Religion is failing us, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

(Read Part One, if you haven’t.)

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I’m not obsessive about it, but my interest in it picks up from time to time. Yesterday, it was snagged again watching this video on YouTube:

The speaker at this TED Talk, Thomas Fleischmann, knows a thing or two about NDEs. As an emergency doctor he has witnessed about two thousand deaths. Since it’s his job to try to resuscitate them, he sometimes succeeds. These people are clinically dead: no heartbeat and no brain waves. The uniformity of their NDEs is amazingly consistent across ages, religions, races and geographical regions.

What makes Fleischmann’s case unique is that he also had a NDE, and he gave the same report his patients did. People brought back tend to be happy, caring, highly relational and lose all fear of death. They report moving toward a light after death, often seeing relatives, and feelings of absolute peace and unconditional love.

This is not quite the Pearly Gates, a greeting from Saint Peter and sitting near the Right Hand of God, but it sounds pretty good. I’m reminded of that snippet from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. If you read the books by JRR Tolkien, he says largely the same thing:

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Given that none of us can escape death, assuming all these experiences continue to progress the way it seems like they should, death should not be something to fear at all. Perhaps it should be welcomed because arguably for many, if not most of us, it’s a great improvement over our reality.

Tethered as we are to this reality, or perhaps to what we think is this reality, only the suicidal will want to hasten their demise. It’s a bit crazy not to fear death, as it seems to be instinctual. So many of those many early Christian martyrs fed to the lions in Roman coliseums must have been crazy. They thought they were earning a place in a heaven. At least it appears that some of them were able to surmount the fear of death to spread the message of Christianity to the heathen.

But overall, religion isn’t helping us confront our mortality in a healthy way. Arguably, most religions make it worse.

These NDEs strongly suggest there is an afterlife, the soul is real and our death moves us into a different, happier and more loving realm. It doesn’t seem to matter how evil you were in life; you are still loved and accepted in the afterlife. It’s kind of hard to get my mind around that given that someone like Jeffrey Epstein recently joined the ranks of the dead. You would figure some of them would deserve eternal torment. Yet if Jesus bought us salvation, then it appears that the Universalists were right: he did so for everyone, for all time. It’s not something you have to earn like a Boy Scout merit badge. It’s something that just is. It’s innate. It’s built in.

You have to look hard to find a religion that tells us not to worry about death, or more specifically eternal damnation as a result of death if you don’t get their religion. Most religions preach just the opposite: you have to work really really hard to get into heaven, or at least be a sincerely good person in this life to get your eternal reward. Yet even Jesus seem to be providing a hint that we are all due salvation. (See Matthew 20).

The atheists aren’t helping either. They don’t believe in an afterlife, hence they don’t believe in NDEs either. Yet it sure looks like they are going to get one whether they like it or not. Or maybe by believing you aren’t going to get one, you actually don’t. There’s no evidence of this though from the many atheists who’ve had NDEs.

Many Buddhists believe we are stuck in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, unless you achieve Nirvana, which is apparently very hard to do. It’s probably easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle, as Jesus also taught. The Buddhists appear to have picked up a lot of this from the Hindus, since Hinduism preceded Buddhism and Hinduism permeated Buddha’s life.

The monotheistic religions all believe in one God and one chance at salvation. Naturally they are very concerned about straightening you out now so you can make it to heaven. Some are arguably more than a bit crazy about it. As I noted in an earlier post, some fundamentalists are actively trying to bring about the end of the world, convinced that they are chosen ones like Donald Trump, and will be raptured.

I would think it should give even a fundamentalist pause to consider that Trump will be raptured too, along all the other sinners out there who they are desperately trying to help see the light, but seem to secretly despise. Frankly, from all the Left Behind books, the Rapture seems like a lot of fun to these elect. It’s like God will be burning these souls like marshmallows over the campfire of Hell, and they get to watch gleefully. After all, they are the chosen, not the rejected.

It’s hard to think of a point to religion if we all make it to a great afterlife for free, and if no one checks our punch cards to make sure we’ve earned our Golden Ticket. The obvious consequence of religion though is to hype our fear of death, so we get so scared that we change our behavior to act and worship a lot like them. And that appears to add a lot of misery to people’s life by pushing them to act in way contrary to their nature. It seems sadistic.

