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Sunday Sermonette: The Savior

I binge-watched two horror stories last week. One transformed ordinary America into a dark hellscape of foreboding, giving only hints of the monster until he was finally revealed in the last episode. The other was the new Netflix miniseries, Stranger Things.

I speak, of course, of the Republican National Convention. A fascist stood before us, telling us how bad things were and how much we had to fear, and concluding with, “I alone can fix it.”

It was difficult to believe that so many otherwise intelligent people could have let him get this far, let alone handing over leadership of the Grand Old Party to him. But it did sound familiar. As the late great Molly Ivins said of a 1992 speech by paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, it "probably sounded better in the original German."

I’ve told this story before, but it bears retelling.

It was the summer of 1972, and my city was part of a Title I program designed to take kids off the streets and expose them to theater arts. I was cast in the starring role of President Wintergreen in “Of The I Sing.” The director was a middle-aged iconoclast who I idolized. One morning, he gathered us together in the gym for warm-up exercises. The last exercise involved slowing building up confidence and strength as he counted up from one (abject suicidal depression) to ten (triumphant godlike power).

One... barely heard from bowed heads and slumped shoulders.
Two... a little louder, a little straighter, a little stronger.
Three... better, better

“Eight!” he called. “Eight!” we all answered with uptilted jaws and a light in our eyes.

“NINE!“ a roar returned.

”TEN!!!“ he bellowed. ”TEN!!!“ the walls rang. ”TEN!!!“ he repeated. ”TEN!!!“ echoed like surf breaking on the rocks. ”TEN!!!“

”Sieg Heil!“ he shouted. ”SIEG HEIL!“ we cried. ”SIEG HEIL!! SIEG HEIL!!! SIEG --“

He clapped his hands sharply, and said in a low, clear voice, ”Never forget how easy it was for one man to make you do that.“

It remains the most vivid lesson I ever learned.

Would the lesson have worked if it were just one-on-one? I doubt it. Individuals are smarter than that. But gathered together in groups, we’re dangerous. A Virginia Tech study showed that even after small meetings, performance of individuals in standardized IQ tests declined. Researchers theorized that group meetings impair the ability for individual thought.

One thing I noticed is that the Convention was structured much like a church revival meeting. There wasn’t a moment for solitary thought - if there wasn’t a speaker on the dais, there was loud music playing. Speakers included a Chachi from Happy Days, a cage-fighting promoter, a casino billionaire, a soap-opera actress, the general manager of Trump Winery, and a handful of clergy. Their faces made grotesque by magnification on the mammoth screens, their voices booming through amplifiers, every emotion became huge and gross. Grieving parents blamed the Democratic candidate for their losses despite the millions of dollars and multiple Congressional hearings that failed to find her culpable. The convention seemed to vacillate between merely imprisoning Mrs. Clinton or putting her before a firing squad. The only thing missing was people rolling in the aisles after being “slain in the Spirit” by a charismatic preacher.

And so the Republican convention has acclaimed its champion. Vox Populi, Vox Dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God.


Sunday Sermonette: Poetry Corner

It’s hot midsummer. Even here on Cape Cod, surrounded by the great heat sink of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s warm and muggy. Usually, I sleep the sleep of the just.The greatest part of being retired, I tell people, is that I wake up when I wake up, not at the sound of an alarm. But at this time of year when the air is too warm and too heavy, sleep eludes me. So today’s Sermonette is mostly written by Rudyard Kipling.

There’s a little saying that goes, “We’re both atheists. I just believe in one less god than you. When you understand why you dismiss all the other gods, you’ll understand why I dismiss yours.” Like most cute epigrams, it makes a good point, but doesn’t bear close examination. Certainly it is true that few now bow down to Zeus or Apollo or Mithras. Humans have created gods without number, and virtually all are now regarded as myths, legends, and folk tales if they’re remembered at all. But these gods did not lose their status because people sat down and thought about the lack of evidence for their existence. They were consigned to the mists of myth because they were replaced.

