Sunday, October 29, 2006

Center for Inquiry comes to Austin

Yesterday afternoon, the new Austin chapter of the Center for Inquiry had a meet-and-greet brunch at the Iron Cactus downtown. I'm happy to see them come. They're true movers and shakers in the arena of promoting naturalism, science, rationalism, and in fighting religious ignorance and extremism. I've always found it interesting that, in the public "culture war" (which, incidentally, has solely been agitated by religious right ideologues hungry for power) between faith and reason, reason has a tendency to win out. The pseudoscience of "Intelligent Design" creationism almost always fails in the courts and school boards (and in the rare cases it succeeds, that success is fleeting and soon overturned), despite the fact that fundamentalist anti-science organizations draw millions upon millions of dollars in funding, while groups like CFI and the NCSE subsist on only a tiny fraction of the money. As the Talking Heads song goes, fundies are learning that "facts don't do what I want them to."

Austin-area atheists looking for an organization of friendly folks who are determined actually to be active in standing up for reason in our unreason-besotted national climate ought to consider coming on board. I also understand that a Houston chapter is in the works. For my part, since I left ACA, I've been hankering for a way to get involved again, and ACA, as much fun as I had being a member and hosting the TV show, simply was not equipped to do things on the scale of CFI. I welcome CFI to Austin and can't wait to get involved in their programs.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Florida schadenfreude continues: Hovind's hubris will bring him down!

One can only imagine the glare on his face, and the word "Judas!" stuck on an endless loop inside his ever-so-loopy mind, as Kent Hovind watched his lawyer friend David Charles Gibbs effectively tie his noose on the stand in his tax-evasion trial. According to Gibbs, Hovind's belief that he owed no taxes was rooted in a rather inflated sense of self-regard...

"He tried to stress to me that he was like the pope and this was like the Vatican," Seminole attorney David Charles Gibbs testified at Hovind's trial before U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers.

LOL, ROTFL, and other snarky internet abbreviations! Even as an atheist I stand in awe of Michelangelo's achievement on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. How deluded must Dr. Dumbo be to think the plywood cutout dinosaurs in his dippy theme park deserve comparison even on the subatomic scale?

Gibbs said Hovind tried to persuade him he had no obligation to pay employee income taxes and explained with "a great deal of bravado" how he had "beat the tax system."

Gibbs said Hovind also told him he preferred to deal in cash and that when you are "dealing with cash there is not way to trace it, so it wasn't taxable."

Hey, it works for drug dealers, right?

When you think you're the Invisible Sky Fairy's official spokesman on Earth, I'm sure a bit of cockiness is in order, but here old Kent clearly isn't even being subtle about thinking the laws of the land don't apply to him, and proclaiming it loudly to boot.

Check the article's comments, too. The majority of Christians are openly abandoning Hovind, if they ever accepted him in the first place. His only supporters are from the lunatic fringe of tax protesters, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and those guys who hang out in rural cabins with canned food, a shotgun, and a tinfoil hat, waiting for the Apocalypse.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Hovind on trial: Dr. Dino's sleaze laid bare

Kent Hovind's former employees — erm, excuse me, "missionaries" — have been testifying to his bizarre tax-avoidance practices. Among the shenanigans:

Popp testified that Hovind warned employees not to accept mail addressed to "KENT HOVIND." He said Hovind told the workers the government created a corporation in his "all-caps name." Hovind said if he accepted the mail, he would be accepting the responsibilities associated with that corporation, Popp testified.

Amazing. Will Hovind's beleaguered attorney continue to try to spin this smarm as the behavior of a man who honestly didn't know about the tax laws he was breaking?

Kent is also fond of bullying and threatening his emp— I mean, his "missionaries"...

After the Dinosaur Adventure Land was raided on April 2004, Kent Hovind required his employees to sign nondisclosure agreements if they wanted to keep their jobs, she said.

"I was uncomfortable signing it, I guess, because of not having a full understanding," [ex-employee Diane P.] Cooksey said. well as filing frivolous lawsuits.

Hovind tried several bullying tactics against her, Powe testified. A recording that Hovind made of a phone conversation was then played. In the phone conversation, Hovind tried to make an appointment with Powe by 10 a.m. that day. When Powe said she couldn't meet him because she had a staff meeting, Hovind threatened to sue her, which he did.

