer and die, and return to a life of eternal bliss in a mystical transcendent plane of existence.

Care to guess what the greatest possible sin is? No, not setting fire to an orphanage or slaughtering a bishop as he says Mass or diddling the altar boys. Those are mere peccadillos. The very worst sin, the unforgivable sin, is to deny the existence of this slipshod bloodthirsty God.

But, cry the theists, without a God there can be no right and wrong, no good or evil. Without a God, it's all subjective. People can just make it up as they go along.

Yup. Just like we always have. Let me make one thing clear: evil and suffering exist. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it's the result of human limitations. We cannot see all ends, so we do what seems right at the time. We evolved our morality in order to live together in community and accomplish far greater things than can be done by a single individual or a small tribal group. It's been less than 10,000 years since we got together in organized agriculture (and invented beer). From crude and brutal beginnings, our morality and ethics continue to develop and improve. So does our technological ability to harm.

We certainly don't get our rules and morals from the Bible, and for that we should be thankful. I'd really have been upset if I had to stone my wife outside the city gates because she wasn't a virgin on her wedding night. (Though a couple slaves might come in handy for light housekeeping.) Seriously, our sense of justice and fairness and right behavior has been developed and passed on from generation to generation, not established once and for all by a band of wandering goat-herders thousands of years ago.

The theists raise another objection. "It's not fair!" Without a God to establish an objective morality and mete out rewards or punishment in the afterlife, what's the point of obeying the rules? A world in which Hitler meets the same end as Anne Frank is just not fair.  

Yup again. What's your point? Life isn’t fair, and it wouldn’t be fair even with a heavenly scorekeeper. Do you think that only the fear of an ultimate judge keeps people in line? Do you really think you'd be out there cooking meth except for the fact that an angry God is watching? 

I am imperfect. I was born that way. I try to improve not because I fear divine punishment, but because it makes the intervening years between my birth and inevitable death more enjoyable. I don't want to be found worthy by a god after I die, I want to be found worthy of my wife while I live. Life without a final judgement is not meaningless; I create meaning, and one of the ways I do that is to try and be a little better today than I was yesterday. I try to make my apologies and amends to my friends and loved ones in the here and now. There is no ultimate reward, that is reward enough.

If this is the only life we can be absolutely sure we'll have, wouldn't it be a sin to waste a moment of it in empty apologies for the sins of being human to manmade gods?


Strip Mining

We’ve got this idea that the more information we can amass about something, the better we can understand it. That may be true, but it depends entirely upon our assumptions.

You may remember a two-page commercial that ran in Computerworld back in 1997. The first page read, “At 6:12 p.m. every Wednesday, Owen Bly buys diapers and beer." Beneath the headline is a picture of a chubby man wearing nothing but a diaper. The second page reads, “Do not judge Owen. Accommodate him.” And it goes on to talk about data mining with Tandem computers.

Sadly, reality has not yet caught up to this utopian vision. Today I received a letter from my good friends at National Grid. Last winter, it informed me, I used more gas to heat my home than my neighbors. Here were some tips on saving energy.

Which neighbors? Were they neighbors in the same townhouse condo development, or were they people in stand-alone houses nearby? Were they counting the snowbirds who went south for the winter, leaving their thermostats at 55 degrees to keep the pipes from freezing? (That’s almost half my neighbors.) I have a gas fireplace as well as a gas boiler - do my neighbors have the same?

This data gives me little in the way of actionable information. (I already have smart thermostats and new windows.) All I know is that my gas bill was quite reasonable last year, and I expect it will be even more so this year. National Grid could have saved me the preparation and mailing costs of this useless data.

I have a program on my iPhone that encourages me to log my food and increase my activity, using clever algorithms that approach artificial intelligence. But it lacks common sense. It bugs me to log my lunch just after noon, when I don’t eat lunch at noon. It doesn’t seem to understand leading modifiers. “Sugar-free fat-free Greek yogurt” yields “And did your yogurt have a significant amount of sugar?” It seems to think that I exercise at the same time every day, and wonders why I haven’t yet when I don’t exercise until later. It’s a brilliant program, but just smart enough to be annoying.

Siri isn’t too bad, but it spoils you for everything else. If I asked Siri for directions to 123 Main Street, it would automatically assume that I’m looking for 123 Main Street in the municipality I’m currently in. If I ask my Nissan for directions to 123 Main Street, I’m just as likely to get driving directions on how to get to Mankato, Minnesota. (Oh, dear, it looks like I’m going to be late.)

Granted, Apple Homekit is new, but I’d expect a little more intelligence there. If I had an automatic front door lock installed and said, “Siri, lock my door,” nothing would happen. Siri wants to be told “Lock my door lock."

I’m not too concerned that I can’t yet take my vacations on the Moon or hop in a hover car, but we’re now 18 years from the time Tandem claimed to be able to accommodate Owen’s peculiar appetites for diapers and beer, and it still doesn’t work. I want my smart robot valet.


