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Sunday Sermonette: Dishonest Dissent

Last Friday, the last Friday of LGBT Pride Month, the Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a right that the states cannot deny to same-sex couples. “The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest. With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion.

The anti-marriage equality crowd were quick to respond. A friend lamented the end of debate, quoting Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent: "Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view. That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept."

Bullshit. I’m tired of this reification of “debate”. Intellectually dishonest candidates dismiss the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change and call for more debate. Republicans cry that the Democratic passage of the Affordable Care Act did not afford American citizens ample opportunity to debate their health care wishes. And now we hear that marriage equality will be clouded because the good people of this land didn’t get a chance to adequately debate it. Bullshit.

First, we've been debating this issue ad nauseam for years, even decades. It will be 23 years this September that the Unindicted Co-Conspirator and I chose to solemnize our marriage using the rubrics developed for what were called “same-sex unions,” because we didn’t believe in second-class marriages. Don’t tell me we haven’t “debated” long enough.

Second, what the endless debates have revealed is that there is no civil case to be made. The only reason to oppose same-sex marriage, the only reason I have ever heard, is that you don’t think God likes it. Well, that’s just too bad. God is not an American citizen. God is not a registered voter. God has no standing in the courts of a secular republic. So even if you can prove there is a God and that you are God’s one true spokesperson on earth, it makes no difference under our laws.

The Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the American Association of Evangelicals, and the American Baptist Churches USA all oppose same-sex marriage. Who cares? They don’t have to perform any. Catholics also consider my opposite sex marriage invalid because I was previously married. Their rules don’t apply to me. Baptists discriminate against women in positions of authority, and Mormons forbid caffeine. All irrelevant to me, because:

Third, marriage is a civil matter. You can have your marriage blessed in a house of worship by a priest, minister, or rabbi, but they are just signing the license issued by the state. It is the state that licenses the marriage of two people; the church merely solemnizes it. That’s why your marriage in the middle of a cow pasture conducted by a Justice of the Peace is just as valid as a marriage with twenty people in the wedding party and a bridal train that stretches the full length of the nave conducted by the Cardinal Arch-Bishop. My partner in crime and I could not be married in the Catholic Church, the local synagogue, or the Mormon temple, and this didn’t bother us for a second. We didn’t use the Prayer Book service, but our marriage is still quite valid. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts married us.

Your church is not affected by marriage equality. Your freedom to practice your religion is untouched. You can continue to believe that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered” and thunder against the sin of Sodom from your pulpits. You can continue to marry only the opposite-sex people you approve before your altar. You can bar the door and deny membership to lesbians and gays. Nothing in Friday’s ruling changes that.

Finally, this doesn’t halt a single debate. You can continue to discuss and debate same-sex marriage until you’re blue in the face and keel over from oxygen deprivation. What you can’t do is run out the clock any more. What you can’t do is deny people their rights under the Constitution just because you don’t think enough people have weighed in with their opinion. “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty,” wrote Justice Kennedy. He specifically addressed the sacred debate issue: “An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act.”

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

"The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

"It is so ordered."

Sunday Sermonette: Happy Father's Day

Today is Father’s Day. Christianity is big on fatherhood.  The Godhead, the first person of the Trinity, is God the Father. 
 
I’m honestly not sure why this is.  God is the worst imaginable father figure.  The best that can be said is that he knocked up Mom and abandoned her without child support - the Deist God who lit the touchpaper on Creation and then retired to a safe distance.  The worst that can be said?  That God really is exactly as portrayed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  



The very first thing he did was create humans with curiosity and ego, and then gave them an order not to do something.  As anyone who has ever watch the reality show Survivor knows, the first person who thinks he can give orders to the tribe is usually the second person voted off the island (preceded by the annoying useless one).  Of course, it’s can’t be a flaw in manufacturing.  God is perfect. The humans are being deliberately disobedient, so they have to be punished. 

A little while later, God despairs of the whole botched mess he’s made of things and murders almost every living creature on the planet, sparing only a 500 year old drunkard and his family and representative samples of the various species.

Finally, he decides that he can’t deal with teeming humanity and selects one tribe. As a loyalty test, he orders the tribe’s patriarch to sacrifice his own son to him.  I don’t know about you, but the only acceptable answer to any God ordering such an immoral act is not just No, but Hell, No!  But the patriarch went ahead and did it anyway, only stopped at the last second.  Jephthah’s daughter wouldn’t be so lucky, but that’s for later.  

