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Friday, December 29, 2006

Religious Leaders & Sexual Issues

Most are aware of the Ted Haggard scandal at New Life Church involving homosexual activity and drug use. In another recent news item involving a gay sex scandal, Paul Barnes has resigned from his pulpit at the Grace Chapel megachurch in Denver. In yet a third news item, back at New Life Church, another pastor, Christopher Beard, has admitted to sexual misconduct and resigned. Of course, we all know of the many allegations against Catholic priests in the news media as well. I do not mention these to 'kick a religious group when it's down', but rather to ask what in the world is going on here?

Many don't remember this, but just prior to the attacks of 9/11/01, the top news item across several networks was the alleged shark attack epidemic. As it turned out, the rate of shark attacks was unchanged. What happened was a strange phenomenon of news reporting. Apparently, whenever something is considered a 'hot topic' within the 'reporter and producer subculture', every opportunity to report on it is seized, I'm guessing so as not to let competing networks get all the credit for reporting something they didn't. Or, possibly this happens because news people get it in their heads that the subject matter is something with teeth (pun only partially intended).

In any event, the result is a public that walks away with the overall impression of something that isn't true about their world. I have written about this disservice to the public, which can happen even if no particular lies are told in a specific case. In reality, the rate of sexual misconduct for religious leaders is no higher than for the rest of the population, and in many cases quite a bit lower, including even for teachers.

But even acknowledging this, there is something especially egregious about this sort of abuse when committed by a person who is supposed to be a moral authority. Even if we realize that we needn't be disproportionately frightened of religious leaders pouncing on us in dark alleys, it becomes a fascinating question to ask, in the cases that do exist, why did they happen and (for these individuals, not the group) is there some strange psychological connection between choosing a social role of projecting morality and their own individual downfall?

Over at the Self Help Magazine website, Henry E. Adams, Ph.D., Lester W. Wright, Jr., Ph.D. and Bethany A. Lohr ask the question, is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? There seems to be a connection and this may explain some of these cases, but it is too easy to fall into the temptation to brand all anti-homosexuals as having homosexual tendencies, simply because we know it will irk them so.

In other cases, it may be that the feelings of guilt over what they've been raised to believe is evil may cause them to try and make up for their feelings by acting in the opposite extreme. Or perhaps the reason is less personal and more abstract - meaning there is a philosophic perspective that people need rigid authoritarian ethical institutions to 'keep them in line' because they know from their first hand experience how difficult it is to self regulate. In cases involving celibate clergy, it may simply be that this lifestyle attracts people with a variety of personal or social difficulties involving sexual relations or the perceived need to hide them.

I'm sure, as with all things involving people, the reasons are varied and complex, which is what makes it an interesting and important topic if explored thoughtfully, fairly, and without exaggerating frequencies or simplistic agendas of demonizing or making fun of other groups.

Many thanks to my wife Julie, who supplied me with many of the linked references for this post.

Friday, December 22, 2006

New Parent ISO Reason & Truth

A reader named Matt recently wrote to me to ask about Stoicism and with a dilemma that I think must be fairly common in the Western world these days:

"I wanted to thank you for the brilliant website you maintain. I have found it to be tremendous and thought provoking resource as I have been researching and understanding various philosophies of life. What has recently intensified my search for a new philosophy of life has been the recent birth to my wife and I our our first child. My belief is that I have a duty to provide to our son a logical and moral system of beliefs that he can use to deal with the difficulties of modern life and use to live a happy, fulfilled and moral life.

"While not a regular church-goer, I have been nominally Christian for much of my life. However, since my middle teen years, I have been increasingly unable to reconcile so many precepts of Christian faith with logic and reason. The traditions, sense of community and fellowship, and generally sound moral guidance that are part of many churches are a wonderful thing. However, I find it difficult to reconcile myself to what I see as the inherently hypocritical position of belonging to a church when I do not in my heart believe in the most basic 'supernatural' tenants of Christian faith."

We had a nice exchange on the issue and I thought it might be useful or interesting to others. Therefore I've posted the full email exchange on my philosophy site, which can be read by clicking the link below...

