The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2003 December


December 31, 2003 | 7 Comments

The 2003 award for The Most Atheist-Obsessed Christian on the Internet goes to Tertius. Much like The Secularist Critique, he devotes more space to attacking those who reject his religion than to providing reasons to believe in it. I am fascinated by his fascination over my fascination with people like him:

I write much about atheists and their atheism on this blog site; partly because I cannot fathom what it must be like to live without any sense of transcendent purpose and hope in life; partly because I am genuinely bemused by the kind of person who is more militantly and dogmatically god-obsessed in their denial of God than most believers are in their affirmation of God; partly because I find it bizarre that there are people who would project such an intensity of hatred and expend such a force of energy upon something which they claim does not even exist; and partly because of the realization that it is not the idea of “god” so much which really disturbs these guys but specifically the God of the Bible, as revealed in Jesus Christ and as worshipped in Christianity that really makes them madder than a junk yard dog.

Tertius’ wrath is primarily directed at the “internet infidels” who expound their godless views on websites and bulletin boards. But any formal exposition of atheism is necessarily going to be “god-obsessed”; the concept of god, in its various forms, is the sole subject matter of atheistic doctrine. He might as well criticize stamp-collecting sites for their obsession with stamps. But, you say, stamp collectors do not stand in opposition to stamps? Very well — let’s say, then, that the atheist’s relationship to God is akin to that of a doctor’s relationship to disease or a police officer’s relationship to crime.

I admit that an obsession with something that one believes does not exist may seem at first blush odd. But it is a natural response to the hectorings of those who actually do believe in the non-existent being. What else to talk about with the wild-eyed fellow next to you on the subway who jabbers about the Wizard of Oz and the invisible hippopotami scurrying about the floor? And even if he can be avoided, his friends in the legislatures and courts cannot. Because — and this is what’s really odd — the United States Constitution has an amendment specifically protecting conduct stemming from belief in God-delusion. It gives special privileges, including the right to ingest peyote or murder children, to anyone who babbles sincerely enough about their deity. The atmosphere is such that one can’t even run for public office unless one is willing to gurgle about Jesus to the masses. Tertius and his ilk demand that we talk about Him. Now, that’s an obsession.

My atheism, contrary to that form described by Tertius, is far broader than mere anti-Christianity. Believer that he is, I’m surprised that Tertius’ anti-atheism doesn’t similarly extend to all creeds which deny his particular version of God. Despite their radically differing moral, historical and eschatological claims, Judaism and Islam get a pass from him because they’re monotheistic rather than polytheistic. He identifies “utter uniqueness” and “transcendence” as the important distinguishing characteristics of the Abrahamic god, the ones that, he says, make comparisons to Ganesh and Thor and Santa and the tooth fairy and the Invisible Pink Unicorn “trifling.” But how so? The IPU is transcendent (that’s why you can’t see him) and certainly unique (he’s “the” IPU, not “an” IPU).

The short of the matter is that Tertius is obsessed because he’s crazy and I’m obsessed because I’m sane. This being said, Tertius does make one extremely eloquent point about those who are obsessed because they’re non-obsessed. I can add nothing to his criticism of “weak atheists” and “apatheists”:

A standard assertion from Internet atheists these days is as follows:

Its really quite simple: Atheism is the lack of a god-belief, the absence of theism, to whatever degree and for whatever reason. To assume that atheism involves more than the absence of theism is an error. [actual quote]

This view that has become de rigueur among a whole new generation of atheists and Internet Infidels. Here it is again:

It’s a very simple exercise. When you come to understand why you lack a belief in all other theologies but your own, you’ll also come to understand why atheists lack a belief in yours. [actual quote]

Alas, such a definition is not very helpful for anyone willing to reflect on the matter. I do not know whether those espousing this view are just na

Brett Favre’s Father Dies, Watches Football Game

December 30, 2003 | 11 Comments

Kiln, Mississippi, December 29, 2003
Special to The Raving Atheist

Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre’s father, Irvin Favre, died and watched his son play football the next day, according to NFL sources. In the game against the Raiders, Favre passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns.

“I knew my dad would want me to play,” Favre told ABC. “I love him so much and love this game. It has meant a great deal to me, to my dad and to my family. “I didn’t expect this type of performance but I know he was watching.”

Irvin’s death, in turn, was watched by his own father, Earle Favre, who then watched the game. “Irvin had a heart attack, collapsed on to the steering wheel and served into a tree,” reported Earle, who died in 1962. “And then I watched Brett throw his father’s body into a ditch so he could make the next flight to Oakland.”

Both dead men agreed that the realization that they had eternal life was nothing compared to the thrill of watching Brett’s performance. “I immediately pushed my 72 virgins aside and trained my telescopic vision down on that stadium,” said Irvin. “It was just like that song Blind Man in the Bleachers, except it was the 795th, rather than first, time that I saw my son play.”

God Squad Review LXXII (Modesty)

December 29, 2003 | 1 Comment

The Squad makes a seemingly candid admission in its New Year’s entry:

In this year-end retrospective, we also want to apologize for any bad advice we may have given and hope you understand we know only a fraction about the problems you’ve so graciously shared with us and have only a fraction of the wisdom necessary to advise you.

This sort of modesty and humility is common among religious leaders. Presumably it’s supposed to be endearing, but it’s absolutely meaningless. Despite the admission of incompetence, the Squad has no intention of giving up its nationally syndicated column or television show.

Oily Miracles

December 26, 2003 | 6 Comments

As I noted in a previous post, cartoonist Johnny Hart caught a lot of flak for a strip depicting a Menorah “converting” into a cross. But I doubt there’ll be much of an outcry over this effort:


But why not? The implication is that it would be silly to jump to a supernatural explanation for a cellphone battery lasting a little longer than expected. It’s a direct attack on the Hanukkah “miracle” of the oil lasting eight days. It declares Judaism to be false in the same way that evangelical Christianity does.

The difference, I think, is that Christianity proposes a crucifixion miracle that’s just as silly as the Hanukkah one. So it’s seen as presumptuous for Christians to insist that their story of a man rising from the dead is superior to the tale of a flame rising from a wick. The argument, of course, is never phrased in quite those terms; instead, both miracles are pronounced to be equal in the sense that each is “unprovable” or a “matter of faith.” But the arguments don’t work at all against atheism; since atheism denies miracles and proposes sensible alternatives that are consistent with experience and reason, there’s no easy answer to its claim to superiority.