As Polish poet and Holocaust survivor Stansilaw Lec said, “When smashing monuments, save the pedestals -- they always come in handy.”

Here’s a favorite poem on that subject from Rudyard Kipling’s Departmental Ditties:


The smoke upon your Altar dies,
The flowers decay,
The Goddess of your sacrifice
Has flown away.
What profit then to sing or slay
The sacrifice from day to day?

"We know the Shrine is void," they said.
"The Goddess flown --
"Yet wreaths are on the altar laid --
"The Altar-Stone
"Is black with fumes of sacrifice,
"Albeit She has fled our eyes.

"For, it may be, if still we sing
"And tend the Shrine,
"Some Deity on wandering wing
"May there incline,
"And, finding all in order meet,
"Stay while we Worship at Her feet."

To quote Stanislaw Lec again: “You can change your faith without changing gods. And vice versa.”


Sunday Sermonette: Noah and the Beanstalk

This past week, Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter opened for business in Kentucky.

Ham, an Australian-born fundamentalist, claims to believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, even when it defies all reason, such as the story of a mythical world-wide flood from which a 600-year-old man, his family, and breeding stock of all of the animals and birds on Earth were spared by floating over it in an Ark for months.

Ham is also the president of Answers in Genesis, a group that attempts to give a pseudo-scientific authenticity to religious fables, like that God created the heavens and the earth only about 6,000 years ago (roughly the time the Sumerians discovered how to brew beer), and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed despite the 65 million year gap in the fossil record. He believes this exhibit, along with his Creation Museum, will serve as tools of evangelism, convincing unbelievers that the only book they need to learn is God’s Word.

Let’s look at the story he’s drawing from. It begins by telling us that God’s giant sons lusted after human women, who who gave birth to mighty heroes who lived a great deal longer than humanity’s maximum expiration date.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
(Genesis 6:1-4)

Noah was one of these descendants of giants who lay with human women. Apparently he and God were best buds. God told him he was going to destroy all life on the planet, and commanded Noah to build an ark:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.
(Genesis 6:14-16)

That is the only description of the Ark. A cubit is the length of a man’s forearm, about a foot and a half. Ham believes Noah used the “long cubit,” approximately 20 inches, which makes the Ark ten percent larger in all dimensions. So God’s plans call for a box 500 feet long, 83 feet wide, and 50 feet high, with three decks. There was no mention of an engine room, sails, or a tugboat. This was a tar-lined vessel intended for a single purpose: to float with a large cargo. It was a barge.

What Ham built was a ship, with a bulbous bow and streamlined sides and some kind of weird stern that looks like it was inspired by a rudder. It should go without saying that he used neither gopherwood nor sticky smelly pitch. His Ark was built of modern materials using an army of skilled labors and current technology, at a cost of over $100 million dollars. Oh, and it can’t float.

When I was a kid, I decided to build a rowboat. I thought I’d keep it small, only about six feet long. It turned out to be a much more complicated affair than I’d anticipated. Boat-building is a lot more than knocking a few boards together. Shipbuilding requires a great deal of knowledge, skill, and technology. Building a big wooden ship, say the U.S.S. Constitution, requires the resources of a fair-sized forest.

We don’t know what gopher wood is, but if it’s anything like other wood, there’s a distinct limitation in size before the whole thing falls apart. The very biggest wooden barge ever built was the Pretoria. She was 338 feet long and 44 feet wide, designed for the Great Lakes in 1900. She had steel keelson plates, arches, chords, and diagonal strapping and was equipped with an engine to pump out the water that kept leaking in. She sank anyway. Not only would Noah have required skilled designers and craftsmen and the resources of a lumber mill and a shipyard, but he would have required technologies that did not exist (steelmaking) and still do not (making huge wooden boats that don’t sink. The mighty Vasa made it 1,400 yards before sinking in Stockholm Harbor on its maiden voyage.)

