The Contributions of Freethinkers: Wole Soyinka

I wasn't familiar with Wole Soyinka, the first African author ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, until I got a Google alert for his name the other day. You can probably guess why - it turns out he's an atheist, as I learned from this article in the Nigerian Tribune grousing about it:

Although I might not be able to quote him verbatim, Professor Soyinka had replied thus. "The reason why I don't believe in God is simple. I simply cannot imagine that somebody (emphasis mine) will be responsible for the action of billions of people. I think everybody should be held responsible for his actions and inaction."

That I was taken aback by his response was to say the least. How on earth could Professor Soyinka give such an absymally poor answer? However, since Professor Soyinka has stirred the hornets' nest, I will like him to answer the following questions: Who is responsible for the phenomenon of sleeping and wakefulness? What about the mystery of day and night; who is in control?

As simple as this may sound, can the Professor explain the process of hair growth on his head? Who created him or even if he is a believer in the evolution school of thought, who created that creature that he evolved from? Who created all the wonderful things we see around us - the mountains, valleys, oceans seas etc. What about the phenomenon of birth and death?

The ignorant writer of this column, so blinkered by his own worldview, can't even conceive that an atheist's answer to these questions doesn't involve a "who". Nor is it a surprise that he has no counterargument to offer, other than an exceptionally shoddy presentation of the god-of-the-gaps argument.

But religious griping aside, Wole Soyinka is a man we should be proud to claim as one of our own. In addition to his prodigious poetic and literary output, he's consistently been a champion of peace and democracy. During the Nigerian civil war that began in 1967, he was imprisoned for 22 months for writing an article that called for a cease-fire. Later, in the 1990s, he spoke out against the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha (who was tied to "The Family", the right-wing American political group). The Abacha regime responded by convicting Soyinka of treason in absentia and sentencing him to death, forcing him to flee the country. (He returned to Nigeria in 1999 when civilian rule was reinstated, and continues to write muckraking articles about rampant political corruption.) His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to Nelson Mandela and was a strong critique of the apartheid South African regime.

I also came across an interview Soyinka did with Free Inquiry, titled "Why I Am a Secular Humanist". Some excerpts:

Humanism for me represents taking the human entity as the center of world perception, of social organization and indeed of ethics, deciding in other words what is primarily of the greatest value for humans as opposed to some remote extraterrestrial or ideological authority. And so from that point of view, I consider myself a humanist.

I have nothing but contempt for religions that kill in the name of piety.... If they believe passionately in their deity, they should reserve to that deity the authority to exact vengeance. They shouldn't make themselves the instrument of imagined wrongs. That applies to any religion, it applies to the insanity between the Hindus and the Muslims in India, to the Jewish extremists in Israel. It applies to any kind of religion in the world.

Are there other African freethinkers I should know about? Post your suggestions in the comments!

Other posts in this series:

September 30, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink17 comments
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The Duty of External Obedience

While I was doing research for "The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium", I came across some amazing passages in the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia's article on infallibility. Since it can be safely assumed that these still represent the Catholic church's viewpoint, I thought it was worth calling some wider attention to them.

The article starts out by making the same threats that are endemic to all forms of Christianity: the ominous proclamation that the church is infallible, and if you don't believe what they tell you to believe, you face an eternity of torment:

...the Church is entitled to claim infallible doctrinal authority. This conclusion is confirmed by considering the awful sanction by which the Church's authority is supported: all who refuse to assent to her teaching are threatened with eternal damnation.

(I like to imagine the pope holding a flashlight under his chin while he says that. Woooo, spooky!)

Now, as I mentioned in the previous post, the church doesn't claim that all its teachings are infallible, just the ones that it says are infallible. But from the standpoint of the ordinary man or woman in the pews, it doesn't matter, because the church says that the penalty for rejecting any church teaching, whether claimed to be infallible or not, is the same. Disbelieving anything the church commands you to believe is a mortal sin, and those who die with a mortal sin on their souls, etc., etc. The New Advent article acknowledges this:

...[T]he same penalty is threatened for disobedience to fallible disciplinary laws or even in some cases for refusing to assent to doctrinal teaching that is admittedly fallible.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that it proves the church's allegedly God-given authority is a sham, because in the past they've demanded that people give their assent to claims which even the church now admits are false. The most obvious case, of course, is when a church tribunal censored Galileo's writings, threatened him with torture and consigned him to house arrest for teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. And the New Advent article acknowledges this, but the apologetic they propose is truly staggering in its delusional arrogance:

...in the Catholic system internal assent is sometimes demanded, under pain of grievous sin, to doctrinal decisions that do not profess to be infallible. [But]... the assent to be given in such cases is recognized as being not irrevocable and irreversible, like the assent required in the case of definitive and infallible teaching, but merely provisional; and in the next place, internal assent is obligatory only on those who can give it consistently with the claims of objective truth on their conscience - this conscience, it is assumed, being directed by a spirit of generous loyalty to genuine Catholic principles.

To take a particular example, if Galileo who happened to be right [who "happened" to be right? —Ebonmuse] while the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned him was wrong, had really possessed convincing scientific evidence in favour of the heliocentric theory, he would have been justified in refusing his internal assent to the opposite theory, provided that in doing so he observed with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience.

What this means, if I read it right, is that Catholics are required to believe everything the church tells them to believe - unless they know for a fact it's false, in which case they can secretly withhold their assent. But even so, they're still required to act and speak as if they believe the thing they know is false, and they're still required to obey any command the church gives that's based on that falsehood, which may include a decree of censorship ordering them to never discuss the thing they know is true or even to destroy the evidence that shows it to be true.

And if the church issues an ex cathedra proclamation, even that option of completely ineffectual resistance is taken away. Anything that's taught infallibly, Catholics aren't permitted to doubt, even inwardly. They're required to believe it wholeheartedly and that's that, and if they don't, they put themselves at risk of eternal damnation.

The church's claim of absolute authority over the lives and even the inward thoughts of its members shows how far it hasn't come. In fact, its mindset hasn't really changed at all from its medieval, theocratic past - the days when it really did have the power it now only believes it has, when it could compel governments to obedience and threaten heretics with torture and death. Inside the Vatican, it's as if time has stood still for centuries: the church's rulers dwell in faded citadels surrounded by memories of past empire, and still delude themselves that they command the eternal destiny of the world. They're welcome to live their lives in dreams of the past if they wish, but when they venture out into the present day and pompously proclaim their superiority over the rest of us, the only response they should get is the laughter and scorn they so richly deserve.

September 21, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments
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The Watchtower's Apocalyptic Pratfalls

Since we all had a hearty laugh at the antics of Harold Camping earlier this summer, I thought you might appreciate a little more light comedy. Presented here for your approval are some excerpts from Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a famous the-end-is-near book published in 1920. You can download the entire book in PDF form, or read some more background about it, from this link.

The emphatic announcement that millions now living on earth will never die must seem presumptuous to many people; but when the evidence is carefully considered I believe that almost every fair mind will concede that the conclusion is a reasonable one.

Millions was published by the Watchtower, also known as the Jehovah's Witnesses, which like Camping's cult has a record of publicly embarrassing itself with apocalyptic pratfalls. But even more significant is the identity of its author: J.F. Rutherford, the second president of the Watchtower Society and one of the founders of the Jehovah's Witness movement, which had its roots in the Bible Student movement begun by Charles Taze Russell after his split from the Millerites (whom I've written about here).

The conditions which have arisen in the world since 1914 are distressing and perplexing. All the rulers of earth are perplexed. The financiers are in perplexity; the business men are in perplexity; the people are in perplexity; and all are in distress. [p.57]

Like Camping, Rutherford bases his argument on numerology, stringing together various bible verses to "prove" that the end would come 2,520 years after Nebuchadnezzar's overthrow of the Israelites, which he says occurred in 606 BCE (most modern scholars think the date was 586 BCE). This brings us to 1914, the date of World War I, which he claims was the beginning of the end. Although the book was published after the war had ended, Rutherford didn't hesitate to treat it as a sign that the "old order of things" was passing away and God's kingdom on earth would soon arrive. And did you know that capitalism is a herald of the end of days?