Let’s Fit Her for a Coffin While We’re At It

December 24, 2003 | 8 Comments

The song Christmas Shoes joined the radio holiday playlists in 2000 and will be a staple for years to come. As much as I love Christmas music, the chorus is a little too demented even for me:

Sir I wanna buy these shoes for my Momma please.
It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size.
Could you hurry Sir?
Daddy says there’s not much time.
You see she’s been sick for quite a while,
And I know these shoes will make her smile.
And I want her to look beautiful,
If Momma meets Jesus tonight.

Worse yet, it’s based upon an allegedly true story which, worse worse yet, has spawned an album, a novella, a church musical and a CBS Sunday Night Movie. Forgive my cynicism, but what kind of father lets a five-year old boy and his even younger sister go shoe-shopping all by themselves on Christmas Eve?

Do you think?

December 23, 2003 | 8 Comments

What do you think about the Raving Atheist having a question of the day/week?

Come Together

December 23, 2003 | 6 Comments

Holiday displays combining the Menorah and the Cross are common, especially in years such as this when Hanukkah and Christmas overlap. But cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the widely-syndicated B.C. and Wizard of Id comic strips, created a stir a couple of years back at Eastertime when he depicted the candles of a Menorah being snuffed out one by one by the words of Jesus, with ultimately the Menorah itself being transformed into a bloody crucifix. Various newspapers refused to run the cartoon and dropped Hart from their roster.

The Gaping Maw commented on the controversy here (comic strips included), also criticizing the Jewish Defense League’s retaliatory parody comic strip depicting the Menorah transformed into a swastika by the words of later Christian theologians. The Maw’s primary criticism was that Hart wasn’t a theologian, and the cartoon wasn’t funny in the way that a cartoon should be. He concluded:

The larger issue looming here is not the specifics of either cartoon, nor organized attempts by special interest groups to censor material in international newspapers, nor Jewish concerns, nor Christian theology.

The focal point of this controversy is that Christians and Jews should come together in a spirit of forgiveness, in a forum miles and miles and miles away from Garfield. It’s something everyone can agree with.

Actually, the only issue here is the theology. Hart may not be an ordained minister, but his message is mainstream Christianity. Although there is trend now in some churches to declare that the Jews don’t need Christ’s saving power because they have their own separate-but-equal covenant with G_d, that’s not something “everyone can agree with.” There’s no Biblical support for that position and the more orthodox denominations aren’t buying it. The Maw may find his own theology more pleasant, but it’s still just another theology. A comic strip built around it, perhaps concluding with a Star of David spinning like a propeller atop a cross, would be equally off-putting to most readers. Indeed, it would offend virtually all readers who took their religion seriously; Judaism and Christianity each declare their own distinct and absolute truth, not some wussy lukewarm hybrid.

The Maw is also off the mark in suggesting that there’s something inappropriate about presenting theology in comic-strip form. It’s stupid in any form, but the cartoon format is no worse than any other. And if The Maw’s point is that people shouldn’t take their religion so seriously, perhaps the funny pages is exactly where it should be. I find Op-Eds discussing some moral issue from a “Christian perspective” or a “Jewish perspective” far more offensive, the underlying premise being that any viewpoint is legitimate so long as it originates from a “faith perspective.”

What the Hart controversy really points up is the flaw in the thinking of contemporary advocates of religious freedom — those, on both the right and the left, who insist on the importance of all religious voices being heard in the public square. Even when a single private voice rings out in a private newspaper, almost nobody can stomach it. The problem is that everyone thinks that their farts smell good, when in reality they all stink because they’re all made of shit. Turning the public square into a public sewer isn’t the answer.

font size

December 22, 2003 | 5 Comments

Since so many of the Raving Atheist’s readers are blind, if you look to the top right, you’ll see the option to change the font size. I’ll continue to improve this but please be patient.

If there are any site related complaints, problems, suggestions please direct them to me (chris) at (If you’re using Internet Explorer, I’ll probably ignore you anyway. Please, get a standards compliant browser).

God Squad Review LXXI (Reconciling Holidays)

December 22, 2003 | 1 Comment

It’s a lovefest over at the Squad, where Father Tom and Rabbi Gellman are singing the praises of each other’s holidays. Speaking of Hanukkah, Tom praises the Maccabees for “resisting the popular culture” and “[standing] up for God in a world that was secular and self-centered.” Speaking of Christmas, Marc shares his hope for a messiah even though he doesn’t believe Jesus was the anointed one. He concludes: “I suppose it will matter on that wondrous day if the Messiah’s name is Ben David or Jesus of Nazareth, but I can’t help feeling in these glowing days that our common joy at receiving God’s appointed messenger of peace will be such an enfolding and encompassing joy that it won’t matter so much what his name is.”

Tom’s analysis of Hanukkah as a triumph of religion over selfish secularism is disingenuous. The Jews were fighting against the polytheism imposed upon them by a Greco-Syrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes. They just wanted to worship G-d instead of Zeus and his family. So Hanukkah celebrates the victory of one illusion over many.

Marc’s homily also describes an inter-religious struggle, minimizing its importance because this time two monotheistic faiths are involved. It’s just a dispute over a “name” which “will matter” but “won’t matter so much.” But I can guarantee that if that name does turn out to be “Jesus,” the Jews will be praying for the return of Zeus.

Leave It To Raving

December 19, 2003 | 12 Comments

In Episode 191 of Leave It To Beaver, Beaver and a few of his friends all buy three-eyed monster tee-shirts and agree to wear them to class the next day. As it turns out, Beaver’s the only one who goes through with the plan. He’s promptly sent to the principal, who bawls him out and sends him home to change.

French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has proposed a ban on the wearing of religious clothing and decorations in the public schools. No more Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps or Christian crucifixes. I don’t understand what the big controversy’s about — there’s a simple solution. If they disobey, just send them to the principal’s office, bawl them out, and send them home to change. Yes, I know they really WANT to dress in that fashion — but so did little Beaver.

Jacob Levy of the Volokh Conspiracy seems to think it’s more complicated than that. He calls the law “quite dreadful.” While he’s right that the law favors Christianity — it bars only large Christian crosses — that defect can be easily remedied by confiscating those as well. His remaining objection, that the law discriminates against religious belief, is unpersuasive. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply in France, and Levy doesn’t suggest that there’s any French legal obstacle to the law. If his argument rests on some moral principle he never articulates what it is; he makes no effort whatsoever to demonstrate that discrimination against religion is a bad thing. Indeed, the school curriculum (particularly in the area of science) is likely to be much more hostile to religion than the dress code, but he doesn’t suggest that the students be permitted to dictate that aspect of their educational experience.

