Bill Maher: 'If you’re a Christian and support killing your enemies and torture, you have to come up with a new name for yourself'

From the May 13 airing of HBO's Real Time:

Presbyterians to Allow Gay, Lesbian Clergy

Today, the Presbyterian Church became the latest mainline religious denomination to begin to emerge from the Bronze Age.

USA Today reports:
Non-celibate gays and lesbians will become eligible for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) following ratification of a constitutional amendment that reverses decades of official policy.

The long-debated change came late Tuesday when a Minnesota presbytery, or regional governing body, voted 205-56 to ratify an amendment lifting an effective ban on gay ordination in the church constitution.

That vote by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area brought to 87 the number of presbyteries approving the change for the Protestant denomination based in Louisville, Ky. -- the majority needed to amend the constitution.

This hints that the momentum is building, as more and more liberal congregations have also voted to allow gay and lesbian clergy.

The 10 Worst States To Be a Woman

Over at Alternet, Amanda Marcotte has compiled a list of the 10 worst states to be a woman. the list is based on the nearly 1,000 laws introduced by Republican (and some Democrat) state legislators in 2011 limiting women's access to reproductive health.

The losers:
1. Mississippi
2. Texas
3. South Dakota
4. Indiana
5. Oklahoma
6. Kansas
7. Minnesota
8. Georgia
9. Arizona
10. Louisiana

Most of these states, unsurprisingly, have other notable things in common.

See Marcotte's full story to learn more about what's going on in these states.


Dawkins: 'Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon?'

The Washington Post's On Faith column asked four prominent figures in fields of science and theology about Family Radio evangelist Harold Camping's calculation that the rapture will occur on May 21, 2011. The group of four included evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Surely The Post knew that they were dropping a turd in the punchbowl.
Q. While many are laughing at the suggestion, Camping’s followers are taking him seriously, bringing his message of impending doom to billboards and public spaces around the country. What does your tradition teach about the end of the world? How does end time theology impact real world behavior?
A. Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards. I don’t know where he gets the money, but it would be no surprise to discover that it is contributed by gullible followers – gullible enough, we may guess, to go along with him when he will inevitably explain, on May 22nd, that there must have been some error in the calculation, the rapture is postponed to . . . and please send more money to pay for updated billboards.

So, the question becomes, why are there so many well-heeled, gullible idiots out there? Why is it that an idea can be as nuts as you like and still con enough backers to finance its advertising to acquire yet more backers . . . until eventually a national newspaper notices and makes it into a silly season filler?
A few more snippets:
Evidence-free beliefs are, by definition, groundless. What my ‘tradition’ (or your ‘tradition’ or the Dalai Lama’s ‘tradition’ or Osama bin Laden’s ‘tradition’ or the bad-trip ‘tradition’ of whoever wrote Revelation) says about anything in the real world (including its end) is no more likely to be true than any urban legend, idle rumor, superstition, or science fiction novel. Yet, the moment you slap the word ‘tradition’ onto a made-up story you confer on it a spurious dignity, which we are solemnly asked to ‘respect’.

Science is not a tradition, it is the organized use of evidence from the real world to make inferences about the real world...Science knows approximately how, and when, our Earth will end. In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.

However it happens, the end of the world will be a parochial little affair, unnoticed in the universe at large.
Dawkins' full answer can be read here. The other three responses can be accessed here.


A Christian Chaplain Who Helps Gay Farmers

Keith Ineson
You rarely, if ever, hear about gay farmers. And there's likely a good reason for that. Like any number of rural outdoor professions, there is a masculine mythology associated with farming. There have been countless academic papers dealing with the intersection of agriculture, gender, and masculinity. And as much of the research finds, this perception is truly a myth. And that makes it difficult for some to do their jobs without hiding who they really are.

Keith Ineson, an English ex-farmer who works as a Christian chaplain for Churches Together in Cheshire, has often been there for those who are troubled. But after running into a few separate cases involving suicidal farmers who happened to be hiding the fact that they were gay, Ineson opened up a dedicated help line where other gay farmers could reach out for help.