At the very least though, it is not helpful. In fact, it’s very hurtful. We all need to get along in this life as best we can because we are trapped inside this matrix. If religion has a purpose, these NDEs suggest that’s it: to model in some small way the peace and brotherhood and unconditional love we will all find after death, at no charge and unconditionally. Yes, even Donald Trump.

How about some of that religion? And a lot less of the apparently hurtful and counterproductive crap we are getting instead? Sounds good to me. You best not hold your breath.

Religion is failing us, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

We just finished Season 2 of NBC’s series The Good Place, which we are watching on Netflix. It’s a comedy of sorts on the afterlife, more specifically on our views of the afterlife. In this version, pretty much everyone ends up in “The Bad Place”, i.e. Hell. Four clearly flawed not so good people end up in The Good Place, or do they? I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t watched it. Despite some flaws, the show keeps you reasonably engaged, and manages to be reasonably funny while gently lampooning our common notion here in the West about the binary nature of being “good” or “bad” with no allowance for ambiguity.

Here in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live now, at the Bridge Street Cemetery, sits the grave of someone who would recognize these versions of Heaven and Hell. Our progressive city used to have strongly Calvinist roots. Anyhow, we have the remains of Jonathan Edwards, a colonial Calvinist theologian whose sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God you may have read when studying American history. Northampton has since gone all-progressive with (I’m not kidding you) rainbow colored striped crosswalks. We have probably the highest number of lesbians per capita in the country. If Edwards could arise from the grave, he’d probably figure he was in hell with all the same-sex couples here walking around holding hands.

For the most part though, Northampton is a very peaceful, civil and charming place, which is why we retired here. I’m inured to all the rampant homosexuality around me. That’s because while we have a disproportionate number of LGBTQA folks, the majority remains happily heterosexual. We quickly learned that same sex couples holding hands were no threat to us. But you don’t have to drive too far out of Northampton to find plenty of Trump voters. It’s the furthest thing from Sodom and Gomorrah around here.

I can’t say the same thing about El Paso or Dayton, Ohio. Both cities suffered mass shootings recently in less than twenty-four hours. Twenty were killed in or around an El Paso Walmart yesterday by what looks like a 21-year-old white guy from Dallas with a rifle, trying to save White America somehow. Naturally he’s a Trump supporter. Around 1 a.m this morning, a gunman killed nine people and injured 26 others in Dayton. He had a 223-caliber magazine and body armor, which let him unleash mayhem quickly. Fortunately, police were nearby and managed to kill him pretty quickly. We don’t know yet this shooter’s age, race or motives, but there’s an excellent chance he is young, white and a Trump supporter too.

It’s American carnage, Trump-style. Trump is pushing all the buttons to unleash these horrors by his most unhinged supporters.

Religion is supposed to give us a way to not just cope with life, but to improve it. It’s clearly not keeping pace with the pace of change all around us. The response of many religions is to double down on their articles of faith, but doing so seems to unleash only more of the crazy.

America is rife with “Christianity”, but for the most part doesn’t actually practice Christianity. Frankly, religion is failing us. A belief system oriented around a world where most of us were serfs and reported to a lord doesn’t work well in the 21st century. Watching The Good Place, it’s hard not to ask why so many of us still believe these antiquated notions of heaven and hell.

What passes for Christianity these days is largely crazy and destructive. A majority of Christians in our country are clearly Trump supporters. They clearly approve of most of his policies, including separating families at the border and keeping children in cages and people in crowded, inhumane conditions. These days you can only act as a Christian to someone who is a member of your church. All others can be other-ized as not quite human. These “Christians” find “salvation” (comfort) in conformity and closed-mindedness. They want religion to impose order on a world when in fact doing so makes it worse. Christianity is breeding hatred and intolerance. It is making us less Christian every day.

No wonder so many Millennials are giving up on religion altogether. It’s not improving things, and it’s obviously phony and it’s hypocritical. But also Christianity is a very hard religion to practice, at least as Jesus taught it. It requires an open heart and love toward everyone, particularly those most unlike you. It’s clear that most Christians simply cannot and will not go there. It requires giving your treasure to the least of us. It requires you to act contrary to your nature. It requires you to constantly summon your better self and step outside your boundaries and prejudices. Most of us simply can’t, which simply drives cognitive dissonance that charlatans like Donald Trump are using for their own purposes. It feeds that chaos, the narrow-mindedness and the bigotry that is all around us.

