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Sunday Sermonette: Declaring Victory

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. He was only a passenger, but he climbed out of the plane in full flight gear and was warmly met by the crew members under a giant banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Iraq, was complete. All that was left to do was a little mopping up. America would be at peace again.

I just read an article by the Reverend Dan Delzell, pastor of the Wellspring Church in Papillon, Nebraska and a regular contributor to The Christian Post. Atheism is dead on arrival, and Reverend Dan is here to tell us why.

Atheists try not to think about the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Atheism has no rational answer to this fundamental question, and even considering the question has the potential to chip away at the beliefs of an atheist.

Really? I wrote a short essay on this very topic in my Philosophy 101 class, concluding that without something, philosophers have nothing to argue about. Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote a book on the topic titled A Universe From Nothing. He’s a lot less glib than I am. He’s also an atheist. “I don’t know” is also a perfectly valid answer. Do you know what’s not a rational answer? The arbitrary termination of an infinite regression by the flat and unsupported assertion “I don’t know, therefore God did it.” And not just any God, but the specific deity worshiped by most of the people in Pastor Dan’s culture and described in the very book Pastor Dan read as a child.

He goes on to say that atheism has no explanation for the development of the human mind. Neither does theism, it just halts the inquiry with “God did it.” And then he accuses atheism of having no logical rationale for why more and more people are accepting Christ as their Savior.

Up to this point, he’s been playing rhetorical games. Atheism isn’t a scientific theory, philosophy, or ethic. It’s just an answer to the question, “Do you believe in a god or gods?”

But his repeated assertion that more people are accepting Christ is flat out false. According to a recently published survey by PRRI, the single largest “religious” group in America are the Nones, and the largest subgroup of Nones are what PRRI calls “Rejectionists.” It doesn’t look like a good time for Pastor Dan to declare victory.

Of course, the truth of a proposition has nothing to do with its popularity, and vice-versa. If you want to study why there’s something rather than nothing, atheism doesn’t have an answer. I recommend cosmology.

Pundits say we’re living in a post-factual society, pointing to our modern day Baron Munchausen, the cotton-candy-haired con artist running for President. Perhaps that’s so. But I don’t have to like it, and I don’t. If fibbing is necessary to persuade me of the truth of your religion, what does that say about your religion?

Tell me how, exactly, you get from “Someone must have created the Universe” to “And therefore, my particular religion is true.” Tell me how you get from “God’s laws are perfect and immutable and the objective source of all morality” to “Well, we were wrong about genocide and slavery and miscegenation and the age, size, and composition of the universe, but God definitely disapproves of what two consenting adults do with their genitals.” Tell me how you get from “God did it” to “And therefore the Bible is true except for the parts that are allegorical, which are true, too.”

But don’t tell me that you’ve crushed atheism because it doesn’t offer easy and thoughtless answers to all questions. It only answers one.

The Digital Cuttlefish put it best:

… Therefore, Jesus

It’s possible some entity which cannot be detected,
Outside of our experience despite how we’ve inspected,
Was the first cause of the universe, and first began to move it
It’s possible, by which I mean that no one can disprove it.

And that’s why I, specifically,
Believe in Christ of Galilee

Beyond the grasp of scientists, beyond our poor sensations
Beyond the reach of telescopes, which all have limitations
Before the birth of matter, and of energy’s first pulse
There may have been intelligence—you cannot prove it false.

Believing in the Christian God
Is, therefore, not the least bit odd

The beauty of the universe holds all of us in thrall
No scientist would be so bold as claim we know it all
The open-minded person will admit that, just perhaps,
Some unseen causal entity lies hidden in the gaps

It cannot, therefore, be denied
It’s for our sins that Jesus died

A bit of bread, a sip of wine
Are flesh and blood, by will divine

A savior-king, of virgin birth
Who holds dominion over Earth

Belief in whom must hold the key
To heaven and eternity

Without whose love and magic spell
You’ll spend forever, trapped in hell

A god so strong, and so complex
He cares with whom we might have sex

We’ve never seen the evidence, and frankly never will
Another gap will open up for every one we fill
The less a god is visible, the more that god is strong:
As long as God does nothing, why, you cannot prove Him wrong.


