The Evangelist's Funnel

Through some odd stroke of coincidence, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I encountered more than the usual amount of religious nuttiness. I've already written about the woman who gets divine communications in God's actual handwriting. There were also Scientologists handing out pamphlets on a street corner, advertising something called the "Purification Rundown":

One or two of these questions, like the one about drug flashbacks, would only apply to people with genuine psychological problems. But the rest of them are drawn so broadly, it's inconceivable that they wouldn't apply to any normal human being. If you've ever felt drowsy in the middle of the day or taken an afternoon nap, then you've "felt fatigued now and then for no apparent reason". If you've ever been bored at a class, a lecture, a job or a social event, you'd probably have to admit that you sometimes feel "wooden and lifeless". If you've ever been in a peevish mood, you may be "irritable without reason or cause". If you ever daydream or let your attention wander, you'll sometimes get a feeling of being "spaced out".

But even if you're some kind of emotionless android who never has any changing moods, the Scientologists still have a card to play: if you answered yes to 3 "or less" of these questions - which presumably includes answering zero - you still "could have" some level of unspecified "accumulated toxins". Which, of course, the Scientologists will be happy to help remove, along with the contents of your wallet.

This is a time-tested strategy of religious evangelists of all kinds: a seemingly open-ended script for conversation which is designed to ensure that you end up in the same place no matter where you begin. I call this tactic "the evangelist's funnel".

Evangelical Christianity has used this strategy to great effect by asking people if they've ever done anything wrong in their entire lives, and if they answer yes, are told that they're hellbound unless they convert. And even if you've never hurt anyone, lied or stolen, evangelicalism falls back on the old reliable standard of thoughtcrime. Have you ever been angry at a friend? Have you ever experienced even a fleeting moment of lust in your heart? Have you ever coveted something that wasn't yours? Then you deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, sinner! It's not clear how we're supposed to avoid doing these things, since they're entirely unconscious drives (it would be like getting blamed for yawning or blinking). Nor is it clear why God gave us those drives if he doesn't like them; nor why he cares what thoughts we have even if we never act on them. You're not supposed to ask those questions, you're just supposed to fall on your knees and praise Jesus.

The most effective response to the evangelist's funnel, rather than engaging with it directly, is to point out the implicit premises that it tries to conceal. Ask up front, "Is there any answer I could give that wouldn't result in you advising me to join your religion?" If they're honest, they'll have to say no, which gives you an opening to highlight the essential dishonesty of the whole exercise. They're not trying to engage you in a conversation, they're trying to maneuver you into a trap. Once that's established, you can ask what independent evidence exists for the effectiveness of their beliefs at curing the problem they claim to be able to solve.

June 20, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink11 comments

You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments

Covering All the Rapture Bases

By Ebonmuse

Greetings all,

As I mentioned previously, I'm away this week, having gone to Spain with my wife to celebrate our first anniversary. My only regret is that because of this trip, I was out of the country on May 21, when self-appointed prophet Harold Camping told us that the Rapture would absolutely, definitely occur. By now, you all know whether that prediction came true, and I only wish I could be there to join in the rejoicing - unless, of course, it turned out that he was right.

Well, either way, I wouldn't want to leave you bereft of my thoughts on the matter. That's why, before I left, I wrote this two-part post - one section for if the Rapture didn't happen, one section for if it did - and scheduled it for automatic publication today. Please comment on whichever section is appropriate.

* * *

May 21, 2011 has come and gone, and to no one's surprise, the Rapture failed to arrive on schedule. Harold Camping now stands fully exposed and shamed as a fraud, taking his place in the ranks of self-deluded false prophets that pop up throughout the history of Christendom. To atheists, of course, this was no surprise at all. Anyone who took the time to actually read Camping's thesis knows that it was based on tortured reinterpretations and bizarre numerological arguments that ludicrously asserted to uncover hidden truths buried in the Bible. The only evidence he ever really had to offer was his utter certainty - but even when dignified with the name of "faith", mere subjective certainty offers no insight into the true nature of reality.