Religion needs to be redefined for modern times. Perhaps we are better without it. Making the present try to fit the ideas of a far past is destroying us.

Evangelicals rooting for Armageddon

The Thinker by Rodin

On April 29, I inconveniently pointed out that most Christians in America are acting like the devil. Jesus himself seemed to be aware that people have this tendency, which is captured in the Bible in Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:3:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?

Christianity’s general failing in this area is obvious to most of us heathen and unchurched, as well as (I hope) to those Christians among us who still emulate the actual spirit of Jesus. Granted, it’s not easy to be cognizant of your own glaring hypocrisies. I don’t consider myself immune from this human predisposition. Having this understanding of the “Christians” around me though means nothing to those who would benefit from my insights. They aren’t listening and even if they were they would reject it out of hand. Since I’m not a Christian how can I be believed anyhow? When you have real faith, reason won’t trump it.

It’s one thing to have a lot of the devil in you while proclaiming your devout holiness. It’s another thing entirely to actively work for the end of the world. The latter is intensely evil. And yet as Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks points out, 25% of voting age Americans are hoping for the end of the world and are actively trying to bring it about by voting for people like Donald Trump. America sent a couple of them to Jerusalem the other day to celebrate our unwise decision to move our embassy to there. As you may have read, it led to the death of 62 Palestinians and the wounding of 1200 others or so who were protesting along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

“Praise be to Jesus”, say these end-of-the-worlders about this embassy move. That’s because they can check off one more item on their dubious list of conditions for bringing about Armageddon that they have somehow discerned from reading the book of Revelations. Although the New World wasn’t even imagined in Jesus’s time, apparently one of the conditions for bringing about Armageddon was for the USA has to open an embassy there. Go figure. More than anything else, they want the end of the world. If they can pull off the Biblical conditions, Jesus finally returns to Earth. They can’t wait to be rhapsodized because they are true believers. Oh, and part of the prophecy is the rest of us get to die what looks like painful and miserable deaths, apparently a very Christian thing to do. For 62 Palestinians, they are already fulfilling the prophecy courtesy of the Israeli military. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Among the speakers at the opening of our embassy were pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Back in the 1990s, Hagee had said that Hitler was fulfilling biblical prophecies because his Holocaust caused the creation of Israel. That sure sounds like maybe the Holocaust was okay, at least by him. Jeffress is on record as saying Mormonism and Islam are heresies “from the pit of hell”, said Catholics were led astray by Satan and said that President Obama was “paving the way” for the Antichrist. You would think this might disqualify them from speaking at such an event, but apparently they were featured speakers. Trump’s evangelical supporters form the base of his support so of course they were featured.

Apparently it’s not enough to allow the natural course of events to bring about Armageddon; they must coach it along. So it’s all smiles from these people as more misery and destruction happen across the Middle East. That’s because they see these events as signs that Jesus is getting ready for his second coming. They are not bothered at all by their advocacy of these events. They think they are doing God’s work. That’s right: they have to help others kill lots of people so the Son of God can return to earth and make sure they are raptured. This is sick, sick, sick. Evangelicals are becoming the Antichrist they are looking for. They are clearly suffering from a case of toxic religiosity.

The rest of us don’t matter. The rest of us know what these faith-based people don’t: there is no God (at least nothing resembling what they believe in), that we only have this one planet and that most of us just want to live in it peacefully and for everyone to get along. Jesus was all about love and peace. How on earth can they be pushing for hate and war instead? What the hell is wrong with these people?

If I could be dictator, I would do away with all religion. It’s pretty clear that it works against its own professed aims. It does nothing to unite us, but plenty to factionalize us. It provides a false certainty in an uncertain world and gives its believers a faith and rationalization to inflict endless misery on the rest of us. These kinds of religion are toxic and ultimately self-defeating memes that by its nature must wash over the rest of us who simply want to live decent and peaceful lives.

Doing away with religion wouldn’t mean that mankind would still not be rift in conflict. The communists recognized that religion was evil but even official state atheism could not kill it. If it’s not religion, then ethnic, racial and rich vs. poor conflicts would likely prove just as good at inspiring us to hate.

