The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2004 August

The Worst Argument of All

August 31, 2004 | 12 Comments

“An atheist has no reason to oppose murder” is one of the religious bigot’s favorite canards. Dostoevsky’s dictum that “without God, anything is permitted” is popular among superstitious know-nothings who know nothing about atheism except that they hate it and its adherents. Without an all-powerful, celestial lawgiver to dispense reward and punishments, they argue, there’s no reason to be good. Why not just kill that old lady for her money, or for no reason at all, and simply hide the body?

The real risk of detection and societal retaliation is, of course, one deterrent, as is the general undermining of one’s safety that would result if such an amoral philosophy became widespread. Another short answer is supplied by the Eurythphro dilemma, which refutes divine-command morality by demonstrating that the concepts of “good” and “bad” are either independent of God’s will or nothing more than a set of arbitrary, ever-changing whims. Killing that old lady would be good if God commanded it; and it is no answer to say that “God wouldn’t command it because it is bad” because that implies a standard of morality outside of God’s control.

Faced with these roadblocks, I’ve found, theists resort to what I consider the worst argument of all. “What would it matter,” they ask, “if you were killed painlessly in your sleep? You wouldn’t notice your death and you wouldn’t be here to notice the difference.” Often this is accompanied by the observation that you’d be in the exact same position had you been hit by a meteor, or accidentally by a car, so that there is no reason to consider murder morally worse than a death resulting from those circumstances. And to the objection that one’s death would cause pain to loved ones, the response is that they all too, and indeed to world, could be destroyed painlessly as well.

The argument is a subtle attempt to circumvent utilitarian principles by factoring out pain, but it is morally meaningless because it factors out the loss of future pleasure, and life itself. Of course, in a dead universe consisting of nothing but colliding rocks there is no pain — but there’s no reason to discuss morality at all in that context. It is only when life is introduced into the equation that any discussion can take place. And once it is, the potential for happiness is a sufficient argument against murder, whether or not the killing is accompanied by pain. The fact that the victim is asleep, or a barely conscious infant, or a completely senseless person who is anesthetized or in a reversible coma, is irrelevant in view of what still is lost.

Certainly if a black hole swallowed the Earth while we all slept the result would be no different than its vaporization in a nuclear holocaust. But morality is not only about life, but intent. The fact that our mortality may be proven by an accident is no reason to prove it ourselves.

And the religious are in no position to raise these points at all because it is their own philosophy of the eternal soul that obliterates the distinction between life and death and renders murder, or any moral wrong, impossible. There is no loss to me at all if I “die” only to resurface in another realm or another body. So it astonishes me that to this day the worst of all arguments is still advanced by even the best of all theists.

Greek Gods

August 30, 2004 | 20 Comments

God was apparently busy in Greece over the past few weeks, helping Olympic Athletes win and lose. Kevin Beck of Cognitive Emesis supplies a comprehensive round-up, with analysis, of all the jock God talk. My favorite quote is from marathoner Dan Browne, who said . . .

Go read it.

Fire Fighting

August 29, 2004 | 10 Comments

Unfortunate, but necessary:

The kidnapping of two journalists in New York has injected new tension into America’s debate over reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools just as the country was hoping for a smooth start to the school year this week.

The United Atheist Alliance has given the United States 48 hours to ban the controversial practice of requiring students to acknowledge that their country is “under God.”

As government leaders scrambled to strategy meetings on Sunday morning, it seemed unlikely they would stop the practice, which has wide support among American voters. Even many atheists quietly support it as a way to appease fundamentalist Christians here.

While I generally frown on such tactics, I believe they’re quite justified here. The schools are going far beyond just banning disruptive “fuck god” or “I am an atheists” tee shirts, which the kids can always put on once they get home. Rather, they’re engaged in forcible brainwashing, effectively holding the students’ minds hostage. Sometime you have to fight fire with fire.

Premeditated Lies

August 27, 2004 | 9 Comments

My criticism of the Catholic Church’s endorsement of exorcism and posthumous faith healing is “hysterical” and unfounded, says livejournal user pouk23:

I admit it. I read The Raving Atheist blog, for the same reason I get worldnetdaily e-mail updates. It’s hysterical and reminds me all too much of a lot of the atheists I used to associate with, who recoiled in UTTER HORROR!!! at anything that might in any vague way might somehow imply any sort of spiritual faith. Thus it is today with ran[t]ing about how terrible it is that the Exorcist movies exist because it supports “superstition” aka Catholicism. I especially like how he said that people who were canonized as Saints were canonized due to “premeditated lies.” As usual, proof is in short supply because anti-supernatural assumptions are all you need to accuse the Church. One might say the same thing about religious believers — but I don’t think many religious believers claim to be paragons of truth, reason and the scientific method. I know I don’t, in any case, and anyone who thinks faith of any sort is ‘rational’ is in error.

What I recoiled from yesterday were not some vague implications of spiritual faith. Rather, I recoiled from some very explicit factual claims made by Father James LeBar, the Chief Exorcist of the Archdiocese of the City of New York. He was not merely speculating about invisible beings in unseen realms (bad enough as that is) but reporting, allegedly, upon the direct evidence of his senses. Fr. Lebar, who conducts 20-25 exorcisms per year, claimed among other things that he “had a person who rose up above the pews of the church and was suspended there for a few minutes.”

If Fr. LeBar is not psychotic, there are only two possibilities here: he is lying, in a pathological sort of way, or he is telling the truth. There is no in between. LeBar could not merely have been “mistaken” that he witnessed a human body floating in a room with no visible means of support. It is an either/or situation. So let us consider the enormous consequences of each possibility.

(1) Father LeBar is telling the truth. If Father LeBar saw what he says, the world is on the verge of an amazing revolution. All he needs to do is videotape the next instance of levitation, and demonstrate to the world that Roman Catholicism is true and all other religions are false. Islamofascists will fall to their knees in the face of this incontrovertible proof of the Vatican’s supremacy. No need for separation of church and state. Indeed, no room for any other belief.

Videotape can be doctored, of course. But LeBar also claims to have “interrogated” demons, who were sufficiently articulate so as to provide the their names, and the date and time of their departure from the possessed victim. Certainly, these remarkable creatures


August 26, 2004 | 12 Comments

The new Exorcist movie apparently stinks, and I’m glad.

Not that I don’t like a good horror movie. I even enjoyed the original Exorcist. But it was, at its heart, a glorification of religion, and, in particular, of a noxious form of orthodox Catholicism. It promoted the worst form of magicky superstition. In its version of reality, humans had all the moral agency of puppets; evil was caused by demons that could only be vanquished by faith in Christ and the invocation of His name. The Church had the monopoly on virtue; priests were exalted as superheroes, spiritual magicians with supernatural power derived by direct contact with God.

As an atheist I can easily disregard all the cultural baggage and enjoy a religious-themed film just like any other Scary Monster flick. But such movies leave their own new baggage with others. People who watch Mothra or Night of the Living Dead don’t leave the theater more convinced of the existence of giant insects or zombies than when they entered. But there’s always enough “could it be so?” realism mixed into the clergy action/adventure genre to convince the gullible.

And inevitably, the Church rushes in to expoit the situation. Exorcism was all but extinct in the United States in the 1960’s, but the interest created by the release of the The Exorcist in 1973 led many dioceses to add exorcists to the staffs. New York has four; the Chief Exorcist, James LeBar, goes about pontificating as an expert on the matter, also having the audacity to fancy himself as an authority on cults. And he gets away, virtually unchallenged, with nonsense like this (from a Court TV online chat session):

boberrybisquit asks: Have you ever seen someone levitate like in the movie?

Father James LeBar: If the devil were to make people levitate, the way its shown in “The Exorcist,” movie I think everyone would be so scared that the devil’s purpose would be totally frustrated. I myself have never seen a major levitation in the course of an exorcism. However, in one case in the preliminary investigation, I had a person who rose up above the pews of the church and was suspended there for a few minutes.

* * *

halfshellheroes asks: Does the person’s voice really change completely like in the movie?