Stoicism and the Search for Truth

The Supernaturalization of Scripture

My wife, Julie, has recently alerted me to an interesting article at the Freedom From Religion Foundation website, extracted from an earlier book, Abuse Your Illusions. The article is called, "Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?" by Dan Barker. In the article he point out several discrepancies in detail between the gospels. More interesting is his data showing the rise of extraordinary (usually interpreted as 'supernatural') events in the scriptures as time went by. One would tend to think that if these extraordinary events actually took place, they would be the first events reported, with the mundane details being elaborated upon later, rather than the reverse.

Astoundingly, former preacher Barker reports:

"Many bible scholars and ministers--including one third of the clergy in the Church of England--reject the idea that Jesus bodily came back to life. So do 30% of born-again American Christians!"

The references to these claims can be found in the notes of the article. He also reports:

"Bible scholars conclude: 'On the basis of a close analysis of all the resurrection reports, [we] decided that the resurrection of Jesus was not perceived initially to depend on what happened to his body. The body of Jesus probably decayed as do all corpses. The resurrection of Jesus was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been captured by a video camera. . . . [We] conclude that it does not seem necessary for Christians to believe the literal veracity of any of the later appearance narratives.'"

The article can be read by clicking this link:

Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Susan Blackmore & the Paranormal

I've recently discovered the website, work, and existence of a very interesting woman. Her name sounded familiar to me so I may have read her work before, but Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer and lecturer who apparently writes about memes and other interesting stuff. With a degree in parapsychology (as well as psychology and physiology), she used to write about and investigate paranormal claims. In the article linked to below, she explains why she's given up on investigating the paranormal. I hope to look into her other work more when I get the time.

Why I Have Given Up, by Susan Blackmore

Update, January 10, 2007: Susan Blackmore was a featured guest on the December 15, 2006 edition of the webcast "Point of Inquiry" (link HERE).

Friday, December 8, 2006

Panel: Faith & Morality

This December 2, 2006, Professor Thi Lam hosted a Philosophy of Religion Panel Discussion at San Jacinto College. It was subtitled, "Exploring the Relationship Between Faith & Morality". The panel consisted of four participants: Jim Ashmore representing Freethought, Zeeshan Ramzan representing Islam, Patricia Gehret representing Christianity, and myself (DT Strain) representing Humanism. It was attended by approximately 200 people.

The panel was asked four questions on the Divine Command Theory, morality, teaching morality to children, and the meaning of life. To read the questions and my response to them, you can click HERE for the full article on my Philosophy Site.

Update, December 14, 2006: A video of the conference is also available. Part I is HERE and part II is HERE.

Kurtz on "Atheism News"

There is a website called "Atheism News", and this November they posted a video from the Center for Inquiry, which is run by the Council for Secular Humanism. In the video, founder Paul Kurtz explains, "What is Secular Humanism?"

The video lasts about an hour and makes for a good overview of the Secular Humanist approach to those not familiar with it. To see the video, click the link below.

What is Secular Humanism?

Monday, December 4, 2006


With the passing of this November, the two-year mark has been reached for this blog. As an anniversary special, I've decided to look over all my previous posts, and list the 'Top 20 Posts' from the past two years (or, ever, in other words). These are posts that I thought were either the most interesting, the most important, or represented some of the more significant notions I've considered or learned about over this time.

There were several other posts that I was sad to weed out of this list, but didn't quite make the cut. These can still be read by seeing the archives, of course. In addition, much of the significant work I've done over the past two years can be found as articles at my Philosophy Site, and were never blog posts, so they aren't present here.

Many thanks to all my readers and please spread the word to your friends about this site, so that we may continue on! :)

TOP 20 POSTS FROM 2005 & 2006
(in order of posting)

Summary of the Primary Virtues
Virtual Virtue: Your Online Self

The Nature of the “Force”

Life & Death Are Not Opposites

The Big Deal About Complexity

Cultural Conceptions of “Life”

Good for the Individual & Society the Same

Forgiveness Is A Gift To Ourselves

Terrel Pough & Being Good

ISO The Real Buddha & Jesus

Philosophy or Religion?

Exploring Meditation

Denver on Nature & Life

Revulsion at the Natural Brain

The Minions of Hitler

Consciousness Around Us?

The Puzzle of Our Time

Notes on “Christianity Without God”

Threads on Violence

Dehumanization: A How-To

Friday, December 1, 2006

The R-word

I would like to make a plea to all philosophers, theologians, and others who would write formally on the topic of religion. But first some background...

