12.02.2011

Scooby Doo, Skepticism & Secular Humanism

I was always a big fan of Scooby Doo as a child. I hadn't watched it in years until I had children of my own. Watching the show again as a skeptic and a Secular Humanist, it wasn't lost on me that, at the end of every episode, we are reminded that there are no such things as ghosts.

Aside from being good fun for the kids, Scooby Doo teaches us that we shouldn't believe everything, that sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves to get to the bottom of things, and that even the most bizarre phenomenon has a natural explanation.

Chris Sims at Comics Alliance has spent considerable time thinking about this, apparently. He has penned a post called Scooby-Doo and Secular Humanism. I probably wouldn't have run across it had it not been BoingBoing'ed today (they called the cartoon the 'Veggie Tales for Secular Humanists' -- heh).

Chris writes:
Because that's the thing about Scooby-Doo: The bad guys in every episode aren't monsters, they're liars.

I can't imagine how scandalized those critics who were relieved to have something that was mild enough to not excite their kids would've been if they'd stopped for a second and realized what was actually going on. The very first rule of Scooby-Doo, the single premise that sits at the heart of their adventures, is that the world is full of grown-ups who lie to kids, and that it's up to those kids to figure out what those lies are and call them on it, even if there are other adults who believe those lies with every fiber of their being. And the way that you win isn't through supernatural powers, or even through fighting. The way that you win is by doing the most dangerous thing that any person being lied to by someone in power can do: You think.

But it's not just that the crooks in Scooby-Doo are liars; nobody ever shows up to bilk someone out of their life savings by pretending to be a Nigerian prince or something. It's always phantasms and Frankensteins, and there's a very good reason for that. The bad guys in Scooby-Doo prey on superstition, because that's the one thing that an otherwise rational person doesn't really think through. It's based on belief, not evidence, which is a crucial element for the show. If, for example, someone knocks on your door and claims to be a police officer, you're going to want to see a badge because that's the tangible evidence that you've come to expect to prove their claim. If, however, you hold the belief that the old run-down theater has a phantom in the basement, then the existence of that phantom himself -- or at least a reasonably convincing costume -- is all the evidence that you need to believe that you were right all along. The bad guys are just reinforcing a belief that the other characters already have, and that they don't need any evidence before because it's based in superstition, not reason.

... To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, Scooby Doo has value not because it shows us that there are monsters, but because it shows us that those monsters are just the products of evil people who want to make us too afraid to see through their lies, and goes a step further by giving us a blueprint that shows exactly how to defeat them.



12.01.2011

War On Christmas: The AFA's Naughty & Nice Retailers of 2011

The American Family Association, that innocuous-sounding organization that happens to be a bona fide hate group, has unleashed their annual Naughty or Nice list.

For the uninitiated, the AFA keeps a running list of retailers who are, or aren't, keeping the Christ in their Christmas marketing.

Just so you know, Victoria's Secret, despite their affinity for angels, is 'naughty' this year.

The AFA Online store, on the other hand, is the first retailer listed in the 'Nice' section.

In case you wondered what the AFA sells there, here's a sampling of their 'nice' holiday wares:

Hate Crimes DVD - A retired Christian couple were subjected to an 80-minute interrogation by police after the couple made a polite complaint to their local council about its 'gay rights' policies, which included making pro-homosexual literature available in public buildings. It could happen to YOU.

They're Coming to Your Town DVD - Residents of the small Arkansas town of Eureka Springs noticed the homosexual community was growing. But they felt no threat. They went about their business as usual. Then, one day, they woke up to discover that their beloved Eureka Springs, a community which was known far and wide as a center for Christian entertainment--had changed. The City Council had been taken over by a small group of homosexual activists.

It's Not Gay - DVD - It's Not Gay presents a story that few have heard, allowing former homosexuals the opportunity to tell their own story in their own words. Along with medical and mental health experts, these individuals express a clear warning that the sanitized version of homosexuality being presented to students is not the whole truth.

If that's 'nice,' I'll take naughty any day of the week.

