Friday, December 26, 2014

Hudkins' Response to Greenberger Humanist of the Year Award

This photo of Hudkins was featured in the Times-Picayune
by Dave Walker on December 9, 2014. See article link below.
    At our 15th year anniversary banquet in November 2014, we awarded Farrar Hudkins with our Greenberger Humanist Award. President Emeritus Harry Greenberger, for whom the award is named, read Hudkins' statement of acceptance to the audience. We felt that everyone should be able to enjoy it whether you attended the banquet or not. It is a lovely note on which to end our year!
"I’m tremendously humbled, honored, and really amazed, by this award. My free time comes only a few hours at a stretch, and usually in the middle of night, and when I saw that NOSHA wanted to expand its viewing audience through the Internet, I happily volunteered to convert and upload “The New Orleans Humanist Perspective” programs to YouTube.
It was the perfect way for someone like me to volunteer – someone who is quiet and prefers to work behind-the-scenes. I don’t have much time or money, but I wanted to do something for a cause that I believe in very strongly: that is, the freedom to choose, without external pressures, one’s own way of thinking about life and our place in the universe as humans. 
I value the Humanist Perspective program, and enjoy sharing it with people, because it defies the popular notion of atheists, as a group, marching in lock-step, waging war against all religious belief. It presents free-thinkers as simply human individuals, curious about the world around them, compassionate to other people … willing and eager to engage in polite, thoughtful discussion, about big and small ideas, with people of varied backgrounds and belief systems. I think it’s important to show other people that atheists and agnostics are as diverse as any other subset of humanity, and Harry’s program does that beautifully. It means so much to me that this award comes from an organization that I care deeply about, and that I have enjoyed watching grow and thrive over the years that I, in my very small way, have been involved.
I think it speaks volumes of the New Orleans Humanist community that you have chosen to honor someone like me, who works well out of public view, indeed almost anonymously. In a way, it reflects how humanists have worked for a long time: quietly, and not often in public view. But it is gratifying to see that changing – to see the Humanist causes coming into an ever-growing light, nationwide and worldwide.  
I will continue to do what I can for NOSHA in the future – perhaps even more, once I’ve finished my long tenure as a working college student! You all have my deepest and sincerest gratitude. This is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you so much."
    The Times -Picayune did a feature story on Hudkins in early December.  Read it here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Offended at the Bookstore?

I recently volunteered to do gift wrapping for holiday shoppers at a major chain bookstore in Metairie. This was mostly a pleasant experience, and an opportunity to make NOSHA visible and even to collect a few dollars in donations. Occasionally, someone would say they wouldn't donate to our group, and I always said that was entirely up to them. Everybody who came to the table got their gift wrapped.

One shopper, though, voiced some negative opinions. He photographed me and the table, accused NOSHA of being anti-Christian, tried to dissuade another patron from having her gift wrapped at our table, and proclaimed our presence “offensive.”

No doubt this fellow thinks nonbelievers are the cause of any number of problems for him, his church, and/or America. He needs to spend more time looking in the mirror.

I guess he felt that people in the bookstore were there to shop for Christmas, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and therefore only good Christians should volunteer to do gift wrapping. A long list of problems with this position seem not to have occurred to him at all. For starters, we were in a bookstore, not his home nor his church. Yet he seemed to feel he should have some kind of control over the situation, determining who should or should not be performing which services.


It also seemed not to have occurred to this poor fellow that there might be customers in the store who were not Christians. I’m sure many shoppers were buying gifts for a traditional but quite secular holiday celebration, for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule, for Solstice or Festivus or what have you. The days of overwhelmingly Christian demographics are long behind us. He might have felt disappointment that America isn't quite what he wants it to be, but declaring himself offended didn't change anything.

And if he was going to make an argument about atheists performing a public service during a religious holiday, why of all things would he choose Christmas? Exchanging gifts in celebration of Jesus’ birthday is not biblical. Celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th is not biblical. In fact, celebrating Jesus’ birthday at all is not biblical. That’s why the Puritans in early America banned the celebration of Christmas altogether. December 25th, wrapping gifts in fancy paper and exchanging them, decorating evergreens, putting up wreaths and lights, feasting and drinking, are all aspects of Christmas that Christians have avidly appropriated from a mélange of Pagan practices. Arguing about the secularization of Christmas is the weakest and most ridiculous fight any serious Christians can pick with society at large.

Christian believers need to examine themselves for this guy’s kind of behavior. He was uncivil and intolerant. He felt he should be able to control things he had no right to control. He claimed to feel offended merely because people who are different from him existed and were visible. A few unbelievers wrapping Christmas presents at the bookstore aren't going to change anybody’s religion. But this customer’s type of behavior drives people out of churches in droves.
~Jim Dugan

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Keeping It Between The Goalposts

Fifteen years…

Chances are that not many would have given a small band of atheists with a liberal social agenda much hope to last very long as a functioning organization in a city with a strong, 300 year-old Catholic tradition, or in a state situated nearly in the center of the Protestant Bible Belt spanning the southern United States. This would have to have been a pipe dream that wafted away quicker than the pungent smoke they were sharing, right?

Well, wrong.  The hypothetical skeptic would have passed over a deeper look at the message that served as the core principle of the organization, and negligently underestimated the dedication and, quite frankly, chutzpah of founding father Harry Greenberger and the devoted brothers and sisters around him at the beginning. Had the agenda been specious or the organizers easily discouraged, the prognosis of failure would have been correct, but the combination of leadership and purpose made success a fait accompli—nearly everything was right for this marriage made in…well…New Orleans.  

The one-two combination of people and purpose, directors with a directive: what a concept. The symmetry is elegant, but at the same time can be insidiously satisfying—an End, a state of zero energy, motionless poetry. It need not be, and there seems to be no one involved with the group ready to relax on past positives....and counting.


Let’s borrow from that dualism, that two-tiered approach which got us to this point in our history and apply it to a model for reevaluating the motivations and goals of the organization and how best  to proceed in implementing  its chartered mission and approaching other “issues”.

The work is on two fronts: the promotion of the Humanist ideology, which is based on our local chapter’s Statement of Principles, Humanist Manifestos I, II, and III, along with general regulations and by-laws that are in place pertaining to our unique group, including outlines of decorum in public or participating in open or closed social media discussions. The objective is recruiting new members; the method is education through public or private broadcasting (television and radio), news outlets (newspapers, print and online), social media postings, personal blogs, printed handouts, appearances at social gatherings and participation in community voluntarism.  

That in itself would be enough to keep even the more industrious of any group knee-deep (at least) with projects and activity, but there is that second pier of responsibility that must be engaged if the first standard of purpose is to have any hope of maturing and manifesting itself in the future. 

There is a justifiable and growing concern that religious fundamentalist interests are gaining a widening sphere of influence and the gains in political power that can come with it. This is the metaphorical second pillar of our self-justification, our raison d’être. This is the dirty part of our job, the negative part, the part that has to do with challenging and opposing bad ideas. This is where we must “just say no” to proposals for mean-spirited restrictions on basic human rights, and when it is the part of our job to expose the danger of an irrational fear of science and the fallacy of placing unflagging reliance for guidance on patriarchal documents and credos from cruder times. This is may be the harder part. Hard, but doable.

While IRS regulations prohibit non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing (or opposing), or contributing to, or working for particular candidates; there remains a certain flexibility that is allowed when it comes to lobbying for or against legislation. We can likewise have allies at the national level that are assuming the principle leadership role given their larger funding bases. The Bill of Rights in our Constitution has served us well generally, but some of the loose and vague provisos therein can and have been interpreted by biased judicial bodies unsatisfactorily. There has been a spate of unfavorable decisions lately on corporate “personhood” in matters of religious and campaign liberties, but at the same time more favorable decisions concerning opening marriage rights to everyone. 

It has been said that the particular faith maintained at the base of Christianity is problematic in the sense that that it is “not only faith beyond reason, but, if need be, faith against reason” (1). The same evaluation would apply to Islam. This is an unacceptable. Our values, expressed in Manifestos or privately held, must include a call for an serious condemnation of fundamentalist religion, at least those based on savage and authoritarian texts, whether that condemnation be through civil debates, public outrage, mockery, or rude disrespect, as long as it is directed to the idea, not the person, in any available format or setting and at any opportunity. Calls for religious pluralism and tolerance must be cross-examined and disregarded if they offer no solutions for the likelihood  that  some of their own are destined to assume prophet status and create an interpretation of the truth based on a novel reading of what is basically a mythology. 

