Wednesday, May 6, 2015

GROUND ZERO FOR MARRIAGE RIGHTS



April 27, 2015

I could hardly have imaged while planning a vacation late last year that one of the days of the scheduled time off would give me the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to argue the issue of the forthcoming decision on marriage equality before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Well, sorta.

Not actually arguing the case before the justices of the court, of course, but rather "debating" some of the points with a couple of the devoted End Times prophets assigned to take questions after an announced delivery of reams and boxes of petitions signed "by hundreds of thousands", reportedly, to voice opposition to expansion of marriage rights. I came with just one prepared question.

"Is marriage a civil contractual agreement or some sort of religious ritual or oath?" I asked the woman with a big voice and puffy pink insulated ski jacket.

"Marriage is a sacred union of a man and woman blessed by Jesus Christ," was her answer.

"Then you are saying it is a religious affair. So why is it that I did not have to go to a church or any officer of any religious affiliation to get a marriage license, or to have have the ceremony?" asked I, playing a little dumb, a little coy.

"What about the First Amendment, what about the separation of church and state?" I could sense I was getting close to her "final answer".

"The First Amendment shouldn't have been!" she interjected, "God's law trumps man's law!"

Time to redirect. "OK, God's law. So do you believe in Shariah Law?"

"I absolutely do NOT...that's the Devil's religion!" she chimed back, rather indignantly. At this point her bearded, burlap bag robed accomplice told me, in no uncertain terms "This ain't no Mooslum country, it's Cristiun!"

A youthful, self-proclaimed gay man had come up showing an interest to get involved in the discussion and was a welcome reinforcement: It had become apparent that the antagonists had not refined their arguments enough to carry on a keen, reasoned debate, and rather than get myself worked up into a day-long tizzy, I retreated quietly back into the crowd, my day of arguing before the Supreme Court finished, my Mitty-esque flight into the annals of "Equal Justice Under Law" (1) dissolved into the reality of just another day, another vacation.


~by Marty Bankson

(1) Inscription on the frieze of the Supreme Court building.

Photos provided by Marty Bankson.

Monday, April 27, 2015

HB 707 Deserves Our Attention!

It’s good to see various communities in New Orleans and across Louisiana getting organized against the proposed “Marriage and Conscience Act,” H.B. 707. Reacting to the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same-sex marriage legal, even in behind-the-times Louisiana, HB 707 ensures that the Louisiana cannot enforce any of its state laws regarding discrimination and public accommodation, provided that an individual or business acts out of moral convictions about the institution of marriage. Supporters of the bill reach new lows of disingenuousness when they claim it would not authorize any kind of discrimination. Technically, the bill does not make discrimination legal, but in any practical sense it completely neutralizes state power to act if discrimination is motivated by values attached to marriage. It clearly sends a message that those who wish to discriminate are free to do so.

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HB 707 should not be confused with so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs), because HB 707 contains critically different language. It prohibits the state from acting against discrimination that is motivated by “a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage.” For one thing, HB 707 does not require that religious beliefs be “sincerely held,” as many RFRAs do. Secondly, HB 707 also allows discrimination arising merely from “moral conviction,” rendering irrelevant any argument about what is or is not a “religious” belief. Obviously, “moral convictions about the institution of marriage” is hopelessly vague language, opening the door to all kinds of abuse.

HB 707 might be amended in ways that narrow the basis of discrimination that it protects. One proposed amendment would narrow protection to actions arising from beliefs or convictions “that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” This would eliminate some problems, though certainly not all. The passage of this particular amendment is far from certain, though, at least in part because it exposes the anti-gay animus that is at the heart of the bill. Such an amendment would raise the odds of an Equal Protection challenge.

Choosing up sides is already well underway. Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the Louisiana ACLU, provided a scathing condemnation of the bill in a letter to The Advocate on April 21st, pointing out terrifying consequences of HB 707 as written. Unsurprisingly, a letter supporting the bill was penned by Reverend Gene Mills, Executive Director of the Louisiana Family Forum, a group notorious for its anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-science, anti-woman activism. More disturbing was a screed from Louisiana’s part-time governor and full-time presidential wannabe, Bobby Jindal, published in the New York Times. It’s an explicitly Christian, anti-liberal and anti-gay hit piece that is also oddly (coming from a Republican) anti-business. Mills and Jindal both try to paint Christians as the true victims of discrimination, and both shamelessly misstate the likely impact of the legislation.