Levy does allude at one point to the “conflicting obligations in conscience felt by committed religious believers.” But the law governs only what they wear. That’s hardly a matter of conscience. If it were, the shape of the student’s desks, the color of the walls and the brand of chalk would be matters of conscience as well. Interior decorating preferences should be left to the discretion of French authorities, not the American legal academia.

Presumably the concept of “conscience” comes in because the manner of dress is thought to be the subject of some God-command. But Levy doesn’t states what the governing rules are, or prove the existence of whatever god or gods are in question. So at best he’s given an explanation of why they want to dress as they do, rather than a sensible justification of it. Beaver, too, had an explanation why he wanted to wear the monster sweatshirt — he felt really strongly that it would be “neat” and “fun” — but even he wasn’t silly enough to argue that some great ethical principle was involved.

In any event, the “conscience” involved seems to be that of the students’ parents rather than the kids themselves. So arguments about free speech, individualism, etc. don’t meaningfully apply. And the parents aren’t even there to be bothered by it, so there’s no real harm; there’s plenty of time to play dress-up after school. Plus, if they were present, they’d be more likely to be upset by the curriculum, constantly shouting out objections to whatever teaching conflicted with their preferred religious dogma. Best to put them in private schools or move out of the country if that’s the case.

Finally, even assuming Levy’s notion of religious equality had some moral value, he doesn’t seem to be all that seriously or consistently committed to it. He criticizes Chirac for the “rhetorical device” of referring to the Muslim girl’s headscarves as “veils,” noting that “[t]here are, as far as I know, no reported incidents of French Muslim schoolgirls attending school actually veiled” and declaring that “the incessant use of “voile” [veil] instead of “foulard” [headscarf] is an attempt to elide the difference between committed believers and fundamentalists.” Is he seriously suggesting that under his principle of equality the French could ban veils but not headscarves, or make a distinction between committed believers and fundamentalists? If that’s the case, I do agree that lines should be drawn, but at a much earlier point so as not to “elide the difference” between common sense and superstitious stupidity.

Challenge De-Clined

December 18, 2003 | 9 Comments

I politely challenged Austin Cline yesterday to coherently defend his thesis (here and here) that the religion of the Jews for Jesus is fake and deceptive in a way that Judaism and Christianity are not. He quickly ran another post accusing the JFJ’s of “fraud.” Perhaps it’s just a coincidence; but if it was intended to meet my dare it falls far short of the mark.

The post begins with the usual question-begging: Cline asserts that the Jews for Jesus are “[a]n evangelical Christian group that pretends to be Jewish in order to attract Jewish converts.” Cline never defines what “real” Judaism is, states why it is true, or explains how he knows that the Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jews aren’t also just “pretending” by rejecting their Jewish savior. Plenty of Christian sects claim to have a lock on the “real” Christianity, and the Muslims consider the rest of the world to be infidels; but somehow Cline knows that the only false theological assertion in the world is the JFJ’s claim that God wants Jews to worship Jesus in a particular way. He implies that the group hides its “real agenda,” something that it conceals until suddenly a “Jewish congregation is told that they have to start worshipping in a Christian manner, not a Jewish manner.” I suppose what makes it a “Christian manner” is the worship of Jesus; how that comes as a surprise to a congregation assembled under the banner of “Jews for Jesus” is beyond me. But Cline implies that the only true converts to JFJ are those who haven’t figured out, or been let in on, the scam.

The actual source of Cline’s “fraud” allegation, however, isn’t the JFJ’s theology. Rather, the charge comes from a frivolous lawsuit brought against the JFJ’s by a grandstanding lawyer. The complaint, on behalf of a Delray Beach Florida woman, alleges that her stepson falsely “wrote in a 2002 Jews for Jesus newsletter that he watched while she tearfully and spontaneously converted to the beliefs of the organization at her husband’s bedside.” The claim has nothing to do with the JFJ’s “tricking” people into joining the religion. It’s simply a family squabble involving an allegedly false claim of conversion.

Legally, the suit won’t get very far. Lying about another’s religious affiliation isn’t defamation, unless perhaps the sect is known for engaging in violent criminal activity. But falsely calling someone a Jew for Jesus is no more actionable than calling someone a Catholic or a Muslim; for a court to find such accusations defamatory it would it would have to hold that there was something bad about those religions (other than themselves being a pack of crazy dangerous lies). And the Catholic Church may be lying about Tom Daschle’s religious affiliation when it declares that he isn’t a “real” Catholic, but it’s hardly the stuff of a libel suit. He might, like the stepmom in the Florida suit, feel “humiliated” by the charge, but he’d end up paying the defendants’ legal fees if he were foolish enough to file a complaint.

Cline also suggests that there’s something exceptional about the JFJ’s use of lies as part of its recruitment efforts. In fact, the suit charges that the stepson included the tale of his stepmother’s conversion “to bolster his credentials among Jews for Jesus” — so it’s not clear that the organization was really behind the story at all (unless it intentionally reprinted it). Whatever the case, the practice pales beside the Catholic Church’s practice of falsely attributing medical cures to dead candidate-saints, and the lies that every religion tells to swell its ranks.

The heart of Cline’s real objection to the Jews for Jesus is that they evangelize, and that their theology doesn’t conform to certain mainstream Judeo-Christian standards. His philosophy is that all brainwashing should occur in childhood — as one letter-writer put it, “We should believe what we are taught, and shouldn’t have to be taught to believe” — and that religious freedom consists solely in the freedom from proselytization in adulthood.

Austin Cline is a Big Fat Stupid Doody-Head

December 17, 2003 | 23 Comments

As an ardent advocate of civility in public discourse, I was disappointed (and deeply wounded) to read Austin Cline’s accusation that my last post on atheism-as-metaphysics violated “basic standards of intellectual and ethical honesty.” The gravity of my offense was such that I get compared to the lowest form of religious Neanderthal: “[TRA’s] selective and out-of-context quoting is seen most often among creationists.” Worse yet, I am morally inferior to Mr. Cline — he declares that “the difference between myself and Raving is, at it’s [sic] heart, ethical.” Unlike me, Cline walks among [or at least behind] the giants; he “follow[s] in the footsteps of people like Carl Sagan and [atheist philosopher] George Smith.”

I refuse to reciprocate such calumny. Indeed, I could not, for I consider Cline’s site generally to be the finest, most well-reasoned and comprehensive atheist blog on the web. I will thus confine myself to addressing the flaws in his latest arguments on the narrow issue at hand, i.e., whether atheism is more properly defined as a philosophy with identifiable metaphysical implications (my position) or simply the absence of a belief in God (Cline’s position).

