Friday, July 31, 2009

Father testifies he hoped God would heal his child

It's a heart-breaking story. An eleven-year old girl is dying of diabetes. Her father doesn't take her to a doctor or a hospital. Instead, he prays for her and asks his God to heal her.

The girl dies in her home, surrounded by her father and other people praying for her. In the end, she couldn't walk, speak or even eat.

Dale Neumann, 47, has been charged with second-degree reckless homicide, and recently testified on his behalf in court in Wasau, Wisconsin. When asked why he didn't seek medical help for his child, Neumann told jurors:

"I can't do that because Biblically, I cannot find that is the way people are healed."

Neumann is partially correct. In the New Testament, many people are healed through divine providence, be it Jesus or the apostles. There's almost no mention whatsoever of medical science in the New Testament, primitive as it must have been.

In three gospels, Jesus cites the often-quoted phrase, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31) What's more, the quote was in response to criticisms that Jesus was spending too much time with sinful people, whereas Jesus replied that who better needs to experience God than those farthest from him. So this line can best be seen as an analogy to make a spiritual point, rather than a piece of advice to those wondering what to do with a sick child. At any rate, this one sentence must have been thin gruel compared to the numerous fantastical accounts of Jesus touching people and having them rise off of their sickbeds, or even from their graves.

On the other hand, the Gospel of Mark tells a story of a woman "subject to bleeding for twelve years." (5:25) Mark tells us that she had "suffered a great deal" when visiting the doctors, who had taken all the money she had and yet had gotten worse, but she was instantly healed when touching Jesus' cloak. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of medical science, and this makes it understandable why Neumann may have been skeptical of doctors.

Of course, this still goes on today. Never mind what inefficiencies the sick undergo when dealing with insurance companies, it is still common for someone today to spend themselves into bankruptcy without ever receiving a cure. Medical science has significantly improved in the last two thousand years, but what we don't know about the human body can still leave the best of medical science baffled.

But Neumann's daughter sufferered from diabetes, not some exotic tropical disease that no one has heard of. She suffered from a treatable disease and could have lived a long, full life under medical supervision. Instead, her parents just wanted to pray for her, even as she declined in health. Neumann's wife Leilani was tried separately and found guilty, and now faces up to 25 years in prison.

Side note: According to Colossians 4:14, the apostle Luke was a doctor, and in his gospel he also recounts the story of the sick woman healed by touching Jesus' cloak (8:40-48). For some reason, though, Doctor Luke omits the line that the doctors had bled the woman dry of all her money. In a nice example of closing ranks, Luke simply states, "No one could heal her."

Update: As expected, Neumann was found guilty of second-degree reckless homicide. He'll be sentenced along with his wife in October.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Sex Lives of Shamans

Last month I wrote about a pastor who was indicted for attempting to rape out a lesbian demon. Is this some modern perversion of religion, a diseased mutation descended from the purity of old-time paganism, when man lived close to nature and shamans worked selflessly to connect their people to God?


Robert Wright, author of the recently-published book The Evolution of God writes:

What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more sense than the average religion of today.


While it's difficult to study the writings of prehistorical societies to examine their religious beliefs (since by definition, they don't have any writings--that's why they're called prehistorical), anthropologists have done the next best thing. They've studied current hunter-gatherer societies that haven't been influenced by the modern world to examine how we might have lived before the rise of Western modernity.

What they've discovered is that shamans do what they do primarily for money and sex.

In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America), or slaves (the Haida of western Canada)...

[A]mong some Eskimos, "A forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. … An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning)."

Despite other observations of outright fakery and extortion, Wright observes that not all shamanism is bad. Natural Selection has made us to be "self-absorbed, with a wary sense of separation from most of humanity. And it's true that various shamanic techniques—fasting, for example—can improve things in this regard." But don't be fooled into thinking to today's neo-pagan shamanism can lead us back to a golden age of spirituality. That age never existed.

In fact, one could perhaps formulate a rule regarding the shaman and his people: The more superstitious the group, the more likely they will be hoodwinked by their shaman . . . and be compelled to have sex with him.

