A Hanging in Toulouse

October 16th, 2011

Two hundred and fifty years ago last Thursday night, cries were heard from a house on a quiet street in the French city of Toulouse. Always known as a hotbed of anti-Protestant feeling during the civil wars of the Reformation, Toulouse at the time was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of the magnificent slaughter of 4,000 unarmed Protestants on a single day, commemorated with annual parades and fireworks ever since.

Jean Calas

The cries came from the home of the cloth merchant Jean Calas, age 63, one of the few Protestants thick-skinned enough to make his home in Toulouse. Jean was never a trouble-maker; he employed a Catholic maidservant for decades, and offered no protest when one of his younger sons chose to convert to Catholicism. His eldest son, though, was a difficult case. Moody and depressed, Marc-Antoine Calas had been barred from practicing law because of his Protestant faith. At the age of 29, going nowhere fast, Marc-Antoine became obsessed with the literature of suicide, especially the soliloquy of Hamlet. On the night of October 13, 1761, his lifeless body was found hanging in a storeroom after a family dinner. A crowd gathered, and a rumor quickly self-generated that Marc-Antoine may have been killed by his father, no doubt because he must have been planning to convert to Catholicism like his brother had. Read the rest of this entry »

The Humanist Miracle

October 9th, 2011

One of the leading arguments for the existence of supernatural power is sometimes called the “argument from miracles.” There are many reports of phenomena contrary to generally accepted scientific principles, that are taken as evidence for a power that can bend nature to its will – a deity.

There are deep philosophical debates about such events and their meanings, which you can read about here, and there are people who simply refuse to believe that miracles actually occur in the first place – who say, therefore, there is nothing to debate about.

I take a different approach. I do believe there is evidence for occurrences, for instance at Lourdes, that cannot be readily explained. But Christians have no monopoly on miracles – humanists have at least one as well, that we should never stop talking about. Besides, ours is more fun. Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Prayer Study

October 2nd, 2011

Ten years ago today, while America was still reeling from the attacks of September 11 and troops were gathering to invade Afghanistan, America was given stunningly good news – perhaps the most important news story of all time. The New York Times breathlessly reported the results of the first scientific study proving the existence of God. Better yet, the study demonstrated the existence of not just any kind of God, but of a God who actually responded to people’s prayers. And not just to any prayers, but to prayers offered up by Christians. Take that, Muslim devils!

The Times was reporting on a study published in the prestigious Journal of Reproductive Medicine, not in some fly-by-night religious or paranormal rag. The authors were prestigious as well, led by Rogerio Lobo, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, the alma mater of President Barack Obama. Columbia proudly issued a press release trumpeting the results of the study, which involved a group of Korean women who had sought medical help in becoming pregnant. One of the most extreme procedures used in these cases (called in-vitro fertilization, or “IVF”) involves fertilizing eggs outside the womb, then implanting the fertilized egg in the hopes that it will stick and a full-fledged pregnancy will result. Most of the time, the procedure doesn’t work, but thousands of women longing for a child try it anyway in the hopes of being in the successful minority. Read the rest of this entry »

The Problem with Palestine

September 25th, 2011

Palestine is in the news, asking the United Nations to be admitted as a full member despite the fact that it is occupied by a foreign army and that its government exists only at the sufferance of neighboring Israel. This move causes great consternation, because it threatens to disrupt a 40-year old status quo with which most people (other than Palestinians) have grown comfortable. I happen to think it’s a terrible idea, for reasons other than the ones usually given by pundits. I suggest a Plan B, though, that might actually improve the situation for everyone other than God experts.

In 1948, the institution to which Palestine seeks to be admitted adopted a profound statement called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN’s founders had just concluded a bloody war, which the combatants had been promised was going to mean something – that victory would result not just in one gang of politicians replacing another, but a truly fairer, freer world. Two years of effort went into crafting the Declaration’s 1,800 words, and the final document was approved without a single dissenting vote.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the Universal Declaration: Read the rest of this entry »

What We Were Spared Last Week

September 18th, 2011

What would the God experts have said if Mayor Bloomberg had let them speak at last week's memorial ceremony?

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg resisted intense pressure last week, refusing demands to include professional God experts on the official city program commemorating the attacks of September 11. The mayor’s explanation for this conscious omission was straightforward:

It’s a civil ceremony. There are plenty of opportunities for people to have their religious ceremonies. Some people don’t want to go to a religious ceremony with another religion. And the number of different religions in this city are really quite amazing. … It isn’t that you can’t pick and choose, you shouldn’t pick and choose. If you want to have a service for your religion, you can have it in your church or in a field, or whatever.

Simple enough. The point of the ceremony was to remind the families of the victims that America still cares about them and mourns their loss, not to provide a government-sponsored platform for experts to inform us about God’s will. Nothing on the agenda was anti-religion; the program was designed in coordination with victims’ families and included readings that were “spiritual and personal in nature,” along with six different moments of silence to allow personal reflection and prayer. The only thing that was missing was the showcasing of a publicity-hungry preacher. From the reaction Bloomberg generated, though, you’d think he was Caligula, feeding Christians to the lions. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tax Scam from Heaven

September 11th, 2011

Trumpet player Phil Driscoll found God, then a jail cell

Do you pay too much in taxes? Sure you do. Here’s a terrific way you can save a bundle, that’s perfectly legal.

First, figure out how much you pay in total expenses for housing – rent, mortgage, etc. Say it’s $20,000 a year, to pick a round number. Then, go to your employer and say “Instead of giving me $20,000 in something you call ‘salary,’ give me the same $20,000 in something you call a ‘housing allowance.’ That way, I won’t have to pay any taxes on that $20,000, which will save me many thousands of dollars a year!”

