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Sunday Sermonette: To Be or Not To Be

Atheists are not the most popular people. To the religious, we’re fools (it says so in the Psalms - twice!) who push God off his throne so that we may supplant him. We lack morals and deny God so that we can sin without let or hindrance. Even the moderate accuse us of arrogance, though we’re not the ones making claims to be besties with the Creator of Universes. By considering only natural evidence, we are called closed-minded to the possibility of undefined supernatural evidence. Let’s face it, they don’t think we’re very nice people.

But according to a study published last year in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal, the real reason atheists are unpopular is that we remind them of their impending deaths.

Humans have the unique (so far as we know) ability to comprehend and anticipate our own mortality. There will come a day when we will cease to be, when everything we ever were or hoped to be will vanish save in the memory of our friends and loved ones, who will themselves die not long thereafter. This prospect of utter annihilation terrifies most people - it’s called Existential Dread. As a race, we have created cultural myths that reassure us that we are valued and important beings living in an ordered and meaningful universe. Some of these myths involve us being reborn into another plane of existence, or another life, where we would life forever. The afterlife must be wonderful, because so few people ever come back to complain.

A team of researchers assembled 236 American college students, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews, as well as 34 self-proclaimed atheists. Two groups were formed. The first were asked to write down, as specifically as they could, what they think would happen to them physically when they die, and describe the emotions the thought of death aroused in them. The second group were given a similar task, but instead of death they were asked to consider extreme pain.

After a brief distraction, all were asked to rate on a 1-100 scale how they felt about atheists or Quakers, how trustworthy they thought each group was, and whether they’d allow a member of either to marry into their family.

Atheists were viewed more negatively than Quakers, but the negative reaction was more pronounced among people who had written about their own deaths.

The second experiment involved 174 students. Two thirds were asked to write how they felt about dying or extreme pain, the remaining third were asked to write down, as specifically as they could, what atheism meant to them. They were then given a test to determine whether they had mortality on their minds with a word completion test, where the word fragments could be either death-related or neutral. COFF** could be completed as COFFIN or COFFEE, e.g.

Those who had been considering their own deaths were more likely to think of mortality-related words than those who had written about pain. Oddly, the third of the group that had written about atheism were also primed to come up with death-related words.

Atheism = death, apparently. Our very existence raises doubt about the comforting belief in everlasting life.

I remember a similar study on homophobia back in the Seventies. It found that gay people were frightening in part because they weren’t seeking vicarious immortality by having children. It’s interesting that as lesbians and gays have become mainstream, marrying and either having or adopting children, they have become much more accepted in the broader society.

Sadly, the only way atheists will become more accepted is if our comforting religious myths lose their appeal. I’ll probably be long dead before that happens.


Sunday Sermonette: Happy Holidays

We spent Election Night in the home of a dear friend. She’s transgender, liberal, a lawyer, and an excellent hostess. She made a vegetarian lasagna and we brought some snacks. After dinner we settled down to watch the returns come in.

As it grew later and states we thought were would quickly turn blue stayed resolutely “too close to call” or worse, our spirits sank and the light veggie lasagna weighed heavily in the pits of our stomachs. How could we have been so wrong?

I dealt with it by reassuring myself that I lived in a liberal blue state. No matter what happens to ObamaCare, we will still have RomneyCare - it’s been the law in Massachusetts for over ten years. We’ll still have marriage equality - that’s been the law for over 12 years. We live in one of the more liberal enclaves.

We had choir practice on Wednesday night. Getting together with a couple dozen friends to sing always makes me feel better. A couple days later, a friend lit a fire in her back yard pit and invited a bunch of us over to sing old folk songs. We had a couple guitars, a mandolin, and a ukulele between us, some great kale soup, and Tom Paxton’s “Lament for a Lost Election.” It’s pretty simple, you may have heard it. Sing along with me now: “Shit!”

I began to think that we might get through the next four years.

But I was quickly reminded that I’m an financially comfortable old white cis male in a heterosexual marriage. I’m always wearing my big invisible cloak of privilege. I learned that a few of my LGBT friends have already been harassed, right here on the Cape, in what we like to call the big city of Hyannis. Our transgender neighbor who made the lasagna was followed around Home Depot by a couple of unpleasant people making unpleasant comments. The Unindicted Co-Conspirator’s old boss, one of the top lawyers in the country and a dignified Asian-American gentleman, was hassled in a gas station near Boston.