Together, we can do this.

Happy Anniversary, NOSHA!
Happy Holidays, Y'all!                                                                   

~Marty Bankson
November 30, 2014

1. Barrett, William, Irrational Man (New York: Anchor Book Edition, 1990), p. 92.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do Unto Others: Are we teaching citizens what the First Amendment really means anymore?

It seems that officials at the Saint Mary Parish public schools are getting some sense about endorsing religion. If so, Saint Mary Parish is standing far ahead of many other Louisiana schools.

Apparently, a Morgan City high school recently had a mandatory assembly for Veterans’ Day, and an invited guest led that assembly in an explicitly Christian prayer. This, of course, is unambiguously illegal. A student complained to the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the district, threatening legal action. The district superintendent was quick to state that the prayer fell outside of district policy. One can only hope that this settles the matter.

Perhaps of more interest than the school’s malfeasance itself was the reaction of many Louisianan’s to the news coverage. The Advocate newspaper reported on the incident on November 19th, and online comments were loaded with howls of protest from religious believers. “It is our right to prayer. Why do we have to give up our right?” asked one writer. Another asserted, “this is America. God bless America and in God we trust. If we want to pray, we will do so. You don’t like it, just leave.” “Release her name [and] see how soon this will end!” demanded another. One boldly recommended, “find out who she is and send her ass up north! Screw those people! Why should the so few have power over the majority?” One writer asked, “where does it say that you can't pray in schools?” 

Such comments are disturbing for deep intolerance they reveal. Perhaps more importantly, they are also disturbing because they show how poorly many Louisianans comprehend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The rhetoric of victimhood poured out by the Religious Right severely skews public perceptions.

This particular incident is not at all about whether an individual can pray in public schools. Students and employees are within their rights to pray in school, silently and individually, when attention is not required by school duties. Within some limits, a group of students can meet voluntarily for prayer, during non-instructional time. But what happened in Morgan City was neither student-led, nor voluntary. It was school-led prayer before a captive audience.

There is also no issue here of minorities or majorities, nor of who is a believer or non-believer, nor of who is or is not offended. Even if every student and parent associated with a certain school attended the same church, even if no individual were offended, it would still be illegal for that school to lead its students in prayer. Whether many Louisianan’s understand it or not, public schools are state agencies, and as such the Establishment Clause fully applies: no public school can endorse any religion.

None of this is new. Arguments and lawsuits over religion in schools date back at least a century. Questions about prayer and Bible-reading in schools were unambiguously settled over fifty(!) years ago, in the 1963 Supreme Court decision known as Abington School District v. Schempp. But much of Louisiana still struggles to adapt to 1863, let alone to 1963.

Unfortunately, many Louisiana public schools have long ignored the clearly settled legal facts. As multiple ACLU suits against Tangipahoa schools and last year’s consent decree signed by Sabine Parish schools show, prayer and other religious indoctrination at school remain ingrained in Louisiana culture. Sadly, this choice simply to ignore the Constitution has communicated to many citizens that prayer in their schools has been legal all along. When someone complains, the public sees this as something new, as outside agitation, pandering to a minority, or as “liberal judges legislating from the bench.” It’s as if they were caught stealing a bicycle, and then claimed they themselves were the victim because nobody every complained the other ten times they stole a bike.

This incident could easily have been avoided. Officials at the Morgan City high school could have used common sense, followed the district’s own written policy, or consulted documents available from the state Department of Education. They could simply have included a moment of silence in the program. Within that moment of silence, students who wished to pray could have done so, and no one of a different religion or no religion would have felt compelled to participate. Thus everybody’s religious beliefs and constitutional rights could easily have been accommodated. But somehow, this is never enough for some religious activists. There are always those who want to turn public schools into factories producing religious believers. 

~ Jim Dugan, NOSHA Vice-President

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"New Orleans Humanist Perspective" or better known as NOSHA TV!

Greenberger interviews Tulane professor Dr. Sally J. Kenney
We want to plug what we consider to be a real feather in our cap or gem in our crown (or whatever you want to call it) as a secular humanist organization that has grown over 15 years. Very few groups of our size can say they have a television show that has been around over ten years now.

"New Orleans Humanist Perspective" is the brain-child of Harry Greenberger, President Emeritus of NOSHA. He's been taping interviews with two people per month with only a few exceptions - and those absences were because he fell down on a wet marble bathroom floor and broke his leg a few years ago. So, he's a stalwart television producer and personality unlike many you'll ever meet in the Community TV realm!

He is able to find the most unusual and interesting people and prepares skillfully for a complete show. From his intro to his last few seconds, he makes it look easy. He has opened his chair to a couple of guest hosts who've stepped in from time to time so he can relax for a while (most recently, NOSHA Vice-President, Jim Dugan has become his pinch hitter), but it's always a treat when he brings up his next guest or inquires about our opinion of potential topics. He's recently completed his 172nd interview and it's an understatement to say that we're proud and honored to have his energy on our board.

You can can catch this show on COX Channel 76 on Sundays at 2:30pm, on YouTube, at the NOSHA website or on Vimeo. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Marriage By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on October 6th (2014) not to consider a number of cases against same-sex marriage is not much of a surprise. Nor is it much of a surprise that a number of conservative speakers and writers have used that decision as an opportunity to rehash the same trite and easily debunked arguments they've gotten nowhere with for years. Once again, they claim same-sex marriage is a “profound” redefinition of an institution that has stood unchanged across time and cultures, that it means people marrying dogs, or the resurrection of plural marriage. What soft-headed nonsense!


The United States has already redefined marriage in a radical and revolutionary way.  That redefinition was not motivated by any consideration for same-sex marriage, but by the improving equality of women to men. Two and three centuries ago, a woman became her husband’s property by marrying him. In more progressive jurisdictions, she became a dependent minor under her husband’s authority. Paralleling the changes in our social values that slowly made women more equal to men, marriage law was updated by many small steps. While there still may be some small imperfections in various marriage laws around the country, spouses today are largely equal partners in their marriage, at least so far as the law is concerned. This really has been a sweeping change, both socially and legally, requiring rewrites to marriage law and the accumulation of many court decisions.

By comparison, the changes in law and practice needed at this point to implement same-sex marriage are trivial. Most laws and most legal documents already use gender-neutral terms like “spouse” rather than gender-specific terms like “husband,” “wife,”  “he”, or “she”.  At least in theory, men and women have exactly the same responsibilities and rights within their marriages.  In any legal sense, then, a marriage between a man and a man or between a woman and a woman works out to be exactly the same contract of rights and responsibilities as a marriage between a man and a woman.

Given the long history of redefinition of marriage, and the triviality of its expansion to include same-sex couples, it is simply counterfactual to claim that same-sex marriage is some radical departure from tradition. It is to claim that the last redefinition of marriage just prior to same-sex marriage should somehow be privileged, even though it is just one of many in a long string of changes.

Would same-sex marriage “open the door” to plural marriage?  Obviously not. While plural marriage is a separate issue that might yet have its day in court or in the legislatures, same-sex marriage does nothing to make plural marriage any more or less likely. It is ridiculous to claim that allowing any change must open the floodgates to more, because we've already changed marriage many times over. 

If anything, same-sex marriage makes plural marriage less likely. Same-sex marriage is the logical endpoint of a long process of gender leveling, while the old ideas of plural marriage were heavily based in gender inequality. Plural marriage in the American past consisted of a man with multiple wives. But the wives were not spouses to each other; their relationship was that of sisters. The legalities were workable because the man had all the power, and the wives didn’t. Under current marriage law, with a basic assumption of gender equality, plural marriage would require that all parties be spouses to each other. Unlike same-sex marriage, this would require a lot of legal rewriting. Just imagine sorting out social security benefits, health and life insurance benefits among multiple spouses, each with a mix of children and assets from previous marriages and from within the current marriage. Or imagine a conflict between spouses over whether or not to remove life support from their comatose third spouse. All of this could be worked out as a matter of law, but it would require a significant amount of legislation to bring about.

