Archive for March, 2017

A New Gospel

March 27, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve gotten into a lot of arguments in the last ten years or so concerning the mixture of politics and religion. My consistent position is that politics and religion should not officially mix. I stress “officially” because it would be wrong to prevent a religious person from entering politics, but their should be no official religious position of the government. What irks me is the faux oppression they try and brag about. “I don’t know why people hate us just for worshipping Jesus,” or “They just hate us because our conservative views are just like Jesus.” Or some variation of that theme.

Let’s clear the air, no one hates these people because they are Christian, what I hate is the sheer blatant hypocrisy of the religious right’s position. I mean, they can’t stand up and talk about how the country is going to hell because we’re abandoning religion while they vote, or tell others to vote, in a manner that is completely contradictory to the very words of the book that allegedly instructs their entire life. A frequent rejoinder in the podcast “God Awful Movies” is that the people who are trying to end war, feed everyone, and cure disease are portrayed as the villains (especially in the apocalypse movies) who must be stopped at all costs. Despite the gospels explaining that feeding the sick, ending war (sort of), and curing illness is the duty of the Christians. I’m obviously not a religious person, but if there is a god, I doubt it appreciates the lip service instead of actions.

Issues such as poverty and healthcare the self-proclaimed, most religious, seem to have the position that the poor should starve and the sick die unless they can find a way to help themselves. Refugees and those in dire situations need to be turned away unless we can 100% certify that they are not dangerous. Both of those positions are in absolute stark contrast to the teachings of the bible, and apparently it’s up to an atheist to elucidate this (to be fair I’ve mentioned the various Christian groups that have come out publicly against the immigration bans).

With all that in mind, I’ve decided to undertake the task of rewriting some of the stories so that Christian theocrats, the ultra right, and the oddly named “freedom caucus” can have a biblical basis for their political views. We’re starting with “The Good Samaritan.”

Luke 10:25|And, Behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? (26) He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? (27) And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all they mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” (28) And he said unto him, “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” (29) But he, realizing that he hadn’t read the law because there was a lot of it, and the answer he gave isn’t actually in there, sought clarification, “And who is my neighbor?” (30) And Jesus answering said, “A certain man went from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stole his raiment, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. (31) And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him he thought, “meh, that’s probably someone else’s problem and I have these scrolls to pass out to all of the farmers so that they become aware of the crime of planting two different crops in the same fields.” (32) Likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side thinking, “I will tell the first Legion I see, but for now I must protest those natural philosophers who are claiming that rabbits don’t chew their cuds.” (33) But a certain Samaritan as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him he thought, “This person is in great need of care, probably due to a vicious assault. I should help that person.” (34) As he was getting ready to help, another Samaritan approached and lo, he did ask, “What are you doing?” (35) The man did answer, “helping this man who was attacked.” (36) The second man did answer in reply, “You know not what you do, for this man could be a robber himself, he could be a murderer, or beggar. Do you know this man, of where he is from, or wherefore he ends up lying in this road?” (37) “I do not, he is to me as you are.” (38) “Then must needs, leave him be. For these questions we know the answer not, and the risk be too great if we bring him to our hearth. No, better to leave him to help himself, rather than he learn to live on the charity of others.” (39)  Jesus finished asking, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?” (40) And he said, “All save one, the first thus because his errand was to spread the law, the second as to dispute teaching contrary to the law, and the fourth thus for making sure that the injured person was no threat.” (41) Teacher, the lawyer replied, “what about the third?” (42) “The third only invites calamity unto his house. For is it not written in the law that one should take care with those in whom thy charity lies?” (43) Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. (44) And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. (45) Martha, was busy with the serving, and came to him, and said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.” (46) And Jesus answered and said unto her, “No.”


The Outrage Machine

March 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Is it just me or do people want to be outraged at something? Not real things, not things that actually matter or things that are true. In some way I get it, it’s easier to just read a headline and repost. It’s much easier than reading an article and finding out what actually happened, or reading a few articles on the same subject because then, and only then, will the reader actually understand what is going on. It’s closely related to what is now the slander of being called an “elitist” in reference to someone who knows things. If you have an education, if you understand things, that is now apparently a bad thing. Why? Because anyone can be stupid, but being smart, being versed in a subject is hard. It takes work, while having mere emotional reactions armed with a few contrite phrases (“political reasons,” “fake news,” “elitist”) doesn’t take any work.