Cline again completely avoids my arguments that 1) atheism necessarily makes the same sort of metaphysical and philosophical truth claims with regard to ontology, cosmology or epistemology as materialism, empiricism or Christianity and 2) the mere absence of belief in God cannot be atheism because atheism requires actual thoughts about the God concept. Ostensibly, he glosses over these issues because he’s “got more important things to do than write that kind of tit-for-tat article, especially when I doubt anyone wants to read it in the first place.” Instead, he reiterates (and accuses me of deliberately avoiding) his point that atheism only has importance when combined with a “habit of reasonableness” through the use of skepticism and critical thinking.

I did touch on this issue in the last paragraph of my post, but I’ll elaborate a bit further here. First, if atheism is a mere absence of belief about God (and Cline asserts it’s “nothing more, nothing less”), trying to apply critical thinking and skepticism will be akin to multiplying by zero. A person (or brick) who’s an atheist because he’s never encountered the God concept has nothing to apply those methodologies to.

Second, introducing critical thinking and skepticism add nothing to the importance of atheism, at least as Cline defines “importance”: the tendency to generate specific and useful metaphysical, moral or political conclusions and convictions. Atheism by itself is impotent toward that end, he says; so let’s take the quote he uses to illustrate that point and add the alleged importance-making ingredients:

Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are objectivists — so are all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists objectivists? No. Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are opposed to abortion — so are all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists opposed to abortion? No. Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists believe in reincarnation and ghosts — so do all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists believe in reincarnation or ghosts? No. Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are materialists — does that mean that all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are materialists? No. If you are a [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheist, you can’t assume that any other self-professed [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheist shares anything with you intellectually aside from the fact that they don’t believe in any gods.

Does the addition of skepticism and critical thinking to this analysis change anything? No.

As I noted, the value of atheism is in its specific philosophical content. It’s really nonsense to assert that atheism is anything but the fairly well-defined, metaphysical and philosophical body of arguments against the existence of God. Whether atheism leads to specific conclusions on every aspect of every moral issue is not the point; what’s important is that it eliminates a good number of very poor arguments which form the foundation of some very poor philosophical and ethical religious systems.

Presumably Cline will still find these arguments intellectually and morally bankrupt. But I can’t imagine anything that could more quickly bring atheism into [further] disrepute than the way Cline talks about it. Even creationists would laugh at his response to one Ken Michel, who noted that “[w]hen a recipe for chocolate cake calls for only flour, sugar, water and chocolate, [we do not] call this an “atheist” recipe, simply because it does not say ‘Now add a pinch of God'”:

Now, strictly speaking I would say that Ken is wrong and that the recipe is, technically, “atheistic” because it is lacking any mention of gods (in the same way that a story could be called “theistic” if gods play a role or are characters). But there is a big difference between lacking any mention of gods and promoting disbelief in gods. A recipe can be atheistic without promoting atheism.

“Technically,” indeed. Technically, it’s also “stupid” to call a recipe (or a brick) atheistic. But Cline’s right about one thing: there is “a big difference between lacking any mention of gods and promoting disbelief in gods.” It’s the difference between my definition and his.

Cline has also argued that “a bit of humility” is necessary to give atheism significance. I’d argue that insufferable arrogance is more useful. But I won’t belabor the point, other than to point out that if Cline can humbly argue that he’s combination of Carl Sagan and George Smith, then I can humbly suggest that I’m Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Mahatma Gandhi rolled into one.

A Challenge

Since Cline has “more important things to do” than consider my dishonest and evil arguments, I doubt he’s read this far. But if you have, Austin, and you wanna piece of me, why not apply your formidable super-powers of skepticism and critical thinking to my response to your attacks (here and here) on the Jews for Jesus? Unlike all this wheel-spinning on metaphysics, someone might actually be interested in reading about it. So let’s have an explanation of (1) why what reform, conservative and orthodox Jews teach little babies is the “real” Judaism, as opposed to the fake and deceptive Judaism that the Jews for Jesus teach adults, (2) how Judaism and Christianity are true and/or consistent in a way that Jews for Jesusism is not, (3) how the Jews who convert to JFJ are “harmed” in a way that those who covert to (or remain in) any other religion are not, and (4) why “[i]t’s good to see Jews stand up for their heritage and religion” as opposed to applying skepticism and critical thinking to their own beliefs. A coherent response will earn you a groveling apology and a 500-word essay from me on “The Value of Religious Tolerance.”

The Color of Headlessness

December 16, 2003 | 6 Comments

From what form of baldness do decapitated people suffer? If that sounds like a nonsensical question, congratulations! You’re right, it is nonsense. If you’ve been decapitated, there is no head on your neck and, therefore, no scalp to be bald. It’s a contradiction in terms. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes this — there are still those out there who imagine that the absence of a head can sustain not only baldness, but consciousness and belief.

Case in point is Austin Cline, who continues to assert that a brick can be an atheist simply because it lacks a belief in god. Indeed, he asserts, precisely all there is to atheism is the absence of belief exhibited by a brick — it’s “no more, no less.” So not only is the failure to think about the concept of god enough to qualify one as an atheist

No, Virginia

December 15, 2003 | 1 Comment

Last week she was defending “the Santa lie” as a harmless myth, but now Michelle of And Then? is defending the Jolly Fat Man as a reality. She’s adapted the Baptist-penned 1897 “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” New York Sun editorial as the model for her proof, substituting gullible little me for the eight year old girl of the original (“Yes, Raving Atheist . . . ).

She could have easily won me over if had she only included this line:

Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Raving Atheists.”

Honestly, if she had I would have let this whole thing drop. But apparently she could not bring herself to do that. Hence, a few cold observations.

The original editorial analogized Santa to other things we “believe in” but cannot see, declaring that “[h]e exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.” Michelle rejects this Santa-as-Metaphor, giving him a more concrete existence as the historical Bishop Nicholas of Myra. She also changes this paragraph . . .

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world..

. . . to this:

Not believe in St. Nicholas! You might as well not believe in friends. You might never see him face to face in this life, but that is no proof that he does not exist. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever sense that a dearly departed friend was still with you in your heart? You couldn’t prove he was there, but no power or principality in this mortal coil could disprove that your friend is with you still and that you’ll one day meet again.

