Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Muslim Radicals We Need

Asra Q. Nomani, in a USA Today op–ed piece (End gender apartheid in U.S. Mosques, July 11, 2011) calls upon U.S. Moslem women to use the U.S. court system (and the threat of losing religious tax-exemptions) to force mosques to end gender discrimination. This is nonsense.

Gender discrimination in Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and certain Protestant Christianities is not a matter of policy but divine revelation. For the courts to go against the perceived will of God is anathema to the separation of Church and State. Even those who deny there is a separation of Church and State would suddenly discover it if the State went after religion in this way.

This is not a civil rights issue, as Ms. Nomani claims. Discrimination against women (and others) in religion is not unconstitutional. Secular authorities have no right to say what is and what is not Divine Law. Only you do.

If you don’t like the teachings of your faith, join another, or create your own. It is that simple. If you believe that your religion misrepresents the word of God, why stay within it?

If Ms. Nomani doesn’t want to pray in the basement of her mosque, she should start her own mosque. This is the kind of Islamic radicalism Islam needs: free people creating free mosques; American Muslims creating American mosques that celebrate American values in a Muslim frame, and Muslim values in an American frame.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism Judaism, called this living in two civilizations. He sought to blend the best of Judaism with the best of America, and created his own denomination in the process. And part of his impetus was the synagogue’s discrimination against Jewish women. Ms. Nomani can and should do the same.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Is Rep. Michelle Bachman a Bigot?

“Hey, I’m not anti-Catholic, I just think the Pope is the Anti-Christ.” While not a direct quote (I will get to those in a moment) from Rev. Mark Schroeder, president of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, this is essentially his message in a July 18, 2011 piece he wrote for Religion News (

The issue is whether Congresswoman and Presidential Candidate Michelle Bachman, who was once a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, is anti-Catholic. On that issue Rev. Schroeder wrote, “Michele Bachmann is no longer a member of our church, and we are not in any position to comment on her current religious views. But we can say that her previous membership in our church does not make her guilty of being an ‘anti-Catholic bigot.’”

The reason why is that the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod itself isn’t anti-Catholic. As Rev. Schroeder wrote, “WELS holds to the historic Lutheran position that the Roman Catholic papacy fits the biblical characteristics of the Antichrist. We do this without reservation and without apology. We believe that our doctrines cannot be tempered by political correctness or modified to align with changing culture or public opinion.”

Holding such views about the Papacy isn’t the same as being anti-Catholic, and, as the good reverend says, “we rejoice that even in the Catholic Church (where we believe the gospel has been distorted) there are many Catholics who hold to a simple faith in Jesus Christ as their savior and who will ultimately be saved.”

Even in the Catholic Church? This is like someone saying, “I’m no Anti-Semite; some of my best friends are Jewish.”

Really if you think the Papacy is the Anti-Christ it stands to reason (which, I know, often has no place in religion) that those who follow the Anti-Christ are your enemies. But does this make you a bigot?

Merriam-Webster defines bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” When Rev. Schroeder says “our doctrines cannot be tempered by political correctness or modified to align with changing culture or public opinion,” is the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod being obstinate or intolerant?

Of course it is. Being bigoted (as defined by Merriam-Webster) is, for many religious denominations, what being religious is all about. But do Michelle Bachman and Rev. Schroeder hate Catholics? I doubt it. In fact, I bet some of their best friends are Catholic. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bad Gods Make Good People

In a recent study of the impact of religious beliefs on human behavior* researchers found that those who believe in a punishing god are more likely to avoid cheating than those who believe in a loving god.

The reasoning is simple: if you think God is watching over you and ever ready to condemn you for sinning, chances are you are not going to sin. I get this. Whenever I’m driving and see a police car, I immediately make sure I’m not exceeding the speed limit. I don’t’ want a ticket. If I thought the officer would only give me a wink and a warning, hell what’s twenty miles over the limit anyway?

Researchers call this the supernatural punishment hypothesis or SPH: “the SPH specifically predicts that it is the punishing aspects of gods and the threat of divine punishment, rather than any loving or compassionate traits, which are responsible for keeping adherents from crossing ethical boundaries in anonymous situations where they would otherwise be tempted.”