God, as we all know, created the heavens and the earth. The universes in their theoretical multitudes, the uncountable galaxies, the doubly uncountable stars, and the triply-uncountable planets proclaim the glory of his handiwork. He created the plants of the earth, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, and “that Leviathan which Thou hast made for the sport of it,” as the Psalmist saith.  And he said they were all good.

Then he created man, and it went horribly wrong.  Adam took one look down, just to the level where his hands naturally fell, and found something that offended the sight of God. The first man found his peepee, and men haven’t been able to keep their hands off it since.

My dear friend, Professor Liddle-Oldman, brought this to my attention after a recent sermon.  "As I’ve said before, the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of All Creation, the God who rules a universe 30 billion light years wide (or 1200 light years wide), is almost entirely preoccupied with who touches whose peepee. Peepee touching must be bad."

Oh, the peepee itself is not bad. Since man is made in the image and likeness of God, it must be assumed that God has a peepee. His probably still has a foreskin, since there are no accounts of a heavenly mohel.  The peepee is fine, so long as it’s only touched to aim it during urination, and shaken no more than twice to remove the last drops.  And presumably it’s not a sin to use it for procreational sex with a female, so long as it is within the bounds of holy matrimony and not during proscribed times like days of fasting and abnegation.

But all other touching of peepees is a grave sin, deeply offensive to God.  And touching another male’s peepee (unless you’re a urologist or a mohel), is the gravest sin of all.  God has destroyed whole cities for that offense.  Even the tacit acknowledgement that one man might sometime touch his partner’s peepee has caused county clerks to defy federal judges and refuse to issue marriage certificates. One local official wanted to submit a bill begging for God not to destroy their community because they had not driven out the peepee-touchers.  Floods and other natural disasters have been taken as God’s wrath that two men can now legally touch peepees in the privacy of their own bedroom here in the United States.

God is not mocked. Do not claim false comfort in believing that God is merciful, for he is also just and righteous altogether.  His wrath will come like a terrible swift sword, and none may withstand it.  Any man who has touched his peepee or any other man’s peepee in an impure manner will be judged before His great throne, and given over to the devil and his angels (which according to Renaissance artists have big, pointy peepees), to be tormented forever.

And what about women?  Those who have touched peepees stand condemned as the Jezebels and foul temptresses they are.  Virgins will go to heaven. They’re pure.  They don’t have peepees.

Peepee fondlers and peepee watchers and other unclean, sick, perverted sinners, you have been warned.


Sunday Sermonette: Father Knows Best

Pope Francis, first of his name, today opened a synod, a meeting of Catholic leaders. This three-week-long conference of cardinals, bishops, and a few laity, is supposed to be about how to bring Catholics into line with Church teachings. Western Catholics have been far too disobedient for too long. The elephant in the nave isn’t divorced and remarried Catholics who receive the Sacrament despite being unrepentant adulterers.  The big issue is the Church’s hateful and harmful teaching on homosexuality.  Two men, both priests, have made that very clear.

The first priest actually brought this subject to the fore in 1976.  Father John McNeill, a Jesuit and gay man, was one of the founders of Dignity, an organization of Catholic LGBT people.  In 1976, he wrote a scholarly book called The Church and the Homosexual.  The book received permission from McNeill’s superiors to be published, under the Jesuit Father General’s imprimi potest. This designation means that there is no doctrinal error in the the book, that it was fit to be read and discussed by theologians and scholars.  

Within a year of publication, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who then headed the powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Office of the Holy Inquisition), overruled the Jesuits and barred Father McNeill from publishing or speaking in public on the subject. McNeill obeyed.  In 1987, Ratzinger further ordered that McNeill have no further ministry to gay people and remain silent on all gay matters.  This extraordinary gag order was unendurable, and McNeill refused. He was subsequently expelled from the Jesuit order after 40 years, though he retained his priesthood.  McNeill went on to write other books and minister to LGBT people. He died late last month at the age of 90.

The second priest was Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, who until a couple days ago worked for that same Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  He came out as gay just before the synod began, telling the Corriere Della Sera newspaper, "It's time the Church opened its eyes and realized that offering gay believers total abstinence from a life of love is inhuman.”  He was quickly and unceremoniously fired.

Not for nothing is the leader of the Catholic Church called the Holy Father. Like your father when you were a child, the Church knows everything. The Church knows exactly what God intended when He (because God is emphatically masculine) created sex. The Lord God of Creation has no brief with buggery. In fact, He doesn’t much care for sex at all, which is why his servants in the Church are supposed to be celibate.  But any form of sexual pleasure between two people with identical plumbing - that’s right out.  