Some of us though believe that we have evolved past this crap. What we need are rational leaders, people that think through the likely consequences of their actions instead of relying on their biases and impulses. We want leaders that look to diplomacy to solve problems instead of dropping bombs.

Perhaps old-fashioned scorn would work. We should call out people like these Evangelical Christians and hold them to account for stoking the flames of hatred, certainly not to convince them but to convince others on the fence. We are not seeing much evidence of this now, as these people wrap themselves in the cloak of a false Christianity. However, the rational among us must proclaim them for what they are: perhaps nice-sounding people with an evil core perturbed by a religion that says they must be right. They must be opposed at every turn.

The devil in American Christianity

The Thinker by Rodin

A confluence of events is proving just how dead and unchristian most of American Christianity is today. There are exceptions, most notably the Catholic Church. If you can overlook its rampant misogyny and long history of pedophilia, it still thinks it’s important to feed the hungry and shelter the poor regardless of race, color or creed but not always sexual orientation. Moreover, it puts its time and resources where its mouth is.

You have to look pretty hard to find a mainstream Christian denomination in the United States that bears some resemblance to what Jesus preached. The United Church of Christ probably comes closest, but it’s been bleeding members for years. I could also possibly include Unitarian Universalists like me, except being creedless we can’t really be called Christians, although individual members might say they are Christian. We are also a tiny denomination.

For the most part though our churches are mirroring society: becoming socioeconomic havens for tangentially religious people mostly of the same race and social status. They mirror the values of their class and society far more than they practice Christianity as Jesus preached it. Last week in Congress though we witnessed an action that pretty much proved it was dead. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan dismissed its chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, for apparently modeling Jesus a bit too much.

Conroy wasn’t too happy about it but while it lasted it was a great gig for a priest. Priests take vows of poverty but Congress paid him $172,500 a year, far more than I ever made annually in my career. Money though wasn’t the issue here. Conroy apparently got under the skin of influential House Republicans, including the Speaker for constantly reminding them of inconvenient truths about Christianity, such as Christians are supposed to look out for the poor rather than worship at the altar of mammon. Last November, for example, before the House debate on major tax legislation at the well of the House, Conroy said this:

May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

Well, that’s awkward when the tax legislation was mostly about funneling new amounts of government debt directly into the pockets of rich people instead. No wonder Ryan was irked. How about a little prosperity gospel instead, preacher? These people seem to form the base of the Republican Party anyhow. (By the way, “prosperity gospel” is just another name for trickle-down economics.)

Also last week we got a rare moment of candor from a Republican politician, Mick Mulvaney in this case. Mulvaney is the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But he used to be a member of Congress. Reminiscing on those times to a meeting of the American Bankers Association, Mulvaney cut to the chase:

We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.

Mulvaney clearly believes in a government of, by, and for the corporation. If you wanted his attention, you had to bribe him through campaign contributions. No one else mattered.

Now in the ultimate irony, Evangelical Christians are wholeheartedly are behind Philanderer-in-Chief and complete moral failure Donald J. Trump. He garners at least 80% support from this group and nothing in his sinful personal life seems to dissuade them from supporting him. It’s not that they see Trump as a good Christian. Trump hardly ever attends church services. His church is the golf course. About the only time you will see him in a church will be if some prominent politician dies, and even then his attendance is iffy. He skipped Barbara Bush’s recent funeral. He clearly doesn’t read the Bible; in fact he doesn’t read much of anything.

These “Christians” tend to see Trump as a necessary evil: God working in mysterious ways. What they really care about is not his many moral failings but his willingness to move forward with a radical conservative agenda. If Trump can appoint another Supreme Court justice that overturns Roe v. Wade, doesn’t that justify their support? They must have excised Matthew 16:26 from their Bible:

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

In truth though American Christians have largely thrown away the New Testament. What really engages them though is the Old Testament, particularly its authoritarian parts, parts that were largely replaced in the New Testament. One of Jesus’s primary missions was to redefine Judaism into a more benign, charitable and universal religion. American Christians though seem determined to place the Ten Commandments in government spaces. But they never demand that the Beatitudes to occupy such public places instead, and these are words Jesus actually said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

With the ouster of House Chaplain Conroy, it’s clear that these thoughts are unwelcome in Congress. But that’s okay. It’s abundantly clear they are unwelcome as well in what passes for American Christianity today.