Last month (February 2017) a Pennsylvania school board agreed to remove a monument of the ten commandments from Valley Junior-Senior High School. A lawsuit was originally filed in 2012, but due to some technical issues had to make it’s way through the circuits. The school district settled and is going to have to reimburse legal fees to the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) to the tune of 40,000 dollars. In a settlement this is a normal practice. The defendant agreed with the plaintiff and in any lawsuit where money is changing hands the agreement usually confers some recompense to the winner of the case. The school’s insurance company is going to pay the money, not the school. I’m not sure how exactly this translates into tax dollars, but it’s fact that must be stated.

Understanding this type of issue is a complicated endeavor. One must first understand why the lawsuit was brought in the first place. Unlike most of the sites that I checked, it was not to line the pockets of the FFRF, who received the 40K of the 163k settlement. An amount, which they claimed was not a full reimbursement and which we have no reason to think that a five year settlement going through three different courts was going to cost less than 40k. I note it also because in Pennsylvania, a law is being offered in response, that would ban legal fees from being a part of settlement amounts. Or at least legislation is being drafted, which is a terrible idea: because it means that if I sue for negligence because of something objectively negligent against McDonalds, they can bury me with lawyers knowing that I won’t be able financially to fight them even if they know they are wrong. Again, I don’t know how much it costs to hire a lawyer to put on one of these lawsuits, so I’ll just have to take their word for it. Just as I don’t know how much it costs to move a statue.

The removal of the monument is not about money, it’s about not allowing a public institution to endorse a particular religion. Despite what the theocrats want you to think: there’s no way that a ten commandments statue isn’t a religious statue. They like to claim that the laws of the US were founded on the Ten Commandments, which is patently false. The first four are purely religious. The fifth, while not religious is not a legally enforceable item (honor your parents). Rules 6 & 8, are the legally punishable (Murder and Stealing respectively), 7 only matters within a specific type of legal situation (divorce proceedings). Nine is trickier because there’s some debate over what it actually means. If it means the common thing: thou shalt not lie, then it’s not a legal issue. However if it is a prohibition against bearing false witness in legal matters, then that’s the legal issue of perjury. The final commandment, it is just a prohibition on thought crime and not legally actionable either. In all we only have two commandments that could be said to be legally inspiring with two more that could be considered “sort of…but…”

It’s difficult to understand that while the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it’s part of our system. The Bill of Rights specifically prohibits the state from endorsing or prohibiting any particular religion, and placing a religious statue in a school does that. Jefferson explained the purpose of the amendment as being just that. The legal result is that you have an all or nothing situation: either you have to allow all of the religions or none of them. Why? Because we don’t want the government getting into the situation of deciding which religions are true and which are not. This is especially important when you consider historical context in which Catholics and Puritans in the 18th century would not have considered themselves members of the same religion. Some Evangelical Christians don’t consider Catholics and Mormons to be Christians now, but imagine how it must have been two hundred years ago. Wisely they decided that it was not the business of the state to make these kinds of adjudications (Scientology and Raeliens included).

Yet, that’s not the issue getting thrown around the internet. It’s all about how this settlement, the court, and the lawsuit; are all about persecuting Christians. Why? Because it’s easier to sell the outrage without really having to understand the issue. Nothing will get a news story spread around faster than a headline which conveys the message that Christians are continuing to be persecuted in a country where it is a) not happening and b) where the religion makes up a strong majority (when you put all of the denominations under the same banner). The headline “School board settles Constitutional violation law suit” isn’t going to get the same travel.

Interestingly some more digging unearthed the reason for the statue in the first place: as a promotion for the movie “The Ten Commandments.” So if we think about, a monument to a religion wasn’t removed a film advertisement was.


Wizard Battle!!!!!

March 14, 2017 Leave a comment

So Donald Trump is president. That much we know, and I promise this post isn’t about him. This also has a lot of people riled up, not just people that voted for Hillary Clinton, or wanted Bernie Sanders, or even those actual Republicans who are now in the unenviable position of not knowing what exactly they are supposed to do. His supporters are also riled up, wondering why people who don’t support him have the gall to not support him. They ironically think that questioning the president is wrong somehow, or that opposing his positions and proposals is treason. Lots of people are riled up, witches included.