Camping was undoubtedly deluded, but I believe that he was honestly deluded. Human beings are very good at convincing ourselves of what we most wish to be true, and for those unschooled in critical thinking, that tendency can quickly grow out of control, consuming all skepticism like a malignant tumor of the mind. If Camping was an intentional deceiver, he wouldn't have staked his credibility on a definite test, this being one of the few fatal errors in religion. He would have just perpetually predicted that the Rapture was sometime in the near but indefinite future, and continued to rake in the bucks from followers - just as many of the more "mainstream" end-times prophets have successfully done.

Nevertheless, it's not him I feel pity for, but his sadly deceived followers. We learned from stories like this one that many of them quit their jobs, sold their homes, emptied their savings in an attempt to help get the word out. The most striking and consistent element of these reports is how they refused to even consider that they were mistaken, as if to express any doubt might jeopardize the truth of the prophecy. But again, objective reality stands unmocked and unbowed by our beliefs about it, however fervent they may be.

What will happen to the Camping cult? This is actually one of the easiest questions to answer, since history offers so many examples of how failed apocalyptic prophets deal with their failure. Almost certainly, Camping will recheck his figures, announce he's found some minor mathematical error that redates the Rapture to six months or a year from now, and repeat the whole charade all over again. And most of his flock will stay faithful. Despite his obvious and undeniable failure, his hardcore followers have invested too much of their lives in him to walk away. In a sense, his failure is their failure, and so they're just as eager as he is to accept a face-saving explanation. This process may continue through several iterations, but as less committed members drift away, the Camping cult will gradually fade into the pages of history - to be remembered, if at all, as a footnote in the story of the next apocalyptic sect to fall for this seemingly endless foolishness.

* * *

May 21, 2011 has come and gone, and to everyone's surprise, the Rapture arrived exactly on schedule. Harold Camping now stands fully proven as a prophet and a hero, the crowning figure of the history of Christendom. To atheists, of course, this was a terrible surprise. If we had taken the time to read Camping's thesis, we would have known that it was based on true interpretations and clever numerological arguments that unlocked the hidden truths buried in the Bible. The best evidence he had to offer was his utter certainty, and as we now know, a faith so strong can only indicate genuine insight into the true nature of reality. Why, oh, why didn't we believe while there was still time?!

We were undoubtedly deluded, honestly so, though that's little consolation now that all the world's coastal regions are flooded and its cities in flames from the series of massive earthquakes. From what I'm told, it's too late to repent, and we know what's coming. Well, here's what I'm going to do, and if you have any sense, you'll do the same: Bring all the warm clothes you own, and if there's a camping store near where you live, a tent or sleeping bag. Stock up on freeze-dried meals, beef jerky, granola bars, dried fruit: food that requires little or no preparation and won't spoil. Be sure to bring a good-quality water filter, a sharp knife, a lighter for starting fires, and an assortment of tools, including basic medical supplies and, if you have it, fishing gear. A firearm is a must, if at all possible.

Go to the nearest national park, or some other large wilderness area or isolated rural region - drive if you can, take public transportation or hitchhike if you have to. (Be aware that roads may be blocked by pileups of burning wreckage from Christians who were raptured out of their cars.) Once you're sure that you're far from any roads or settlements, find a sheltered place near a source of fresh water, make camp, and settle in. If you see any strangers, shoot on sight. It won't be easy, but if Camping was right, we'll only have to hold out for six months. And yes, we're all doomed when Jesus Christ returns, but at least we can hope to escape the notice of the Antichrist's global dictatorship and his stormtrooper hordes in the meantime!

May 22, 2011, 12:32 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

The Rapture of Charlie Sheen

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

I'm sure this is just one blog post among many in your feed to reference the Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. His apocalyptic forecast for this weekend is all over the news cycle and even snagged front page coverage in The New York Times. And why is everyone telling this story? Because it's fun to laugh at stupid people.

No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don't receive the "but who can ever know" kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command. This laughable theology deserves no more attention than do the claims of the sedevacantist popes who've set up shop in Spain and Kansas. Camping and company get coverage because we all have a sickening urge to watch the rug pulled out from under this delusional sect.