"Dr. Hovind sued me three times, maybe more," Powe testified. "It just seemed to be something he did often."

She testified that the cases were dismissed.

The picture that emerges here is one of a man completely mentally imbalanced. One wonders how someone as deranged as this is able to move freely and function in society. The rational mind reels at the chaos that must be Hovind's mind; how does one live with one's self when one's entire day-to-day existence is a never-ending parade of dishonesty, guile, and just plain ugliness towards fellow human beings?

In his bankruptcy forms, Hovind wrote that he had no form of income, that he rejected his Social Security number and that his employer was God, [Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin] Beard testified.

"That gives you a warning sign," Beard said.

Indeed it does. Indeed it does.

Well, maybe Hovind will get a chance to take over the prison ministry. He'll be happy to know no one will expect him to pay taxes for that sort of work.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Worldview Quiz

Discovered this by way of my very favorite godless blog grouch in all the world, PZ Myers at Pharyngula. Go ahead and try it yourself. The choices are pretty much A vs. B or C, but then when you think about it, the questions being asked seem to have pretty doggone obvious answers to me. Then again, I did have kind of a problem with question 8, which I thought I could give two answers to.

Anyway, I ended up in exactly the same dot on the x-y graph as Carl Sagan. Fancy that.

Kent's in the dock; will God get him out?

We're in for heavy doses of high comedy and rollicking entertainment over the next — well, however long it takes to find him guilty — as creationist pest and tax cheat Kent Hovind goes on trial, with his wife, for failure to pay nearly half a million dollars owed to the IRS.

Hovind's defense is taking a comical "taxes? what taxes?" tack. They're claiming poor innocent Kent was entirely ignorant of the many laws he's broken, which is kind of like a kid, when caught by his mom stashing porno magazines under his mattress, frantically claiming they're not his and he doesn't know where they came from.

We also get heaping, hilarious doses of the common fundamentalist practice of calling things by other names, in the hope they'll actually become those renamed things. Hovind claims his Dinosaur Adventure Land park had no employees, simply kind-hearted, godly "volunteers" who came over, did work, and got given a "love offering" that just happened to take the form of cash money. See, calling a wage a "love offering" magically makes it no longer a wage! So you don't have to put it on the books, you see. Or at least, that's how it works in Hovind's alternate universe.

I wish this was going to be televised. I cannot wait to hear the prosecutor shred poor Kent's claims of well-meaning innocence. For one thing, hasn't anyone who's been pulled over for an illegal U-turn already heard the phrase — all together now, kids — "Ignorance of the law is no excuse" from just about any motorcycle cop alive? And for Kent and his wife to have a number of just-under-$10K (the level where banks have to report the transaction) cash withdrawals on record, all the while trying to claim he just didn't know any of this was against the law, should make for the most consistent round of belly-laughs since Monty Python went off the air.

This guy has been daring the IRS to come after him for years. He's gotten his wish. Time to sit back and watch the fun.

Oh yeah, one more thing. It occurs to me that this might be the opportunity Christians everywhere have been waiting for; the final proof of God's existence that will decisively shut up atheists and annoying libruls around the globe. If God really supports the work Kent is doing in His name, it seems all He'd have to do is put in a surprise appearance in court, demand the prosecutors lay off, declare Kent's infantile brand of young-earth creationism to be true, and settle the issue once and for all, leading America to the great spiritual revival the fundamentalists have been working toward for the last several years.

Then again, if Kent goes up the river, it could just mean that God chose him to be a martyr for the Word. Drat those unfalsifiable propositions! I knew there was a reason science worked and nutbars like Hovind can only desperately scramble at lies for their pitiful salvation.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Exploring the boundaries of church/state separation

I'm posting in advance my topic notes for The Atheist Experience today. Expect them to be a bit scattered, as I'm writing this more as speaking notes than as a carefully planned essay.

Note: I am a new-ish member of Chorus Austin, which will be presenting the Bach B-Minor Mass on November 4. My intention is to play a portion of the music as the intro to the show. Follow the above link if you're interested in tickets. Although this is an overtly religious piece, I think it's a great piece of music.

