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Sunday Sermonette: Watch

It’s been a great week in science. The European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet, the culmination of a 310 million mile journey. Incredibly, when the refrigerator-sized probe landed (bouncing in the faint gravity), no one struck up a Te Deum. No one thanked God for the safe arrival of a very expensive spacecraft.  Why would they? We know what got the spaceship there 10 years after it launched. It was mathematics.

While some Christian apologists are quick to dismiss or condemn godless science, they nonetheless want to cloak their arguments with the form of science. Earth, and indeed the universe itself, is too closely fine-tuned to support human life for it to be an accident.  According to the Discovery Institute:

If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 10^60, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible.

Calculations indicate that if the strong nuclear force, the force that binds protons and neutrons together in an atom, had been stronger or weaker by as little as 5%, life would be impossible.

Calculations by Brandon Carter show that if gravity had been stronger or weaker by 1 part in 10 to the 40th power, then life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist.

If the neutron were not about 1.001 times the mass of the proton, all protons would have decayed into neutrons or all neutrons would have decayed into protons, and thus life would not be possible.
Boy, that’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it?  That the life that formed in this universe is exactly the form of life that could survive in this universe?  It’s as remarkable as me pulling a King of spades from a deck of playing cards and telling you there’s a 1 in 52 chance of me doing that. Had I pulled a three of hearts, I could say the exact same thing. But I’d be lying. The chances of pulling a playing card out of a deck is 1:1.

Not only is the argument tautological - we’re here because we’re here - it’s demonstrably nonsensical.  The Universe is very far from supporting life. Hell, most of our own planet is utterly inimical to our form of life.  Between my back door and the perfect green of the 18th hole of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course is a woods of scrub pine and oak that I look at and think I’m enjoying nature. But I’ll never go walking it it.  Between the brambles, poison ivy, and disease-carrying deer ticks, nature is trying to kill me.  Transport me ten miles in almost any direction and I’m dead. Ten miles down and I would cook. Ten miles up and I’d freeze, but hypoxia would kill me first. Ten miles north, south, or east and I’m drowning in the cold Atlantic ocean. The only way I can survive is ten miles west-southwest. I’d need some nice warm clothing at this time of year, and an infrastructure of my fellow beings to keep me fed and hydrated. 

And this planet is the only place for at least 76 trillion miles where our form of life can live for longer than seconds. It’s a cold, dead universe out there. Very cold, very dead, very big, and very empty. 

But the chances that Earth can support life?  They’re 1:1, because it’s already happened.  

Indeed, even if it could be proven that there’s a designer behind this frightfully bad design, it would not prove the existence of a god, let alone the Christian concept of God. 

In fact, the fine-tuning argument is an excellent argument against the existence of God. Would not a designer have created optimal designs?  Is there anyone would seriously argue that humans, with our flaws and foibles, are optimally designed? Certainly no male my age would regard the placement of the urethra through the prostate as an optimal design. Or the way our optic nerves block our retina so that we have a big blind spot in our field of vision (we work around it, but you’ll see it if your opthamologist ever gives you a field of vision test.) 

In 1802, the Reverend William Paley argued that that which appears to be designed must be, in fact, designed. A watch found on a seashore could clearly not be a natural phenomenon, an intelligent hand must have formed it.  He never, apparently, considered the converse: a watch found on a seashore proves that beaches, even the perfect  structure of salt crystals, were not designed. 

Richard Dawkins noted in his work The Blind Watchmaker that design is top-down - something more complex is required to design something less complex.  Evolution is bottom-up - lesser complexity is built on or combined to create greater complexity by the slow process of natural selection. So, a pattern of light-sensing cells gives an advantage to an organism living in sunlight, and having those cells in a concavity provides a directional sense which helps that organism survive just a little longer and reproduce just a little better than one without, and so on until finally we have the human eye with all the flaws and limitations one might expect of something that evolved rather than something which was designed.

Many claimed surprise at Pope Francis’ announcement that the Catholic Church believed in evolution. They completely missed that the Pope was, at best, equivocating. The Church believes in something it calls “theistic evolution,” that God created all life and evolution is how He did it. This is nonsense. There is absolutely no room in evolution for a designer. They are contradictory.  

No one in the history of humanity has ever said, “We used to believe this was a natural process, but now we know it happened by magic.” Humans using science have landed a probe on a comet.  What have humans using religion done that could not have been done better with without religion?


No Thanks

Today is Veteran’s Day. I am a veteran. Please do not thank me for my service. Please do not credit me with protecting your rights and freedoms.  Please do not even think of placing me in the same category as the doughboys dead in Flanders’ fields or the Yanks strewn on the beaches of Normandy.

Your payment is quite enough.

