The Foo Fighters Outsmart Fred Phelps

Last week, the Westboro Baptist Church (which is choosing increasingly random and bizarre protest targets, including a Swedish vacuum cleaner store) decided to picket a Foo Fighters concert in Kansas City, Missouri. As is their usual strategy, they were no doubt hoping to provoke police or counterprotesters into assaulting them or otherwise violating their constitutional rights, so that they can win a legal settlement to support their continued spreading of hate.

But instead, the WBC was on the receiving end of a hilarious counterprotest. The Foo Fighters themselves came out, dressed up in hillbilly costumes, and put on an impromptu concert on the back of a flatbed truck, singing the song "Hot Buns" (sample lyrics: "Think I'm in the mood for some hot man muffins", which is inexplicably bleeped in the video). Watch it below:

If you watch the video, pay particular attention around 1:20. I think even some of the Westboro Baptist picketers couldn't help cracking smiles!

Like many fundamentalist groups who hunger for persecution, the WBC thrives on being hated; they've come to expect it and feel validated when it occurs. That's precisely why we shouldn't give them what they want, and should instead treat them with laughter and mockery.

That's a response that fundamentalists can't easily tolerate, and the Foo Fighters did the exact right thing - which is one more reason to love them. I already listen to them all the time when I'm at the gym or running, and hearing them mock Fred Phelps is just the icing on the cake. Here's one of my favorites from their latest album Wasting Light:

September 24, 2011, 12:57 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink14 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 Contributions of Freethinkers: Gene Roddenberry

As a wedding present to ourselves, my wife and I bought the DVDs of the original Star Trek, and these past few months, we've been working our way through them. For myself, it was a test: I hadn't seen most of these episodes since my childhood, and I was curious to see if they held up. I'm pleased to say that, for the most part, they more than hold their own. There's plenty to criticize, but after all this time, it hasn't lost its charm.

Despite everything that makes me roll my eyes about Star Trek - the dated special effects, the hammy acting, the hackneyed plots, the ludicrous science - there's a powerful heart of optimism beating beneath the surface of the show. The idea that human beings have conquered our own divisions and become united as a species, that we're setting out to explore the universe purely for the sake of exploration, that we've become members of a galactic civilization of intelligent life - for all these reasons, the world of Trek could be fairly described as a utopian vision of humanist philosophy. And that's why it's no surprise that Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, was himself a humanist and a nonbeliever.

As Susan Sackett, Roddenberry's longtime personal assistant, put it to a humanist group in Massachusetts:

Ms. Sackett said that Star Trek, like humanism, promoted ethics, social justice and reason, and rejected religious dogma and the supernatural.... She said Mr. Roddenberry, who lectured in Worcester in the 1990s, strived in his Star Trek ventures to affirm the dignity of all people.

"Rationality was the key... There was no recourse to the supernatural," she said.

Ms. Sackett said Roddenberry was so resolute about religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the starship Enterprise.

And Roddenberry himself said:

"I have always been reasonably leery of religion because there are so many edicts in religion, 'thou shalt not,' or 'thou shalt.' I wanted my world of the future to be clear of that." (source)

Brannon Braga, one of the original writers and producers, expressed similar thoughts at a 2006 atheist conference in Iceland:

STAR TREK, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity's exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of STAR TREK is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry's mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of STAR TREK and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.

Star Trek's humanist ethic comes through clearly in several classic episodes, including "Who Mourns for Adonais?", in which the crew of the Enterprise is confronted by an alien being who claims to be the god Apollo and demands their worship; or the Next Generation episode "Who Watches the Watchers?", in which the crew's existence accidentally becomes known to a primitive society, and they must convince those people that they are not gods.

With all that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Star Trek has spawned its own devotees who follow and imitate the show with an almost religious fervor. But even this, I think, is testimony to the hunger for an optimistic, humanist vision of the future, one not based on the supernatural, and that's the kind of thing that all atheists should be doing our utmost to provide.

Other posts in this series:

August 13, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink29 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Pearl Jam

(Editor's Note: Thanks to DA reader Alan Waldron for suggesting this post!)

I've written about famous atheist composers before, but not all the great nonbelieving musicians belong to the past. Some are still living, working, and performing - like the subjects of today's post on the contributions of freethinkers.

The band Pearl Jam was founded in Seattle, Washington in 1990, a part of the emerging grunge-rock movement that would also produce bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. Its original lineup consisted of vocalist Eddie Vedder, guitarists Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and drummer Dave Krusen (ultimately replaced by Matt Cameron). Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, was released in August 1991 and became a breakout, certified-gold success thanks to hit singles like "Alive" and "Jeremy". Their second album, 1993's Vs., set records even more rapidly. Their subsequent albums include Vitalogy (1994), Yield (1998), Riot Act (2002), and Backspacer (2009). Allmusic calls Pearl Jam "the most popular American rock & roll band of the 90s", and a 2005 USA Today reader's poll voted them the greatest American rock band of all time.

Pearl Jam's music, in addition to advocating a variety of progressive causes such as the pro-choice movement and environmental conservation, carries unmistakable themes of science and freethought. In "Big Wave" (lyrics), a song about evolution and how it connects us to our crustacean ancestors in the sea, Vedder sings:

I used to be crustacean, in an underwater nation
And I surf in celebration, of a billion adaptations
I feel the need, planted in me, millions of years ago, can't you see?
The ocean's size, defining time and tide, rising arms laid upon me,
Being so kind to let me ride.