A few words about Bach

Wikipedia: Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of one of the most extraordinary musical families of all time. For more than 200 years, the Bach family had produced dozens of worthy performers and composers during a period in which the church, local government and the aristocracy provided significant support for professional music making in the German-speaking world, particularly in the eastern electorates of Thuringia and Saxony. Sebastian's father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist and trumpeter in Eisenach, a town of some 6,000 residents in Thuringia.

Important contributions of the church to history (direct and indirect)

Cathedrals: Talking about one of my favorite novels, Pillars of the Earth. The initial main character, Tom Builder, relies on the church for his livelihood, and his lifelong dream is to build a cathedral.

Wikipedia on Cathedral architecture: The church that has the function of cathedral is not of necessity a large building. It might be as small as the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. But frequently, the cathedral, along with some of the abbey churches, was the largest building in any region.

There were a number of reasons for this:

  • The cathedral was created to the Glory of God. It was seen as appropriate that it should be as grand and as beautiful as wealth and skill could make it.
  • It functioned as an ecclesiastical meeting-place for many people, not just those of the town in which it stood, but also, on occasions, for the entire region.
  • The cathedral often had its origins in a monastic foundation and was a place of worship for members of a holy order who said the mass privately at a number of small chapels within the cathedral.
  • The cathedral often became a place of worship and burial for wealthy local patrons. These patrons often endowed the cathedrals with money for successive enlargements and building programs.

The Renaissance was an explosion of art, science, and creativity. And where do modern scholars partly pinpoint the origin of the Renaissance? They consider the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) to be the first writer to embody the spirit of the Renaissance.

Protestant Reformation: Luther, taking the revival of the Augustinian notion of salvation by faith alone to new levels, borrowed from the humanists the sense of individualism, that each man can be his own priest (an attitude likely to find popular support considering the rapid rise of an educated urban middle class in the North), and that the only true authority is the Bible, echoing the reformist zeal of the Conciliar movement and opening up the debate once again on limiting the authority of the Pope.

Printing press: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1447. Wikipedia says: “Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe — in large part, owing to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting on February 23, 1455. Even so, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system.

Art: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Need I say more?

Christianity’s Place in Modern Schools

A really lame joke I heard… A dog had followed his owner to school. His owner was a fourth grader at a public elementary school. When the bell rang, the dog sidled inside the building and made it all the way to the child's classroom with him before a teacher noticed him and shoo'ed him back outside, and closing the door behind him. The dog sat down outside the door, whimpering and staring at the closed doors and not understanding in the least as to why he was refused entry. Then - God appeared beside the dog, patted him on the head to comfort him, and said, "Don't feel bad fella'.... they won't let ME in there either."

My alternate punchline is, "So the dog replies: 'Yes, but I exist.'"

Anne Graham, Billy’s daughter, was interviewed shortly after 9/11. Interviewer Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" She replied "I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?"

These two comments speak worlds about the evangelical opinion on separation of church and state. They seem to believe that if you are not spending every minute of every day talking about God, then you are performing an act directly hostile to their religion. That would mean that if you teach math, but your lesson plan actually instructs in math and doesn’t mention that math comes from God, then it’s godless math and the school is endorsing atheism.

Religious people often accuse us atheists of trying to completely eradicate God from school and forbidding government officials of expressing any religious beliefs. That is not true. (Ad lib topics: personal prayer vs. school-led prayer; personal statements vs. official government statements; during hours proselytizing vs. after-hours)

The words "Separation of Church & state": no, as fundies love to point out, the words don't appear in the Constitution. The first amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the phrase was apparently coined by Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Jefferson ought to have known what was meant by the First Amendment; it was written by his close friend James Madison, who had earlier worked with him on a Virginia bill that served as a template for the First Amendment. The Bill was called “A BILL FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Jefferson’s draft of the bill reads in part: “We, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief.”

In 1785, Madison wrote letter denouncing “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”. Madison argued: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

Throwing some bones to the ACLJ

A few discussion topics -- just because I'm quoting ACLJ doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with them, it just provides some food for thought.