God later decides to manifest his power over Pharaoh not by killing him, but by hardening his heart so that he wouldn’t comply. then murdering all of the first-born males in Egypt.  

The evil monstrosity didn’t stop there. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God orders murder and genocide.  He kills off all of the citizens of two cities, sparing only another drunkard and his daughters, who ostensibly seduced him.  (Thus giving rise to the excuse of alcoholic weasels everywhere, “God, was I drunk last night!”)

I wonder if alcohol features so prominently in these stories because God is basically an abusive husband, stumbling home from the pub every night to beat the wife and terrorize the children.  “Why won’t you love me?”  

Finally, we wade through the carnage to the New Testament.  This time, says God, it will be different.  This time I’m going to send my own son to Earth and torture him to death. That will make me happy once you believe you're nothing without me and my son. Unless, of course, you don’t believe this nonsense.  See what you made me do?  Back in the Hebrew scriptures, death was the end of things, but now after you die I’m going to resurrect you and give you eternal life so I can torment you forever.  

Because I love you.  Why won’t you love me?  

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Sunday Sermonette: Happy Pride!

I was a Christian for most of my life, and one of the things that has always bothered me is the extent to which people create God in their own image and likeness.  You can tell, because their God hates the same people they do.  Nowhere has this been more apparent than in how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are treated.

Certain vocal Christian groups are scapegoating homosexuality as the most terrible sin imaginable.  Scarcely a day goes by that some preacher or pundit  does not outrageously slander people who love people of the same gender.  It is difficult to credit this sort of behavior from people whose religion was founded by a man who never married and hung around with a dozen other men, one of whom was described as “the disciple Jesus loved.”

President Obama has proclaimed June to be LGBT Pride Month.  The outraged response didn't even wait for the Sunday pulpit.  Bob Sith, who serves the Southern Baptist Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals, spoke to Baptist Press. 

"President Obama again casts all those who have a genuine, biblically based belief that homosexual acts are sin as haters," Stith told Baptist Press. "It is not prejudicial to say that certain acts which have been viewed as sin for over 3,000 years by all three major religions are still sin.

"The president calls for freedom, fairness and full equality under the law and eliminating prejudice everywhere it exists. This would be much more believable if he extended that concern to those who seek to leave homosexuality," Stith added. "The task of helping those who do not want to live homosexually grows more difficult each time this kind of proclamation comes out." 

As you probably guessed, the Ministry to Homosexuals is limited to making sure that they feel really bad about being gay and come to church to pray it away.

Fortunately, not all Christians agree with the exegetics of hate.  Since yesterday was Gay Pride Day here in Boston, I though I’d list  some of the churches that, to a greater or lesser degree, welcome LGBT people.

United Methodists passed a resolution in 2008 condemning homophobia and heterosexism.  They are inclusive and proud of it, believing “all persons are of sacred worth.”  All are welcome to share in their worship and participate in the sacraments.  However, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained as ministers, and they’re still officially against gay same-sex marriage. There are a growing number of Methodist churches in the Reconciling Ministries Network, who are challenging this.

In the Book of Order, the Presbyterian Church forbids excluding people based on race, national origin, gender, or other conditions.  They do not, however, mention sexual orientation.  Their Directory of Worship defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.  

The United Church of Christ was the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay person, which they did back in 1972.    They formally embraced same-sex marriage in 2005.  They regard gay rights as civil rights.  Their hymnal includes references to God as male and female.  

The Episcopal Church has elected two openly gay bishops, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles.  It also has lesbian and gay priests (the vicar of my old church, e.g.).  Many dioceses (especially in states where legal) perform same-sex weddings.  The long-feared schism has already happened, so it is likely that Episcopalians will become even more accepting in future.  

Last summer, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American voted to accept non-celibate gay clergy.  Some congregations are divided over the issue, but Lutherans are echoing the Episcopal experience - they took a very long time to digest the issue, and are finally coming forward with the conclusion that gay people should be welcome both as members and as ministers.  

The Friends, or Quakers, have a very long history of social justice.  Gay people are welcome.  