If the backing of Jindal and Mills is not enough to demonstrate the theocratic impetus behind HB 707, one need only look into the background of the bill’s author, recently elected state Representative Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City. According to Wikipedia, Representative Johnson is an attorney, a trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, and a member of the Louisiana Family Forum.

There was a meeting in New Orleans this Thursday (4/24), hosted by a coalition of organizations like Equality Louisiana, Louisiana Progress Action, Louisiana Trans Advocates, and others. The short-term plan is to work to keep HB 707 from getting out of committee, and with legislators worried about business backlash, this could actually happen. Those who are interested should monitor www.notmylouisiana.org, which will provide updates on the bill’s progress.

You should also let your representatives in Baton Rouge know where you stand. You can look up your elected representatives HERE. The bill will next be considered by the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure, whose members are listed HERE. One of the members of that committee is the author of HB 70, Representative Mike Johnson.

~Jim Dugan


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Kopplin Tries Once Again To Get Senators To Evolve

On April 22nd, Louisiana Senator Karen Carter Peterson and education activist Zack Kopplin again led an effort to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The LSEA was cleverly crafted to enable teachers and local school boards to bring anti-evolution materials into public school classrooms. It was easily passed into law in 2008, and efforts to repeal it have since become an annual event.

This year’s repeal effort was just a little bit different. While many supporters and opponents signed up to speak, the Senate Education Committee “called the question” quite early, cutting off most of the would-be speakers. The decision of the Committee came down to one vote, which is much closer than usual. But once again, the committee decided to defer the repeal, meaning that the LSEA remains in effect for at least one more year (click HERE to see a video of the 54-minute hearing).

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Cheers go of course to Senator Peterson, who introduces the repeal bill each year, and to Zack Kopplin, who organizes support each year. Kopplin has been busy investigating the creationist misbehavior of some Louisiana public schools. His quite damning findings were published on Slate.com just the day before the committee hearing, and he summarized those findings for the committee. Special kudos go to the Lane family, who testified before the committee, and more importantly, stood up courageously for religious freedom and sound science against the proselytizing and frank creationism at Negreet high school in Sabine Parish. Senators Claitor, LaFleur, and Morrell voted against deferral, meaning that they supported teaching science in the science classroom.

Jeers go to senators Guillory, Walsworth, and White, who once again voted against both modernity and common sense, and to Senator Appell, who broke the tie vote in favor to killing the repeal. Particularly reprehensible was Senator Elbert Guillory’s anti-science tirade. Scientists, he claimed, have too often been wrong, having sometimes believed that the earth was flat and the center of the solar system. According to Senator Guillory, it was scientists who labelled those who disagreed with them as heretics, and had those heretics burned at the stake (click HERE to see a 2-minute video clip). Apparently Senator Guillory is unaware that Ancient Greeks realized the earth was a sphere suspended in space, that scientists accepted the heliocentric model as soon as sufficient evidence had been accumulated, or that it was religious institutions, not scientists, that consigned heretics to the flames. Frighteningly, such non-comprehension of actual history comes from someone with direct power over our state’s education policy.

The situation will probably be different next year. Elections will change office holders and alliances in the senate, and that will likely result in some changes to which senators serve on the Education Committee. It remains to be seen whether or not the result will be a Senate Education Committee with a better grasp of science and science education.

Monday, April 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them

The Barna Group is a Christian organization that does sociological research for churches and other Christian institutions. One of their recent publications is Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. If you’re interested in how Christians see those who've left the faith and why, Churchless could be a fascinating read.

Christian organizations are painfully aware of America’s increasing religious diversity and secularism. Through reports like Churchless they get a better understanding of the large and growing percentage of Americans who have no church affiliation. Surprisingly, only about 25% of the “unchurched” are agnostics or atheists. A majority are Christian believers of various sorts, who have chosen not to participate in any formal church. The unchurched form an increasingly diverse group, slowly becoming less white and less male, while becoming more educated and more geographically dispersed throughout the country. Those leaving Christian institutions are making informed decisions, as they are experienced both with Bible reading and active church participation.