ACLJ on “See you at the pole”

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the rights of students to express themselves on public school campuses and organize groups to hold events such as See You at the Pole. In 1969, the Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students have the right to speak and express themselves on campus. Then, in the 1990 Mergens case, the Court held that Bible clubs and prayer groups can meet on public secondary school campuses. The case interpreted the Equal Access Act which Congress passed in 1984 to insure that high school students were not discriminated against in the public schools because of their religious beliefs. The Court ruled that public secondary schools that receive federal funds and allow noncurriculum related clubs to meet on campus must also allow Bible clubs to meet on campus during non-instructional time. In this context, Bible clubs should also include prayer groups and events like See You at the Pole. As Justice O’Connor explained, writing for the Court in Mergens, “if a State refused to let religious groups use facilities open to others, then it would demonstrate not neutrality but hostility toward religion.”

ACLJ on school prayer:

As a general principle, teachers retain their First Amendment rights in public schools. The United States Supreme Court has held that "teachers [do not] shed their constitutional rights . . . at the school house gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). However, public schools have broad authority to safeguard against Establishment Clause violations. Generally speaking, teachers represent the school when in the classroom or at school-sponsored events and, therefore, should take care to avoid Establishment Clause violations. Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d 517, 522 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. den., 515 U.S. 1173 (1995). The Establishment Clause prohibits a state entity like a public school from endorsing religion or coercing students to participate in religion. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). Distilling multiple court decisions, the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools (issued by Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education in August 1995, since then reissued and still in effect) address the position that teachers' and administrators' should take:

Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.

Having said that, however, the Establishment Clause does not prohibit all religious instruction in public schools. "[T]he Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like." Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980) (citing Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)). In fact, the Supreme Court has recognized that it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." Abington, 374 U.S. at 225 (1963). Please note, however, that school boards or other officials may not be compelled to utilize such curricula. Rather, school officials are given substantial discretion in choosing their own curricula.

Jay Sekulow answering a question about religion in the workplace: “First of all, the workplace is not a religious free zone especially a county agency, which is covered by the First Amendment. There have been a series of cases-we had one of them recently decided by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit-dealing with religious freedom in the workplace. It applies: A Bible is not a forbidden book or having a mug that has a Scripture reference on it is not illegal; having a personal conversation during your break time about your faith, one on one, is not to be treated as contraband nor is it to be called 'inappropriate conversation'-even if somebody happens to overhear it.”

Warning: you will need a shower if you click this...

Just when you thought you'd seen everything: here comes the Christian Boylove Forum.

Christian Boylove Forum participants believe that a distinction must be made between feelings of attraction (which are not chosen) and behavior (for which one must be held responsible). We believe that boylovers can control and channel their feelings so that their relationships with boys are beneficial and honor God. We are strictly opposed to any treatment of children which is contrary to the love that God intends us to have for them. This includes the manipulation, coercion and abuse of children.

If this means they're hoping their forum will prevent pedophiles from actually acting upon their urges, more power to them. But, you know...eew!

(PS: Since they seem to be of the idea that pedophilia isn't a choice — quite likely sadly true — I wonder if they split from mainstream Christian thought concerning whether or not adult homosexuality is a choice?)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Recent Christian cinema not benefiting from Passion halo-effect

Christian conservatives often like to complain about the sinful depradations of godless librul Hollywood, and how the entertainment industry as a whole is a repellent den of sin that is "out of touch" with the American mainstream. The wild box office success of The Passion of the Christ two years ago was trumpeted — by such mouthpieces as ersatz critic Michael Medved — as an undeniable indicator that if only the movie business made more Christian movies, the money would come pouring in like the Flood itself.

But it seems as if Passion was an of-the-moment cultural snapshot, released at a time when Bush's poll numbers were still high and middle America was flush with the notion that we were really on the side of the angels in the War on Terror, our moral high ground unassailable. This facade has long since shattered, and anyway, Passion's $370 million box office take was more the result of media-manufactured controversy over its content than a genuine display of a sincere cultural shift towards preferring Christian entertainment.

Fox Faith ("Films You Can Believe In") is a new theatrical distribution shingle from Rupert Murdoch, where the goal clearly is to cater to the Christian conservative base that has made his propaganda house, the Fox News Channel, the highest-rated cable news network.

However, their maiden release Love's Abiding Joy did not exactly explode out of the starting gate like a greyhound its opening weekend. (Possibly the vomitrocious romance-novel title didn't help.) Opening on 207 screens, a respectable release for an independent film, Joy only scraped up a dismal per-screen average of $704, for a total opening weekend take of $145,895. Compare this performance to that of Shortbus, the new, unrated movie by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), which includes — among other things — several scenes of unknown actors engaging in actual onscreen sex. Opening on a mere half-dozen screens (this is called a "platform" release), it drew a whopping $17,984 per-screen average. So while Love's Abiding Joy made it to 34½ times as many screens, Shortbus did nearly 87 times more business!