Sunday Sermonette: Our Lady of Agony

A couple weeks ago in Vatican City, the whereabouts of a dead Albanian woman named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was positively fixed. The woman who died 19 years ago is officially a saint, dwelling with God in heaven. By means of this action, the Vatican also demonstrated their cupidity, mendacity, desperate need for public acclaim, and the monstrous sadism (or at least utter indifference) of the deity they claim to worship.

The woman better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a media creation. Stories told about her by a breathless press were often false, as were the stories she told about herself.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was one of her early devotees, and was largely responsible for bringing her to the world’s attention. During filming, a photographer tried to take pictures in a building Mother Teresa called Nirmal Hriday, “House of the Pure Heart.” The press were usually more accurate in calling it “The House of the Dying." It was a dark and dismal place, and the photographer doubted the pictures would show much. Then he remembered a new low-light film from Kodak and decided to try it. Back at the English preview of the film, the photographer was amazed at the clarity of the pictures. He was on the verge of giving three cheers for Kodak when Muggeridge interrupted: "It's divine light! It's Mother Teresa. You'll find that it's divine light, old boy." Muggeridge believed the photographic success was due to the presence of "supernatural luminosity." His biographer reported that Muggeridge was "absolutely convinced that this was a miracle and that the light was supernatural. . . . The incident had a great effect on him and for a time he spoke about it endlessly."

Meanwhile, apparently no one noticed the abject squalor of the place. Certainly it was a “House of the Dying,” but there was no medical attention, no palliative care, nothing but suffering neglected people gasping out their last agonized breaths.

Thanks to Muggeridge and others, Mother Teresa went on to become one of the most prolific fundraisers the Church has ever known. Who could look at pictures of desperately poor and dying people and not be moved to pity?

Mother Teresa, apparently. To this very day, when Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity are raking in over $100 million per year, the facilities at Nimal Hriday are horrific. Concrete dormitories are lined with army-style cots. The squat-style toilets are filthy with human waste, and because of a lack of something as simple as wheelchairs and crutches, the dying are forced to crawl through the foul mess in order to relieve themselves, soaking their bandages in the process. There aren’t even any hot baths. The basics of sanitation are nowhere to be found, promoting the spread of tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis C, and typhoid fever. There’s no washing machine for soiled clothing or bedding; everything is inadequately washed by hand. There is no morphine or other pain relief stronger than an NSAID used for arthritis called Diclofenac. The victims (I cannot call them patients) of the Missionaries of Charity must simply scream and writhe in agony.

And this is how Mother Teresa wanted it. As she said in a Washington press conference in 1997, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

So where does the money go, if not to the Missionaries of Charity in their 517 locations world-wide or their victims? Good question. I’m glad you asked. Have I mentioned the beauty of degrading poverty and horrible suffering being a wonderful gift to help us understand the passion of Christ on the cross? (Granted, the Gospels say he only endured it for about three hours, but it’s the same thing, isn’t it?)

Then there are the two miracles attributed to Mother Teresa’s posthumous intervention. Neither of them had anything to do with making the dying more comfortable or easing the pain of the poor. Both involved the remission of what were claimed to be tumors after medical care - in other words, the sort of thing that happens a lot. The reason the Church can consider it a miracle is that they claimed they didn’t know any other explanation. My word for that is “ignorance,” but that doesn’t keep the faithful coming back, does it?

Mother Teresa’s personal writings showed a person who wanted desperately to believe, but did not. “Where is my faith?” she wrote. “Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”

This is the sort of thing the Church loves: someone continuing to go through the motions without any of the consolations of faith. It is difficult to imagine that a loving God would deny a faithful disciple any hint of his presence for over 60 years. Perhaps it explains a little of why she wasn’t too upset by the sufferings of the dying in her care.

And now she’s a saint. She may be venerated, and you may pray to her to intercede for you with God. Though, if she’s anything like what she was in life, it won’t do you a bit of good.


Sunday Sermonette: Die for a Lie

Here’s a favorite explanation for why the New Testament stories must be true (and by extension, the Hebrew Scriptures as well, since they are attested to by trustworthy New Testament sources.)

“No one would die for a lie.”

We are told that the early apostles of Christ were martyred for their stubborn belief that a man named Jesus was the son of God, and rose from the dead. Surely they wouldn’t have died for something they knew wasn’t true.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With the possible exception of a couple disputed sentences by Flavius Josephus, they are the only evidence we have that he even existed. Evidence for the martyrdom of the apostles is even less substantial, and some of it is acknowledged by Christian scholars to be pious legend.

Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Christian Martyrs" Last Prayer - Walters 37113.jpg
By Jean-Léon Gérôme - Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18824108

The trouble with the Gospels is that they were not written by eye-witnesses, and their authorship is unknown. The Gospel attributed to Mark was first, written between 65 and 70 CE. Matthew was next, between 70 and 100. Luke was written about 85 CE, and John between 90 and 110 CE.

These four were not the only Gospels. We know of a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Peter, a Gospel of Judas, and a Gospel of the Hebrews. In addition, most scholars posit a source (“Quelle” in German) called the Q document consisting of sayings of Jesus, which was used as source material for Matthew and Luke’s Gospel, but has since been lost.

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in his tract “Against Heresies” in 185, liked the idea of four Gospels. After all, there are four winds and four corners of the earth, he reasoned. The book of Revelation and the Prophet Ezekiel both speak of God’s throne being supported by four creatures with four face. Four was a good number.

So, we have four Gospel stories, of which we have the original copies of none, nor even copies of the original copies. But we can trust that the resurrection story they tell is absolutely true, I’m told, because the early Christians were terribly persecuted. Certainly no one would die for a lie, would they?

I have three words in response: Mark David Karr. Mr. Karr, you may recall, confessed to the horrific slaying of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. He’d jumped bail on a child pornography charge and had fled to Bangkok. August 22, 2006, he waived extradition and was flown back to the United States. A scant six days later, the charges were vacated. His DNA did not match the DNA found on JonBenet’s body. In short, he lied about raping and killing a six-year-old girl.

But Mark David Karr was one lone nutpie. There were many early disciples.

Three more words, then: The People’s Temple. On November 18th, 1978, 918 people died in a mass suicide in Guyana, led by the charismatic Jim Jones. See also the Heaven’s Gate cult, the Branch-Davidians of Waco, and the Order of the Solar Temple, just to name a few contemporary events.

The Mormon religion has now been around for over 180 years, and has gained a certain degree of respectability despite being utterly preposterous. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were lynched (or martyred, depending on your viewpoint). Conflict between the polygamous Mormons and the United States government resulted in the creation of more holy martyrs and nearly became an all-out war with the American government.

Scientology, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, Krishna Consciousness, the Divine Light Mission of the Guru Maharaji, Moses David and the Children of God, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Aum Shin Rikyo... These are just a few of the unhinged religions I’ve seen in my lifetime. Not all of these have people willing to die for them, but people certainly have been willing to fork over their money, property, and autonomy to them.

Will people die for a lie? Of course not. They will, however, die for what they believe. If the religions of humanity prove nothing else, they prove that people can believe six impossible things before breakfast.


Sunday Sermonette: Starships

One of the biggest problems with any religion is that the subject matter is ultimately incomprehensible.

When a Catholic priest says “The Lord be with you,” the congregation replies as one, “And with your spirit.” Do they know what they’re talking about?

Catholics have the Baltimore Catechism to define such terms as God. Question 163: What is God? is answered, “God is a spirit infinitely perfect.”

That doesn’t make much sense, so we read on.

Q. 164. What do we mean when we say God is “infinitely perfect”?
A. When we say God is “infinitely perfect” we mean there is no limit or bounds to His perfection; for He possesses all good qualities in the highest possible degree and He alone is “infinitely perfect. ”

Q. 165. Had God a beginning?
A. God had no beginning; He always was and He always will be.

Q. 166. Where is God?
A. God is everywhere.

Q. 167. How is God everywhere?
A. God is everywhere whole and entire as He is in any one place. This is true and we must believe it, though we cannot understand it.

The Baltimore Catechism goes on, but you get the gist. God is perfect, eternal, infinite, and everywhere. It is impossible for the finite human mind to imagine such a being, but even though it is incomprehensible, it must be believed.

But that collection of improbable attributes does tell us one thing. It is impossible for such a deity to need anything, desire anything, or do anything. Eternal perfection already has everything and is everything.

So why are we told that God wants the saccharine adoration of a small band of ape-descended life forms who have only recently arrived on an unremarkable rock circling a fairly ordinary star on the outer edge of one bog-standard spiral galaxy amidst hundreds of billions of such galaxies?

Aha, says the priest. God doesn’t need our worship. We need to worship God, who is the only thing worthy of worship, in order to move closer to him. Already God is whittled down to human shape. It’s now a male, it’s vainglorious, and it needs praise.