The devil made them do it.

Some questions for pro-lifers

The Thinker by Rodin

I do have some friends that are pro-life. There’s nothing wrong with that and certainly in principle since the opposite of pro-life is pro-death, well who really wants to be that?

Pro-life though generally has a more specific meaning, at least here in the United States. It means that you are against abortion, generally at any stage of a pregnancy for any reason and want law to criminalize abortions. Some though do make exceptions in the case of rape and incest.

The most common reason for being pro-life is: since only God gives life then only God should be able to take it away. And the fetus is defenseless and can’t speak for itself, but if it had a voice would say, “I want to live!” So in the minds of pro-lifers for a human to take away a life that hasn’t gone to term means you are murdering a human being, even if the “human being” is just an inert blastocyst consisting of a couple of dozen cells. Murder is a crime and in the eyes of most Christians and Jews a sin, presumably because it violates the 6th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Naturally I have some questions for pro-lifers. Feel free to leave comments with your answers. My suspicion is that most pro-lifers simply don’t think through these questions. First, their ministers tell it is so that’s good enough for them. Second, if they parse these questions of mine it will probably set up cognitive dissonance. Most of us deal with cognitive dissonance by not thinking about it. So I don’t expect much if any response from pro-lifers as these questions simply won’t be read. But just in case, please satisfy my curiosity.

  • If you believe that only God can create life, are you saying the mother and father had no part in creating life, and that it’s only coincidence that sexual intercourse (or artificial insemination) is involved? In other words, that all conceptions are essentially virgin births and that God has somehow magically combined the DNA of the mother and father?
  • If there is a miscarriage, is God complicit in the murder of the fetus?
  • If so, is God a murderer? Or is this some sort of mysterious love beyond our grasp?
  • If God is a murderer, doesn’t that make God in some part also evil, and thus not worthy of worship?
  • If God does not cause miscarriages, then whose fault is it? Are the parents at fault, maybe for not going to the obstetrician enough? Is the mother to blame because ultimately it is her body?
  • If it’s the parents’ fault that a miscarriage occurred, should they be charged with murder or face other criminal charges? If so, what is appropriate? Presumably the death penalty it out.
  • If a miscarriage is neither God’s nor the parents’ fault, does this mean that some actions are essentially nondeterministic and no one’s fault?
  • Should the government take all necessary actions for every pregnancy to go to term? Should this include providing free neonatal vitamins and prenatal care if necessary?
  • At what stage if any do you stop becoming pro-life? For example, if an adult commits murder, are you okay with their execution at the hands of the state?
  • If so why can only God take away life before birth, but it’s okay in some cases for man to take away life after birth? (I’m guessing there are quotes in the Bible that would justify this, but they seem to conflict with the 6th Commandment. If so how do you resolve the conflict?)
  • If only God can take away life, are we under an obligation to extend every human life as long as humanly possible? Should we forbid voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide and hospice care in favor of all measures to extend life as long as possible, no matter how much pain and suffering this may cause to the dying person? Where do you draw the line and why?
  • Should we care about a child not yet brought to term more than a human being already born? If so, why? If not, can I also assume that you are in favor of any taxation necessary to ensure that all people live as long as possible? If not, please explain.
  • If we should ensure that all people live as long as possible, should we also do everything to ensure they live as health and misery-free lives as possible? If not, why not?
  • Are diseases caused by sin?
  • If diseases are not caused by sin, why does God allow them to exist, as they tend to cause misery and shorten lives?
  • If you allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest but are otherwise pro-life, why do you make these exceptions? Did not God want these lives to happen?
  • Do you think the use of contraception is a sin? Why or why not? Please explain.
  • Do you acknowledge that overpopulation is straining our ecosystem?
  • If so and trends continue is there any point at which society must control the population to ensure the survival of the species?
  • If not and our ecosystem breaks down due to excessive human population and climate change, leading to the extinction of our species and massive misery and death, are you okay with this? Why?

Curious minds, well at least this mind wants to know.