Behold, the AFA's 2011 Naughty & Nice List:




11.30.2011

Ask A Humanist, Vol. 7: Isn't It Hypocritical For A Non-Believer To Celebrate Christmas?

As a non-believer, I've heard many a wisecrack from my Christian friends as the holidays approach. They're all in good fun. There are good ones about decorating the 'Darwin tree,' singing science carols, or toys being delivered by Sagan Claus.

While these are just friendly jabs between friends, they say a lot about society's attitudes on religious rituals, customs, and appropriation.

We have all witnessed the War on Christmas that erupts each year (mostly fabricated by Fox News and the Christian right). We have all been beaten over the head with Black Friday commercialization and the ensuing endless stream of secular Christmas specials devoid of any mention of Jesus (save for good ol' Charlie Brown).

There is a sentiment felt by many Christians that non-Christians shouldn't be able to join the party. For a long time in America, it was the Jews who sat on the sidelines while Santa delivered sack-loads of toys to their Christian neighbors. Now, as the non-religious population has become a sizable demographic (the so-called 'religious nones'), many Christians are dismayed, and perhaps bewildered, to not see them sitting on the sidelines as well.


Heritage

Just as non-practicing Jews often participate in the rituals associated with their heritage, many non-Christians who grew up in Christian households still find comfort in the rituals associated with their Christian heritage.  We do, after all, come from Christian cultural roots.

I grew up in a religious household. We celebrated Christmas each year in the same way that most Christians do. We decked the halls, wrote letters to Santa, decorated a tree, hung wreaths, lit candles, baked cookies, opened Advent calendars, set up a table-top nativity scene, sang carols, wrapped gifts, and reflected upon the birth of Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas.

My parents participated in these same rituals and customs growing up, as did their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. I imagine that my family's Christmas customs are nearly as old as the customs themselves.

Like non-practicing Jews who light the Menorah at Hanukkah, the customs associated with Christmas are important to who I am and where I came from, whether or not I personally accept Christianity's claims. (I don't -- and this conclusion was not arrived upon easily.)


Nostalgia

I have wonderful childhood memories of Christmastime. It is a time of wonder and joy for any child who experiences it. Some of these memories are as powerful, and as comforting, as any memories I have.

It is no coincidence that retailers infuse the air with the smells of cinnamon, pine, and cider during the Holidays. We are psychological beings, and our memories carry deep associations with sights, sounds, and smells of our experiences. Just as we might like playing a particular song that connects us with a specific joyous experience, partaking in the sights and sounds of the holidays can elicit many of the feelings we experienced at a simpler, more innocent time in our lives. We also find pleasure in sharing these memories, and making new memories, with our own children.

Participating in the customs and rituals associated with Christmas, despite our religious conviction (or lack thereof), is a beautiful way of appreciating and strengthening our bond with the past, of passing this gift of heritage along to our children, and of extending these bonds into another generation. Whether or not the next generations choose to believe in the tenets of Christianity is up to each of them. I don't wish to deprive them of that opportunity.


Appropriation

So, sure, all this sounds great, but still, isn't it just a case of having your cake and eating it too?

If participating in the customs of my ancestors despite lacking the same beliefs is wrong, then a whole lot of customs we participate in each year are wrong as well.

The Christmas narrative in and of itself has many similarities to other religions that pre-date Christianity, suggesting that elements may have been borrowed. Jesus was not the first miracle-worker born to a virgin who would later be crucified and resurrected.

The date of Christmas was chosen to coincide with winter festivals that pre-date the holiday. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia featured gift-giving, visiting with friends and loved ones, the lighting of candles, and a feast. Pagan Scandinavia celebrated Yule, for 'a fertile, and peaceful season,' with customs such as the Yule log, singing, and the Yule boar (reflected today in the Christmas ham). Koleda, an ancient Slavic ritual celebrating death and rebirth, featured a custom of roving from home to home singing songs and receiving gifts. Christmas customs related to greenery, lights, and charity pre-date Christmas and were likely adopted from Roman New Year celebrations.