Basically science says fear works, and that believing in a punishing god keeps you more moral than believing in a loving god. This is good news for the religious unless, of course, you’re the kind of religious who believe in a punishing god who will punish you for believing in science, in which case you are massively conflicted.

This must also be troubling to people like me who just can’t muster this kind of fearful belief. But there is hope!

The study also found that there was no statistical difference between believers and nonbelievers when it came to cheating. Both believers and nonbelievers cheated, on average, 11 out of 20 times. But believers who believe in a god of love cheated more that believers in a wrathful god and those who did not believe in god at all.

What does this mean? First, people cheat. And we do so over 50% of the time. Second, God has nothing to do with it: religious people are no more moral that unreligious people. Third, among religious people, the frightened are more moral than the beloved. And fourth, science proves the power of god! Unless of course you’re an atheist, which the study shows, is just as good.

*(Shariff, Azim F. and Norenzayan, Ara 'Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior', International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21:2, 85 – 96)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

America First Pledge

I am envious of Grover Norquist. First he's named after a Sesame Street character, and how cool is that? Second he controls the votes of hundreds of legislators and through them has his fingers on the throat of America. And all because of a simple pledge he concocted in the 80’s.

The idea of tying politician’s hands by getting them to sign pledges is an appealing one, as the growing number of pledges attests. So I want to create my own pledge and get politicians to sign it as well. Here’s what I’m considering:

The America First Pledge

I,______________, pledge to my constituents and the American people that I will:

1. put the welfare of the United States and her citizens ahead of partisan bickering, political gerrymandering, and personal gain;

2. value empirically verifiable facts over political propaganda, rational discourse over politically expedient demagoguery, sound science over cultural bias, and well-documented facts over well-spun lies; and

3. uphold these two promises even at the cost of my status within my party, my party’s status within the nation, and my own reelection.

Signature: _________________________

Date: _________________________

Witness: _________________________

Witness: _________________________

If you like this pledge, let me know. If you want to tweak it to make it better (but not longer), post your suggestions in the comments section of this blog. And if you have any idea how to promote this pledge to make it as ubiquitous as Mr. Norquist’s, please share your wisdom.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Color Them Orange

The Orange Order, a Protestant brotherhood, annually celebrates the 17th century defeat of Catholics by Protestants in Ireland. That’s 400 years ago. That’s a lot of annual parades, though I can’t say for certain when the parade thing started.

Anyway, who wants to have their defeat at the hands of heretics (i.e. Protestants) rubbed in their faces every year? Certainly not Catholic teens, hundreds of whom attacked police in Belfast before and after the Orange Order parade. (Where were they during the parade? Watching the parade, of course. Who doesn’t love a good parade?)

“We ain’t dead yet you heretical bastards” they might have shouted before and after the parade if they had asked me what to shout during their clashes with police who may or may not have been heretical bastards but who were certainly trying to keep those heretical bastards from getting hurt by (or hurting?) the Papist bull dogs who hounded them. “We ain’t dead yet.”

You might wonder why religion and violence go hand in hand. It’s simple. People are intrinsically violent. We are also intrinsically religious. Hence we are intrinsically violent when it comes to religion.

I was listening to a televangelist the other day who said, “Jesus came as a Lamb, but he’s coming back as a Lion.” We don’t want our gods to be like Mr. Rogers. We want them to be like Mr. T. That’s why Jesus, who was mostly like Mr. Rogers, had to be transformed into Christ, who is mostly like Mr. T.

Of course when I say “we” I mean mostly boys and those girls (like that televangelist) who have surrendered to boys and their gods. Left alone, girls have a different idea about gods. Girl gods tend to be wide of hip, large of breast, and more focused on crop yields than body counts. Not that they can’t whip your ass if provoked, but mostly they aren’t about war. That’s why most boy religions keep girls in the back room. We only want to hear about peace and love after we massacre those we fear and hate. Read your Bible, people!

Personally, I don’t like religious victory parades, and I don’t care to see Yaweh in the ring with Allah, or Jesus the Lionheart taking on Pope AntiChrist the XXXXII, though I might pay to see Saraswati and Aphrodite mudwrestle. I am a boy, after all.

Anyway, I just want to send a heartfelt congrats to the Protestants on their victory, and my condolences to the Catholics. But not to worry me boyos, you’ll get those heretics in the afterlife.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jews are Cool. Judaism? Not so much.