The fascination of the media reminds me of the coverage surrounding Charlie Sheen at the height of his public flameout. Sheen was obviously unstable and addled, but we eagerly kept offering him more platforms to embarrass and endanger himself. For his family, it should have been a private tragedy, but we accepted it as entertainment that we were entitled to enjoy. Every time I hear one of my friends punctuate a conversation with "WINNING!" I flinch a little. The fact that Sheen's troubles were self-inflicted makes him more pitiable, not more deserving of our contempt.

If the May 21st rapturists were isolated individuals, we would grieve that they had lost themselves in madness, but now that they've gathered together and entered the public eye, everyone feels a kind of license to mock them. Gizmodo has suggested that pranksters set up piles of abandoned clothes to trick believers into thinking the rapture has occurred, but they were left behind. It's hard to find it funny once you listen to Elizabeth Esther's childhood Rapture panic or read Fred Clark's discussion of the toxic consequences of these beliefs.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that's funny, but it's actually traumatic. That's why no one forgets the horror of such moments...

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Look back at that NYT story, and you'll see that Camping's followers have been sundered from their families and friends by the fervor of their beliefs. Their children feel a mix of pity and despair, burdened by parents who don't plan for their futures on Earth. Although their premises are absurd, many of the rapturists are trying to be as kind and compassionate as possible within their twisted theological framework. Robert Fitzpatrick has spent his life savings blanketing New York with ads in the hope of saving even one person from perdition. Come Sunday, he'll be counting his losses, but the more tragic harm is the way that false beliefs have blighted the lives and relationships of all of Campings adherents, including Camping himself.

By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we've given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement. The post-Rapture parties and merchandise hawked by atheists are in the same poor taste as the Sheen memes. Our sanity and stability is not the result of individual merit; we have no standing to delight in the dissolution of others.

May 20, 2011, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

The Logic of Genocide

Last month, I wrote about the hideous spectacle of ordinary religious people defending genocide because it's commanded in the Bible - with some of them professing to not even understand why nonbelievers would have a problem with this. Greta Christina also highlighted this horrific mindset in the writing of William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist who thinks that the worst consequence of Israelite soldiers slaughtering women and children would be the suffering it would cause to the soldiers.

In my post, I held this forth as proof of how the fantasy of the afterlife clouds and distorts morality until the worst evils are seen as good. To most of the believers making this pro-genocide argument, it's a harmless thought experiment with no bearing on reality. But this logic can't be easily confined to the realm of abstract theology. Once it's accepted, inevitably it spreads, and the same reasoning that excuses destruction and mass murder in holy books can just as easily excuse destruction and mass murder in the real world. Today, I'd like to report a concrete example of that.

Earlier this month, U.S. federal prosecutors moved to dismiss the indictment in United States of America vs. Osama bin Laden, that particular case now being very definitely settled. But in some of the evidence that prosecutors had gathered to be prepared if the case ever came to trial, there's a very interesting bit of testimony.

According to Wikipedia, the first bombing attack carried out by al-Qaeda was against a hotel in Yemen in December 1992. The attack was aimed at American soldiers, but instead killed a hotel employee and an Austrian citizen. To justify these lives taken in error, another founding member of al-Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, considered to be one of the most religiously knowledgeable members, issued a fatwa: the killing of innocent bystanders was justified, because if the person killed was a good Muslim, they would go to Paradise and this was a desirable fate, whereas if the person killed was an infidel, they would go to Hell and this was God's deserved justice.