The song "Marker in the Sand" (lyrics) demands to know why a deity would permit people to slaughter each other in his name:

Those undecided needn't have faith to be free
And those misguided, there was a plan for them to be.
Now you got both sides claiming killing in God's name
But God is nowhere to be found, conveniently.

And one of my personal favorites, "Do the Evolution" (lyrics), pointedly criticizes religion for encouraging humanity's violent impulses and fostering an illusory sense of our species' superiority:

I'm ahead, I'm a man
I'm the first mammal to wear pants, yeah
I'm at peace with my lust
I can kill 'cause in God I trust, yeah
It's evolution, baby

The video, one of the rare exceptions to Pearl Jam's policy of not creating music videos for their songs, is a psychedelic animated montage of violence through the ages, from knights in the Crusades to Nazi rallies to the KKK - pointedly suggesting that religion and other tribalisms are nothing but a mode of expression of the violent impulses arising from the darker side of our nature.

The Celebrity Atheist List also has this quote from Eddie Vedder:

I think [God is] like a movie that was way too popular. It's a story that's been told too many times and just doesn't mean anything.

Other posts in this series:

December 28, 2009, 10:31 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink17 comments

Jehovah's Witnesses Hate the Smurfs

By Sarah Braasch

In the early 80's, the primary preoccupations of the Jehovah's Witnesses were Armageddon, Smurfs, Michael Jackson and demonic attack, but not necessarily in that order. As a young Jehovah's Witness girl, my worldview was what you might describe as surreal. Smurfs were little blue imps disguised as Saturday morning cartoon characters. They were capable of murder, rape, violence and general mayhem, and, as such, all Smurf paraphernalia had to be either banished or burned or both from any respectable Jehovah's Witness home. Armageddon was regarded with frenzied anticipation. We couldn't wait for the bloodletting of the wicked to begin. Demons roamed the earth, along with Satan the Devil. They lurked behind every corner, literally, just waiting for an invitation to wreak havoc on one's mind and body. And Michael Jackson was the subject of many rancorous sermons at the Kingdom Hall. Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom replaced the Smurfs as the most blatant signs of the end times, the last days of this system of things.

I didn't know whom Michael Jackson was when I began to hear his name breathlessly bandied about with great agitation and interspersed amongst the cautionary tales of Smurfs and demon-possessed antiques. I knew I didn't have any of his tapes or records. I felt much relieved. When news of the Smurfs' demonic nature had come to light, I had to rid my bedroom of Smurfs, and I wasn't able to sleep for months thereafter. I was convinced I had inadvertently invited demons into my life.

Apparently there was something quite different about this Michael Jackson. He had been one of us. He had been a Jehovah's Witness. This information blew my little mind. What?!? How could a Jehovah's Witness do the horrible things the elders accused Michael Jackson of having done? How could someone abandon Jehovah God after having learned the truth? Was he demon possessed?

We were given explicit instructions in how to handle the Michael Jackson situation. He was definitely NOT a Jehovah's Witness. We were told to deny him. A Jehovah's Witness would not do the things he did. A Jehovah's Witness is not merely someone who claims the identity. A Jehovah's Witness must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. A Jehovah's Witness demonstrates his identity via his behavior. Michael Jackson might have attended a few meetings. His mother might be a Jehovah's Witness, but that did not make Michael Jackson a Jehovah's Witness. Deny, deny, deny. We were read an official letter from the governing body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in New York.

All of this commotion was very exciting and titillating. We had a betrayer in our midst. He was the purveyor of worldly sex and sin and demonic imagery. We secretly relished the notoriety and the attention his fame brought us. What good was it to be God's chosen people, the only ones with the truth, to be better than everyone else, unless everyone else knew of our superiority? Battle lines were drawn. There was a fight to be had, in the public eye, in the center of a scandalous controversy. It was so delicious.

It was also a matter of life and death and demons. JWs love to whip themselves up into a veritable frenzy. They love to terrorize themselves and their children. Everything is a cosmic battle to the death between the forces of good and evil. Even Smurfs and Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones.

One day I was the odd but accepted fixture of Lincoln Elementary School in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and the next day I was the cool kid. Everyone was jealous of me. Not despite the fact that I was a Jehovah's Witness, but, miraculously, because I was a Jehovah's Witness. That was something new. I was supposed to denounce and disown Michael Jackson, but, suddenly, everyone wanted to know me and be near me, because Michael Jackson was also a Jehovah's Witness. I remember little girls telling me, “You're so lucky, because you're a Jehovah's Witness just like Michael Jackson.” All of the little girls in my grade had huge crushes on him.

I felt torn. I loved the attention and the admiration, but I was terrified of being attacked by demons if I strayed from the organization's instructions. I strived to achieve both aims. I milked the association for all it was worth and denounced his worldly ways at the same time. I convinced myself that I was doing this in order to proselytize to as many of my classmates as possible. That was the other thing. We were told to take advantage of this situation to spread the good news to people who were now open to hearing it.