Religious and social conservatives don’t see the inevitable logic of their position against same-sex marriage. Obsessed with sex and sexuality, and especially neurotic about homosexuality, they focus on sex and procreation, forgetting that neither of these is actually required to make a marriage legal. The basic problem with their worldview is that they cling to an archaic view of gender. By claiming that marriage ought to be reserved for opposite-sex couples they are insisting that there must be a difference between the roles of men and the roles of women within marriage. The idea that each couple, regardless of the genders involved, might define their own marriage roles for themselves is more individual choice, more individual freedom, than they can accept.

~Jim Dugan, NOSHA Vice-President of the Board

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fear and Loathing in New Orleans

On September 30th, I attended a conference called “Challenges to Religious Liberty", hosted by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The audience of about 100 was polite and receptive while three presenters discussed what they saw as challenges to religious liberty in psychological counseling, education, and in the pulpit. Of course, I did not share in the feelings of warm comfort that the speakers and audience seemed to exchange. The phrase “fear and loathing” comes closer to capturing my reaction.

Our first speaker was Mathew Staver, of the Liberty Counsel and Liberty University, and a national figure of the Christian Right. A few days earlier he had been a speaker at the Values VoterSummit in D.C., where he shared the dais with such luminaries as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michel Bachmann, Ted Cruz and Tony Perkins. Of course, our own Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal was there as well.

Here in New Orleans, Staver claimed that threats to the religious liberty of Christian believers are increasing in frequency and severity. A major example of this, he said, is an “unprecedented government intrusion into the counseling room.” Specifically, he decried laws in California and New Jersey that prohibit counselors from offering “reparative therapy” to homosexuals. He claims such policies were imposed by “a small group of homosexual activists” who have, by some unspecified means, held the entire American Psychological and Psychiatric associations hostage for decades. Other examples include good Christian wedding cake makers and photographers, who have had to give up their businesses in order to remain true to their religious principles by refusing to provide their services at same-sex weddings (apparently it says in Leviticus, “thou shalt not make unto any homosexual couple a cake”).

He’s also upset that Catholic Charities can no longer perform adoption services in some states merely because they refuse to place children with same-sex couples. He was especially concerned about the possibility of a Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, an outcome he described as a “cataclysmic game-changer.” In his view, the restriction of legal marriage to opposite-sex couples is part of the “natural order” of things and can’t be changed. Doing so, he claimed, is nothing less than “an abolition of gender,” and may even result in churches being forced to perform same-sex weddings, two assertions designed to send a lightning bolt of fear through his audience.

Dr. Carol Swain, who teaches law and political science at Vanderbilt University, spent much of her time talking about her personal life. An African-American woman who grew up in poverty, she completed five degrees and achieved academic honors, all of which she credits to divine intervention. She then launched into a harsh critique of Vanderbilt’s stance against religious freedom. This infringement, as she sees it, is embodied in a policy requiring that all student groups officially recognized by the university be fully non-discriminatory. That is, their membership must be open to all, which implies that such groups cannot require any statement of faith for membership, nor insist that officers be members of any particular religion. She has tried and failed to get religious groups on campus to unify in protest, but hopes - probably unrealistically - that pending faculty reviews might change the policy. Near the end of her presentation she made it clear that non-discrimination policies have gone too far, penalizing the many for the misdeeds of a few. Incomprehensibly, she reduced the issue to absurdity by claiming that “it’s all about homosexuality,” invoking the favorite bogeyman of the Religious Right.

Dr. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty, started out seeming to be the most rational of the three presenters. He acknowledged that Christians who are strong in their faith are a minority, that religious liberty must apply to people of other religions, and even to people with no religion. He hoped for some kind of alliance between disparate groups, including non-believers, in favor of religious liberty for all. But as he described what he meant by religious liberty, it became clear that he was no closer to living in the real world than either of the other speakers. A church, he asserted, “is an embassy of the Kingdom of God,” and “a faith that can be handed down by a bureaucrat is not a faith at all.” He wants Christians to stop fearing the phrase “separation of church and state,” and to reclaim it as their own. Of course, what he means by “separation of church and state” is far afield from any established jurisprudence. Religious individuals and institutions, not just churches but also charities and universities and hospitals with religious affiliations, should be able to exempt themselves from any government regulation they view as running counter to their beliefs. Anything less, in Moore’s mind, is an infringement upon the First Amendment.

This was so bad it was almost a parody, and at times quite difficult to take seriously. But it wasn’t a parody, and we need to take it seriously. This was a sad example of the worst that non-believers have learned from experience to expect from the more vocal of Christian organizations, a mélange of slippery slopes, fear-mongering, and obfuscation of facts paraded as Biblical truth. Worse, it revealed the plainly theocratic intent of many Christian organizations.

Staver never acknowledged the complete lack of credible evidence in favor of reparative therapy. Insufficiently studied, there simply is no evidence that reparative therapy works, is ever necessary, or is ever even advisable. Yes, government, together with professional organizations, can and do regulate therapeutic practices and practitioners, in part to assure that what they dispense actually is therapy, and not any kind of pseudo-scientific hokum. No, you can’t become a licensed family counselor by studying how to use crystals to tune a patient’s chakras, nor can you claim that the state should license you as a therapist when you pray over your patients, read them scripture, or guide them to “give their life to Jesus.”

Dr. Swain, too, wholly ignored a vast array of inconvenient and incontrovertible facts. Let’s be clear: no university, public or private, is required to grant official status to any student group, and certainly not to student groups with religious affiliations. Vanderbilt is well within its rights to require that all student groups, in order to have formal relationships with the university, must be fully open. This has nothing to do with religion at all, and certainly has nothing to do with religious freedom. If religious groups with their own membership requirements want to serve university students without official university approval, they certainly can; they just have to operate off campus. Yes, Vanderbilt’s policy means that some religiously affiliated student groups, as well as some groups focusing along gender, ethnic, or other exclusive criteria, might lose their official status. So what?

Dr. Moore’s talk should serve as a caution to all non-believers and to any other kinds of religious minorities: beware of Christians bearing gifts! This is especially true if the gift is a supposed alliance in the name of religious liberty. It is incumbent on us to vet such offers very carefully, to ensure that the believers fully disclose what they’re really working for, and to pin down exactly what they mean when they say “religious liberty.” More realistically, we don’t have to do much work along these lines. It is already quite clear that what Christian believers mean by “religious liberty” is not rationally supportable.

I favor religious freedom for all. What that means is that I assert my own right, as well as the rights of others, to believe or disbelieve as they choose, for whatever reasons or lack of reasons they see fit. If I want to worship Zeus or Godzilla, or don’t want to worship any deity, that choice is mine to make. And if I find like-minded others and we want to form a church and have our holy writ and call one a bishop and one a priest, so be it. And if I decide to vote for one candidate for public office over another because the holy book (that I conveniently wrote) says so, that’s my right too, and anybody else’s, even if it is entirely irrational. But no sane person should allow my Church of Godzilla the Redeemer to tell the state what to put in the public school science books, or what kind of psychotherapy should be allowed, or specify who can adopt a child, or decide who is or is not legally married.

The common theme espoused by the speakers is that religion trumps any and all state power, regulation, or legal precedent, merely because religious believers wish it to be so. I should be able to be a therapist if my religion says I can, and the state should have to accept my religious definition of therapy without regard to science or evidence, and grant me a license to practice as I see fit. If a religious group wants to set up a student organization with membership limited only to persons of a certain denomination, the university should be forced to permit it, even to officially approve it, because that’s what the religious groups want. A corporation should not have to include reproductive healthcare in its insurance coverage if the corporation’s officers object, even if employees are of different religions. The state should continue to pay Catholic Charities to provide adoption services, even if the group flatly refuses to provide that service to some of the citizens who are legally entitled to it. A pharmacy should have the right to refuse to sell the morning-after pill, and the state should still be required to grant a license and call it a pharmacy. None of these are examples of infringement upon religious liberty, but all of them are real examples of religious individuals and organizations attempting to overrule legitimate, even compelling, state interests.

Do these speakers represent all Christians in today’s America? Clearly they do not. But they do represent a large and increasing group that is seeking to subordinate the state to outright theocracy, and to destroy the secularism on which modernity itself is based. This is exactly the provocation that has goaded many quiet non-believers into becoming atheist activists. I don’t think any of these believers realize the extent to which they make it necessary for secular people and the secular state to confront religiosity at all levels and in all its forms.

