Archive for April, 2016

Let’s not Ban the Bible

April 26, 2016 1 comment

Around last week a news item was posted on my facebook feed. It concerned the recent attempts to ban certain books from libraries and along with the usual crap (Looking for Alaska had finally made its comeback) that makes up the list the Bible made an appearance. Someone was trying to ban the Bible from its availability in libraries. This raised the question (not begged it, that’s a different thing) as to how unavailable the Bible is to people that they would need a library to carry it. Not only are they pretty cheap, but for the most part if you are in the position to need one they’re pretty easy to get for free. Also, it’s on the web and some of the best text search sites are biblical. I wish someone would do the corpus of Aristotle with the ease of

Like an idiot, I decided to click on the comments of the article and I found no surprises there…only disappointment. The typical argument was that this was proof of some atheist-secular, sometimes Communist, plot to force people to reject their religion. Some called the move anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-freedom. Now I’ll state at the beginning that the second is true. It is anti-American to ban a book because it’s anti-freedom. The First Amendment covers the freedom to read the Bible twice: expression and religion, maybe even a third if you factor in that the press also has a freedom here but I don’t think that’s what’s implied there.

I want to note that the Bible was not banned from libraries because that would have been the lead story. It was on the request list to be banned because it promoted a religious viewpoint and appeared at number 6 on the list.

Sometimes the Bible gets requested for a ban as a satire. Some moron stands up and says the book X should be banned because it has violence, incest, racism etc. and then someone else responds that if X is bad then we should ban the Bible because it has all of that in it as well. That’s not the issue that I’m tackling, I think that’s a rather clever ruse to shut down attempts at censorship.

The issue I want to take up is whether or not the Bible should be banned because it promotes a religious viewpoint. The first question is, does it? The answer to this is obvious as it’s the foundational text to two religions and many of its stories are repeated in a third. So, should we ban it? The answer is no. We should not any more than we should ban the Quran, Book of Mormon, the Upanishads, the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, etc.

The first reason is that of historical context. Like it or not the Bible has been hugely influential in the history of the Western world. That cannot be denied. Approval of the Guttenberg press was driven by its ability to churn out the book, though like all media, porn was a close second. Just for that alone it ought never to be banned. The second reason is that it is still hugely influential, and if you are going to disagree with the type of person that the book is influencing you should have a familiarity with it.

Finally, the biggest reason that we should keep it in and this is for you anti-religion people out there: the Bible itself is a great argument against the religion that it supposedly promotes. Mark Twain is alleged to have said (I can’t find a citation for the quote) that the best cure for Christianity is the Bible. Sit down and read the book from cover to cover skipping the genealogies and you’ll find that it’s not so concerned with morality or how to find meaning in life rather about laying out really specific rules about diet and clothing and an obsession about the end of the world that would make Alex Jones blush. The god character is full of contradictory actions and wrath. For example, and since it’s Passover, if he wanted the Pharaoh to let the people go, why did he constantly hardened the Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21, 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:18)? God tells Moses he’s going to do this before the plagues started.  It takes the great “moral” philosopher Jesus five chapters of the first Gospel to say anything nice and it’s a platitude about how the poor people aren’t ignored by God (Matthew 5:5). Most of his teachings are about keeping to the Old Laws except when he contradicts himself and says that you shouldn’t.

I’ve done enough taking apart of the most popular stories throughout this blog, so I won’t rehash them all here. The point is that if you read what’s actually in the book, not the kid’s version or the abridged stories that are cherry picked it is apparent to me that the sentiment attributed to Mark Twain holds.

Banning a book should only be done in two extreme sequences. The first being one that targets or singles out an individual for actual attack. The second being those that are instruction manuals for explosives and the like…though I’m not entirely convinced on this one but prepared to at least consider it. With the internet the second is a moot point anyway.

Attempting to ban an idea implies that we are afraid of that idea. It matters not, as John Stuart Mill writes, whether the idea is incorrect or not. Even incorrect ideas have their use in that they allow us to test those ideas which we understand to be correct. There must not be a tyranny of thought, only consensus by which the incorrect, the error, and the irrational fall away from common usage. No, I would never seriously advocate to ban the Bible–I might do so as a satire but never seriously. I am not afraid of it nor in the ideas that it holds.