Yes I said witches, but if that term is offensive include also wizards, warlocks, mages, bards (+9 level only). A group, or a coven, began passing around a document with the material components of the spell, the invocation, and a bunch of explanations of what kind of spell it is (binding). The purpose of this is to harangue the presidency from a spiritual side, which is probably overkill at this point–but then again maybe it’s working (it’s not, it’s really not).

I never got into this aspect of religion. I’ve both heard and read other atheists journey toward unbelief and they follow a certain 4 step pattern: raised religious, began to question, angry rejection, adoption of a different religion, realization that too was bunk. Step three is where we sometimes drop for a bit. I went the Eastern route: Taoism (or Daosim); but I personally know some of those who parked in Wiccanism, the Occult, or whatever we are supposed to call it. Part of the appeal is that the rules are different. For me, one of the appeals of Daoism was that there were no ceremonies, with the Occult religions it’s the exact opposite.

One can argue the differences between one religion and any other: but one thing they all have in common is that you aren’t supposed to ask the divine for revenge or to harm another. In the Catholic tradition, it’s a sin and god doesn’t grant those kinds of requests. Most of the religions of the world have a similar prohibition. Sure one can ask for strength to defeat one’s enemies, but not direct interference. My theory on this is two fold: the first is to make forbidden that kind of desire, a legitimate concern for the well being of others. The person shouldn’t have the kind of anger/hate in them that would cause them to need the very underpinning of the world to go against a particular individual. The second is not because of what will happen if it does work but rather what will happen when it does not. It brings out into the light the fact that prayers/spells don’t work, that saying the right combination of words in a particular order has no bearing on the outside world. Whether you are saying it with a large group of people on a Sunday morning, or by yourself in front of four bowls holding representatives of the elements (how is a feather representative of air? It’s not part of air, it’s just a thing that moved through it at one time).

From the atheist perspective it’s pretty silly and not worth taking any more serious than I have given it. Except of course unless you do…

The information about the spell/curse from the witches of the world came from the BBC, and I just followed the link to the original source. The BBC, among other news agencies, just covered  as a puff piece. A “look at this silliness” kind of story. However other groups are taking this as absolutely serious. Most notable conservative Christians who think witchcraft is a real thing. Why shouldn’t they? The bible treats it as real. Just scrolling through a couple of forums discussing this subject is both amusing and depressing. People on these forums are genuinely concerned that the curse will work. So what’s the answer to a magic spell? More magic of course.

In what has to be the least interesting magic battle since the end of the first Harry Potter movie (when we already knew there were going to be a bunch of movies and the series of books that followed the story) the fundamentalists are encouraging their zealots to counter pray against the spells. The last link is a facebook group for people opposing the curse and to join in for the counter spell.

In this corner we have a small group of people all reading the same poem in front of a series of bowls, a pinch of Sulphur, and a picture of the president…and in this corner we have a larger group of people all hoping they fail. The confrontation on the pinnacle of Orthanc this is not. Witchcraft isn’t a thing, which is problematic because when the spell, even if the spell was to sow chaos in the administration, doesn’t work the prayer warriors are going to count it as a victory. If events of the world coincide with what the spell was supposed to do (i.e. sow chaos in the administration) then the witches will count that as a win. However, there’s no winners here because the spirit world cannot interact with the material world. For one, immaterial cannot influence material, and two, there’s no such thing as the spirit world to begin with. The gods, or whatever, are beyond the cares of our fickle lives and experiences so why, to ask the Epicurean question, would they care? How does saying a thing move them to action.

For the prayer people, why do you give credence to these people? Your god’s plan cannot be so tenuous that a bunch of people you would regard as “losers” or “worshippers of a false religion” can say the right combination to upset it. If so, why is that your god? To the witches, you don’t need spells, you need action. Townhalls are erupting with people who are going to do a great deal more to influence this administration than your talking. Maybe you should cast a “I’m going to vote this time” spell and see if that works.