~Jim Dugan, NOSHA, Board Vice-President

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Bit Of Class by Wil Sinda

Earlier this year at a monthly meeting, NOSHA member Wil Sinda did a reading  about his youth growing up in the Catholic Church that we felt more people would like to read. Please enjoy!


I was born some years ago in New York, brought up on Long Island, and raised as a Catholic. I well remember my mother reading to me that first catechism lesson, as parents were supposed to do then, which covered the talking points of Creation, Original Sin and the Trinity — the core stuff for Catholics — and how I felt under assault therefrom, and thus immediately and irrevocably rejected it in principle. I could not have been older than 8 or so at the time.

In fact, I never for a moment believed in God. I could never understand, much less accept, the Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as One. It has always seemed to me a hastily made rationalization for a poorly constructed story. It just didn't work.

And what didn’t work about it in particular was the Son part, which after all is a problem for a religion in his name. The Son of God thing is the weakest point in the chain — an obvious pagan-inspired theme, a standard kind of mythic narrative that forever after brought ‘God as principle’ down to God as a character in a revenge fantasy.

Not just another Bible story which can be understood as a parable, it is the religion itself. You have to believe in the Son. Just the Father won’t do. And why not, I wondered. Same guy, or not?

Why, for example, would ‘God as the Son’ have to remain a Son at all after his triumphant return to Heaven? The deal had already been struck, the debt paid, but God still wanted to pose as a young man sitting next to himself anyway? An eternity as a literal multiple-personality?

That’s just poor writing.

The suggestion that others around me might believe these things to be actual was the cause of considerable disquiet and revulsion, and even a source for youthful depression for me — because just imagining how that kind of world might ‘feel’ to a believer would always fill me with a vertiginous sadness.

I was disturbed to see people from town broken under the yoke of a fantasy, propitiating a God by genuflecting before plastic statues and kneeling in a pew as if begging for their lives.

It made me withdraw and watch. And watching made me wary.

I am reminded when before Mass one Sunday, the usher (a dour-faced Latin gentleman with a slight limp) stopped and leaned in to me and my friends to volunteer to us how “the Beatellies” were the “devil music” and, even though no one said a contrary word to him, got all red faced and furious anyway, glaring at us ten-year olds as if we were a 5th Column.

Or, a few years later, the nun who lectured to us about Jews being a damned race for killing Jesus

Or when I asked for an explanation of the Heaven/Earth distinction and how that related to outer space, how old Father Sheridan, while laughing derisively and shaking his head, said, “There is the Earth,” demonstrating the notion by gesturing with his arms and hands around his head as if to indicate everything around him, “and there are the heavens,” he said raising his arms over his head. And how when I pressed the issue by explaining that the Earth is in Space, how he raised his voice angrily and asked me if he was floating in outer space, ambling around in a pseudo-pirouette while making a funny face.

No, the stupidity was obvious, but there was another issue alongside this that went even deeper, and could not be ameliorated by more favorable anecdotes.

It was also my sense of self-respect that was assaulted when number six of the Baltimore Catechism was read out loud. To wit: Why did God make you? Answer (to be read aloud by all as an oath) — “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him ... .”

To know him? I can see that. It has a speculative insight to it, that Creation has about it an inner principle to be known to itself — God as Being, we as particulars of that totality with a basic intentionality to know the whole. Okay. Fine. Spinoza. Hegel.

But, to love him, and to serve Him. My only reason for being was to serve a cosmic (and worldly) franchise whose creator, a complete stranger to me otherwise, expected, just for the favor, my love too? It was a kind of extortion dressed up as a duty. A grandfathered-in small print on a contract that was signed for me without consultation or consent.

I, the son of a proud union man, was taught never to cave in to exploitation like that. Was this not another case of management pretending to be one of the workers just to get something from them?

I thus resented kneeling in Church, just as I recoiled in disgust when I saw people from town cower in such a slavish position. I always tried to avoid it myself by hunching over while still sitting. By faking it, in other words.

We don’t kneel. We don’t like Persons who expect to be knelt in front of, God or not. And most of all, kneeling is not a result of love.

I rebelled against the Church, first privately and later with some fanfare, and I did so quite aside from the fact that I did not believe its stories. I rebelled against it, and still do, because, even as it supposedly gives life value and meaning, it actually takes it all back, because value and meaning cannot be given.

When coming from an extrinsic source, value and meaning are the source’s, not the persons’ to whom such are given. I cannot give you value, I can only recognize it as already there.

We don’t have to love our neighbor, but we have to recognize the Other as a person, and thus recognize in the Other a real relation. It announces the Other as an issue, but it leaves it up to me to be the kind of person I want to be vis-à-vis that Other.

Most rational people want to be mindful of others. How we perform and think in that light is the measure of who we are. We either care, or we do not care; accept the Other as part of our reality, or not.

A God is not required for that decision; only a bit of class.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene

If you spend time in bookstores, and if you’re of a skeptical bent of mind, you may have noticed that books debunking one or another kind of pseudoscientific nonsense are just not very popular. You’ll find a foot or more of shelf space occupied by books about ancient extraterrestrials, but at best an inch for the books that call such stuff nonsense (Wilson’s Crash Go the Chariots is a favorite of mine). You’ll find many feet of shelf space dedicated to a variety of psychic phenomena, and again an inch, if that, for the more down-to-earth doubters (James Randi’s Flim-Flam, say).

One of those unpopular but worthy volumes is M. Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia, an insider’s exposé of mediums who help the bereaved living make contact with their departed loved ones. Originally published in 1976, the book has sometimes been out of print because practical thinking just doesn't sell. Happily, it was re-released by Prometheus Books during the 1990s, and is again easily available.

Keene’s book provides an unusual perspective, because he was not always an outsider.  He was a practicing medium for many years, a leader of various spiritualist groups, was noteworthy among his peers, and made good money at his trade. But over the years Keene developed a modicum of conscience. He gave up his lucrative psychic career, and then told his story in print.  The Psychic Mafia, then, is a confession, an admission of frauds committed and gullibility exploited.

Keene shows no respect for mediums and other practitioners of psychic arts. He explains in detail the secret files kept on clients, the dark rooms, black clothing, hidden co-conspirators, and trap doors used. He claims most other practitioners were just as crooked as he was, using similar tricks over many years, all while projecting even among themselves a false sincerity and carefully constructed plausible deniability.

Keene also shows no respect for the many clients he and other mediums bilked out of mountains of money.  In this estimation, most of his victims had such a strong desire to believe in contact with the spirit domain that they blinded themselves to ridiculously simple tricks and failed to exercise even the rudiments of skepticism. Taken in by the confidence and charisma of a successful medium, customers happily parted with their cash, and felt they were contributing to something of value.

I recommend this book for believers and doubters alike, but there are a few negatives to be mentioned. Keene (now deceased) comes across as very taken with himself, feeling superior to other psychics both for the quality of the frauds he perpetrated as a medium as well as for later developing a conscience and giving it all up.  He realizes how much some aspects of his practice resemble those of a mainstream church, but stops short of extending his accusations of fraud by that one last and logical step. Oddly, both Keene and the Reverend Rauscher, who wrote the introduction, also stop just short of calling all psychic practitioners frauds, holding on to the hope that legitimate mediums are practicing out there, somewhere, however indistinguishable they may be from the frauds.

The Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene. Prometheus Books (1997). ISBN-13: 978-1573921619

~ Jim Dugan, NOSHA Board Vice-President

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kit Senter Remembered: " atheist and proud of it..."

A friend and past member of NOSHA, Kit Senter, died on June 26 and was honored at a memorial on July 12 at a crowded First Unitarian Universalist Church where they recounted her "many contributions to humanity of this monumental lifetime of social justice, activism, caring, compassion, thoughtfulness, and generosity."

 Her friend, co-sponsor of the monthly Gillespie Community Breakfast, also a  friend of NOSHA, Brad Ott, in his testimonial for Kit said loudly and clearly "she was an atheist and proud of it." 

She will be missed.
Harry Greenberger, friend of Kit 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thanks to Dr. Forrest Long Overdue

Earlier in June, NOSHA hosted a members-only reception to show our appreciation for the years of contributions made by former board member, Barbara Forrest, who has done an incredible job both locally in providing guidance for our organization and, especially, on a national level. We knew we couldn't miss out on thanking her publicly! Harry Greenberger, president emeritus, prepared this statement to give everyone a brief understanding of her history with NOSHA that is touching and comprehensive. We wanted to share it with everyone who wasn't able to attend that day.