I joined the military in 1975 not because I wanted to serve my country or any such highfalutin’ thing. It seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s all. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days doing what I was doing at the time, which was filing punch cards in long rows of filing cabinets, a job that would soon be done by robots and then eliminated entirely. The military sounded high-tech and exciting.  A bright and talented young man like me could really make something of himself in the United States Air Force. 

I was wrong. My vaunted talents turned out to be ideally suited to intercepting Morse code from our Soviet friends, a breathtakingly boring job that made filing punch cards seem thrilling. 

But I was paid, and got to see an interesting country, and collected an honorable discharge and some nice benefits that went along with it. Thank you, Americans, for co-signing my first mortgage. The VA loan meant that I bought our first house with no money down and no requirement for private mortgage insurance.  Thank you, USAA, for superlative insurance and banking services open only to service members and veterans.    

But don’t thank me for your freedom. I had nothing to do with that. In fact, the military is one of the reasons you now have less freedom, and why the police now treat you as an enemy of the state rather than as a fellow citizen. All that surplus military gear had to go somewhere, and police departments love to hire men and women with military training.  

Don’t thank me for keeping you safe. The last time this country was invaded by a foreign state was during the War of 1812. The last threat of invasion was over 50 years ago, during World War II.  Sorry, terrorists are just criminals, not the armed forces of a sovereign power. The “War on Terror” is propaganda designed to punch up the military budget, extend the American empire, and keep you feeling fearful.

Don’t thank me, Americans..  I’m good.  You might want to think about doing something for the vets less fortunate than me, the homeless, the unemployed, those wounded in mind as well as body. They didn’t keep the nation safe or protect your rights, but they did act in your name whether you liked it or not. They signed up because you and I promised to pay them and take care of them. They don’t need your thanks. They just need to be paid what they’re owed. 


Sunday Sermonette: The Wrong Question

A Finnish TV documentary series on life in the Scandinavian countries recently invited a Christian fundamentalist pastor from suburban Georgia to interview ordinary Scandinavian citizens.  His two most common reactions to their disbelief in God were “Wow!” and “But why not?”  

You can see an excerpt from The Norden here:

My favorite answer was,  

“If there is no God, why should I believe in him?"

The trouble with Pastor McLain’s question is that it was the wrong question.  A better question was from one of the men he was interviewing: "If there is no God, why should I believe in him?”  That’s the reason most atheists would give. The interviewee turned McLain's question around:  Why believe if there is no God? He did not receive an answer.

This question of why people believe is too seldom asked. Faith is given special status in our society. Asking why someone believes something about the supernatural is tantamount to a personal attack. It’s supposed to be regarded as obvious. Of course there’s a God. See this old book?  See this big building?  But if you actually ask, the answers are much more interesting. 

I’m currently reading a book by poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch is clearly a thoughtful Catholic. He says that he learned his religion from his mother, although it’s clear that all of his relations and most of his neighbors were also Catholic. For his mother, God was protection from the terrors of parenthood. Lynch’s father had buried too many of the town’s children, and he in his turn had the sad task of ordering the custom tiny coffins with the reversible lining, either blue or pink, when a small child died of something like crib death, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, where it seems the baby forgets how to breathe.

Posit a God, and someone is ultimately in charge. There is someone to bless and someone to curse. Without that, life has no meaning. A son stops breathing, a mother dies too early of cancer - someone must be responsible.  Lynch writes movingly of the efforts of an undertaker to restore the appearance of a young girl who was grabbed, raped, and brutally murdered.  In his mind, being able to have an open coffin at the child’s obsequies  somehow denies the monster who killed her a final triumph. But no priest, no poet, no undertaker can can rationalize the brutal murder of a little girl.  Without a God, without someone keeping score and watching every sparrow’s fall, nothing makes sense.

Personally, I have a problem with a God who has the power to stop the rape and murder of a child and fails to act. But then, I’m more moral than Lynch’s God, and so are you. If I saw a man assaulting a child, I would try to stop it. Wouldn’t you? Heedless of any weapon the assailant might be holding, most people would rush forward to save the child.  Better there should be no God than such an inhuman and heartless monster who simply watched.

This is the Problem of Evil, the most compelling argument against the existence of a loving, personal God. Ministers and priests tell us that God loves us and cares deeply for us, and yet the most appalling evil continues to befall this creation whom he says he loves.  As David Hume paraphrased the ancient 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?

Lynch is aware of the problem of believing in such an inconstant God, a God who miraculously blesses one person but curses another, a God who protects one person from disaster but allows it to be visited on another,  a God of healing who cannot cure amputees or restore failed kidneys. But for Lynch, as for others I know, there’s a sense that somehow I’m special, that God really loves me best, that my prayers for protection against the random evils of the world will be heard.