This information came out in the cross-examination of a witness named Jamal el-Fadl, a Sudanese militant who turned informer for the U.S. government (go here and search for "Tamiyeh"):

Q. Well, in his speech, according to you, Mr. Salim talked about - am I saying this person's name right, Tamiyeh?
A. Mohamed Ibn Tamiyeh.
Q. Tamiyeh. He told you what Tamiyeh had said back in 17 or 1800 about a war with the Tartans... that sometimes in a war civilians get killed, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that that's okay, because if they're good people, they're lucky enough to go to heaven quicker?
A. Yes.
Q. And if they're bad people, they deserve to go to hell anyway, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that was his way of saying to you and everyone else listening, it's okay to kill civilians if you have to because I say it and another scholar says it and that scholar interpreting the Koran says it, right?
A. Yes.
Q. So that was to mean to say to everybody, it's okay, don't worry if you kill civilians, it's part of what we have to do?
A. Yes, under war.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it's the same nihilistic logic used by William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists to justify the Canaanite genocide in the Bible. The only difference is that here, instead of being used as a thought experiment to defend a mass slaughter that may or may not have happened in the distant past, it's being used here and now to defend the indiscriminate killing of human beings.

Craig, for one, hasn't shied away from the comparison. In an article on his website, he says this:

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it's that it has got the wrong God.

Like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of al-Qaeda, William Lane Craig believes that it's a religious duty to commit indiscriminate mass murder if God has commanded it, and that obeying this command would be a heroic and praiseworthy deed. They don't disagree on whether doing this would be wrong; the only difference between them is whether they believe God has in fact issued such a command.

Craig and other professional Christian apologists have so thoroughly deadened their consciences that they see nothing wrong or dangerous about this. But for humanity's sake, we can hope that most ordinary Christians haven't gone so far. The next time someone uses this argument to defend the atrocities of the Bible, point out this comparison and ask them, "Are you saying that Osama bin Laden's theology was correct, he was just wrong about a few factual points?" If the realization that they're endorsing the logic of most the notorious mass murderer in recent history doesn't sway them, then almost certainly nothing else will either.

May 18, 2011, 12:44 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink36 comments

Dispatches from Future America: Nation Celebrates National Day of Reason

[Editor's Note: This just keeps getting stranger.

Last month, I received a news dispatch from a disturbing future version of America through an anonymous remailer. The other day, I received a message from a different address, presenting itself as the same thing... but apparently from a very different future than the previous one.

I have no idea how to explain this. Parallel universes? Uncollapsed quantum wavefunctions? Which of these, if any, are our future? Are different possibilities somehow competing with each other to become reality? I think this was sent to me because someone wanted it to be shared, but other than that, I leave the judgment up to you...]

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS (June 27, 2035) — The first annual National Day of Reason, approved by Congress in a bill passed last year, was observed yesterday in this midwestern metropolis by an array of national figures. President Linda Sanchez delivered her address from the steps of the Public Library of Science, framed by a skyline of residential towers laminated in solar glass. A crowd whose size was estimated at fifty thousand gathered to hear the speech on a tree-lined pedestrian avenue beneath the turning blades of the nation's largest urban wind farm.

"My fellow Americans, I am proud and honored to speak before you on this day," her remarks began. "As one of our wisest leaders, Thomas Jefferson, put it, the president has no authority to direct the religious exercises of her constituents. I applaud Congress for repealing the National Day of Prayer law, a senseless and divisive event meant to convey a false message of the superiority of religious people. In its place, I'm proud to celebrate the first National Day of Reason, a fitting tribute to the virtue which powers our civilization. It was reason that sent human beings to the moon, reason that cured cancer through stem-cell research, and reason that offers the best hope of a future of peace and prosperity for all of us."

Media observers weren't surprised by the President's decision to attend the Kansas City event. "Kansas City's political importance increased greatly in the Midwest progressive revolution of the 2020s," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Its selection as one of the dozen primary hubs in the national high-speed rail network made it a major migration point, and the boom that followed the completion of the rail network, which had its roots in the stimulus bill of 2009, cemented its economic power. Kansas City is emblematic of the changes that have come across this country in the past two decades, which made it a natural choice for the President to attend."

The National Day of Reason was commemorated in parallel events across the nation. In Washington, D.C., a crowd estimated at one million people gathered on the National Mall to hear speeches by a series of dignitaries, including taped messages from representatives of the United Nations, the Middle East Democratic Alliance, and the scientists at Ares Research Station 1 in Elysium Planitia. However, some of the loudest cheers of the day were heard during the keynote address by Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Jane Braasch.

