Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pastor Anglin Replies

Yesterday, while checking in real quick on my blog here, I noticed that another comment had been added to my post titled "The Amityville Jackass", which was my response to the criticism of atheism by Pastor David Anglin of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Amityville. Lo and behold, to my surprise, the comment was from Pastor Anglin himself.

While he demonstrated a good sense of humor by signing off as "The Amityville Jackass" (which by the way, as my Long Island readers will surely recognize, was sort of a spoof of 'The Amityville Horror'), I felt that Pastor Anglin's response indicated that he did not quite grasp a lot of what I tried to say in my previous post. Let's see if we can clear things up a bit. In a slight change from before, I will put the pastor's remarks in bold and my replies in italics, lest I appear too prideful in always trying to have my words in bolder text! Okay, let's proceed:

The citation from "Going My Way" was meant as a light-hearted anecdote to get into the topic-not as a serious indictment of atheistic athletic ability.

I totally got that, pastor. My problem with the citation had nothing to do with depictions of athletic ability, but rather its representation of the typical atheist as being an angry jerk.

The article was a response to specific texts--the books by Dawkins and Harris (especially Dawkins). Their basic thesis was that religion leads to hatred and murder. As I pointed out, "two can play at that game"--which I did, giving examples of murderous atheist regimes. I didn't just wake up one morning and say, "I'm going to accuse atheists of being murderers today". I was replying to authors who basically were saying to me: "Your dearest and most deeply held beliefs tend toward murder and hatred."

Thank you for your clarification there. For the record, I don't believe that religion automatically equates to murder and hatred. It has been a while since I have read either 'The God Delusion' by Dawkins or 'The End of Faith' by Harris from beginning to end, so I cannot say with complete assurance whether you or right or wrong. What my understanding is of what they are trying to say is that religious texts can be (and as I am sure you will agree, sometimes are) interpreted in such a way as to sanction intolerance, bigotry and murder.

With regard to "murderous atheist regimes," you will get no quarrel from me in condemning the atrocities that occurred under Stalin, Mao, or the Khmer Rouge. But as I pointed out in my initial response, which you appear to have glossed over, Russia and China have been ruled more or less by despotic regimes for centuries, or in the case of China, millennia. I am sure if you read the history of the autocratic rulers of these countries, you would see the same disregard for the lives of their subjects that you decry in the communist regimes of the 20th century. If the body count under Stalin and Mao is higher, it probably owes more to the technology that was available to them in terms of weapons and modes of transportation.

Dawkins does spend quite a bit of time on Westboro Baptist--so the "strawman" accusation applies to Dawkins, not to me!

Could you point out to me where Dawkins spends a lot of time on the Westboro Baptist Church? If you are referring to his book 'The God Delusion', I looked it up in the index. Dawkins devotes just a single paragraph in the book to Fred Phelps and Westboro.

However, you don't seem to understand my point. By harping on Dawkins alleged focus on the tiny and marginal Westboro Baptist Church as representing the worst of Christianity, you avoided the homophobia that is displayed by other subsets of the American Christian population that are far more numerous and who form an important part of the conservative base of the Republican Party. To show you what I mean, here is a link to a post by Pam Spaulding at Pandagon, who recently participated in a gay pride parade in North Carolina. Now, being that you are a Lutheran and a pastor to boot, I fully expect that you would believe that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of the god you worship. But I would like to think that the vitriolic hatred displayed by the anti-gay demonstrators who were photographed at the event is an affront to your sense of decency.

The quote from Dostevsky was meant to illustrate a point--not to prove it.

Again, I understand that pastor. But is Dostoevsky right? You also did not respond to my objection to your reference to John Locke. Let me refresh your memory. You wrote "The philosopher John Locke–one of the intellectual forebears of American democracy–once said that atheists can’t ultimately be trusted in their promises and commitments, since they have no ultimate divine authority to whom they must answer."

That is probably the portion of your anti-atheist criticism I found particularly offensive. When I write my thoughts about things that interest me on this blog, I am just another guy with an opinion read by a handful of people. When you write your columns that are read by members of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Amityville, you are writing under the color of authority as a pastor to whom members of your flock look to for guidance on issues of spirituality and religion. So, in the sentence I quoted above, you are basically telling the members of your church in your capacity as their pastor that atheists are not trustworthy people.

Tell me, Pastor Anglin, should banks deny loans to atheists because we can't be trusted to repay them? (And by the way, I have been paying my mortgage faithfully for the last 9 years!) Should my neighbor refrain from loaning me his tools because I can't be trusted to return them? As I asked in response to your Locke reference, is there any evidence that Locke made his assertion out of personal experience with atheists? Did an atheist welch on a bet he had made with Locke?