Roman Catholicism believes homosexuals are intrinsically disordered, but as long as they are sufficiently full of guilty self-loathing, they will be suffered to sit in the pews.  The gay-accepting Catholic organization is appropriately called Dignity.  The Roman Church has banned it from its own buildings, but they often share altars with other churches, and there’s an underground of gay or gay-friendly priests who provide valid sacraments.  

In 1968, gay Pentecostal minister Troy Perry founded an evangelical church where LGBT people would be welcome.  The Metropolitan Community Church now can be found throughout the United States and Canada, as well as internationally.  

Finally, although they’re not formally Christian, the Unitarian-Universalist Church has celebrated diversity for decades.   They even welcomed me.

Members of all these churches and groups and others were represented at Pride.  Even the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there.  The weather was absolutely perfect.   Have you noticed that the God who evangelicals like Pat Robertson claim sends hurricanes and earthquakes to punish the nation for accepting LGBT people always seems to send the most beautiful weather during Pride?

Here's one parting thought for Christians that I heard from the President of Humanists of Florida.  What, according to Jesus Christ, is the first and most important commandment?   To love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, right?  But here in this secular republic founded on Enlightenment values are all these people who disobey that commandment. Atheists like me, Hindus, Buddhists…  We don't love your God at all.  But we need to get along in this diverse country, so Americans have traditionally emphasized Jesus' second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.  The Golden Rule.  

If two people of the same gender fall in love, and you don't think that your God likes that, so what?  Invoke the Golden Rule.  If you don't approve of gay marriage, then don't have one.  That's all you have to do.

Unless…  the whole anti-gay thing is really just a way to NOT love your neighbor as yourself, but just an attempt to stuff your own personal religious beliefs down our throats.  That’s called “hate.”

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A friend complained that my sermonettes focused on fundamentalism and don’t address what liberal Christians actually believe about God. I have to admit, he had a point. I tend to write about the extremes, not the great majority. I write mostly about Evangelicals and Catholics

What do these religions believe? All churches claim their ultimate belief is in Jesus, who is God (with the Father and the Holy Ghost and you can refer to last week’s Sermonette about the Holy Trinity, I’m not going down that rabbit hole again). This is a little difficult to prove, since Jesus hasn’t been seen or heard from for almost 2000 years. So were do they get their information?

Catholics say that Jesus established the Church, and that the Church’s official teachings on matters of faith, morals, and worship have divine warrant. While individual priests, bishops, and even popes may be mistaken on other things, when the Church declares something as an official teaching, it is True and must be accepted by all believers. The Church points to Scripture as evidence for this claim, but some might say they undercut their position because they don’t accept all of Scripture as the inerrant Word of God. Inerrancy is limited to matters of faith and morals; other subjects require human interpretation. So they also include what the call the Apostolic Tradition, the official edicts of Popes and papal councils. Translate that as, “We’ve always believed this, therefore Jesus said so."

Evangelicals believe that the Bible is God’s word without error as originally written, and may be relied upon as the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and doctrine, above any human authority. This has led in some cases to bibliolatry. It’s certainly easy to pick and choose Bible verses to prove anything you like.

Matt. 27:5 And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
Luke 10:37 Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
John 13:27 That thou doest, do quickly.

These are more mission statements than practical reality. There’s an awful lot of wiggle room in all three.

The biggest trouble with talking to anyone about God is that it’s a semantically null word. In order for a word to have meaning, it must have a referent. “Cat,” says your mother, pointing to the cat as you drool in your crib. “Cat,” she repeats, holding you in her lap and showing you the the image in the picture book. Later on, you learn more complex words by stringing together references. A tiger is a big cat. A Sno-Cat is a large boxy vehicle on tank treads used to travel overland in Arctic regions, so called because of its sure-footedness. And so on.

But how do you define “God?” If you can’t point to it or define it, how can you present evidence that it exists? The Baltimore Catechism defines God as “the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.” But that’s just an assertion about what a god does, not what it is or even that it is. You have to define what it is first. Otherwise we’re just talking about flurglebleams. Flurglebleams make great coffee and keep butterflies flying and translate Greek into Latin. There, now you know what a furglebleam is, right?