The Guardian reports:
Within six months of launching the dedicated helpline at the end of 2009, Ineson had received 52 calls – mostly from gay farmers over 50, some of whom were single, and all of whom felt imprisoned, thinking that they were the only gay farmer around. The concern is that if Ineson stopped work tomorrow, the helpline would stop with him: there is a need for Christians with rural knowledge and an understanding of gay issues to get involved in the work Keith is doing.
The helpline is supported by a network of local rural organizations and an array of churches (including Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and others).

Ineson, who is himself gay, says its not his sexuality, but his faith, that moved him to reach out and offer support. He believes God is using his sexuality to help people. He says his calling is to stop gay farmers from ending their lives.
One of the cases Ineson handled involved a farmer in his forties who was tormented by a memory from his youth. The farmer told Ineson how he and his dad once saw a man hanging from a tree one evening when they were out walking around their farm. His dad cut the man down from the tree, but when he found out that the man had been trying to kill himself because he was gay, he told his son that he wished he had left the man to die. The farmer carried this memory with him for years, believing his dad would have left him to die if he had known that he was gay too.
Ineson's story should serve as an example to congregations everywhere. His is a true example of living with the intention of reducing suffering in the world, rather than further maligning our fellow human beings at a time when they are dangerously vulnerable.

For more information on Ineson's helpline, visit the Gay Farmer Helpline Website.


Ask a Humanist, Vol. 4: Isn't Humanism a Faith?

(Part 4 of an ongoing, meandering stream of undefined scope.)

There was a period of several years between the point when I accepted my lack of religious belief and the point in which I referred to myself as a Humanist/Secular Humanist. I honestly didn't know how to refer to myself, and I probably would not have settled on anything if it weren't for the fact that I kept running into situations where I was asked about my religious affiliation. Human beings love to classify things, including ourselves, and each other. 

Those several years where I wasn't sure how to classify my religious views were not unlike trying to self-diagnose a nagging chronic illness. (To extend the metaphor, as a formerly religious person, it did feel at times that something was wrong with me.) Most of us have plugged symptoms into a search engine in order to pinpoint a diagnosis. And most of us have been overwhelmed with the array of returned possibilities. There was atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, Humanism, and Universalist-Unitarianism. There was Ignosticism, Skeptcism, Secularism, Naturalism, and so on. And to complicate matters, many of the aforementioned philosophies have any number of definitions, or serve as an umbrella for any number of other, more specific philosophies.

At about the same the time that I was starting to figure out how to classify my beliefs, or lack of beliefs, Atheism was beginning to see a surge, specifically in bookstores, as tomes by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens enjoyed considerable success (and ignited quite a few discussions in the media). Although these books were instrumental in making non-belief less of a taboo (and helping non-believers feel less of a minority), their perceived antagonistic tones, as well as the backlash from religious figures and institutions, only seemed to further associate "Atheism" with negative characteristics.

As someone who has many wonderful religious friends and family members, the last thing I wanted to do was to seem hostile towards religion (something with which I haven't had tremendous success.)  Although, I had lost my faith, I had not lost my faith in humanity.  In fact, during the period in which I came to terms with my non-belief, my appreciation of humanity, of nature, and of life, grew.  I felt that if I had to label myself, I wanted not to focus on what I didn't believe, but rather what I did believe. 