Ken Ham’s ark is peopled by plastic animals, including small dinosaurs, because paleontology means nothing to Ken Ham. Everyone has seen the picture in the children’s Bible of two giraffes with their long necks coming through holes in the roof, but that’s not what God commanded. God commanded two of every unclean animal, but seven pairs of every ritually clean animal. Giraffes cheweth the cud and divideth the hoof: they’re clean. So make room for fourteen of them. Also fourteen of each cattle species, fourteen elk, fourteen water buffalo, fourteen bison, fourteen moose, and so on. Lucky for Ham elephants and hippos are unclean.

Along with the animals, they had to stock food for eight humans and all those animals. The animals didn’t eat each other, according to Ham, because everybody (including humans) was vegetarian in those days, even the crocodiles and Tyrannosaurus Rex. And apparently, fodder didn’t spoil or molder.

And then it gets worse as Ham tries to explain how all those animals and birds somehow fit into three decks of even a very big barge. He claims that, including dinosaurs, there were only 16,000 animals on board - apparently “kinds” are different than “species." Besides, all of the animals were juveniles. But even only 16,000 animals need space Noah just didn’t have. (The San Diego Zoo sits on 100 acres and has 900 species of animals. No dinosaurs, though.)

Lest you claim the Ark was full of shit, Ham even uses his fecund imagination to explain how they dealt with the staggering volume of waste produced. The Answers in Genesis people have an answer for everything. Very improbable credulity-straining answers, but they have answers.

Until you actually see it. Then it becomes impossible. The Ark Experience is a big structure, but we’ve certainly seen bigger. The whole thing would rattle around in Giants Stadium. Built by a six hundred year old man without power tools, a shipyard, professional designers, even if he had giants’ blood in his lineage)? And holding a pair (or seven pair) of every kind of reptile, amphibian, bird, and mammal? No, it is just too ridiculous to be entertained. So people will go for entertainment, just as you might visit Cinderella’s Castle and the Pirates of the Caribbean.

There may be one thing in the exhibit I agree with:

Tickets are $40 for adults, $28 for kids 5-12, not including taxes and $10 parking. Don’t forget to visit the gift shop.


Sunday Sermonette: The Hole-Shaped God

“You only say you’re an atheist because you want to be your own God.”

I’ve been accused of this in various ways over the years. Because I acknowledge no gods, I must’ve arrogated that position to myself. I am not simply unconvinced by the lack of evidence or the logical incoherence of the god-concepts on offer, I am deliberately and willfully denying God in order to worship and serve only myself. Everyone is born with a god-shaped hole in his or her soul, said Saint Augustine. If it is not filled with God, we will struggle to fill it with our own overweening egos.  

The people who make such accusations are the same people who claim that atheism is a faith; it’s a religion just like theirs. It doesn’t so much elevate their argument as try to drag yours down to the same low level. As Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out, “Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

In fact, the atheist’s org chart doesn't have a box at the top. It's not like I've knocked off the guy in the corner office and moved behind his mahogany desk. There is nobody in the corner office. There is no corner office. There is no incense rising to my own nostrils from my own altar. There is no soul, and there is no hole.

There are no atheist gods. Not me, not anyone. There are no atheist prophets. Charles Darwin was just the very smart human being who worked out the mechanism of evolution. If he hadn't, somebody else would have. There is no atheist pope. If Richard Dawkins dropped to his knees before the Archbishop of Canterbury and begged to be forgiven for his apostasy, it wouldn't change anything. I might want to ask him tell me what he believes and why he believes it, the same as I would ask any theist. I would want to evaluate any evidence he might have for his change of heart. But no atheist I know would automatically decide to follow him. It doesn’t work that way. Unless Dawkins produced evidence for the existence of God, there’s no reason to believe.

I have had people try to turn that right back at me. What evidence do I have that God does not exist?  