"Almost four hundred years ago," said Chief Justice Braasch, "an ancestor of mine had his life and livelihood nearly destroyed by Governor Winthrop and the Puritan theocrats of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because he was advocating for a secular government. But today, we're emerging into a new future, one in which we recognize that we are a single human family on this tiny planet. Today, even the most devout appreciate the value of reason and secularism and understand that this system is in everyone's best interests. There are no human rights without secularism. There are no women's rights without secularism. There is no democracy without secularism. Let us never forget that only a truly secular government makes real freedom possible!"

In spite of the celebratory mood nationwide, President Sanchez struck a solemn note in her remarks, pointing out how many challenges are still faced by the human species.

"The fighting in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia is ongoing, the remnants of a fading and archaic worldview that no longer has any place in a free and rational planetary civilization," she said. "Despite the long-overdue achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, millions of people still lack access to comprehensive public education, family planning, and advanced healthcare. Ensuring that every person on Earth has access to these necessities will be the cornerstone of my second term. Last but not least, although the global atmospheric carbon-remediation project is proceeding on schedule, the best estimates are that it will take decades to fully reverse the damage. The tens of billions of dollars we've spent on reseeding coral reefs and building advanced seawalls to protect coastal regions are a tragic testament to the greed and short-sightedness of the past."

"But although we face great challenges, let it never again be said that Americans are afraid to offer equally great solutions. We'll no longer be afraid to dream big, to take bold action, to make decisions that advance the common good while keeping an eye on the future. Most importantly, we'll no longer be afraid to rely on the guidance of science and reason, rather than the irrational passions of prejudice or faith. If we keep to the course we're following, we have the potential to create a future bright beyond imagining, not just for the United States of America, but for the entire human species and all our descendants yet to come."

No religious groups were in evidence to protest any of the National Day of Reason rallies. However, a statement e-mailed to the press by a group identifying itself as the New Reformed Campingists denounced the "godlessness that has brought humanity to the brink of ruin" and asserted that the Rapture was due to happen "any day now".

May 13, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments

The Looters Win Again

As we all know, Ayn Rand is the greatest genius in the history of the human race, and her book Atlas Shrugged is her highest achievement and therefore the highest achievement of our entire species. Thanks to her, we've learned that sheer determination can surmount any obstacle, up to and including the laws of thermodynamics, to create value and earn its bearer a profit. All of which makes it inexplicable that her magnum opus is bombing at the box office:

Twelve days after opening "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," the producer of the Ayn Rand adaptation said Tuesday that he is reconsidering his plans to make Parts 2 and 3 because of scathing reviews and flagging box office returns for the film...

"Atlas Shrugged" was the top-grossing limited release in its opening weekend, generating $1.7 million on 299 screens and earning a respectable $5,640 per screen. But the box office dropped off 47% in the film's second week in release even as "Atlas Shrugged" expanded to 425 screens.

John Aglialoro, CEO of the exercise equipment company Cybex, spent almost 20 years and $20 million of his own money making this movie. He advertised it heavily to conservative audiences, including showing a world premiere of the trailer at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. But despite the dauntless labor of this heroic capitalist individual, the movie turned out to be a flop, grossing only $3 million so far and getting panned even by such free-market stalwarts as the Wall Street Journal and Reason. There's an obligatory hilarious quote from an earlier Reason article, whose author can't quite keep the disappointment from shining through: he writes that Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays Dagny Taggart, "sometimes seemed too much like a normal human being for a Randian romantic heroine".

In an interview, Aglialoro was not at all bitter:

"Why should I put up all of that money if the critics are coming in like lemmings?" said Aglialoro... "I'll make my money back and I'll make a profit, but do I wanna go and do two? Maybe I just wanna see my grandkids and go on strike."

Wait - he wants to see his grandchildren? What kind of moocher socialist talk is this? There's no purpose to interacting with other human beings if it doesn't earn you a profit. Faithful Randians know that the correct way of dealing with your offspring is to put them to work in a coal mine as soon as they turn twelve, as demonstrated by Ken Danagger, one of the capitalist titans of Atlas Shrugged.