In claiming that we are untrustworthy because we do not have some "divine authority" to whom we must answer, you forget that we have a very real and tangible authority to whom we do answer, each other. Regardless of whether or not there is a god that exists that judges us for our actions, we are accountable to the people with whom we share this world. Our actions have real consequences in this life that we cannot escape from unless we are among the priviliged few who have the wealth and power to do so.

In my previous post, I wrote that I got the impression that you do not personally know a single atheist. Do you know any? Have you ever asked any atheists how they formulate their moral beliefs? Do you have a history of atheists breaking promises to you?

I am going to offer a challenge to you, Pastor Anglin. Think of some promise or commitment that I can make to you. Bear in mind that you must take into account that I have a full-time job, family commitments (gosh, that one must shock you!) and a house I have to help take care of. Also, it cannot be a request that requires me to act contrary to my values, such as participating in an anti-abortion rally. Otherwise, you can ask of me just about anything, such as volunteering for a day or two at a soup kitchen or some other service that your church offers to the poor (assuming you offer such things) or even to sit through one of your sermons. And in return for fulfilling my promise to you, I ask one thing in return. I want you to publicly retract in one of your columns afterwards your claim that atheists cannot be trusted to fulfill their promises and commitments. What say you, Pastor Anglin?

And now to continue on with an to wrap up this post.

Who mentioned Sarah Palin and Barack Obama? I have no great love for the former, and I have never compared the latter to Hitler. (By the way--can you swear, cross-your-heart, that you've never compared George W. Bush to Hitler?)

My point in mentioning Sarah Palin and Barack Obama was to point out the delusional behavior that exists among a not insignificant portion of the Republican Party's evangelical base, which helps to elect the party's candidates and to whom the party must cater. I did not mean to imply that you personally thought that Sarah Palin would make a great president or that Barack Obama is a new Adolf Hitler. Rather, I was illustrating how right-wing Christians seemed to think that Sarah Palin is presidential timber simply by virtue of her giving birth to a boy with Down Syndrome and her daughter Bristol having a child out of wedlock and keeping the baby.

Because I am an atheist, I of course cannot swear, but I personally have never compared George W. Bush to Hitler. You're just going to have to take my word for it, if you can. By the way, you can read every mention of President Bush I have ever written on this blog here. While the comparison of Bush to Hitler was left-wing hyperbole, with his invasion of another country and his basically being appointed President of the United States by the Supreme Court in an election in which he lost the popular vote, Bush was certainly closer to Hitler by degrees than Barack Obama is thus far.

Do you think your case is really advanced by childish phrases like "sky daddy" or "kiss the a-- of a celestial dictator"? It kind of undermines the credibility of your arguments.

Tell me honestly, Pastor Anglin. Do you believe I am going to burn in hell for eternity in the after-life for being an atheist? If your answer is yes, then my "childish phrases" are quite the lesser offense in my eyes. An entity that really intends to inflict such suffering on me because of my thought crimes cannot be considered as anything but a celestial dictator.

Hey--since you enjoyed my article on Dawkins and Harris so much, check out my review of "Religulous", archived on the same website. There you'll learn why Bill Maher's Halloween costume is the most persuasive argument against atheism.

To be honest, I have not seen "Religulous" and really do not intend to. I have read a number of reviews of the film by other atheists, and they have been decidedly mixed.

That about wraps it up. Don't forget my challenge above. If you want to take me up on it, let me know in the comments how I should best contact you.

Have a nice day!

Your friend in humanity.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Amityville Jackass

A big hat tip to Ebon of Daylight Atheism, who provided a link in this post to this anti-atheist screed by Pastor David Anglin of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Amityville, which is about 10 miles from where I live. I decided to post a paragraph or two of the pastor's message at a time and then provide my responses. Apologies in advance for the anticipated length of the post, but I have been rather lax lately and need a new magnum opus to get back into the swing of things. So, here goes, with the pastor's remarks in italics and my responses in bold.

An early scene in the classic film “Going My Way” depicts Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character playing baseball in the street with some neighborhood children. An errant ball smashes a window. The resident of the apartment with the broken window storms onto the porch with the ball in his hand and demands payment for the damage. Father O’Malley offers him a rosary as security for the damages. But the man rebuffs the offer by saying: “I’m an atheist.” Then, instead of handing the ball to Father O’Malley, he awkwardly tosses it into the street. O’Malley comments: “You even throw like an atheist.”