Lynch paraphrased Blaise Pascal, saying it was better to believe in what does not exist than disbelieve in what does. He accepts wanting very badly for something to be so as evidence that it is.

If this were true, he’d have to fall back on poetry to make a living. 


Sunday Sermonette: We Got The Beat(us)!

After the anticlimactic end of the the recent Vatican synod, the Catholic Church announced that the late Pope Paul VI had been beatified. A Beatus or Blessed person is acknowledged by the Church to have lived an exemplary life worth of emulation by the faithful. He or she merits veneration, is now in Heaven, and is able to carry a petitioner’s prayer directly to God. The chief qualification, in addition to being dead, is that the Church has confirmed that a miracle has occurred due to the Blessed one’s intercession. A feast day is established on the Church calendar for the Blessed one, but only for his or her home parish or community.


In the case of Pope Paul, Sixth of his name, who died in 1978, the miracle occurred in 2003. Keep in mind that Paul VI was the author of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on contraception and abortion.  I don’t know the true story of the miraculous event, but the official tale is that a fetus appeared to be abnormal, and the doctor told the mother her child would have brain damage and recommended she abort it. The mother refused and prayed over a card containing a bit of the late Pope’s cassock that had been given her by a nun. The child was born apparently normal, and when it became an adolescent, no defects could be detected. The Vatican Medical Board, meeting almost a year ago, declared the case “medically unexplainable”, because doctors never make mistakes. The case made its way to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, who declared it was a miracle attributable to the late Pope.

The last step is canonization, or sainthood. Another certified miracle will prove beyond any doubt that the person is certainly in the Divine Presence. The saint’s Feast Day will be observed by the whole church. Churches may be dedicated to the saint, Masses may be said in the saint’s honor, the saint will be depicted with a halo, and the saint’s mortal remains will be publicly honored as relics. Perhaps most importantly, the saint may (indeed should) be venerated by the whole Church and prayed to for help.

Imagine that you have a brother-in-law who works in City Hall, and you need a permit to add a sunroom to your home. You could go through ordinary bureaucratic channels, or you you could talk to your brother-in-law. He doesn’t have the power to approve it, but he has the ear of the Mayor who can influence the Planning Board. That’s basically how intercession works. The more friends you’ve got in high places, the better for you.

The Roman Catholic Church emphatically denies that it makes saints. They claim only to recognize them. The process cannot start until at least five years after the individual has died, although this was waived for both John Paul II and Mother Theresa. A bishop, ostensibly responding to petitions of the faithful, opens an investigation into the virtue of the deceased, now called a Servant of God.

If the case is accepted by the Vatican, the deceased gains the honorific “Venerable.” Until recently, a separate Vatican office called the Promoter of the Faith, the“Devil’s Advocate”, would begin preparing a case against canonization. Pope John Paul II abolished that office in 1983. Perhaps as a result of this streamlining, JP II canonized 483 people and beatified 1,340, more than any other pope in history, more in fact than all of the pontiffs of the past five centuries combined.

The faithful are encouraged to pray for a miracle that can be laid to his credit. In the old days, miracles were rather more miraculous. Some have bodies that the faithful claim have not decomposed. Saint Anthony of Padua is believed to have preached in tongues. Padre Pio was said to be able to be in two places at once. Saint Gerard Majella professed to perform ecstatic levitation.

In these suspicious times, miracles are almost always medical in nature. The chief sign of a miracle is that at least some Catholic doctors must be baffled. Remitted cancers are particular favorites. Relief from intractable pain is another. But failed organs are never regenerated, nor are amputated limbs ever restored.

In Imperial Rome, Julius Caesar was regarded as a living god, and after his assassination a guilty Senate confirmed his divinity. The Imperial Cult continued through Augustus, Tiberius, and so on down to Theodosius I, when it was officially abandoned in favor of Christianity. Was it really abandoned, though, or was it simply subsumed into the new Holy Roman Church? The Emperor Constantine wasn’t deified like his predecessors, but he was canonized as a saint. 

Non-Catholics may not have the subtlety of mind to distinguish between “veneration” and “worship”. They may lack the proper understanding of the devotion given to myriad statues, paintings, and icons. They may look askance at the keeping of bits of bone and other body parts as sacred relics with mysterious powers. They may think the cults of saints is rank idolatry or polytheism. They simply don’t understand the Church’s two thousand year history. There’s a difference between a saint and a god. 

Just not a very big one.


"We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor"

I went to the Apple store in Boston this morning, having finally received the appropriate approvals to be reimbursed for repairing my drowned MacBook Pro. (My wise and benevolent employer issued me a high-end MacBook Pro a few months ago. I abused their generosity by spilling a glass of diet soda into it. Such misfortunes are not covered by Apple, so it’s an “out of warranty” repair.)