To her credit, Michelle realized that arguing that Santa is only as real as fairies wouldn’t advance her thesis very far. But even her analogy to friends breaks down once it comes to dead friends. I must say that the difference between a live friend and a deceased one is rather stark for me. Whatever affection lingers may my memory, the sudden lack of conversation, meal-sharing and all sort of other little things prove to me conclusively that my friend is indeed not with me anymore and that the chances of a future encounter are nil. Further persuading me that the my dead friend’s “presence” is at best memory is the fact that I don’t sense in my heart all of the other 100 billion humans who have died that I never got to know.

God Squad Review LXX (Interfaith Holidays)

December 15, 2003 | 6 Comments

A Jewish father and Catholic mother who have decided to raise their 3


December 14, 2003 | 3 Comments

Like many unscrupulous atheists, Catholic blogger Michelle of And Then? advocates lying to little children.

Not all Catholics believe in lying, however. As I noted last year, Eve Tushnet opposes lying.

Popping Balloons

December 12, 2003 | 11 Comments

Atheists have a rep as big meanies, and frequently get compared to the bully who pops a little kid’s balloon or announces that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. A letter today from a concerned mother to a suburban New York newspaper explores the issue, except it’s in the context of Santa-deniers from other faiths rather than atheists. Note how quickly her gentle plea for “respect” and “tolerance” evolves into a brief for a weird combination of intellectual relativism and mind control:

Three years ago, when my oldest son was 5, one of his classmates told him there was no such thing as Santa Claus. Recently my youngest son turned 6 and was informed by one of his classmates that Santa Claus isn’t real. In both cases, I explained that people believe and observe different holidays in different ways.

Why is it that people who do not celebrate Christmas feel the need to spread “the truth” about this holiday tradition by destroying the beliefs of others? My children don’t tell the children who celebrate other holidays that their beliefs and customs are based on a lie that parents have been telling their children for centuries. Please don’t take this as an issue of a specific religion being justified or proved, but also, please don’t presume it is your right to explain away something you don’t believe. Expressing opinions and beliefs should not be at the expense of other people’s values and culture, and none should take precedence over the other.

Traditions and beliefs are yours to pass onto your children, to cherish and honor however you see fit, but take care in the way you pass it onto your children. Take a moment to explain to them that we all celebrate differently, that no one way is right, wrong, factual or fictional. We should believe what we are taught, and shouldn’t have to be taught to believe.

As preliminary matter, I see nothing wrong with “lying” to young children about Santa Claus or other imaginary creatures to have fun or to reinforce good behavior. Even bad creatures (like the Boogie Man or Bad Mommy Who Gives you an Enema Tied to a Piano Leg) can be helpful in discouraging mischief. But children grow up, and eventually have to make distinctions between what is “factual or fictional.” As Bertrand Russell once observed: “In the nursery, belief in Father Christmas is useful, but grown-up people do not think that this proves Father Christmas to be real.”

I doubt that the writer is suggesting that it’s okay for ten and eleven (or sixty) year-old kids to believe in Santa Claus. Indeed, she knows he’s a “lie” and is not concerned with defending his existence at all. But she generalizes an argument against hurting the feelings of toddlers into an argument against challenging any belief at all — ever — suggesting that the expediency of perpetuating the acknowledged fiction of Santa somehow necessitates that all beliefs and values be immunized from critical examination. One grain of truth does emerge from this convoluted non-sequitur: that the business of protecting lies is essentially the business of protecting religion.

Contrary to the writer’s thesis, I do indeed believe it’s “[my] right to explain away something [I] don’t believe.” Right now, I believe that the writer is an complete idiot. And if you disagree with me, then just sit down, shut up, and believe what you are taught. You shouldn’t have to be taught to believe that what I say is true.

In Praise of Cults

December 11, 2003 | Comments Off

Rare is the day that I find myself agreeing with (or even understanding) The Secularist Critique. But his piece earlier this month about cults had more than a grain of truth to it. In this passage, he’s wondering why another Catholic blog links to a site run by “a protestant counter-cult organization”:

Now counter-cult organizations are generally secular bullies out to destroy and undermine any religious groups (usually newer ones) that appear odd to their sensibilities and even worse, groups that display cultic tendencies. Now the Catholic Church is definitely a cult, and most of the religious activities of men in history have been cultic, this is a core aspect of the religion phenomena. So, logically they could be attacking the Catholic Church as much as they go after new religious movements. I assume that they overlook it for now because it is old and established, and because under the influence of our secular culture, has unfortunately lost some of its cultic dimensions. But the point is that these groups exist to oppose any religions they think they can get away with (usually the N[ew] R[eligious] M[ovement]s), which is why it is odd for a Catholic to link to such an organization. Catholics believe in religious freedom, which means that when someone gets involved with some religion that we may personally find strange, we don’t start talking about ‘brainwashing’ and hiring kidnappers to ‘rescue’ them.

And he concludes that “Protestantism is the rejection of cult, and so the reformation was actually the mother of Western secularism.”

The Roman Catholic Church has generally thought of itself as the One True Church, so it’s refreshing to find a Catholic who realizes, like me, that Papists are no different from the Moonies, Scientologists, Wiccans, Hare Krishnas and Jews. And Protestants, too, although I guess he disagrees with that.

But TSC is right that an attack on cults is an attack on religion generally, old religion as well as new religion. They’re all false in precisely the same way. The arguments against the crazy doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses work equally well against those of the more established denominations.

What the “mainstream” religions really have against cults, however, has little to do with theological differences. Attempts may be made during a deprogramming to show the victim how the words of the Bible have been “twisted,” but that’s mere window dressing. A cult is deemed to be a cult because it’s not secularized enough, because its members take their religion so seriously that they cut themselves off from “real” [i.e. secular] life and all its modern material conveniences. The Moonie who’s given up all his worldly possessions to his church to evangelize on the street is doing precisely what Jesus did — it’s his lack of a job and car that makes him a cultist.

I don’t know if, as TSC suggests, the Catholic Church is officially opposed to deprogramming. I doubt it, since it has a lengthy and continuing history of doing what amounts to the same thing: proselytizing and converting anyone it can lay its hands on. And it’s ridiculous to suggest that religious freedom is a Catholic doctrine. It’s a secular doctrine they find useful to survive in those countries whose governments they can’t control, but the Church has no interest whatsoever in a diversity of Pagan beliefs. When Martin Luther started his reformation cult he was declared an outlaw, and the Church burned plenty of less prominent heretics at the stake.