While I was able to withstand the siren charms of MJ, I knew another little JW girl who was not. My sister and I often played with a little Jehovah's Witness girl named Sandy whose mother was also named Sandy. I found that so strange. I found that to be the height of arrogance for a mother to name her daughter after herself. It seemed almost like self-idolatry. I was both intrigued and aghast.

Their family was particularly devout. They sold their home. They moved into a mobile home to simplify their lives, so that they could devote more of their time to the preaching effort. They gave us their dog, Yickey (some kind of weird Swedish name – only in Minnesota). They didn't want to spend time taking care of a pet that they could spend out witnessing the good news. Sandy and her little brother were not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio without adult supervision. Their every move was monitored.

But, Sandy's and her little brother's parents had both previously been married and divorced. To other people. I was scandalized by this information. Sandy had led a pre-Jehovah's Witness life. Her family's righteousness was newfound. Sandy had a hard time conforming to her newly strict and ascetic lifestyle. She had a secret life in which she indulged in wicked worldliness. But, just a little bit. I was both repelled with fear and disgust and wholly enthralled by more than a little fear and disgust.

Sandy and I bonded over this shared attraction to the dark side. My mother had not been a JW until she married my father. As such, she was far more lenient than most Jehovah's Witness mothers regarding our daily activities. I was probably worse the wear for it. It almost made me Catholic, the extreme guilt that I felt. But, it was even worse, because my guilt was coupled with sheer terror, because I was certain that I was deserving of demonic attack.

One day at Sandy's house, she led my sister and I into her bedroom to exchange confidences and demon attack horror stories. Then, she revealed her deep and abiding love for, of all things, Michael Jackson. I think I might have shrieked. Then, she opened up the top drawer of her dresser and flung her undergarments onto her bed, revealing a huge stash of Michael Jackson pictures that she had cut from the pages of magazines and whatnot. How she had escaped her mother's watchful eye long enough to do so was beyond me. Pictures of Michael Jackson in concert. Pictures of Michael Jackson in his videos. Pictures of Michael Jackson posing for photo shoots. She handed some of the images to my sister and I.

I didn't want to touch the photos. I was literally terrified. It was as if she had pulled voodoo dolls or a Ouija board out from her dresser. Nothing is more terrifying to Jehovah's Witnesses than the Satanic Ouija board. I thought demons were going to appear at any moment. I thought I was being possessed at that moment. I almost fainted. I started to cry. My sister looked scared too. I begged her to put the pictures away. Scaring one another with tales of bad Jehovah's Witnesses who had been rightfully tormented by demons was one thing. But, actually inviting demons into our lives was something else entirely. And that's what those pictures were. They were portals to the spiritual world, the evil spiritual world. They were doorways, and demons were waiting on the other side, itching to get in through my fingertips.

It's truly amazing and horrifying how brainwashing and inculcation as a child stays with you throughout your life. I am an adult. I am well educated. I have not been a Jehovah's Witness for many, many years. I am an atheist. Most of the time. But, sometimes, especially when I'm stressed out and tired, I'll start to feel that old sense of panic and anxiety. I'm sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I will still call out to Jehovah to protect me from demons, but only every once in a blue moon. And, I feel the need less and less. These moments of psychosis become more and more rare. I'm really looking forward to the time when they will cease altogether, if that ever happens.

I became addicted to the drama. It was such a rush, such a high. A constant battle with demons. The ever-incipient apocalypse. The community wide martyr complex. I sometimes wonder if maybe it permanently damaged my brain. I was constantly pumped full of adrenaline, high on terror, living on a knife's edge, waiting for the next demonic attack.

That lifestyle has maintained its grasp on me in myriad ways. I overreact. I am hyper-emotional. Everything's a matter of life and death. The problem is two-fold. I'm addicted to the rush of chemicals in my body, and I never learned how to distinguish between the real emergency and the fake one. When pictures of Michael Jackson might contain demons, something about your life is slightly skewed.

I fell into something of a depression when Michael Jackson died. I was unbelievably sad. I was embarrassed to tell anyone. I had enjoyed his music, but I had never been a huge fan. I had never purchased any of his albums. I had never seen him in concert. I had never met him, of course. But, his death opened up a lot of childhood wounds. I felt like I knew a part of him. Like I understood in a way that few others would.

I knew the pain of growing up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home with a subservient and submissive mother and a domineering father. I knew the pain of loving a mother who will not protect you, because she believes that God will condemn her for doing so. The pain of loving a mother who will not leave the man who believes it is within his God-given authority to beat you. The pain of loving a mother who would rather watch you suffer in misery than expose Jehovah God or his organization to public scorn and shame.

Growing up, I loved my mother more than anything, but she didn't love me more than anything. She loved her religion more. It still makes me cry. So when Michael Jackson died, I cried. I cried for the little girl who was terrified that demons were going to rape her in the middle of the night. I cried for the little girl who begged her mother to leave her father. I cried for the little girl who begged Jehovah God to kill her, so that the pain would stop. And, I cried for the little Jehovah's Witness boy that Michael Jackson had been.

I worry about Michael's kids. I know that sounds silly, but I think about them. I hope they are safe and well. I worry that they are being inculcated in that apocalyptic cult of demonology and terror that is the Jehovah's Witnesses. It is not a healthy environment for children. Not to mention the fact that that cult once denounced and disowned their father as wicked and sinful.