Judgment Day? Dear God, please start at the White House

The Thinker by Rodin

For being “retired”, life sure is keeping me busy, too busy to find much time to blog. The thing about being retired is that you can do anything you want. For me this means doing more of the stuff I love, which is teaching and consulting, both of which provide some income too. Blogging doesn’t bring in any money so it tends to sit on the back burner some weeks. For the last two weeks or so I’ve had little downtime.

I’ve not been at a loss for topics though, which is why I’ve decided to skip for now my monthly Craigslist casual encounters post (sorry, fans!). Mostly I’ve been thinking about evil and by extension evil people. There are so many sterling examples of late, particularly the people in the White House. My brother-in-law, one of the few right-wingers in my life, posted a picture of Trump and a bunch of his execs in the White House praying, or pretending to pray. His remark was something like: “Something you never saw in the last administration, ha ha! Isn’t it good to have real Christians in the White House?”

Trump and staff hypocritically "praying"
Trump and staff hypocritically “praying”

Yeah, right. I’m careful not to leave snarky comments with Rick, my brother in law. I have to live with him and he’s a good husband to my sister too. We can easily push each other’s buttons but choose not too and arguably I’m more publicly expressive of my opinions than he is of his.

Yet the photo really irked me. First of all, I sincerely doubt Trump has uttered a sincere prayer in his life, unless it was to plead to God to bring him more money. Second, for all of Obama’s haphazard churchgoing, Obama is something of a regular churchgoer compared to Trump. As best I can tell the only time Trump goes to church is to attend weddings, funerals and more recently political events. At a prayer breakfast in February he used the religious occasion to pray for poor ratings for The Apprentice, now that Arnold Schwarzenegger in playing the boss.

As for the rest of these White House “Christians”, Jesus would not recognize any of them as his followers. I won’t expound here about hypocritical Christians in general because I’ve done so many time, including this post. I … just … don’t … get … it. I don’t get how these “Christians” can believe they are Christian. I don’t believe Trump thinks he’s a Christian and I doubt he spends a millisecond thinking about God or concerning himself with the poor, except to pick their pockets.

The whole lot of these White House stoolies are running as fast as they can away from The Lord, by doing their damnedest to make the rich richer and the poor poorer (not to mention kill the planet) while trying desperately to humiliate the poor in the process. Include in this bunch my brother in law Rick, a faithful Catholic in the sense that he goes to Mass weekly, tithes his share but otherwise lives values wholly inconsistent with Christianity. Ironically, some of the most Christian people I know are atheists. In the unlikely event of the Rapture, I totally expect most of today’s “Christians” will be dumbstruck when their atheist neighbors ascend into heaven while the pit of hell opens up for them. It’s like Matthew 19:21 is excised from their Bibles, you know: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”

Speaking of brothers in law, I have another one, well, not quite a brother in law, but the husband of a niece. We recently got into something of a civilized rant on Facebook. My niece was wondering if there were any really great men in the world. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. I said: drive a couple of hundred miles south to Plains, Georgia some Sunday and watch the 39th president, James Earl Carter, teach Sunday school. Or watch him, age 90-something, nailing boards into walls at one of the many Habitat for Humanity houses he and his organization help construct. Jimmy Carter gives me hope that there really are some true Christians in the world. After all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Carter Center has overseen more than a hundred elections, spreading democracy across the world.

But none of that mattered to my niece’s husband John. He has spent too much time watching Fox News. And somewhere in there he heard that Carter sent money to commies, Manuel Noriega of Nicaragua in this case, although we’re talking about the late 1970s. What a horrible man! Granted that history was not kind to his short presidency, but he did get a Nobel Prize from it and took unpopular but correct actions, such as agreeing to turn the Panama Canal over to the Panamanians. We kept the discourse pretty civil, largely due to his wife Sandy who was probably sending him IMs saying she wanted to stay on my good side. Alas, neither John nor brother in law Rick have anything good to say about Jimmy Carter, the most prominent example of a true Christian I can think of in today’s world. Jimmy Carter is by no means a saint, but he is a saintly man. He is holy in my mind, one of a handful of holy men in this world for who this honor should be obvious.

But not to John, not to Rick, and probably not to any of them people in the photo, except possibly the minister leading these hypocrites in prayer. Doubtless immediately after the photo op, the base applauded their “true Christians” while the subjects went back to deconstructing the administrative state, the professed aim of Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon which hopefully will include a new world war too.