God is everywhere, infinite, and eternal. We cannot move closer to God. You and I need food, shelter, sex, and so on - God has no desires, no need for us to “move closer.” If God is who the Baltimore Catechism says God is, then we have no grounds whatever for understanding. We have no common frame of reference. We have no basis for comparison. The denizens of the anthill on my front lawn have far more in common with me than I do with God - at least they’re from the same planet.

God is love, cry the priests. Why shouldn’t he create humanity so he could love them? And since the Bible says the greatest expression of love is to die for one’s beloved, why wouldn’t God save us from our wickedness and do that too?

Like God, love is left undefined. But think about it. Is there any possible definition of love that could apply to an omnimax perfect infinite and eternal deity? Love implies need and desire, even such forms as, “I love the beauty of the Grand Canyon” or the banality of “I love cheeseburgers.” And the matter of God dying to prove his love is utter nonsense when speaking of a deathless and eternal being.

We need God to provide an objective definition of goodness and morality, say the priests. But how can a perfect, infinite, eternal God who nevertheless created a very imperfect universe and very imperfect ape-descendants on the third rock of this particular solar system do that? Good and evil are defined by humans. A perfect God with no needs or desires can’t do it. Wanting a divine trainer doesn’t mean there is one. If people want to be better, it’s up to people to do it. Otherwise we’re just trained rats in a cage.

As I said, a perfect, eternal, infinite God is incomprehensible to me. But priests? Priests I understand. We’re the same species and from the same culture. We both have imaginations, a love of stories, fondness for good food and drink and creature comforts, and a dislike of sweaty manual labor. I avoided hard work by fixing computer problems - there’s seldom much heavy lifting and it’s always air-conditioned. You don’t suppose priests, preachers, and prophets found a way to wear nice clothes and avoid hard work by telling stories about the ineffable will of the inscrutable impenetrable Unknowable, do you?


Sunday Sermonette: Doing Good

Let us open our Bibles to Psalm 14. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”

Now, let us turn to Psalm 53: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.”

Get that? Good. Now we’ll continue.

A couple weeks ago, a worker from a local orphanage came into Matt Wilbourn’s copy shop in Muskogee, Oklahoma and asked him to run off some fund-raising fliers. He did, and was moved to make a donation himself. "I filed out the paperwork and I put my wife and I's name on the paperwork," he said. "At the bottom, it asks if there is any person or organization you want to put it in memory of and I put the Muskogee Atheist Community."

The donation was gratefully accepted, right? I mean, money has no religion. Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, was famous for his ability to raise money from non-Catholics.

Nope. Someone from the Murrow Indian Children’s Home objected "She called my desk phone at work and told me that they would not be accepting our donation because it would go against everything they believe in," Wilbourn said. He was amazed. "Do things out of the goodness of your heart whether it's for religion or not, but don't let religion come between you and someone who needs help and that's what has happened here," he said.

Wilbourn and his wife took the matter to the Muskogee Atheist Community, of which he and his wife are co-founders. "All of them were in agreement that we shouldn't take the $100 back and instead raise the amount," he said. "I emailed the director of the Murrow Home and told her that I'm raising the amount to $250. No reply from her."

That’s when he started a GoFundMe page for the orphanage. As of this moment, it has raised $28,280 of what was to have been a $1000 goal. The orphanage is steadfast in its rejection. They responded, “We appreciate the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Matt Wilbourn for their thoughtful donation to the Murrow Children’s Home. This decision is not about money or personal matters. It is solely about our religious beliefs and Honoring God our Father.”

See what the Psalmist says about atheists again.

Christians believe that their God is the source of all goodness. Even if an atheist does good works and acts in a moral manner, it is only because God engraved his moral law on the hearts of all humans (Romans 2:14-15). Since the central belief of Christianity, that Jesus was tortured to death to pay the monstrously unjust penalty of infinite punishment for our finite sins, is deeply immoral, I’m not sure how such a claim can hold up.

Morality is something that evolves in any species that lives together. I can see glimmerings of it in my pet birds - you preen the head feathers I can’t reach, then I’ll preen the head feathers you can’t reach. It’s obvious among apes, and can be found in every human tribe ever discovered. We humans are taught to be nice to one another from earliest childhood. We’re taught empathy and reciprocity. By the time we’re adults, if someone tells us that a neighbor’s husband is very ill, the first thing we want to do is bring over a covered dish and offer to help. It’s just what neighbors do. It’s what good people do.