Selfishness seems to pervade every line of business. The landlord, feeling that he may not get another such chance to reap a harvest, increases the rent upon his tenant. The groceryman, the dealer in other foodstuffs, clothing, etc., seem to fear that another opportunity will not come and that now advantage must be taken of this opportunity to get all the money possible... All of this is but in fulfillment of the words of Jesus. [p.58]

As with modern evangelicals, the emergence of the Zionist movement was a tremendous excitement to Rutherford's imagination. The first stirrings of intent to create a Jewish homeland, the first few settlers who moved back to Palestine, took on tremendous importance to him as fulfillment of the New Testament prophecy of the fig tree. And he explains clearly what the next sign will be:

...since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favor, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth. [p.88]

Rutherford makes good use of a standard trick of apocalypse-real-sooners: he switches freely between literal and metaphorical interpretations of different verses, or even different parts of the same verse, as needed to prove his point. For example, in Jesus' Olivet Discourse, he identifies the "wars and rumors of wars" as the literal World War I and the pestilence as the literal 1914 Spanish flu; but the "earthquakes", he says, were the communist revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe. (The fact that no major earthquake fitting the bill occurred in 1914 was probably the motivation for this creativity.) The verse about the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, meanwhile, magically becomes a reference to the ecumenical movement [p.42-44].

Every apocalypse-real-soon book contains a few bits of off-the-wall theology, and Rutherford's is no exception. He shows the paranoid hallmarks of the demonically obsessed, claiming that World War I was started by demons influencing world leaders [p.60], and maintains the belief, which the Jehovah's Witnesses hold to this day, that all world governments and institutions are controlled by Satan [p.81]. There's also this section about how God plans to make humankind immortal:

...had Adam remained in Eden, feeding upon the perfect food it afforded, he would have continued to live. The judgment was executed against him by causing him to feed upon imperfect food. Perfect food, therefore, seems a necessary element to sustain human life everlastingly. When the kingdom of Messiah is inaugurated, the great Messiah will make provision for right food conditions... a man of seventy years of age will gradually be restored to a condition of physical health and mental balance. [p.99-100]

Clearly, Pastor Rutherford missed his calling. He could have made a great deal of money if he'd published a diet book. ("The Divine Diet: Eat Well and Live Forever! It's how Jesus would have snacked!")

How do the Jehovah's Witnesses handle the embarrassment of a failed prophecy by one of their founders? For the most part, they ignore or downplay it as "overoptimism" or "merely an expressed opinion", even though Rutherford himself described his predictions for this date as "positive and indisputable" [p.97] and elsewhere called it "proven certainty" (source). Ironically, as recently as 1997, the Watchtower magazine recycled Rutherford's failed prediction and claimed "with full confidence" that it actually applies to people living today! These apocalyptic books must be a reliable source of income for publishers: once they've been written, they can be reissued every few decades with only minor corrections.

August 12, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments
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Dispatches from Future America: Nation Ratifies Reproductive Rights Amendment

[Editor's Note: The last dispatch I received in this ongoing series was particularly bleak. As if on cue, I got another message the other day, this one apparently originating from a very different, and much rosier, future. I get the strong impression that these two possible worlds are, in some manner, competing against each other.]

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI (August 6, 2037) — The Thirty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified today after passing the Mississippi state legislature by more than the required two-thirds majority, making Mississippi the crucial thirty-eighth state to approve the proposal. The new amendment, which takes effect immediately, defines "the freedom to exercise control over one's own reproductive system" as "an inviolable human right which may not be transgressed by any federal, state or local government or any employee thereof".

Cheering crowds packed the halls of the statehouse where Gov. Jasmine Victoria Meredith symbolically signed the measure into law after its passage by the legislature. "From this day forward, Mississippi's place in history as a champion of women's rights is assured," said the governor. "With these penstrokes, we erase the follies and crimes of the long-gone past - the anti-miscegenation laws, the shameful forced sterilizations, the hostility toward basic rights of reproductive choice - and step into a new era where the fundamental liberties of every human being will be respected and defended."

Advocates of the measure traced the roots of their victory back to the early 2010s. "When the government issued regulations requiring that insurers cover contraception as part of the health-insurance overhaul, it galvanized the feminist movement nationwide," said Feminist Majority Foundation president Amanda Marcotte. "The new generation of politically active women who emerged to defend that move turned out to play a major role in the progressive revolution of the early 2020s."