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The Spaghetti Problem

April 19, 2016 3 comments

Stephen Cavanaugh has a problem: he’s in prison and he’s being denied what he considers his right to freely practice religion. He claims that he is a “Pastafarian” a follower of the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that Nebraska Prison officials will not allow him to practice his religion because it’s not a real religion. Cavanaugh filed a federal lawsuit citing a violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution, a violation of articles 1 and 3 of the Nebraska constitution for the redress of damages and an injunctive release. The facts of his complaint are not really in dispute, he was prohibited from weekly service gatherings as well as the right to dress in religiously appropriate attire (pirate costume). The matter at hand is whether or not the church of FSM is a real church.

As we discussed two weeks ago what exactly constitutes a real church? And what constitutes a real belief? Painfully we became aware of what the limits of legal power are with this regard in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby when it was determined that a corporation can apparently have beliefs provided the owners of the company have a particular belief system. The government has no power to determine what merits the status of a sincerely held belief. Does Cavanaugh sincerely believe in the precepts of the church of FSM? Maybe, maybe not, that’s not for us to decide that’s for Cavanaugh.

What does matter in this case was the first question: whether or not FSM is a real religion. The court sided with Nebraska officials claiming that “it is evident to the court that FSMism is not a belief system addressing ‘deep and imponderable’ matters: it is, as explained above, a satirical rejoinder to a certain strain of religions argument.” Further “FSMism takes no such position: the only position it takes is that others’ religious beliefs should not be presented as ‘science.'” FSM according to the court is satire and thus not a religion.

Philosophically I agree. FSM was born out of the wave of laws and attempts by Christian Fundamentalists a decade ago to revive the notion that Creationism be taught in science classes. While the fundamentalists were forced to acknowledge that this was going to be a blatant violation of the First Amendment and thus illegal they refocused their strategy to the ironically named Intelligent Design and a wedge strategy that would implore science classes to teach a fictional controversy that is alleged to exist among the relevant scientific experts as to whether or not Evolution is the best explanation for life on this planet. Their mantra of “teach the controversy” was what allowed the Kansas school board to insert intelligent design into the schools’ curriculum in 2005. One of the issues the ID proponents have is that Carbon dating is unreliable, and that god can change the results of a Carbon test to reflect millions of years when it is really thousands. However since they know they can’t rightly name a particular god they have to leave the possibility blank. Bobby Henderson, in an open letter to the school board, proposed that it could be a flying spaghetti monster which is just as likely as anything else. It’s a simple reductio ad absurdum argument, and thus the FSM church was born.

The court is right, the church is a satire. It points out that one belief is just as ridiculous as another belief and if you are going to permit the one then you must allow the other in the science books in the state of Kansas. One unprovable claim is just as legitimate as any other unprovable claim, it’s a more contemporary version of Russell’s teapot. However does the court have the right to deny the freedom to participate even if it’s admitted that the religion in question is a satire? On this point I’m not convinced.

Even if the religion exists merely to point out the problems with other religions does that mean that one cannot sincerely adhere to it? If you believe this to be the case then you have to wonder what the legal status of the Lutheran church is since its existence is owed to a person that had a problem with the Catholic church. If it’s merely about gathering a group of people that reject the dogmatism of other religions then you would also have a problem with the Unitarian-Universalists as Texas Comptroller did in 2004 when she stripped the UU church of its tax exempt status (then reinstated it a few weeks later). John Oliver, last year, created his own church that was recognized by the IRS in a blatant satire of how easy it was to create a “religion” in order to dodge tax reporting of donations. Specifically he was going after prosperity churches and “seed money” but it was an admitted satire and nothing he did was considered illegal.

I’m not sure where I sit on this issue. On the one hand I don’t see why this religion is any more ridiculous than any other. Mormonism believes that there was once a giant submarine which travelled through the ocean without propulsion or any kind of oxygen source (aside from a plug in the top) for over a year (Ether 2:24). Absurdity and religion go hand in hand. Yet knowing that it’s an admitted satire isn’t helping their case. As amusing as the services would be I’m not exactly willing to give a church of Monty Python a pass either.

Satire is a legitimate form of literature and protest, but once it crosses the line into being the real thing it can’t be considered satire anymore and thus it loses its power. I think that the state is right on this one for the same reason that it was wrong in the Hobby Lobby case. There’s nothing stopping the gates to open and someone opposing their own imprisonment on the grounds that it violates their sincerely held beliefs. The only difference is: when it’s a person it’s much easier to swallow that they are legitimately held beliefs. If Cavanaugh’s point is along the same vein of satire as the original purpose of the FSM then I agree with him, but I think that he’s just trying to use this niche group to justify his deserving of a different life style in prison. In either case we definitely don’t want the government in the business of deciding which ones are real and which ones are not.