The store was just opening as I crossed Boylston Street. In a queue to one side stood a small crowd of people who’d obviously been waiting for a while. Virtually all were Asian, and none looked like Apple’s usual customers.

I handed over my Mac to the Genius who promised to have it back to me soon. On my way out, I passed by an Apple employee regretfully telling a customer that the iPhone 6 was out of stock, but that the line started at 7:00 a.m. (three hours before the store opens). 

Today is October 31. The iPhone 6 was released to a slavering public on September 19th.  Six weeks later, you still can’t walk into the largest Apple store in America and buy one. Where are they?

The daily crowd of silent Chinese people waiting at the door every morning from 7:00 a.m. gives one answer.  They’re day laborers, paying cash for  the daily limit of two phones which then go back to a smuggler.  The smuggler boxes up the phones and sends them to China via Hong Kong, there to be  sold by “entrepreneurs”  for inflated prices. 

On my way back to my office, I passed a big mob of people on Huntington Ave. bearing signs, drums, and horns. They were protesting the presence of the Dalai Lama in Boston. They accused him of lying and being a “false Dalai Lama.”  

Who were they?  Ostensibly, they were supporters of Dorje Shugden, the newest Tibetan Buddhist sect which has doctrinal disagreements with the Dalai Lama’s Gelupa sect. It beggars credulity that there could possibly be so many members of a marginal and heterodox sect in Boston, let along that would get exercised over the mere presence of the Dalai Lama in our fair city.

A little Wikipedia browsing turned up that the protesters are financed by the United Front Work Department of the government of China, as part of their overall effort to discredit the exiled Dalai Lama.  

The subject line is from a brilliant satiric poem by Bret Harte, which can be found here.


Sunday Sermonette: Because I Dread

Over the past few years, I've used the occasional entry in this blog to make sense of the single biggest change in my life. I was a deeply religious, praying, Bible-reading, church-attending, choir-singing, devout Christian, a lay leader in my church. And now I'm not. When I look back, it almost feels like I'm looking at someone else's life. How could I have believed all that nonsense? I've written about being indoctrinated as a child, and loving the liturgy and music and all that, but I believed some really ridiculous things that a should have been relegated to the dust of childhood by a moment's adult thought. Why didn’t I? I'm embarrassed to confess that when I dig under all of the layers of rationalization and justification, what's left is this: I was afraid.

I thought of myself as an enlightened liberal Christian who loved God, but at the root of my faith was not love, it was fear. It was the fear of abandonment, the fear of divine punishment, the fear of losing my family and friends, the fear of being an atheist, the fear of admitting that I'd been foolish and wrong for fifty years.

The words of the Catholic Act of Contrition, said at Confession, come unbidden to mind. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. And I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all, because they offend thee, my Lord… The mental voice reciting this prayer is a childish sing-song. I learned this prayer by rote by the time I was six years old.

I didn't believe in a cartoon God who would flick a lightning bolt at a sinner, but I did believe that sometimes God used illness, injury, or misfortune for his own purposes. God allows bad things to happen to people to get their attention. Remember, who He loveth, He chastises. It's just a tiny cell in my pancreas or brain that could become cancerous and destroy my life. It's just force of habit my heart keeps beating. What are the few short years of the life of a man to an Eternal God? I hear the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) in my mind whenever I check my retirement fund balance. "But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be…?” God might even smite someone close to me to send me a message. It’s a horribly egotistical thing to admit, but believing you know the mind of God is a horribly egotistical thing. I’m of an age when friends and family start dying. My mother was recently diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Is it my fault?

My parents have always been deeply devoted to their religion, and I know it would hurt them greatly to learn that I no longer share their beliefs. I'm now grey-haired myself, and know that nothing good could come of such a conversation, so we don't have it. Don't ask, don't tell. In the case of my wife, my fear was entirely irrational, but it was still there and it was still hard to tell her. She told me that she'd been waiting for me. The church community would welcome me back, but there are strings attached for returning prodigals.

My friend The Vicar visibly frowns when I use the word "atheist." I grew up hearing about that awful godless woman, Madalyn Murray O'Hair. When she and her son were kidnapped, murdered, and mutilated (by a former American Atheist office manager), well, that was terrible, but is it really all that surprising? She spent her life hating God, didn't she? Although things are getting better thanks to the atheist visibility movement, the infidel is still widely shunned and marginalized. Who would want to call themselves by that ugly hissing name, atheist?

Next to these fears, the fear of admitting that I'd been wrong for half a century is hardly worth mentioning. But look at all of the hours and hours of time I'd spent in prayer, in church, in choir rehearsals, in Bible study. Think of what I said in all those stewardship meetings and vestry sessions. Think of the sheer amount of money I'd given to the church. Time, talent, and treasure. I'd have to be crazy to abandon all that.