As I think you all know, Barbara Forrest is a professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

In the early years of NOSHA, we were introduced to Barbara by one of our first Board members, Denis Dwyer, and she accepted our invitation to come to New Orleans to address our group. I recall having lunch with Denis, Barbara, her husband, Clark, and, I think, one or both of her teenage sons, at a waterfront restaurant prior to going to our meeting at the Harrison Avenue public library. At that time, I asked whether she would consider becoming a NOSHA Director and she agreed. She has also served on the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education and the Board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Since that early time until her recent obligations required her to not seek re-­election to our Board, Barbara has been a faithful (you know how I use that word) member and contributor to NOSHA activities, despite the fact that her Board membership was used to discredit her as biased and unqualified to criticize religious organizations.

In 2004, Barbara, along with a co-author published through Oxford University Press her sensational book: Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, which exposed the Discovery Institute's intelligent design movement (which had replaced the unconstitutional "Creationism") and its attempts to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology. Her celebrity status as an authority on this farce is reflected in her many guest speaker roles at Secular and other national organization meetings.

Barbara's outstanding testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District trial, where the opposing attorney described her as "little more than a conspiracy theorist and web-surfing, 'cyber-stalker' of the Discovery Institute" none-the-less resulted in the judge's decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

And then there is the Louisiana Science Education Act, supported by Louisiana Family Forum, which allows science teachers in public schools to sneak in alternative "theories" to the theory of natural evolution, a law which Barbara along with young Zack Kopplin, continues to publicly oppose, so far without legislative success.

Barbara has been recognized through a number of awards. 1998 President's Award for Excellence in Teaching, SLU; 1999 Louisiana Library Association/SIRS Alex Allain Intellectual Freedom Award; 2001-2004 Women's Hospital Distinguished Teaching Professor; Friend ofDarwin Award, National Center for Science Education; 2006 President's Award for Excellence in Research, SLU; 2006 Public Service Award, American Society for Cell Biology; and 2006 NOSHA Humanist Award.

Forrest receiving a lifetime membership to NOSHA as a small
thank you for her service to our organization.
For her unremitting integrity and courage to fight for science and truth, with the support of her husband, Clark, despite possible ostracizing in the small Northshore towns while her sons were still in high school, we at NOSHA are proud to have known Barbara and have her with us through these years!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

REVIEW: Ghost Hunting for Beginners

I've been interested for some time in the “ghost” industry in America, from books of ghost stories to New Orleans ghost tours to endless ghost hunting programs on television. One of details that make this social phenomenon so fascinating is its nearly total lack of explanatory theory. Exactly what do aficionados think a ghost really is? What evidence do they have? How do they test their hypotheses?  I've been looking for a good book that attempts to explain some of the models in a more technical sort of way, but so far, without success.

I recently checked out a copy of Rich Newman’s Ghost Hunting for Beginners.  I picked this particular book because it claimed to take a more systematic approach, recommending that “the best way to investigate the paranormal is with proven, scientific methods.” I read the whole thing, and learned sadly little.
The problem with this book, as with most materials on ghosts and ghost hunting, is “energy.” “Energy” is a perfectly legitimate word with a certain scientific cachet. But when used with frustrating vagueness, with no respect to differences between types or how they’re stored or converted or transmitted, “energy” is one of those red-flag words signaling flimflam.


Because of its vague usage of the term “energy,” the book doesn't even raise, let alone answer, the questions any technically minded person would naturally ask.Ghosts, the author tells us, are made up of electromagnetic energy. But if so, why are ghosts so hard for us to detect, given that we have reliable instruments capable of measuring all kinds of electromagnetic fields? We are told that ghosts sometimes set off EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors. But how does an observer distinguish between a ghostly EMF and a natural EMF or one generated by electronic equipment? Ghosts need electromagnetic energy to manifest physically. If so, why are the areas around power plants and substations not infested with ghostly phenomena? Ghosts sometimes drain batteries. But how does a ghost convert the chemical energy inside of a battery into electrical or electromagnetic energy? Ghosts sometimes leave EVP (electronic voice phenomena) on audio recorders. Well then, do they do that by creating a complex set of pressure waves in the air to be picked up by the microphone, or by generating analog electromagnetic signals that are picked up inside of the electronics of the recorder, or by generating digital electromagnetic pulses directly into the recorder’s memory?

Let me be clear: I think Ghost Hunting for Beginners is one of the better books in its genre. Many are far worse, bristling with the technical-sounding weasel-words that so often mark pseudo-scientific sloppy-headedness. They use terms like vibration, quantum, higher dimensions, anomaly, vortex, and others, with such looseness as to render them all meaningless.

Numerous other problems of a technical nature beset the book and the ghost business in general. These would be less relevant if ghost hunters and other adherents claimed that ghosts were beings of “spirit,” entirely bereft of any physicality. But this claim is rare, since ghosts that can’t interact with us are boring. If we can be aware of ghosts, than either the being of a ghost or the manifestation of a ghost must contain elements that exist in our material universe. The fact that the methods and models for understanding those material elements remain vague and under-theorized after decades of “paranormal investigation” convincingly tells us that the whole business belongs in the same category as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

~ Review by Jim Dugan, NOSHA Board Vice-President

Ghost Hunting for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started, by Rich Newman. Llewellyn Publications (2011).  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Is Religion Firmly in Control of Our (Lack of) Modernity?

This essay is from NOSHA vice-president, Jim Dugan, who was inspired to write it after his visit to Baton Rouge once again to present the case for repeal of the Louisiana Education Science Act in April.. The effort was rejected again. **********

If we face the realities of history, we are forced to acknowledge that the world has always been run according to some kind of humanism. Earthly decisions have always been made by human minds. No god ever sat in assembly or parliament, no angel ever whispered into the ear of king or legislator, and no scripture has ever been more than an inspiration when taken too far out of the context of its original time and place. When we've had periods of peace and prosperity, it’s because smart people sat down to face our problems with honesty and pragmatism. When we've had eras of upheaval and decline, it’s because we've refused to face reality, or weren't smart enough, or weren't able to cooperate well enough to implement a solution.

For most modern Americans, this is simply a matter of observation. The wicked too often prosper, the righteous too often go hungry, and suffering is altogether too random, to allow a belief that any deity intervenes miraculously in earthly affairs. 

Even those who believe in one or another god must acknowledge this truth, although some will not. There are those who believe not only in a god and a soul, but also in divine intervention, in blessings and curses and miracles, in deities that take sides in our elections and wars. They believe that rules and maxims established by nomadic goat-herders or in agricultural kingdoms are sufficient guides for life in the age of the internet and global economy. But such people really are a minority. Pushing the numbers as far as demographics will allow, maybe a third of us could believe in divine miracles. That leaves at least two thirds, a super-majority, who do not. 

Why, then, is it so hard for the people of these United States to live in the 21st century instead of the 19th, or even the 16th?

We've achieved so much in the last 250 years. The Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century initiated profound social changes. We consciously developed new systems of government designed to enable individual agency by limiting the worst abuses of power and wealth. The struggle took centuries, but we did away with the institution of slavery, recognized the unfairness of racism, stopped treating adult women like dependent minors, and accepted the simple fact that not everybody is heterosexual. Along the way we built a growing economy, a vigorous middle class, a world-class system of higher education, and an information super-highway. We the people, rather than chance or deity, deserve the credit for the positive outcomes and the blame for the negatives.

Was it just too much too fast? In the early 21st century we seem to want not just to pause and reassess, but even to step backwards.

Once the driver of our economic growth, today’s middle class is experiencing an objectively measurable reduction in upward mobility and standard of living. Economic growth now largely improves the lot only of the wealthiest few. We know that education is critical to technological development, economic growth, and higher individual incomes, but invest less in it, both privately and publically, year after year.  The U.S. lags in the accessibility of health care and the certainty of social welfare. Our prisons are filled to overflowing, mostly with individuals who present relatively little risk to civil society, while corporate gangsters, economy wreckers, and grand-scale embezzlers are mostly free to go about their predations. This seems to be one of those periods of decay in which we’re unwilling to face our problems with honesty and intelligence.  We've gotten stupid about public policy.