Church sign: "Islam is of the Devil"

The members of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida erected a sign on its front lawn last Sunday that reads, "Islam is of the Devil."  The sign was vandalized and torn down that same evening but was re-erected the next day.  Pastor Terry Jones had this to say:

“We think we are losing our heritage as a Christian nation.”

Source: The Independent Florida Alligator

Mr. Jones is mistaken; the United States is not a Christian nation, nor was it ever intended to be, even if Christians comprise the majority of Americans.  By that reasoning, the US is also white nation, and a female nation. 

“To be a Christian, you would have to agree with that sign,” Jones said.
More poor reasoning.  While Christians have long argued with each other over what the requirements of being a Christian actually are, no one until now has declared that Christian membership requires agreeing with anti-Islam sentiments.

Monday, July 27, 2009

African albinos killed in the name of superstition's The Big Picture features a set of heartbreaking pictures of sub-Saharan African albinos.  These white-skinned Africans have long faced discrimination because of their appearance, but lately they've been hunted by monsters:

Albinos in Tanzania are increasingly targeted by those who would kill them for their body organs, limbs and even hair to be used in luck potions by others seeking wealth and good fortune in business and professional circles. According to local residents, witch doctors use the organs and bones in concoctions to divine for diamonds in the soil, while fishermen have been known to weave albino hair into their nets hoping for a big catch on Lake Victoria. More than 50 albinos have been killed in Tanzania and neighboring Burundi in the past year

Much like rhinos are captured to have their horns cut off so that poachers won't kill them for their horn's non-existent healing powers, these unfortunate people are hidden by humanitarians to protect them from superstitious murderers.

For those who would ask, "What's the harm?" in allowing people their religious nonsense, I suggest you pray to whatever God you worship that someone doesn't come to believe that your body parts have magical properties.

Genie sued for theft, harassment

In Saudi Arabia, a family is taking a genie (or 'djinni') to court, claiming the invisible spirit has thrown rocks at them when leaving the house and has stolen cellphones.

Genies are mentioned in the Koran ("I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me." 51:56), so per Islamic tradition they must be real, although the BBC correspondent reports that belief in genies predates Islam.

According to Sheikh Amr Al Salmi who is presiding over the case, "We have to verify the truthfulness of this case despite the difficulty of doing so."

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Oakland raises tax revenue from marijuana

Many cities in America are suffering from budget crises due to the poor economy. The city of Oakland, California is finally doing what many advocated for years: Taxing marijuana sales.

Oakland residents overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to approve a first-of-its kind tax on medical marijuana sold at the city's four cannabis dispensaries...

Oakland's auditor estimates that based on annual sales of $17.5 million for the four clubs, it will generate an estimated $294,000 for city coffers in its first year.

The United States has wasted billions of dollars fighting the consumption of certain chemicals. And yet, after forty years since the War on Drugs was declared, not one beachhead has been secured, not one city has been liberated, not one hilltop has been claimed in victory. We can't keep drugs out of schools, or out of workplaces. We can't even keep them out of prisons. But every year, the war continues at a horrendous cost to our society.

The legalization of medical marijuana in California was a tiny but important step in a sensible policy toward drugs. Lawmakers are slowly waking up to the notion that rather than spending money to suppress a product that will be consumed anyway, they can make money on it instead.

I recently watched the film "Layer Cake", a seedy violent story about back-stabbing drug dealers in the UK. Daniel Craig plays a drug dealer who tries to maintain a level of integrity in his work.

The relevant portion starts at 1:00:
Drugs. Changed. Everything. Always remember that one day all this drug monkey business will all be legal. They won't leave it to people like me. Not once they figure out how much money is in it. Not millions. F*ing BILLIONS. Recreational Drugs PLC: "Giving People What They Want." Good times today, stupor tomorrow. But this is now. So while prohibition lasts, make hay while the sun shines.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pat Buchanan recommends Todd Palin to commit murder

Pat Buchanan has been a vocal supporter of Sarah Palin since she was tapped for the Vice Presidency by John McCain back in 2008.  When Palin recently announced her resignation from Alaska governership, Levi Johnston, former fiancee to Bristol Palin, suggested that she gave up her position to make more money.