I worry about Paris. The Jehovah's Witnesses espouse the subjugation of women and girls as part of Jehovah's divinely ordained plan. Raising children as Jehovah's Witnesses is abusive, especially for girl children. It is also dangerous. The Jehovah's Witnesses provide a safe haven for pedophiles, abusers and molesters. I imagine that Michael Jackson suffered greatly as a result of having been raised as a Jehovah's Witness.

I worry about Katherine Jackson raising those kids as Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't know her. I've never met her. But, I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint for remaining with her tyrannical husband all of these years. I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint because she's religious, because she's a woman of faith, because she's spiritual.

My mother was spiritual. My mother was a woman of faith. My mother was religious. My mother is still married to my father. They still live together. I haven't spoken to either of them in nearly twenty years.

My mother chose her husband and her religion and her God over her children. She stood by and did nothing as her children suffered at the hands of her husband. She stood by and did nothing as her cult terrorized and tortured her children. She sacrificed us for her faith. She sacrificed us for her loveless marriage.

I got down on my hands and knees and begged my mother to protect me. I begged her to choose me. I begged her to love me. And she said no.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I don't think women should be canonized for holding their faith in higher regard than the protection of their own children. And, I'm not sure they should be rewarded with even more children to neglect in this way.

I don't want Michael's kids to have to beg.

November 11, 2009, 1:41 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink128 comments

Mr. T Tackles the Problem of Evil

It's not only professional philosophers and theologians who have an opinion on matters touching the sacred. Sometimes, gold-jewelry-wearing, mohawk-having, former '80s television and movie action stars have words of wisdom to express on these weighty matters. Like, for instance, Mr. T, who recently gave an interview to Bizarre magazine in which he made a very interesting, and unintentionally revealing, comment.

The interviewer asked T if he'd ever seen a UFO, to which he responded:

I'm a Christian – I really don't believe in UFOs.

What one has to do with the other is not clear to me, but leave that aside. Mr. T is in fact an evangelical Christian, as he confirms in this Beliefnet interview:

I am a sinner who has been saved by grace. It's by the grace of God that I'm here. We all have sinned and fallen short on God's glory. I come home and I ask God to forgive me for my sins. Everyday I ask for a new cleansing. I say, "God, let me show kindness to someone, let me give someone hope. Let me be a light at the end of a tunnel for somebody." I tell people, they say I'm a farmer, I plant the seed of hope, plant the seed of inspiration, plant the seed so they can start praying and believing again.

He credits his surviving a bout with cancer (he had, yes, T-cell lymphoma - no, I'm not making that up) to his faith:

The story of Job gave me strength when I had cancer. I said, "T, if you just hang in there, God will give you double for your troubles." That's what I was taught in church and that's what happened to Job. What he lost, he gained more in the end. Job said, "Though you slay me, yet will I trust you." God giveth and God taketh away. Blessed be his holy name." And that's how I live.

So far, this is the standard evangelical Christian platter of beliefs. But in the Bizarre interview, the interviewer asks Mr. T a different question, and his answer gives the game away:

If you could have a magical power, what would it be?
Easy question! That's too, too easy Alix! Wow. I appreciate your sweetness giving me such an easy question! I'd have the power to heal little children. I'd want to make sure they all got an education and weren't scrabbling around in garbage and eating scraps of junk, like the kids in India shown in that movie, Slumdog Millionaire. I hope the people that made that film are investing some of the profits into cleaning up the area where they filmed, and doing something to improve those kids' lives. Yeah, I'd want to help the tiny ones who are blind, who have diseases like AIDS and problems like muscular dystrophy... I'd heal the children and save the babies.

If he had any magical power, Mr. T says, he'd end poverty and cure disease among the world's children. In fact, he doesn't even have to think hard about this: he considers it an "easy question".

But he seems to have forgotten something important. Mr. T is an evangelical Christian and therefore, presumably, he believes in a god who has the power to do all those things at this very moment. So why doesn't God do that? Does Mr. T even realize that he's just inadvertently outlined one of the strongest pieces of evidence against his own religious beliefs?

Theologians have tied themselves in logical knots for millennia trying to explain what reasons God could have for allowing evil and suffering. But Mr. T, in his own inimitable style, brushes those convoluted theodicies aside by saying that the choice to end evil, if he had the power to do it, would be an easy one. Either he is a more compassionate and loving person than the god he claims to serve, or else that god does not exist.

Mr. T isn't the first Christian to contradict his own beliefs like this. C.S. Lewis did the same thing, as I pointed out in "The Theodicy of Narnia". They, like many other Christians, insist on believing in a god who has deep and mysterious reasons for allowing persistent and terrible evils. But both of them, when apologetic considerations are not uppermost in their minds, inadvertently contradict their own belief by stating that of course they would create a world without evil if they could.

And of course they would - as would any of us, I hope. Of course we would abolish evil if we could. Basic decency and simple compassion mandate no other conclusion. It's only the necessity of accounting for the evil that does exist, in a world claimed to be ruled by a benevolent deity, that forces religious apologists to bend over backwards trying to excuse the inexcusable. But when religious concerns are not at the forefront, when simple human conscience is allowed to express itself, most believers prove by their words and actions that they themselves are better and more rational than the faith they claim to represent.