So why did I? Ultimately, because the pain of cognitive dissonance drove me. Because I found my faith was rationally impoverished, logically incoherent, and morally repugnant. Because I have only this one short life, and I've wasted too much of it living according to someone else's ideal in someone else’s mythology. Because reality is important, indeed, it's all we have. Because magical thinking is for children, and the gods we've created, without exception, have all of the less attractive attributes of children.

Might I fall ill tomorrow and suffer a lingering, painful, and undignified death? Sure. It might not be tomorrow, but it will probably happen, and sooner than I'd like. Will it be because an angry God is teaching me a lesson? Or because I'm human, and all humans have to die of something?

Might my family be terribly disappointed in me? Might friends fail? Might those whose esteem I value turn away? Might I be just a foolish old man?

Sure. And so what? There is one thing about me that has changed: I no longer believe in the existence of gods. My worth is based on myself, not my allegiance to an imaginary dictator. I no longer worry about offending a make-believe bogeyman. My fears are made of the same stuff as God: nothing.


Sunday Sermonette: Not Going Home

I love my mother. I don’t imagine there are too many people who can’t say that. Mothers bore us, fed us, changed our soiled nappies, taught us, nurtured us, prepared us for life, and supported us. 

Yet I wouldn’t think of living under her roof again. While I’m happy to eat her cooking at special occasions, it would be unthinkable that she would still be cooking for me or buying my clothes or holding my hand as I cross the street. She’s still my mother, she’ll always be my mother, but we’re very separate and autonomous people. And that’s as it should be.

Driving to work last Tuesday morning, I heard an uncritical NPR host taking to a Catholic reporter about a new interim report from a Vatican conference of bishops, called a synod. It said that the Church should welcome gays and lesbians home to the Church, and appreciate the special gifts they bring.

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

“This is a stunning change in the way that the Catholic Church speaks about gay people,” said Fr. James Martin, a well-known Jesuit author.

This isn't the first time Holy Mother Church has tried to appear warmer, fuzzier, and more relevant than it really is. In truth, the Church has often tried to tug on the heartstrings to re-bind the apron strings.

In 2008, you may recall that the Church started a major advertising campaign to put knees back on the kneelers. It was called "Catholics Come Home," and involved television ads, local events, and even websites.

It's not hard to understand why. If it weren't for immigrants, the American church would be in dire straits. Here in the Archdiocese of Boston, only 16% of Catholics attend Mass weekly. Despite all of the church closings, it's not enough. There are currently 316 parishes, and that number is expected to decline to 178 within the next ten years. Cardinal O'Malley recommended a new model where multiple parishes could be managed by a single priest and an administrative staff.

They said “Welcome Home,” but the doors were not exactly flung wide to welcome the prodigals. There was no fatted calf waiting, no precious ring slipped on your finger. Quite the opposite - there were collection plates and never-ending fund drives. And there was the dogma and doctrine. That hasn’t changed. That can never change, no matter how out of sync with reality it may be. All they can do is soft-pedal it. Holy Mother Church never makes mistakes.

Are you gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans? Welcome back, so long as you understand that you are intrinsically disordered. It is not a sin to be homosexual, but homosexual acts are a grave moral evil - what the Church calls mortal sins. You can sit in the pews and pay your dues, but you're not exactly one of us.

Are you divorced and remarried? Welcome back, so long as you accept your sinful second-class status as an adulterer. You may not receive either the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) or the Holy Eucharist (communion). If you die suddenly, you will die in a state of mortal sin and find yourself in a very warm place for all eternity. Sorry, we can forgive child rapists, but we can't forgive you for making a mistake in your first marriage. You could try separating from your new spouse, live alone, seek an annulment (essentially lying through your teeth that the first marriage somehow was invalid and never took place). It’ll cost a lot, but if your new spouse doesn’t divorce you for abandonment, you might someday be reconciled both with your partner and Holy Mother Church. Maybe.

Are you a woman? Welcome back, so long as you understand that you are ontologically and metaphysically unequal to men. You may never serve on the altar as a priest or deacon, but you can join the Altar Guild and iron the linens, make the snacks for the coffee hour, and do all of the other work necessary to keeping the building and organization running. Just remember your place.

Have you had an abortion? Welcome back, baby killer. We love sinners like you, particularly if you're really, really repentant. Come join the group of rosary-praying fanatics picketing the women's health clinic. You can still take Communion, though - murder is not nearly as bad as divorce. You can repent murder, but if you’re divorced and remarried, you just keep sinning every time you take your spouse to bed.

Did a priest or nun abuse their position of authority over you when you were young and vulnerable? Oh, we're sorry. But you really don't want to re-open that old wound, do you? Besides, they were transferred to another diocese, the statute of limitations is up, and the Church will drag out legal proceedings and delay paying any court-ordered judgement for as long as it possibly can. Perhaps you shouldn't come home - you'd just be making trouble.