If the newly-emboldened deplorables, the racists and homophobes and xenophobes and misogynists, the so-called “Alt-Right” white supremacists, feel they can vent their hate with impunity here in liberal Massachusetts, what must it be like in redder states? If a wealthy and powerful older man can be the target, what hope do the kids have? At times, this feels like a foreign country, and not one of the nicer ones.

This was the first post-factual election. Facebook and Twitter provided a megaphone for distortions, slander, and outright lies. A truly appalling percentage of what came out of the winning candidate’s mouth or Twitter feed, or spoken by his surrogates, was demonstrably false. By the time you managed to fact-check, assuming you were one of the minority who did, people had moved on to the next outrage.

Many of us atheists know from personal experience how easy it is to be fooled, and how easily we fool ourselves. We know the first casualty is trust in objective facts. We were taught that they were less important than relying on an invisible and ill-defined higher Truth. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding,” as it says in Proverbs 3:5. Without facts, we cannot be free. If we accept things as True rather than confirming they are in fact true, then there is no basis to criticize those in power, because Higher Truth always seems to be on their side. “If nothing is true,” wrote Professor Tom Snyder of Yale, “then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

It’s going to be a tough four years. For some of us, it’s going to be a tough four days, as we face the prospect of Thanksgiving dinner with triumphal family members steeped the resentful conspiracy theories of Breitbart and Fox. Arguing with relatives is not necessarily speaking truth to power. We’re all going to need kindness to get through this. We all have more that unites us, no matter what the divisive demagogues say.

Although it’s a crass commercial advertisement, I cannot help but enjoy the sentiment of the following.

Happy holidays!

Sunday Sermonette: Now Boarding

Sooner or later, any conversation about religion comes down to faith. Faith is a virtue. Without faith, it is impossible to be saved. Church leaders and saints are praised for their great and unshakeable faith. The apostle who required proof is disparaged as “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus told him, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

I was a believer for decades. I had faith in God. I prayed to him, joined my fellow believers in worshipping him, taught about him, and gave money to support his church. Doubt? Sure, I had doubts just like everyone else, but I was taught to believe from birth, and taught the mental control to derail any train of thought bound for Infidel Station. Besides, there were all these other believers around to lend me their strength. The Nicene Creed begins with “WE believe in one God,” not “I believe.” Faith is sustained in community.

What exactly is meant by “faith”? Do non-believers have faith in science? Is faith the same as trust? Do you believe in love? (Cue autotuned Cher.)

This is where we get into equivocation: playing games with the meanings of words. Science is not a static thing, it is a method by which knowledge is organized in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the natural world. It requires no faith in gravity to see that every time I drop something, it falls to the ground. One testable step at a time, scientists have built on that observable fact to explain and predict the movement of galaxies. The practice of science is the very antithesis of taking things on faith.

Faith is not trust, because trust is usually justified by experience. If you received an email from a person claiming to be the widow of the late Nigerian Finance Minister, asking your help to commit international bank fraud, would you trust it? Of course not. People who do are pitied as incompetent to manage their own affairs. Trust without experience is seldom given for anything important. “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first,” goes the old Arab saying.

I have faith that my wife loves me. Again, this is not the same sort of faith. I see it in her face, and experience it in her acts. If you want to be clinical, love can be detected in our internal neurochemistry.

What exactly is meant by “faith”? Simply this: Faith is believing in something without proof. Mark Twain may have said it best. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Is there any other area of life in which belief without proof is considered a good, sensible, or praiseworthy thing? Any at all? “I believe the water in this quarry is deep, therefore I will perform an amazing high dive,” says the future paraplegic. “I believe this warm egg salad that’s been sitting in the sun all day is perfectly wholesome,” says the person who’ll be spending the next couple days in the bathroom. “I believe the smiling guy who promises a 50 percent annual return, so I’m investing my life savings,” says the incipient pauper. “I believe Trump will be defeated by an overwhelming majority,” said a whole bunch of us last Tuesday.

We have words for people who believe things without proof. Sucker. Dupe. Gullible fool. Except when the faithful start talking about God. But only their God. Zeus does not exist, he was a myth. Ba’al does not exist, he was a legend. Thor does not exist, except in comic books. But my God is an awesome God who reigns forever.

Why? Because we believe, that’s why. That’s enough.

It’s not enough, and believers know it better than anyone. Asserting that a proposition must be accepted without reason is simply intellectual bankruptcy. So believers don’t think about it. We tell ourselves that it’s not wrong to doubt - after all, Thomas doubted, and he was an apostle - but it’s a sin to dwell upon it to the point of unbelief. We sing louder, pray more fervently, and join the rest of the congregation in Not Rocking the Boat.