Among other things, historians credit the revitalized feminist movement with securing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 2023. "But in spite of the improvements that brought about, there was ground left uncovered," added Marcotte. "That led to the National Childcare Act of 2026, which required all large employers to offer nine months of paid parental leave, finally bringing the U.S. into parity with the rest of the developed world. Ironically, it was these liberal measures that brought about the dramatic decline in the divorce rate that religious conservatives had so long wished for. When that became obvious, further reforms began to snowball. The most dramatic, of course, was the Congressional approval of a strong, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum for all public schools nationwide, and the effects of that silenced even the most stubborn naysayers. The rate of new HIV infections was already plummeting even before a vaccine was finally approved in 2031."

The newly approved amendment is intended to build on these gains. One of its provisions defines access to safe and effective contraception as a "public good" which the government is obliged to provide. "In most areas of the country, this was a formality," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Still, there are a few conservative regions that tried to keep out family-planning clinics with burdensome regulations and regular harassment from protesters. The passage of this amendment should offer a solid ground for a court challenge striking down those laws, as well as providing federal resources for clinic escorts where local officials are unwilling or unable to provide them."

The decision was not without its critics. "This law constitutes grave heresy, the arrogant decision of a godless nation that presumes to place itself above the infallible will of God," said a statement issued by Pope Honorius V. "It is not the place of man to declare that he controls his own body when Holy Mother Church clearly teaches otherwise. All those who voted in defiance of our earlier commandment on this matter are hereby declared to be anathema."

Most political observers expected the papal blast to have no effect. "The last census found that the number of practicing Catholics in America is under 3 million and falling," said CNN's Jones. "The church's membership has been declining for decades, driven by an exodus of young people reacting to Rome's unbending bigotry on the the long-settled issue of same-sex marriage, its ongoing refusal to ordain women despite a crippling shortage of priests, and the continuing fallout from the convictions of top church officials in Poland, India and the Philippines for covering up child molestation. The Vatican has long since rendered itself irrelevant as a political force."

With victory in hand, the backers of the new amendment have vowed to look abroad for their next steps. "Although America has guaranteed its citizens the right to education and sexual freedom, not every country in the world still enjoys those same privileges," said Gov. Meredith. "Despite the dramatic slowing of the global birthrate, we have much work left to do before world population stabilizes at a sustainable level. With the momentum of today's victory, I hope we can prevail upon Congress to do more to expand American support of family-planning and childhood vaccination efforts worldwide. The 1% of GDP we're currently devoting to this problem isn't nearly enough."

August 8, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink77 comments
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The Natural Law Argument Against Procreation

"Nobody has the right to harm others. Yet, homosexuality is a harmful behavior. It is obviously harmful to its practitioners — the clinical evidence for all manner of psychological and physical problems created by acting on homosexual impulses is well established. Homosexuality is destructive to self because it uses the human body in ways that it simple [sic] was not intended to be used by nature and nature's God."

In the above quote, religious-right columnist Tim Dunkin argues that we know homosexuality is immoral because of the physical and psychological harm that it causes. The lasting damage that gay people do to their bodies, he says, is proof that they're misusing them in ways that God never intended.

Well, I think he's onto something. The only thing is, I think he's aiming at the wrong target. There's a practice that indisputably causes far more harm, wreaks far more destruction on human bodies and minds, than homosexuality. That practice is heterosexual procreation, and I hope that sensible, right-thinking Christians across the land will join with me in urging Congress to pass a law banning this wicked and sinful act.

Do you doubt that procreation is against natural law? Well, just consider this evidence.

First of all, there's the hymen. This membrane, which is a completely natural part of women's bodies, covers and protects the vaginal opening - clear evidence of God's benevolent design and his intention not to permit anything to pass through. When the hymen is torn, often during a woman's first act of intercourse, the usual result is pain and blood, which is tangible proof of the harm done by disobeying God's will. Why, some women have to have surgery just to make it possible for them to have sex! What clearer proof could there be that we're misusing our bodies and going against natural law when we do it?

But if a woman disregards God's will and goes on to have sex and become pregnant, worse harm often follows. For one thing, the narrow pelvis of human beings makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an entire baby to fit through. In developing countries, this causes obstructed labor, which is still a leading cause of maternal death. In advanced countries, godless doctors "solve" this problem with episiotomy or even Caesarean section - major surgery that involves cutting through the abdominal wall! Don't you think that, if giving birth was in accord with God's plan, he would have designed the human body to do it easily and without pain or harm? The fact that women are trying to push babies through a channel which something that size would never normally fit through is clear proof that they're blatantly defying natural law.