***

While the authors point to the many distractions of modern life as factors that contribute to increasing churchlessness, they are also willing to consider that churches are driving members away. A common complaint among the churchless is that they were unable to feel the presence of God in their church experience, and the authors point out that this is also a common complaint among active church members. They've also analyzed the attitudes of active church-goers along such lines as whether they see value in all human beings, even those of different faiths, or whether they see believers and unbelievers as having different intrinsic values. The Barna Group’s startling conclusion is that 51% of active church members are more “pharisaical” than “Christlike.” By these loaded terms they mean that many of those sitting in church pews fall short of the Christian ideals of tolerance and civility. This is not news to many of the unchurched, who have been trying for decades to get this message across to church leaders. That message may have more weight in a book like Churchless, because it is a criticism of Christians by Christians.

The writers seem to come quite close to, and yet to miss, the realization that many ex-Christians reject Christianity in two layers. The outermost layer for many former Christians who've become agnostics or atheists is doubt or denial of the existence of God, certainly a sufficient reason to stay out of church, but often not the whole story. Many non-believers have a second layer of criticism, which is that they would not want to be like many of the practicing Christians they encounter, even if they felt more certain that God existed. Whether that second layer of rejection is based in the ways many visible Christians and Christian institutions fall short of their own ideals, or in a deeper deficiency in Christian doctrine, is a thornier question not examined in this book.

Reading Churchless really brought home to me the vastness of the chasm that separates the Christian worldview from the worldviews of non-believers. The writers are unwaveringly certain that Christians “are the stewards of the truest story about humanity and God.” They use phrases such as “the presence of God,” “discernment” and “wisdom” as if they are unambiguously clear and identify tangible goods that churches can physically deliver. They never doubt that first-century scripture is still an adequate guide to the major life issues of people living in the twenty-first. Churches may find ways to reconnect with the churchless who still hold some faith. But I see little hope for them to reclaim the skeptics, as long as they continue to behave as if hopelessly vague buzzwords can be useful in the real world.


Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. Edited by George Barna & David Kinnaman. Tyndale House Publishers (2014) . ISBN: 978-141-438-7093.

~By Jim Dugan

Sunday, April 12, 2015

May the Circularity Be Unbroken

Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cezanne
"All Scripture is breathed out 
by God", 2 Timothy 3:16 ESV

Have you wondered why so many people believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, that the book is an “inerrant” document and all the tales, histories, biographies, and timelines are undeniably true and accurate? With just a little reading and reflection of the book, wouldn't it be obvious that there are too many inconsistencies, contradictions, and second-to-none tales of imagination and fantasy for anyone to believe? To understand why anyone would, it might be helpful to trace the origins of the idea and follow one possible thread of circumstances leading to it.

Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography follows a historical trail from what she believes is the origin to a period in the early Twentieth Century. Armstrong says that the claim of biblical inerrancy is a relatively recent phenomenon—really getting started less that about 150 years ago—and earlier interpretations (of the limited few who had the opportunity to read and evaluate the material) accepted the more realistic viewpoint that the Bible, while serving as the foundational narrative of Western religion, was also rich with allegories, mythical representation, and presented a morality play sui generis of good versus evil.

***

But in the late 18th Century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza claimed that the Bible could not have been of divine origin given the number of contradictions, and from that conclusion began construction of his “pantheistic” interpretation of the worldly order.

His criticism would become known as the “Higher Criticism” (later called “historical criticism”) and was taken up for study by other contemporaries of the age: "By the end of the eighteenth century, German scholars led the way in biblical studies and were taking Spinoza's historical critical method to new lengths…” (1) leading to the revelation ”By the nineteenth century, it was generally agreed by the scholars of the Higher Criticism that the Pentateuch was a combination of four originally independent sources.”(2)

These sources, writers or transcribers, would come to be designated J (Yahweh), E (Elohim), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly) and are still the standard model for interpreting the different nuances of style and terminology of the Torah. Moses as the author was now officially debunked.

It didn't take long for the thoughtful among the devoted to realize that this was a problem—the sole foundation, the surviving written account and singular record and history of Judaism and Christianity was now shown to be error prone. And if one or many— each and every error contributed to devaluing the veracity of the whole. Making things worse, the results of these critical works was reaching a larger audience— people of modest means were by now beginning to have greater access to the printed word. Specifically, a work called Essays and Reviews published in 1861 by seven Anglican clergymen created an such an uproar that little attention was given to a work published two years earlier that would soon become the most formidable and durable challenge to the seven day creation of a young earth related in the Bible: Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. But “Darwin did not attack religion and at first the religious response was muted.”(3)