Alas, just as in the world of Atlas, the heroic ambitions of a noble soul like Aglialoro have been laid low by the worthless, parasitic looters who make up the majority of humanity, and who doubtless refused to pay to see his movie because they despise the accomplishments of productive people. Or could it just be that Objectivists aren't nearly as numerous as they make themselves seem through sheer clamor and volume? In either case, I'd advise him to consider retiring and moving to Galt's Gulch, where his talents will be appreciated. I hear that despite their hologram projectors and perpetual motion machines, they could really use someone there who knows how to manufacture free weights.

April 28, 2011, 1:13 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink56 comments

Dispatches from Future America: Court Upholds National Day of Christianity

[Editor's Note: The day after after publishing my article on the abuse of standing, I found a message with a strange attachment in my inbox, sent through an anonymous remailer. This attachment presented itself as a story clipped from a newspaper published in a future version of America. The author of the message wouldn't explain how they acquired it, other than a cryptic comment about wormholes. I have no way to verify this admittedly fantastic account, but thought it best to reprint the story so you can judge for yourself. —Ebonmuse]

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 24, 2035) — In a case closely watched by legal experts, the Supreme Court defeated a challenge to the law passed by Congress last year establishing a National Day of Christianity. Ruling unanimously, the high court found that the controversial law, which requires the President to issue an annual proclamation declaring Christianity the established religion of the United States, does not do any injury to atheists and agnostics that would grant them standing to sue.

"In issuing this ruling, we uphold the glorious traditions of our founding fathers," Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Palin said in a statement outside the courthouse. "Great men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams knew that America would never prosper unless all its citizens were washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. That's why they explicitly implied when they signed the Constitution that our country was always meant to be a Christian nation."

Court watchers weren't surprised by the outcome of the case. "The groundwork for this ruling was laid in the 2007 Hein decision," said CNN analyst Stewart Kilgore. "When the Supreme Court found that it didn't violate the Constitution for the President to use tax dollars to fund religion, they began a decades-long trend of narrowing the criteria under which citizens could sue for church-state violations. This ruling is a logical followup to the 2032 Flask decision which gave churches with more than 10,000 members the power of eminent domain so that they could seize and condemn neighboring houses to expand their parking lot."

Prior to today's ruling, several aspects of the law had drawn fire from the left. Among its most controversial provisions is a measure which requires all Americans to attend worship services once per week at a church which is on the government's official list of approved congregations. This measure, which required the hiring of over one million enforcement agents by the newly created Department of Homeland Orthodoxy, was denounced by liberal activists.

The court also found this aspect of the law to be constitutional.

"The mandatory worship-attendance measure is simply ceremonial deism," said Associate Justice David Barton, "which serves the secular purpose of teaching Americans about the history and culture of our country in a neutral and objective manner. The mandatory minimum sentences for not attending are in no way coercive. After all, no one is being forced to agree with what they hear from the pulpit."

Spokesmen for the Republican Party praised the decision. "The National Day of Christianity law is a much-needed countermeasure to the out-of-control influence of the godless American left," said RNC chairman R.J. Rushdoony Jr. "This lawsuit was utterly without merit, a publicity stunt concocted by angry, Christian-hating radicals who want to scrub any vestige of God from the public square. We're gratified that the high court has seen fit to agree."

But while they're still celebrating their latest Supreme Court victory, American Christians have set their sights on grander goals. Republican members of Congress have voiced grave concern over the fact that, in spite of the controversial creationism and Biblical Science classes added to public school curricula in 2029, the last census still found the percentage of atheists and agnostics in America as high as 1%.

"This overbearing atheist majority won't be able to impose its will on real Americans for much longer," promised President Michele Bachmann, who last week introduced a bill to create "patriotic education camps" within the large open-pit mine formerly known as West Virginia, as well as the still highly-radioactive forbidden zones of the Nevada desert. "We need all Americans to come together in faith if we're going to build a prayer wall around our nation that's strong enough to hold back the seawaters that have already executed God's judgment on the sinful cities of New York and San Francisco, as well as most of Florida. The God-haters and Sodomites whose presence keeps bringing God's wrath on us will soon learn the error of their heathen ways."