This unfairly changes the burden of proof. I’m not the one making the claim something exists. But what the heck - I'll answer anyway. It is the same evidence I have that leprechauns do not exist. In fact, leprechauns are easier to believe in than the Abrahamic god. Leprechauns are said to have a physical presence, so all we need to do is find them. God doesn't have a physical presence at all, but somehow can interact with the real world - how does that work, exactly? Leprechauns have limits. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, a logical impossibility.  

Every question we as a race have ever had, from where the sun goes at night to why people get sick, has started out with a magical answer. (The sun god Dažbog’s daughter, Zorja Vechernjaja, opens the gates for her father’s chariot in the evening and closes them behind him. In the morning, his daughter Zorja Utrennjaja opens the gates of the palace so that Dažbog can drive out. It is known. As for illness, it’s caused by an imbalance of the humours. Bloodletting and purging will soon rectify it.)

Without exception, every magical answer has been proven wrong. The holes in our knowledge we tried to plug with gods turned out to have reality-based answers. The holes in which a god can hide are getting fewer and smaller.

And that’s the main reason I don’t aspire to be God. God is just the name we give to the sum total of human ignorance.


Plus Ça Change...

Better educated Brexit supporters speak of "freedom" as the reason they cast their vote to leave the EU. My first thought was, Freedom from what? Unless you're going to give up trade with the rest of Europe, the same rules will apply, both the supposedly onerous regulations on bananas and the free movement of people.

Then my mental jukebox cued up a British punk song from the 70s called Power in the Darkness. In the middle, there's a part spoken in a plummy British posh accent:

Today, institutions fundamental to the British system of Government are under attack. The public schools, the house of Lords, the Church of England, the holy institution of Marriage, even our magnificent police force are no longer safe from those who would undermine our society, and it's about time we said 'enough is enough' and saw a return to the traditional British values of discipline, obedience, morality and freedom.

What we want is:

Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals
Prostitutes, pansies and punks
Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents
Lesbians and left wing scum
Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions
Freedom from the Gipsies and the Jews
Freedom from leftwing layabouts and liberals
Freedom from the likes of you!

That was the 70s. The kids who grew up listening to the Tom Robinson Band (TRB) were the demographic most likely to vote for “freedom.”

This was the rest of the song, just so there's no confusion:

Power in the darkness
Frightening lies from the other side
Power in the darkness
Stand up and fight for your rights
Freedom, we're talking bout your freedom
Freedom to choose what you do with your body
Freedom to believe what you like
Freedom for brothers to love one another
Freedom for black and white
Freedom from harassment, intimidation
Freedom for the mother and wife
Freedom from Big Brother's interrogation
Freedom to live your own life, I'm talking 'bout
Power in the darkness
Frightening lies from the other side
Power in the darkness
Stand up and fight for your rights!

Sunday Sermonette: Plastic Jesus

I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Riding’ on the dashboard of my car.
Through my trials and tribulations
And my travels through the nation
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.

— the appropriately named Billy Idol

It's the last Sunday in June.  This is the traditional beginning of the Summer Season for many churches.  Clergy, choirs, even much of the congregation go on vacation.  The pulpits are left to lay Eucharistic ministers, seminarians, and other aspirants to ordained ministry.  

Purely coincidentally, this is also the season that the Gospel readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary for most mainline Christian churches turn to what are called the Hard Sayings of Jesus.  What makes them hard is the difficulty of reconciling what Jesus is quoted as saying with the Jesus in whom most believe.  

To most Christians, Jesus is a synthesis of children's stories, snippets of Sunday Gospels, hymns, their own politics and prejudices, Doctor Who, and Hollywood imagery like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who spent his days healing lepers and blessing peacemakers.  "Suffer the little children to come unto me," and "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."  An ascetic white man with a soft brown beard and compassionate blue eyes.  You know, Tab Hunter.  