Gee, imagine that, a pastor using a scene from a pro-religious film depicting an atheist in a negative light. Isn't that like a racist referring to Gus from "Birth Of A Nation" to argue that black men love to rape white women?

In recent days, however, atheists have learned to throw with greater velocity. A couple of hard-hitting books attacking religion and promoting atheism have ended up on the best-seller lists: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and the celebrated biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Atheism, it seems, is somewhat in style.

It's got nothing to do with being in style, pastor. But I will get to that in a moment.

This should not be unexpected. There was a brief religious revival after the attacks of Sept. 11. It’s not surprising that, five years later, the pendulum should swing in the other direction, and some disillusionment set in–especially since the attacks on our nation all seem to stem from religious sources. When one is confronted every night on the news with people doing horrible things in the name of God, it’s easy to get a little cynical about religious faith. Dawkins declares that “religion can be a force for evil in the world”, and one can hardly disagree with him.

However, in attacking religion, Dawkins tends to draw his negative examples from the lunatic element of Christianity. For instance, Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas City (the church that organizes protests at the funerals of soldiers), a major peddler of hateful rhetoric against homosexuals and practically anyone else, basically consists of a single extended family–but Dawkins sees this tiny group as somehow characteristic of large numbers of Christians. He sees Christians who bomb abortion clinics and murder abortion providers as people who are truly and sincerely acting out their faith–thus, authentic representatives of Christianity. Genuine Christians repudiate hatred and murder. But, using these examples, Dawkins contends that religion leads people to delusional behavior.

Westboro Baptist Church? Sorry, but I call strawman! Yes, we atheists find the Phelps family repugnant. But we also recognize that they are a small, marginal group. The most harmful thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is not that they picket funerals, but that the brainwashing and indoctrination they inflict on their children is a form of child abuse that mentally warps them during their formative years.

No pastor, the problem is not the Westboro Baptist Church. After all, it was not the Phelps family that bankrolled Proposition 8 in California, along with efforts in other states and at the federal level to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry and adopt children. It is not the Phelps family that is leading the drive to promote the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in our public schools. It is not the Phelps family that is responsible for trying to roll back the rights of women to have access to abortion and contraception.

Let me say flat out that I do not argue that being religious makes one delusional. And I condemn lumping all self-professed Christians together and speaking of them negatively. After all, there are so many different varieties of Christianity and differing levels of commitment among members of each group that to speak of "Christians this" or "Christians that" is meaningless.

But sadly, there are a large number of Christians in this country who interpret the Bible literally in ways that the term "delusional" really does apply to them. To believe that the entire universe was created over the course of six 24 hour days approximately 6,000 years ago and that the Earth was made before the sun around which it revolves is delusional. To believe that Sarah Palin is qualified to be president of the United States is delusional. To believe that Barack Obama is the modern day equivalent of Adolf Hitler is delusional. To believe that natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes are not natural phenomena but rather God expressing His displeasure over gay marriage or legal abortion is delusional. To view current events in the world through the prism of the Book of Revelations in the New Testament is delusional. If you want to know why we atheists are being more vocal now, it has nothing to do with being in style, but rather a reaction to people who promote their delusions based upon their religious beliefs.

Two, however, can play the “your worldview leads to horrible things” game. One could argue that atheism leads to immorality. With no God-given commandments, the atheist pretty much has to make up moral standards as he or she goes along. Ivan Karamazov, the atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, declares: “If there is no god, then anything is permissible.” The philosopher John Locke–one of the intellectual forebears of American democracy–once said that atheists can’t ultimately be trusted in their promises and commitments, since they have no ultimate divine authority to whom they must answer.

Yes, pastor, you can argue that "atheism leads to immorality." But becoming an atheist does not mean we suddenly have to make up our morals as we go along. Rather, what we challenge is that moral proclamations do not become inviolate because they have been wrapped up in the guise of divine command. The burden of proof is on you that there really is a god who gets angry if Adam kisses Steve instead of Eve.

But if you want to argue that atheism makes one immoral, then quoting a fictional atheist from a 19th century Russian novel does not count as evidence. All it demonstrates is Dostoevsky's personal opinion of atheism. As for your reference to John Locke, is there any evidence that Locke was speaking from personal experience, or, like Dostoevsky, did he merely assume that atheists cannot be trusted because he personally could not imagine being trustworthy or good because one did not believe in the existence of god?