Sometimes people define “God” as a series of incompatible attributes. God is omnipotent (omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent…) Omnipotence is its own contradiction, like a square circle or a married bachelor. To go back to the schoolyard, “Can God create a rock so heavy even he can’t lift it?” It’s nonsense. A universe that contains an immovable object cannot also contain an irresistible force. An omnipotent entity cannot do anything that would limit its omnipotence and still be omnipotent.

Most believers have a simpler solution. God is whatever I say it is. George Barna, who has been keeping religious statistics for years, says that America is heading for “310 million people with 310 million religions.” “We re a designer society,” he said. “We want everything customized to our personal needs -- our clothing, our food, our education.” Our Gods? Barna complains, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’”

It’s not just Christians. The Jewish magazine Moment once asked “Can there be Judaism without God?” Most answered yes.

Robert Bellah, a sociologist from the University of California, Berkeley, says this isn’t a new phenomenon. “Don’t romanticize the past. Fervent religiosity was always in the minority. Just because people showed up in church didn’t always mean a deep personal conviction or commitment.”

He’s right, and it’s something I never understood when I was a believer. How could only three people show up to Bible Study? How could people skip Mass on Sunday to watch their kids play soccer? Where are their priorities? Isn’t God the most important thing in the world?

My friend said that he could not define God, but that it didn’t matter, God is love. And how did he define love? As self-sacrifice. This is absurd. Certainly I will sacrifice for my beloved, but for purely selfish reasons: her happiness is essential to my own. Martyrdom is usually self-deception, not self-sacrifice.

I also can’t help returning to the schoolyard for a moment with this flawed syllogism:

God is love.
Love is blind.
Therefore, Ray Charles is God.

So what is God? If I’m looking for it, how would I know that I’ve found it? How do you distinguish it from wish-fulfillment and magical thinking? If you can’t tell me that, how can you prove it exists?

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Waiting

The Unindicted Co-Conspirator has just had her throat cut.  

There, how’s that for an arresting opening?  It’s not quite Anthony Burgess’ infamous first sentence, "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me,” but it will serve.

We were up at 3:00 o’clock this morning, on the road by 4:00, and arrived at Mass General Hospital by 5:45.  She was checked in shortly after 6:00 and wheeled away to pre-op within 20 minutes. At 8:00, the removal of a dodgy parathyroid gland began. It was done within about 45 minutes, an hour earlier than anticipated.  

Parathyroidectomy is one of those surgeries where you want to find the doctor who does 50 of them a year.  It’s a delicate fiddly operation that takes place entirely too near important blood vessels, the thyroid gland, and the recurrent laryngeal nerve.  

Still, I can’t help but worry. Anaesthesia is tricky stuff. They were waving sharp objects around my beloved’s throat. Heck, the least of my worries is that It might take her voice. (We sang a glorious service yesterday.) 

Her surgeon was the head of the department, extremely experienced and competent, and he was sure that everything is just fine.  Still, he won’t let me see her until she’s conscious.  

So I sit in the waiting room, waiting and waiting.

Sunday Sermonette: Three of a Kind

Today in Unitarian-Universalist churches is Music Sunday. The choir of which I’m a member and the orchestra have been working hard for months, and today is the big event. Unitarian-Universalism isn’t a Christian religion and doesn’t believe in a triune god. It has no creed, but believes rather in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This means that atheists like me are welcome. In these parts, it also means a rich musical tradition, from Classical to Broadway. So since I’ll be busy this morning, here’s a quick polish of something I wrote on this date five years ago.

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday.  It is unique in that it is a day set aside to celebrate a dogma rather than an event in the life of Jesus.  It is observed on this date by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists; on Pentecost itself by the Eastern Orthodox, and we will charitably not mention the unwashed heathen of the non-liturgical churches.  

The doctrine of a trinitarian God was codified in the Nicene Creed in the fourth century, although the concept is much older.  Older than Christianity, in fact.  The Christians got it from the Egyptians via Rome.  Mystery and gnostic religions posited a trinity of heavenly Father, Mother, and Child.  The Qur'an, written in the early seventh century, still held the idea that Christians believed their Holy Trinity to be God, Mary, and Jesus.  (Sura 5:73)  

The First Council of Nicea was convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E.  Constantine was a consummate politician but no theologian. It was his desire to unite the various factions of rapidly fragmenting Christianities into one religion as part of an overall scheme to unite the various factions of a rapidly fragmenting Roman empire. One God, one religion... one ruler.  Although he himself was only considered a catechumen, not eligible to share in the Eucharist, he was the emperor.