Jews are cool. Not all of us, of course, but many. Some are humanist and some are Hasidic— being cool isn’t a denominational thing. It is a matter of being at home with yourself while dancing on the cutting edge of your culture.

Jewish establishments (those exceptionally uncool masters of money and meme) seem to understand the marketing potential of cool (though not its essence), and spend enormous sums of cash imitating it. But imitation cool isn’t cool; it is lukewarm crap. Which is exactly what so much Judaism is today is: lukewarm crap. To be cool you have to have the chutzpah to either fail miserably or succeed magnificently, and official Judaisms are too afraid to do either.

The other day my friend Rabbi Robert Barr (who is cool) told me about the demise of the music publisher JDub, one of the few vibrant lights of Jewish cool. Once funded by the uncool in search of cool, it is sad that JDub will die not for lack of quality and imagination, but for lack of funds.

Is this what we can expect of Judaism in the 21st century: a lukewarm and well-funded rehash of pre-modern Judaism with a splash of faux kabbalism added so we can stamp “New and Improved” on the box? I suspect it is. And, with it comes the growing irrelevance and marginalization of Judaism to postmodern reality.

Think about this for a moment: If it weren’t for Goldman, Sacks, Madoff, and Abramoff would we ever read about Jews in the mainstream press? And if not for rising anti-Semitism, the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict, and the apocalyptic snuff-theologies of fundamentalists drooling over the deaths of millions of Jews as prelude to Jesus' Second Coming, I suspect Judaism would be as relevant to post-modern culture as the Amish.

This is not the fault of funders, of course. By the time they have the funds to share, they are probably so out of touch with cool that even the tepid is too hot to handle. This is the fault of Jews who know little and demand less, and who support synagogues without getting involved enough to be bored, demand change, or quit. This is the fault of rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators who think their job is to teach the past rather than invent the future. And it is my fault for having given up, and settled for digital rants from the sidelines.

So good–bye JDub; good–bye cool; good-bye meaningful Judaism. Hello…….?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Wanna Be God

Ben Ferguson of Memphis Fox News took to the streets to see if anyone could answer this question: "Can you name the candidate who is running for president who believes that if he is a good person, he will get his own planet?"

The answer is Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman, both of whom are Mormons. Part of Mormon doctrine is that all good Mormon men get to become Gods of their own planet. Jesus’ Dad was once a man who became a God and had a kid who is now also a God.

"Would you vote for someone for president who believes that if they are a good person, you will get their own planet?" Ferguson asked passersby, "You want your own planet, don't you?"

Mr. Ferguson’s intent was to ridicule Mormonism. Tennessee has a history of anti-Mormonism, but I found the question pertinent.

Would I vote for someone who hoped to rule a planet one day? Damn straight I would! How refreshing to vote for someone who thought he had a real chance at become a God rather than settle for the normal political hubris of demi-god.

And would I want to be God of my own planet some day? Absolutely. Sure I know how hard it is to be God. I’ve seen the Futurama episode where Binder becomes God (Godfellas, 3/17/02), but I still think I could pull it off.

I would probably do away with a few things. People for one. Actually that might just do it for me. But if I had to have people I would do away with free will. Why make a world where moms can kill their babies and get away with it? To give Nancy Grace a job? Not worth it.

And what is so great about free will anyway? If I didn’t have it, would I miss it? No. If people only had desires that were kind and just, would we long for murder and mayhem? I doubt it.

People tell me that God had to give us free will so that we could freely choose to love him. Of course if we don’t love God we burn in hell for eternity, so how free is that love anyway? But if this really matters, I’d create a world where you didn’t have to love Me. Really what do I care if humans love Me? I’m God for My sake!

And I’d do away with heaven and hell also. In my world people would die and become compost thereby helping other life to grow. This is much better than the narcissism of eternal life.

Some Mormons are complaining that becoming a God is a minority position among Mormons. Too bad. What’s wrong with a religion that goes for the gold? Stick to your guns, Mormons! And good luck with those planets, and the presidency.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of Mayans, Mormons, and French Fries

I’m sitting at IHOP reading USAToday uncomfortably aware that the man in the booth across from mine is watching me. As I finished the News section, which I always read first, I grabbed the Sports section, which I never read, and offered both to my neighbor.

“Paper?” I said.