All other cases? Welcome home. You’ll need to make a thorough examination of conscience, confess your sins to the priest -- all of them, mind - and then you’ll be welcomed back, to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. Missing Mass is a sin. So is masturbation (a gravely disordered act); non-procreative sex outside of marriage; refusing to accept as true what Holy Mother Church proposes for belief; membership in the Masons or the Communist Party, voting for pro-choice politicians, …

The Catholics Come Home campaign was, by most estimates, a failure.  I don’t think this synod will work much better. The day after this interim report from Catholic bishops came out, the conservative wing of the Church denounced it. The Vatican quickly backtracked. By the end of the week, even the watered-down language that might have been seen as slightly supportive of lesbians and gays in the Church was gone.  Instead, the Pope beatified one of his predecessors, Paul VI.

You can’t go home again. But that's OK. You're a little too old for that, aren't you?


Sunday Sermonette: 1492 And All That

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue...

For some of us, tomorrow is a holiday. Why? You can thank the Catholic Church.

Something else happened in Spain in 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, having expelled the last of that nation’s Muslims, decided to purge their good Christian country of the perfidious Jews. Spain was a Catholic country, and anybody who lived in it had better be Catholic. Christopher Columbus used royal devotion to Holy Mother Church in his pitch:

"YOUR HIGHNESSES, as Catholic Christians and Princes who love the holy Christian faith, and the propagation of it, and who are enemies to the sect of Mahoma [Islam] and to all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Cristóbal Colon, to the said parts of India to see the said princes ... with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith .... Thus, after having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms and lordships ... your Highnesses gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go to the said parts of India .... I shall forget sleep, and shall work at the business of navigation, so that the service is performed.”

As we all know, Cristóbal Colon aka Christopher Columbus never made it to India. Instead, he discovered a New World. This New World already had lots of people living there, so he did what any good European Christian would do: plundered, raped, and enslaved them.

At this point in history, the Catholic Church ruled. The Pope, the heir of Peter and sole direct representative of God on earth, held the whole world in his hand. If a king disagreed, as would happen in England in about 25 years, he was excommunicated - cut off from the Church, the sole source of salvation and keeper of the keys of Heaven. If he remained obdurate, the entire nation would be subject to that terrible penalty, and all subjects and nobles had full authorization and prior forgiveness of sins to remove the apostate king. The New World was attached to the old one, so it was the Church who decided ownership. Pope Alexander VI published a bull in 1493 giving it to Ferdinand and Isabella:

"We of our own motion, and not at your solicitation, do give, concede, and assign for ever to you and your successors, all the islands, and main lands, discovered; and which may hereafter, be discovered, towards the west and south; whether they be situated towards India, or towards any other part whatsoever, and give you absolute power in them."

Pretty neat, huh? Spain was basically granted ownership of every part of the world not already known to the Vatican, and all the people and resources therein. By 1514, the Conquistadors had formalized this arrangement something they called “The Requirement.” It was an ultimatum: accept the Catholic Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world, or be enslaved and destroyed.

"We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can."

Oh, just a little historical note, this Requirement was read to the natives without translation. Sometimes it was even read from the decks of ships anchored far outside hearing range from shore.

So why on earth should this grotesque atrocity be a federal holiday? After all, Columbus lived three hundred years before this nation was founded. He did not, as was taught in my grammar school, prove that the world was round, that had been an established fact for almost 2,000 years. According to fourth-century Greek historian Diogenes Laertius, it was Pythagoras who "was the first who called the earth round; though Theophrastus attributes this to Parmenides, and Zeno to Hesiod." Eratosthenes, who lived from 276 BC to 194 BC, not only knew the earth was round but calculated its circumference as well as its axial tilt and distance from the sun. The Venerable Bede wrote about the spherical nature of the planet in 723.

Nor did Columbus succeed in his stated goal of finding a route to the Indies. He missed that mark by tens of thousands of miles.

Nor did he discover America. Not only was the land already occupied, but other Europeans had gotten here first, most notably Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red, in the eleventh century. Columbus himself never got closer to the mainland than Caribbean Islands, which he decided must be India.

It's the major holiday least likely to be granted by employers. The Unindicted Co-Conspirator's office is open. So is the New York Stock Exchange (thought the bond markets are closed). So why is this a federal holiday? Like I said, thank the Catholics.

Catholics are forbidden from joining secret societies like the Masons. In the latter part of the 19th century, this put them at a disadvantage. In the days before Holiday Inn Express, a traveler who knew the secret handshake and passwords of the Masonic lodge or other fraternal society might find friendly lodging in any decent-sized town. In cities, fraternal organizations created their own hotels. I used to work at the old Bradford on Tremont Street in Boston, now a Marriott Courtyard. It was originally built for the Elks, and unless it's been completely gutted in the last renovation, you can still find B.P.O.E. and Elks symbols on the doorknobs and moldings.