Anyone with a knowledge of religious customs throughout the ages would agree that there are not many Christmas customs that did not exist prior to the holiday's origin.

Despite the mixed religious roots of Santa Claus, he is largely a secular phenomenon, along with Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and other recent staples associated with the season. Puritans, in fact, opposed celebration of Christmas at all for nearly two centuries because of its secular and pagan associations.

We can point to any number of holidays that Americans participate in despite not really 'deserving' to celebrate them. We don't need to be religious, or Irish, to wear green and drink a pint of Guinness on St. Patrick's Day.  We don't need to be Mexican to have nachos and a Corona on Cinco de Mayo. We don't need to believe in pagan supernaturalism to dress up on Halloween and trick-or-treat. The eggs and bunnies associated with Easter (named, of course, for the goddess Ä’ostre of Anglo-Saxon paganism) are customs that millions of non-pagans enjoy each year.

So, really, this business of appropriation is nothing new. As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (although I'm sure it was said before), "There is no new thing under the sun."


The Message of Christmas Is A Good One

Just as one doesn't need to be African-American to acknowledge the importance of what Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, one needn't be a Christian to acknowledge the importance of the philosophies associated with Jesus.

You really couldn't ask for a greater message: Love everyone, regardless.  Extend kindness to all, even those who you may feel are undeserving. Always strive for justice and peace. Be charitable, and be forgiving. 

Whether or not I actually believe that a historical Jesus preached this message, and whether or not I accept that this figure was born of a virgin, was the son of God, worked miracles, was crucified, was resurrected, and ascended bodily into heaven, the philosophies associated with Jesus are certainly worthy of observance.

We could do much worse than spending a portion of our year with a heightened sense of awareness of these sentiments. These philosophies are certainly not unique to Christianity, nor were they new philosophies at the time Jesus would have lived, but his message, as well as his story, was a big part of my family's heritage and was a big part of my own childhood. Acknowledging this through the the observance of long-practiced family customs and rituals is anything but dishonest.


Doing What Works

There are many Humanists and non-believers who choose to refrain from participating in religious holiday traditions. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. There are degrees of non-belief.

While I may reject supernatural and religious dogma as a basis for morality, I don't reject religion as a whole. I don't discount the benefits many receive from religion, and I certainly understand and accept the concept of sacredness.

I am lucky in that I live in a society that holds dear the right to religious freedom. In my home, we exercise this right by participating in customs associated with a variety of religions. Our kids love to play dreidel for chocolate gelt during Hanukkah. They have lit the Menorah. They learn about the vast array of religious customs and observances around the world, and throughout history, and some interest them more than others.

A religiously literate child will not grow to be a xenophobic exceptionalist. She will very likely grow to be tolerant, charitable, kind, and will likely value peace and justice.  Much like this Jesus person that is celebrated this time of year.



More 'Ask a Humanist' entries...









Skulls And Peace Symbols? Get Off Pat Robertson's Lawn!

Is your child going to hell?
Pat Robertson has increasingly become a parody of himself. He's so out of touch with society that you'd think he were an SNL invention if you didn't know better.

Just last week he was asking if mac & cheese was 'a black thing.'

This week, a viewer asked Pat if she should speak to her children about the symbols that she's seeing on her kids' clothing: peace symbols and skulls.

Of course, Pat responds, peace symbols are 'broken crosses' and skulls are 'symbols of death.'





Drop A 3 Dollar Bill In The Salvation Army's Kettle & Give To A Non-Discriminatory Organization Instead

You may want to think twice before dropping money into the ubiquitous Salvation Army red kettles this holiday season. Sure, the organization has been doing wonderful work for decades, and their army of bell-ringers makes it incredibly easy to give while out and about, but you might not know about the organization's history of actively discriminating against the LGBT community.

3-dollar bill, y'all.
According to the Salvation Army's own position statement:
Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.
That seems pretty clear. However, possibly due to criticism, the organization then backpedals with the tired old 'love the sinner, hate the sin' routine:
Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.

In keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation. The fellowship of Salvation Army worship is open to all sincere seekers of faith in Christ, and membership in The Salvation Army church body is open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army's doctrine and discipline.
At face value, that statement might make many feel better about the whole thing. But the statement appears to be more PR than anything.

Bil Browning writes at The Bilerico Project:
On its webpage, the group claims that "the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation." While the words are nice, their actions speak volumes. They blatantly ignore the position statement and deny LGBT people services unless they renounce their sexuality, end same-sex relationships, or, in some cases, attend services "open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army's doctrine and discipline." In other words, if you're gay or lesbian, you don't qualify.

The organization also has a record of actively lobbying governments worldwide for anti-gay policies - including an attempt to make consensual gay sex illegal.
The following are five examples of active assaults on the LGBT community by the Salvation Army (via Bilerico):
  • When New Zealand considered passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986, the Salvation Army collected signatures in an attempt to get the legislation killed. The act decriminalized consensual sex between gay men. The measure passed over the charity's objections.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Salvation Army actively pushed passage of an amendment to the Local Government Act. The amendment stated that local authorities "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." The law has since been repealed, but it led many schools and colleges to close LGBT student organizations out of fear they'd lose their government funding.
  • In 2001, the organization tried to extract a resolution from the White House that they could ignore local non-discrimination laws that protected LGBT people. While the commitment would have applied to all employees, the group claimed that it needed the resolution so it "did not have to ordain sexually active gay ministers and did not have to provide medical benefits to the same-sex partners of employees." After lawmakers and civil rights activists revealed the Salvation Army's active resistance to non-discrimination laws, the White House admitted the charity was seeking the exemptions. 
  • Also in 2001, the evangelical charity actively lobbied to change how the Bush administration would distribute over $24 billion in grants and tax deductions by urging the White House deny funding to any cities or states that included LGBT non-discrimination laws. Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, issued a statement saying the administration was denying a "regulation sought by the church to protect the right of taxpayer-funded religious organizations to discriminate against homosexuals."
  • In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens in New York City to protest the city's decision to require all vendors and charities doing business with the city to adhere to all civil rights laws. The organization balked at having to treat gay employees equal to straight employees.
So, until the Salvation Army decides to evolve, you may want to consider sending a message to the organization. What better way than to drop $3 bills into their red kettles. Click here for a pdf of full-color $3 bills containing the statement, "When the Salvation Army ends its policy of religious bigotry and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, then, and only then, will this be a real dollar bill." (Courtesy of Irregular Times)

There are many other fine organizations that you can give to this time of year. Find a local secular charity, or choose one of the wonderful organizations below that do not discriminate against the LGBT community:

Goodwill
The Red Cross
Habitat For Humanity
Doctors Without Borders
Foundation Beyond Belief





11.29.2011

Joseph Farah Wants To Limit Muslim Immigration, Fears Halal Turkeys

Joseph Farah, the nut-job in chief over at World Nut Daily, believes America has been over-imbibing at the Muslim Immigration Saloon, and he'd like to cut us off and close out the tab.

Joseph Farah and moustache
In a post titled 'Time To Limit Muslim Immigration,' Farah writes:
I say it's time to strictly limit Muslim immigration into the United States to avoid the kinds of disasters we're seeing in Europe.
Of course, Farah first mentions that he's an Arab-American man. But we have grown to understand that after someone proclaims, "Now, to be clear, I have gay friends," we can expect them to say some pretty nasty things about gays.
America doesn't owe anyone – no foreigner anywhere – an engraved invitation to be part of our national covenant and community. We've been far too lax in allowing anyone and everyone who flouts the rules entry to this country. That has to stop immediately. The very next step we need to take is to determine what kind of people will help our nation stay true to its Constitution and other founding principles – and what kind of people will not.