Even when the act of giving birth succeeds, severe complications often follow that are destructive to the woman's health. One of the most common is obstetric fistula, a terrible injury that results in incontinence, infections and paralysis. Psychological consequences sometimes follow as well, such as postpartum depression and even postpartum psychosis. And, please note, none of these are occasional add-ons like STDs - they follow directly and intrinsically from childbirth itself! How can the many harmful consequences of procreation not convince you that it's an unnatural and objectively disordered act in plain violation of natural law?

The only solution is to pass a just and sensible law, or better yet a constitutional amendment, banning this immoral practice. Since people can't be trusted to use their bodies responsibly as God intended, we true Christians have no choice but to force them to do the right thing. The Bible itself says clearly that lifelong celibacy is always the better choice, so we know that this law would be correct in God's eyes. What better argument do we need to make it a part of the secular law that's binding on everyone?

August 3, 2011, 5:57 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink47 comments
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A Not At All Relevant to Elevatorgate Post

I first saw this on Google+ and, given the flame wars that have roiled atheism lately, I thought it was worth sharing. Who knows but that it may help some people to see these issues presented in a different context.

You may have heard of Wil Wheaton (and if you don't, and you consider yourself a geek, you have some explaining to do). Well, the other day, he posted this:

When I was a Teen Idol, and I traveled to New York for publicity all the time, it was fairly common for a handful of super weird people to hang out all day in front of my hotel, or in the lobby of my hotel, so they could pounce on me whenever I tried to enter or leave, and demand as many autographs as they could. It was really creepy and awful, and I always hated it. It was more than a little scary. I mean, who in the world spends an entire day sitting in one place waiting for someone? Oh, I know: crazy people.

...When we walked out of the SyFy party on Saturday night, a pack of people -- probably 12 or 15, I'd guess -- appeared out of nowhere, and surrounded me. They shoved pictures into my face, thrust pens at me, and made it so that I couldn't even move. They separated me from my friends and my son, and, quite frankly, terrified me.

Let's stop for a second and think about this: in what kind of world is it acceptable to surround a person you do not know, separate them from the people they are with, and essentially trap them? Maybe in crazy entitled psycho world, but not the world I live in.

I certainly hope the parallels are sufficiently clear. Stalking a person and waiting until they're in a semi-private or private setting, rather than approaching them during the public event they were just attending? Check. Trapping them in a situation they can't easily escape so that you can force your attention on them, regardless of what they may think about it? Check. And acting like a pack of braying, entitled jackasses when that person responds poorly? Yep, we've got that too:

A woman stormed up next to me and said, "If you don't sign these things for me, I'm going to tell Twitter what an asshole you really are."

Do you think we'll hear the usual excuses in this situation? "Hey, those people couldn't have known their idol wouldn't like them stalking him and waiting for him outside his hotel to demand autographs. Some stars would probably have welcomed it! They had the absolute right to talk to him, and if he didn't want to interact with them, all he had to do was say so. How would ordinary people ever meet their favorite celebrities if we declare in advance that they're never allowed to talk to them under any circumstances?" Do these rationalizations still sound plausible when transplanted to a different context? Would anyone care to defend the behavior of the people Wheaton talks about in his post?

What this shows is that the problem of That Guy-ism isn't restricted to sexual situations, or even to men. (Turns out people of every stripe don't like being stalked, cornered and harassed by creepy strangers! Who would have guessed?) But in a group like the atheist community, which has a significant imbalance of men over women, most manifestations of this problem are inevitably going to be gender-based.

If we're ever going to correct this situation, we need to make sure every atheist knows some basic rules of etiquette: don't treat others in ways that display a sense of entitlement, don't stalk or harass them, don't corner them and force your attention on them in situations where it's not likely to be welcomed, and above all, when people make reasonable requests not to be treated a certain way, don't make excuses, don't argue, just listen to them! This message really shouldn't be difficult, much less inspire the amount of resistance it has, but I intend to keep repeating it until it sinks in.