Father James LeBar: Very much so. I have heard the voice of an ancient person, a woman, a child, a man, all coming from the same person on different occasions.

* * *

Father James LeBar: No, I have never seen the devil leave. We know that he leaves because he gives us a pre-selected sign of his departure. As the demon is interrogated at the beginning of the ritual, the priest asks him to state his name and the date and hour of his departure, along with, as we mentioned, some sign.

Court TV/TIME_Host: What is that sign?

Father James LeBar: The sign of departure can vary. In one exorcism the windows would open and it looked like the devil flew out. On one occasion it was a great noise, in another situation the woman relaxed completely and slipped onto the floor and slept for a bit.

* * *

kimberleah_01 asks: how does one become possessed?
sillygrl21_99 asks: How do you become possessed? I mean, do you have to like open the doors of Hell or something? How can demons just enter your body one day?

Father James LeBar: Well, for someone to get possessed, they have to give up God. However some of our greatest saints have been tormented by the Devil but never given in to his taunts and torments. The primary way that a devil does possess someone is that they find someone who has opened the door to evil, and then they try to destroy things in that fashion.

* * *

himynameischristina44706 asks: Can a person become possessed again after you cast out the demon?

Father James LeBar: Well, if you read the gospels, he goes around looking for a place to go. If he doesn’t find a place, he goes back to where he started to see if anything has changed. If nothing has changed to cause him not to want to go there, he might easily return and bring with him seven others.

The canonization of every Catholic saint, of course, is accompanied by the same sort of premeditated lies concerning miraculous, posthumous cures performed by the candidate. Of course, if even a word of this were true, it would be cause to declare the incontestable truth of Roman Catholicism and the falsity of all other beliefs. Stop the presses!

Conservative Orthodoxy

August 25, 2004 | 21 Comments

A new twist on an old insult, in Mark Goldblatt’s column yesterday on “Liberal Orthodoxy”:

According to the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” By that criteria, liberals must count nowadays as among the most faithful people in America.

Goldblatt then provides four specific examples of alleged liberal beliefs he considers to be held irrationally: (1) that President Bush prevented blacks from voting in the 2000 election, (2) that Bush tricked Americans into blaming Iraq for 9/11, (3) that Bush accused those who criticized the War on Terror of lacking patriotism, and (4) that the Patriot Act has violated the rights of American citizens. In each case, Goldblatt faults liberals for fail to produce evidence, or even quotes, supporting these allegations. He concludes:

Liberalism, in its current form, seems less and less like a political viewpoint and more and more like a religious orthodoxy. Its articles of faith persist in the absence of tangible evidence. Its tolerance of dissent is minimal. And its antipathy towards non-believers is seething.

It’s unusual for a conservative to attack political views because they are based upon unreasoning religious faith. That is ordinarily the province of the Atheist Left. And it’s especially surprising to see scripture employed to make the point. The clear implication is that the holy word of God is a dangerous nonsense, and that in particular, the Biblical call for faith without evidence is bad advice which should be ignored.

Religious conservatives do, of course, use a similar argument. A common refrain is that “atheism is a religion.” But in that context it’s pure hypocrisy and self-contradiction: an attempt is made to defend attacks on religion by asserting that atheism is bad by virtue of being religious. Goldblatt, on the other hand, is consistent: he’s trashing liberalism, not atheism, and is attacking religion rather than defending it.

Or so I thought. It all seemed a little fishy to me, particularly since Goldblatt concluded with two allegations

The Real Fake Stuff

August 24, 2004 | 9 Comments

Wikipedia has an interestingly schizophrenic entry on Kabbalah. After a lengthy discussion of the “real” Kabbalah, there’s this dismissal of the fake stuff:

A recent modern revival has been initiated by the Kabbalah Center founded by Philip Berg in Los Angeles in 1984, and run by him and his sons Yehuda and Michael. With a number of branches worldwide, the group has attracted many non-Jews, including entertainment celebrities such as Demi Moore, Madonna, Mick Jagger and Britney Spears. Reactions from organized Jewish groups have been almost uniformly negative, and other critics have accused it of being a “cult”.

As evidence of the fakery, the article cites to the Village Voice “expose” I discussed last week, plus a Haaretz article containing this dis:

True kabbala[h] is far from being an exact science, but the connection between it and the “kabbala[h]” of Madonna and the dubious characters associated with it is about the same as the connection between astrology and astronomy. Or a one American rabbi put it, like the difference between “Barney” and a prehistoric dinosaur.

Nevertheless the Wikipedia piece ends with this observation:

More recently many Modern Orthodox Jews have not ascribed to Kabbalah, seeing mysticism as inferior to philosophical rationalism, and Kabbalah has been rejected outright by most Jews in the Conservative and Reform movements. In the 1960s, Rabbi Saul Lieberman of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, who was widely known for his expertise in the Talmud and rabbinic literature, is reputed to have introduced a lecture by Scholem on Kabbalah with a statement that Kabbalah itself was nonsense, but the study of Kabbalah was scholarship. This view has become popular among many Jews, who view the subject as worthy of study, but who do not accept Kabbalah as teaching literal truths.

So even the real Kabbalah is rejected as “nonsense” by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, i.e., all Jews. Unless, of course, it’s studied it in a scholarly way. I guess this means that if you study Barney seriously enough, you’re doing paleontology.

Aren’t They Annoying

August 23, 2004 | 18 Comments

Some (alleged) atheists can be so annoying.

Remember: I’ve been IP banned from his site for my “hate rhetoric.”

God Squad Review C (Jews/Angels/Kabbalah)

August 23, 2004 | 6 Comments

“Do Jews believe in angels?” asks a Squad reader from Wisconsin. Without even conducting a poll, the Squad responds:

Yes. Check out Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12). In the post-biblical period, particularly in the Jewish mystical writings of the Kabbalah, angelology has an even more prominent place. There, four ministering angels are closest to God: Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel. They correspond to the four faces in the strange mystical vision found in the Book of Ezekiel, chapter one.

Our favorite Jewish angel legend is that we all have two angels sitting on our shoulder all the time and when we do a good deed, one angel shouts our praise, and when we do a bad deed, the other angel shouts our shame.

Given the explanation that follows, I don’t see how they could have really meant “yes.” First, the angels in Jacob’s dream are, well, part of a dream, and it’s a pretty crazy dream

Dalai Lama Threatens Non-Reincarnation

August 22, 2004 | 8 Comments

Dharamsala, India, August 21, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Upping the ante in a bid for Tibetan independence, the 14th Dalai Lama has hinted to Chinese officials that he may chose not to be reborn after his death.

The Dalai Lama, now 69, has headed a government-in-exile in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala since he fled Tibet with 60 tons gold and jewels in 1959. He has negotiated without success for years to end Tibet’s repressive, authoriarian Chinese rule and restore to the country to its former status as a
smiling, peasant-enslaving right-wing theocracy gently ruled by iron-fisted God-men. If he fails to reappear in the next life, the Chinese will have no figurehead with whom to negotiate and could face unrest from young Tibetans espousing violent resistance.

In a show of solidarity, Tibet House co-founder Richard Gere has threatened to reincarnate as a gerbil and plague the anuses of the communist leadership for three consecutive lifetimes. Chinese President Hu Jintao has vowed to counter this move by returning as a cat or python.


August 20, 2004 | 2 Comments

Does crazy count as a religion?

“JohnnyontheSpot,” message board

Congress Cracks Down on Unregulated Exorcisms

August 20, 2004 | 6 Comments

Washington, DC, August 20, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Responding to a Wisconsin court ruling which required a minister to obtain formal training in exorcism after he killed a child in a botched ceremony, Congress yesterday enacted legislation to standardize the practice of demon-expulsion.

The act, entitled Regulate Exorcism Like Intelligent Grown-ups Instead of Nitwits (RELIGION), empowers the judiciary to conform the treatment of childhood mental illness with authoritative Catholic doctrine on evil spirit-possession.