America's No. 1 national objective should be to ensure that we as a nation remain committed to the Constitution...We should not consider bringing in foreigners who seek to transform America into France or England or Iran. America remains a unique, though faltering, experiment in self-government because of its Judeo-Christian heritage. And, if we ever forget that and treat all other belief systems as equal to the worldview of Judaism and Christianity, the America we have known for 235 years will cease to exist.

But we need to do more than just require immigrants seeking entry to the U.S. as visitors or citizens to swear allegiance to our Constitution. We need to put the burden of proof on Muslims to demonstrate their desire to leave the world of Shariah behind them, to renounce its principles as well as to take a formal oath to uphold and affirm America's national covenant.

Furthermore, we need strict national quotas on immigration by Muslims – even those willing to renounce Shariah and swear an oath to the U.S. Constitution.
What is Farah so scared of? Well, he seems to be drinking from fellow WND islamophobe Pamela Geller's egg nog. It's those damned halal turkeys.
There are still more Jews in America than Muslims, though the gap is narrowing quickly. Yet, Jews do not use their influence to ensure that Jews and non-Jews alike are forced to eat according to rabbinical kosher rules. However, it is increasingly difficult for non-Muslims in America today to buy a Thanksgiving turkey that has not been ritually sacrificed to Allah. Most of the meat sold in Costco is also halal.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to eat meat sacrificed to Allah. With Islam a tiny minority religion in the U.S., it seems perverse that people like me have to be careful not to eat food ritually sacrificed to this god of the few.
Listen, Joe. I promise you that no incantation, blessing, or sacrificial slaughter will affect your turkey's deliciousness, and it certainly won't change your religion.

You also might want to check to see how the Native Americans feel about letting any more Christian Europeans into the country. After all, it's pretty hard for them to find a meal that has been prepared in accordance with their belief system, and they've been here for a little longer than 235 years.




11.28.2011

Faith Healing: Six Die After Church Tells Them They No Longer Need HIV Treatment

At least six HIV patients have died in Britain after their evangelical church leader told them they were cured and no longer needed treatment.
The Synagogue Church of All Nations, based in London, holds a prayer line once a month where people from across Europe come to be healed of all kinds of illnesses, Sky News reported Friday.

During the prayer line, pastors shout over the person being healed for the devil to come out of the body, while spraying water in the face.

Pastor Rachel Holmes told Sky News the church has a 100 percent success rate.

"We have many people that contract HIV. All are healed," Holmes said.
If we are to accept Holmes' miraculous claims at face value, the obvious next question would be, 'Why did those six people die?'
The church goes on to claim people who were not healed did not fully accept God would heal them.

"We must have a genuine desire if we come to God. We are not in position to question anybody's genuine desire. Only God knows if one comes with true desire. Only God can determine this," the church said.

"That is why, if anybody comes in the name of God, we pray for them. The outcome of the prayer will determine if they come genuinely or not."
The below video, from a Sky news broadcast, contains footage from the church's 'healings.'




This sort of evangelical 'healing' is an example of the many ways in which faith can impede progress, and even kill. This is only one in a long string of recent deaths related to 'faith healing.'

Each of these could have been prevented by simply taking the child to the doctor rather than relying on a supernatural intervention.

A recent study by the University of California at San Diego and a Sioux City, Iowa, group called Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, concluded:
Four of every five sick children in the United States who died after their parents put their trust in faith healing could probably have survived if medical treatment had been sought, according to a study published yesterday in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The report, which examined 172 child deaths in faith healing families from 1975 to 1995, concluded that 140 of the deaths, or 81 percent, were due to conditions that had a survival rate exceeding 90 percent with treatment.

Eighteen other children would have had better than a 50 percent chance of living with treatment, and all but three children would have benefited from medical help, the report said.
We live in an age where medicine and technology have rendered obsolete the primitive and barbaric treatments of Biblical times. The germ theory of disease has displaced the 'need' for exorcisms, bloodletting, and trepanning. We would be fools to favor prayer over the use of antibiotic ointment in the case of a simple scratch.

And yet:
In one case cited in the report a child choked on a banana and showed signs of life for nearly an hour while her parents reacted by calling people to pray.