The Jesus of the Hard Sayings, however, doesn't fit that model.  He's got more in common with Jim Jones and David Koresh and Charlie Manson.  Here's how the Gospel appointed for today ends:

And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.  Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.  And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.  And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.  (Luke 9:59-62)

This just doesn't sound like Family Values Jesus, does it?   It's not as bad as Luke 14:25-33, in which Jesus amplifies this theme and declares that no one who doesn't hate parents, wife, children, and siblings is worthy to be his disciple, but it's still no picnic for the preacher.    Sermons today will spin on themes of the cost of discipleship. It's not always easy to be a Christian.  There may be persecution (pay no attention to the church on every other street corner and every elected politician clutching their Bibles).  There may be hardship.  You have to believe.  And so on.  

Anyone who looks beyond the pulpit pericopes, however, knows that Jesus didn't care a blasted fig for family values.  The Jesus of the Hard Sayings is a prophet of the Apocalypse.  The world is coming to an end!  The Son of Man is at hand, bringing judgement and wrath to the wicked, and justice and salvation to the downtrodden masses and righteous.  Take no thought for tomorrow, he preached, because there isn't going to be one.  Why stop to bury your father when the whole world will shortly be a charnel house?  Family and career and working  for a just society?  It's too late for that.  Give everything you own to the poor and head for the hills.  The Kingdom of God upon us!  

The poor and oppressed liked this message.  They're the ones who ran with it in the early days.  God's first Chosen people, the Jews, had suffered.  Jesus had suffered.  And God knows the poor had suffered.  But Judgement Day was coming quickly, and payback's a bitch.  Didn't Jesus say that people of this very generation would be alive to see it? 

It's hard to build a hierarchical church around such a character and such beliefs, particularly when the promised End of the World doesn't arrive on schedule.  The rantings of lunatics are disruptive to the established social order.  Over the centuries,  the church has revised and reinterpreted Jesus.  Jesus is the meek and humble Son of God who preached that God is love and always votes for the party in power.  

I think that the image of Jesus has been redefined and reinterpreted so many times that little or nothing authentic can be found, if indeed anything ever existed. If Jesus did preach the end of the world, he was clearly wrong. If he actually did any of the deeds attributed to him, no evidence remains. All we have is marketing myth, Superstar, Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald. Jesus™, a polished plastic corporate logo for the biggest, richest, and least productive industry in the world.

You see, you don't know how much people need God. You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything. Make them happy to die, and they'll die, all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God. The Messiah. Not you. Not for your sake. You know, I'm glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful.  (Saul of Tarsus to Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ)


The man confronted me as I came out of a gay bar. “Homosexuality is an abomination,” he cried.

I’m a peaceful guy, but I’m also a big guy, and I was outraged. How dare he? This wasn’t some wackaloon holding a sign at the fringes of the Pride Parade, this was somebody accosting a complete stranger in the street. I wasn’t inclined to offer any justifications or excuses that I was just meeting a friend. I got very close and warned him in menacing tones about the health hazards of his presumption. I must have frightened him, because he backed off quickly. This was about 30 years ago. Things are different today.

This past week saw the horrific mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Pulse was opened in honor of co-owner Barbara Poma’s brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, and named “for John’s pulse to live on.” It was just another Saturday night at a perfectly ordinary gay nightclub. And then an armed man came in and shot 102 people, 49 fatally (not including the assailant himself).

LGBTQ people have for the last decade been the most likely target of hate crimes in America. But who encourages it, excuses it, and gives social license for it? Is there a secular case to be made against homosexuality? Some say there is, and roll out a laundry list. In point of fact, I can find only two real arguments, from which all the others extend.

The first non-religious argument against homosexuality is that it is unnatural. The two genders have complementary genitalia. The union of male and female is necessary for breeding the next generation and continuing the species.

I hardly need point out the fallacies to this argument. There are lots of things two (or more!) people can do with genitals and erogenous zones that fit marvelously well, regardless of the gender of the individuals so engaged. That they work so well together for even heterosexuals suggests strongly that reproduction is merely one of the purposes of sex and intimacy, not the sole or even the most important purpose.