“Putting RELIGION in the courthouse will revolutionize of the treatment schizophrenia, psychosis, autism, ADD, atheism, depression and other devil-based conditions by taking it out of the hands of witch-doctors, shamans, snake-handlers, maintenance workers and medical professionals,” said Representative O’Bannion of Wisconsin. “These most vulnerable of children will be placed where they belong — in the hands of Catholic priests.”

O’Bannion praised the sentence handed down Wednesday by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge/Benedictine oblate Jean DiMotto, who barred a former custodian from killing autistic children in strip-malls for ten years unless he earlier completed an approved course in casting out Satan. “That poor child would be in Heaven now instead of Purgatory had that janitor received proper schooling in the use of holy water, relics and crucifixes,” said the Congressman. “And those demons would be trapped in the bodies of a herd of drowned swine instead of running wild in Radio Shack, Yogurt & Such and Kay-Bee Toys.”

The RELIGION act does not run afoul of state/church separation principles because the regulatory body is broad-based ecumenical panel whose Vatican-selected members are drawn from such diverse dioceses as Eau Claire, Manitowoc, Fond du Lac and Sheboygan. No religious preference is involved because the code of Cannon Law authorizes exorcism to be performed not only on the faithful, but also over non-Catholics and those who have been excommunicated from the Church.

The act is the first exorcism-related legislation since 1973’s “Regan’s Law,” which mandated window guards for all second-floor bedroom excision rituals after an elderly Jesuit priest was hurled down on to a Georgetown sidewalk by the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu. That law also requires that the minor-keyed, piano-and-glockenspiel tubular bell theme music that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck be performed in the background during each rite. Currently pending is a preventative medicine heathcare bill which would vest traditional Kabbalists with the sole authority to distribute red bendele strings to ward off the Evil Eye.

This is an American Court?

August 19, 2004 | 16 Comments

A Milwaukee minister killed an eight-year old boy in a botched religious ceremony. Sentence: Two and a half years, $1,224.75 in restitution. And this:

The sentence bars Ray Anthony Hemphill, 46, a former maintenance worker with no religious schooling who conducted services in a strip-mall sanctuary, from attempting any more exorcisms during the next 10 years without formal training in the practice.

So he can do it with formal training in the practice.

This is an American court. This is an American court. This is an American court.

Via American Samizdat, who says more than I could have said about this, better than I could have said it, and it least as angrily.

Update: Reader Troy has answered the question posed by the title of this post, and the answer is “no.” Judge Jean DiMotto actually runs a Papal Court:

When Jean DiMotto was elected Milwaukee County Circuit Judge, she realized that her childhood dream of becoming a priest was being fulfilled. “I view my judgeship as my vocation. My ordination was my investiture. My courtroom is my church. I wear a vestment — my robe,” she told NCR [National Cahtolic Reporter].

When DiMotto enters the courtroom from her chambers — the sacristy behind the courtroom — and ascends to the bench, people stand as they do when the priest processes to the altar. She views the court’s public gallery much as she does the pews of a church.

Attorneys are allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the courtroom, which is in front of a railing not unlike the Communion rail of old. Her staff serves as acolytes, assisting her as she performs the rituals of her role.

:: Head Spinning 180 Degrees::
:: Vomiting::

It’s a Kult!

August 19, 2004 | 2 Comments

The Village Voice has published a shocking expose of the Kabbalah Centre that’s ensnared Madonna and Brittney Spears

The Meaning of Life

August 18, 2004 | 19 Comments

The laws of chemistry and physics being what they are, us carbon-based, DNA and protein organisms have a finite lifespan. Not that it matters, but atheist Julian Baggini explains why this is not necessarily a cause for a lot of sad buzzing in the Hive:

Take the idea that life can only have meaning if it never ends. It is certainly not the case in general only endless activities can be meaningful. Indeed, usually the contrary is true: there being some end or completion is often required for an activity to have any meaning. A football match, for example, gains its purpose only because it finishes after 90 minutes and there is a result. An endless football match would be a meaningless as a kick around in the park. Plays, novels, films, and other forms of narrative also require some kind of completion. When we study we follow courses that end at a determinate point and don’t go on forever. Take virtually any human activity and you find that some kind of closure or completion is required to make them meaningful.

This line of thought can make us wonder whether life would actually be less meaningful if it were eternal. What would be the point of doing anything if we had an eternity to live? Why bother trying to do anything, such as improve your golf swing, if you’ve always got time to do it later? Isn’t it rather that the knowledge of mortality, the sound of “times winged chariot hurrying near, is what drives us and makes getting on with life meaningful at all?

One thing I’ve noticed about those who insist that only an eternal life can have meaning, is that they have no problem judging a person’s life as “meaningful” or “good” or “happy” based upon finite achievements. But why praise Mother Theresa at all, if her fleeting 87 years of good deeds cannot properly be judged outside of the context of what she shall do in the next infinity? Indeed, for all we know, God gave her place in Heaven to Hitler in view of his last-minute repentance.

I also wonder why no demerits are given for past non-existence. Maybe I’ll be eternal going forward, but there’s that huge infinity-year gap on my resume going backwards from my birth. Many theists would consider God to be imperfect if he hadn’t always existed; doesn’t that big hole in our infinitude render us something less than fully meaningful?

Finally, I can envision many forms of technically “eternal” existences which wouldn’t count as meaningful at all. A creature could achieve consciousness every fifty trillion years, burp for ten seconds, and continue that course of re-awakening and burping forever with the consequence that its sum total of consciousness moments were infinite. But that would hardly be more significant than, say, writing a Catholic blog, lapsing into unconsciousness for eight hours, and continuing that pattern of mindless drudgery for the rest of one’s existence.

Religious Employers

August 17, 2004 | 46 Comments

Should a religious employer be legally entitled to fire a worker for violating a tenet of the employer’s religion, at or away from the workplace?

Leveling the Playing Field

August 17, 2004 | 4 Comments

It wasn’t illegal religious discrimination for a Muslim-owned company to fire an employee for eating pork on the premises, concludes Professor Volokh. He’s probably right, the law being what it is. And his rationale — that the law is merely leveling the playing field between religion and nonreligion — is at first blush persuasive:

An employer may still discriminate based on their employee’s conduct — food preferences, sexual preferences, and the like — because of the employer’s beliefs, whether those beliefs are religious or secular.

* * *

There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, a contrary rule would itself be religious discrimination. If a secular employer is free to fire an employee for violating the employer’s secular views about morality or decency (e.g., a secular employer fires an employee for adultery, for homosexuality, or for eating dog meat, which the employer finds disgusting or immoral), that’s not illegal religious discrimination. There’s just nothing religious there. Likewise, a religious employer should be equally free to fire an employee for violating the employer’s religious views about morality or decency (e.g., for adultery, for homosexuality, or for eating pig meat.

The problem is, as the Volokh post elsewhere confirms, that all things being equal religion always wins. Secular employers do not have an absolute right to enforce their secular views about morality, or even to enforce workplace rules, against religious employees, but must accommodate the religious beliefs. And as against a religious employer, the secular employee always loses; any of the boss’s religious beliefs can be asserted to terminate the employment, and no countervailing secular view of the employee can be raised to defeat it. There’s an exception, Volokh notes, where both sides of the relationship are religious: if the employee, for example, cites a religious reason for eating pork, she must be accommodated despite an employer’s Muslim prohibition against the practice. I don’t know if an Episcopalian homosexual worker could prevail against his employer in similar circumstances by asserting that God commanded him to enter into the relationship; but even if he could, this would hardly be fair to the gay atheist who was not inclined to justify his love with some idiotic sky-god rationale.

So the playing field is not level at all. Whether asserted by the employer or the employee, the religious beliefs are always respected and the nonreligious beliefs are always ignored. The religious employer may impose its practices upon its secular employees and a religious employee may practice her religion in contravention of her employer’s secular beliefs.