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The Hypocrisy of Condemning Trump’s Abortion Comment

April 12, 2016 Leave a comment

Trump made news last week when he did the impossible. He successfully united the anti-abortion (I’ll call them pro-life when they begin to protest the death penalty) and pro-choice crowd against him under the aegis of making comments regarding what should happen to a woman who procures an abortion if it’s considered illegal. Trump’s comment, before he began walking it back a bit, was that there should be some kind of punishment. Whether it was “ten days” or “ten years,” he wondered, was a complicated issue that needed further consideration.

The pro-choice side was obviously going to protest it given that their stance is that abortion should not be illegal. On the pro-life side their position was a bit mystifying. For the sake of being honest, Trump’s position is correct–if something is against the law then the person who breaks the law ought to be punished. If they want abortion to be illegal then the person who gets one has broken the law. QED, they should be punished. It’s a simple tautology, so why the outcry? That’s what confuses me.

The president of March for Life said that his comment was “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement…Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision.” (from their website)

In order to have this serious conversation we have to set aside the latter part of her comment. The first being that women typically regret terminating their pregnancies, that’s not factual. We are also going to have to set aside when the zygote becomes a person. While an interesting question and an important part of the abortion debate it’s not relevant to this discussion. Also the reason the procedure is procured is not relevant for this discussion except as a mitigating factor for the punishment recommended. However, in an effort to try and stick to the topic I’ll leave that out as well(although we’ll come back to that very briefly at the end). Also out is any form of birth control argument as well as what to do with babies who are born to families that clearly can’t afford them. None of these matter because I want to stick to the topic of whether or not the pro-life crowd has any standing in condemning Trump’s comment.

As I indicated earlier, the Trump comment appears to be the logical extension of the movement to ban the procedure. What he’s saying is not an aberration (though for him it is) it’s a feature of the position. If the pro-life people want abortion renderred illegal and they are telling the truth, it means that they want no punishment for those who request the action? That doesn’t seem reasonable and it falls in contradiction with the position the legal justice system takes on literally every other crime.

If two people engage in a crime together, one supplying an illegal service and the other procuring it they are both guilty of a crime. In some cases we may say that the provider deserves a lesser punishment then the procurer and in other cases we may say that the provider is more deserving; but we admit that in such cases both people have committed a crime. Think of a drug deal. The dealer can be punished more harshly than the purchaser while in cases of arson for hire the arsonist can be punished less than the one who hired them. Thus it must be the case with abortion. Sure, we don’t want to hold the woman solely responsible but just as well we can’t say the person who conducted the procedure is solely responsible either. If it was performed without her consent that’s already a crime and doesn’t require further legislation.

Somehow abortion is the exception to this rule in which we excuse one of the perpetrators but the mystery is why. Why is it that for a crime which the anti-abortion crowd views as so abhorrent, so anathema to the will of their god, that the person who is more responsible for initiating it gets excused? My position on this is that it’s utterly contradictory. The doctor itself cannot just set up shop if there is no one that has a demand for their service. Despite what the anti-abortion people say, and what I was told in my Catholic upbringing, no one is preaching abortion convincing those on the fence to come down on that side. So the existence of the service is entirely the responsibility of the woman in question, and that is, of course, speaking only of elective abortions. The other kind: medically necessary are different: in those cases it is the doctor’s recommendation and when people are polled only 20% feel that it should be outlawed in any circumstance. The remainder allow, at the very least, medical exceptions to the rule (along with a rape exception and then the rest are the people that think it should be allowed in all cases).

So the justification for the outcry is what? There are only two probable positions left. The first is ignorance. That once outlawed these people think that it will just utterly cease to be a thing that happens which is ludicrous or perhaps they just haven’t thought their position through enough as to the consequences of breaking that law. This position is consistent with what we know of their stand yet contradictory with what we know of the world. Outlawing something does not make it go away.

The second possibility is that Trump said something that they agree with but didn’t want to have to face in the public sphere. This possibility is more consistent with all of the information that we have. The anti-abortion crowd is so virulent about it that to assume that they would merely excuse the agent who procured one is its own form of ignorance. They can’t have it both ways: if they succeed in getting it renderred illegal then they have to want a punishment for the offenders otherwise there is no point in striving for that goal.