July 27, 2011, 5:34 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink277 comments
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An Atheist's Confession

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

My beloved baby brother, Jacob, hung himself last year in my parents' basement. I wouldn't wish my pain on my worst enemy. It's been a year and a half, and, sometimes, I still can't get out of bed or stop crying. I'll be in public, and I'll inexplicably, to anyone else, burst into sobbing, jagged tears. I blame a lot of people for his death, especially my parents. But, mostly, I blame myself. I walked away from my life to save my life, when I was still a child myself, but, in doing so, I walked away from Jacob. I had promised to take care of him, to love him, to keep him safe and well, and I broke that promise. Now, I am broken. I will never forgive myself.

I would make a Faustian bargain, I would sell my soul to the devil, I would torture myself, to get five more minutes with him, to be able to tell him one last time how much I love him, to tell him how sorry I am. I would gouge out an eye. I would hack off a limb. I would sacrifice my life.

I would try to contact his spirit. And, I did try. When I was in Paris still, in the months following Jacob's suicide, I spent my days curled up in a fetal position on the floor of my apartment, screaming, and intermittently vomiting. At first, I couldn't even get up off the floor to go to the bathroom to vomit. I would just vomit on the floor and lie in it. It was the one time I was grateful for the indifference of my Parisian neighbors. I thought I would die of grief. I wanted to die, but I was stopped from killing myself when I thought of the pain I would be inflicting upon my remaining two siblings.

I begged Jacob's ghost or spirit or essence or alternate version living in a parallel universe to visit me, to communicate with me, to contact me in some way. I promised not to be scared. As I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, which is a demon and occult-obsessed cult of demonology, not being scared of demons or evil spirits is not something that comes easily to me, even decades after leaving the religious community. They believe that demons are real. They believe that demons can hurt you physically, sexually, and psychologically. They believe that demonic attack is an ever-present threat. They don't believe in hell, so they have to bring hell to earth. I was already in hell, and I would have let a demon rape me, if it meant being able to see my baby brother again.

I tried everything. I bought all the books. I lit the candles. I did the research. I burned his ashes. I prayed to his picture. I cast a sacred circle with salt after I swept it clean with a broom. I built an altar to the four directions/elements. I cast the spells. I recorded my ceremonies and played back the video/audio, searching desperately for a message from the beyond.

I sat in my fucking sacred circle of salt, before my altar, and I screamed for Jacob to haunt me, even if he wanted to hurt me, even if he was mad at me, even if he hated me. I cut myself.

But, he didn't come.

I am slowly creating a new life for myself. Each day is a struggle. I can't tell you how maddening it is to want justice for your loved ones and for yourself when there is none to be had. You go crazy, you kill yourself, or you continue on. I sometimes envy my other beloved baby brother, Aaron. He's a heavily medicated paranoid schizophrenic. I sometimes just want to let go and lose my fucking mind too.

I've decided to devote the rest of my life to trying to fix all of those things, which hurt me and mine so much. In Jacob's honor and in Jacob's name. I am going to leave a glorious legacy for the both of us. I am going to live for the both of us.

Jacob is my savior. Jacob's death gave me back my relationship with my baby bro, Aaron. Jacob's suicide released me from my fear. It enraged me, and I am using that rage as motivation.

And, in a funny way, Jacob helps me to be less afraid of the dark and less afraid of demons.

Because, if there is a spirit world, then I know that Jacob is in it. And, I know that he would never let anyone or anything hurt me.

I know he would kick a demon's disembodied ass before he'd let him touch me.

I will always love you, Jacob.

And, you can come visit me anytime you want.

July 26, 2011, 4:55 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments
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Dispatches from Future America: Government Increases Budget for Christiancare Program

[Editor's Note: After the two strange messages I received earlier this year, I thought the wormhole, or whatever it was, had closed forever. Evidently not. This past week, as fighting over the debt limit reached a fever pitch, I found a new e-mail from the future in my inbox. Elaborate hoax? Frightening warning of what lies ahead? You be the judge...]

NEW YORK CITY (July 24, 2037) — Mayor Harold Ford Jr., along with a group of civic dignitaries, was on hand for the gala ribbon-cutting of the newest federally-funded Christiancare clinic, the 1000th of its kind to open nationwide. Speeches by respected media figures marked the occasion, looking back on the long political struggle that led to the Christiancare program's creation in the federal budget for fiscal year 2012.