Today on The Today Show, Buchanan gave some helpful man-to-man advice to Sarah's husband Todd Palin:

Well, first, with regard to Levi, I think First Dude up there in Alaska, Todd Palin, ought to take Levi down to the creek and hold his head underwater until the thrashing stops.

I'm sure Buchanan will wave it off as just a joke.  Never mind that he was very critical of Dave Letterman also making jokes about the Palin family, although to be fair, Letterman never once advocated murder in any of his monologues.

Women lashed for wearing pants

It's nice to see that Sudanese police are working hard to keep their citizenry safe from violent criminals and civil unrest.

In the capital city of Khartoum, "20 or 30 police officers" entered a popular restaurant and arrested at least 13 women who were dressed indecently, one of the women being a BBC reporter, Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein.

Source: BBC

So what was the clothing that so offended these Islamic police officers? String bikinis? G-strings? See-through blouses?

No. Pants.

According to al-Hussein, the women are facing up to 40 lashes for this grave offense of wearing clothing that covers their entire legs. Several women pled guilty at once and received a lighter penalty of only 10 lashes, but others, including al-Hussein, have spoken to lawyers and are awaiting their fates.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Selection Bias and Economic Booms

Selection bias is defined as "a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected."  In colloquial terms, it's also called, "Counting the hits and ignoring the misses."  For example, if I give a large number of heart patients an experimental drug, then count the patients who improved, and ignore the ones who don't, I can report a high success rate that isn't reflective of reality.

CNN Senior Producer Elise Zeiger demonstrated a tendency toward selection bias this week when reporting that Korean car manufacturer Kia plans to open a new automobile factory in tiny West Point, Georgia at the end of the year.  West Point, which was rapidly becoming a ghost town due to economic hardship, was understandably excited about the announcement which already has spurred economic growth and optimism among the town's residents.  Zeiger leaves open the possibility that higher forces are at work:

Or perhaps a little divine intervention deserves credit, as a West Point sign pointed out: "Thank You Jesus For Bringing Kia to Our Town."

Perhaps Jesus did manipulate the free will of Kia management to select West Point--despite assurances that God would never influence the free will of humans in order to prove his existence.  If so, then this would be a firm confirmation that God exists and that he has specially chosen the residents of West Point for divine protection.  But then again, many other towns all around the country are still under threat, and were not chosen for this special privilege.  If so, then this would be an example of counting a hit, and ignoring countless misses.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Masturbation may increase fertility; Vatican in a two-handed dilemma

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has expressly beaten down on masturbation, calling it "intrinsically and gravely disordered."

"sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes."

In other words, if you aren't making babies, don't touch the junk.

However, Australian infertility expert Dr. David Greening suggested last week that men can significantly improve their sperm quality through a simple program that can be written on a single prescription pad: "Ejaculate daily."

Presumably, daily ejaculation prevents sperm from harmful exposure to toxic molecules within the man's body.  This is typically no problem for healthy couples who are trying to conceive and are committed to having sex daily.  But what happens when the woman is tired, or absent, or ill?  What happens then?

Well, those sperm have to get out of there somehow.

The Vatican now finds themselves in a tight bind.  On the one hand, they don't want people to masturbate.  On the other hand, they want couples to have pro-creative sex.  Is there a way to hold your pearls and wear them too?  Catholic priests are encouraged to firmly take hold of the brass candlestick and hammer out a hard and firm policy that everyone can swallow.

Sailing on a Raft for Jesus

Newsweek's Lisa Miller reports of two 50-something brothers, Bob and Ralph Brown, planning to cross the Atlantic on a 21-foot motorized flat boat.  It's being billed as a Christian mission--the trip is being sponsored by I Am Second, a Christian non-profit firm, but I'm failing to see the Christian angle.  The brothers have indicated their trip is to memorialize three Marines who perished in 1980 during Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue attempt of American hostages in Iran.