Last Sunday my wife and I attended a presentation by Reverend Robert Tucker at a service of the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston. The presentation was, "A New Debate of Religions: Atheism and Belief". His presentation was a criticism of recent atheist authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. However it was his juxtaposition of religion and science that got me wondering about the use of the word 'religion'. Certainly, his use of the word was very different from Harris' use of it.

Then I thought about Buddhism. Some say it is a religion and some say it is a philosophy (or both). In another example, we have things like Humanism, which people also debate about as being a religion, or an alternative to religion. Even within the fundamentalist evangelical Christian movement, you have some Christians actually saying they 'aren't religious' - that it's "not about religion but about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ". My wife pointed out that when a person says they are a Christian, we really don't know much about what that even means. They could be a Jeffersonian deist, to a follower of the historic Jesus' teachings, to a liberal traditional Christian, to a fundamentalist evangelical biblical literalist, or anything in between.

More importantly, are the differences of meaning when it comes to serious formal articles and arguments on 'religion'. In some cases, the author may be speaking of a bundle of practices, traditions, and rituals - blurring the line with culture. In other cases 'religion' may mean a community of people. Then there is the 'religion' which refers to a body of beliefs, scriptures, myths, and dogma.

When Sam Harris criticizes religion, he is criticizing things like supernatural beliefs based on no evidence, dogmatism, violence, and so on. When asked, "what about Stalin?" he responds that what he's really talking about is more broad, and that what Stalin was practicing was a 'secular religion' just as steeped in the problems he is attacking as traditional religions are. When someone asks him about his support of certain Buddhist practices, he says that Buddhism isn't really a 'religion' in the same sense.

But consider people like Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) himself. As I have often mentioned, when he was asked about souls and the afterlife and such, he specifically said he had not elucidated on such things. And he said the reason he had not done so was because these things were not relevant to religion. The Buddha seems to have a completely opposite view of religion to Harris. To him, all of that stuff about superstition, dogmatism, and mythology is not religion, but rather true religion are those things which help us experience happiness and contentment in this life.

This is a similar view to that found in a quote often spuriously attributed to Einstein, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. The religion which is based on experience, which refuses dogmatism. If there's any religion that would cope the scientific needs it will be Buddhism."

So here is my plea...

I would move that scholars, academics, theologians, philosophers, and anyone else involved in formal writing on these matters cease using the word 'religion' altogether. I would have it officially declared a nonsensical word with no formal value.

This would be similar to what has happened with the word "race" in formal biology circles. Race is no longer considered a real concept in biology. It's simply a cultural label applied to certain groups who have shared traits. According to biological science, if we took all the left handed people in the world and considered them "the race of left handed people", this would be as biologically irrelevant as "the race of dark skinned people" is.

Likewise, formal writers on matters of human spirituality should henceforth consider the word "religion" a layman's informal word - a cultural label with no concrete meaning of purpose in serious work.

If this practice were adopted, it would have several effects:

Firstly, we would have to develop a new vocabulary with formal functionality to it. As you can see above, I wasn't even able to write this article without paradoxically using the word 'religion' myself, so that you'd know what I was generally talking about. We have to find new ways of discussing these concepts that are more precise and meaningful.

The second effect of discarding the R-word is what I really like about the idea. That is that when people like Sam Harris and Reverend Tucker converse, it would force them to get on the same page. Instead of saying that religion is harmful, Harris would have to say that superstition is harmful. Instead of saying that religion helps people, Tucker would have to say that fellowship helps people.

I think we could get much further in debates and discussions if we stop relying on such a blunt term, and start focusing on the individual practices, beliefs, traditions, behaviors, and structures. In this way, we could carry on meaningful dialog without being distracted by the war on the side over what religion is or isn't. If we do this, it seems likely that we will be able to save a lot of time and see that we really agree on much more than we think we do.

I seriously doubt the term is actually going to be abandoned, but at least by thinking of the issues I've raised, it's my hope some people may not be so sidetracked by what is, in the end, a word that's more trouble than its worth.

Dinner & Religion

An interesting multifaith group has formed in Houston to gather and discuss religious issues over dinner. It is sponsored by the City of Houston, The Boniuk Center for Religious Tolerance at Rice University, and Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. The project seems to be inspired by a book called The Amazing Faiths of Texas by Roy Spence. The website for these dinners is I and a friend in my Humanist group have signed up for a dinner around January 20th. I guess we'll see what happens and report back after.