No one reading this is going to say, “Ah, now I understand. I have been wrong to accept things without proof. Maybe there is no God.” There is no blinding light on the road to Damascus for atheists. Reasoned argument and scientific facts can be - and are - presented every day, and yet most people still claim faith in a God. But every now and then, a question gets through. A train of thought begins. It might not make it all the way to Atheism Junction, but it gets further than before, clearing the tracks for another question, and another.

So here’s a question: If someone you trusted told you that a soldier killed in Afghanistan and buried in Arlington National Cemetery rose from the dead, would you have faith? Or would you, like Thomas, demand proof? Was Thomas wrong to insist on evidence? Why or why not?

All aboard!


Sunday Sermonette: Voting and Vice

The Roman Catholic Church has been a powerful political bloc in this country for decades. Cardinals and archbishops are often considered kingmakers. Just look at the Al Smith Dinner in New York, or the annual Red Mass that begins the Supreme Court session. The Catholic Church does not think highly of the idea of a wall of separation between church and state.

Here in Massachusetts, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has contributed almost a million dollars to defeat a ballot initiative that legalizes recreational use of marijuana. I’m having a hard time figuring out why.

The Prohibition of alcohol under the 18th Amendment was the result of efforts by Protestants: Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The Catholic Church was (and is) the church of immigrants: Irish and Italians who liked their wine and beer. They were against Prohibition, and indeed may have worked to undermine it. Grape production in heavily Catholic California increased by 700 percent during Prohibition. Altar wine was exempt, but only priests partook of the chalice. The laity received the Eucharist only in the form of the host, the blessed bread wafer. We can only assume that priests were saying Mass far more often.

Marijuana is also associated with Catholic immigrants. Americans knew the drug as cannabis, and used its tinctures in patent medicines. Politicians, aided by the media, whipped up public fear of immigrant Mexicans and their disruptive ways, including their use of “marihuana.” Mexicans became the scapegoat of the 30s, and draconian laws banning “marihuana” was the instrument used to control and deport them.

But for some reason, the Roman Catholic Church has joined with the establishment, regardless of those anti-immigrant laws. Perhaps they fear a threat to their monopoly on being the opiate of the masses.

In heavily Hispanic San Diego, the Immaculate Conception Church took politics one step further. In the weekly church bulletin, parishioners found a notice last Sunday. "It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat," the insert read, with the words underlined and bolded. "If your bishop, priest, deacon or other parishioners tell you to do so, you must walk away from them. Your immortal soul and your salvation are at stake." Despite the fact that the Republican ticket is headed by a thrice-married adulterer, self-confessed assaulter of women, self-confessed tax cheat, and foul-mouthed xenophobe, they threaten anyone who votes for the other party with everlasting hellfire. The reason is that the Democratic platform is pro-choice.

Bishop William Murphy of Long Island was more circumspect. “Support of abortion by a candidate for public office, some of whom are Catholics, even if they use the fallacious and deeply offensive ‘personally opposed but . . .’ line, is reason sufficient unto itself to disqualify any and every such candidate from receiving our vote.”

It is, of course, illegal for a tax-exempt organization like a church to promote partisan politics, but it’s unlikely that the IRS will pursue the matter, since they have failed to do so in the face of open provocation from several Evangelical pulpits. The Republican candidate has been anointed as God’s Chosen One by politicians and preachers such as the wild-eyed Michelle Bachmann and disgraced Jim Bakker.

Come to think of it, Bakker gave up on his PTL Club ministry after he was imprisoned for fraud and conspiracy. His new racket is selling powdered food in plastic buckets to survivalists. According to NBC News, sales of “long term foods” have tripled in recent days. Preppers do not agree on whether they’re stockpiling against the revolt of the urban poor and race riots in the cities if Trump wins, or World War III if Clinton prevails.

I hope the recreational marijuana bill passes. We’re going to need all the help we can get.


Sunday Sermonette: People Who Need People

If you ask me what my religious beliefs are, I will tell you I am an atheist. I do not believe in the existence of god(s), nor of the supernatural. This is not a positive belief that there are no gods or phenomena that might be called supernatural, this is the lack of belief. In the thousands of years of human civilization, no one has offered compelling evidence to support supernatural claims. In the scant hundreds of years of the Enlightenment, we have found nothing that admits of a supernatural explanation. There’s nothing of which we can say, “We used to believe this had a rational, material explanation, but now we think it’s magic. I simply see no reason to believe, but I’m perfectly willing to entertain any facts you might have.