The challenge to the divine inspiration of the holy book now firmly defined, apologists for inerrancy scurried from the woodwork. Pastor Dwight Moody published Many Infallible Truths in 1895, nine years after founding the Moody Bible Institute; Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield of the Princeton Theological Seminary worked together on an 1881 article about the inspiration of the Bible, and Warfield would later publish the book The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. “The belief in biblical inerrancy, pioneered by Warfield and Hodge, would..become crucial to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial.” (4)

The foundation for perhaps the largest intellectual scam in the history of Western thought was now laid, brought about as a reaction from fear (rather than a result of a premeditated conspiracy)—a fear of a loss of trust in a fable-backed religion which had heretofore been such an easy and accessible method for gaining and maintaining power and control of the innermost psyche of a populace needing and searching for security in a tumultuous world. The gross circularity of the apologetic, buried in volumes of abstruse verbiage made it particularly offensive.

The beginning of the 20th Century opens with a widening web of anti-Enlightenment thought, with fundamentalist Christianity assuming an interdependent and participating role in cultural and political developments. Unencumbered by “empirical correctness”, fascist ideologies flourished, often using the fundamentalist assumption of a self-sovereign, Higher Authority as legislator, judge, and executioner. In the Age of Modernity, a population just recently introduced to the seemingly unlimited possibilities of progress through science and world peace from toleration and pluralism was now confronted with what Karl Popper saw as the paradox inherent within, set like a trap to reverse 300 years of achievement.


(1) Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007)
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.

~ Marty Bankson
April 11, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Distortions and Lies: The Truth Behind the RFRA

The recent controversy created by Indiana’s peculiarly egregious version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has finally brought public attention to the essential deceit embodied in such laws. I hope most voters can recognize the many lies embedded in and told about the various state and local RFRAs. A few examples:

Lie #1: Some religious freedom has been lost.
You don’t use the word “restoration” until after something has been lost, or at least is under a direct and present threat. But when pressed for details, no RFRA supporter can come up with a credible example of any such loss or threat. The plain fact is that religious freedom in America is as strong as it has ever been.

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Lie #2: Churches or clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages. The freedom of churches and clergy to make religious choices about whose marriages they will or will not solemnize is well-established at law. RFRA-proponents raise the specter of clergy being sued over refusing to perform a gay wedding just to frighten the uninformed.

Lie #3: Businesses are being forced to “perform” or “participate” in gay weddings.  Pro-RFRA rhetoric often deliberately confuses the way support businesses relate to a wedding with the way clergy and churches relate to a wedding. Florists, bakers and photographers are businesses, not churches. They are not performing nor participating in a wedding. They are selling goods and services. They know that, aside from a joke, they cannot put up a sign saying “whites only” or “no Irish need apply,” and they know they can’t proclaim “no Catholics” or “Trinitarians only.” “Heterosexuals only” would be just as ridiculous and just as offensive.

Lie #4: Refusing service to a same-sex wedding is a religious issue.
There is, of course, no Christian prohibition against baking a cake for a same-sex wedding, nor delivering flowers, nor photographing a wedding, nor serving as pediatrician to a married Lesbian couple with a new baby. If anything, Christians are compelled to treat their neighbors with kindness and dignity regardless of religion. Refusing to perform such services is entirely political, not religious at all, and RFRA-proponents are trying to masquerade political action as religious belief.

Lie #5: RFRAs are about something other than same-sex marriage. The timing of RFRA legislation, coupled with the complete lack of any credible threat to religious freedom, makes it clear that these laws are about same-sex marriage. America is far from unified on this topic, but public opinion has shifted dramatically. Opponents of same-sex marriage have lost this battle in the culture war, and lost badly. RFRAs are a last-ditch attempt to deny to inevitable.

The blowback in Indiana has temporarily halted some RFRA legislation, but the movement will not stop here. There will be many opportunities to inspect RFRAs and related legislation for the lies outlined above, and for others as well. One place to begin is with Louisiana StateRepresentative MikeJohnson’s proposed “update” to the state’s existing RFRA. This bill will specifically eliminate state power to enforce non-discrimination laws, although it will be portrayed as something other than what it is.

How I Became an Atheist

I was a child of the 1960s and a teenager of the 1970s, formed during a very global, progressive, and open-minded phase of U.S. history. I was a Protestant in a very mainstream sort of way, fascinated by all the spiritual currents of my era. I passed my Methodist catechism class while listening to George Harrison chant Hare Krishna. I read books on Edgar Cayce and reincarnation, the Beatles and Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism and Hinduism. As a product of the Age of Aquarius, I fully expected all these religious currents to somehow point toward a single, ultimate truth.