May 30, 2009, 11:11 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments

The Moral High Ground

It's common for fundamentalist Christians to think of themselves as the moral guardians of our culture, a bulwark against the rampant sex and violence in the mass media. But this self-flattering caricature runs up against inconvenient reality: there is plenty of evidence which shows that Christians as a whole are every bit as drawn to sex and violence as everyone else.

One of the best examples of this is Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. This movie had a worldwide gross of over $600 million, of which we can safely assume most came from Christian viewers. Of the movie's two-plus hour runtime, nearly all is devoted to depicting the torture and execution of Jesus in obsessive, graphic detail, from brutal floggings to the hammering in of crucixifion nails, even adding extra tortures not mentioned in the gospels. Film critic Roger Ebert called Passion "the most violent film I have ever seen", and Slate critic David Edelstein suggested it should be renamed "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre".

Another example is the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind novels. In the game, players take the role of commander of the "Tribulation Force", an army of Christian believers, converted after the rapture, who must battle the forces of the Antichrist. In essence, the player's mission is to either convert or kill all non-Christians. U.N. soldiers are represented as minions of the Antichrist, and the player characters exclaim "Praise the Lord!" each time they shoot one of them.

And then, of course, there are the violent and gory scenes from Left Behind itself, where Jesus returns to earth to slaughter his enemies by the millions:

"Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ."

For deeply religious Christians, it seems that violence is acceptable as long as it's depicted in the proper religious context. When it's presented as God's righteous judgment, they find violence perfectly okay and often even praiseworthy. The Bible itself, of course, is the greatest example of this - considering the many brutal slaughters and wars of extermination it records the Israelites waging against their enemies at God's command, none of which ever seem to give fundamentalists any concern. (The sexual content of the Bible doesn't bother them either.)

Turning to the topic of sex, there's little difference to be found between Christians and non-Christians here as well - or rather, if there is, it's in the wrong direction. It's long been known that, statistically, socially conservative states and evangelical Protestants in particular have higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, and STD infection. The "abstinence-only" sex education programs and virginity pledges so beloved by religious conservatives have repeatedly failed to make any measurable difference in sexual behavior.

Corroborating evidence comes from another study, by sociologist Benjamin Edelman, concerning access to online pornography. It turns out that of all American states, the one with the highest rate of subscriptions to adult sites is the socially conservative, Mormon-dominated Utah. The FBI also confirms that Utah outranks most other states when it comes to web searches for explicit content. Nor is this just a Mormon thing, as Edelman adds:

"Subscriptions are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality," Edelman writes. In the 27 states where "defense of marriage" amendments have been adopted, there were 11 percent more porn subscribers than in other states, he reports. Use is higher also in states where more people agree with the statement "I never doubt the existence of God."

Clearly, there's a great deal of sexual repression lurking beneath the surface facades of piety. When it comes to sex and violence, religious teachings may instill an outward attitude of condemnation, but they evidently make little difference in people's actual desires and behaviors.

March 27, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments

CAP Alert Reviews II

It's been far too long since I first examined the lunacy that is the CAP Alert site. Interestingly, the site seems to have fallen on hard financial times: it is plastered with ads, and virtually every page contains text begging for donations. Their recent reviews show that the majority of movies released in the past few weeks were not reviewed because no one "sponsored" them to do so. The site's owner claims that it costs him an average of $350 to review one movie. By my calculations, assuming four movie reviews per week, this would mean that he is asking for $70,000 in donations each year just to review movies - a hefty salary, considering the distinctly undemanding nature of the work.

Why are Christians across the world not opening their wallets to the beleaguered souls at CAP? Well, perhaps it has something to do with ridiculous reviews like this:

Sexual issues included sex talk, anatomical references, seeking of sexual conquest, a woman placing a man's hand on her chest and a man and woman in bed (clothed). Maybe the man and woman in bed together were married in the movie but the actor and actress were not.

—from the review of "A Beautiful Mind"

Yes, after all his railing against extramarital sex in movies, one would think the CAP reviewer would welcome a movie that only shows sexual scenes between married characters. But apparently not: he deducts points because the actor and actress were not married. What are we to make of this? Is he saying that it is a sin for unmarried people to lie together, clothed, in the same bed? (God demands that unmarried people remain at least three feet apart at all times!) Should actors and actresses who participate in sexual scenes be legally married beforehand?

But in this review, I intend to focus on a less humorous and more disturbing trait of the CAP reviewer: his phobic and prejudiced attitude toward homosexuals. Though he lambastes movies for "endorsing" homosexuality, what truly seems to bother him is the mere recognition that it exists. His reviews pervasively imply that he would prefer homosexuals to be forced back into the closet and silenced, so that he and other fundamentalist Christians can more easily pretend that they do not exist.

For example, he criticizes the film "15 Minutes" for the following item: "gay pair on a billboard". That is all. No endorsement of homosexuality, no claim that it is a good or acceptable attitude, is mentioned: only recognition of its existence. That seems sufficient to trigger condemnation. And consider this additional evidence:

In the movie, Virginia Woolf is portrayed as being both severely depressed and lesbian. However trustworthy the Internet is or is not, a search confirmed the claim that Virginia Woolf was lesbian. Why do I bring up that Woolf was reportedly lesbian while it has nothing to do with her literary genius? Because it is a key element in this story of promotion of homosexuality/lesbianism to younger and younger kids every year.