Firmly embedded in this backwards march, and in many ways causing it, is a nauseating thread of counter-intellectualism, a hypocritical, disingenuous, public religiosity, worse now than at any time in the last 300 years. On May 5th (2014), the U.S.Supreme Court ignored the official secularism enshrined in our constitution,ruling that prayers said at the opening of city council meetings are not really religious, and so must be endured by all, regardless of differences in religion or lack of religion. Legislators in Louisiana and other states are trying to pass laws requiring a hospital to keep a dead ordying woman on life support against her express wishes, and over the objections of her next of kin, if the woman happens to be pregnant. The accessibility of abortion is fast disappearing, even though we still don’t have free and universal access to birth control, and most states refuse to require medically complete and accurate sexual education in public schools.

We’re on a fast track to granting a right of religious conscience and exercise to for-profit corporations. School boards (and in Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee) bend and twist to find ways to get Creationism and the Bible into the classroom. Legislatures around the country are using their funding powers to coerce public universities to drop curricular materials that run counter to “traditional family values.” Office holders pontificate about family values and the sanctity of marriage, and even though they are repeatedly revealed to be philandering frauds, this hypocrisy never stops.  Simpering public piety has somehow set itself in direct opposition to intelligence, knowledge, education, and practicality.

If we’re going to be fair, we have to acknowledge that religion has always been important in America. But it was never what made us great. Our historical achievements came at times when we were willing to use our heads, sometimes co-existing with religion, sometimes bitterly opposing religious teachings, but never subordinated to religion. Our greatness is best exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, not Cotton Mather, by the separation of church and state, not the Salem witch trials.

What will America be like in 50 to 100 years?  Is our early 21st-century backwards step a temporary pause, or is it the beginning of a new kind of feudalism?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where are today's John F. Kennedys?

A couple of months ago, Harry Greenberger did a reading at our regular NOSHA meeting that posed the question of where are the Kennedy-esque politicians for our era? Which is a good question, considering how many legislators across the country seem to do very little contemplation of the serious issues we face and only offer knee-jerk, simplistic viewpoints and solutions to the problems of our day.

He suggested that our federal and state governments have deteriorated since the 1960's, because we simply don't have this caliber of political leader out there who will take an important and courageous stand in the face of intolerance. Greenberger was referring to an article by Al Menendez that got him to thinking about this from The Voice of Reason: The Journal for Americans for Religious Liberty (page 3, issue #3, 2013).

He pulled several key points from this article during his reading: 
1. Kennedy emphasized the importance of separation of church and state as a key governing principle of the American ethos. In his Houston address to Protestant clergy in September 1960, he spoke these memorable words that still echo through history: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is America where religious intolerance will someday end...This is the kind of America I believe in and this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died."
2. The president thought public aid to church-related schools was unconstitutional, and he refused to include these schools in his federal aid to education proposals. 
3. Kennedy opposed the opening of formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, feeling that it would not be desirable for either party and would not advance good will between religions in the U.S. 
5.  In his Houston address, he proclaimed, "Religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all." He said, "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish...and where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."
 These are just a few of the sentiments Greenberger shared of Kennedy's impressive grasp of church-state separation. And this is a concept we should all consider at this time during a legislative session steeped in religiously motivated bills. It is a question that needs to be explored and promoted often: where are today's John F. Kennedys? Maybe one of us will fill the void.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

HBO Doesn't Make The Case for Questioning Darwin

HBO’s recently aired documentary Questioning Darwin is 60 minutes of documentary trash. It ignores science completely, minimizes diversity within Christianity, distorts Charles Darwin’s personal struggle with faith and science, engages in agonizingly endless emotional appeals for religious faith, and perpetuates ridiculous myths about evolution and religion. The few moments of useful information scattered throughout the film fail to make up for its overwhelming volume of irrelevancy. If Questioning Darwin captures any significant aspect of the evolution-creation debate at all, it is only the perspective of the most ardently literal bible-believer, but even that perspective is described in only the most superficial terms.

One might expect that a documentary titled Questioning Darwin would at some point discuss scientific evidence for evolution. It doesn't. There is a brief note that science understands the earth to be ancient, but not a single hint as to why. There’s a passing mention of evidence of change in animal forms, but no detailed discussion. There is no mention at all of many other lines of evidence, some of them critical to an understanding of the theory. There’s not a single word about the observable sorting of fossils into layers of age-related life-forms, no reference to the complete absence of out-of-sequence fossils, nor a whisper about test-tube-verifiable genetics. In terms of comprehending the science of evolution, Questioning Darwin is a complete failure.

The film’s presentation of Christian perspectives is only slightly more competent. Many Christian individuals and not a few denominations see no conflict between science and religion generally, nor between evolution and Genesis in particular. Many Christian believers are quite willing to take parts of the Bible as allegory, metaphor, or just plain folktales. Many understand that their scripture is not a primer on science or history, and don’t try to insit otherwise. But these Christians are nearly invisible in the film, which almost exclusively presents the views of biblical literalists. The viewer is left with the impression that Christianity per se insists the earth is 6,000 years old, there was a real global flood, and there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark.

Charles Darwin himself is portrayed as engaged in a lifelong struggle with religious faith. To be clear, Darwin did grow up in the Anglican Church, accepted basic Christian doctrine in his younger years, and even contemplated becoming a clergyman at one point. But the film understates Darwin’s lifelong commitment to systematic observation of biological facts, and the application of logic to evidence. Darwin did struggle with the implications of his theory, but was more concerned about what other people would make of it, and very little about the implications for his own spiritual life. His own certainty in the reality of evolution was solid, his religious faith left in tatters by years of scientific practice. The film fails to capture what Darwin knew even at an early age: that observation and logic lead to truth, and that any hypothesis, no matter how appealing, must be abandoned when comprehensive evidence goes against it.

Much of film was entirely irrelevant to any question about Darwin or Evolution. Long sections portrayed persons in difficult, even tragic, situations, who found solace in religion, could not imagine getting through life without divine assistance, believed in miracles, or simply could not believe they (or humanity) had arisen from simpler forms of life. It seems never to occur to the filmmaker that this crude appeal to emotion has nothing to do with evidence, or even with evolution. The undeniable facts that some people long for a god, hope for a miracle, imagine God helped them through a crisis, or believe that human beings have a divine dignity, do not constitute evidence of any external truth. Even if we accept, as some people in the film do, that evolution teaches people they are animals, and so leads them to behave like animals, that is not evidence against the theory. It’s not evidence of anything, as logic does not allow us to ignore selected facts merely because they disappoint us or make us uncomfortable. About half of the film was this kind of teary-eyed question-begging, none of which did anything to illuminate questions relating to evolution, or to the relationship between science and religion.

What the film does manage to leave the viewers with is a massive myth regularly employed by creationists: the notion that science and Christianity exist in some kind of binary opposition. Had the film bothered to present actual evidence either for or against evolution or Christian doctrine, the viewer might be able to evaluate that binary, but no such evidence was provided. More realistically, this particular binary opposition is an idiotic idea. The Theory of Evolution says absolutely nothing about souls, heaven, God, Jesus, or the Bible. If there is a conflict with religion, it is only that some believers choose to interpret their particular scripture as a science textbook. The key word there is “interpret.” For although the most ardent anti-evolutionists always claim they are taking the Bible "literally," nothing could be further from the truth. There is no chapter or verse that plainly states the earth is 6,000 years old. Nowhere does it say that the six days of creation were each 24 hours long. Where is the page that says that Tyrannosaurs Rex, with sword-like teeth, were originally vegetarians? In what chapter does it actually say that the fossils we find today were laid down by Noah’s flood? Where are the verses that tell us that radiometric dating is unreliable because rates of radioactive decay have changed over time, or that the light of distant stars was created in transit? None of this can be found there. None of it is literal. All of it is an interpretation, and a very extended and convoluted interpretation at that.

Although the God-or-Darwin binary opposition is ridiculous on its face, it is an effective evangelistic tool. It really is the only tool that makes sense of the film. We may sympathize, perhaps even empathize, with the human suffering of the mother whose child is in a coma, or with the reformed prostitute or the drug addict in recovery. Obviously, that has nothing to say or to do with Darwin or Evolution. Or at least it ought not, unless we accept the God-or-Darwin opposition. If we do accept that binary, then maybe we could be moved to faith by the film’s emotional appeal, and having been moved to faith we would have to leave behind the only alternative, which is godless Darwinism. It’s black and white, either-or, one or the other. Questioning Darwin, then, was nothing more than a vehicle for the views of the least competent questioners of Darwin, those who know nothing of science, know nothing of scripture, and claim to be reading the Bible literally when they’re just making up stories.
~ By Jim Dugan

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Berry goes "Beyond The Grave", so we don't have to!