“No thanks,” he said, “I never read the thing. When I want to know what’s going on in the world I turn to the only source you can trust, the Bible.”

“Fair and balanced,” I said smiling.

“Just and true,” he said, not smiling.

“Really?” I said. “The Bible keeps you up on the day’s news?”

“It tells me what's really going on. You think those papers know anything? They distract you with the surface stuff, but the real news is that Jesus is coming back and soon. All these wars and the debt ceiling are just signs of the Apocalypse. The world comes to an end December 21, 2012.”

“That may be,” I said, “but that isn’t in the Bible, that’s the Mayans.”

“The Mayans were Jews who came here before Jesus, and Jesus came to them and gave them their calendar and told them and us when the world was going to end and when he was coming back.”

“That may be,” I said, “but that isn’t in the Bible, that’s sort of from the Book of Mormon.”

“I don’t know about Mormons, but I know about the Bible. December 21, 2012—the end. But you know that don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re the rabbi. I’ve seen your picture in the paper.”

“I thought you didn’t read…”

“You know Jesus is coming back and you’re doing everything you can to stop it.”

“Me personally?”

“You and all the other Jews who deny the Lord.”

“That’s pretty much all of us,” I said. “In fact, in American today, that pretty much defines what it means to be a Jew: we are just like you except we deny the Lord.” I was trying to bond with this guy, and failing miserably.

“Damn straight. You know you can’t stop him, and he is going to kill you all. All but some who will go to Israel to welcome him and worship him.”

“144,000,” I said.

“That’s right. Why don’t you want to be among them?”

“What makes you think I don’t want to be among them?” I said.

“Well, you’re sitting here in IHOP rather than in Jerusalem. He won’t come until all you Jews move to Israel.”

“Where he will kill us.”

“Yeah, but only if you don’t accept him as your Lord and Savior.”

“And that is going to happen on December 12, 2012? What about the pastor who says it’s going to happen on October 21, 2011.”

“He doesn’t know his Bible,” he said.

“Maybe he does. Maybe he knows it better. Maybe he’s just not a Mayan Mormon like you.”

That was a conversation killer, and I regretted saying it as soon as I heard the words come out of my mouth. I should have apologized, but the man had already shut down. He took a last sip of his coffee, exited his booth, and walked to the cashier to pay his bill.

I turned back to my eggs. They were cold, and I wasn’t hungry any more. I waited until the man had paid for his breakfast and left the restaurant. I then stood up to do the same. Something called my attention to the plate of French fries lying on his table. Most were laying on one side of the plate but two—one long, one short—lay on the other side in a cross formation.

“Jesus? Is that you?” I said silently. I waited for a reply. Nothing. I walked over to the cashier and waited for her to take my money. Two pens lay on the counter in cross formation. “Jesus?” I thought.

I kept seeing crosses all day. On my drive home I even saw two Mormon missionaries on their bicycles. I was hoping they’d knock on my door, but I knew that even then I wouldn’t believe. If a Mayan dropped by however, all bets are off.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fat and Fatter in Tennessee

One good thing about living in the fourth fattest state in the US is that I look normal. According to our local newspaper, more that 75% of Tennesseans are obese or overweight. That means that obesity here is the norm. When we see someone who isn’t fat we assume they are ill.

According to a variety of scientific studies, we Tennesseans are fat because we are poor. Lucky for us we don’t value science all that much (Darwin is the Devil reads one bumper sticker), and when we look at people in poor countries they don’t look fat—they look like they’re starving. That’s why we send them money. And Jesus.

Just the other day I walked into one of our town’s two yogurt bars. The yogurt comes out of huge kegs like beer. You can sample all the flavors and then make your own yogurt treat. There are over a dozen toppings to choose from to help disguise the fact that you are eating yogurt in the first place. They charge you by weight—the weight of the yogurt and toppings, not your own weight.

Anyway, I walk into the yogurt bar and work my way through the samples. A gaggle of tween–age girls are doing the same. By the time I’m done I’m full, and don’t feel like eating any more yogurt. The girls feel the same and leave without buying anything. The clerk, a high school girl, is disappointed and a bit disgusted. She looks at me hoping I will not follow in the footsteps of the tweeners. I want to, but I’m too old to think eating this way is cool, so I buy a cup of yogurt. It was a bit bland, so I add some peanuts to it. Then some coconut. Then some hot fudge. Then some whip cream. I’m still not hungry, but I make the clerk happy, sit myself down at a table, and eat it all.