—from the review of "The Hours"

Evidently, in the CAP reviewer's eyes, a movie that is made about a famous person who was homosexual should omit and not mention the fact of that famous person's homosexuality. The CAP reviewer often pours scorn on the idea of "political correctness", but what term would he prefer to describe his own desire to rewrite and censor history to fit his own prejudices?

It would seem that the entertainment industry is trying to make sure kids at least know about, among many other sins, the practice of homosexuality.

—from the review of "Shall We Dance?"

Yes, and? Is the CAP reviewer arguing that kids should not be told about the existence of homosexuality? Does he think we should try to keep them ignorant of all ways of life except the one we want them to adopt?

The chief editor of "Poise" magazine, Richard (Andy Serkis - Gollum and Smeagol of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) said he is gay. It might seem quite innocuous for an actor to simply state he is gay in a light and casual "in passing" mention of it, making being gay seem routine and even mundane with no special noteworthiness. But that which happens "behind the scenes" in the practice of homosexuality of which intentionally few are aware is always carefully and strategically guarded from being revealed in matters such as this film targeted at your adolescents (which include at-home teens). The same sly and calculated omissions are used to teach your school-aged kids tolerance of diversity, skillfully leaving out the perversity ("strange flesh") in God's eyes.

—from the review of "13 Going on 30"

"Carefully and strategically"? Apparently he discerns some subtle and sinister plot in an interview where a gay person mentions being gay. And as far as public schools go, tolerance is absolutely the right thing to teach. Tolerance does not mean that we must like or endorse different lifestyles or treat them with approval, but only that we must recognize other people's right to direct their lives as they wish and not attempt to force our preferences on them.

This seems too much to ask of the CAP reviewer, however. Like many other Christian supremacists, he apparently wishes that ways of life which do not meet with his approval would be outlawed. In his review of "The Mexican", he disturbingly laments the fact that a homosexual relationship is depicted as having "no legal consequences". In his review of "Big Daddy", he deducts points for a depiction of "leaving a five year old boy in the care of two male homosexuals", as if there were something intrinsically wrong with this. Personally, I would be far more comfortable leaving a child in the care of a homosexual couple than in the care of a militant, malignant Christian bigot who would attempt to indoctrinate that child with ideas of religious hatred and discrimination.

The CAP reviewer also expresses his indignation that homosexuals would dare to act like human beings:

A number of times in Good Boy! two co-habitating men in a relationship clearly not something as simple two guys living together to share expenses appear in scenes subtly giving a strategically understated message that co-habitating practitioners of homosexuality are just like families with peaceful homes, pets and mortgages when quite the opposite appears to be true.

—from the review of "Good Boy"

Yes, how dare those homosexuals try to pass themselves off as normal people! Everyone knows that gays don't feel love or affection like straight people do and that the only thing they really want is to have nonstop sexual orgies all day. Can anyone really be so ignorant as to believe idiotic stereotypes like this? Has it ever occurred to the CAP reviewer to wonder why gay rights groups are fighting for the freedom to marry when, according to him, they don't really want it anyway?

In line with the CAP reviewer's evident wish that homosexuals could be swept under the rug and censored, he is also upset when movies suggest the effects which the steady campaign of religious prejudice has had on them. In the review of "The Next Best Thing", he rails against "portrayal of the homosexual agenda as the 'injured party'".

Yes, they are! That is exactly the case. The many gay people who want nothing more than to live together with their partners and start families, free of interference and discrimination, are the ones who are injured by the acts of homophobic religious bigots who want to barge into those people's lives and force them to conform to their repressive and limited conception of what is normal. By contrast, the desire of gay people to live together in peace in no way injures or interferes with the CAP reviewer's desire to practice his religion for himself as he sees fit. When gay people start arguing that Christians should not be allowed to marry or adopt children, then I will acknowledge CAP's point.

There is much more I could cite. He criticizes "The Lion King" for the line "Want me to dress in drag?", which he calls a "homosexual suggestion" (evidently the CAP reviewer does not understand the difference between transvestites and homosexuals). The black comedy "Death to Smoochy" is said to "promot[e] jabs for homosexuality such as asking a man to wear thong underwear". Who knew that a man's choice of underwear could turn him gay?

"A Knight's Tale" is excoriated for "the use of two major songs by homo/bisexual artists": "We Will Rock You" by Queen and "Golden Years" by David Bowie, a choice which is called "not likely accidental". "The Day After Tomorrow" similarly comes under fire for a "homosexual song", "Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me" by Boy George. Is the implication here that we should boycott or ban music performed by non-heterosexuals, for no other reason than the fact of their sexual orientation? I do not doubt that this reviewer would be among the first to scream persecution if some group announced the boycott of any music played by Christians.

And then we descend even further into the ridiculous, with criticisms such as "homosexual mannerisms" ("Saving Silverman"), "two men speaking of relationships in a traditionally 'female' style" ("The Next Best Thing"), or even more bizarrely, "dressing of dogs in stereotypical homosexual dress" ("Legally Blonde 2"). Is the CAP reviewer fearful that the "homosexual agenda" is out to brainwash even our pets?

