Prayers for Houston

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following the news of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.  Unlike a lot of people, I’m not praying. Prayer doesn’t put a family in a home, clothe the needy, or feed a child.  So when someone sent this “prayer chain” request on Facebook today, I responded respectfully, but honestly.


I’ve visited the websites of a lot of popular charities. Americares, American Red Cross, Save the Children, etc. I’ve noticed they ask for a lot of things. Money, food, blood, clothing, and more. What you never see (or at least I’ve never seen) is a button saying “click here to send prayers.” Why? Because it’s useless. Prayers didn’t stop the storm, and it’s not going to clean up the mess.

Now, I know this person, and they are among the kindest, most gentle people I’ve ever met.  So it was a little embarrassing having to respond to such a thing. They had simply forgotten I was a non-believer, and later apologized.  I told them not to worry, and thanked them for thinking of me just the same.

But I do want to say that, in times of tragedy like what we are seeing in Houston and surrounding areas, what is needed is not prayers, but money, manpower, and supplies. If you live in the Houston area, you can personally reach out to local organizations. If you live across the country like I do, the best thing you can do is send cash to the groups on the ground.

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Help! I Don’t Understand These Comforting Christian Cliches!

A friend of mine is going through a divorce.  While I haven’t been involved in one myself, I understand how incredibly difficult this time must be for her, not to mention her husband.  No doubt, it’s tough.  You go through a lot of emotions and, especially when there are children involved, things can get complicated.  Sometimes people use their kids to get back at their exes, the relatives of the couple divide into tribes, and vicious things that can’t be taken back are said in moments of anger.  In times like these, you rely on your family and friends to help get you through.

credit: Christian Piatt

credit: Christian Piatt

In this particular case, she has used her Facebook page as catharsis, sharing her troubles with those that know her.  She spoke about issues she is having with money, how difficult it is to be without her children half the time, and the increasingly complicated relationship she now has with their father.   I myself left a fairly lengthy comment, along with the promise to check in on her from time to time, and to offer any support I could.  It isn’t much, I wish I could do more.  Being that she lives out of state, it’s the least I can do at the moment.

Many of her other friends and family commented as well.  But I noticed that a lot of what many of them wrote seemed to me to be trite, practically meaningless cliches that evidently were supposed to offer some kind of spiritual and religious comfort.  What struck me is that they said nothing specific about any of the problems she mentioned, nor were they offering any kind of solutions.  Instead, they seemed only to be telling her to get with Jesus and pray to God more.

Now, I am an atheist.  I don’t believe in the Christian God, or any God for that matter.  But I do seek to understand those that do a little better.  So, I’m writing this to ask for help.  I want to know what some of these phrases mean, and how exactly they are meant to help solve her problems.  Here, then, are several of the instructions offered to my friend, along with what they appear to mean to me.  Please let me know where I may be wrong, and help educate me so I can better understand these things going forward.

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“Let go and let God”
At first glance, this appears to be a sentence fragments to me.  Let God…do what?  But even if I’m wrong about that, I still don’t understand what it means exactly.  You “let go” of your troubles, I assume, and God takes it from there.  So, you just kind of sit there and wait for God to intervene, I guess.  You do nothing, is that right?  Where am I going wrong here?  Help me.

“Run toward Jesus, not from Him”
Okay, this one at least seems like a full sentence to me.  Even so, I need help figuring out what on can expect once you move toward Jesus.  I’m guessing it means that, in times of trouble, some may forget their relationship with their lord and savior.  But by “running toward” him, perhaps through prayer, you can expect comfort and healing.  Am I at least on the right track?  If so, should my friend “run toward” Jesus, how long can she expect to have financial and personal difficulties?

“God is in control”
This one sounds a little bit like the “let go and let God” one.  But, if it’s true that God is in control, why is he putting my friend through a divorce?  Is God punishing the decision to divorce with financial woes, and taking away her kids half the time?  I always think that, if God is truly in control, he has a lot of explaining to do.  Not for people’s choices, so much, but for cancer, child birth defects, plane crashes, and the natural disasters he occasionally throws our way.  But be that as it may.  God being in control kind of blows the whole idea of Free Will out of the water, doesn’t it?  For, if God is controlling everything, what does it matter what we choose?  Or do we not choose anything at all?