Moreover, this naturalistic fallacy threatens opposite-sex relationships. Many people marry with every intention of forming a sexual partnership but no intention of reproducing whatsoever. In a world groaning under the weight of seven billion humans, I think this is a good thing.

The second non-religious argument is from public health. Same-sex activity is a disease vector for such things as HIV/AIDS. Heterosexist apologists will often add bogus statistics concerning the mental health and life expectancy of homosexuals. These arguments are utterly specious. There are many sexually-transmitted infections, and some are very scary indeed, but if you want to make a case for public health, promote lesbianism - they have the lowest incidence of STIs. Otherwise, disease is no respecter of sexual orientation, as is sadly demonstrated in sub-Saharan Africa.

The remaining arguments - that tolerance will increase homosexuality (because everyone is really gay and we’re just being held in check by social sanction), that children will be more likely to grow up queer, that heterosexual marriage will be destroyed - all of these say far more about the person arguing than they do about the truth value of the proposition.

No, the secular arguments are pathetically weak and thoroughly debunked. So what is the biggest cause of hostility to LGBTQ people in this country? Who stands most firmly against civil rights? Who compares same-sex love to bestiality and pedophilia? Who raises and spends millions of dollars to keep lesbians and gays from enjoying the same rights and privileges under law as everyone else?

The church. It’s always the church. Organized intolerance requires organized religion. The hate isn’t restricted to the Westboro Baptist Church or Pastor Steve Anderson. The oft-cited quote of “love the sinner, hate the sin” is just as hateful - it’s saying that you’re perverse and deserve eternal torment for being who you are, for something innate and intrinsic and the most wonderful part of being human - the ability to love and be loved.

Thanks to the gun lobby, the unhinged aren’t just waiting with Bible in hand to harangue strangers in the street anymore. They now have the means to be the Right Hand of God’s Wrath.

Easy availability of firearms with big, easily swapped out magazines made the mass murder in Orlando possible.

Religions scapegoating sexual minorities and the politicians who pander to them made it probable.

The NRA made it profitable.


Sunday Sermonette: Unanswered Prayer

Sen. David Perdue, freshman Republican senator from Georgia, opened his remarks at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference the other day by encouraging attendees to pray for President Obama. But, he added snarkily, they need to pray for him in a particular way: “We should pray for him like Psalms 109:8 says: May his days be short,” the senator said.

The necessity for and efficacy of prayer is one point on which all three Western religions agree. All believers are encouraged to pray daily, and some are required to pray multiple times a day.

Christians are urged to pray for their daily bread (Matt. 6:10-14), to ask for anything in Jesus’ name and it will be granted (John 44:13-14, John 16:23), even to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Scarcely a day goes by without a Facebook friend or family member asking for prayers for some intention or other.

Senator Purdue thought he was being witty. He was half right. Psalm 109 is what’s called an imprecatory prayer - a curse, in other words. It continues, Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children…

Yeah, Senator Purdue is a shining example of Christian love, isn’t he? Had he just threatened to shoot the President, he’d be answering some hard questions by the Secret Service right about now. But the Secret Service as well as his audience at the Faith & Freedom Coalition all know one thing full well even if they won’t say it aloud: God doesn’t answer prayers.

Even with our human propensity for confirmation bias, counting the hits and forgeting the misses, we know from personal experience that at least most prayers go unanswered. We just don’t talk about it. No one stands up in church and says, “I prayed to God to cure my cancer, and now I’m stage four and will be dead in a month.” “I prayed for work, but I’m still unemployed and the bank is foreclosing.” “We prayed for God to keep this church going, but we still can’t afford to pay the pastor.”

When I began studying for the ministry, this was something I particularly wanted to know more about. What do we say to people when their prayers go unheeded? What words of comfort and wisdom can we share when, despite storming the heavens with prayer, a child dies, or an illness turns worse, or a compulsion is unrelieved, or misfortune follows misfortune? If prayer is unanswered, might it be because it was unheard?