"The 2011 fight over the debt limit nearly destroyed our economy, resulting in skyrocketing interest rates on federal debt, a worldwide stock market crash, a domino chain of collapsing corporations, and near-anarchy as government ran out of money and was forced to shut down all over the country, suspending most basic services," said CNN analyst Stewart Kilgore. "Fortunately, after two months of chaos, President Obama capitulated to the Congressional Republicans' demands by signing a bill that raised the debt limit at the price of completely eliminating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as repealing the Affordable Care Act and eliminating all income taxes on corporations and individuals whose net worth was $1 billion or higher."

Liberal groups asserted that the controversial budget deal, while it preserved the structure of the American government, was responsible for the 10-year drop in average life expectancy that was noted over the following year. However, conservative groups hailed the deal as a triumph of post-partisan ideology that laid the groundwork for further reform.

"Since President Obama had shown himself to be a sensible and flexible negotiator, the Republicans were able to work with him to enact some common sense follow-ups," said the Sekulow Institute's chief historian, Dr. Michael Marcavage. "For example, the compassionate conservatives of the Tea Party knew that a few people had been slightly inconvenienced by the elimination of the New Deal programs, wasteful and unconstitutional though they were. Since President Obama himself had spoken highly of the great good that faith-based groups can provide with government support and no unnecessary strings, it proved to be a natural next step to return vital community services like medicine and elder care to the institution that had always provided them - the church."

Soon after the budget compromise came a bill establishing the first Christiancare pilot centers, federally funded clinics which "any officially recognized Christian denomination" could apply to run. Once the Supreme Court upheld this controversial law in a closely watched 2015 decision, the floodgates were opened, with the next Congress spending more than $5 billion to expand the program by building over a hundred new centers nationwide. Subsequent expansions of the program folded all other hospitals and clinics into it, as well as making it mandatory for all citizens to visit the nearest Christiancare clinic at least once per year for basic checkups and spiritual counseling.

"It's true that this program experienced some growing pains at first," said the mayor, referring to liberal groups' charges that life expectancy in Massachusetts dropped to 44.5 years after Christian Scientists were given control of Christiancare clinics throughout the state, as well as the sharply increased rates of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth in historically Catholic areas. "But nowadays, who can doubt its success? The skeptics have been silenced, and America's health-care system is the envy of the world! Our federally funded faith healers prescribe millions of baptisms and anointings per year, and cast out demons at rates that other countries can only dream of."

The opening ceremony was nearly overshadowed by news from Washington that further expansions to the controversial program may soon be coming. H.R. 216, sponsored by 238 members of Congress, would require all women in America to be implanted with a microchip that would detect the onset of pregnancy and wirelessly send this information to the nearest Christiancare center for "pastoral prenatal care".

"It will be so convenient, American women will hardly mind the implantation procedure," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Troy Newman. "And rest assured, our trained Christiancare counselors will be fully respectful of their patients' privacy, disclosing the expectant mother's condition only to licensed ministers of the gospel who will be on hand to provide her with the evangelistic material she'll need."

Liberal groups criticized the proposal, but their objections were not deemed newsworthy by the editors of this paper.

July 25, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink9 comments
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The Harm Psychics Do, Continued

You know, I was going to write about the Pastafarian who won the right to wear a metal colander on his head for his driver's license photo - but by the time I got home from work yesterday, half a dozen other atheist bloggers had already posted about it, so never mind. Here's something a little heavier instead.

I wrote a post in 2008, The Harm Psychics Do, about a self-proclaimed psychic who announced on the basis of no evidence that a local woman's autistic daughter was being molested. Thankfully, that claim was conclusively disproved by evidence and went no further. But not all flirtations with woo have such a satisfying ending. Sometimes, people trust the reassuring lies of psychics and pay dearly for it, as this jaw-droppingly horrifying story shows:

Mr Day, 60, revealed he had already planned his suicide as he spoke with Mrs Stack in a session that was recorded on a CD.

She told him: "I would understand why you would do that." She later said: "Well you go with my blessing then" - adding: "If you do die, come back and have a cup of tea and a chat with me."

