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.

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.


“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.


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?
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?
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.

Freedom of Speech is Not Freedom From Consequences: the Ignorance of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and the People Who Defend Him

Phil Robertson, star of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” has been suspended after going on an anti-gay rant in GQ magazine.  Calling homosexuality a sin, not logical, and equating it with bestiality, his comments have led to a great deal of debate about his punishment.  And, predictably, a whole lot of dumb arguments are being made by a whole lot of dumb people in support of his bigotry.

Let’s quickly examine a few of the major points being made in his favor and explain why they are ridiculous.

“He’s just speaking his mind.  Those are his beliefs.”

Yes, they are, and he’s entitled to them.  A&E also has a responsibility to their brand, sponsors, and viewers to do what they feel is best when a star of one of their programs offends a large segment of the population.  You can disagree with the punishment they have chosen, if you would like, but you can’t pretend that a response is unjustified.

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

“Whatever happened to freedom of speech?  Phil Robertson is being oppressed!”

He has freedom of speech.  He doesn’t, however, have freedom from criticism.  Or freedom from repercussions for his speech.  Sometimes your words have consequences.  Phil Robertson is not in a concentration camp today for speaking his mind.  He has been suspended from filming for “Duck Dynasty,” which is a privilege he has been afforded by A&E.  Filming this television show is not his constitutional right.

“You are being intolerant for not tolerating Phil Robertson’s intolerance.”

I reject the notion that the intolerant among us get to define what tolerance is.  But isn’t intolerance tolerated, at least to a certain degree, in our society as it is?  I’m not suggesting that Robertson not be allowed to believe what he wants or speak his mind.  I’m only asking for the same right. 

Karl Popper put it best when he said, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

“His comments aren’t bigotry.  He is a Christian who is just spreading the Word of God as found in the Bible.”

I’m sick of people hiding their bigotry behind a book written in the Bronze Age.  Bigotry is bigotry, whether it is in your holy text of choice or not.  The Bible is largely a work of fiction that, at one point or another, is anti-gay, supports the subjugation of women, is pro-slavery, pro-human sacrifice, and pro-infanticide, among other horrible things.  It has been used time and time again throughout history to support the beliefs of homophobes, male chauvinists, slaveholders, murderers, and racists.  The Bible, and a large amount of its content, is antiquated.  We rightly reject those that used it in support of owning slaves, and we reject it now for those who use it to shield themselves from criticism of their comments about gay people.

Lest you think Phil Robertson’s particular backwoods brand of stupidity begins and ends with his views on gay people, you’re in luck.  He also said that Nazis didn’t have Jesus in their lives, which is wrong.  Hitler referred to Jesus Christ as his “Lord and Savior,” and the Christianity of Germany in the early 20th century was anti-Semetic and nationalistic.  Plus, Robertson claims that, in pre-Civil Rights-era Louisiana, he never saw a black person mistreated.  In fact, he says, black people were happy!  No word yet if Phil is legally blind.

I partially understand the sentiment of those who say that Robertson is just a backwoods idiot and his words shouldn’t even register as noteworthy.   But I also believe strongly that ignorant beliefs cause harm, and as such should be engaged with and properly rejected with logic and facts.  Hopefully he takes a lesson from the backlash.

Now, to be fair, Phil Robertson did release a statement Wednesday after his comments were broadcast.  It read, in part, “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me.  We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity.”  Sorry, but telling people they are sinners equivalent to those that commit bestiality is not loving and respectful.

Perhaps his lesson can begin there.

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:

Pope Francis (photo:

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:

Bishop Leonard Blair (photo:

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.

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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Habemus Malum Papam

Pope Benedict XVI recently announced that he will resign at the end of February; a report that shocked many, including hundreds of millions of dedicated Catholics around the world. His abdication, the first by a pope in nearly 600 years, left people wondering the true reasons for his resignation, speculating as to who may replace him, and pondering what it will mean for the future of the Catholic church. Let’s examine those very questions now.

benedictFirst, why did he resign? Benedict himself alluded to his age and physical deterioration as reasons for his departure, stating, “I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Personally, I admire that if it’s true. I don’t understand the necessity to hang on as little more than a figurehead when it is clear you are no longer up to the task. Exactly what good did Pope John Paul II do for anyone when he was being wheeled to and from the balcony, barely able to lift his own hand or even speak? There are certainly a great number of things I disagree with Pope Benedict about, but resigning due to age or health isn’t one of them.