Orthodox Jew’s Campaign Boosted by Vicious Back-Stab

December 10, 2003 | 2 Comments

New York, New York, December 10, 2003
Special to The Raving Atheist

Declaring that “my chances have actually increased today,” Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman yesterday celebrated his non-endorsement by former running mate Al Gore and vowed to focus on the Orthodox Jewish issues that have catapulted him into the low single digits in many polls.

“America is intrigued by a friendless, wandering pariah who has been cast out by even his closest confidants,” Lieberman said, alluding to this country’s embrace of another Jewish messiah. “This betrayal will emphasize how very ‘different’ I am.” The Connecticut Senator vowed to don traditional Jewish garb, including a yarmulke and tefillen, for the remainder of the campaign.

Lieberman also announced that he was rescinding his own endorsement of himself and would emphasize self-hating themes in his quest for the presidency. “My people thrive on adversity, from within and without,” he stated, noting that the Jewish population has been decimated to the brink of extinction by pogroms, holocausts and intermarriage. Lieberman said that if elected he would enter into a partnership with the Target retailing chain, having the White House with painted with their bulls-eye logo to “signal to our Muslim friends abroad that America is now officially controlled by Jewish interests.”

What’s the Frequency, Eugene?

December 9, 2003 | 6 Comments

In proposing a “Religious Equality Amendment” — which would accord religious dogma the same legal respect as formal logic — Professor Volokh threw a funny-tasting bone to us raving secularists:

This [equality of treatment for religious programs] would apply not just to funding programs, but to all programs, which would mean that exemptions for religious objectors from generally applicable laws — when such exemptions are available — would have to be available to secular conscientious objectors as well as to religious ones. I think that’s the right thing to do, and should generally pose few practical problems (except for one item that I haven’t yet figured out, which is the clergy-penitent testimonial privilege, but I set that aside for now).

The practical problems do indeed go far beyond a simple evidentiary privilege. First, the scheme lets the religious dictate whether anyone gets an exemption at all. Only in cases where there’s an existing religious sect with a particular theological objection to the law will an exemption be legislated. There will be an appearance of equality because a corresponding secular exemption will ultimately be built in, but the moral agenda will, in the first instance, be religion-driven. No exemption from the draft unless the Quakers or the Amish first raise a fuss; no exemption from insurance premiums used to fund abortions unless the Catholics first successfully lobby.

Second, it’s nearly impossible to draft a “secular conscientious objection” to a statute without completely eviscerating the law. If “God doesn’t like that law” is enough of a justification on the religious side of the equation, then “I don’t like the law” should be enough on the secular side. To require a higher standard — such as a deeply-held moral conviction — to be met by the secularist before an exemption could be invoked would be discriminatory. Why should the Native American’s belief in a sky-god trump my simple hedonism (or curiosity) as a justification for an exemption from laws criminalizing the use of peyote? Why should a Muslim woman’s objection to having her face on her driver’s license, based on the Qur’an, be entitled to more respect than my concern that I had a bad-hair day when the DMV snapped my picture? If the religious are granted exemptions on the basis of mad scriptural dogmas, mundane secular reasons should qualify as well. Broadening the exemption in this fashion, of course, would make most generally applicable laws generally inapplicable.

Third, and worse yet, there’s no way to deny equality to crazy secular reasons either. If the religious are exempted from obtaining social security numbers because they believe the identifying information is the Mark of the Beast, my fear that the black helicopters and alligators who are constantly following me would exploit such information should excuse me from having to get one too. If an inmate can get an exemption from the prison diet because G_d won’t let him eat pigs, I’m entitled to the lobster necessary to maintain my X-Ray vision. And there are some cases in which any proposed secular exemption would necessarily rest on demented reasoning; for example, an exemption corresponding to the Christian Science exemption from child abuse statutes which permits them to deprive children of simple and effective life-saving medical treatment. The secular counterpart to religious reasoning is insanity, and if the government is going to honor one form of delusion it should honor all.

Compared with these problems, Volokh’s concern over the clergy-penitent privilege is trivial. In fact, that’s an easy one: just protect any secret communicated to anyone trusted by the person invoking the privilege, or communicated under other circumstances in which an expectation of privacy arose. What’s so special about talking to a priest in a box?

God Squad Review LXIX (Getting into Heaven, Again)

December 8, 2003 | 5 Comments

Yet another Squad reader seeks advice for the afterlife:

What does “God’s justice” mean? I thought God forgives everything if we sincerely repent. I really want to end up in heaven. I’m not the most religious person in the world, but neither am I the worst. What can assure me I’ll end up in the right place?

Yet again the Squad replies in double-talk, consistent only in its complete disregard for the notion of truth (my comments interspersed in boldface):

Evangelical fundamentalists would say the only thing you need do is believe that Jesus is your Lord and savior. No acts on your part will ever open the pearly gates for your troubled soul, only faith.

The reader never self-identified as Christian, saying only that he or she was not particularly religious. Why propose evangelical fundamentalism as the first possibility? And why not Muslim evangelical fundamentalism?

We respect that view and honor it, as we honor all the ways up the mountain. We don’t feel demeaned or angered by their belief that their way is the only way. Perhaps they’re right, or perhaps they’re wrong in their interpretation of God’s word. We stand with the more theologically inclusive and humble traditions that give more credence to the importance of good works for our salvation.

As I’ve pointed out before, the “perhaps they’re right, perhaps they’re wrong” approach is a terrible cop-out


December 5, 2003 | 27 Comments


Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute . . .

Young Patrick:

But Auntie Mame, it’s one week from Thanksgiving Day now . . .

From Mame, “We Need a Little Christmas”

* * *

As of last week, no less that eight New York area radio stations were playing Christmas music around the clock, reports Newsday’s Ellis Henican. One of them, WNEW-FM, has been doing so since November 13 – – more than two full weeks before Thanksgiving. “Certainly,” Henican concludes, “the atheists aren’t charmed.”

He’s certainly wrong about this atheist.

One cannot escape from a childhood of New York Christmases without developing an irreversible addiction to holiday music. Even the crappiest 70’s Santa-Kills-Granny gag-song is enough to trigger a tearful wave of nostalgia. The association between the music and the sight of snow, Christmas lights, and colorfully-wrapped presents is impossible to shake, even after you’ve concluded that we might have been better off had The Little Drummer Boy had impaled the Jesus-baby with one of his sticks.