When a despairing client announced that he was contemplating suicide, this loathsome psychic pretender told him to go ahead and do it - and then encouraged him to come back afterward and have a chat with him from the afterlife. And a few days later, sure enough, he went home and fatally shot himself. He called the police just before he did it, and when they called back, they got a voice-mail message saying, "If you want to contact me, you'll have to get in touch with a clairvoyant."

As I've written before, the religious teachings about an afterlife distort morality by making this life seem less real or less important by comparison. This fraud was no doubt just following her usual line of patter when she told her client that death isn't the end of consciousness, but a mere transition into another world from which he could return at will. And while that wasn't the whole cause of his suicide, it certainly was a contributing factor, as his last voice-mail message shows.

The defense she offered at the inquest was that she was only an "entertainer" - i.e., someone not qualified to help with people's serious personal problems, which begs the question of why she was passing herself off as one. And then there's this:

The ex-Samaritan said her training meant she could not break the confidence of anyone, even if they planned to die.

Even if "psychics" are under the same legal restrictions on disclosure as psychiatrists or real counselors, which I doubt (and, in the U.S. at least, even a doctor can report a client to the police if they believe he's in imminent danger) - there's a cryingly obvious point: She didn't have to encourage him to kill himself! Was she really so malicious to say this to a suicidal stranger, and if so, why? Or, worse, does she genuinely believe that death isn't harmful, in which case she might well give this advice to more people in the future? ("Lost your job? Getting a divorce? Go ahead and kill yourself! Things will be much better on the other side.")

By definition, most of the people who seek psychics' help are either gullible, desperate, or both. This makes the potential harm of bad advice much worse, and this story is a tragic example. Charlatans enriching themselves by telling people soothing lies is bad enough, but causing death and chaos in the real world is far worse. The lesson we should learn is that, whether it's traditional orthodox hate and hellfire or New Age fashionable nonsense, there's no such thing as harmless woo, which makes it imperative to defend reason and expose these con artists for what they are.

July 14, 2011, 10:05 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments
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The Last Thing I'll Ever Say About Elevatorgate

Or rather, the last thing I'll quote, because there were two comments on Friendly Atheist that sum up the matter perfectly:

First:

Misogyny shows not because of a guy being unaware that the circumstances in which he is asking people out are creepy. But the misogyny shows when people quickly jump into trying to make it look like doing that is fine. The correct non-misogynist reaction to this is "oh, I didn't stop to think about this before, but I think that you may be right and doing that is not a good idea. I will try to consider this before asking women in our community out". Rather than "big deal! You are wrong, this does not matter. I am a man and I will ask you out in any situation I find convenient. All you can do about it is say no. The new information I just heard about that it may actually be uncomfortable for you is irrelevant to me."

Second:

I don't attend atheist conferences, because everything I've heard indicates that I can expect to be hit on by strangers all weekend, and that doesn't sound like any fun at all to me.

I'm reading all these arguments full of men defending why it's harmless for them to hit on women at conferences, and they apparently don't understand why a woman might not want to spend her weekend that way.

So I stay home. Because that isn't my idea of a good time. In fact, it sounds just awful.

Now, you're a man. If men make unwanted passes at women all weekend, that doesn't affect your ability to enjoy the conference at all. Unless, of course, you have any female friends whose good time you care about. Or unless it bothers you that these conferences will remain mostly male for the foreseeable future. But if neither of those things bother you, then you have luxury of not caring about the kind of experiences women have at atheist gatherings.

That must be nice. I don't have that luxury. Since I'm female, I don't get to decide that I don't care about the kind of experiences women have at atheist gatherings.

But what I've learned from this 'controversy' is that, if I were to go to such a gathering, I'd be surrounded by mostly men, some of whom will make clumsy passes at me, and most of whom will think that's okay, and if I even mention that this is unpleasant for me, I might become the target of a maelstrom of male anger.

If you're trying to make atheism an all-male endeavor, you're doing great.

And to forestall the inevitable onslaught of misunderstanding: No one whatsoever is saying that it's wrong under all circumstances for a man to talk to a woman he doesn't know. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to hit on women. It's not that hard to tell which is which. Make an effort to learn the difference. That's what this is about; that's all this has ever been about. And now, I think, it's long past time to move on to other topics.

July 4, 2011, 10:15 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink27 comments
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