Karl Marx, an atheist, laid the intellectual foundations for Communism–and thus for the mass murders of Stalin (who was an atheist even when he was attending a Russian Orthodox seminary!) and Mao Zedong. Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist (who famously declared, “God is dead!”), laid the intellectual foundations for Nazism. The two boys who carried out the school massacre at Columbine were atheists. In the twentieth century, it was atheists who did most of the damage–perhaps because of a tendency to view individual human life as dispensable.

Pastor, do you even read history at all? Did you happen to notice that Russia and China had despotic governments for centuries before Stalin or Mao ever popped out of their mothers' wombs? One could make a good case that Stalin would not have been possible if Russia had not first had Ivan the Terrible, an Orthodox Christian with his own murderous secret police force, the Oprichnina.

Have you ever heard of Hong Xiuquan? After failing in his attempts to pass exams to obtain a scholarly degree in China in the 1830's, he came into contact with American Protestant missionaries and learned about Christianity. He eventually came to the conclusion that he was a second son of God and the brother of Jesus Christ. Preaching his vision to others, he amassed an army of followers called Taiping and embarked on a mission to overthrow the Manchu Qing Dynasty. In 1853, the Taiping captured the city of Nanjing. Here I quote from Jonathan Spence's The Search For Modern China, "All Manchus who did not die in the battle - men, women, and children - were rounded up and systematically killed by burning, stabbing, or drowning." In the course of the Taiping Rebellion, which was eventually put down by the Qing Dynasty at great cost, it is estimated that millions of people were killed.

As for Germany, if you want to credit Nietzsche for laying the intellectual foundations for Nazism, then you also have to credit Martin Luther and his "On The Jews And Their Lies" for laying the foundation for German anti-semitism and the Holocaust. And it goes without saying that the Lutheran Church to which you belong derives its name from Martin Luther.

And the Columbine Killers? Are you serious? Psychiatrists who have reviewed the case have determined that Eric Harris, believed to be the leader of the two, was a psychopath. Are you equating atheists with psychopaths, pastor?

Christianity believes that every human being is created in the image of God, is special to God. Christianity believes that Jesus Christ shed His precious blood for every human being. (By the way, Dawkins calls the idea of Christ dying for the sins of the world “barking mad” and “sado-masochism”). Thus, every person is unique and valuable. Atheists, building their view of life solely on Darwinian evolutionary theory, cannot ascribe the same value to the human person. Humans are, in the end, simply animals who got lucky in the evolutionary office pool.

You know, pastor, I have come to the conclusion that you do not personally know a single atheist. You honestly think we build our view of life "solely on Darwinian evolutionary theory"? Funny then that I became an atheist while barely knowing anything about evolutionary theory at all. You can believe that every human being is created in the image of God if you want to, but I believe that every human being is also a unique individual with the potential to be decent, kind and valuable. I don't need your invisible sky daddy to believe this.

In fact, it has been my experience from interacting with certain Christians on the Internet that it is they who view their fellow humans as horrible people and that they believe, in the absence of belief in God, that they personally see no reason not to engage in murder, rape and theft. I don't know about you, but I find that to be rather frightening.

I have always been fascinated by an exchange that took place between General Eisenhower (an American Christian) and Field Marshal Zhukov (a Soviet atheist) at the end of World War II. Zhukov asked Eisenhower what the American army did when they encountered a German minefield. Eisenhower explained that the army’s advance would stop; an engineer battalion would be brought forward and would work to clear the mines. Zhukov said that the Soviet army would simply advance through the minefield, figuring that the resulting casualties would be no greater than if the Germans had defended the area with troops.

That dialogue between two great generals captures, for me, the difference between a Christian and an atheistic view of life. For Eisenhower, every life was important; for Zhukov, soldiers could be liberally sacrificed for the good of Soviet society.

Uh, pastor, you do realize that the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany in June of 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, and did the lion's share of the fighting against the Germans, don't you? While we can rightly celebrate the feats of American and Allied servicemen and women in helping to liberate Europe from Nazism, the Soviets suffered the most casualties while also inflicting the most on the Germans. Had the Soviets not fought as hard as they did and advanced as fast as they did, Hitler would have had much more time to complete his Final Solution to the "Jewish problem". This is in no way meant to be an endorsement of Stalin's tyrannical rule. But no matter how you cut and slice it, it was the Red Army that broke the back of Hitler's Wehrmacht. Oh, and I almost forgot, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's, the Iranians used to use children to clear minefields. They would be given keys to heaven before they walked across the field to blow themselves up so that Iranian soldiers could advance against Iraqi positions. What was that about the "atheistic" view of life again?