In 1882, Father Michael McGivney founded a Catholic fraternal society in New Haven, Connecticut, and named it after Columbus, the first missionary to bring the Catholic faith to the heathen Indians. The Knights of Columbus quickly grew, serving the same purposes as the Elks or the Odd Fellows. They’re now a charitable organization as well as a powerful Catholic lobbying group. My dad is a member. His funeral will be attended by fellow Knights in ceremonial garb to provide pompous circumstances.

At the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's landing in Hispaniola, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that the day be celebrated by Americans. The Knights of Columbus began lobbying that Columbus Day be an official federal holiday, and finally succeeded in 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt established it. The date was switched to the second Monday in October by President Nixon in 1972.

Is it entirely fair to lay the blame for the Conquistators and their rape, pillage, plunder, and enslavement on the Catholic Church? After all, Pope Pius VII demanded the end of the slave trade… in 1815. I think it is. If they really meant it, today would be a day of repentance, not a day of celebration.

But that would mean admitting grievous error, and if the Church could err in such important matters, there’s no telling what other terrible mistakes God’s conduit of grace to sinful humans might have made. People might start to think that since it displays so few of the qualities of its divine founder, it might just be a completely human institution, about as relevant as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.


Three years ago was the first time I mentioned the R-Word in this space. At that time, I said I thought I was in the last decade of my working life. That’s when we started closely following every penny of our income and expenditures (Mint makes it easy.) That’s also about the time that we started planning our glide path and I set up a filter in Google News for “retirement”.

Here we are three years later, and I may very well be in the last year of my working life. My employer’s fiscal year runs from July to June, and I’m seriously considering leaving then. The Unindicted Co-Conspirator is planning to stay in the workforce a bit longer, but, as she frequently reminds me, she’s so very much younger than I. :-)

The Google News filter hasn’t been very helpful, but it’s been amusing.  Recent bipolar headlines include:

Five Reasons Not to Despair About Retirement  (Bloomberg)

3 Keys to a Happy Retirement (US News & World Report)

Retirement Picture is Bleak for Many Americans (

The next will doubtless be:  Senior Found Frozen Amid Empty Cat Food Cans.  

Here are Five Rules I’ve learned along the way.

Rule One: No One Cares As Much About Your Money As You Do.  On this Rule hang all the Law and the Prophets. 

Rule Two: No One Knows How Big Your Nest Egg Needs To Be. That’s because no one knows how long you’ll live, or how the markets will perform over a period that may last decades. At some point you have to rely on hope. While past performance is not an indicator of future returns, it’s a pretty good hint. Be conservative. Make sure you have a budget, and that the budget has a healthy fudge factor. Make sure you’ve budgeted for those things you’ve been looking forward to, like travel expenses. 

Rule Three: Calculators Are Always Wrong. There are a number of retirement calculators out there. They’re all wrong. Some of them are more wrong than others.

Take AARP’s offering, for example. There’s no room for additional income (say you’re planning to sell a house in two years, for example) or current taxable savings.  It assumes an aggressive return on your current investments, but an anemic return after you retire. (They’re probably assuming you’re going to switch into bonds and other ostensibly more secure investments, which doesn’t seem like very good idea for a nest egg that has to last 20 or 30 years.) And it assumes that your retirement spending will be a percentage of current earnings, from 75% to 95%.  This last is egregious, because earnings don’t matter, expenditure is all that counts.  See “The Millionaire Next Door.” It’s a tedious read about people you probably wouldn’t like very much, but the takeaway is that spending less than you earn is the most reliable means of becoming financially comfortable.

Even the best, most flexible calculator is wrong, because it assumes that your nest egg will earn interest at a steady rate, year after year. Most of them also assume that your draw-down will also be the same even amount. Real life doesn’t work that way.  Let’s say that an S&P 500 Index Fund earned an average of 8% over the past 20 years. Great, right? But in 2000, it dropped 9.11%, in 2001 it fell 11.89%, in 2002 it dropped 22.10%.  In 2008 it fell a whopping 37%. Sure, you’ve got an average return of 8% over 20 years, but there were some pretty awful years in there. It’s like the old saw about the average wealth in Bill Gates’ town.

Mr. Market goes up and down, because that’s how markets work. And even Monte Carlo simulations do no better than approximate with wide error bars. But they’re the only tools you’ve got, so use several and check out multiple scenarios. 

Rule Four: Your Financial Advisor’s Calculations Are Not Exempt From Rules One through Three. Our financial advisor has some very complicated software that print reams of reports, but but the devil is in the details. After poring through stacks of graphs, I found that his software confused marginal with effective tax rates.  