Volokh seems to, in part, defend this state of affairs by making a belief/action distinction, but it’s completely illusory. Specifically, he defends the Muslim employer discussed above by asserting that pork-eating employee “was being discriminated against based on her nonreligious actions, not based on her religious beliefs.” But even if the employee were acting upon a religious belief requiring her to eat pork, it would not be against that belief that the Muslim employer’s discrimination would be directed. It would still be against the action of eating pork, and only insofar as that transgressed the Muslim’s own belief. Indeed, the employer might not even know what the worker’s rationale was for eating the BLT; he could be completely ignorant, or indifferent, as to whether it was being eaten because a pork-loving God commanded it or simply because the employee liked the taste. But yet again, in that situation an employee’s religious justification would prevail and the secular employee’s reasons would be rejected.

And note that it doesn’t really matter whether the conduct takes place on or off the job. A Christian employer may fire a homosexual worker simply for being gay, without waiting until the employee is caught fornicating upon a conference room table. Nor, presumably, would the Muslim employer be constrained to fire only those who ate pork in the workplace lunchroom. Eating pork at a weekend family picnic would be enough. Once again, in each case the employee might raise his or her own religion as an excuse for the conduct, while the secular employee could be made subject to Muslim law in every aspect of his life.

So leveling the religious and secular playing fields cannot be the rationale for the scheme of things that Volokh defends. What’s really behind it is the completely arbitrary notion that discrimination against religion is automatically bad, and that the religious beliefs of employers and employees must be protected against (and enforced against) secular beliefs. A Jewish employee can fire an atheist for feeding his kids a ham sandwich, but an atheist employer could not terminate a Christian Scientist for killing his children with faith healing.

Reasons and Signs

August 16, 2004 | 5 Comments

“There are many girls in our community who are not strict with the laws, but these girls were.” By “the laws,” what’s meant here is the laws of the Hasidic Jewish community. The two girls in question, aged 12 and 14, knew what God wanted them to eat, how He wanted them to dress, how He wanted them to pray. Those laws were the important ones, the ones to worry about. Be horrified if the wrong sort of meat touches your lips; piously scold those who, even accidentally, eat that which is unclean.

The laws of man, however, were not so important. Unworthy of strict observance. Mere trivialities; rules of a game to be ignored, circumvented, even treated with contempt. Not “our” laws. And so their two young bodies were found, drowned, at the bottom of an indoor swimming pool at a vacation resort in Virginia. Although they”were not known to be very good swimmers,” they had snuck out into the night, past a 6-foot-tall fence and an electronic gate. They were alone, and no lifeguard was on duty.

Time that could have been used learning to swim spent studying the Torah. You’d think with all that studying they’d come up with some definite, or at least consistent, understanding of God. But all the rabbi could say was, “We don’t always understand or realize the reasons of God’s ways, but who are we to question?” One mourner echoed the notion that “everything has a reason,” but another saw it a little differently: “This is a sign that something has to change in our world, in our community.”

So it all comes down to reasons and signs. Maybe there was a reason: They didn’t know how to swim. Maybe there was a sign: No Lifeguard on Duty.


August 15, 2004 | 2 Comments

Today is the Dormition of the Mother of God, also known as the Assumption of the Virgin. Basically, it’s about how Mary (Jesus’ mom) died and got to Heaven. Below is how it was described today in the bulletin of a large New York Orthodox church. With all the cloud action it reminds me of Mario Brothers, except with Jews instead of Koopa Troopas:

Mary, who lived in Bethlehem with three other virgins after the Ascension of Christ, prayed that she might depart to join her Son in heaven. On a Friday, the Apostle John, in Ephesus, was caught up in a cloud and placed at Mary’s bedside, where he and the three virgins venerated her. On the same day the Holy Spirit commanded all the apostles both living and dead to mount up upon clouds and gather from the ends of the earth at Mary’s house in Bethlehem. When they had assembled about the Virgin, the Holy Spirit transferred them all on a cloud to the house of the Virgin in Jerusalem where they might escape the plotting of the Jews.


For five days the Apostles sang praises without ceasing. On the Lord’s Day, Christ appeared sitting upon the throne of the cherubim and accompanied by a host of angels. The time having come for her death, the Lord spread forth His unstained hands and received Mary’s holy and spotless soul.

Cover Up

August 14, 2004 | 8 Comments

More female athletes are participating in this year’s Olympics than ever before, notes Amir Taheri in today’s New Post (link not available) but the number of Muslim women in the games is the lowest since 1960. The state-owned television networks in Muslim countries have been instructed to limit coverage of women’s events to a minimum:

Fear of Muslim viewers seeing bare female legs and arms on television is also shared by theologians in several Arab states. Sheik Yussuf al-Qaradawi, and Egyptian theologian based in Qatar, claims that female sport is exploited as a means of undermining “divine morality.”

Iran, says Taheri, is sending only one female athlete, in full hijab. Other Muslim states aren’t sending any at all. Unlike the West, they’ve thought about this quite a bit, and gotten their priorities straight:

“The question how much of a woman’s body could be seen in public is one of the two or three most important issues that have dominated theological debate in Islam for decades,” says Mohsen Sahabi, a Muslim historian. “More time and energy is devoted to this issue than to economic development or scientific research.”

Even so, the experts disagree:

Islamist theologians are divided on how much of a woman’s body can be exposed in public. The most radical, the Sitris, insist that women should be entirely covered from head to toe, including faces and fingers. The less radical Hanbalis say a woman would be covered all over, but recommend a mask with apertures for the eyes and the mouth. (A version of this, known as the burqa, was imposed on Afghan women by the Taliban).

But there’s a consensus on at least one issue:

The Khomeinist version of the hijab, invented in the 1970’s and now popular in many countries, including the United States, covers a woman’s entire body but allows her face and hands to be exposed. Hijab theoreticians agree on one claim: a woman’s hair emanates dangerous rays that could drive men wild with sexual lust and thus undermine social peace.

Catholic Nominee Condemns Critic’s Shocking Anti-Catholic, Anti-Semitic, Homophobic Remarks

August 13, 2004 | 1 Comment

Washington, DC, August 12, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

A book critical of John Kerry’s war record was written by “a virulent anti-Catholic bigot,” the Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign has charged. Jerry Corsi, co-author of “Unfit for Command,” has also been forced to apologize for anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks he posted on a right-wing online forum. The Kerry campaign called Corsi’s Web chat postings “disgusting,” and spokesman Chad Clanton said that “[i]t says something about the smear campaign against John Kerry that it has stooped to enlist a hatemonger.”

In one entry on, Corsi, a self-described “devout Catholic,” launched the following vicious smear against the Church:

So this is what the last days of the Catholic Church are going to look like. Buggering boys undermines the moral base and the lawyers rip the gold off the Vatican altars. We may get one more Pope, when this senile one dies, but that’s probably about it.

“To imply that the pedophilia is immoral, that the Church faces legal liability for condoning it, or that the Vatican owns valuable property subject to judgment liens is libelous,” said Clanton. “And the implication that the Holy Father has lost any of his mental acuity is unworthy of comment.”

Corsi’s anti-Semitic comments were even more explosive:

After he married TerRAHsa, didn’t John Kerry begin practicing Judaism? He also has paternal grandparents that were Jewish. What religion is John Kerry?

Kerry has, to the contrary, stated that he is a “believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic” and has called the Church a “bedrock of values, of sureness about who I am.” Although the revelation last year that his paternal grandparents were born Jewish and converted to Catholicism has triggered “some fascination” with the candidate and “some frustration over not knowing more about his religious heritage,” it was Kerry’s brother Cameron who converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish woman. “To suggest that John Kerry himself has joined the ranks of the Christ-killers that the Church has condemned for two thousand years invokes the ugly phrase

Monkey Business

August 12, 2004 | 4 Comments

I can forgive the obituary cartoonists who portrayed the atheist Katharine Hepburn in heaven. The natural assumption is that everyone has some religion. They were just too lazy to confirm the facts.