Liberal groups were not contacted for comment regarding the President's remarks.

April 20, 2011, 5:57 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink22 comments

Theodicy Is Useful in Everyday Life

So, I've been debating Catholic commenters on Unequally Yoked again, and I came across a comment that was so astute, so unusually perceptive, that I just had to share it.

The war with the Canaanites is really just a specialization of the problem of suffering, right? Why does a good God allow suffering, which is presumably evil.

The short answer (from a Catholic perspective) is that we don't know... Nonetheless, it is not the knock-down blow that atheists tend to present it as. It is at least conceivable that finite suffering is in the service of a greater, unseen, good, and therefore reconcilable with a benevolent deity. So there is no contradiction, just a question mark.

Now, being as this statement came from a Roman Catholic, you'd expect me to disagree with it, right? But I don't, not at all. In fact, I myself believe this logic wholeheartedly. How could I not, when it just recently proved so useful to me in my own life?

Allow me to explain. I haven't shared this with you until now, but the last few months, I've been busy with a minor legal matter. It was such a trivial thing, not even worth bothering with really, but sometimes these things just have to be dealt with before they become an annoyance. So there I was, sitting at the defendant's bench while the prosecutor wrapped up his closing arguments. That bastard had such a smug look on his face - he must have thought he had me right where he wanted me. Well, I'd soon show him.

I rose to address the jury (I was acting as my own lawyer, naturally), and delivered my closing statement. Normally I'm a modest and humble individual, but I happen to think that this speech was such a fine example of the art of rhetoric, it was crying out to be shared. I'm proud to reprint it below in full.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We've heard a lot of back-and-forth in this trial, a lot of tedious legal jargon, and a lot of so-called evidence. You've all been stuck in this courtroom just as long as I have, so I won't tax your patience by recounting all the details. But if I may beg your indulgence one more time, let me just hit the high points.

"Yes, we've all seen the surveillance camera video that shows me entering a convenience store, holding up the clerk at gunpoint, emptying the cash register and then pistol-whipping him while he cowered on the floor. You've heard the eyewitnesses recount how, after I left the store, I punched out an old lady with a walker and took her purse while she bled all over the sidewalk. You know the story of how I then carjacked a minivan stopped at a traffic light, dragged the driver out onto the pavement, took his keys and sped off. And after hearing from those dozens of police officers who testified about it, I'm sure you don't need me to repeat the details of the ensuing six-hour, three-state joyride, the car owner's screaming infant son strapped into a child seat next to me all the while, which finally ended only when I sideswiped an ambulance and crashed that car through the front wall of a daycare center.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not going to stand here and lie to you. I have to admit, these acts I committed - sorry, alleged acts - all seem to paint my character in a pretty bad light. I can tell from the way you're glaring at me that some of you might even think of me as evil. And to be frank, I can't say I blame you. If I were in your position right now, I'd probably be drawing many of the same conclusions.

"But, my friends, there's something you may not have considered. I know you're all good and decent people (not to mention handsome and snappily dressed), and I can tell from your clean and honest faces that you all attend church regularly, where they taught you the difference between good and evil. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: Isn't it at least conceivable that the finite suffering caused by my acts was in the service of a greater, unseen good, the nature of which I'm not going to tell you? And if that's possible, which you must admit it is, then isn't it also possible that I'm really innocent? In fact, isn't it possible that I'm a good person who deserves a medal and an illuminated scroll of thanks from the city?

"Given this argument, the prosecution's case isn't the knock-down blow they've presented it as. We just don't have all the facts we'd need to reach a decision. And so, your verdict on my character can't be guilty. At most, it could be a question mark! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the prosecutors haven't proven their case to the satisfaction of even the most hardcore school of philosophical skepticism, you must acquit!"