If, on the other hand, you asked me where I go to church, I’d tell you I’m a member of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist. Why on earth would an atheist join a church?

The fabled criminal Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks, replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Church is where the people are. I don’t believe in gods, but I do believe in people.

A little over two years ago, I sold my dwelling of twenty years and bought a condo 100 miles away. Shortly thereafter, I retired. In those two moves, I lost virtually my entire social network. Having good friends and neighbors is one of the key ingredients for a long and happy life.

There are many ways to meet people, but some of them are harder than others. There’s the local pub, for example. Americans don’t have the pub culture of Ireland or England, but convivial places can be found. Trouble is, pubs are usually where established friends hang out, not where you go to meet new friends. There are affinity groups - you could meet people around a common interest, like yoga or stargazing. provided of course that you like twisting yourself into a pretzel or own a telescope.

A couple friends recommended the Unitarian Universalists as a good group of people, so I checked them out. I found some very nice people who I wanted to get to know better: liberal, intellectual, tolerant, welcoming. Some of them were atheists, some neo-pagan, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and so on. And they have great music.

I’m very fond of choral singing. I’ve sung in chorales and choirs most of my life. The difference with this choir is that the music was so eclectic - from classical to Broadway to the Village People. The choir director is a delightful and talented musician, and there are about two dozen singers - eight in the bass and tenor sections alone, which is remarkable.

The thing that makes choir different from more professional vocal groups is that it is made up of people who like to sing, not just the highly talented or professionals. Not everyone necessarily reads music (though it’s a big help), and not everyone has a perfect voice. There’s an alchemy of group singing where the whole of blended voices is greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s a lot more going on at First Parish, but the choir is enough for me, at least now. I’ve met a lot of wonderful folks. People who, like me, believe in people.

“I believe we’re all one family and need each other in times of grief and gladness. And I believe in the power of human ingenuity and people of goodwill to make a difference in the world. This is my credo as a Unitarian Universalist. It’s what Superman and I have in common.”
— Christopher Reeve


Sunday Sermonette: What Causes Atheism?

Religion is in decline in America. The White Christian voting bloc has collapsed under the weight of its own hypocrisy, with some still supporting the candidacy of a vulgar narcissist who has even less commitment to Christianity than he does to marital fidelity. More clear-eyed Christians have backed away from the Republican nominee, leading to much confusion in the ranks. The Christian Post provides a good example of the turmoil. They published an editorial decrying Trump as long ago as last February, saying “Trump, an admirer of Vladimir Putin and other dictatorial leaders, may claim to be your friend and protector now, but as his history indicates, without your full support he will turn on you, and use whatever power is within his means to punish you.” Then they published a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t op-ed in August. The most recent op-ed from October 3 is a guarded endorsement of Clinton.

Church attendance is shrinking, especially in Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. Just a glance at Sunday attendance shows mostly people my age or older. While churches have long been accustomed to young people falling away in their late teens, they always came back when they had children. This is no longer the case. The fastest growing segment of the religious landscape are the Nones, those who profess no religion and don’t seem to care. What could possibly have caused so many people to no longer believe in the creeds and confessions of older generations?

Some pastors believe it’s all because of arch-atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and the Supreme Court. In 1962, the Court ruled against school prayer in Engel v. Vitale. In 1963, this was followed by a declaration that public school-sponsored Bible reading was unconstitutional in Abington School District v. Schempp (which consolidated Murray v. Curlett, since Schempp was a Unitarian Universalist which outnumbered declared atheists at the time). These decades-old decisions cast God out of the public square, cry the pastors. World Nut, er, Net Daily quoted Christian author Jonathan Cahn: “It is the continuation of what took place in the 1960s when America began consciously and officially removing God from its public square – and particularly from the lives its children. You cannot do that without reaping a mass harvest of consequences. And it is the absence of God that allows for the presence of darkness. … If a nation’s high court should pass judgment on the Almighty, should you then be surprised God will pass judgment on the court and that nation? We are doing that which Israel did on the altars of Baal,” he cried.

Marshall Connolly of the Catholic Say website massaged data from a recent PRRI study on the growth of Nones and blamed divorce. “Divorce rates reached about 50 percent in the 1980s. Since then, children from those divorces have grown up. At the same time, the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated has risen from 5 percent in 1972 to 25 percent today.” Connolly does not link to the study, which can be found here. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Catholics are more likely to have left the Church over its treatment of LGBT people (39%) and the clergy sexual abuse scandal (32%). I’m not sure how Connolly fits that into his divorce theory.