Miller tries to associate this trip with tales of other faithful voluntarily going through heroic feats of deprivation, such as St. Anthony, a third-century Egyptian who lived in a cave for 20 years with no human contact, or the fourth-century hermit Simeon Stylites who sat on a pillar for 36 years. 

While I can't fault the brothers efforts for raising awareness of fallen military members, how is this a Christian act?  The brothers say they are Bible-believing Christians, yet they will have no Bible on board for their estimated 48-day trip.  They already hold the world record for flat-boat ocean voyages, and this trip will beat that by a fair margin, if they survive.  Is this trip truly fueled by faith and charity?  If so, this sort of stunt--an "I dare you, God, to not keep me safe" type of divine test--is baffling at best, and embarrassing at worst.  Or is it just a publicity stunt driven by adrenaline and youthful zeal for adventure?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hamas tries to restrict woman in public

There's a reason why everyone, believers and non-believers, should worry if a religious group obtains political power.  The temptation to take a religion's private mores and apply them to the public at large is too great.

MSNBC reports:

An attempt by Hamas police to detain a young woman walking with a man along the Gaza beach has raised alarms that the Islamic militant group is seeking to match its political control of the coastal territory with a strict enforcement of Islamic law.

The incident was the first time Hamas has openly tried to punish a woman for behaving in a way it views as un-Islamic since seizing power two years ago. But it follows months of quiet pressure on Gaza's overwhelmingly conservative 1.4 million residents to abide by its strict religious mores.

More burkha logic, where one's private moral standards must become a cultural standard applicable to all.

Hamas police spokesman Islam Shahwan denied the incident took place but said Gaza residents "must preserve our customs and Islamic traditions.

God help you if you find yourself subscribing to the wrong religion.

Prosperity Gospel in Economic Gloom

Slate's Faith-Based column discusses the failure of "Name It and Claim It" Prosperity Preachers like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen to accurately account why, if God wants his followers to prosper, are so many of them not prospering:
Osteen is everywhere these days. You see his coiffed pate smiling on Good Morning America, at the new Yankee Stadium for its first nonbaseball event, on the cover of Texas Monthly's ideas issue—all in one week. Yet he artfully disappears for housing-crisis questions like "Why, if God wants to reward the faithful with material possessions, are so many believers in foreclosure?"

Despite the failed promises of these mega-church salesmen, their message isn't at risk of fading away. When times are hard, people look to leaders who promise better times ahead, even if those very same leaders peddled a message of health and wealth which didn't pan out. What's important is the message, not the results:
But with two centuries of entitlement echoing Prosperity's mantra "What I confess I possess," who can blame people for flocking to Joel Osteen when he reassures them that "God wants to make your life easier"? Recent news that Americans have become less religiously classifiable doesn't mean a wave of Christopher Hitchenses so much as feel-good cafeteria spirituality stripped of tradition and dogma.

Here's another theory why people encouraged by their pastors to take sub-prime loans to buy houses they can't afford are finding themselves in a financial crunch: God does not exist, and those people who speak for him are just saying what you want to hear in order to sell you books and DVDs.

But that's just a theory.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Psychics Interview dead Michael Jackson

The afterlife is proving to be as hectic for pop star Michael Jackson as the real world, according to Canadian news source Palluxo. The singer has apparently relaxed the media silence that he maintained toward the end of his natural life, and is now more than happy to conduct interviews.

Reportedly, popular psychic James Van Praagh interviewed Michael Jackson shortly after the pop star's death last week.

"Where are you located now, Michael" asked Van Praagh. "I am surrounded by happiness. I never felt more happier," said Jackson.

Van Praagh failed to provide any evidence that it was indeed the media sensation he was speaking with, and not the English journalist Michael Jackson, who wrote several notable books on whiskey.

Palluxo also reported that "More answers from dead Michael Jackson will be revealed on upcoming Oprah Show," which gives me an idea how Van Praagh was able to nail an exclusive interview with Jackson.