Pray, What’s the Difference

April 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Maybe you haven’t heard of Pastor John Carlson. Through his organization, the Christian Prayer Center (CPC) he took requests for prayers for a nominal fee and then left it up to god to decide whether or not to answer them. The fees he collected were attributed at 7m dollars. I’ll forgive you for not knowing who he was, because he wasn’t a real person. Pastor John Carlson was a fictional person. The money was real, and that’s what prompted the Washinton State Attorney General to shut down the website allegedly run by a Seattle business man named Benjamin Rogovy.

The website Christian Prayer was shut down for defrauding customers. According to the attorney general the CPC took in money from approximately 125,000 people. “Pastor Carlson” was a fraud, but what if instead Rogovy just used his real name? What if he signed up to be a pastor through one of the many sites that allow you to pay a fee to become one. Some of those previous links don’t even charge that fee, but then will link you to the respective state which may charge some kind of registration or legal fee in order to perform weddings, funerals, and such. However, if you merely want to call yourself a pastor, there’s really no one stopping you.

That was a little tangent, so let’s return to the original question: what if Rogovy just called himself Pastor would he still be guilty of fraud? As near as I can tell, the only difference between his online church and literally every other religious institution that promises the answering of prayers is that his had fake people in it. Otherwise, what’s the difference? What can legally be proven that constitutes fraud here?

Person A sends him 20 bucks to pray for negative HIV test. Person B tosses 20 bucks in the collection so that Saint Damien (patron saint of HIV/AIDS sufferers) makes his test negative as well. What’s the difference? Seriously, I’m asking how Rogovy’s church is any different. In action the result is the same. Someone pays 20 bucks in order to guarantee that they don’t have HIV.We’re assuming of course, that Person A has no idea that the CPC’s senior pastor is nothing more than a sock puppet. How is it that person A is at fault because they had no knowledge of the fraud? Caveat emptor and all that sure, but I’m sure Person A has a sincerely held belief that the prayer is going to reach the deity, and we have no reason to think that this is not the case with the Omnipotent in one in charge of it all.

In consequence the same thing applies: if they never had HIV then the prayer was meaningless, if they did have it, then it was just as meaningless since it will now be an unanswered prayer. If they did have it, and the HIV test comes back negative the most likely result is that the test was botched in some manner. However, if we grant that miracles do happen, then is it more likely that person B is going to get the miracle because when they threw their 20 bucks on the plate the guy who collected the money was actually who he said he was? Is the deity so petty as to hold the health of the penitent hostage until the background check on the intercessor comes through? If you believe that, then we’re back at the situation in the previous paragraph.

The only true fraud here is that the CPC misrepresented itself as having a Pastor Carlson. It’s not even that the CPC didn’t exist, it’s an online church and it has a website, so it clearly did exist. Legally we can’t even prove that “Pastor Carlson” is a not merely a nom de plume, and if Rogovy’s defense can make that claim he has to be in the clear because there is no standard for doing what he did.

This site is no different than any of the other “Prosperity Gospel” sites that promise to cure your illnesses, wipe out your credit, or any of the other miracles they promise in lieu of you sending them money. These groups promise to “grow” your money with a “donation” to their funds, after all it works for them. It’s a promise they can’t deliver on, unless they start emptying their coffers directly to the petitioner. It’s really not that different from any other religious service that promises to answer any kind of prayer, except that most of them don’t ask for a fee up front. Instead they just suggest that god wants his ten percent (net not gross).

John Oliver showed us last year that setting up a legally recognized church doesn’t take much effort and there’s little to no oversight at all. Right now I have an open window on my screen wherein all I have to do is toggle “yes” to the question, “are you able to work as a minister?” and then tap “submit” which will make me an ordained minister.

The most obvious objection is going to be “but you won’t be a real minister.” First, check your religious intolerance right there. How would I not be a real minister? Seriously, what’s the difference? If Joel Olsteen can call himself a minister why can’t I?

We can assume that Rogovy didn’t really make the prayers but it’s an unprovable assumption. He can always claim he thought a thing, or hoped a thing. It’s all mental anyway, even if he did read through all of the prayer requests and sincerely prayed over each one of them there’s no standard by which we can ask him to prove that he did it. When I was Catholic there was no way I could get the priest to prove that he really did listen to all my sins and not just run through baseball statistics while I was talking. He could have just sat there and waited for his turn to talk then leave, visit another priest to confess that he no longer pays attention while that priest did the same exact thing. It can’t be proven one way or the other.

Rogovy’s business model is only faulty in that he didn’t toss in a search phrase to find out how easy it was to become a minister in order to generate money with no work. Perhaps that is his real crime: being too lazy to click “submit.”

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