A whole week off school to play with toys and go sledding? Forget Pavlov and his dogs. Try The Raving Atheist and “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

I’ve been tuned exclusively to WNEW since it started the new format. I only wish it had begun on November 1st. Perhaps even mid-October, if it were cold enough. For many years no station was playing the seasonal music except for a few hours on Christmas Eve. And it was cut off promptly at midnight, even though common decency cried out for it to continue through at least New Years. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t run through Valentine’s Day or the last snow, whichever is later. Or even until I decide to take down the Christmas lights, which is generally early May.

Henican sniffs at the lack of multiculturalism on the air. “[T]here is no ‘Radio Ramadan’ this holiday season. No ‘Hanukkah of the Airwaves.’ No ‘All-Kwanzaa-All-the-Time.'” Ha ha ha ha ha ha! There’s no market for those pale imitators, all of them so transparently trying to ride on Santa’s coat-tails. It’s pure charity that the nightly newscasters even mention their names in the same breath as Christmas.

Sorry, Ramadan, you’re too creepy even for Halloween — and what do kids remember you by, a big meal and some sort of exotic sweets? Well, as a child I ate every day, and there were so many sweets hanging off the Christmas tree that I could afford to let the orange rot all over the ones in my stocking. I didn’t have to fast all day to get them, either. (P.S., your underlying religion is evil and nasty, even for a religion).

Hanukkah? Nobody’s going to take a second look at a spooky orange candelabra in the kitchen window after watching the Rockefeller Center tree lighting. One present a night doesn’t cut it either. If it’s a shirt, can you just throw it behind the couch and starting ripping open a new box? Nope — just go to sleep crying. And when you wake up, there won’t be another one under the tree (which you don’t even have) the next morning — you have to wait all day! Great memories. What better way to celebrate being trapped in a cave with a bottle of kerosene, or whatever this holiday is about. And you only have about six minutes of music to put on the air — the dreidel song and that unfunny Adam Sandler parody — looks like you’ll have to separate them with a two-month long commercial (or a one-month one if the moon’s position makes it fall on Columbus Day). But I thank your people for writing all of our music, not to mention making it all possible by martrying the birthday boy.

Kwanzaa? I’ve seen breasts in Beverly Hills less fake than this alleged holiday. Even Flag Day laughs at you. They made about 2,000 re-makes of “White Christmas” before some bored CUNY professor cobbled you together out of dog-eared encyclopedia articles, around the same time NASA was connocting the equally-artificial Tang. I guess being named after an illegal filing-sharing service helps remind people to downoad your music, if only you had any.

Now, I’m not criticizing anybody’s theology, which is something I would never do. But even Christianity will never sell its most important celebration — Easter — with only hard-boiled eggs and Peeps to back it up. Only massive bribery will win the hearts and minds, and eventually the ears, of innocent little children.


December 4, 2003 | 4 Comments

Commenting on a case before the Supreme Court involving the governmental funding of a theology degree, Dahlia Lithwick proposes that the state should be hostile towards religion and drive it from the public square. “It’s the only means of avoiding a theocracy,” she says, a point with which Professor Volokh takes issue:

Equal treatment of people and programs, without regard for whether they are religious or secular, is not theocracy. Discrimination against the religious is not required to prevent theocracy, any more than discrimination against the secular is required to prevent atheocracy.

In a separate post, Volokh proposes language for a Religious Equality Amendment:

Neither the state nor federal governments, nor any of their subdivisions, shall treat any persons or organizations differently based on their religion or religiosity, or the religion or religiosity of their programs or teachings.

Volokh asserts that this policy should be effected with no “limiting principle, although he suggests a “narrow exception” for those “few situations where such equal treatment would require the government to make theological judgments.”

Lithwick’s wrong that discrimination is the only means to avoid theocracy; assassination is very well suited to that end. And she’s wrong that treating religion equally will inevitably lead to a theocracy, as opposed to just some very poor funding decisions and general anarchy. But she’s absolutely right that religion should be disfavored and discriminated against, for the very same reason that astrology and numerology and voodoo and every other form of superstition should be: they’re worthless, false, self-contradictory, meaningless junk. To treat them “equally” would be to discriminate against worthwhile ideas and programs which do not rely on untestable and incoherent premises for their justification. So it’s silly to suggest, as Volokh does, that an “agnostacy” which refuses to distinguish between sense and nonsense is a reasonable alternative to a theocracy.

Volokh never explains why he believes religion is entitled to the equality and deference he proposes, other than some vague reverence for the principle of non-discrimination. He’s conceded before that he’s “surprised by people’s willingness to accept on such scant evidence the existence of God when they would not accept other controversial claims on such scant evidence.” Why accord the same funding and privileges to religious programs accorded to established, provable and non-controversial claims and programs? Faith healing isn’t entitled to one cent of public funds (and people who practice it should be imprisoned), but under Volokh’s system there’d be no reason to deny it the billions of dollars currently devoted to cancer research.

Nor would there be any reason for the state to discriminate between religious and secular beliefs in the public schools. Teaching that the universe is billions rather than thousands of years old discriminates against some religious viewpoints. Excluding the doctrine of transubstantiation from chemistry classes also makes a similarly impermissible judgment. It’s no answer to say that equality of treatment only means that parents will be allowed to send their children to private religious institutions, because establishing a “separate but equal” school system is discriminatory as well. Furthermore, the problem would still remain in a segregated system insofar as any state-mandated curriculum governing the subjects to be taught in the private schools would inevitably discriminate against religious doctrine.

Volokh’s “narrow exception” suffers from similar difficulties. Why, if religion is no different from anything else, is government prohibited from making theological but not secular judgments? Hargrove’s Cure-All Tonic & Elixir and Professor Hill’s Spirit Potion should be given the same shot at treating diabetes as insulin; why discriminate among all the hard-working secularists who have labored so hard to mix their cures if the religionists are given a free pass? Conversely, if religion is indeed equal to everything else, why not make those hard judgments? Everybody knows that Kosher pork and the Jews for Jesus are frauds.

In the end, Volokh provides no rationale his apparent condemnation of theocracy itself. Why avoid it, if theology is equal to any other ideology? To forbid rule by Jesus or Allah or Ganesh certainly drives those deities from the public square, suggesting they’re somehow less real than the human politicians we ordinarily elect.

Good Neighbors

December 3, 2003 | 8 Comments

Opponents of eruvs — a string and stick contraption rigged around a town to permit Orthodox Jews to carry objects outside on the Sabbath — are frequently accused of “anti-Semitism.” A town’s denial of an eruv permit is seen as just a discriminatory ruse to keep out those who are “different.” Suggestions that the newcomers might “take over” the town, close down the business district on the Sabbath and otherwise disturb the existing culture are condemned as religious bigotry.