But it might offend the God who allows (or is powerless to prevent) innocent children from being abused and neglected to accept help from a non-believer’s hands. I’m sure the children be comforted to know that Jesus loves them despite every evidence to the contrary. Besides, it’s not as if the board of the Muskogee Indian Children’s Home will be missing any meals. Like the supposed sacrifice of Jesus, Christian morality is at someone else’s expense.


Sunday Sermonette: Not a Religion

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog entry titled "Atheism Is Now a Religion." 

He gave a few weak arguments to prove his thesis. So weak, in fact, that I have a feeling he was only trying to provoke a response. But it's a common trope, and it does deserve a few words more than the usual kneejerk answers. You know, "Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color." "Atheism is a religion like not skiing is a sport." (So there, nyah, nyah, nyah.)

What people usually mean when they equate atheism and religion is "Religious people can be smug, arrogant, and annoying. Atheists can be smug, arrogant, and annoying. What's the difference?" In other words, they'd very much like for both the evangelist and the outspoken atheist to just shut up and go away.

I shan't attempt to defend annoying smug arrogance, except to say that it's a human trait, not limited to any particular group. We all can be thumping boors on topics of particular interest, be it diet, dodgeball, or Doctor Who. 

But at the risk of being boring, atheism is just the answer to a question. Does a god (or gods) exist?

There are only two possibilities. Either a god exists or it doesn't.

If it does exist, does it manifest in reality? Is it a thing or force that can be detected in any way? 

If it does not manifest in reality, then it is indistinguishable from a god that does not exist, and we needn't concern ourselves with the question further. That, in short, is the atheist's perspective.

Believers claim that it does exist and does manifest in reality, and that by faith they themselves are solely and uniquely capable of detecting it and understanding its motions and motives. 

All this would be fine, and trouble me no more than someone expressing his fervent belief that Matt Smith was a better Doctor than David Tennant. 

It is believers who are not content. They go further. Not only does a god exist that only they can detect, and not only do they know what it wants, but they are personally charged with carrying out that god's wishes on earth. And what their god wants is public acknowledgement and obedience to rules laid down in ancient texts or revealed to prophets. Those rules include terrible, immoral, inhumane commands, like that homosexuals should be killed or at least shunned, that women should be subordinate and preferably subservient, and that the ancient texts or revealed truths should be taught to children as unquestionable fact and respected by all. 

This is where atheists and others who find in the scientific method an unparalleled tool for understanding and discovery are forced to stand and object. In point of fact, many people who are members of religions, who enjoy community and introspection, object as well.

And yes, there are annoying, smug, and arrogant people. They are not limited to any subset of the population. But it's not the fault of science or reason that the claims of the religious aren't supported by either science or reason. Isn’t it more smug and arrogant to say that you know the mind of the Creator of Universes and are its personal spokesman to the less fortunate masses to whom that revelation has not been given?

And do you think that unto such as you
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave a secret, and denied it me?
Well, well - what matters it?  Believe that, too!

     -- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


Sunday Sermonette: Bookends

It’s easy to be an American. All you have to do is be born here. You need never learn American history, culture, our foundation documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or how our system of government works. If you drew your first breath on American soil, congratulations, you’re one of us. Here, have a flag pin.

It’s easy to be a Christian. All you have to do is say you are, and you’re a member of the club. People say that Islam is the easiest religion to join - all you have to do is say there’s only one God and Mohammed is his prophet - but that’s heavy lifting compared to Christianity. If you say you’re a Christian, none can gainsay you. No need to know the Scriptures or the creeds of your church or any of the foundation documents on which your denomination’s doctrines rest. Here’s a black book you won’t read.

Ever since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, have been an important bloc in the Republican Party. The recent Republican primaries gave us a whole bunch of people who were, they said, answering God’s call to lead this great nation.

Ted Cruz’s father, a fiery preacher, declared that his only begotten son was God’s personal choice to save this country.

My son Ted and his family spent six months in prayer seeking God’s will for this decision. But the day the final green light came on, the whole family was together. It was a Sunday. We were all at his church, First Baptist Church in Houston, including his senior staff. After the church service, we all gathered at the pastor’s office. We were on our knees for two hours seeking God’s will. At the end of that time, a word came through his wife, Heidi. And the word came, just saying, “Seek God’s face, not God’s hand.” And I’ll tell you, it was as if there was a cloud of the holy spirit filling that place. Some of us were weeping, and Ted just looked up and said, “Lord, here am I, use me. I surrender to you, whatever you want.” And he felt that was a green light to move forward.