But everyone knows that animals can’t be religious. Lacking a concept of God, all unreasoning beasts are, at a minimum, weak atheists. So there’s absolutely no excuse for this abomination:


Perhaps Mrs. Fay, whatever her faith, shouldn’t be penalized from entering the Pearly Gates merely because of the godlessness of her suitor. And perhaps some religions do reward those who, like Kong, sacrifice their lives out of love for humanity — even if that love is rejected. But this is simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

Probably the Same Reason I Want to Beat the Shit Out of Mark Shea

August 11, 2004 | 47 Comments

Why would a materialist want a criminal to suffer — if that were not necessary to (and perhaps even jeopardized) the offender’s rehabilitation? Why would a materialist care about the reason the criminal reforms, so long as he does behave? Why would it matter, to a materialist, that a criminal became full of repentance and contrition due to a belief in God or Jesus or Allah or Wotan?

Mark Shea thinks I’ve failed to grasp the problem, or to account for the hypocrisy of my materialism:

Raving Atheist, despite protests to the contrary, seem to care very much that the compound of DNA and protein called “Terry Nichols” not merely be pacified and rendered harmless, but that he be *blamed* and punished for his crimes (as if he *sinned* or something) and that, quite apart from whether he is pacified, that Cosmic Justice be satisfied. It makes him angry that Nichols might find peace. It disgusts him that he thinks he has peace with God. Whereas, if he were a dog, I doubt whether it would matter at all whether the dog were at peace or why, so long as he didn’t bite. Evidently, RA’s not quite as good a materialist as he thought he was.

As I tried to explain previously, materialism doesn’t prefer one theory of justice or another, any more than immaterialism does. If there was no matter, and humans were merely forms of disembodied consciousness, we’d still be angry at someone who extinguished 161 of our fellow ethereal minds. Some of us might wish to rehabilitate him through kindness and reason, and others might make him read Not Quite Catholic But Still Enjoying It. But our taste for reform over vindictiveness wouldn’t depend on whether we had bodies or not. We might lose our taste for either if our bodies or spirits were eternal (for how could anyone harm anyone in such a universe?), but again, that wouldn’t turn on whether we were bodies or spirits.

Shea implies, oddly, that the desire for vengeance (above and beyond rehabilitation) implies a belief in some “higher” being. This is surprising, because I’ve always thought of revenge as some lower, primitive form of justice. Far from being “cosmic justice” it’s more of an animalistic reflex, like a dog snapping at the rock that hit him, even though it’s incapable of causing him further harm.

I don’t deny that that I feel at times, but my unreasoning, vindictive anger is hardly proof of God or Jesus or immaterialism. It’s something that I know should be suppressed, precisely because it’s base and useless and counterproductive. But it emerges from us all when we are hurt, and especially badly hurt, as when someone blows up a building and kills 161 of our friends. Or even when someone is merely annoying, when all reason fails and someone obstinately and repeatedly refuses to grasp the simplest of arguments.

Reading Between the Lines

August 11, 2004 | 14 Comments

Talk about “lightening up.” My commentary on mass murderer Terry Nichol’s God-and-Jesus-packed sentencing speech consisted of all of five short lines. Between those lines was nothing but the speech itself. But Mark Shea of Not Quite Catholic But Still Enjoying It saw quite a bit more. He’s labeled me an “inconsistent materialist,” opining that that “a *true* materialist would simply let all the supernatural stuff roll off his back and focus on only one thing: is the organism now less of a danger to fellow organism than he was before?” He elaborates:

This would appear to be the goal of truly rationalist and materialist penal system: turning dangerous organism into organisms of some benefit (or at least of no danger) to the Community.

* * *

Yet, the Raving Atheist is not happy (not that he usually is happy). Nope, the Engine of Love Powered by Truth appears to have some inexplicable mystical notion of Cosmic Justice which the DNA and Protein Compound known as “Terry Nichols” has not, in his view, received. Instead of being content that the organism has been pacified and rendered harmless (and even possibly productive for the Hive) he seems to want to insist on punishing the organism anyway. He wants the organism to suffer more (even at the risk of taking away the placebo effect of “peace” and making him again a danger to himself and others).

Well, at least Raving Atheist has a rudimentary mystical sense of Justice. It will be a long while, I suppose, before he arrives at a mystical notion of mercy.

Justice is indeed a tricky business, as I conceded earlier this week in my post at PurpleCar. Fixing a punishment which adequately accounts for the defendant’s moral liability, his prospects for rehabilitation, and the harm he has done to society presents many difficult questions. But I don’t understand at all the meaning or relevance of Shea’s charge of “materialism.”

Materialism ordinarily denotes the theory that everything that exists is physical, or otherwise reducible to matter. However, Shea seems to equate materialism with utilitarianism, and, in a particular, a purely rehabilitative theory of justice. Why he believes that materialism favors rehabilitation over the other available models — deterrence, retribution or some combination or permutation of all three — isn’t clear. Nor is it clear why materialism must be abandoned in favor of a “mystical sense of justice” before retribution can be embraced, or how the problems associated with the various justice models disappear if we assume we are spirits rather than bodies or some blend of the two.

If, as Shea later implies, what he’s talking about is a strict reductivist form of materialism whereby all human acts are predetermined by prior physical states, there’s probably little use in talking about any theory of justice at all. But I never said a thing about materialism or determinism. It’s Nichols who, with Shea’s apparent endorsement, embraces determinism, and of a immaterial sort: he declared that God fixed the sentencing phase of his trial by controlling the conduct of the jurors, a path He inexplicably eschewed in permitting McVeigh’s execution, and more pertinently, the deaths of 161 innocents.

Justice obviously has little application in that arbitrary, whim-driven scenario. And it makes even less sense if we assume an extreme form of spiritual immaterialism in which Nichol’s “victims” actually survived the complete destruction of their physical bodies to ascend to the Heavenly Disneyland. He could hardly be punished for doing them that favor. Even if some of them went to hell for having not accepted Christ at the time of death, that’s their fault, not Nichol’s; and in any event, it’s something that God could presumably remedy if He so wished. There are other problems with the Christian scheme of justice, which I’ve outlined here and elsewhere. If Shea wants to deconstruct this atheist he should address those objections instead of raising the strawman charge of materialism.

I am a materialist in the sense that I believe that mind and matter are inextricably linked, and in that I deny that consciousness can exist disembodied in a vacuum. But I do make a clear distinction between my physical body, on the one hand, and the experiences of consciousness, sensation and emotion that arise from it. Shea’s view on materialism probably isn’t so far from mine, and I have to believe he accepts the mind/matter/brain link at least to the extent that he’d be reluctant to push a pencil into one of his ears and out the other. But again, our positions on this question aren’t particularly relevant to the question of justice.

What really bothered Shea, I think, about my post on Nichols was its implied ridicule of Christianity. And it was merely implied, because I didn’t actually criticize a word he said but simply let the ideas parody themselves. I suspect if Nichols had attributed the jury’s preordained mercy to Allah or the Wiccan God and Goddess, Shea would have ridiculed him as well. And he’d probably be as leery as I of someone who claimed he’d formed a personal relationship with an invisible bunny rabbit, especially if devotion to the rabbit required belief in the inerrancy of a violence-and-sex-drenched book which apparently values the protection of bombers over the bombed.

UPDATE: Mark Shea responds (here. and here).

Kill the Messenger

August 10, 2004 | 17 Comments

Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols at sentencing yesterday, on why he was spared the executioner’s needle:

One last thing, many people have come, have come up with various excuses and reasons to justify the jurors’ deadlock in the sentencing phase of this trial, which the state was seeking the death penalty against me.

And I am sure many will disagree with me, but the truth is, the reason death was not given is for the simple and abundantly clear fact that God is in control. His hand has been guiding this trial from day one. There is no other explanation.

And it was God who, through the holy spirit, worked in the hearts of those jurors who refused to vote for death. I commend those jurors for their faith and unwavering stand for God.

Praise and glory be to God Almighty. Give thanks always to our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

Looks like he’s going to teach that damned atheist Newdow a lesson:

It’s Christianity that this great nation was founded upon, and only in Christianity does one find the true freedom and liberty we all seek. Let’s not lose that Godly heritage.