Why?  Because Father says so, that’s why. Oh, they’ll go on at length about a palpable fallacy they’re pleased to call Natural Law, and they’ll bring in the fireside tales and just-so stories of superstitious illiterates from 5000 years ago, but it all comes back to Dad’s Last Defense: because he says so.

The days when a homosexual could be put to death so that God might spare the city from the wrath he visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah are long gone.  Now the Church claims to love the homosexual. Being inclined toward same-sex love is morally neutral, they say. The sin, the terrible, terrible sin, is acting upon that orientation.  In this, the only thing that has changed since Fr. McNeill wrote his book is that the Church has hardened its stance. There can be no discussion. There will be no compromise. Father is always right.  Homosexual people are welcome in the church, as long as they remain self-loathing and lonely.  

For the next three weeks, the Church will pretend to have a high-level discussion on why Catholics don’t obey them anymore.  There will be no openly gay clergy or laity in attendance, no LGBT theologians, no one who does not believe as an article of faith that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered and a grave moral flaw.  The whole affair is little more than theater.

At the end of synod, there will be pontificating from the pontiff and preaching from the pulpits and nothing, not a damned thing, will be any different.  When you’re always right, you can never change. 


Sunday Sermonette: Revolution

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Christianity is immoral. Nice liberal Christians are just as culpable as foam-flecked fanatical cultists. Christianity is appallingly immoral.

At the core of Christianity lies the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Ask a Christian what he believes and he may summarize with a verse from the Gospel of John:  For God so loved the world that he gave that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 

That quote assumes some prior knowledge, so I’ll summarize. An all-powerful, all-knowing God created the cosmos, the world, and all the creatures in it. One particular creature, Homo sapiens, disobeyed him. Literalists will tell you about Eve and an apple, liberals view the story as allegory for man's general egotism and disobedience to authority. Either way, God created humans and commanded submission, humans found some way to rebel. 

God, being perfect and righteous and all that, was angry at humanity's revolting disobedience (which by rights should be considered a designer error) and sought to punish them. At one point he even wipes out the entire race and every other species of oxygen-breathers save a select few. Most Christian denominations believe that, even if a modern human were perfect in every way, he or she would still be tainted by that Original Sin. More liberal sects don’t believe that, but it's a moot point, there are no perfect humans. 

This would be bad enough, but it took Christianity to compound the injustice. The penalty for offending God is not just death, but eternal torment in Hell. Gentle Jesus meek and mild speaks of it many times in the Gospels. And he should know - he claimed to be the son of God, and that those who had seen him had seen God himself.  You whose ancient ancestors (from either 142 thousand years ago or 6 thousand years ago, depending on your denomination) sinned against God are going to spend an eternity in hell. 

You, personally, are so wretched, so wicked, so disgustingly perverse that God cannot stand the sight of you. Oh, yes you are, don't deny it. Christianity makes sure you are. You probably had thoughts about sex, didn't you? You saw an attractive person of the opposite (or worse, the same) gender, and you felt a little stirring in your loins, didn't you? You committed adultery in your heart. Maybe you even committed the intrinsically disordered and gravely sinful act of self-pollution. You can find a few very liberal churches who will say masturbation is natural and normal, so long as you don't do it too much. How much is too much? Probably less than the number of times you do it, you sick puppy. And that's just one of the deadly sins. An examination of conscience will doubtless uncover many more.

In the words of the General Confession from the old Prayer Book, "...we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things with we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy on us, miserable offenders…"  But wait! You may be a miserable offender, but there is hope. In a hideous reinterpretation of the ancient practice of piling the sins of the tribe on a goat and driving it out into the desert to die of thirst or depredation, God sent a human, who also happened to be his Son, to suffer and die an agonizing death. Human sacrifice paid the price for our sins, and now God can welcome us into eternal bliss.

It’s not just the human sacrifice element that’s immoral, it’s the idea that guilt is somehow transferrable. Let's say I get caught driving while drunk. I am sentenced to pay a fine. You step up and say, "Bill, I know you don't have any money, I will pay the fine for you." Thank you, you are a very nice person. But I'm still guilty of drunk driving and my license is still suspended. Let's say further that in my drunken stupor I crash into another car, killing a young mother and her two children. Can you step up to the judge and say, "Your honor, send me to jail in Bill's place?"  Let's say that the young woman was my wife, and that I deliberately and with malice aforethought planned to run her down and fortified myself with liquid courage to give myself an alibi. The judge sentences me to death. Would you be allowed to die in my place? Of course not, that would be monstrously unjust. I am the criminal, not you, and you cannot take my guilt away. Even if the Governor decides to pardon me, I'm still guilty.

Christianity says that not only did God's son die in a brutal and nasty way, but that he did so for me. I'm as culpable for the death of Christ as if I were there, driving in the nails myself. (Imagining yourself at the scene of the crime was called a "spiritual exercise" to which I was introduced as a child.) Even though I was removed by over 1900 years and thousands of miles, and would have tried to stop it if I was there and able, this crime was done in my name, for me. It is added to the burden of original sin under which humanity already groans. (That Jesus didn't really die, not as we humans understand death, is a bit of divine chicanery we'll leave for another day.)