Marco Rubio also received the call:

I recognize the challenges of this campaign, and I recognize the demands of this office that I seek, but in this endeavor, as in all things, I find comfort in the ancient command: be strong and courageous. Do not tremble or be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Scott Walker was called:

As you can imagine, the months leading up to my announcement that I would run for President of the United States were filled with a lot of prayer and soul searching.

Here’s why: I needed to be certain that running was God’s calling — not just man’s calling. I am certain: This is God’s plan for me and I am humbled to be a candidate for President of the United States.

Rick Santorum was called again:

The former Pennsylvania senator’s wife, Karen, told CBN News in 2011 that her husband’s candidacy was about “defending God’s truth in the world,” explaining that “it really boils down to God’s will. What is it that God wants? … We have prayed a lot about this decision, and we believe with all our hearts that this is what God wants.”

Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry all sought the Call, but only hinted that they had been tapped by God. My favorite, though, was Ben Carson, who wasn’t just tapped. “I feel fingers,” he said. He declined to show on the doll where the fingers had touched him.

But in the end, it seems that God chose an ocherous short-fingered vulgarian.

Despite a long public record of being a libertine, public involvement in exhibiting scantily-clad women, gambling, greed, covetousness, lust, pride - in fact all of the Seven Deadly Sins with the possible exception of sloth - Donald Trump is now the Republican nominee and evangelical Protestants are falling in line to support him.

There have been gaffs, such as when he referred to Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians as “Corinthians Two”, as well as being unable to cite any Scripture at all. “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics,” he told Bloomberg TV. Evangelicals have been quick to forgive. No less an authority than the Reverend Doctor James Dobson declared that Trump had accepted Christ as his personal savior and was now a “Baby Christian.” “He doesn’t know our language,” he said. Other Christians should be more forbearing and forgiving. “You’ve got to cut him some slack,” he said. “He didn’t grow up like we did.” Pennsylvania pastor Rev. Michael Anthony made a comparison with the Pharisee Saul on the road to Damascus. “He didn’t know the language either,” he said of the man who became the Apostle Paul. (Dobson later backtracked when questioned as to how exactly he knew that Trump now had a personal relationship with Jesus.)

There is one doctrine in evangelical Christianity that is absolute. Salvation is by faith in Christ alone. Good deeds will not avail you. Church attendance will not save you. Sola Fide. It’s one of the five Solas that differentiate Protestantism from Catholicism. Sola Scripture, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus, Sola Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, to God alone be glory.

Last Thursday, the Republican nominee spoke to a gathering of evangelicals in Kissimmee, Florida. “This will be an election that will go down in the history books for the evangelicals, for the Christians, for everybody of religion. This will be maybe the most important election the country has ever had,” Trump said.

“So go out and spread the word, and once I get in, I’ll do my thing that I do very well. And I figure it’s probably — maybe the only way I’m going to get into heaven, so I better do a good job.”

Leaving aside his incoherent description of governing as “my thing that I do,” he clearly has no clue of what Protestants believe.

I think he may be right in one respect, though. This election may very well go down in the history books for evangelicals. We can trace the beginning of their political power to Nixon. This election may mark the end of it.

Sunday Sermonette: Atheism Destroyed!

I have a filter in my Google News for stories about atheism. For the past week, this little clickbait from Charisma News has been leading the pack: “Ray Comfort Dismantles Atheism With 1 Scientific Question.” A few days ago, a second Charisma News story appeared: “Evangelist Ray Comfort Boldly Declares ‘Atheism is Dead.’”

Well, I guess it’s game over, fellow atheists. I mean, if you can’t trust Ray Comfort, the guy who made the YouTube video that claimed the banana was the atheist’s worst nightmare, who can you trust? (The banana proves intelligent design. He’s right, it does. Before we humans designed it, it was a small tough leathery berry with starchy fruit and big hard seeds.)