The final product of the Council was a Creed, sort of a Christian press release that contained the official and sanctioned doctrines of the church.  Anyone who failed to endorse it, said Constantine, would be exiled. The works of the primary dissenter Arius were to be burned, and anyone found in possession of them was to be executed.

Given that penalty, most of the church fathers decided the new Creed was just great, especially that bit about the Trinity, in which the feminine principle (Ruah in Hebrew) was replaced by a neuter (Pneuma in Greek). A Triune godhead composed of two males and a neuter made perfect sense to a roomful of old men.

Actually, it made perfect sense to no one, and never has. Just ask any Christian to explain it to you. The Roman Catholic Church officially classes it as a mystery, that must be accepted as true even though it cannot be understood by mortal men. There have been a number of attempts to clarify it for the faithful, but all analogies are fundamentally flawed. (St. Patrick and his shamrocks, the three states of water, etc.)  It is said that to contemplate the Trinity for more than a few minutes is to invite heresy by probing too deeply the ineffable mysteries of God.  One may lose his mind trying to understand it, but lose his soul rejecting it.

In short, the doctrine of the Trinity is nothing but a loyalty test.  It is unique to the group and patently absurd at the same time. Only inside the group is it taken seriously. It cannot be questioned or proven. It is a Mystery. The regular repetition of utter nonsense as some kind of higher Truth (higher than that which is actually, you know, true) reinforces submission to the authority of the Church in all things, even reason itself.  

Happy Loyalty Day!

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Sunday Sermonette: Thinking of the Children

The votes were tallied in Ireland yesterday. With more than 60% of the population turning out, same-sex marriage was affirmed by a margin of 62 to 38. This makes Ireland the first nation on earth to legalize marriage equality by popular vote. This is remarkable because Ireland has a reputation of being strongly influenced, if not controlled, by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman church fought hard against this measure with the same barefaced lies and distractions we’ve seen in this country. Passage of this referendum will mean that priests will be forced to bless same-sex nuptials in their own sanctuaries!  (They won’t, religion always gets a pass when it comes to civil rights.)  Passage of this referendum will change the sacred definition of marriage.  (It isn’t sacred, and yes, it will.  The state has redefined marriage many times over the centuries. It is no longer seen as a property exchange.)  Passage of this referendum will mean that those who feel uncomfortable around lesbians and gays will be called bad names like homophobe.  (They already are, because they already are.)

My favorite bit from the campaign was a video ad by an elderly couple, Paddy and Brighid Whyte (now can you get more Irish than that, I ask you?). Sitting stiffly on their living room couch and reading from notes, the couple who will celebrate their 50th weddding anniversary in September urged people to vote in favor of marriage equality for the sake of their children, grand-children, and great-grand-children. Their church tells them to vote against, but it also taught them to believe in compassion, love, fairness and inclusion.

My friend Bart Calendar, an expat writer living in Europe, noted in his Facebook status, "So a country that did not legalize birth control until Mötley Crüe was popular is now more progressive about gay marriage than America.”  It’s true.  Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993, thanks to the heavy hand of the Roman Catholic Church. “That is the world we live in today,” Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin sighed in response to the vote.  He’s right. It’s a world where the Church, though still very powerful, is losing its grip. 

Meanwhile, here in America where membership in the Roman church has been in a steep decline, other Christian sects have picked up on some of their nastier habits.  (No, not nuns.)  The long-running Christian novelty act called the Duggars recently had their unreality show taken off the air when it was revealed that one of their 19 children had been molesting several young girls, including his sisters. That’s not too unusual. Sadly, most child sexual abuse occurs within families.  It wasn’t reported until much later, which is also not too unusual. Child sexual abuse often goes unreported.  No, it was the good old-fashioned Christian cover-up.  Josh Duggar’s father first kept silent for over a year, and then went to a family friend, an Arkansas state trooper, who “counseled” the lad.  It wasn’t until after that state trooper was charged and convicted on child pornography counts that the Crimes Against Children Division of the Springdale police department was notified of the Duggar boy’s offenses, and by then the three-year statute of limitations had expired.