The American Humanist Association describes Humanism as follows:
  1. Humanism is one of those philosophies for people who think for themselves. There is no area of thought that a Humanist is afraid to challenge and explore.
  2. Humanism is a philosophy focused upon human means for comprehending reality. Humanists make no claims to possess or have access to supposed transcendent knowledge.
  3. Humanism is a philosophy of reason and science in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, when it comes to the question of the most valid means for acquiring knowledge of the world, Humanists reject arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, and altered states of consciousness.
  4. Humanism is a philosophy of imagination. Humanists recognize that intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, flashes of inspiration, emotion, altered states of consciousness, and even religious experience, while not valid means to acquire knowledge, remain useful sources of ideas that can lead us to new ways of looking at the world. These ideas, after they have been assessed rationally for their usefulness, can then be put to work, often as alternative approaches for solving problems.
  5. Humanism is a philosophy for the here and now. Humanists regard human values as making sense only in the context of human life rather than in the promise of a supposed life after death.
  6. Humanism is a philosophy of compassion. Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems -- for both the individual and society -- and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.
  7. Humanism is a realistic philosophy. Humanists recognize the existence of moral dilemmas and the need for careful consideration of immediate and future consequences in moral decision making.
  8. Humanism is in tune with the science of today. Humanists therefore recognize that we live in a natural universe of great size and age, that we evolved on this planet over a long period of time, that there is no compelling evidence for a separable "soul," and that human beings have certain built-in needs that effectively form the basis for any human-oriented value system.
  9. Humanism is in tune with today's enlightened social thought. Humanists are committed to civil liberties, human rights, church-state separation, the extension of participatory democracy not only in government but in the workplace and education, an expansion of global consciousness and exchange of products and ideas internationally, and an open-ended approach to solving social problems, an approach that allows for the testing of new alternatives.
  10. Humanism is in tune with new technological developments. Humanists are willing to take part in emerging scientific and technological discoveries in order to exercise their moral influence on these revolutions as they come about, especially in the interest of protecting the environment.
  11. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.
They say if the shoe fits, wear it.  The above set of descriptors were already aligned with the philosophies that I had come to slowly over my entire life.  Are there other descriptions for other philosophies with which I would also feel aligned? Yes, I'm sure of it. And I would probably not deny any relationship with that philosophy. (I feel perfectly fine referring to myself as an atheist, an agnostic, a Universalist-Unitarian, and other descriptors.)

If one follows a particular code, and aligns oneself with a philosophy that has a Web presence, a Wikipedia entry, and a presence in the public sphere, then isn't that just like any other faith or religion?  That's a perfectly fair question.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines faith as:
Inner attitude, conviction, or trust relating man to a supreme God or ultimate salvation.
If a philosophy of belief system does not concern itself with a god or gods, it isn't a faith.  Humanism does not involve entertaining concepts related to the supernatural.  It is a naturalistic, nonreligious worldview.

Some might say that, regardless, Humanism certainly smells like faith/religion. I wouldn't deny that there are some similarities.  For example, just like religious folks, non-religious folks like to congregate at times with those who share their worldview.  The non-religious might form informal groups, or unite behind a particular cause that is important to their worldview.  They might lobby for (or oppose) particular legislation due to their worldview in the same way that many religious groups might. They might even seem to evangelize, whether by writing a letter to the editor, sporting a bumper sticker, or promoting the separation of church and state.  However, none of these instances are efforts to promote belief in a supernatural being. They are usually efforts to promote critical thinking, to honor the Constitution's Establishment Clause, to stress the need for improved science education, etc.  

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Religion as follows (definitions 1-4):
  1. Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.
  2. A particular system of faith and worship.
  3. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.
  4. Devotion to some principle; a strict fidelity or faithfulness; conscientiousness; pious affection or attachment.
Definitions 1-3 are definitions which speak to the supernatural, and therefore do not apply to any form of non-belief.  One could argue that some non-religious folks could be described as having "devotion to some principle," as in definition 4.  If that were the case, we would need to also classify any form of activism and many political movements as religious. But one could not accurately describe Humanism as a religion in the sense that we describe the Abrahamic faiths.

Although I describe myself as a Humanist, I do not attend a church.  I don't belong to any formal Humanist organizations.  I own no t-shirts or bumper stickers that pronounce my alignment with Humanism.  I have no Humanist text. I have no mantra, prayer, or meditation. There are no belief requirements I must meet in order to be part of the Humanist collective. It simply helps to describe who I am and what I do and don't believe. But it also helps to communicate (I hope) that by being godless, I am not without morals, and that I care tremendously about the world in which we live, and the people who inhabit it.  I do have faith in people.  I have seen the great good, and the unspeakable evils, of which they are capable.