Here’s what I learned: all that the wisest religious people have to offer are excuses, justifications, and rationalizations.

Well, you see, we pray that God’s will be done. We are praying to align our wills with his and trust his divine plan.

So why bother praying at all if God’s just going to do what he’s going to do?

Because God is your heavenly father. You talk with your earthly father, don’t you? Prayer is conversation with God.

Monologue isn’t conversation. I’m praying for an answer, not to hear myself.

You must not try experiments on God, your Master,” wrote C.S. Lewis in an essay on the efficacy of prayer. How dare you expect what Jesus himself said to be true?

And what does it mean when my prayer is ignored, but someone else stands up in church to testify about their answered prayers? Does God like them better than me? Am I doing it wrong? How have I failed? How can it be God’s will that I suffer while a thumping crook prospers?

You must trust God’s ineffable plan.

I sometimes wonder if religion doesn’t so much offer comfort to the person suffering, but to those around him. With a few platitudes, they can discharge their duty to the unfortunate. Terrible about your house burning down. I’ll pray for you. Your children are in a better place now.

Happy chances and coincidences happen to everyone, regardless of their religion or prayer habits. So does misfortune and disaster. Nowadays, whenever I’m asked to pray for someone, I ask if there’s anything I can do. I recently was able to provide material assistance to someone dear to me, and was nonplussed when God got the credit. I wonder who would been blamed had I not helped?

Perhaps it’s just as well that magical thinking can’t affect reality. Can you imagine the chaos if our politicians’ prayers were actually answered?

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked for forgiveness." -- Emo Phillips

“Hands that help are better by far than lips that pray.” -- Robert Ingersoll

Sunday Sermonette: All You Need Is Love

Happy LGBT Pride Month!

This month in 1969, the modern gay liberation movement began with riots outside a gay / trans bar in Greenwich Village. Same sex marriage as a civil right was first declared by the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over 12 years ago, and now that right is affirmed in every state of the country. Churches, however, are still wrestling with it. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and some Methodist and Baptist churches support marriage equality, Catholics, Orthodox, and most Evangelical churches do not.

A few years ago, an essay by Professor P.Z. Myers helped me understand the theological difficulties facing religion. There are really only four options:

  1. There is an all-powerful God who cares very much about what you do with your genitals, and he sometimes changes his mind. Perhaps the only thing more terrifying than an all-powerful being whose ultimate judgement will consign you to an eternity of bliss or never-ending torment is an arbitrary all-powerful judgmental God. George Carlin used to riff on all the Catholics in Hell for eating meat on Fridays before the Vatican liberalized the dietary rules. I mean, here you are, doing the best you can to obey the rules and observe the doctrines and covenants of your religion, and suddenly God changes his mind and pulls the carpet out from under your feet. What happens now? Are all the sodomites currently wailing and lamenting in the Seventh Circle of Hell automatically pardoned and admitted to Paradise? Are those righteous churchmen who condemned people to death for “the abominable and detestable crime of which no Christian should speak” now consigned to the fiery pit, or at least a nice long stint in the cleansing fires of Purgatory?
  1. There is an all-powerful God who cares very much about what you do with your genitals, but his priesthood sometimes misinterprets him. Here’s my old church, which has stood for hundreds of years (ever since Henry VIII needed a son and the Pope wouldn’t let him divorce his wife), and they’ve been dead wrong for most of that time. What else have they been wrong about? Maybe adultery and coveting my neighbor’s wife are perfectly fine. The plural of spouse is spice, after all. How long have they been getting it wrong for? The Catholic church is sure that the Church of England have it wrong, but maybe it goes further back. Maybe the Levites who took the first heavenly dictation were wrong - bacon-wrapped shrimp is delicious!
  1. There is an all-powerful God who doesn’t care very much about what you do with your genitals, he has greater matters like the movement of galaxies to deal with. Maybe this whole focus of what you’re doing with whose genitals is just a reflection of the hangups of Mrs. Grundy and her bluenosed ancestors. Maybe we shouldn’t look to a distant invisible, inaudible, intangible being for rules, but to our fellow humans. After all, we’ve been living in community with each other for 200,000 years, we’ve probably learned a few good guidelines in that time. I mean, we figured out that selling your daughter as a sex slave wasn’t right, despite what those Levites wrote down.
  1. There is no all-powerful God, no judgement after death, no eternal reward or punishment. The priests have been making it up ever since one bright caveman figured out a way to get the best share of the hunt without actually having to work for it. Getting together to sing songs and eat bean suppers is good, helping one another is good, even listening to an inspirational speaker can be good, but you can pitch the rest of it. The Vatican is already a museum, most megachurches are already concert venues, and Mrs. Grundy is dead.
I think this is why we have ranting nutpies like Ken Ham insisting that every word of the Bible is literal truth, that the universe was created between six and ten thousand years ago, that Noah’s flood was an actual event. He knows full well that the foundations of his religion are built of fragile reeds and shifting sands, and is desperately trying to hold back the tide.