I know what you’re thinking: that’s too easy. The government would never let you get away with a scam like that, because it would say that being paid $20,000 of “housing allowance” is exactly the same as being paid $20,000 of “salary” – which it is. But the law is right there, in Section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code. There’s only one catch: you have to be a “minister of the gospel”:

Internal Revenue Code Section 107. Rental value of parsonages

In the case of a minister of the gospel, gross income does not include –

(1) the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation; or

(2) the rental allowance paid to him as part of his compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home.

Read the rest of this entry »

Enlightenment Deferred

September 4th, 2011

Scientist, peacemaker, democrat -- no wonder the Church hated Frederick II

When is the last time you used the word octocentenary in a sentence? You can go a long time without using a word like that, because there really wasn’t much happening 800 years ago that was all that interesting. September, 1211 is an exception though, because that month saw the election of a new King of the Germans, later to become Holy Roman Emperor, who nearly succeeded in launching the Enlightenment 500 years ahead of time.

Frederick II was only 17 when he was elected King of the Germans, but he had already shown an independent streak by dismissing Papal officers from his court, causing an angry Pope to write that “We are amazed at the conduct of your advisers. Do not usurp our office in things spiritual: be content with the temporal power you hold from us.” More serious, though, was his decade-long procrastination in launching a new Crusade to reconquer Palestine from the Muslims. Under threat of excommunication, he finally set sail in 1227, only to return three days later claiming illness. A furious Pope promptly excommunicated him.

Frederick finally sailed the following year, after audaciously imposing a tax on Church property to pay for his expedition. When he arrived in Jerusalem, instead of fighting, he tried talking. In a short time, he worked out a peace treaty naming himself King of Jerusalem but giving Muslims the full citizenship rights they had been denied during the century of European rule. What a concept! Read the rest of this entry »

The Enemy of My Enemy

August 28th, 2011

The new allies?

Last week the Vatican published an extraordinary letter, of the man-bites-dog genre. The letter was from Cardinal Tauran, head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and addressed simply to his “Dear Muslim friends.” Putting aside 1300 years of bitter rivalry, Cardinal Tauran called on his Muslim friends to unite with the Church to combat a common foe: you, me, and everyone else who objects to God expert domination of society.

Cardinal Tauran warned Muslims to face up to “ a reality which Christians and Muslims consider to be of prime importance … the challenges of materialism and secularisation.” Then he got down to brass tacks:

[T]he transmission of such human and moral values to the younger generations constitutes a common concern. It is our duty to help them discover that there is both good and evil, that conscience is a sanctuary to be respected, and that cultivating the spiritual dimension makes us more responsible, more supportive, more available for the common good.

Christians and Muslims are too often witnesses to the violation of the sacred, of the mistrust of which those who call themselves believers are the target. We cannot but denounce all forms of fanaticism and intimidation, the prejudices and the polemics, as well as the discrimination of which, at times, believers are the object both in the social and political life as well as in the mass media.

There are more code words here than you can shake a stick at. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Younus Shaikh

August 21st, 2011

Dr. Younus Shaikh: Exhibit A for what's wrong with Islam

Like clockwork, on August 11 the news agencies clicked on their coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. What they’re skipping over, though, is the 10th anniversary of an event that tells us far more about what’s truly wrong with Islam than what happened on September 11.

It is true, as Islam’s defenders maintain, that nothing in the Koran or the traditions of Muhammad sanctions the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, especially those Muslim civilians who died in the World Trade Center. There are concepts of holy war as part of a sustained campaign to spread Muslim rule over specific locations, but there is nothing to recommend killing thousands of innocent people outside the context of territorial conquest just to make a political point. This isn’t to say that religion can’t be blamed for the massacre; there are varieties of thought under the Islamic umbrella, some of them more violence-prone than others, and nearly all of them elevate doing the will of God (once you decide what that is) above mere laws designed by humans. Still, it is fair to conclude that the attacks fell outside the parameters of conventional, mainstream Islam.

Conventional, mainstream Islam, though, does quite explicitly provide for a death penalty for blasphemy. Muhammad himself authorized the execution of anyone “who reverts from Islam and leaves the Muslims.” Clearly this covers the offense of apostasy, i.e., deciding not to be a Muslim anymore. But Sharia experts over the centuries have concluded that the line between outright apostasy and blasphemy, normally defined as irreverent words or behavior, is too fuzzy to worry about, and thus in many jurisdictions extended Muhammad’s death penalty to blasphemy as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Buddhist Butchery – Part 2

August 14th, 2011

Sri Lanka's flag shows the lion symbol of the Buddhist warrior-king Dutthagamani, with stripes representing the Hindu and Muslim minorities

The 60s and early 70s were relatively quiet times in Sri Lanka, as the Buddhist God experts consolidated their educational gains. Both principal parties competed for their affection, plying them with subsidies, new temples, and government-paid automobiles – Mercedes-Benz was a particular favorite. Clerical appetites, however, were insatiable. Younger monks helped form a guerrilla force called the JVP to help attack Tamil interests, that was only put down with the help of the Indian army.

Flag preferred by Buddhist militants

The most interesting thing about the JVP was its flag. The official national flag, depicted above, shows the lion of the Buddhist warrior-king Dutthagamani, along side green and orange stripes to represent the island’s Muslim and Hindu Tamil minorities. The JVP flag shows the lion without the minority stripes. Read the rest of this entry »