“Look up for comfort”
I’ve heard celebrity astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson use a similar phrase from time to time, but I don’t think he means it like these folks did.  Tyson says that too many people think about the size of the universe and feel small, whereas he feels big.  The variety of atoms that make up our bodies, science tells us, are the same atoms found in the stars.  As Carl Sagan put it so elegantly, “We are made of starstuff.”  So, while it’s possible the people on my friend’s Facebook page were telling her to grab a telescope and head outside, I tend to think that instead they were telling her to look to God.  But, once again, I fail to see what that means, or how it helps.  Teach me.

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Make no mistake, I am being sincere.  I truly do want to understand.  Before I wrote this, I consulted both the internet, as well as a close friend who was once a devout Christian.  Neither was of any help.  My friend didn’t understand the phrases either, and at one point actually said, “I just don’t get it.  Let god what?  Let go and let god laugh while you plummet?”  A few internet sites even chided Christians for offering cliches to people in times of need.  I admit it.  I’m lost here.

So, if you are a Christian, someone who considers themselves faithful or, heck, even an atheist who may have some insight, do feel free to let me know what I’m missing.  When these comments were left on my friend’s Facebook page, they received multiple “likes,” so I have to assume they are meaningful to people, and that it is me that is missing something.  Or, is it that we really speak in sort of a different language?  I ask for your help in figuring that out.

Thanks for reading.

Film Review: “The Unbelievers” starring Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

“There are no scientific authorities,” the physicist Lawrence Krauss says at the top of The Unbelievers.  While there are certainly scientific experts, Krauss says that no expert should be above questioning.  So why, then, do so many of us make religion off-limits from critical inquiry and ridicule?  Why are we threatened when our religion is challenged by evidence?  Are we truly willing to believe something that is wrong just because it may make us feel better?
unbelievers
The Unbelievers is a documentary film which aims to illuminate these very issues.  It follows evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world spreading a message of science and reason in opposition to religion and superstition.  With a runtime of just slightly over an hour, our subjects have their work cut out for them from the very beginning.

Krauss, with an executive producer credit on the film, comes off as slightly more likable than the often sour Dawkins, and probably with more screen time as well,  though he is a lesser known public intellectual.  He is shown walking through a crowd at the Reason Rally shaking hands, taking pictures with admirers, and seems always to be wearing a brightly colored pair of low-top Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.  You can’t help but be drawn to the guy.

But give Dawkins his due as well.  While he does glare incredulously at a religious leader who misinterprets evolution during a debate, and can come across as somewhat grumpy at times, he speaks with reverence of “the poetry of reality,” and with an eloquent turn of phrase alternately commands an audience’s every attention, then quickly sends them into passionate applause.  His is a rare gift, and it speaks to both his knowledge and incredible charisma that he has been at the forefront of the science vs. religion debate for so long.

Then again, why shouldn’t Dawkins be angry?  I’m downright pissed myself.  Whether some of us want to admit it or not, religion is a force which does a great deal of harm.  It leads to the cover-up of child sexual abuse, to the witch hunts of Salem in the 1600s, and the Inquisition, to name a few.  And let’s not forget the ultimate faith-based initiative of recent memory:  the horrific events of September 11th, 2001.

Sure, there are positive elements to religion as well.   Religious people will say that they get their morality from their holy books.  They learned to be kind to one another, or to give to the poor and support charities.  These are good things, I agree.  But do we need to believe in a timeless, undetectable wizard in the sky to do them?  We don’t.  We should do them simply because they are good, not for some perceived reward we may believe we will get in the afterlife.  Besides, if you are only being kind because you want a reward, are you really all that moral anyway?
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In keeping with the theme that no expert should go unchallenged, there are scenes in the film in which Dawkins and Krauss are at odds, which I enjoyed.  Dawkins, for instance, speaks openly about his lack of trust in politicians who do not accept science, comparing them to a physician who believes babies come from storks.  Krauss, in opposition, feels that there is a certain degree of privacy that should be respected in these matters.  Provided, say, a politician does not wear his supernatural religious beliefs on his sleeve (and if the physician can successfully remove a spleen despite his ignorance of sexual reproduction) they are better kept out of public discourse.

Overall, though, this film was a mixed bag for me.  While there are plenty of interesting conversations that occur which left me with food for thought, there was also a noticeable absence of direction.  What you will see in The Unbelievers is a collection of vignettes of two scientists talking about science and atheism, both with each other and assembled audiences.  What you won’t see, however, is any kind of linear direction or theme that keeps the film moving forward.  You could literally re-edit it in a completely different order, and have the exact same experience while watching it.  It is a movie that says a lot, but never actually leads anywhere.

As an “unbeliever” myself, this was a documentary I was very much looking forward to seeing.  While there is much about it I enjoyed, in the end its shortcomings were too big to ignore, and ultimately held it back from becoming the film it should have been.