In December, fellow NOSHAins Rose and Chad, and my wife, Sharon, ventured down to the Victory Fellowship Church on Airline Highway to watch the “multi-media” production, “Beyond the Grave” (add an echo effect). The show is basically a play with some video excerpts channeled through a massive sound system, defective sound system I might add, that is designed to scare Billy Hell out of teenagers and perhaps even younger minds judging by the audience.

I know you’re probably asking yourself, “Why would you subject yourself to something like that?” Well, I've always been fascinated with people watching, examining what people do and why they do it. In fact, I studied anthropology in college and I worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in my younger days. I have always been somewhat of a voyeur when it comes to the oddities of human culture and one of the most fascinating to me is the culture of evangelicals and the modern “mega-church” phenomenon.

I grew up Catholic in a small town in Western Kentucky that is overwhelmingly evangelical, mostly Southern Baptist and Pentecost. Being one of only a handful of Catholics in my school, I can remember being told I was going to hell from the first grade through my high school graduation. By sixteen, I had become agnostic and by my mid-twenties I would consider myself an atheist. But my childhood experiences always stuck with me and as a rational adult I am fascinated with the propaganda tactics used by evangelical churches to “win hearts and minds”.

The premise for “Beyond the Grave” was exactly what I expected to be….fear. The production, at its root, is a play, with multiple fourth wall breaks by a minister/narrator who comes out to espouse the morals of the previous scenes. This guy was wearing what looked like a black concert t-shirt with some kind of bloody mask on it. I have no idea what the image was but it echoed the theme of the play as blood and gore was everywhere in this show.

As a teenager I remember seeing a concert by the heavy metal group, “W.A.S.P.”, who were notorious for blood and gore stage antics but I think BTG may have one upped them in the is production.

In fact, before the show started, they threw out a bunch of these t-shirts and other schwag into the crowd while yelling, “Who likes free stuff?!? Isn’t God great?!?!” It was very reminiscent of a rock concert.  

The plot of the story is set in a local high school, “Metairie High School”, and involves the typical cast of high school characters. There are five principles (I can’t remember their names): Emotionally Disturbed guy (I will call him Dexter) who refuses to accept Jesus; Dexter’s sweet, insecure girlfriend who has allowed him to control her, even submitting to having pre-marital sex with him; Dexter’s childhood friend who is so into Jesus that he carries a Bible with him at all times and never stops hounding people about letting God into their heart; A mostly benign but self-centered girl who has the most batshit parents on the planet…she happens to be the most popular girl in Metairie High School; and finally a whacked-out, drug dealing, goofball guy who admittedly once drugged and date-raped a girl.

There is also a sixth character… I believe to be equally important…. a short, dumpy, gay boy who incessantly hits on the drug dealing, goofball guy. This character doesn't make it to the all important third act and therefore can’t be considered a principle, but his role in the production can’t be understated. In fact, the script obsessed on this character. I’ll expound on that later.

The plot is pretty self-explanatory in the production’s website synopsis….Dexter goes Columbine and the play culminates with the principals being brought before God for their final judgment.

So…I’m gonna spoil the story for you….if you want to go see the production yourself, stop reading here. But don’t…really…don’t be so masochistic that you would go watch this play…just try to finish reading this review and you will have subjected yourself to enough pain and nonsense.

I was tempted to jump straight to judgment day, but let me fill you in on some of the outrageous dialogue and character arcs just to prolong the agony.

It was really hard in the first few scenes to figure out what the hell was going on. The opening scene is of Dexter asleep in bed and his girlfriend trying to wake him up to go to class. Watching this scene unfold, I assumed they must be in college but by the second scene I realized the whole play was about high school students. I’m still not sure how two high school kids were living together but I think the playwright simply wanted to make sure the audience understood these two were sexually active, hence the bed scene.

It only got more confusing from that point. The next scene starts with Ms. Popularity’s parents about to have an early morning romp on the couch when she interrupts them on her way out the door to school. The girl announces that she’s been accepted to Tulane, her mother has no idea what Tulane is and turns the conversation to a young muscular boy that may be interested in her daughter. The mother goes all cougar on the conversation and at that moment I realized this may be the most fucked up play I've ever seen…it did not disappoint as it progressed.

I assume the “cluelessness” of the parents was meant to portray people who are so caught up in trivial things like sex and work that they ignore what’s really important in their children’s lives….a personal relationship with Jesus. Apparently a full ride to Tulane isn't that important either.

In between acts, I exchanged many looks of confusion and amusement with my fellow adventurers. We were all trying to make sense out of the plot, but the whole environment was so absurd it proved to be a mental struggle. At some point I had to remind myself that this probably wasn't going to make sense no matter how much I tried to make it do so…only then I was able to turn the logic center in my brain off and simply enjoy the absurdity. Once I passed that hurdle the real challenge became to not let myself be offended by what I was watching…I didn't succeed in that mental challenge.

As the classroom scenes began, almost immediately did the gay-bashing along with them. I take pride in the fact that I’m not easily offended, but as the play progressed I stopped counting how many times my wife and I exchanged expressions of horror as one gay zinger after another was unleashed on this dumpy kid who, as an actor, had clearly jumped the shark in his effort to seem effeminate.

It got so bad, Shakespeare would have stopped the play to note, "....methinks thou doth protest too much”.

Probably the worst line, which Rose caught and I missed because I was still reeling from the admission by the drug dealer dude that he roughed up a girl and date-raped her, went something like, “We’re not even talking about gays, drug dealers, and murderers….everyone will one day be judged by God!”

Apparently those three categories of people compromise the very worst humanity has to offer.  

Of course it was hard to tell exactly what this line was because the guy delivering it, playing the part of a gym coach, was nearly incomprehensible. He was trying to deliver Eddie Murphyesque one-liners berating the gay kid while randomly quoting passages from the “Gospel”. It was beyond painful to watch this whole scene unfold…I can’t begin to explain it. Just when you thought they would lay off the gay kid…when you were begging them to lay off the gay kid…the script went right back at him. We were forced to watch this barely literate actor (the gym coach) rattle off homophobic slurs followed by Bible verses for what seemed like, forgive me, an eternity.  

Meanwhile, the gay kid can’t stop hitting on the drug dealer kid and seems oblivious to the beat down he was getting by Eddie Murphy gym coach. Did I mention they couldn't stop harping on the gay kid? Well. Let me state it again….they couldn't stop dissing the gay kid. Most of the humor in the play was based on the “silly-willy homo”. I faintly remember the thesis they drew about the gay boy’s ultimate fate that went something like, “God loves us no matter what we do, but not everyone will be allowed to enter his kingdom.” That may not be exactly right but whatever the script said it was strategically ambiguous and they conveniently left the gay character out of the final judgment scene.  

Even more annoying than “gay boy” was the kid who carried the Bible non-stop and couldn't seem to carry on a conversation if it didn't relate to Biblical scripture. Honestly, I’m not sure how this kid was able to wipe his ass because he apparently couldn't put his Bible down long enough to do anything else.

But the key character…the pivot point in the entire play….was a goofball, date-raping, drug dealer dude. You’d think Dexter would be the thesis of the play instead it ends up being this guy. Who woulda thunk it? Actually, I did…right at the beginning of the third Act but we’re not quite there yet.

As expected, Dexter ends up going Columbine, in the middle of a prayer group, at school no less. A prayer group in a public school, mind you…don’t try to figure that one out….it’s “Metairie High School”. I’m guessing it’s a Bobby Jindal voucher school to boot.  

Anyway….Dexter ends up shooting all of his friends which culminates in a bloodbath, video montage. The funny part about this scene is that it starts with Dexter demanding that Mr. Bible, his longtime childhood friend, deny that there is a God…oh….as he points a silver-plated 9mm at Bible-boy’s head.