This is not to say that all atheists are bad, horrible, immoral people. One of the great patriots of our time was Pat Tillman, who gave up his football career to join the army, and perished in Afghanistan. He was an atheist. I honor and cherish his devotion to our country–he died for my freedom to believe and his freedom to disbelieve, for which I am deeply grateful.

Not all atheists are bad, horrible, immoral people? How patronizing can you get? How about "most atheists are not bad, horrible, immoral people"? That's because most people are generally good people, but all people are basically flawed in one way or another. And that is really the key, pastor, to recognize our flaws and to strive to overcome them so that we can be better people.

While valuing people like Tillman, I strongly believe that it is Christianity, rather than atheism, that is better equipped to produce loving, devoted people who care for others.

Sorry, but I disagree. Yes, there are plenty of loving people who are Christians. But are they loving and good because they are Christians, or would they still be that way regardless of their religion? After all, there was a Chinese philosopher named Mo Tzi who spoke of "universal love" centuries before Jesus is said to have preached in the Galilee. Truth is truth regardless of the label you affix to it.

And better equipped to give meaning and purpose to life. Dawkins quotes a very famousNobel-prize winning scientist who acknowledges that human life ultimately has no purpose. “But,” the scientist said, “I intend to have a good lunch.” But frankly, if the meaning of life comes down to random pleasures like a good lunch, it’s pretty depressing. Real joy comes from knowing that God has created us in His own image, with a wonderful purpose–to glorify Him and to live in His light forever.

Sorry pastor, but I don't see the joy in kissing the ass of a celestial dictator. To be honest, though I consider myself to be an atheist, I know that I cannot rule out 100% the possibility of a higher intelligence that created our universe. But when I consider that our planet is a minute speck in a vast galaxy filled with billions of stars and planets, and that this galaxy is one of billions that are each filled with their own billions of stars and planets, I find it hard to believe that any being intelligent and powerful enough to create all that needs to get his rocks off by insisting that we keep telling him how awesome we think he is.

I intend to have a good lunch, too. And I also intend to thank the God who gives me that lunch! He loves you and so do I! (And I hope He gives you a good lunch, too!)

Bon appetit, pastor. And don't forget to thank the farm laborers and meat packing plant employees, many of them Latino immigrants, who bust their asses picking the fruits and vegetables or cutting up the meat that's on your plate.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Expectation of Someone Wanting to Seek the Lord

Apologies again for the lack of posting here. I have been working a lot of extra hours at my job and do not have the free time to write as much as I would like. But I do want to chime in about a tragedy I read about a couple of weeks ago.

On August 23rd, a Pentecostal pastor named Carol Daniels was found murdered in a church in the town of Anadarko, Oklahoma. The gruesome details of her death have since emerged. I won't go into it here, but suffice it to say, according to the CNN article I linked to, "[Pastor Daniels] died from 'multiple sharp-force injuries,' according to a preliminary autopsy report obtained by CNN. Sharp-force injuries mean cuts or stab wounds."

From what I have read, Daniels frequently drove some 50 miles to her small church in Anadarko, where according to those in the area who knew her, she would be the only person in the building for the entire time she spent there. Daniels' mother is quoted as saying that she went to the church, which was far from her home in a run-down neighborhood, “with the expectation of someone wanting to seek the Lord.”

It is terrible that Pastor Daniels died, particularly in the horrifically violent manner in which it occurred. I can't imagine the terror she must have felt in those last moments as she tried to fend off her savage attacker. Whoever the bastard is (I don't think it's a stretch to expect that the murderer is an extremely troubled male), I hope he is caught and given the maximum allowable sentence under the law.

At the same time, I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of sadness and frustration over the fact that Daniels belief system was a contributing factor in her death. Imbued with her religious faith, she would travel far out of her way and spend hours by herself in a church anticipating that she would be some kind of catalyst in miraculously transforming someone's life for the better. After all, isn't the Bible filled with tales of miracles? Don't we hear about stories all the time about supposedly miraculous events or see movies and television programs wherein God or angels intervene in the lives of people and set things right? As an atheist, I can't see Daniels efforts as anything more than a pointless exercise in futility. The accumulated hours of time wasted that could have been put to more productive use, not to mention the gasoline expended travelling back and forth to the church. However, I understand that for Daniels, as well as for many others, if what she was doing provided her with a sense of purpose, then who am I to argue otherwise? Granted. And yet I can't avoid what for me is an inescapable conclusion: Carol Daniels died for a figment of her imagination. In other words, she died for nothing.