Pope Francis Quietly Continuing Time-honored Tradition of Rewarding Those That Protect Child Molesters

While many people, including liberals and atheists, have been pleasantly surprised at some of the things Pope Francis has said and done that put him in contrast with his predecessor, there is one issue that I have not and will not forget:  the man formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio is currently the head of the largest child sex ring the world has ever seen.  And while he has been winning the admiration of many by wearing a clown nose in support of volunteers assisting the sick, or embracing youth culture by taking a “Papal selfie,” he has also been quietly continuing the time-honored tradition of rewarding those that have protected child molesters.

Pope Francis (photo: theguardian.com)

Pope Francis (photo: theguardian.com)

Take, for example, Bishop Leonard Blair of the Toledo Diocese.  Later this month, Blair will be officially installed as the new Archbishop of Hartford, replacing the retiring Henry J. Mansell.  Despite his failures in leadership when it came to protecting the victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests and counselors during his tenure, Leonard Blair is receiving what amounts to a promotion.

In his introductory press conference, Blair was asked about the child sex abuse scandals that have become synonymous with the Catholic church.  His response strained credulity, especially for someone like me who has grown up and lived in Toledo my whole life.

“When I came to Toledo, my predecessor [removed] a number of priests who were accused, and subsequently, I had to remove some as well,” Blair said.  “But I think there’s been a great process of healing in Toledo and I think our diocese responded appropriately.”

Sure, the diocese in Toledo “responded appropriately” to accusations if by “responding appropriately” you mean outright lying to the faces of victims.

In the Academy Award-nominated documentary Twist of Faith, Toledo area firefighter Tony Comes is stunned to learn that the priest who molested him 20 years earlier is living on the same street as he and his family.  During an appointment with then-Bishop James R. Hoffman, Comes is told that his allegations against the priest, Dennis Gray, are the first he had ever heard about him.  Four months later, investigative reporting done by the Toledo Blade would reveal that this was not true.  In fact, numerous men had stepped forward to accuse Gray of sexual abuse during prior years.

Bishop Leonard Blair (photo: traditio.com)

Bishop Leonard Blair (photo: traditio.com)

What, then, about that “healing” Bishop Blair was speaking of?

Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said in a press release that Bishop Leonard Blair “has done a poor job dealing with the church’s on-going child sex abuse and cover up crisis in Toledo,” and that Pope Francis has merely promoted someone who “failed to show real courage and compassion and refused to adequately protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded.”

SNAP goes on to document the case of Kevin Yeckley, a Catholic school counselor in Fremont who, despite admittedly engaging in very suspicious behavior with a young girl, including hugging her, setting it up so he could work alone with her, and telling her that he was “having uncomfortable feelings for her,” Toledo Catholic officials stalled outside investigation attempts and kept the issue quiet for six to seven months throughout 2009 and 2010.

All this from the same man, Bishop Blair, who, in 2005, called for priests to help him fight a bill attempting to rewrite statutes of limitations for child sex abuse victims.

The fact is that Pope Francis has been a much needed voice of reason in certain areas, but has shown poor leadership when it comes to resolving child sex abuse issues within the church.  Granted, he has his work cut out for him, but promoting people like Leonard Blair, who has placed his own career and reputation ahead of the well-being of children, is not a good first step.

What I would like to see is for Pope Francis to immediately make public the names and whereabouts of any and all offending priests, whether they are still involved in active parishes or not.  Open the doors and all church files to police officials, and pledge his complete and total cooperation in ferreting out offenders.  If and when any are found, they should be immediately defrocked and handed over to face justice.  Until that day comes, I am skeptical that the issue of child sex abuse is one the Catholic church truly aims to take completely serious.

If You Get Angry When Someone Says “Happy Holidays” Instead of “Merry Christmas,” You’re Probably Just Being An Asshole

It’s December, which means the manufactured controversy over the fictional “War on Christmas” is now back in full swing.  Over the past few days I’ve heard from several different people upset because someone they came across had the audacity to say “happy holidays” to them instead of “Merry Christmas,” as they would have preferred.  Normally I just roll my eyes or snicker to myself when someone gets offended over something so trivial, but a Facebook post I saw recently from one of my friends kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

He’s an author whose name isn’t really important because this post is not meant to be an attack on him as much as it is simply expressing disappointment with how people like him behave.  You see, he hates political correctness and, when some poor bastard wished him happy holidays recently, he felt the need to correct them.