But the crowning absurdity must surely be this:

For every Kinsey-style report and other so-to-speak scientific report that claims homosexuality is - for some - normal and natural and healthy, I'll betcha I could find two or three scientific reports to refute that speculation - probably the greatest report being the Holy Bible.

The idea of the Bible - a book of myths written by a Bronze Age tribe that believed the Earth to be the 6,000-year-old center of the universe - as a "scientific report" would be hilarious, if it were not for the fact that the bigots who believe it literally are deadly serious about forcing their ignorant and regressive views on the rest of the world. Whether the CAP site dries up for lack of funding or not, we nonbelievers must never forget that there are millions more people who hold similar beliefs. Whether the issue is gay rights, atheist rights, or the rights of any other minority that has historically faced discrimination and oppression, the most valuable function of bigots like this may be to remind us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance against those who would take it away from us.

Other posts in this series:

October 19, 2006, 8:03 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink22 comments

Religion as Sports

In the United States of America, sports is a national obsession. Every week, tens of thousands of avid fans pack into stadiums and arenas to watch their teams battle for supremacy on the field of play, and millions more watch and listen on TV and radio. Devoted fans follow their hometown teams with an interest verging on fanaticism, memorizing vast quantities of statistical and historical minutiae, filling their homes with the colors and iconography of their teams, and fiercely defending their team's merits against all detractors. Great players are rewarded with vast wealth and undying fame.

In many ways, religion is like sports. For example, people almost always become fans of a team not through a rational comparison of its merits compared to those of other teams, but through cultural factors such as what region of the country they live in or what teams their family and friends follow. Similarly, most people acquire their religious preferences through cultural indoctrination and circumstantial factors, such as which religion is dominant in the area of the world where they were born.

Religion, like sports, is big business. Both make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit each year, whether from ticket sales and corporate sponsorship or from tithes and pledge drives. Both do a thriving trade in holy relics, be they home-run balls or a saint's bones; there are frequent legislative proposals to levy taxes on the public for the support of each; and both bestow tremendous, almost unimaginable wealth and luxury on their most prominent and famous figures. The opulent and lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the most famous professional athletes can hardly be matched, unless one turns to the extravagance enjoyed by the world's most famous preachers.

Religion, like sports, brings a curiously extensible type of fame. Both athletes and theologians are often treated as experts on topics that are completely outside their expertise - athletes endorse commercial products, for example, while religious figures are often treated as authorities on matters of science or politics. In both cases, it is assumed without evidence that the person's fame in one area somehow makes them trustworthy and authoritative in other fields as well.

Religion, like sports, feeds people's apparent need to belong, to be part of a group. There seems to be a strong tendency in human psychology to define oneself by one's allegiances, to create ways to clearly label and categorize and separate oneself and one's group from the rest of the world. Both religion and sports provide convenient ways to do this. Of course, the one difference in this case is that relatively few people are so devoted to sports as to define their entire identity in terms of their favorite team, whereas this is relatively common in religion.

With religion, as with sports, our society puts a high emphasis - some would undoubtedly say too high an emphasis - on both, spending huge amounts of time, money and interest that could probably be used more profitably by more important activities. Fans and followers can often quote pages of obscure statistical trivia or obscure scriptural verses, even while the majority of people remain abysmally ignorant of scientific and political issues that affect their lives directly. And one's like of sports is sometimes used as an indicator of patriotism (Mom, baseball and apple pie), and religious commitment is very often used for the same purpose.

And finally, as testament to the seriousness in which they are both taken, both religion and sports lead to violence on occasion. Usually with sports this takes the form of overexcited fans rioting when their team wins, or brawls between fans or players of competing teams. But unlike religion, the violence rarely gets serious. Fans of competing sports teams do not go on jihads or launch inquisitions against each other, nor do they issue edicts declaring that supporting other teams is a grave crime, and it is unheard of for a sports fan to sneak into an opposing team's stadium to blow himself up in a suicidal act of terrorism. By contrast, fundamentalist believers do all these things and more. And while the idea of Yankees and Red Sox fans, say, waging holy war on each other sounds supremely ridiculous and pointless to our ears, why is it any less ridiculous or any more pointless than it would be for devotees of different invisible gods to do the same?

In reference to the earlier point about the relative emphasis society places on these activities, it is probably no coincidence that so many people are strongly devoted to sports or to religion, while so few follow scientific debates or political negotiations with the same fervor. Sports and religion are both easy to follow; both distill the outside world into a simplified, highlighted, easily understood microcosm. By contrast, issues like science and politics require confronting the real world in all its tangled complexity and messy, difficult ambiguity, and it seems that many people do not have the desire or the motivation to do that.

The major difference between the two, as I see it, is that sports is not harmful in and of itself. There is nothing wrong with entertainment or recreation, and the widespread interest in sports is for the most part a harmless obsession. At their best, sports and athletics instill in us positive values such as teamwork, cooperation, determination, and they show us the highest and most noble things of which the human spirit is capable. (Indeed, a renewed appreciation for good sportsmanship is something our society could use, given the scorched-earth, win-at-any-cost tactics so frequently adopted by the modern religious right.) On the other hand, religion very often is an intrinsically harmful phenomenon, mixing the occasional good moral lesson with incitements to xenophobia, ignorance of the outside world, and prejudice towards those who are different. Most insidiously of all, religion teaches that faith is a commendable way to make decisions, that it is praiseworthy to hold a firm commitment to the unknown and the unobserved and even to value it over real, observable things.