So while Donald Wildmon and John Ashcroft and other evangelical leading lights love to wring their hands at Hollywood's evil drug-crazed, sex-happy, Janet-Jackson-boob-flashing ways, offering dire warnings about the vast sums of money being lost because the industry isn't offering True Americans the wholesome Christian entertainment they really want — in reality, Christians aren't backing that up with their dollars. Like everyone else, they'd rather see Jackass Two instead.

(PS: Jesus Camp, excellently reviewed by Russell in the preceding post, is doing respectably, picking up 25 screens in its fourth weekend to a per-screen average of $2,748. Word is getting out.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jesus Camp review

I went on Friday with about ten fellow Atheist Community members to see Jesus Camp, but I hadn't gotten around to posting my review until now. This has already been discussed on both The Non-Prophets and The Atheist Experience, but I'm offering up a written version for your perusal.

First of all, this is not a pleasant movie in most respects. What it is boils down to watching an hour and a half of child abuse, at least from my perspective. If you experience the sort of morbid fascination that comes from watching a bleak horror movie, you may get the same sort of feeling from this movie: you're not having fun while you watch it, but you may feel like you got something out of the experience of having watched it.

In a nutshell, the philosophy behind the camps is expressed by the camp leader, Becky Fischer. I can't quote it exactly, but she says something like: "Muslims indoctrinate their kids in madrassas all their lives, so what we need to do is do MORE indoctrination so we can BEAT them!!"

The directors chose to focus much of their attention on a small handful of characters. Becky is one. There is an adorable little girl named Rachael, about nine, who is all excited over her love of the lord. And then there's Levi, a twelve year old boy with an awful mullet, who very earnestly wants to be a preacher.

When I watched the movie, it seemed to me that what these kids were desperately seeking was NOT a personal relationship with God, but adult approval. For instance, there's a scene where Rachael is in a bowling alley with her parents, and she spies a blonde woman sitting alone. Rachael rushes up to her table, plonks herself down, and starts witnessing to her -- "Have you heard about Jesus?" The woman sits there and humors the cute kid and smiles in a bemused way when she leaves. Then Rachael rushes back to her dad, saying "Daddy! The lord worked through me to witness to that woman!" Daddy says "That's the way to be obedient." Then he gives her a big hug. It's a simple reward scheme.

Then there is the scene where Levi is working on a sermon to deliver to the other camp kids. While he paces around practicing his speech, he also makes fake crowd-cheering noises to himself, imagining all the accolades he'll receive on a job well done.

The adult antics are sometimes creepy and sometimes just weird. Before the kids arrive at camp, Becky is seen walking around checking to make sure that everything is working. And she's also leading the other employees in a prayer that goes something like this: "God, please bless this electrical system. Please help the lights stay on and don't let it be knocked out by thunderstorms. And please protect our PowerPoint presentation. Satan, I know how you just LOVE to get in our PowerPoint presentations and mess us up. Get out! You have no power over us here." You probably think I'm making up the part about praying for the PowerPoint presentation. I'm not. Get thee hence, evil Blue Screen of Death!!!

During camp, the kids are alternately encouraged and harangued by adults. At one point, Becky is telling them: "God is speaking to me. He's telling me that there are some people here who say that they're Christians, even go to church every Sunday, but they're not Christians. You have evil thoughts and don't do the lord's work." Then she calls kids up to be "purified": she pours Dannon bottled water on their hands, with the label clearly visible on camera. Most of the kids who come up are crying, possibly because they're terrified that their impure thoughts have been discovered.

The particular types of indoctrination employed are striking. Early in the movie, before he arrives at camp, Levi is filmed being home-schooled by his mother. A caption helpfully points out that 75% of homeschooled kids come from an evangelical family. The mother reads a question from the textbook, which is clearly produced by an evangelical textbook mill. The book cites a quote about global warming, and then says "What is the logical flaw in the preceding sentence?" And Levi is all over it: he immediately recites the "fact" that "The temperature has ONLY risen by 0.6 degrees!" Which, even if it were a flaw in the argument, couldn't be strictly called a logical one. This came as a surprise to me, because I expected (and got) anti-evolution propaganda, but I had no idea that the denial of global warming is actual a point of religious contention among these folks.