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Let’s examine this post line by line, from my own secular perspective, because it really is typical of the “War on Christmas” crowd I hear so much from:

Someone wished me “happy holidays” today.

Well, right away, you can tell this person is just a dick.  Happy holidays?  I mean, what kind of a shitty thing is that to say to someone?  /sarcasm

They got all bent out of shape when I said it’s not “happy holidays.” It’s “Merry Christmas.”

Maybe they got “bent out of shape” because they were just trying to be nice, and you were going out of your way to be a jerk.  You think so?  Maybe?

I don’t have any time for the politically correct crap or worries about offending people.

Clearly not.  You have demonstrated that you’re perfectly fine with offending someone when they haven’t met your completely arbitrary standards.  That isn’t their fault.  That’s on you, bub.

While I understand the point about political correctness, and agree that sometimes it does go too far, often there is good reason for it.  For instance, I find it to be a good thing that, as a society, we are trying to eliminate words like “retarded” and “cripple” when describing folks who have certain kinds of disabilities.

It may be safe when you’re in a crowd of bigots to decry political correctness as some tenet of the “liberal agenda,” or proof of the ongoing “culture war.”  But being politically incorrect doesn’t give Larry the Cable Guy carte blanche to be a racist, nor does it give anyone else the right to treat people like trash.  In other words, just being “politically incorrect” is not an excuse for your bad behavior.

IT’S CHRISTMAS AND PEOPLE SHOULD CALL IT THAT.

This is so irritating.  It’s not Christmas, jackass.  It’s December 3rd.  You have to can your faux-outrage for at least a couple more weeks.

Look, I’m an atheist and I get into the festivities this time of year, too.  I’m no fan of the rampant consumerism, and I don’t give much thought to some Bronze Age prophet who may or may not have even existed.  But I do enjoy exchanging gifts with friends and family and stuffing my face with food as much as the next guy.  I don’t think we should be excluding anyone who wants to join in on the fun.  So whatever someone believes, whether you assume they’re saying it for politically correct reasons or not, can you at least just be less of a grinch?  I mean, seriously, why are you choosing to be offended by something so trivial?

Image from IWSRadio.com

Image from IWSRadio.com

If I’m out at the store and the cashier wishes me a “happy holiday,” I’m not going to have a fit.  Working in the service industry, you come across enough scrooges as it is.  So I’m going to say, “Thanks!  And happy holidays to you, too.  Enjoy your day.”  Same goes if someone says “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” or “Enjoy the Solstice” to me.  They’ll get a corresponding reply, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t celebrate their particular holiday.  If they were nice enough to relay a few kind words, the least I can do is muster up a “thanks, you too.”

That’s really my point.  If you truly care about Christmas, then show a little more of those good tidings and cheer.  Get over yourself and just be polite.  Treat people with respect and, for the love of the Christ which you may or may not even believe in, stop being such an asshole.

Book Review: “An Atheist in the FOXhole” by Joe Muto

In April of 2012, Joe Muto made headlines around the world as the anonymous “Fox Mole,” a staffer at the cable news giant who was surreptitiously feeding Gawker.com embarrassing unaired video of political candidates, as well as dishing dirt from inside the newsroom about the network’s biggest stars. It lasted all of about two days before he was found out and summarily dismissed. He went on to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft and computer tampering, perform some community service and, ultimately, sign a low six-figure book deal from Dutton.

foxholeThat book, “An Atheist in the FOXhole,” is deceptive in a couple of different ways. The title, which as an atheist myself I love, may possibly mislead some into thinking it is a manifesto of godlessness. That would be an unfortunate presumption as Muto mentions his own non-belief a grand total or maybe three times, if that, and the book in no way travels down a road of secularism or anti-religious ramblings. Not that it would have been a bad thing from my perspective, but that is simply not what the book is about. Secondly, the marketing of the book itself as merely an insider’s trashing of Fox News belies what I feel is a more broad and satisfying story; one in which the ethical dilemma of hiding your personal beliefs in exchange for professional gain is explored, as well as how working in the hectic television news industry can take a toll on personal relationships.

But, of course, while all that may be a welcome addition, it’s likely not why many people will want to read this book. They want the dirt! And that’s okay, too, because there’s plenty of it.

Bill O’Reilly, the highly rated host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” makes many appearances. While his gruff demeanor is on full display as he belittles and downgrades Muto and his other underlings during pitch meetings, it’s the stories about his dustups with upper management, as well as other Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity (they can’t stand each other) that make for even more entertaining reading. You read other funny tidbits as well; from Bill’s inability to understand the concept of wireless printing, thus forcing his staff to simply tell him they are “faxing” him documents, to the story behind the legendary “Jack Mehoffer” email. Most any story involving O’Reilly is funny because Muto successfully captures his immense presence. You can see and hear the tirades playing out in your mind.

