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God called to help Detroit, likely to decline

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on December 10, 2008

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I’m sure you have seen the silly pictures: yesterday’s New York Times ran an article entitled “Detroit churches pray for God’s bailout,” accompanied by a photo of a prayer meeting at Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal Church, where worshipers surrounded three SUVs (one for each of the big three automakers, though the SUVs at least were hybrids…). What a waste of human energy and potential, and what a bucket of hypocrisy. These are hard times for many families in the United States and across the world, and my heart sinks when I see once again how superstition is the common resort of people who feel so little control over their own lives.

Cardinal Adam Maida, a Roman Catholic archbishop in Detroit, wrote that “At this darkest time of the year, we proclaim that Christ is our light and Christ is our hope.” Well, yes, the days are indeed getting shorter until December 21, so this literally is the darkest time of the year, though I doubt that’s what the good cardinal was referring to (he would do well to remember that axial tilt is the reason for the season…). Ever ready to exploit tragedy, a church outside Corpus Christi (which is nowhere near Detroit) invited people to go inside and hear about “God’s bailout plan.” Hmm, do we get to fire him and withdraw his bonus if the plan fails? At the very least God should give up his private jet and start driving a hybrid.

Pentecostal Bishop Charles H. Ellis III was quoted in the Times as saying “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need prayer.” We do? Why? What we need is a sensible government intervention (as opposed to a free handout) to save the backbone of America’s manufacturing infrastructure. What we need is to fire the CEOs of the big three and to ask both the companies and their unions for significant restructuring and concessions respectively. What we don’t need is to bamboozle people by anointing SUVs with “consecrated oil” on an altar.

“We have done all that we can do in this union, so I turn it over to the Lord,” said a U.A.W. vice president for Chrysler. Are you sure, mister? Or is this an easy way to discharge your own responsibilities as a union leader? A Dana Corporation worker refrained “We’ve got to keep the faith … All my hope is in God.” Except that unfortunately there is hardly a worse place to put his trust.

But Massimo, why do you want to take hope away from these people? Aren’t they desperate enough already? Because hope based on illusion is cruel, and it is a chief instrument of oppression and exploitation (at the cost of sounding quasi-Marxist here). These people’s energy and dreams are being channeled into the socially harmless (and absolutely useless) form of religious fervor, while what they should do instead is to strike against the automakers and march on Washington to demand rationally based action from the bands of thieves and morons who have respectively been running America’s corporations and government. But I guess that would truly be too much too hope for. Thank God I’m an atheist.

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‘Child-witches’ of Nigeria seek refuge

Posted in News by Skepdude on November 10, 2008

Mary is a pretty five-year-old girl with big brown eyes and a father who kicked her out onto the streets in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. Her crime: the local priest had denounced her as a witch and blamed her “evil powers” for causing her mother’s death.

Ostracised, vulnerable and frightened, she wandered the streets in south-eastern Nigeria, sleeping rough, struggling to stay alive.

Mary was found by a British charity worker and today lives at a refuge in Akwa Ibom province with 150 other children who have been branded witches, blamed for all their family’s woes, and abandoned. Before being pushed out of their homes many were beaten or slashed with knives, thrown onto fires, or had acid poured over them as a punishment or in an attempt to make them “confess” to being possessed. In one horrific case, a young girl called Uma had a three-inch nail driven into her skull.

Yet Mary and the others at the shelter are the lucky ones for they, at least, are alive. Many of those branded “child-witches” are murdered – hacked to death with machetes, poisoned, drowned, or buried alive in an attempt to drive Satan out of their soul.

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT THE TELEGRAPH.

How not to fight religious superstition

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 28, 2008

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In the summer of 1835 the editor in chief of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke (a descendant of John the philosopher) started publishing articles relating to the increasingly stunning discoveries of astronomer John Herschel. With his telescope placed in a good observational spot in South Africa, Herschel had unearthed astronomical evidence of lakes on the moon! Over a few days, Locke reported, Herschel’s observations had confirmed first the existence of herds of animals, then of intelligent beings, and finally even of houses of worship on our close planetary companion. The New York Sun’s sales shot up, and New York was awash with talk of the new scientific findings.