This error was repeated in a column in yesterday’s USA Today.    

"Many people lose sight of the fact that the majority of 401(k) assets are pretax," says Thompson. "People don't realize that all the money is taxable. If they have $100,000, and are in a 25% tax bracket, they only really have $75,000.”

Bullshit.  Assuming you’re married filing jointly in 2014 and your gross income is $100,000.  Standard deductions and personal exemptions leave you with an adjusted gross income of $79,700.  Federal tax liability is $11,638 before any tax credits you might have.  That’s not 25%, that’s less than 12%. There are plenty of tax calculators out there, so don’t take my word on it.

Financial advisors can provide important counsel, but you still have to do your own homework.

Rule Five: Social Security Is Trickier Than You Think. I figured we’d both claim at full retirement age, but it turns out there are bunches of different scenarios that can maximize earnings. Another reason a financial advisor might be helpful.

It’s clear to me that the work won’t stop when I retire. I’ll just have a new job.


Sunday Sermonette: Leaving Behind

Left Behind, a film adaptation of the popular Christian book series by Tim LaHaye, opened this weekend. According to reviewers, it marks the End Times for Nicolas Cage’s career. Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie an abysmal 2%.  But if the modest success of recent movies like Heaven is Real, based on the fruits of the imagination of a small boy well fertilized by his credulous Christian father (and Jesus rides a horsie!), and God is Not Dead, based on nothing more than a J.T. Chick tract, there’s an audience for this stuff.

Still, as I am often reminded, “You atheists don’t know everything.”  This might be the last installment of the Sunday Sermonette some of you will ever read.  It’s not that I’ve run out of things to talk about; the history and power of religion in human society is still endlessly fascinating.  It’s just that some of you are bound to be Raptured. Maybe this week. Maybe even today.

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) In other words, there will be a massive Zombie Apocalypse, then we will meet Christ in the clouds.  Hallelujah!

Wait, I hear you say.  Saint Paul never set a date.  How can we know when this great event will take place, or if he wasn’t getting a little carried away with his own rhetorical flourishes?

Well, it’s got to be sometime around the end of days, right?  In the middle of its comic book acid hallucination, the Book of Revelation says:  And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,  And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. ... And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. (Rev. 20:2-3, 7-8)  

So the faithful will be snatched up into the clouds when Jesus returns, and then he’ll reign for a thousand years, then all hell breaks loose. Sound about right? Or is is that the believers will be snatched up into the clouds, then all hell breaks loose on earth, and then Jesus returns? Or maybe it’s that all hell breaks loose and then, after we all die horribly, Jesus returns and we’re all snatched up into the clouds? Your eschatological predilections depend on which Christian denomination you belong to and which preachers you believe. 

The doctrine of the Rapture was virtually unknown until fairly recent times. While some trace it back to Cotton Mather, it only gained currency around 1830 in a small sect called the Plymouth Brethren. It wasn’t until Hal Lindsey published Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 that most people had ever heard of it.

Most mainstream Christian churches dismiss the idea of the Rapture as a crazy fantasy without traditional support or Scriptural warrant, but such is popular culture that even in mainstream churches you’ll find people who believe it’s going to happen.  Perhaps not next week, but soon.  Among the born-again evangelicals, however, it’s a major article of faith.  After all, the Bible is absolutely inerrant.  Therefore, Thessalonians can’t contain allegory or metaphor and Revelation can’t be a ‘shroom hallucination, they must be precise predictions of something due to happen two thousand years later. (That creepy bit the Catholics seized on, however, the part where Jesus told his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood? That was totally metaphor.)

I don’t know about you, but it bothers me that so many of my fellow citizens are eagerly anticipating the destruction of the world and all all who live on it. They support the nation of Israel just because it features into their overheated fantasies. According to some interpretations, the End of the World will be presaged by a huge battle fought in the Middle East on the plains of Megiddo: Armageddon. I worry that some true believer might try to hasten along God’s divine plan a little, like firebugs storing caches of gasoline and gunpowder. Burn baby, burn.

I’m a damned impenitent apostate who goes so far as to deny the existence of the Holy Ghost, the unforgivable sin.  I’ll be stuck here for the Great Tribulation and will ultimately be cast into the Lake of Fire, wailing and gnashing my teeth. And if I die beforehand, God will go so far as to reconstitute my body so I can feel the exquisite eternal torment, just to be a dick. Some of you, however, may avoid my terrible fate. Those who repent and accept Jesus as their personal savior will be spared. But you’d better act quickly, because at the sound of the trump, all bets are off.  

Unless this whole sadistic torture and snuff porn story is just the product of sexually repressed sociopathic imaginations.  Which do you think is more likely?