Two Topics

March 7, 2017 Leave a comment

One of the courses that I teach with some regularity is the course titled “Skepticism, Conspiracy Theories, and Critical Thinking.” It’s my passion class, it’s the course that I thought that maybe, eventually, if I worked hard enough: some department in the future would let me teach it; and I count myself very fortunate to be able to teach it while my students were still born before the 9/11 attacks. I spend most of the course going over informal argumentative fallacies, and then pointing them out whenever current events bring them out into the open. This much I anticipated.

The second largest section in the course has to do with Alternative medicine, in which I cover some medical conspiracies (debunking most of what they thought they knew about the Tuskegee Syphilis study), but mostly just do a broad run over the prevalent “alternative” medical treatments that are sold across this country. This section I figured I would have to update periodically as fads come and go. For example, concerning herbal supplements one thing is a miracle cure for everything one day, and then it’s back to being garbage the next day…unless it’s legit. Remember when they put Gingko in everything? Then it was acai berries, now, well I have to look that up. Nevertheless, like my course in bio-ethics, I have to check the science to see what’s good, bunk, and/or dangerous. If a new treatment pops up, the first thing I do is look up whether it even fits with our notions of causation before I address it, and this kind of thing happens quite regularly. However I anticipated all of this.

What I didn’t anticipate was having to update two sections of this class: “They” and the “Satanic Panic.”

My “Satanic Panic” lecture is a subsection of a much larger “Moral Panics” lesson focusing on the religious paranoia of the 1980s and early 90s that posited the kidnap, murder, and rape of children by a secret coven (is that the right word?) of Satanists. Most famously they operated out of daycare centers and were either nationwide or global. Seemingly they were all powerful too as any investigation into this phenomenon was dropped with no evidence found. In fact, of the two trials that came from this no proof of tunnels, sex rings, or sex abuse was ever uncovered. Also, one of those trials, the McMartin trials, was the most expensive trial in US history. I offer it up as an example that paranoia, combined with a specific form of religious zealotry, can have real world consequences. Particularly, in this case, when the people seem to want the boogeyman to be real.

Then some jackass with an ar-15 and a colt .38 decided to get pizza. He did so believing the exact kind of conspiracy theory that bored suburban parents did in the 80s. He believed this based on Alex Jones just making up that he knew Hillary Clinton murdered children, a sci-fi writer named Brittany Pettibone who drew pictures, and a slew of internet investigators in the pro-Trump camp all needed to believe that a secret sex/pedophilia/murder ring existed underneath two pizza shops, a French bistro, and a bookstore in Washington DC. Even just posting this I know that I’m going to get some apologist trying to tell me that the accusation needed to be investigated.

Which might be true if the accusation came from somewhere other than the wet dreams of people needing to believe the very worst about people who they, and this is important, merely disagree with. Because that’s all this is, a slander about people based on the fact that “I don’t like that they don’t X enough so I’ll believe anything about them.” The complete divorce from reality is astounding. Edgar Welch believed that all of this was true, and then drove a considerable difference because he thought he could save all of the poor children. The ones that weren’t in any danger, and for the most part didn’t exist.

“They” is a list of six different groups that conspiracists have been citing as being the real powers-that-be for hundreds of years. We have the Tri-Lateral commission, the Bilderbergers, the Free Masons, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, and the secret Jewish Elders. These are the big groups in charge of everything, or so they say, and for the last thirty years if I dug into it enough I would find one of these groups in charge. It’s been kind of set in stone at this point. Now, however, thanks to president jackass, I have to update this section to include what we are now calling “deep state.” This is the government within a government that is the real power in the world.

One might be able to argue that this is a real thing. If you have lobbyists telling legislators what to pass or propose you might be able to make this claim, and I might agree–I’m not sold just yet. However that isn’t what our current fearful leader and his supporters are talking about is it? No he’s talking about a power structure within the government that is obstructing his policy proposals and making people protest against him(?). It’s  unclear who is a part of this but I can probably run down the list of usual suspects: bankers, intelligence agencies, the media, and knowing this president probably something else that made him upset one day.

My problem here is that the list I’ve had is supposed to be purely historical. It’s not supposed to have new things in it. I start with the Illuminati and then go on with the other groups explaining that here’s what people believe on the fringe, not the President of the United States. While it’s probably some form of job security that the course is so relevant, I’d easily take my course as being the strange quirky class taught by the strange quirky instructor.

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