Although I sometimes refrain from quoting Sam Harris, for fear of turning off people who already have a poor impression of him, but he has a great quote that demonstrates the type of faith that Humanists embody:

"I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs." 

I believe that societies are capable of making decisions based on evidence (and not based on ancient texts or religious doctrine), and that people are capable of acting with the intention of reducing suffering (without relying on scripture).

If that's faith, I'm guilty as charged.

Ask a Humanist

Pennsylvania Pastor Fabricates Navy SEAL Past

In the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Newville, PA pastor Rev. Jim Moats told The Patriot News of his days as a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War. He had been telling his congregation these stories for five years.

The problem was that Jim Moats was never a Navy SEAL. He had never even set foot in Vietnam.

After the newspaper received several letters claiming Moats was lying about his past.  The Patriot News did some investigation and found that Moats had fabricated his stories.  Moats came to the offices of the paper to come clean on Sunday, stating that he was never offered SEAL training, and was never accepted into the program.

“I never was in a class, I never served as an actual SEAL. It was my dream. ... I don’t even know if I would have met the qualifications. I never knew what the qualifications were."

Don Shipley, an area retired SEAL stated that specific aspects of Moats’ stories were lifted directly from Hollywood blockbusters: A story about being re-assigned to kitchen duty and about being waterboarded were lifted from the Steven Seagal movie “Under Siege,” while his reference to being hit by SEAL instructors was vintage “GI Jane.”

According to Moats, the whole thing started when his sons, who served in Iraq together, had made their father a Navy SEALs plaque, which he hung up. When church members began asking about the plaque, and whether Moats had indeed been a Navy SEAL, he didn't deny it. As the word started spreading around the congregation, Moats took no steps to correct the misconception.

"I have allowed people to assume that, and I have not corrected it. Probably at this church for the last five years do people assume that. It’s an ego-builder, and it’s just simply wrong. In that sense I’ve been living this lie for the past five years," he said. "I bring a shame and a reproach upon the name of Christ, I bring a shame and a reproach upon my church, and I bring a shame and a reproach upon my family."

Shipley, the local retired Navy SEAL stated:

"We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up. I don’t lump him in with the worst of the worse. He’s just despicable. Some of these guys are total criminals. I think just having his ass spanked is enough for him that he won’t do it again any longer."

The original piece on Jim Moats, in which he makes the claims to the paper, can be read here.


LGBT Mother's Day Ad Rejected by Sojourners (A Pro-Diversity, Anti-Prejudice Christian Organization)

Believe Out Loud, a project of Intersections International, is a "collection of clergy and lay leaders, LGBT activists, and concerned individuals, working together to help the Protestant community become more welcoming to gays and lesbians."  The organization has launched a campaign to get one million Christians to "break the silence and join the burgeoning chorus for full LGBT equality in the church."

The initiative has gained much of its recent support, in part, from the following video, which has a special Mother's Day message.  A family comprised of a boy and two moms, enter a church for the first time, and, after unwelcoming glares from the congregation as they search for a pew, are welcomed by the pastor of the church. 

The video serves as an introduction to the Believe Out Loud project, which aims to urge silently supportive clergy and church members to speak out and stand up in favor of welcoming LGBT Christians into the fold.

"Jesus Christ called each of us to love one another," claims the Believe Out Loud Web site. "It’s not enough for us to silently believe that all are equal in God’s eyes.  It is time for us to put our beliefs into action."

Seems reasonable enough.

Unfortunately, however, the progressive Christian Website Sojourners, refused to run the ad, claiming, “Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.”

So, is this the same Sojourners whose tagline is "Christians for justice and peace?" The same one that claims in their Diversity Statement that they "believe that unity in diversity is not only desirable, but essential to fulfilling God's ultimate desire for God's people," and that, "We confess that both personal prejudice and systemic oppression are sin?"

Good luck with that, Sojourners.