Later on, in camp, a middle aged man hits them with a sermon about baby-killing, AKA abortion. As a prop, he hands out tiny little plastic models of babies, claiming this is what fetuses are after some number of weeks. Then they do an exercise where they all put red tape over their mouths. On the tape, it says "Life". I know this to be some kind of symbolism, but I can't make heads or tails of what it is supposed to mean. He probably explained it but it didn't get into the movie.

But by far the weirdest thing was when they brought in a cardboard cutout of George Bush and placed it by a podium at the front of the room. All of the kids were asked to come forward and pray for Bush, which they did -- on their knees, stretching out their hands to touch the cardboard figure. It looked to me like they were praying to an idol, but Matt assures me that this is not the intention; it was more like a "laying on of hands" by proxy.

Despite weirdness like this, and despite frequent occasions when they talk ominously about the need to change or fix the country's leadership to something more Godly, late in the movie Becky insists that what they do is "not political at all". She also says, "Democracy is the best system of government on this earth. But that's the problem: It's OF THIS EARTH. And we're focus on the kingdom of God."

There were a few scenes that hinted at budding rebellion. There was one blond boy who was sharing his testimonial (or something) and he just started saying "I try to be a good servant for God, but it's just so hard sometimes... I mean, you can't see Him or hear Him... I know He's there but sometimes I just can't feel it." It was really sad, and the boy obviously found this a gut-wrenching confession. In another scene, the kids are playing around with flashlights and telling ghost stories, which is what normal kids do at summer camp. An adult barges in and tells them they're not allowed to tell ghost stories here, because it doesn't please God.

During the scene where Levi is writing his sermon, he says, either on camera or in a voiceover, "When I'm writin', it doesn't feel like it's me writin' the words. I can feel my arm moving, but it feels like God is moving my arm and telling me what to say."

In what felt to me like the climax of the movie, the kids are done with Jesus Camp and many of them make a trek to New Life Church, the largest mega-church in the United States. They listen to Ted Haggard speak -- that would be this asshat, the guy who chewed out Richard Dawkins in the first Root of All Evil episode, a man who meets with George Bush on a weekly basis.

The kids are obviously inspired by the sermon, and Levi excitedly meets Ted and shakes his hand. He tells Ted "I'm a preacher too!" and then he starts talking about his material. Ted cuts him off: "Do you feel like people listen to you because you have good material, or because you're a cute kid?" Levi sort of sputters a bit, and Ted says "Keep using your cuteness until you're about thirty. By then, you'll have developed good content." Ted turns away in his smirky way, obviously believing it's good advice and a job well done. Levi seems crestfallen.

And why wouldn't he be? He actually believed that God was taking control of his arm and writing his sermons for him. Does God write good sermons, or does he rely on "cuteness" to make up for bad sermons?

These kids live in a carefully constructed bubble. Thanks to homeschooling, they don't seem to have contact with adults other than their parents and the deliberately screened counsellors who preach an identical message. (A counsellor tells a kid something extraordinarily stupid, and the kid responds "That's just what ma daddy says!") They have fake textbooks that are clearly not subject to any academic standards. They only seem to come in contact with people outside their bubble long enough to witness for a short time and then run away.

Now personally, I would love to have that little girl come up and try to tell ME about Jesus. ("That's interesting, little girl! So how do you know there is a God, anyway?") If this bubble were burst and they came in contact with people of other faiths, would it shatter their faith? Very unlikely, although I know it has happened to some people. But my point is that it's very likely these kids will get through most of their lives completely ignorant of the existence of people with any other views, and will probably be very badly equipped to understand anything outside the narrowly focused reality that their parents crafted for them. If the camp directors really succeed in grooming future world leaders, as they hinted they would like to, that is a terrifyingly undesirable trait to have.