But it’s OK, because Daddy Duggar put his wayward son into a “treatment” center where he could be inculcated with good Christian values.  The Basic Life Principles Treatment Center in Little Rock was at the time headed by a minister named Bill Gothard. He left the ministry in 2014 under allegations that he had sexually harassed multiple women and failed to report allegations of child abuse at his facility. It doesn’t appear that Josh Duggar spent much time receiving any kind of treatment, however - he was farmed out to a friend to do home remodeling as part of his “rehabilitation."

Somehow, the day the records of Josh Duggar’s offenses - all 33 pages of them - became public knowledge, was the very day a local judge picked to order the records deleted.  Not sealed, deleted. It was too late - the Internet has them.

Josh has been forgiven by God for his trespasses, of course. So anyone who wants to bring them up again - be they victim or blogger, is abrogating God’s authority to forgive.  

Despite God’s clemency, Josh Duggar has had to resign from his post as executive director of the Family Research Council hate group’s political action committee. The whole family has been publicly embarrassed, the TV show has lost sponsors, and the press has had a field day toppling another “reality” show’s stars from their pedestal. Still, I haven’t seen a single article about what the problem really was.  

The Duggars, like the Roman Catholic Church, believe that God should be responsible for family planning, and that the father is God’s personal representative on earth. As a result, they had far more children than any family could reasonably care for.  There is no way to give so many children the individual parental attention they need. The Duggar children are home schooled and home churched, so they’re isolated.  They have no opportunity for autonomous play. Older children aren’t allowed to go anywhere without an “accountability partner” to keep tabs.  Even their Internet access is severely constrained - only about 70 websites are approved, and another family member must be sitting by to make sure they don’t see anything they shouldn’t. Mamma Duggar likes to prate about loving children so much she wants to have a 20th child, but she doesn’t love children. She loves being pregnant. The children are mostly cared for by older children.

The Duggars aren’t a family, they’re a cult whose members are emotionally stunted and mentally stultified. And now they’re passing it on to a new generation.

Josh Duggar is now 27 and married.  He and his wive have three children and are expecting a fourth. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons.  And the daughters. And the grand-children.

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The Only Thing You Have To Worry About

The other day, I wrote that the doom and gloom picture in the financial press regarding retirement really isn’t as bad as it sounds.  But how bad is it?  Let’s look at the risks.

Your current problem is that you probably don’t have a pension, and you may not even be eligible for Social Security. You’re on your own. You have to be banker and investor. If you screw it up, it’s cat food in the cold for you. Don’t screw up. Put something aside for that nice elderly person in your future. Hoping you can continue working until you drop is not a strategy.

Here are the Big Seven Retirement Risks:

1.  Longevity.  You live to be 105.  You outlive your money and die cold and broke of the sepsis you got when you cut your finger trying to get the last morsel  of cat food from the bottom of the can.  

This is actually the least pressing of your worries, since it’s furthest off. Financial advisors usually show you a chart with a downward sloping red line, crossing zero somewhere around age 85 and gathering speed.  Such projections almost always rely on the idea that your spending will remain constant throughout your retirement.  It won’t. Not only will you probably not be up for big trips and expensive hobbies as you get older, but hopefully you’re going to keep an eye on your nest egg and re-run your projections every year, adjusting spending as necessary.  

2.  High Inflation.  The price of cat food soars as your savings dwindle in a runaway inflationary cycle that makes 1980 look like the good ol’ days.

The Federal Reserve Bank seems to have one single job these days: controlling inflation at all costs. There’s no telling how long they’ll be successful, but right now it seems to be moving very slowly.  Worry about it when it happens and make spending cuts accordingly.  Again, spending is not constant.

3.  Low Interest Rates.  Your nest egg dwindles because you can’t invest it in anything that’s going to yield anything respectable. You can no longer afford premium cat food.

Low interest rates are what we have right now.  My checking account pays me 0.05% interest on my deposits.  My savings returns a munificent 0.30%. When interest rates start to go up, bond prices come down.  The moral of the story is: if you’re going to need it in the next three years, keep it in cash.  If you’re going to need it in five, look into bonds.  Longer term? Buy stocks.  I’m partial to low-cost index funds. 