However, many people feel that is not the reason at all. While there has been talk since the day Benedict was selected that he didn’t want the job; that he had been looking forward to retirement after John Paul II’s death, there is a growing consensus who feel the number of scandals surrounding the Church played a big part in his decision. They may very well be right. Allegations of corruption within the Curia, as well as the increasing number of lawsuits against he and other Vatican officials in the International Criminal Court has surely weighed heavily upon him. With his age and health becoming more and more of a factor in his mobility and ability to travel, it is very possible he is stepping down “for the good of the church,” and to simply let someone else deal with it all.

Angelo Scola

Angelo Scola

I will not be shy. It has been my hope for some time that Benedict pay a legal price for the way he handled the clergy sex abuse scandal. Beginning in 1981, as Joseph Ratzinger, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One of his main responsibilities was in dealing with the sex crimes against children. As BBC News reports, “His refusal to decisively address the epidemic – and discipline Church officials who protected predator priests – was exacerbated when he became Pope.” The bottom line is that the abuse of children went on longer than it should have, and many child predators to this day have yet to pay for their crimes, specifically because of Benedict’s cover-ups. While little would please me more than to see him arrested and brought to trial, the unfortunately reality is that it is extremely unlikely to occur. The sight of Benedict in handcuffs would spur international outrage, and the political blowback that would come from it ensures he will live out the remainder of his days in peace and freedom – a luxury that many victims of abuse do not get to enjoy.

So, what will happen once Benedict XVI steps down? Who will replace him? According to Irish bookmaking website, Paddy Power, the three top contenders for the papacy are currently Archbishop Angelo Scola, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Scola, an Italian, is not likely to lead to any positive change in the church’s view of LGBT people, that’s for sure. Bryant Harris of PolicyMic reports that Benedict “appointed Scola to the diocese in Milan precisely because the church saw his two predecessors as too liberal and deviant from Vatican doctrine.” With the issue of gay marriage looking more and more like the civil rights issue of modern times, a Scola papacy will clearly not be one that history will look back upon favorably.

Peter Turkson

Peter Turkson

Nor will Cardinal Turkson be a champion of gay rights. Turkson, a Ghanian who is a strong candidate to become the first black pope, gave support to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill which, among other Dark Age-caliber sanctions, includes life imprisonment for “the offense of homosexuality,” as well as the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” It was this latter punishment that earned it the name “Kill the Gays Bill.” Cardinal Turkson, speaking at a United Nations summit, said that these anti-gay laws are “commensurate with tradition” in African culture. Furthermore, he states that, “When you’re talking about what’s called ‘an alternative lifestyle,’ are those human rights?” Of course, he also believes that, when in comes to HIV/AIDS in Africa, condoms are “helping the disease spread.” A bright mind, he is not.

What, then, of the Cardinal Marc Ouellet? Will this Canadian be able to bring a progressive attitude to issues of social justice? Not likely. In fact, Ouellet will be no friend to women, since he has already sparked angry reactions from pro-choice activists when he said that abortion was unjustifiable, even in cases involving rape.

He has also condemned gay marriage, calling the issue “a big crisis, not only a moral crisis, but an anthropological one.” And that whole child sex abuse scandal? Don’t look for him to be a lot of help there, either. Frances Bedard, a victim’s rights advocate who has brought her own lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Quebec City says that, “Cardinal Ouellet is responsible for the silence, the indifference, the inaction of the Catholic Church in Quebec when it comes to sexual-abuse victims.”

Marc Ouellet

Marc Ouellet

But don’t think Ouellet will be upset if he is not elected to be the Bishop of Rome. He calls the job itself “a nightmare,” adding that, “I see the work the pope has to do. It is a huge responsibility. Nobody campaigns for it.” One must wonder if this mindset isn’t common. While becoming pope must largely be seen as an honor among the faithful, the toll it takes is also a high one.

The fact remains that revolutionaries just don’t become pope. Progressive voices in religion are a rarity and are not likely to be given much of any backing in the upcoming papal conclave. While the truth is that there are many Catholics who do not support the stance of their leaders on issues such as birth control and gay marriage, as well as many more who are sickened by the cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the church, there will be no positive change made by the Vatican unless there is a social movement to create it.

One possible hope for such a movement may lie with Cardinal Schonborn of Austria. Though he dismisses natural selection, as well as other key scientific facts, he has been outspoken against Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, for disregarding media reports of sexual abuse by clergy, saying he “deeply wronged” the victims. Schonborn has also said that the Catholic church needs to “give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships.” Is it a revolution? No. But it would be a start. Unfortunately, when last checked, Cardinal Schonborn’s odds at becoming the next pope were an unlikely 14 to 1.

Progress, it seems, will have to come from the people.