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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.


Sunday Sermonette: Poetry Corner

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Sunday Sermonette: Noah and the Beanstalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday Sermonette: The Hole-Shaped God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Plus Ça Change...

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

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

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

What we want is:

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

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

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

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