As I was watching this I was thinking, “Holy shit I hope that gun isn't actually loaded...” I mean, judging by the production standards I could totally see someone forgetting to unload the real 9mm they were using as a prop. Not to mention he was waving it at the audience the entire time. I kept fearing a Brandon Lee scenario.

Paranoia aside, I started chuckling thinking about the message the play was sending….Columbine and all the random acts of violence America has experienced in the past few decades were the result of godless souls trying to challenge the faithful. Never mind that the majority of violent acts in the history of mankind were committed by “the faithful” following their own delusions. I couldn't help but laugh at the notion that an atheist or agnostic would put a gun to someone’s head and demand that they deny God exists. Has that ever happened? I know the opposite has happened throughout history, but I seriously doubt an atheist would take someone’s life for refusing to deny God.

My rumination was suddenly interrupted with a cacophony of gunshots coming form the crackling speakers hanging over the stage combined with a blood-splattering video montage that would make George Romero blush. Blood…bullet holes in the head….blood…panicked Ms. Popularity hiding in the bathroom stall only to get a bullet to the chest….blood….more blood oozing…more blood pooling…..more blood spattering…Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

You get the picture.

Meanwhile, on the stage, the mega-1000 industrial smoke machine was filling up the room like doobie-smoking fans at a Snoop Dog concert. Pastor-dude in the black t-shirt emerged just as the video was ending to dramatically query the audience, “Death can come at any time, regardless of the trivialities of life that we cling to. But the real question is: are you prepared for what comes after? Are you prepared for what comes…. (echo effect)….. “Beyond the Grave!!!”

With smoke machine still kicking…the first judgment from on high we get to witness is Dexter’s girlfriend. Although she sinned greatly and even had premarital sex with Dexter (gasp) before he went militant-apeshit-atheist and shot her in the head…she did accept Jesus Christ as her savior. Yeah! The pearly gates open, everyone gives an amen and girlfriend gets to spend an eternity with God.

I thought maybe the pastors would throw more t-shirts and schwag into the audience at this point, but no such luck.

God, by the way, was this cat in the sound booth at the back of the house using the echo effect and the ultra-bass knob to deliver these wonderfully, buttery judgments with his own brand of special logic sauce. Even though girlfriend testified against herself, protesting that she wasn't good enough, God laid on the holy butter and told her she had won the cosmic lottery simply because she had asked to be “saved”.

Crowd cheered…and cheered…they were cheering, fo’ true.

Then came Mr. Bible. There wasn’t a lot of suspense in the room on this one…Mr. Bible got the whole tub of Godly butter and more. Yeah!!! It wasn’t nearly exciting as the girlfriend’s judgment but we all had to go through the motions and clap for him anyway.

At this point, the pastor breaks the fourth wall again and explains how even though these two characters’ lives were cut short, they will live in eternal bliss in God’s kingdom.

 As the pastor was explaining this I kept thinking that if I was Dexter’s girlfriend I would venture to the other side of the kingdom from Mr. Bible…I can’t imagine spending eternity with that annoying, sniveling, self-righteous, little shit. I mean why would I want to spend an eternity around people I can’t stand to spend five minutes with on this mortal coil? Maybe there’s some magic heavenly personality adjustment that takes place once you cross the pearly gates…who knows?

Finally, came the moment I’d been waiting for…it was time for the hell hounds!

The next character up was Ms. Popularity. The background music took an ominous turn as she walked out to be judged and everyone could sense this wasn't going to end well. Seriously…the music was way too much foreshadowing….it took all the suspense out of her judgment.

Ms. Popularity made her argument to God that she had lived a good life, she’d obeyed her parents, helped people, committed no crimes, etc. but deus ex machina wasn’t having any of that. He cranked up the bass and the echo effect then proceeded to bitch slap that young lady straight to the deepest recess of Hades

You see…Ms. Popularity had never “come to know God on a personal level”. She had never asked to be saved from her sins…and therefore…she lost the cosmic lottery….waaa, waaa, waahhh….

The smoke machine then went into overdrive again and these figures in black cloaks and hoods swarmed the stage to drag Ms. Popularity down…down…down….

The Grim Reaper, himself, even made an appearance to symbolically point out the direction to hell…turns out it was not directly down but stage right. I guess that was needed in case the minions forgot which way to go.

Meanwhile, the speaker system is blaring this squealing noise that sounded like two pigs fucking in an aluminum grain silo. Yes, I can make that analogy with some degree of experience, having grown up on a farm in Western Kentucky.

The cacophony was so loud it was borderline painful.

Next up was Dexter himself. I don’t have to tell you how that went down except to note that the first thing Dexter said was “God?!?! God?!?! This can’t be happening, you’re not real!” He accused God of abandoning him, but God explained that he had sent Mr. Bible to him in his time of need only to see Dexter reject him.

I wanted to make an argument on Dexter’s behalf at this point and tell God he could have sent someone a little less annoying than that sniveling, Bible-wielding moron if he really wanted to get his message through. I wanted to murder that kid the moment he walked out on stage, so I think God could have been a little more understanding with Dexter but maybe that’s just me.

Dexter, of course, goes to hell.

Fourth Wall breaks…yet again…the pastor comes out to tell us how royally screwed Dexter and Ms. Popularity are for the rest of eternity while reiterating that we, too, may end up suffering the same fate unless we come down the aisle after the play and accept Jesus as our savior.  The hook was cast, the cork was bobbing.

He then tells us there is one more soul yet to be judged, so let’s watch and see what happens.

Lo and behold, it’s drug dealer, date-raper dude…..but something’s amiss….no ominous music…no evil foreboding….could it be?!?!?

God proceeds to engage drug dealer and informs him, to the audience’s surprise (not really), that he has somehow made it into the kingdom of heaven. But drug dealer dude doesn't understand, he actually argues against his own salvation and tells God that he’s done horrible things.

In spite his best efforts to damn his now soul to hell, God tells drug dealer he’s headed to heaven simply because he asked for salvation….the audience goes absolutely apeshit.

couldn't stop wondering about the fate of the girl he date raped, but I’m sure I was the only one worried about that amid the cries of jubilation.

At that point, the lights come up and they start calling people to come down the aisle to get saved…they were reeling in the hook….Rose, Chad, wifey, and I took that as our cue to GTFO and go drink some badly needed beer. I felt very dirty…I needed a baptism of hops and grains.  

One thing Rose, Chad and I all noticed was the intense gay bashing aspect of the play. I had also noticed something else about the Pastor that Rose noticed, he was somewhat effeminate and it occurred to us that he, himself, may be a closeted homosexual. I am betting that he is the playwright and the gay bashing was mostly him yelling at his own insecurity. It was convenient that they left the homosexual character out of the judgment process, we were all curious to see what God was going to say about the gay kid since so much attention was focused on him, but the script wisely didn't go there.

In retrospect, the thing that I keep thinking about the most was what effect the production had on its target market, the younger folks sitting in the audience. I thought about how my thirteen-year-old boy would have reacted if I had taken him to see it. I think he would have looked at me about 15 minutes into it and asked me, “What the fuck did you get me in to here? These people are crazy!”

I think my nine-year-old girl, on the other hand, would have tried to follow the story the best she could and I think it would have ended up troubling her to some extent…possibly a large extent. It’s scary to be told you’re bound to burn in hell unless you conform to a certain agenda when you’re nine years old. As we were leaving I scanned the audience for that age group, wondering what was running through their impressionable young minds.

When I was a child I was exposed to much worse than this by evangelicals from my community in Western Kentucky. I remember the confusion and fear I felt all too well before I finally came to the conclusion, at sixteen, that these people were simply insecure assholes trying to make other people believe as they did in order to allay their own fear.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes perfect to sense to create propaganda pieces like this to prey on younger, developing minds. Watching it unfold as an adult sickened me, but it also helped me understand my own path in life and how I was shaped by influences like this.

While I’m happy my own children aren't being subjected to people like this, another part of me wants them to see it. I want them to understand how powerful fear-driven propaganda can be and the influence it can have over not just children, but adults as well. I think my thirteen-year-old could absolutely handle it but my nine-year-old…that’s another story.

If you want to go see it yourself, they’re running it again on February 28 at 7:30 pm. (Find other dates here.) You may see me there with my son, if I can make him sit through the whole thing. He’ll be the kid in a perpetual face palm…look out for us.   


Jason Brad Berry is an independent, investigative journalist and provides commentary via American Zombie. He lives in New Orleans.