Then again, some Bill-O moments are less comical than they are downright embarrassing. Here I am speaking of the sexual harassment debacle involving Andrea Mackris and O’Reilly’s odd, yet extraordinarily detailed, sexual fantasies involving a loofah mitt and falafel. Bill’s “Factor” staff were basically forced to walk on eggshells around him more than usual, while also having to tread very carefully when ordering Middle Eastern lunch items, lest he believe they were making fun of him.

mutoBut Muto is wise in including a softer, more human side of Papa Bear, too, explaining that despite all the grief O’Reilly put him through, there is a latent affection still present. He details Bill’s fondness for his children, which leads him to keep incredibly short office hours in order to spend as much time as possible with them. His love of a free buffet, in which he is found bull-rushing his way to the front of the line for a hot dog, despite the millions in salary he pulls down each year. And how the sizable proceeds of the corny merchandise Bill promotes at the end of each episode of “The Factor” go directly to charity.

But that’s really just one part of the story. He explains why he went undercover for Gawker in the first place, and the method by which he was found out. You’ll also learn plenty about the inner workings of the Fox right-wing empire, including surprising revelations about whether or not the talent truly receive “marching orders,” the archaic video playback system that always seemed on the verge of breaking down, and the curious peccadillos of a variety of on-air personalities that manifest during off-camera moments.

What’s next for Joe Muto is unknown. It is a strong possibility that his actions as the “Fox News Mole” have cost him any opportunity of finding work in television news again. CNN and MSNBC, for instance, may simply find him untrustworthy. But he has produced here an enlightening tale about the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of Fox News, and one that I found a great deal of enjoyment in reading. I am pleased to recommend it to you.

On a related note, this past Sunday on Strange Frequencies Radio, myself and my friend/co-host Bobby Nelson spoke to Mr. Muto about this book and his time at Fox News. Click here to find out more information about the episode, which is available as a download, or on iTunes and Stitcher in podcast form.

The Day I Was Glad to be an Atheist

This past Sunday on Strange Frequencies Radio, we spoke to a guy who goes by the name “Brent the Crazy Christian.”  I had no interaction at all with him until the moment he picked up the phone, but he certainly lived up to his name.

Early in the conversation, we spoke about stories from the Bible involving the bashing of innocent children’s heads on rocks.  He rationalized them as “justice” because, well, everyone has to die, and God was saving them from a life of sin.  He didn’t seem to understand that it was a contradiction to, on one hand, call the children “innocent,” while also saying that murdering them was “justice.”   When challenged, he said that he “wasn’t justifying” the murders.  But calling them “justice” does just that.  Besides, do not “justice” and “justify” share the same root word?

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His views on homosexuality were also odious, though surprisingly he admitted that it would be possible for him to experience sexual desire for another man.  But he said it should be suppressed because, once acted on, you are living in rebellion against god.  He went on to equate homosexuality to a crime, saying that we are born with a desire for wealth, too, but it is wrong to act on that desire by stealing.  He seemed unsure how to react when it was explained that if two consenting gay people decide to have sex, there is no victim.  He just said that they victimize themselves by being promiscuous and spreading STDs.  He tried to change the subject when confronted with the fact that heterosexuals are just as guilty of those charges.

As if this weren’t enough, he also explained how men have the Biblical right to rule over women and, should his wife ever want an abortion, he would forbid her to do so.  And would you believe that he is single, ladies?

It’s been several days since speaking to Brent, and I’m still a little shaken up.  I’ve known for quite some time that there are many people in the world with Westboro Baptist Church-style opinions, but this was my first time speaking with one.  Frankly, it’s terrifying knowing they exist at all outside the Dark Ages.

Now, I don’t know how the average liberal Christian reacts when they hear a fellow Christ-follower spew the type of vile, inhuman, mental garbage this guy did.  But I’ll tell you the truth.  It made me glad to be an atheist.  While I understand many Christians are just as repulsed by his views as I am, “Brent the Crazy Christian” takes solace through his faith, just as they do.  Say what you want about atheism, but there is no secular manual that leads to the type of atrocious convictions as those Brent got from the Bible.

If you’d like to hear the interview with Brent for yourself, click on the banner below to be taken to the download page. Or, simply check out Episode 241 of Strange Frequencies Radio on iTunes.

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