Even though Christianity dominated my upbringing, I was never prone to feeling that any one religion was right while all others were wrong. I had no inkling of the implications then, but my pan-religiosity, already contained the seeds of unbelief. My process from believer to unbeliever took decades, in many small steps. Never once did I experience a sudden stroke of revelation.

Collapsing a long process down into a few paragraphs, the first important step was realizing that all religions must be at least partly wrong. No matter how one tries to analyze doctrine, religions disagree with one another on important details, like the nature of the Self or Soul, what one must do in order to achieve liberation or salvation, and what one is to be liberated or saved from. If religions hold mutually exclusive opinions, they cannot all be right. The possibilities, then, are that there is one right religion, with all others being wrong, or that they are all wrong to at least some degree. 

***
Trying to choose one religion out of many is equally impossible. There simply are no external criteria by which to evaluate them. All major religions have millions of followers, have withstood the tests of millennia, provide guidance and comfort in various ways, include some kind of moral framework, have their scriptures and doctrines, and make a variety of claims that are untestable. Blindly accepting the programming of one’s upbringing is easy, but requiring a reason to make a choice between religions makes that choice impossible.
Seeking unity in a pile of error-prone religions is treacherous territory for a believer. The main problem is that of divine revelation, or its lack. Basic to much of the religious enterprise is the assertion that some people have been given superhuman knowledge at first hand, that they've communicated personally with some god, or at least an angel. The hope that makes much of religion tick is that it is backed by a divine authority that has revealed itself, a choice made by the divine to impart wisdom to mortals. Imperfect and mutually exclusive religions are simply incompatible with divine revelation. We can blame flawed humans for not quite getting the message right, but that makes the process of revelation itself a great deal less than divine. Divine revelation is falsified by the fact that Hinduism begat Buddhism, and that Buddhism contains such disparate sects as the Tibetan and Pure Land. Divine revelation is falsified by the fact that Judaism begat both Christianity and Islam, one with a divine Jesus and one with a human Jesus. Divine revelation is falsified by the endless fractiousness of Christian denominations. The most that is possible is divine inspiration, but certainly not divine revelation.

The idea of divine inspiration is comforting for a pan-religious believer. It implies that some spiritually adept individuals may sometimes gain a glimpse of the divine or the beyond. They may then labor to communicate this to others, but the truth they’ve perceived is ineffable. Human minds and human language are not fully able to grasp or communicate that truth. All spiritual teachings, then, and all the scripture and doctrines derived from them, must be imperfect approximations at best. This view is hardly different from what I had started out with as a teenager. It is just a little more honest about the sources of religion.

In retrospect, it seems to me that I was an atheist at this point. I did not understand it then, but I would now assert that once one denies the possibility of divine revelation, religion becomes a sham.

The problems is what divine inspiration, without divine revelation, implies. It says that flawed human beings, either individually or in groups, wrote the holy books, developed the rituals and symbols, and outlined the moral or ethical rules. It acknowledges that ancient scriptures came out of different cultures than our own, and that human beings must therefore use human reason in determining how to apply those writings to modern circumstances. It places a burden on each living person, rather than on our ancestors, to make choices about religion. It says that tradition is fine, but is never an excuse to stop thinking.

It took me some years to fully grasp these implications. The one dramatic realization, if there was one, was that these implications look exactly the same whether there is a divine beyond or is none. It is impossible to distinguish between religions that are failed attempts to point toward some ultimate but indescribable truth and religions that are nothing more than the all too earthly expression of human psychological tendencies.

This leaves me in my present condition as an agnostic. I use that term as a technical matter, because I don’t feel I can directly falsify the possibility of God, at least if God is defined in a way that is sufficiently vague and uninvolved in earthly affairs. Most believers would quickly label me an atheist, and I’m comfortable with that label as well. I conduct my life as if all gods and religions are human artifacts, a stance that falls well within the definition of atheism. I am also a Secular Humanist, not out of complex philosophical reasoning, but out of lack of alternative. What else has there ever been? No god has ever sat in parliament, and no angel has ever whispered into the ears of legislators. We may project our ideals in the form of religion, we may claim religion justifies or demands certain actions, but the simple fact is that all such decisions have always been made by human beings and always will be. Let’s just be honest about that.

~Jim Dugan