4.  Stock Market Crash.  This is it, this is the big one the Doom, Boom, and Gloom folks have been croaking about for so many years. Selling was spirited on the Exchange as several people were hospitalized.  The skies are black with the falling bodies of billionaires. 

Stock markets have corrections (declines of ~ 10%) and crashes (sudden declines of > 10%). They have to, it’s how they work. They also have recoveries. Every crash has been followed by a recovery. If you have the capital you need to live on in cash, you can ride out the storm with equanimity.  Nothing goes up all the time - the S&P 500 has had some terrible crashes (which is why you don’t want to put the rent money in stocks).  But it always comes back.  Over the past 10 years, which includes the 2008 crash and the Great Recession, the S&P 500 has returned an average of 8%. 

5.  Public Policy. The Koch Party sweeps both Houses. The Social Security Act is repealed.  Medicare is eliminated. The plutocrats move to their gated communities and pull up the drawbridges.

Stay involved in the political process.  It starts with your local municipality.  Don’t vote for Republicans.

6.  Personal Problems.  Divorce costs half your nest egg, plus lawyer’s fees.

We just marathoned our way through Netflix’s new show, Grace and Jackie.  Our two 70-something heroines are married to two 70-something law partners who decide they’d rather be married to each other.  Now, this takes place in a mythical land called Southern California, where everyone has a large expensive beach house in addition to large expensive homes, expensive cars, extensive wardrobes, and no money worries ever.  But grey divorce is a reality, and if AARP is to be believed, one that seems to be happening more often nowadays.  Backrubs and breakfasts in bed are good investments.  

7.  A Vogon Constructor Fleet current in parking orbit around Saturn intercepts a communication that Snooki is going to get her own reality TV show. Using mass drivers, they send an asteroid to take out the Jersey Shore. The resulting tsunami wipes out both Washington and New York City, the seat of government and the financial center of the country.  Millions perish, anarchy ensues, Mad Max becomes a documentary.  

OK. you got troubles. Hopefully you have tins of coffee and tobacco buried in your basement for use as trade goods. Gunpowder is a 75:15:10 ratio of potassium nitrate, powdered charcoal, and sulfur.  Keep it dry.

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Everything You Know Is Wrong

Ranking right down there with “One Weird Trick To Reduce Your Penis Size” (or was it belly fat?)  are the links that tell you everything you know is wrong. “You’re Eating Bananas Wrong!” (Hey, the skin is full of nutritious fiber.)  “You’re Brushing Your Teeth Wrong!” (Well, that’s it, then. No more tooth-brushing for me!)  “10 Things Your History Teacher Got Wrong!”  (Will this be on the test?)

But every now and then, such articles are right. Well, sort of right.

The New York Times published a story of the latter sort the other day.  The Four Percent Rule is Wrong.

The Four Percent Rule is a rule of thumb published by financial advisor William Bengen back in 1994.  It basically says that a retiree can draw down 4 percent of their retirement savings the first year, then adjust for inflation in successive years without fear of running out of money during a thirty-year retirement.  

A number of financial professionals and economics professors have run simulations based on the Four Percent Rule, and every now and then one or more will publish a study showing that it’s possible under catastrophic market conditions for Four Percenters to end up broke and eating cat food in the cold.

This leads to two kinds of articles in the popular press.  The first is the scaremongering type.  “You’ll Die Broke Eating Cat Food In The Cold If You Follow the Four Percent Rule!”  Maybe if you only spent three percent.  Or, as one very good economist projected, 2.85 percent.  You’ll never run out of money if you’re spending only 2.85 percent.  Which gives rise to the other scaremongering clickbait:  "You Can’t Retire Without $2.5 Million in Savings!"

Relax, it’s not that bad.  First, the Four Percent Rule isn’t a law of nature, it’s a rule of thumb. Assuming your nest egg is invested in a few nice big index funds (Vanguard or Fidelity Spartan, e.g.), take four percent of your total, add your Social Security (if any) and pension (if any), and if you can get by on the result, you’re probably in good shape, especially if you left yourself a little wiggle room.

But wait!  Isn’t Social Security going broke?  It’s appalling how many people have bought the fright-wing propaganda that Social Security is busted.  It isn’t. And it’s not going to be. In fact, it’s very easy to fix any future shortfall that may happen, if only the politicians would stop and think about the electorate rather than the campaign contributors.  It’ll get fixed, because us old folks vote.