The language changes, however, when the shoe is on the other foot. A religious community’s objection to a threatened invasion by secular outsiders isn’t condemned in the same strident terms. Last Sunday, for example, 300 Hasidic Jews rallied against against luxury real estate developments in Williamsburg on the ground that future residents will bring an “immoral” lifestyle into their neighborhood. They’re offended by properties’ ads for swimming pools and bars on the first two floors and afraid that the high rents will attract “hipsters” and “yuppies” to their religious community, making it an extension of the trendy East Village. A Rabbi Krauss warned that “anyone who wants a nightclub should go to another neighborhood,” and declared that “[t]he morality of their living is not acceptable to our people . . . [i]t’s dangerous for our children.”

No uproar anywhere over this thinly-veiled bigotry against those who are “different,” i.e., fags, fornicators and loose women. Apparently only “their people” should be allowed to live anywhere they want, spreading their nasty, exclusionary gospel of homophobia and sexism.

It should be noted that in cases where eruvs are opposed, there generally aren’t rallies demanding that the Jews keep out. Nobody asserts, as do the Hasidic, that certain people don’t have a right to move in. The eruv disputes only arise because the Orthodox insist on an official, governmental endorsement of Jewish law through the leasing of public property to maintain the structure. The Orthodox may be discouraged from moving in if they don’t get their way, but the hardship is entirely of their own making.

Also significant is how in the Williamsburg case, the Hasidic are complaining about the use of private property. The Williamsburg developers aren’t proposing to plaster the surrounding public utility poles with pictures of swimming pools and shot glasses in an eruv-like fashion. They’re simply offering their own residential space for rent. But rather than competing in the free market, the Hasidic insist that the prices be made affordable to suit their religious mission.

Gays Celebrate Religious Diversity on Campus

December 2, 2003 | 6 Comments

Boston, Massachusetts, December 2, 2003
Special to The Raving Atheist

New England’s liberal college campuses have become fertile ground for the the emerging gay Christian movement, which is attracting students in record numbers. Their message is that God accepts all people, and they are not shy about telling you how beginning a personal relationship with Jesus Christ can change your life, the same way it changed theirs. And how much fun this whole God thing can be.

Tufts graduate Julie Catalano, a lesbian, says a combination of “educated progressivism” and enlightened theology is changing the formerly uneasy relationship between religion and higher education. “We’re joining hands with all humanity, singing about Jesus from classroom to classroom,” she said. “For in Heaven, we shall all together be eternally worshipped and served by a race of yellow, ant-like, slanty-eyed slope-heads.” No longer a sign that you had checked your brain at the gate, Christianity has become not just tolerated but cool.

In an effort to stress intergroup harmony, progressives like Catalano have picked up on the campus language of inclusion and downplayed the prophesied enslavement of non-Biblical Asian hominids. But she’s concerned, in the long run, over the consequences of such expansive tolerance.

“Being drawn into conflicts over Orientalism profoundly discomforts us, for we fear that our hard-earned respect will evaporate under the public glare,” she argues. At Tufts, she says, she watched as other progressive Christians who share her views on Rice-Eaters remained silent “out of fear they would be persecuted next.” Three years later, she’s come to believe that “the price of admission” for educated progressives in a place like Boston is ultimately too high.

Orientalism is a defining issue for progressives, Catalano says, because “it calls into question what the authority is governing your beliefs and your group. Is it changing public opinion or is it Scripture?” She noted that Chinks, Japs and Gooks were not seated with the Lord at the Last Supper, but toiled invisibly in the kitchen — and fears that if progressives cede too much ground on Orientalism in the battle to preserve their welcome in intellectual hothouses like Boston, they may ultimately sacrifice their ability to win the war.

[Link via Andy of World Wide Rant via Instapundit]

God Squad Review LVIII (Father Tom has Parkinson’s Disease)

December 1, 2003 | 3 Comments

It is my sad duty to inform you that The Raving Atheist is suffering from an acute case of Reverse Stockholm Syndrome. It was precipitated by Father Tom’s own revelation in this week’s God Squad column that he has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for the past four years. I’ve been mocking the man for over a year now, but somehow I find it difficult to summon up the cruelty that comes to me so easily when the topic is murdered little boys and girls. Even reminding myself that the affliction hasn’t mellowed him very much — it didn’t stop him from declaring that atheists have no reason to live — doesn’t seem to help. But I’ll press on nonetheless, hoping that my misguided sense of moralistic duty will once again triumph over good taste and common decency.

One of the chief arguments in favor of religion is the peace it gives to the suffering. Even if Heaven is a fairy tale, why destroy someone’s hope by dashing the illusion? But despite claiming that he is “sustained by the death and resurrection of my Lord Jesus Christ,” Father Tom admits that he is “afraid of dying” and that his advice to others so situated “was not as deep and real as it should have been.” He also reveals that only since the advent of his illness has he learned “not to sweat the small stuff.” So the great comfort and perspective allegedly brought by faith appears to be somewhat overstated. Once the fear of Hell is factored in I don’t see how religion comes out ahead at all. Under Father Tom’s Catholicism that fate is a distinct possibility for even the most devout Christians, and a near certainty for everyone else (including his sidekick, Rabbi Gellman).

Father Tom candidly admits that he revealed his illness only now because he has become visibly disabled and is no longer able to keep it a secret. He attributes his initial reluctance to disclose his disease to a seemingly secular prejudice: “we do not want to appear weak in this fast-paced, competitive society.” But priests are really not part of the rat race, and I think the old religious view of disease as a form of disgrace — either as the work of demons or punishment from God — is as much to blame as anything else. No one, of course, is obligated to publicly reveal the fact of an illness, but the religious attitude can be unhealthy insofar as it discourages some to delay seeking medical help either out of either shame, or out of the misguided belief that prayer will make the symptoms go away.

And the promotion of faith over medicine is particularly harmful when pursued by those in the public eye. The Pope, also suffering from Parkinson’s, outright lied about his condition for many years. But even after conceding the obvious a few months ago, The Vatican asserted that the Pontiff’s “secret weapons” against the disease were prayer and the Madonna. In reality, he’s likely receiving the best treatment that the top specialists can afford. Similarly, while Father Tom requests prayers from his readers and states that he “now” needs to ask God to direct him to good doctors, he’s apparently already been receiving treatment at a top New York City urban teaching hospital, Beth Israel, which boasts a Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders. Merely providing the name of that “secret weapon” would, I think, have done more good than all the God-talk in the world.

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