September 18, 2006, 10:30 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink12 comments

Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code

I recently had an opportunity to see The Da Vinci Code, the movie based on Dan Brown's novel that alleges a sensational plot by the Catholic church to cover up the truth about the origins of Christianity.

First things first: Yes, I did enjoy the movie, and I do recommend it. Without a doubt, its plot mixes historical fact, speculation and pure fantasy in a slipshod way, and anyone who believes events literally happened that way is taking it far too seriously and giving it credibility that it does not deserve. (To be fair, I think the same thing about Christianity.) However, when viewed as the work of fiction it is, it is well worth seeing. Its plot is coherent and fast-paced, not at all boring, and the filmmakers manage to keep up a sense of portentous dread with every new revelation. I do not know why the reviews have been as heavily negative as they were; perhaps the reviewers were piqued at not being granted advance screenings.

However, a few poor reviews are nothing next to the worldwide protests, boycotts and censorship the movie has attracted. The Catholic church has urged a boycott, imploring its members not to read the book or see the movie; one Vatican archbishop deplored the fact that the book's "lies" remain "unpunished". Lebanon and Pakistan have banned the film altogether, as have parts of the Philippines and India. Even communist China banned it, after a brief but successful run in that nation. (Evidently the state-run church wants to show lay Catholics that it can be just as paranoid and censorship-happy as the Vatican.) Other countries have demanded that certain parts of the film be cut or that disclaimers be added stating that it is a work of fiction. Fortunately, in the United States our strong guarantees on freedom of speech prevented religious authorities from censoring the movie, although some individual theater owners made a game effort:

Speaking of the South and that strong literalist view, The Smoky Mountain Cinema — Waynesville's only theater — will not now or ever show "The Da Vinci Code." A recorded message explains: "A lot of people have been asking us when we're going to be playing 'The Da Vinci Code.' The answer to that is never. No way. No how. The reason? We feel that this movie mocks God. We feel that this movie calls the Bible a book of lies.... To this movie we say 'kiss my grits.' Hollywood, you've gone too far on this one for this Southern Baptist boy."
—Dave Russell, "Russell checks in on old friends, Gallup polls and 'The Da Vinci Code' again", from the Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, 24 May 2006

Why this fearful reaction? The movie's popularity (it has now exceeded Passion of the Christ in worldwide gross) is part of it, but that would not explain anything unless some churches already sensed a threat.

The explanation, I believe, is that The Da Vinci Code presents a competing narrative, one that seeks to explain the events at the origin of Christianity in a different way. This, more than anything else, is what the churches fear. As a general rule, I find that Christian religious leaders are not afraid of rational arguments against their faith, because most believers' minds are not structured or encouraged to think that way. Our society does not value critical thinking and skepticism highly, but rather steadfast faith and decisions based on emotion. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rational arguments against Christianity or any other religion have made relatively little headway.

On the other hand, what can and does flourish in such an environment is another story, one that appeals to people on the same emotional level as Christianity and taps the same feelings: the emotional appeal of the triumphant underdog, the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, the idea of great and sacred mysteries that will be revealed to the initiate. The Da Vinci Code competes with Christianity on its own turf, so to speak, and so it is no wonder the churches fear it as they do.

Even more so, these Christian groups do not just fear an alternative story; they fear an alternative story that turns one of their most effective and insidious tactics against them. It has always been part of Christianity that those who believe differently are not just seekers on a different path to God, or sincere but misguided souls, but rather agents of evil trying to hide the truth and trick the believer into straying from the true path. This belief is strongest in cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who view everyone and everything outside the Watchtower as under demonic sway, but appears to some degree in every Christian sect. It is little wonder that this tactic has proven effective: by convincing believers that any deviation from the party line is a Satanic deception, churches arm their flock in advance with a powerful reason to ignore external criticism regardless of its content.

The Da Vinci Code uses the same tactic, but reverses it: it portrays the secret cult of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail as the virtuous insiders who possess the real truth, and the Catholic church and orthodox Christianity in general as the villains who are out to suppress that knowledge and must not be believed. Again, it is no wonder that churches fear this. When believers are not taught how to reason logically or critically analyze evidence, one delusion will look as good as another, and the only way to ensure their allegiance is by inculcating a strong a priori allegiance to one belief that will cause them to dismiss all others (which is why the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain verses strongly proclaiming that theirs is the last ever revelation from God and no other gospel should be believed). When a religious meme enters the mind through the loophole created by a lack of critical thinking skills, it naturally tries to seal that gap behind itself so that no other can enter the same way and oust it. (Some computer viruses do the same thing.) But that gap can never be entirely closed. There is always the possibility that another meme will gain entrance the same way, and that is what we are now seeing.

In the long run, will The Da Vinci Code be a good thing for atheism? Certainly, to the extent it fosters competing views on the origin of Christianity and weakens the influence of rigid, unbending faith on society, it will help our cause. But in the long run, it is not solving the basic problem of faith being used as a basis for decision-making, only adding another alternative to the multiplicity of faith systems already in existence. What we really need is a movie that draws on the same narrative themes to teach the virtues of skepticism and the value of decision-making based on evidence.

June 15, 2006, 11:04 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink30 comments

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