"Just a few years ago atheism was entering the Promised Land. Books by new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris were topping the New York Times Best Seller list. However, the landscape seems to have drastically changed. Hitchens has sadly passed away, Dawkins has suffered a stroke, and Harris has fallen from favor after being accused of racism and bigotry. And the much anticipated 2016 Reason Rally, which organizers expected would draw 30,000 atheists to Washington, D.C., managed to attract a mere 2,000, by some atheist estimates,” Comfort said.

Hard to argue with that. I mean, the only reason I’m an atheist is that Richard Dawkins is way smart, and he’s so cool he’s married to Lalla Ward, who played Romana on the Fourth Doctor Who (the guy with the scarf). Now that he’s an old man who’s survived a stroke, separated from his wife, he’s just not cool anymore. Maybe I should listen to this guy with the used car salesman’s mustache and the Kiwi accent. As we all know, the truth of an idea is directly proportional to its popularity, right?

"It seems the atheists have argued their case in the public forum and it was dismissed for lack of evidence," Comfort noted. "People have more sense of reason than atheists give them credit for."

Funny, I didn’t think we atheists were making any positive claims. We just don’t believe what theists are claiming. We don’t have the burden of proof, they do.

But Charisma says that Comfort’s new movie uses science to destroy atheism. So I checked it out at Atheistmovie.com. It won’t officially be released on YouTube for two months, but you can buy The Atheist Delusion: Why Millions Deny the Obvious in advance. (Catchy title, huh? Rather reminiscent of Dawkins’ book. Does he really think Richard Dawkins is the Atheist Pope?) The trailer gives you some hints. You see the faces of people answering Comfort, who’s conveniently off-camera. What is the question they’re answering? Do you trust that Comfort’s voice-over wasn’t recorded later?

Let me cut to the chase and save you $19.99 and 70 minutes of your life. Here’s the scientific question that will cause you to drop your foolish atheistic belief that there is no God and see the obvious invisible improbable Heavenly Father that Christians claim to see. Are you ready for it? Here it is:

He gives people a book and asks, “Do you believe that book could’ve come about by accident?” When the person answers in the negative, Comfort launches into an inaccurate oversimplification of DNA, then demands to know how you can believe that DNA came about by accident.

That’s it. This utterly disingenuous argument is his devastating proof.

No one but Comfort and other apologists deliberately trying to mislead people claim that DNA came about by accident. It’s been repeatedly explained to Comfort that DNA came about by random mutation and non-random natural selection. It evolved over hundreds of millions of years. But as Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

This is the Argument from Incredulity: I have no idea how this could have happened naturally, therefore it must have happened supernaturally. Think of all the circumstances where that answer has been useful. I don’t understand electricity, therefore the light switch must contain a demon. We used to believe there was a scientific explanation for how television works, but now we know it’s magic.”

“Could DNA make itself?” is another of Comfort’s misleading questions. DNA didn’t do anything. It was an unguided chemical process. This can be shown by the amount of junk DNA that remains in the genome of every living thing. If some Intelligent Designer created DNA, it wasn’t his best work.

Comfort’s corker is “You’re an atheist, so you believe the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything.” Again, this statement is deliberately misleading. First, I’m an atheist, which means I don’t believe that a god or gods exist, full stop. There is no atheist creed. I can believe anything about cosmology I like. Second, how do you know it’s a scientific impossibility? What tests have you done? Third, why shouldn’t something come from nothing? (See Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing.) Besides, where does Comfort believe his god came from? Fourth, using the term “created” assumes facts not in evidence. Again, see Krauss.

The rest of the movie is the usual fistful of J.T. Chick tracts: you know the truth, you’re just denying it so you can keep on sinning; you want to be our own god; imagine what would happen if you died today… Not to mention Comfort’s old Way of the Master standby: are you sure you’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments? All of them? Confess, miserable sinner.

As I said, atheism is nothing but the lack of belief in gods. There’s no educational requirement - even somebody like me can be an atheist. But I still can’t imagine The Atheist Delusion’s emotionally manipulative and logically flawed arguments persuading many people that the existence of a god is obvious. That’s OK, we aren’t the target audience. Apologetics are about reassuring the believer, not persuading the unbeliever. This is a movie for Christians.


Sunday Sermonette: Memento Mori

In all the hullabaloo of the presidential convention season, you might have missed a couple people leaving the party. Last week, two people died: Youree Dell Harris, better known to the late-night TV viewer as the mystical shaman Miss Cleo with the Islands accent, and evangelist Tim LaHaye.