Of course, Locke’s reports were actually a hoax, though he was astonished to find out that many people kept believing them even after it was revealed that Herschel (who was, in fact in South Africa at the time, unaware of the scheme) had never made any of the alleged claims. Locke’s was an exercise in ridiculing superstition with the aim of forcing people to realize how gullible and silly their beliefs really are, thereby prompting their abandonment. It failed spectacularly.

What prompted Locke’s experiment was the fact that although astronomy was very popular that year, since Halley’s comet was due to reappear after the summer, many New Yorkers considered it further proof of intelligent design in the universe! You see, obviously God is so powerful that it can throw large celestial objects around as He pleases, the (by then well known to science) laws of mechanics be damned. Locke, much in the fashion of his fellow countryman, Richard Dawkins, thought that the United States was a wonderful place full of energy and promise of change, which would be even better if only Americans could rid themselves of religious nonsense (on the latter point, of course, I am firmly with both Dawkins and Locke). Hence the idea of the hoax, and the sour disappointment that must have followed Locke’s witnessing of New Yorkers’ reaction to it.

The 19th century moon hoax is described in a new book by Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. It may be difficult to imagine people who lived only less than two centuries ago seriously taking a random block of ice as evidence for a divine creator, but it’s likely that readers of the 23rd century will react with equal astonishment to the news that half of Americans at the dawn of the millennium couldn’t see the obvious fact that we are animals closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas.

The serious question, highlighted by the parallels between the two situations — is how do we fight superstition. Locke and Dawkins may be amusing to their respective fellow intellectuals (yours truly included), but obviously their sarcasm doesn’t do the job that they intend for it to do. Just in the same way, one might add, that Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber surely don’t find The Daily Show with Jon Stewart very funny. Then again, on this blog I recently praised the sarcastic approach to religion used by Bill Maher in his recent movie, Religulous. Along similar lines, a recent National Public Radio commentary on Duck Soup, the classic Marx Brothers movie, reminded us of how biting Groucho and brothers’ social satire could be, in that case making fun of the Great Depression that had started only three years earlier, and that among other things had wiped out the Marxs’ savings, forcing them to go back to acting to make a living (who said there was no positive side to the economic collapse of the nation?).

Satire can change the world, which was the point of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where monks who translate Aristotle’s writings on comedy are mysteriously killed because once we can make fun of the gods we do not take them seriously anymore, and all hell breaks lose, so to speak. (You are of course better off reading the book, but Sean Connery was certainly charming in the lead role of the corresponding movie.) It has been said that anyone can write a tragedy, because all it takes is to put black on white the way life actually is. But intelligent comedy about society takes real genius, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Groucho to Jon Stewart.

The trick that some get right, but Locke obviously did not, is to aim the satire at the right level and at the right audience. Maher’s critique of religion is much less intellectual than Dawkins’, and therefore all the more effective. Most people don’t believe in god because of the intricacies — such as they are — of the ontological argument. It is therefore senseless to explain to them why the argument doesn’t work. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?” There is of course a kind of theological gymnastics that can get you out of that one, but the blank stare on the fake Jesus’ face was priceless: it had clearly never occurred to him that there was a chance that he was the one who picked the wrong religion. Oops!

Similarly with the audience. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who watch The Daily Show are cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-reading, Volkswagen Beetle-driving unabashed liberals such as myself (alas, I sold my Beetle when I moved to New York, to reduce my carbon footprint, but you get the point). But his show is so popular that clips of it appear not only on YouTube, but on CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets, thereby greatly enlarging the audience, and likely reaching people who may drink cappuccino but don’t read the New York Times. Some of these people will recognize the commonsense humor that Stewart displays, and may begin to appreciate the absurdity of, say, Sarah Palin’s contradictions on pork barrel spending, and so on.

The world isn’t going to change just because of humor, of course. Nonetheless, today’s New Yorkers really would think it completely silly to look at a comet as proof of intelligent design in the universe, thereby further reducing the scope of supernatural so-called “explanations.” If well done, comedy can help open up people’s minds and prepare the terrain for more serious discourse. But enough of this, I need to go to a comedy club in Manhattan tonight which is featuring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi. Tickets – $15 (plus mandatory drinks)!

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