I wish I could be a Christian just long enough to believe in Hell. With a few exceptions, I’m having a hard time thinking of a group of people more deserving to spend eternity there than the hypocrites in the photo. Fortunately, Jesus loves even dregs of humanity like them, even though their sacred mission seems to be to facilitate Satan by making more Americans poor, sick, hungry, anxious and scared.

Well, I’m not a Christian. Although I don’t believe in hell, here’s a toast wishing them a speedy entrance to it anyhow. The whole bunch of you in that photo can go to hell.

Today Jesus would be an atheist

The Thinker by Rodin

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

Shame on the Mormon Church for shaming innocent children!

The Thinker by Rodin

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit more charitable toward the Mormon Church. It’s like they are starting to grow a conscience. Perhaps indirectly it is due to Pope Francis who has been reaching out to communities like divorced Catholics and gays, and that’s causing them to feel the pressure. Both Catholics and Mormons are still opposed to gay marriage. Not much of a surprise there. But surprisingly in January the Mormon Church has voiced support for housing and employment rights for LGBTs. It’s not wholly unconditional as they demand accommodations for those who see it as immoral, but for the Mormon Church this is quite a leap.

Well, that was January and here it is November and the Mormon Church just announced a policy that makes me want to spit nails. I guess I should not be too surprised that the church considers couples in a same sex marriage as apostates. To become Mormons these same sex couples must effectively divorce each other and must also disavow these types of marriages too. After all a marriage in the church’s eyes must be between one man and one woman (although at one time could be between one man and multiple women, so apparently the policy is fungible.)

But to discriminate against the children born from a same sex marriage is beyond reprehensible. It’s one thing to put a Scarlet A on Hester’s bosom; it’s quite another thing to do the same thing to her child’s. But the Mormon Church, yes, they are going there. According to CNN:

A new Mormon church policy considers church members in same-sex marriages as apostates whose children will be barred from baptism and church membership unless they disavow same-sex unions.

Suppose these children want to be Mormon? They must wait until they are adults. Oh and they must renounce gay marriage too, effectively estranging them from their same sex parents. Then they can join and be baptized in the Mormon Church.

I’m not too much up on Mormon theology, so maybe baptism is not as big a deal as it is in the Catholic Church. At least when I was growing up Catholic if you were not baptized and died you could not get into heaven. You weren’t sent to hell but the theology, as I understood it, was that these souls ended up in Limbo. Perhaps they eventually got into heaven at some murky date after the end of the world.

In any event to shame innocent children for the “sins” of their parents and worse to force them to effectively renounce their parents to belong to the Mormon community as an adult is just vile — it’s like the shaming bastard children used to endure. Maybe vile isn’t quite the word, I just can’t think of a word worse than vile. It should have any Mormon with any compassion in their soul running at a sprint to get away from their evil “church”.

The problem with being a Mormon is a lot like being a devout Catholic, particularly in Utah where the population is overwhelmingly Mormon. Not being a Mormon is effectively to be apart from the rest of your community, and not in a good way. Obviously it’s not like that everywhere in Utah, and in particular not true in Salt Lake City with its heavy LGBT population. In any event the policy is just plain mean and the exact opposite of Christ’s message, which was about inclusiveness and unconditional love.

The Mormon Church is effectively sticking a badge of shame on any child of a same sex couple. It’s a badge that in certain heavily Mormon communities will put these children at a disadvantage. For when society says you are different and when you get this message from most of the people in your community, you can’t help but pick it up and bury it deeply inside you. The unspoken message is there is something wholly broken in you. As children it doesn’t take much to feel and integrate shame into your personality. Many children never get over these feelings of toxic shame. They carry it throughout life, in this case through no fault of their own, living broken lives.

So this policy is not only wrong, it shames the institution of the Mormon Church and proclaims very loudly to the rest of us that it is a false church. The rest of us — that is the rest of us with a conscience — must send a loud and clear message to the Mormon Church that this latest act is truly evil.

We must embrace the innocent children of same sex relationships with the same unconditional love due any child. Every person, child or adult, has equal dignity, has inherent respect and must be loved for who they are. God is color blind, but apparently the Mormon Church is not.