At the end of the movie, Becky is interviewed directly and says, "I think some liberals will see all this and be very scared at what we're doing." She hit it square on the head. But she doesn't say it in an apologetic way, of course: she's PROUD that we find her methods creepy and disturbing. After all, if you're not being persecuted, then you're not a real Christian.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

What to do if you're middle-aged, Catholic, female, and can't find a husband

This is really kind of sad. 42-year-old Lori Rose Cannizzaro of East Aurora, NY, admitting to herself that "Dating wasn't working. I wasn't connecting. Not that I never wanted to be married or never wanted children," has chosen to "consecrate her virginity" in a strange Catholic ceremony.

People deal with loneliness in all kinds of ways, some positive, some destructive. I can see how some folks might defend Ms. Cannizzaro's choice — and I'm all for freedom of choice — as a positive one, channeling her loneliness so that she feels a stronger connection to Jesus or God or what have you. Indeed, it's a well-understood trait of religious belief that it provides insecure people with the sense of security (a placebo, perhaps, but it's there) that comes from thinking you have someone watching over you and looking afer you.

But I worry that there's some potentially psychologically damaging role-playing involved in this kind of thing.

The rite is available only to virgins, who agree to abstain from sex so they can dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ in what the association describes as a mystical marriage and a profound spiritual blessing. Each woman wears a band on her left ring finger as a symbol, much like a wedding band.

So what we have here is a way for lonely women who can't find a husband to play like they're married, even down to wearing a pretend wedding ring. Yet at the same time they're told their virginity makes them pure and sanctified, which doesn't sound like a statement with very flattering implications for Catholic women who do marry and procreate. Or perhaps they're "sanctified" in a different way.

When I was a younger guy, I went through bouts of loneliness, as most people do. I decided the problem was that I was placing too much importance on the notion of Having a Partner as a key ingredient of Happiness. Once I realized it wasn't, not only was I happier in all the areas of my life that do matter — friendships, career, hobbies — but, voila, it became easier to make those personal connections I'd previously found so elusive.

Ms. Cannizzaro may feel like she's done the right thing for herself, and I hope she's happy. But will her pretend wedding ring really take away that pang she likely feels in her heart whenever she sees a happy young couple strolling hand-in-hand through the park, or leaning closely together to talk and laugh over a couple of lattes at Starbucks? And to be honest, she's cutting off her options. 42 is not necessarily past the average person's sell-by date; who's to say she might not have met a charming widower or gentleman at some church or social function next week, or next year, or when she's fifty? It's never too late for people to find romance if they want it.

I'm afraid that here we see Christianity — with its never-too-subtle message that unmarried people are better off denying their sexuality at all times if they possibly can — offering someone a false sense of "happiness" that may work for a while, but is sure to lead to greater unhappiness once the bloom is off the rose, so to speak.

After all, if it was such a great choice for lonely women to do this, you'd think there'd be more than 2000 of them worldwide lining up for these "consecration" ceremonies, you know?

Friday, October 06, 2006

I guess free speech is okay until someone gets hurt, huh?

Seems as if everyone is falling over themselves not to offend those twitchy Muslims these days. The latest casualty in the rising free-speech death toll is the annual festival of satire in Valencia. I didn't know anyplace had an "annual festival of satire". Sounds like a swell idea. Of course, this year, censorship has kicked in hard, which is bitterly ironic, since such a thing seems to negate the very purpose and function of satire.

According to the linked article, this festival has been going on for four centuries — clearly one of Europe's many fine long-standing traditions — and, in it...

giant sculptures of the high and mighty are placed in the streets for the public to mock before being destroyed in an orgy of gunpowder and flames. It has survived attacks by the Roman Catholic church, various puritanical rulers and the Franco dictatorship.

Well, it looks like it isn't surviving Al Qaeda and its wannabees. Guess which figures of the high and mighty won't be publically mocked this year. If you said anything to do with Islam, go to the head of the madras.

You see, our fine turbaned friends have figured out something very special and important in terms of controlling behaviors and tearing down freedoms. All you have to do is threaten extreme violence, then occasionally follow through on it, and people will go all cowardly and lily-livered on you faster than you can say "Allahu akbar!" Of course, what you'll end up with is a global reputation as a gang of psychotic, hair-trigger lunatics, which will be the sort of outrage that can only be answered with even more reactionary violence. But in the end you'll get what you want: entire populations cowering in fear, terrified even to say "Hi, how do you do?" for fear you'll whip out your AK or trigger that explosive vest your mom knitted you. For all the decadent West's bleating about its precious "freedoms," it's obvious they're all too willing to check them at the door when faced with the thought that you might just go bugfuck and blow them up, right, Muslim brethren?