We must once again get back to this foundational truth and put God back into all aspects of our lives, both physically, excuse me, both publicly and privately by openly recognizing and acknowledging his authority and his sovereignty over all things, including ourselves, and to do so with reverential fear.

Plus, he made a new friend:

By the way, for those who wish to ridicule or criticize what I say here, let me say that no, I have not gotten religion, but rather, I have discovered genuine truth, and I’ve found a real and personal relationship with God through our living risen lord and savior, Jesus Christ. For it is only in Jesus Christ do we truly find the forgiveness of sins, genuine reconciliation with God, and true salvation and eternal life with our Lord.

Yes, only with and through faith in Jesus Christ alone can we be saved. And the only place where real truth, absolute truth can be found is in God’s word, the Holy Bible.

But don’t mistake him for his old friend:

I also wish to say that my views were never the same as Timothy McVeigh’s. They may have had


August 9, 2004 | 11 Comments

The Revealer, published by the New York University Department of Journalism and New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, is one of ten “Centers of Excellence” financed by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Last month, The Revealer began running a series of commentaries by journalists about religion on the 2004 campaign trail. Among other questions, the contributors were asked: “If a religion writer covered the presidential campaign, how would campaign coverage be different?”

I was honored by the invitation to participate in the forum, and my response is featured today. To my relief the piece was run uncensored (not that I wasn’t a complete gentleman), but insofar as the third and fourth paragraphs were slightly trimmed for stylistic reasons I am making the unedited versions available from me by e-mail request.

God Squad Review XCIX (Divestment from Israel/Conversion)

August 9, 2004 | 8 Comments

“Sometimes it’s hard to hold your head up when the very worst of your profession violates everything you hold dear and true,” says the Squad in reaction to two recent votes of the Presbyterian Church. The first vote was to study a proposal to divest the Church’s multibillion-dollar portfolio of all companies that do business with Israel (on the ground that the country is just like the former apartheid state of South Africa); the second vote was to continue the Church’s efforts to convert Jews. The Squad doesn’t mince words:

We are stunned, shocked and outraged by both votes. Words hardly convey the depth of our disappointment that people of God could so blatantly contradict the word of God. We want to pray to God for our Presbyterian brothers and sisters, and we want to urge them to face some deep questions and repent of their actions.

I’ll grant that the apartheid comparison is unfair and that singling out Israel for divestment may be hypocritcal. Whether the divestment vote contradicts the word of Allah I don’t know. But assuming that the Bible is the standard here, it’s pretty hard to make a case against conversion. Isn’t everyone supposed to believe in Jesus or burn? Father Tom’s Catholic Church certainly didn’t get to be as big as it is through a “hands off” policy, even though it has recently discontinued its proselytization efforts. Don’t the Presbyterians get a turn?

Apparently not; the Squad believes that “the organized attempt to actively seek Jewish converts to Christianity after the Holocaust is obscene.” They reason:

Do you not see that your vote to convert Jews is a vote to cut yourselves off from Jews and also from all Christians who have renounced active proselytizing among the Jewish people? We ask you to imagine how you’d feel if one out of every three Presbyterians had been murdered during a four-year period just 60 years ago and then members of some other religion attempted to reduce your numbers further by seeking your conversion to their faith.

This strikes me as far more hysterical than the Israel/apartheid analogy. Conversion may certainly “reduce the numbers further,” but it doesn’t involve the actual elimination of people through murder and cremation in a gas ovens. Additionally, the reduction is voluntary on the part of the person reduced; persuasion, rather than herding on to cattle cars, is employed. Furthermore, not only does the person converted avoid incineration on earth, but believes that he is avoiding a scorching that would last for all eternity.

Holy Porn

August 6, 2004 | 4 Comments

Liberal political candidates like John Kerry sometimes have to clothe themselves in religion to become more palatable to the broader electorate. But are porn spammers under the same sort of pressure? This e-mail I got yesterday seems to be targeting a Pentecostal base:

Subj: Getting Laid As Easy As 1-2-3 ravingatheist
Date: 8/5/2004 12:06:06 PM Eastern Daylight Time

Get Laid Now !

We have the hottest girls and you get real responses from them!
We expose the secrets on how to get laid!
Learn confidence, tricks, and easy to use manipulation!

Get Laid Now !
Get Laid Now !


Get laid now !

You can’t afford to NOT to!

If you act today we will throw in Adventures in Cheating!
A guide detailing the secrets of getting away with cheating!

You’d think religion is the last thing you’d want to bring up to someone you’re trying to convince to break the Ninth Commandment. And what is this, Hasidic porn?

Subj: hello
Date: 5/10/2004 6:02:22 PM Eastern Standard Time

Hiii!!!… Sorry for not msging you before hand. I had a wonderful time looking at your profile online. My real name is Kristy Hopknes, though I usually like to be called by my nick name Candy. It’s a long story how I got this name so it isn’t important right at this moment. What is important is that I would like to get in touch with you.

I am usually up for chatting, or talking. I love a good smart conversation, where we can communicate to one another with simplicity. I have made this website for you take a moment of your time to wonder around. I have some pictures taken of me by my model photographer. I love showing my body, it’s one of the things that g-d has given me to show off.. Wink_wink

Thanks, Kristy, er, Candy, I would have been really offended had you been so immodest as to leave that “o” in “g-d.’ But isn’t that supposed to be a capital “G” . . . or are you saving that for your G-string? And when you show off YHWH’s bounty, does your wig come off as well?

Voodoo Economics

August 5, 2004 | 21 Comments

Science is catching up to religion . . . and it looks like economics isn’t far behind:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Economists searching for reasons why some nations are richer than others have found that those with a wide belief in hell are less corrupt and more prosperous, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

* * *

The St Louis Fed drew on work by outside economists who studied 35 countries, including the United States, European nations, Japan, India and Turkey and found that religion shed some useful light.

“In countries where large percentages of the population believe in hell, there seems to be less corruption and a higher standard of living,” the St. Louis Fed said in its July quarterly review.

For instance, 71 percent of the U.S. population believe in hell and the country boasts the world’s highest per capita income, according to the 2003 United Nations Human Development Report and 1990-1993 World Values Survey.

* * *

“I’m not surprised,” said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, when told of the results.

“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” she said.

The St Louis Fed’s researchers took a two-step approach to linking religion and the economy.

“A belief in hell tends to mean less corruption and less corruption tends to mean a higher per capita income,” they wrote. It correlated the belief in hell findings of the World Value Series with a measure of corruption produced by Transparency International.

It then looked at the relationship between corruption and per capita gross domestic product and found “a strong tendency for countries with relatively low levels of corruption to have relatively high levels of per capita GDP.”

“Combining these two stories … suggests that, all else being equal, the more religious a country, the less corruption it will have and the higher its per capita income will be.”

* * *

None of which cut any ice with nonbelievers.

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists Inc., called the study the latest gimmick from the religious establishment to drum up government support.

“Religious people cannot rely on their theology to promote what they do so they turn to other things,” she said.

“I cannot imagine what the belief in mythological beings or things that don’t exist can do for business. What about the pornographic industry? That is probably very good for growth.”

Turns out that the report was a bit mythological as well. After releasing a second draft (possibly this), on July 29 the St. Louis Fed replaced both prior papers with a revised version of the report prefaced by the following disclaimer:

Thanks to the keen eyes of a number of readers, however, we have discovered that the charts used in both of these versions of the article contained errors. Consequently, the version below does not include discussions of the correlations between religiosity, corruption and per capita income.

In other words, absolutely none of the conclusions quoted by the press (and boldfaced in the excerpt above) regarding the hell/prosperity link now appear anywhere in the final version. Reuters has yet to publicize this correction, and I haven’t seen any of the religious blogs which so gleefully trumpeted the results do so either (although some link to the revised report, unaware that it no longer contains the language they quote).