Well, I don't like to brag, but I walked out of that courtroom a free man. I guess I'm lucky there were no atheists on my jury - you know how that kind tends to jump to conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence.

April 1, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments

The Necessity of Hell

After my earlier post on this subject, Slacktivist has written several follow-up posts about the evangelical freak-out over the news that one of their own may not believe in Hell:

For Mohler, as for most of Team Hell, we can see that there are two distinct categories. On the one hand there is what is "clearly revealed in the Bible... teachings... doctrine." And on the other hand there's this evasive, fuzzy-wuzzy, extra-biblical, anti-biblical notion of "the character of God."

...this is not how Team Hell reads the Bible. They regard the idea of reading the entire Bible as "driving toward" any one point as a dangerous approach that prioritizes some passages over others. That opens the door to all sorts of "evasions" and "revisions." For them every word in the Bible is sacred. And thus every word in the Bible is equally sacred. To allow for some grand theme or interpretive scheme or some larger picture of the character of God would be to challenge that equal sacredness of every single word.

I won't repeat my previous post, but I want to point out that what neither Slacktivist nor his pro-eternal-torture adversaries see is that they're not using different interpretive schemes. They're both basing their beliefs on their respective interpretations of how the Bible describes God's character. The only difference is that one side emphasizes the wrathful and warlike verses while ignoring those that focus on love and forgiveness, while the other does the opposite. The Bible is such a vast book, and contains so many different and conflicting passages, that you can find support for essentially any viewpoint you care to take about the nature of God.

I want to talk, instead, about why this is so important for Team Hell - why they're so emphatic about the requirement that Christians believe in eternal, conscious torture without relief or hope for the majority of humankind. And I think there's an important hint in the story of Carlton Pearson's deconversion. When Pearson was struck by a crisis of conscience and ceased believing in damnation, the congregation of his megachurch dwindled from 5,000 to 200. As I wrote at the time:

Had he preached that some other church was not strict enough - that God was withholding salvation from some group formerly believed to be saved - I doubt anyone would have batted an eye. But to widen the circle of the saved was, for his brethren, an intolerable heresy. Theirs is a theology that elevates wrath over mercy, punishment over grace, and judgment over love. One of Pearson's associate pastors admits as much, candidly saying that teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.

Leah of Unequally Yoked quipped that Mormonism, because of its belief in posthumous conversion, is "the only losing choice in Pascal's wager", and I think the pro-eternal-torture crowd sees itself facing a similar dilemma. Their strategy to fill the pews relies on terrifying people with lurid images of hellfire, offering them an easy way out, and then promising that by making the right choice, they'll become God's elect and enjoy his divine favor eternally. But universalism threatens that simple equation. If people don't have to go to church to be saved from Hell, then what do they need church for at all? Even worse, if those other people - the ones over there in that other tribe, the ones we don't like - are going to Heaven too, then how can we be sure we're better than them? Intolerable thought!

This is the old advertiser's tactic: invent a problem, convince people that they have it, then offer to sell them the cure, promising that it will make them cooler, sexier, better-smelling than the teeming masses. Whether it's tooth-whitening strips or eternal salvation, the selling points are the same. And just like the corporations that rake in the bucks from exploiting consumers' insecurities, the evangelical pitchmen have built an empire of wealth and political influence on belief in Hell. It serves the dual purpose of coercing people to stay in line through fear, then rewarding them for their obedience by flattering them that they're the savvy ones who know how to escape what the rest of the world has got coming.

A faith that made no demands for everyone to join, unlike the evangelical theology of exclusivity and judgment, might be superior in the moral sense. But in the memetic competition, it's probably doomed. It just wouldn't be able to outcompete religions which demand allegiance and obedience and threaten those who won't go along. Whatever else you can say about the evangelicals, they know their target market. I'd be glad to see Rob Bell and those of like mind make progress towards reforming Christianity, but ultimately, I don't think belief in Hell or any other religious derangement will ever be defeated from within. It will only be overcome when people become rational and skeptical enough to question any belief for which there's no good evidence.

March 28, 2011, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink24 comments

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