Note the phrasing used by the mayor of Valencia in his not-too-veiled warning to the festival: that artists should "temper freedom with a sense of responsibility" when referring to religious subjects.

This, translated, means simply "Don't dare do anything to piss off the Muslims, because we all know how they get!" Congrats, mayor, in one fell swoop you've neutered your 400-year-old festival, given religious radicals exactly the kind of control over your culture (and minds) they've always wanted, and sent the world an unambiguous message: Religious terrorism works!!!

I wonder how long it is before the Christian Right in this country catches on?

PS: If you're Muslim and reading this: Mohammed can eat my balls!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Christian Fantasy

In a recent forum debate with a Christian, the subject of the "burden of proof" was raised and the frustrated Christian was complaining that it seems "unfair" that Christians should bear that burden simply because they're making the claim. Don't atheists bear a burden of proof? Shouldn't they have to disprove God? Don't "both sides" bear the burden of proof?

While he eventually agreed with my explanation, he was still unwilling (unable may be more accurate) to provide any evidence to support his claim. He then made an accusation intended to impugn my character...which backfired. Trying to get back to the burden of proof issue, I asked him to provide evidence or argument to support the Christian fantasy.

Realizing that I had just made my own claim/accusation, I thought I'd give him an example of how one actually defends a position. Enough people enjoyed the following that I thought I'd post it here, as well. Without further ado, my defense of the position that Christian religious beliefs are fantasy...

Fantasy: an imaginative or fanciful work, esp. one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters.

Any story with unicorns would be considered fantasy. Does one need to prove that unicorns don't exist in order to relegate them to the realm of imaginative or fanciful? Of course not. Stories containing unicorns are fantasy until unicorns are demonstrated to exist.

The same is true for stories with magic (supernatural, not prestidigitation). Do we have to prove that magical spells that allow one to become invisible or fly don't work in reality? Of course not. Stories with supernatural magic are fantasy until such time as supernatural magic is demonstrated to exist.

Does a story have to be entirely imaginative or fanciful to qualify as fantasy? Of course not. Portions of the Harry Potter books take place in England, a real place, and involve many mundane items and characters we witness in daily life (beds, fireplaces, castles, etc.) Thus, the reality of some portion of a story has no bearing on whether the story is classified as fantasy. (The common examples is that Spider-Man lives in New York and the reality of that place infuses the story with a "sense" of reality, but those elements don't take Spider-Man out of the "fantasy" realm.)

Does a story have to be predominantly fanciful to qualify as fantasy? No. If someone were to write a book (and I'll bet someone has) that had an ordinary schoolgirl in the real world, who had a unicorn as a pet - the book would be on the fantasy shelves even if everything except the unicorn were mundane. Thus, any story which contains a single fantasy element could be fairly classified as a fantasy.

Do religious stories, which certainly include fanciful, supernatural elements typically get exempted from the fantasy category? Yes....but only by the implied fiat of believers. We are trained to generally afford religion a "hands off"/"special category" respect that it simply hasn't earned.

The Ancient Greek gods are now considered fantasy and mythology, because almost no one considers them to be real. Stories of druidic magic are considered fantasy by anyone who doesn't believe in druidic magic.

As no supernatural claim has ever been proven true (and anyone who can do so will earn a quick $1M - oh, and they'll completely change the world we live in, more than any person in history), those who believe in the Christian religious stories are no different from those who believe the Hindu religious stories, the American Indian religious stories, the ancient Greek/Celt/Roman/Norse religious stories...or those who believe druidic magic is real.

The Christian religious stories contain supernatural elements that would be described as magic by any non-believer (creation, parting of a sea, virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water, water to wine, multiplication of food). The fact that believers prefer to label them miracles is largely irrelevant, as religious miracles are supernatural.

This alone supports the idea that Christian religious stories can be classified as fantasy. Add in giants and other fanciful creatures, and the claim is strongly supported.

Just as we don't have to disprove unicorns and "Expelliarmus", we don't have to disprove the claims of the Bible. Until they can be demonstrated to be true, they fall in the same category....