My very favorite comes from fundamentalist Catholic blogger Michael Voris, who blamed Martin Luther: “Protestantism eventually gives way to atheism, because philosophically, it is atheism. What, after all, is atheism? It is a-theism, no God. What does Protestantism, with its me-centered theology, produce? That you become your own God. You determine your morality. You determine the meaning of Scripture. You determine your own theology. There is no longer room for God, because the individual assumes the throne — kind of the working definition of atheism.” I don’t know which is worse, his understanding of Protestant belief or his understanding of atheist non-belief.

There is one theory none of the Christian publications or bloggers have considered. The reason that Christianity is in decline and the Nones are increasing just might be because there isn’t the slightest shred of evidence that any such being as the Christian God exists. There hasn’t been a single new discovery or argument made for the case in hundreds of years. Those that exist are rationally impoverished and logically incoherent. Heck, even I figured that out eventually, and my parents are still happily married and sent me to a parochial grammar school where we prayed every day.

The so-called Four Horsemen, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, did not discover atheism, they just wrote about it at a time when a lot of people were already questioning. It turns out that there are more atheists than Unitarian Universalists (some of whom are also atheists, by the way), and still more people who just don’t think the question of whether gods exist is important or is at best purely personal.

I call it progress.


Sunday Sermonette: The Apotheosis of Me

Revelation is subjective.

In the beginning, the world was without form and void, and darkness moved across the face of the waters. Then, three-score years ago tomorrow at 3:29 p.m. in what I would later call Eastern Time, I was born. And there was light. And it was good.

The uncircumcised Philistines groped in the darkness of blinkered superstitions. My advent brought The Truth to the world I created. My first acolytes, the high priest and priestess of my one true religion, worshiped at my temple night and day. They brought me gifts and sacrifices in hopes they would be blessed with my favor. They feared my displeasure, and were dismayed at my wrath.

Fortunately for them, I was a merciful and beneficent god. They seldom tasted the lash of my discontent. I blessed them with happiness and joy, and they brought me other disciples who supplicated themselves before me.

These new devotees were older. It’s funny how churches and temples the world over are disproportionately filled with the elderly. Perhaps they are cramming for the final exam. The new disciples also brought gifts and offerings. I was pleased with them, and blessed them with happiness as well.

But the human heart is perverse and feckless above all else. My people strayed from the path of righteousness and went a-whoring after other gods. One day they desecrated my sacred temple with a new goddess. They made obeisance to her, and brought her the sacrifices that by right were mine alone. They chanted my sacred hymns to her. Even the elderly disciples turned from The One True Way and worshipped this false goddess.

I was exceeding wroth, and threatened to smite them all for their disobedience and faithlessness. They heeded me not, but shewed unto me the face of a new goddess whom they called my sister. How quickly they forgot my First Commandment. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.

Many years have passed. Perhaps they think that their first god sleeps, that he no longer concerns himself with the actions of his chosen people. They are mistaken. They will learn. Their Lord is not mocked. My will be done.


Sunday Sermonette: Birds of a Feather

As I write this, Donald Trump’s latest outrage has come to light, though there may well be a new one by the time you read this. Trump is on tape in 2005 discussing his attempts to seduce married women and that his star status means that women allows him do anything to women, even commit sexual assault. It’s disgusting, especially when you consider that he was in his late 50s when the tape was made, and newly married to his third wife.

His first so-called apology was that this was “locker room banter,” and expressing regret if anyone was offended. Locker room banter? Perhaps, if you’re fourteen years old in an all-boys school.

This was clearly unacceptable, so another followed late Friday night, ten hours after the tape was aired. It took 90 seconds, and most of it was justification, deflection, defensiveness, and the bizarre charge that the Clintons are worse. Did I say fourteen year old? The excuse, “But so-and-so said it too” makes it sound more like a seven-year-old.

I’ve said it before: we’re a gregarious social species, so we have worked out some ways of coping with mitigating offense along the eons. Dueling is no longer an appropriate response. There are many forms of apology, but most people would agree that a sincere apology must contain the following elements:

  1. Acknowledgement of the offense. “I said an offensive thing.”
  2. Acceptance of responsibility. “It’s entirely my fault.”
  3. Acknowledgement of the pain or injury caused. “I hurt you.”
  4. Judgement. “I spoke without thinking.”
  5. Statement of regret. “I’m very sorry I said that.”
  6. Statement of future intentions. “I will try not to be so thoughtless in future.”
Trump’s apology was sadly lacking. But there was one group that seemed ready, indeed eager, to grasp that straw: evangelical Christians. Not all of them, but a number of the most well-known names.

Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition said, “People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defund Planned Parenthood, defend religious liberty and oppose the Iran nuclear deal. A ten-year-old tape of a private conversation with a talk show host ranks low on their hierarchy of concerns.”

That’s rather different from what Reed said back in 1998 when Bill Clinton was President. “Character matters, and the American people are hungry for that message. We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.”

Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas was slightly more censorious. “I said at that time, with Trump sitting next to me, I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday School teacher,” Jeffress said. “But that’s not what this election is about.” Then he repeated some Republican talking points about Secretary Clinton before concluding with the Christian Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card , “The fact is we’re all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and God doesn’t grade people according to their level of sin.”

This was repeated by Roman Catholic David Bozell, who first lambasted a man who isn’t running for office, Bill Clinton. “Bill Clinton’s history of being a sexual predator, including affairs with interns, dwarfs any locker room banter,” he said. “The clip is unfortunate, but then again, we’re not electing saints in November.” Apparently we’re also not electing candidates whose husbands were not saints, either.

David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network tweeted, “This just in: Donald Trump is a flawed man! We ALL sin every single day. What if we had a ‘hot mic’ around each one of us all the time?” Are you trying to tell us something, David?

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told the Washington Post, “As I have made clear, my support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns.”

And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. (Luke 4:5-7)

And lo, the Evangelical hypocrites did fall to their knees in worship.

Each of these men claims to not only believe in God and Jesus, but to have a personal relationship with him. Each one of them claims to have spent hours in prayer asking for God’s guidance. Do you see any sign that they are more moral, more holy, or in any way better people because of their faith in God or fear of his displeasure?

No, it’s all about access to earthly power. There is quite literally nothing that Trump can do that will disqualify him for office in the eyes of the basket of deplorables.

In the 1968 movie “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” Anthony Quinn, Pope Kiril I, has sneaked away from the Vatican and meets a doctor on her way to the room of a dying man. He has just begun saying the Last Rites when she tells him the man on the bed is Jewish. Without missing a beat, he covers his eyes with his hand and begins reciting the Kaddish. It’s a heart-warming moment, because it’s so human. It’s what any of us would do in similar circumstances, if we could.

I am an atheist. This is the only life I’ll get. There’s no judgement after death, there’s no hope for heaven, there’s no fear of hell. When the last synapse fires, nothing that I would call “me” will exist any longer.

That said, if I’m at the bedside of a sick or dying friend or relative who wants to pray, I’ll whip out a rosary in a heartbeat (or use whatever other form they prefer to address their god). It would be monstrous to argue with a sick person about religion. If they die, I will attend the wake, though I really dislike that custom. I’ll attend to the funeral and observe whatever rites apply. My own beliefs or lack of them are insignificant beside the duty of comforting the sick and bereaved. It’s just what humans do.

This is why I’m so surprised that Catholic bishops in Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada have directed priests not to perform funerals for those who chose assisted suicide. I really thought better of them.

Last year, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down a ban on medically assisted dying. In July, the federal government passed a law allowing it for those in an advanced state of irreversible decline from an incurable condition and for those facing a "reasonably foreseeable" natural death. I think that most people would regard this as a final mercy. We wouldn’t let a dog or cat or even a pet snake suffer at the end of its life.

But the Catholic Church long ago decided that the most Christian thing to do is the least loving, least respectful, least sympathetic, least merciful. A Canadian citizen at the most vulnerable time of his life is forced to choose between his charter right to a peaceful and at least somewhat dignified assisted death, and dogma of the Church.

You ask, what does the Church do about suicides now? The answer is simple: they do the human and humane thing. Yes, suicide is a mortal sin, but the person must not have been in his right mind at the time. Full knowledge and deliberate consent is required for something to be a sin. (It’s legalism like this that also enables the couple with two kids to have their marriage annulled because it lacked an essential element for the marriage to be considered valid in the first place.)

In other words, the Church is using the threat of eternal damnation to protest a secular law it does not approve. If this means being appallingly cruel to the dying and contemptuous to the bereaved, no matter. The Catholic Church answers to a higher authority. They are the conduit of God’s mercy to a suffering Earth. And that makes it right. Right?


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.