What about medical expenses?  Won’t we be bankrupted by them?  Certainly Fidelity has sounded the klaxon that, according to its studies, the average couple will need $220,000 to cover healthcare costs.  It’s certainly not a good idea to underestimate medical expenses, but neither should sticker shock upset you. That bill doesn’t come due the day you turn 65. It’s an average, spread out over what will hopefully be two or three decades.  By the time your medical expenses start being a significant factor, your other expenses will probably be lower. You probably won’t be engaging in mountain climbing expeditions in Iceland or renovating the kitchen again.  

Yes, retirement has to be planned for, but it’s not as scary as our friends in the financial industry would like you to believe.  Run your numbers through a few good retirement calculators and see what comes up.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

My favorites:

MarketWatch’s Retirement Planner

Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner

FIRECalc

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Sunday Sermonette: The Future of Religionl

You probably saw the headlines this past week trumpeting the decline of the number of adults who identify as Christian in America and the sharp rise in the number who declare themselves atheist, agnostic, or having no religion. The articles that followed were either hand-wringing or triumphant, depending upon writer’s own theistic predilections. They mostly missed the point.

The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan think tank with no associations to any religion, unlike, say, the Barna Group.  Their funding comes from the Pew Charitable Trust and the Lilly Endowment. They have no god in this fight.

The full report can be found here, and it makes interesting reading.  At the center of this study is a telephone survey conducted of over 35,000 American adults last year, with results compared against a similar study from 2007.  The high point: the “Unaffiliateds”, those who embrace no religion, has grown from 16.1% of the population to 22.8%.  More than 1 in 5 people in America are atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” This drop has come mainly at the expense of mainline Protestants and Catholics. 

The question it raises, of course, is why?  Pews says that all age groups show declining interest in Christianity, but the biggest drop-off is in young Millennials, those born between 1990 and 1996.  36% are “unaffiliated.” This is what frightens organized religion, because these young people are needed to fill the pews as the older generations die.  

But that’s not really the answer to Why there are fewer Christians, that’s the answer to How. Why is up for debate. My own personal feeling is that the Internet is to blame.  The Internet is where religions go to die. The Internet is where religion faces its ultimate challenge, the Outsider’s Test.

Former Christian apologist and now atheist John Loftus first proposed the Outsider’s Test for Religion.  He wrote, "Tell believers to examine their faith critically and most all of them will say they already do.
But tell them to subject their own faith to the same level of skepticism they use when examining the other  religious faiths they reject and that will get their attention."

If I asked almost anyone on the street to tell me why the claims of Scientology are false, I’d get an earful. A galactic overlord named Xenu? Reincarnation from the souls of ancient aliens dropped into Earth volcanoes and exploded with hydrogen bombs? Curing all ills and creating supermen by “auditing” to cleanse a person of “engrams” from the person’s past lives while charging increasingly large sums for the treatment?  It’s obviously bullshit. You’d have to be crazy to believe it, right?

But our own religion?  We learned most of what we know as uncritical children, and were were strongly discouraged from questioning any of its sacred truths and precepts. We were surrounded by people who either believed the same thing or something close to it, or at very most would stay silent in their different theist beliefs or lack of beliefs.

I remember as a child talking to the priest in the sacristy about the nearby Methodist church and expressing a desire to visit it some day to find out what they believed. The priest didn’t react as though I were suggesting something wicked, he just laughed indulgently, as one would at a very small and silly child. The implication was that Methodists might be very nice people, but of course they’re wrong and everyone knows it.

The Internet brings us into contact with people who don’t believe what we do and are often quite willing to tell us why. We find out that Jews have good reason to reject the claims of Christianity. We find out that Methodists have good reason to reject the claims of Catholicism.  And sometimes we find out that atheists have good reason to reject the claims of all.  When the smoke of the incense is blown away and the ancient words are translated into the vernacular, it’s harder to take seriously.

But that being said, about 70% of Americans still identify as Christians. Not all of them are, and many of the ones who make the claim do so because “Christian” is equivalent to “good” in their minds, not because they’re observant. That doesn’t change the fact that religion is still a powerful cultural force in America and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  

If the last God is debunked and forgotten, do you really think religion will die too?
 
"Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world. So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true."
  — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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