As it stands, the report does still contain a paragraph referring to a study released last year by two Harvard researchers containing the hell/prosperity link that the Fed was unable to verify. But even that paper is a mixed bag, and I noticed that the press didn’t bother to quote the part about church-going:

In a paper last year, economists Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary provided evidence that church attendance and economic growth are negatively related, but a belief in hell — their measure of religious beliefs — was positively related to increased economic growth. According to Barro and McCleary, increased church attendance could lower growth because of more resources flowing to the religious sector. However, the net effect would be uncertain because increased church attendance may also increase religious beliefs, which, as Weber believed, raises economic growth by spurring individual behavior and actions that are thought to encourage productivity. Interestingly, Barro and McCleary also found that economic performance was largely unrelated to the dominant religious theology of the nation.

Not that I put stock in any of their findings; studies like this are invariably a a load of complete bollocks. And as it turns out, McCleary is the daughter of a Methodist minister whose upbringing led her to study theology and philosophy. According to a colleague, “[a]nywhere you push in terms of [McCleary’s] knowledge of religion, she’ll come up with something very impressive.” And she’s married to Barro, who is pretty deep in his own right:

He blames the Red Sox loss in the 1986 World Series on ”divine intervention” and says the Curse of the Bambino ”is superstition, analogous to some measures of superstition that we discussed in one of our papers, and not true religion.”

When asked whether, if Red Sox management believed in hell, they’d be more likely to be able to cough up the bucks for Alex Rodriguez, and whether one could conclude that the Yankees believe in hell, Barro responds: ”Instead of saying the Yankees believe in hell, you should say that the Yankees have made a deal with Satan, or perhaps have the devil playing for them.”

[Reuters link courtesy of Reed Esau of the Celebrity Atheists List]

Stuck in the Middle

August 4, 2004 | 18 Comments

Evangelical agnostics (or apatheists) are fond of characterizing the warring factions in the theist/atheist debate as “extremists” and suggesting that the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. But they never quite state what their own premises are (mine are here) or what arguments or facts support them. The philosophical basis for the “truth in the middle” thesis is certainly never explicated (doesn’t the truth merely lie where it lies?) and the middle itself is left undefined. So one is generally left clueless as to precisely where on that foggy spectrum between Yahweh-worship and militant godlessness they actually stand.

No surprise, then, that self-described “thinking agnostic” Laura Miller declares the “heavyweight brawl” between a perfectly sensible atheist and a drooling Godidiot to be a draw. Reviewing theist Alister McGrath’s “The Twilight of Atheism” and atheist Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” in Salon, she finds that the books “perfectly illustrate the triumph of heat over light” in the religious debate. They are not “genuine explorations or illuminations of ideas” and are “enough to make you suspect that it’s no longer possible to have a real conversation about religion.”

But what does the atheist say that she finds so objectionable? Apparently he finds religion silly and incoherent, something a “real conversation” about religion wouldn’t dare suggest:

Harris . . . is fiery, a polemicist raging against the “life destroying gibberish” he maintains is threatening humanity’s very survival. He can’t resist studding the pages of “The End of Faith” with seemingly every withering zinger that’s occurred to him in the shower or during bouts of insomnia, from deploring “religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone and unicorns” to asking us to “imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of “Star Wars” or Windows 98.”And if you can’t imagine that, it’s easy to picture the intended readers of this book storing up an assortment of these righteous epithets to fling at pious relatives over the Thanksgiving turkey.

The comparison of religion with Batman and Star Wars seems to be a respectable enough argument to me, and if Ms. Miller disagrees with it the burden is on her to explain the difference rather than simply dismiss it as a “withering zinger” or a “righteous epithet.” And if the “pious relatives” have something substantive to say in defense of their beliefs, as opposed to mere zingers and epithets, she should “illuminate those ideas” and explain why they belong in the “real conversation” from which Harris is presumably excluded.

Miller says a few things that should, by her own standards, remove her from the Thanksgiving table; in later criticizing the theistic McGrath she contemptuously derides the Pentecostals as “snakehandlers,” certainly bad form for a non-judgmental agnostic. And she faults Harris for tarring the nice religious “moderates” and the bad extremist “fundamentalists” with the same angry brush, even though she shouldn’t be any position, really, to say which is which. Aren’t the moderates the extremists for departing so far from the literal word of scripture? Aren’t the fundamentalists moderate for recognizing the obvious reality that one gets 72 virgins in Paradise? How is a “thinking agnostic” to decide?

This faux neutrality breaks down near the end where Miller reveals herself as “a secularist who is also concerned about the encroachment of religion into politics” and who subscribes to “[t]he liberal notion that people should be allowed a private freedom of conscience and belief but that those beliefs should not be permitted to drive public policy.” But these conclusions cannot possibly follow from her premise that “agnosticism may be the only truly moral response to the [God] question,” which a position supplies no reason at all to distinguish between religious and non-religious beliefs in policy-making. Why not just give the atheists Mondays and have child sacrifice on Tuesdays and witch-burnings on Wednesdays? Why grant the public policy driving license to secular beliefs only?

Miller may merely be making a point about civility, I suppose, but the problem is that she considers it impolite to state the truth. She rejects, for example, Harris’ reasonable proposal that we “‘stop listening’ to the faithful and stop pussyfooting around pretending to respect beliefs that are patently absurd.” This won’t work, she says, because “religious people already feel that their beliefs are subject to constant assault and ridicule by mainstream culture, and this only makes them more adamant.” But this argument is even more patronizing than any one that Harris makes, for in addition to announcing to the faithful that they are wrong it declares that they are too stupid to listen to reason. Perhaps Miller doesn’t consider an article published in Salon to be part of the public discourse, so that the risk is slight that the Pentecostals will be able to throw it up in her face when she sits down with them to bargain. But even if she’s correct about that, with truth off the table she’s come into the negotiations completely empty-handed.

Lightening Up

August 3, 2004 | 10 Comments

Religious jokes — the kind a priest could tell, rather than jokes about priests — have their limits. They’re calculated to evoke a polite titter from the flock, rather than encourage rolling in the pews. Like this What’s behind the Door joke over at Not Quite Catholic But Still Enjoying It (it’s essentially a cross between the “How do you keep a jackass in suspense” gag and the “okay, so life’s not like a tree” howler). The punchline (from which you could almost reconstruct the joke) is “You’d have to be a monk ten years to find out.”

When I saw this joke over there I suggested an alternative punchline (from which you could also almost reconstruct the joke), namely : “or you could be an atheist for just one second and know the answer: NOTHING.” Admittedly not very funny, but at least as funny as the original joke, and possibly funnier if viewed as self-parodying. And yet, I humorlessly get accused of humorlessness:

My first impulse is just to say lighten up. It speaks volumes when you take a joke as your opportunity to pop in out of nowhere to pontificate on the emptiness of life and faith. Such a comment, in fact, reeks wholly of a cloudy squinting failure to appreciate even a drop of wonder. So hey, TRA, lighten up. (Then again, his kamikaze silliness does add some to the humor. I mean, who can resist smiling at the guy without a sense of humor just standing there when everyone else is laughing?)

What, exactly, is this “popping in out of nowhere” business? I get plenty of believers over at my site, but I don’t treat them as “pop ins” just because they’re Not Quite Atheists. Moreover, I’ve been commenting at that blog for over a year now, and, as a Blogshares billionaire, I’m its largest shareholder. I even once sent a love brigade over to it.

And how on earth was my fifteen-word sentence fragment “pontificating?” I mean, this is pontificating:

At a deeper level, I’m inclined to say that having a sense of humor, walking in a selfless, humble embrace of the loony and silly in God’s Creation, is, strangely enough, one of the greatest gifts along the path of faith. Far from being dour and dolorous, one of the clearest fruits of grace is a childlike joy. Stifle that gift, as TRA has so gleefully done, and I suspect you’re also stifling embers of faith in the God of joy and wonder. I’m reminded of Chesterton’s closing lines in *Orthodoxy* that, for all Christ showed us of God and Himself, the one side of Himself He did not show us was His mirth. May TRA, and may we all, accept the grace given to see the joy of God, and, in turn, the God of joy. To know God is to know life and to live is to laugh. However, to refuse to laugh, even for the most stoical purpose, is nothing short of a rejection of life, a rejection of God Himself.