All I have to do is accept this gruesome "gift", and believe that Jesus was the son of God, and all my sins are forgiven. (Or believe and be baptized. Or believe and be baptized and practice good works. Or just hope that I am one of the sweet selected few whom God predestined for salvation. Or believe that God will find some way after I am dead to commute my sentence.) Everyone else, the vast majority of all who have ever lived and who will ever live, are damned for all time.  

And I still haven't reached the most repellent, stomach-turning part of this odious creed. Here it is: Christians teach this to little children before they can even reason for themselves. You are dirty and corrupt. You are so wicked that a human being had to be tortured to death for you. That's how you know God loves you. You'd better love him back, or you're going to suffer far worse torment than that corpse on the cross suffered. Because God is love. As long as you don’t make him angry.

This farrago of ancient nonsense, without a shred of evidence to buttress it, has supported and sustained the least productive elements of human society for millennia. It has set nation against nation, family against family, children against parents, spouses against spouses. It doesn’t matter if it’s fronted by a kindly old man in a white dress, wreathed in incense, festooned with liturgy and hymns. It is evil, immoral, and inhuman. It’s time to rebel.


We are expecting a very important guest this week. Francis, first of his name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm … oh, wait, that’s another fictional character. Let me begin again. His Holiness Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, and Servant of the servants of God, is coming to America.

He will arrive from Cuba on Tuesday, then visit Washington D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia before flying out next Sunday night. While here, he will conduct a few massive Masses in large venues like Madison Square Garden, as well as officially canonize an 18th century Franciscan friar who brought the Catholic faith to the native peoples of California, and as the local representative of the Holy Inquisition, ruthlessly suppressed native culture.

He will find a church in sharp decline. According to a Pew study published earlier this month, 52% of U.S. adults who were raised Catholic have left the church at some point, and while a minority have returned, the vast majority have no wish to come back. Two thirds of those who have not returned consider themselves ex-Catholics, the remainder consider themselves “cultural Catholics.” In the example of a friend of mine, they send their children to the Catholic church or even Catholic parochial school to get the benefit of what they consider a moral education, but they themselves attend only go to church for weddings and funerals.

Nationally, only 24 percent of American Catholics attend Sunday Mass. In Boston, it’s half that - only 12 percent. Note that for Catholics, attendance at Mass is a requirement. Failure to do so is a mortal sin.

Who attends Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation? People like my parents, both in their 80s. Immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries. That’s about it.

Churches are closing (some turning into very nice condominiums). Parishes are consolidating. Where a parish once had four full-time priests serving it when I was young, now it shares a single priest with other parishes.

The simple reason is that the Church is not relevant. According to one young Catholic lawyer interviewed by Fr. Peter Daly for a story in the National Catholic Review, the Catholic church is the "most sexist and homophobic institution of significance in our culture.” A woman who now attends the United Church of Christ said, "You say that all are welcome, but that is not true. Gays are not welcome. Catholics are the most judgmental group," she said. "If you don't follow all the precepts, you are excluded."

The Catholic church spends millions of dollars oppressing women, opposing birth control, abortion, and equal civil rights for LGBT people. Women are excluded in the church’s hierarchy, and there is virtually no accountability from the parish and diocesan level. The long-running child rape and sexual abuse scandal has permanently discredited bishops and priests beyond what even Pope Francis’ efforts to shelter refugees and alleviate poverty can undo. Tone-deaf canonizations of dubious sado-masochistic cultural imperialists like Junípero Serra do not help the Church’s image.

The biggest problem is the Church’s own inescapable history. When yours is the One True Church outside of which there is no salvation, you cannot say that Junípero Serra was wrong, or that Pope Pius XII’s failure to oppose Naziism or speak out against the Holocaust was shameful and a terrible sin. The only thing you can do is wave your hands and try to distract attention from centuries of immoral and criminal teachings and practices.

Calah Alexander, who writes the Barefoot and Pregnant blog at Patheos, says that the Church shouldn’t be relevant, that it has always and in every age stood in contradiction to culture. This is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian, she believes.

I think she's being profoundly disingenuous. The Church has been, always and in every age, demonstrably dead wrong. Americans can no longer put up with the cognitive dissonance of singing a hymn called “All Are Welcome” while listening to sermons condemning their lesbian and gay friends and family members and being unable to participate in the Sacraments because they divorced and remarried. They’re tired of hearing the “The Truth will set you free” while being lied to from the pulpit. They’re done with having celibate men who they don’t trust around their children tell them how to raise a family.

The Catholic church in America is, by any objective measure, dying. Let it pass.