Miss Cleo, also known as LaShawnda Williams, Corvette Mama, Elenore St. Julian, Desiree Canterlaw, Janet Snyder, Maria Delcampo, Christina Garcia, Cleomili Harris, and Youree Perris, was the public face of the Psychic Readers Network (also known as Access Resource Services). Her scam involved blasting out spam to the effect of “Miss Cleo has been authorized to issue you a Special Tarot Reading!” The hapless sucker would then call for an ostensibly free introductory reading. Miss Cleo’s “associates” would give a scripted reading, and if possible upsell the mark to a “premium” service. Even the free introductory calls were in fact charged to the mark's phone bill.

As they surely must have foreseen, the Psychic Readers Network was sued by various states, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission. In 2002, the company’s owners were charged with deceptive billing, advertising, and collection practices and settled for a chunk of their ill-gotten gains. Miss Cleo was not indicted, but lost her cachet when it came out in court that she had been born in Los Angeles, not Jamaica.

Miss Cleo entered the twilight of sub-D-list celebrities: a little voiceover work on video games, the occasional advertisement, a failed self-produced play. She died of colon cancer last week at the age of 53.

Tim LaHaye became pastor of Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego in 1958. In the early 70s, he helped establish the Institute for Creation Research, for which Ken Ham worked before splitting off and forming Answers in Genesis. He also helped found the Moral Majority and a right-wing think tank called the Council for National Policy. He founded the American Coalition for Traditional Values, the Coalition for Religious Freedom, and the Pre-Tribulation Research Center. The latter was to promote his particular eschatological predilection: dispensationalist pre-millenarianism. LaHaye believed that the Bible predicts that the saved would be snatched up from the planet and go directly to heaven, while the rest of us would be left behind in an apocalyptic hellscape called the Tribulation.

LaHaye wielded a prolific pen, with dozens of books to his credit. Marriage manuals featured heavily (Six Keys to a Happy Marriage, How to be Happy though Married, The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love) as well as pseudo-psychological books like Understanding the Male Temperament. His book The Unhappy Gays, later retitled to What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality is a particularly vile piece of slander. (About the only place the word “gay” is use is in the title - everywhere else it’s the clinical polysyllabic greco-latinate word.) It spells out the need to crack down on homosexuals. A homosexual-friendly America, he wrote, will cause the homosexual population to double in the next decade. There will be an explosion of sadistic murders, pedophilia, and God’s righteous wrath. LaHaye was a big believer in the medieval four humors, Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Choleric, and Sanguine. "Melancholy Temperament + Permissive Childhood Training + Insecurity about Sexual Identity + Childhood Sexual Experiences + Early Interest in Sex + Youthful Masturbator and Sexual Fantasizer = A Predisposition Toward Homosexuality." Parents, don’t let your sons be moody masturbators! However, if you let Jesus into your heart, homosexuality can be cured.

The books LaHaye is best known for is the Left Behind series. in fact, he didn’t actually write them - a sportswriter named Jerry Jenkins did the heavy typing. The best that can be said for them is that the plotting is brisk, the characters are unambiguously good or viciously evil, and there’s plenty of violence, explosions, and general destruction to carry the reader along.

LaHaye didn’t just believe crazy things about human psychology, human sexuality, and Biblical interpretation, he was also a member of the John Birch Society and believed the Illuminati was secretly pulling the strings behind global affairs, with the intention of destroying Christianity and preparing the way for a One World government. Other organizations involved in this nefarious plot include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Trilateral Commission, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, the United Nations, the State Department, the left wing of the Democratic Party, the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie Foundations, Harvard, Yale, thousands of other colleges and universities, TV networks, news media, the Catholic Church, and for all I know, Major League Baseball.

LaHaye lived for 90 years, apparently believing he would never die, that Jesus would lift him up bodily into the clouds so that he could have a skybox seat watching the terrible suffering of his fellow humans at the hands of demonic powers. It would be their own fault - he’d warned them to love Jesus, and like a psycho ex-boyfriend, Jesus was gonna punish them for not loving him back.

Miss Cleo and Tim LaHaye had a few things in common. They were both egotistical con artists. They both believed or claimed to believe improbable things without supporting evidence. They both made money from these beliefs. The difference is that Miss Cleo died broke, Tim LaHaye died with an estate worth untold millions.

I guess the moral is: if you’re running a con, make it a really big one.


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.