We atheists like to think that the greatest threat to religion is reason. Perhaps we’re wrong. Maybe the greatest threat to religion is love.



In February of 1993, we attended a meeting of the New England Herpetological Society. I’m allergic to certain furry critters, but have always loved reptiles. While we were there, a snake breeder offered me a hatchling corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus guttatus), all red and orange and black with a black and white checked underbelly, for $10. I whipped out my wallet on the spot and bought the little fellow, no longer than a pencil, who seemed to want nothing more than to twine around my fingers.

The Unindicted Co-Conspirator was unhappy that I had purchased an animal without consultation. We’d been married less than six months earlier; she didn’t yet know that I can be a little impulsive where critters and computers are concerned. I handed her the snake, who immediately twined around her fingers, looking at her with bright, trusting, unblinking eyes. She melted immediately.

On the ride home, with the snake still cradled in her hand, we discussed names. The one that stuck was Pinkerton. First, for the unblinking eye that was the symbol of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Second, because his diet was neonate mice, which are called pinkies. And last, for the snake-in-the-grass Lieutenant Pinkerton of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.

We found Pinkerton a little two and a half gallon aquarium with a tight metal lid - there was nothing else he wouldn’t escape through. As he grew, the tanks grew larger until he was finally in a big 55 gallon breeding aquarium. He had a piece of cork bark to scratch and sun on, a hide box, a water bowl, and a heat lamp. (I attached a thermometer to the hide box.) That was enough. He rejected branches - he was a happy ground-dweller.

Snakes are interesting pets. They don’t ask much, and frankly they don’t give much unless you enjoy watching the graceful arch of the neck as a snake siphons water from a bowl or how perfectly they shed their skin. Snakes basically have a two-bit mind. One bit is devoted to “warm / not warm” and the other to “hungry / not hungry”. When mating season hits in early Spring, they swap out the hungry bit for “girl snake / not girl snake,” putting off eating until after mating season passed. (It took one shed cycle - about a month.)

The life expectancy of a corn snake is six to eight years in the wild, ten to fifteen in captivity. The oldest recorded corn snake lived to be 23. This was in a zoo - pet owners have claimed longer ages, but not by much. By any standard, he was a very, very old snake.

Pinkerton developed some sort of tumor in his lower abdomen, near his vent. It didn’t seem to bother him for a while - he still ate, but lately he has rejected food (he’d kill the mouse, but not eat it) and appears to be straining (and failing) to pass waste. It was time.

We took him to the local veterinary hospital this morning, which has a vet who handles exotics. A sedative was administered, and when he went to sleep, we left. It takes a long time to sedate a snake, and even longer to euthanize it. The vet explained she’d use an ultrasound to locate the heart, and inject the final mercy there so it would be quick.

We never had an emotional bond. Snakes aren’t warm and cuddly. So why am I blinking when I walk into the room and see the dark and empty tank?