Not to be outdone, another popular psychic Sylvia Browne rushed to confirm that she too had conducted an interview with the singer, only with physical confirmation:

"I asked him to identify himself by moving my desk. The desk started trembling, then it moved a feet (sic) or two away from me. He wrote his name on my desk," she said. "This was Michael's sign of life."

What more evidence could anyone need?

Luckily for her fans, Sylvia Browne will have more information on an upcoming Montel Williams show.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mark Sanford: God wants me to stay

In a message written to supporters, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford stated that God does not want him to resign due to his lengthy affair with a woman in Argentina.

"“A long list of close friends have suggested otherwise – that for God to really work in my life I shouldn’t be getting off so lightly," said Sanford, who voted for the impeachment of President Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal.

"I would ultimately be a better person and of more service in whatever doors God opened next in life if I stuck around to learn lessons rather than running and hiding down at the farm.”

Here's another quote, Mr. Sanford.  "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."  Susan B. Anthony

Fish make judgement calls

One tenet of creationism is that there is a huge gap between mankind and the animal kingdom.  For some, the notion that humans are just smart animals offends them and eliminates our special creation.  For support, they constantly point to our special abilities and declare them to be a part of our spiritual nature.

Over time, scientists have discovered more and more abilities once thought to be uniquely human are also exhibited by animals.  Monkeys  and dogs have a sense of morality and know when they're getting a raw deal.

Last week, Scientific American's 60-second science featured fish that make judgement calls.  A type of stickleback fish was able to determine when others of its kind were finding more food and thus switched their feeding patterns.  This goes against the notion that all animals are merely obeying their God-given instincts and that only humans can make these sort of complex decisions.

Michael Shermer wants to believe

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, has just written his 100th column and it's a keeper.

What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide. And after 99 monthly columns of exploring such topics (this is Opus 100), I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.
Ann Druyan said the same thing about her husband Carl Sagan: He didn't want to believe; he wanted to know.  To believe something is easy, but to know if something is true is much more difficult.  However, taking the extra effort to uncover the facts behind a claim rather than accepting it outright is the best method of avoiding swallowing lies or misinformation.

There is one mystery I will concede that science may not be able to answer, and that is the question of what existed before our universe began. One answer is the multiverse. According to the theory, multiple universes each had their own genesis, and some of these universes gave birth (perhaps through collapsing black holes) to baby universes, one of which was ours. There is no positive evidence for this conjecture, but neither is there positive evidence for the traditional answer to the question — God. And in both cases, we are left with the reductio ad absurdum question of what came before the multiverse or God. If God is defined as that which does not need to be created, then why can’t the universe (or multiverse) be defined as that which does not need to be created?

A debate I listened to recently between theists (Hassanain Rajabali & Michael Corey) and atheists (Dan Barker and Richard Carrier) hovered over this area. The theists asserted that God created the universe, and when the atheists asked for proof, the theists' response was mild offense. "It's obvious," they said, "and besides, science hasn't come up with anything better, have they."

At no time during the debate were miracles mentioned, or the efficacy of prayer, or the problems of evolution.  No, the primary focus was on the state of the universe 15 billion years ago and how it came to be that way, something that cosmologists are currently puzzling out.  It's as though the theists have conceded almost everything to science and are now desperately hammering against what could be called "the weaknesses of cosmology." Richard Carrier who advocated the Black Holes-Multiverse method couldn't offer positive evidence for the model, but nothing in our physical world rules it out.  But the theists would have nothing to do with it. No, the universe must have been created by God because there's no evidence for Black Holes creating baby universes. What would Michael Shermer have said about that?

In both cases, we have only negative evidence along the lines of “I can’t think of any other explanation,” which is no evidence at all. If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know. So for the time being, it comes down to cognitive or emotional preference: an answer with only negative evidence or no answer at all. God, multiverse or Unknown. Which one you choose depends on your tolerance for ambiguity and how much you want to believe. For me, I remain in sublime awe of the great Unknown.

I'm with you, Mr. Shermer. Count me in with those who are satisfied with the Unknown.  I don't trust my emotions enough to judge truth by them.