To the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: shame on you for your toxic and evil policy. To the extent I am a praying man, I pray that this policy is short lived and that your so-called church personally apologizes to every couple or child or such couple affected by this decision.

Dear Pope Francis: you are half the way there

The Thinker by Rodin

Presumably Pope Francis is now back in Rome and settling in after a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States. He’s a pope who is hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes out of the Jesuits. For a pope he is also suspiciously pragmatic.

He was not shy expressing his opinions while in the United States. Mostly they gave Republicans heartburn as he preached to them on subjects they did not want to hear: that poor people had equal rights, that income inequality had to be addressed and that global climate change was a serious problem. He spoke passionately of the refugee crisis affecting mostly Europe and asked America to do its part compassionately. He complained that corporations were not working in the interests of the people as a whole.

Democrats did not wholly escape his preaching. He spoke passionately about the family, but his idea of a family looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver’s and seemed to exclude marriage for same sex couples. Still, overall it was refreshing to hear messages from a pontiff that were truthful and people-centric. Francis is a catholic in the apostolic and universal sense of the word. He even acknowledged that those who do not believe in God could be good people simply by acting as good people.

It’s not enough to make me return to the Catholic Church. It’s a lost cause in my case, as I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I don’t believe in miracles, saints and most of the peculiar beliefs of Catholics. I’m too left-brained. But his words as well as his actions (like having dinner with homeless people and riding in the back of a Fiat instead of a limousine) convinced me he is a much different pope, beloved as few will be, and acting in the spirit of Jesus. Pope John Paul II was much loved and is even on his way to sainthood, but Pope Francis’ appeal extends significantly beyond the Catholic faithful to much of the world at large.

I really tuned into his message on climate change. He introduced a small ray of hope into a problem that looks gloomy at best and catastrophic to humans and most species on the planet at worst. Perhaps some of his grounding on the matter came from outside the church. Before becoming a priest, Francis worked as a chemist. He earned the rough equivalent of an associate of science degree in chemistry in Argentina. Francis understands enough about chemistry to know that when you introduce too much carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, with no other changes to the system then temperatures will increase and it will affect most living species. He sees the obvious costs of our industrialization and acknowledges that the earth is finite and we cannot continue to exploit the earth’s resources so unintelligently.

What he did not acknowledge was that population growth is a major driver of climate change. Without an end to population growth and probably a long-term effort to reduce the earth’s population, climate change cannot be reversed. Humans drive almost all climate change because we all put demands on the earth simply to survive. The problem is much worse in industrialized societies because with increased standards of living we want more stuff, and this consumption also feeds climate change.

It’s not enough to practice “natural family planning” as a population control solution. The Catholic Church advocates refraining from intercourse during a wife’s fertile period and abstinence as the only non-sinful ways to limit family size. The rhythm method of course is chancy at best, which leaves abstinence as the only foolproof and sinless methods of birth control for devout Catholics. It makes it virtually impossible to be both a devout Catholic and an environmentalist. If you are familiar with Catholic theology then you know that using birth control pills, IUDs and prophylactics are sinful.

If Francis truly wants to take a concrete action to address climate change then simply giving Catholics permission to use these and similar forms of birth control would be a huge step forward. Of course in many parts of the world, people are too poor to afford birth control, so also stridently arguing that governments should make birth control universally available for free to all citizens is as necessary as giving birth control devices church sanction. Among the many benefits will be a reduction in abortions. Children never conceived cannot be aborted.

China’s somewhat loosened one child per family policy was effective at limiting its population growth, but at a horrendous cost. It meant forced abortions mostly of females and arguably wreaked a lot of psychological damage. It’s not hard to envision a time when climate change becomes so pressing that something like this becomes policy in most countries. While it may be necessary to do this simply to survive as a species, such policies would be the opposite of humane.

This doesn’t have to happen. With over a billion adherents, if the Catholic Church were to change its policies on birth control then it would do a huge amount in the medium term to limit population growth and subsequent climate change. It would be a humane step forward. Francis has the power to do this today.

I am not a praying man by nature, but I pray that Pope Francis will see the light on this and very soon. Our future, and the perpetuity of the Catholic Church may depend on it.

Death by religion

The Thinker by Rodin

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today are suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks it has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.