By the time I’m ready to leave, I’m feeling really bloated. I notice that the clerk is thin, and probably never eats the stuff she sells. I am feeling very fat, especially when compared to this young woman. My salvation lies outside.

As soon as I step out into the street, I’m surrounded by my obese fellow Tennesseans. As I walk the two blocks to my car the people seem to get even bigger, and I start feeling thin—hey, it was yogurt I was eating, not ice cream; and I probably walked off the calories by now anyway, and—my God!—how can these people let themselves get so fat? Have they no self-respect, no self-control? Maybe they are poor and just can’t afford to eat more healthily. Maybe I’ll send them some money. And Jesus.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Of Gods and Dogs

I have a friend who is going through something of a spiritual crisis. All her adult life she believed in Pre-Tribulation, the belief that all good Christians are raptured to heaven before God turns the earth into a living hell for seven years prior to the coming of Jesus. Believing herself to be a good Christian and certain to be raptured, she thought she would escape the horrors of God’s wrath.

But now she is studying with a new pastor and he has just about convinced her that Post-Trib theory is correct and Pre-Trib is heresy. Post-Tribulation theory says that the rapture will come only after all humanity—Christians and nonChristians alike—suffer the wrath of God—and it’s coming soon.

I feel for her; this is scary stuff. She never asks me which I believe knowing that Judaism is a Trib-free faith. So the last time she mentioned her crisis I asked a different kind of question: what about our dogs?

I prefer to dogs to people. I can see why God would hate people enough to torture them. I have those feelings myself. But I can’t see how God could hate dogs, or why God would torture them. Dogs should be raptured before the Tribulation, or at least they should if God loves dogs.

“Do you think God loves dogs?” I asked. My friend didn’t know. The Bible doesn’t say. Which led me to an interesting observation: you never hear of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Confucius, Mahavira, Martin Luther, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Madame Blavatsky, L. Ron Hubbard, or any other founder of a faith having a dog. Presidents often have dogs, but Popes never do. Why is that?

I can think of two reasons why religious founders don’t have dogs. Either they don’t like dogs, or dogs don’t like them. Or maybe they don’t like dogs because dogs don’t them, or dogs don’t like them because they don’t like dogs. Personally I wouldn’t want to follow any sage that didn’t love dogs and wasn’t loved by them. Of course if I’m going to use the dog standard I have to deal with the fact that Hitler had a dog who seemed to love him. Do dogs love unconditionally, or was this an evil dog? I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say.

Anyway, even if it’s not foolproof, I think the dog standard is a good one. I know Zen Buddhists for whom the question “Does a dog have Buddha nature” is crucial, but I think they’ve got it backwards. For me the crucial question is, “Is it the Buddha’s nature to have a dog?”

I think I’m going to join only those religions where the founders had and loved dogs. Let me know if you know of any.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Are You a Good Person?

I was browsing the religion section of the Franklin Barnes and Nobel when a well–dressed young man asked me, “Interested in these kinds of books?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Mind if I ask you a question?” he said.


“Are you a good person?”

“Sometimes” I said, knowing where this conversation was going. “Sometimes I’m a real SOB.”

“Have you ever told a lie or taken something that wasn’t yours?”


“Then you’re a liar and a thief. Are liars and thieves good people? Do you know what happens to liars and thieves? They spend eternity in Hell. Their only hope is accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Are you ready to do that?”

“Burn in Hell or accept Jesus?”


“You asked me if I’m ready to burn in Hell or accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I’m not ready for either. In fact I don’t believe in either.”

“But …”

“Listen, if you really believe that the Creator of the Universe is a sadistic torturer who needs the death of an innocent in order to forgive the guilty, you’ve got a major problem. If you dare speak of God as Love, and then imagine a god who will roast you in Hell for telling your friend she doesn't look like she's gained weight when in fact she does, then you're sick. We create gods in our own image, and if this god is your image I suggest you need serious psychiatric intervention. We’re you abused as a child by your dad? You should get help.”

“F#ck you!” he said as he stormed away.

I called after him: “Do you know what God does to people who swear? He makes them burn in Hell for ever.”

He gave me the finger. Jesus would be proud.