Yes, I’m just a closet Catholic. I’m just so “dour and dolorous” that I couldn’t bear the joy of locking myself up, celibate, on a mountaintop full of monks. Or revel in the joyous “I nailed myself to a cross for you” story. But if the theory here is that “the one side of Himself He did not show us was His mirth,” don’t I at least get credit for emulating Him?

Did I mention before that all I did was post a fifteen-word sentence fragment? Talk about ruining a joke:

What’s funny is that the same narrative “instinct” to that kept the RA reading (I presume) till the end of the joke is exactly analogous to the transcendental “instinct” (spoken of in St. John’s Gospel as a light given to all people, in Aquinas, in Calvin, in CS Lewis, et al.) that keeps us “reading life” until the end. If there really is nothing behind the door, why keep following the joke? If there really is nothing at the end of the road, why keep counting the miles, humming along at the wheel, pretending you’re headed somewhere? Let’s call a spade: if this really is a dead end, and if I really believed that, I’m done. It’s over the cliffs for me. At least I’d have my integrity. Something TRA’s humorless sobriety denies him.

I’m trying to enjoy every instant of my life rather than hold my breath for some imaginary punchline at the end. And sometimes I take long car rides just for the pleasure of the journey. It’s precisely because I know that life ends that I try to enjoy it while I’m here. I don’t leave a party early (or throw myself over a cliff) just because I find out they’re not going to give out big prizes when the lights go down.

Unless I’m just lying:

So, why keep reading; why keep living? Because TRA, like every other person, knows there really is something at the end of the line. There really is a punchline to life. Heaven is the joke we keep getting, in increasingly deep waves of laughter, for eternity. Hell, by contrast, is the joke we refuse to laugh at, in increasingly arduous bouts of inconsolable navel-gazing, for eternity.

I leave a fifteen-word sentence fragment, and I’m the one who’s engaging in arduous boots of inconsolable navel-gazing?

And what, precisely, is his theory here? If I actually do know that there’s something at the end of the line, why I am I refusing to laugh? And even if I was refusing at first, wouldn’t I start laughing immediately upon death, or at least catch on after a few million years rather than continue to stare at my navel?

The truth of the matter is that deep down, everyone knows that death is final. That’s why we grieve, and I really don’t think that the fantasies regarding eternal life make the process any easier. Even among Catholics, although I won’t be so cruel as to point to a recent example. But now for the punchline:

It’s easy as pie just to sit by the highway, idling, letting the drivers pass you by. (Sadly, it’s only slightly harder to shut off the car completely.) But, like it or not, TRA will keep reading every joke, and living every day, till its bitter pointless end, just for the snide satisfaction of revealing the atheistic secret of life: nothing. Now that I think of it, that really is a joke.

Glad I made you laugh. Now let’s see if you have enough of a sense of humor to laugh at these:

Vatican Certifies Mother Teresa’s Coin Slide, Ball & Vase Miracles
Unattached Virgin Bachelor Condemns Loving Human Relationships
Mother of God Graces Hospital Window as Caucasian Chemical Stain
Pope Makes Spontaneous Utterance That Does Not Make Immediate Sense
Monks Running E-Business Inspire Stories About The Irony of Monks Running E-Business
Fate of Universe Hangs on Mary’s Sex Life
Rosary Beads Deemed Car Safety Device
Socially Destructive Organization Calls Gays Socially Useless
Priest’s Flawed Analogies Dismay Teachers
Bias Eyed in Church Vandalism
Vatican Approves Pornolese-Latin Mass
Volcano Disaster Averted By Divine Non-Intervention
Cardinal Egan Cleared of Blowing Little Boys in 1969
Pope Hits Out Against Sarcasm
Bishop to Lieberman: Don’t Call Yourself A Catholic
Tough New Bill Outlaws Playing God

Update: Not Quite Catholic follows up on the post discussed above.

Beyond Beliefnet

August 2, 2004 | 14 Comments

Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman is under the delusion that John Kerry’s convention speech religiosity was sincere and that he “took a major step toward convincing people that it was OK to believe in God and Democrats at the same time.” In particular, Waldman thinks that by tying his faith to his Vietnam experience, Kerry has even trumped Bush: “In some circles, the dodging-bullets-with-the-help-of-God metaphor might seem even more impressive than the detoxifying-with-the-help-of God one.”

Religious people are stupid, yes, but not that stupid. Or, better put, not stupid in that way. They’re smart enough, at least, to see that Kerry is not stupid in the same way they are, and that even when he seems to be, he’s only pretending.

God Squad Review XCVIII

August 2, 2004 | 3 Comments

A Christian who was “born again” but had pre-marital sex with his girlfriend and stopped going to church asks the Squad whether he’ll remain “saved” forever or whether it’s possible to become “unsaved.” Although sometimes he thinks that “the whole issue of religion is not important,” he’s afraid that if he’s wrong hell go to hell forever. The Squad first outlines three competing theories, noting that (1) some believe that baptism saves you no matter how far you stray (2) some believe you’re only saved at those moments when you actually believe in Jesus and (3) some believe you can be saved without even knowing about Jesus if you behave well. But where do they stand? Hard to tell:

What we think is that you ought to turn in your old questions and replace them with new ones. Instead of asking if you’re saved, ask if you have loved the way Jesus loved. Instead of worrying about frying in hell, worry about the people whose lives are hell on earth right here and now. Instead of engaging in premarital sex, try to bring what you do closer to what you believe. And instead of being afraid of God, try harder to love God.

Don’t be afraid, and don’t despair. Truly spiritual people are not people who see something as true once and then just relax. Faith is a glorious but often agonizing struggle. Remember that Jacob had his name changed to Israel, which means, “One who wrestles with God.” Religious people find that sometimes they are with God and sometimes they are against God, but never in their lives are they without God.

This looks closest to number 3, so I don’t know why they didn’t just say that and declare number 1 and 2 false. There might be a lot of people out there just coasting on their baptisms, or thinking they’re safe so long as they keep a picture of Jesus on the bedstand. On the other hand, if salvation is by works alone, it’s not great advice to suggest you can act like you are “against God.” While you might never be “without” Him, being with Him is no fun if you’re frying in hell.

Kerry Declares Democrats the Party of “Belief Without Evidence”

August 1, 2004 | 6 Comments

Boston, Massachusetts, July 31, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Vowing to supplant the Republicans as the “party of faith,” presidential hopeful John Kerry announced Thursday night that the Democratic Party would heretofore formulate all its policies by reference to vague, undefined and completely unsubstantiated supernatural beliefs. “Let me say it plainly: in that cause, and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith,” Kerry said in his convention acceptance speech at Boston’s Fleet Center. “In particular, we welcome people whose thoughts are completely untethered from reality and logic. We will strive to be the party of belief without evidence, and, if possible, belief contrary to all evidence.”

Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Kerry noted that it was important to pray that we be on God’s side rather than to have God on our side. “Although in either case God and we are on the same side, the important thing is to make a pious, dramatic-sounding, meaningless distinction about our ideological alignment with a supreme deity and insist it has some impact on our

Kerry Declares Democrats the Party of “Belief Without Evidence”

August 1, 2004 | Comments Off

Boston, Massachusetts, July 31, 2004
Special to The Raving Atheist

Vowing to supplant the Republicans as the “party of faith,” presidential hopeful John Kerry announced Thursday night that the Democratic Party would heretofore formulate all its policies by reference to vague, undefined and completely unsubstantiated supernatural beliefs. “Let me say it plainly: in that cause, and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith,” Kerry said in his convention acceptance speech at Boston’s Fleet Center. “In particular, we welcome people whose thoughts are completely untethered from reality and logic. We will strive to be the party of belief without evidence, and, if possible, belief contrary to all evidence.”

Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Kerry noted that it was important to pray that we be on God’s side rather than to have God on our side. “Although in either case God and we are on the same side, the important thing is to make a pious, dramatic-sounding, meaningless distinction about our ideological alignment with a supreme deity and insist it has some impact on our

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