Archive for May, 2010

The First Cathedral, A Megachurch in Bloomfield Connecticut, during Sunday Morning Praise and WorshipAbout 6 weeks ago I blogged about Enfield (CT) Public Schools and their religionist determination to proselytize to high school graduates and their families by holding commencements for its two high schools in a church in nearby Bloomfield. As I expected, a federal judge has prevented this arrangement. The Hartford Courant reports on this decision (WebCite cached article):

A federal judge on Monday ruled that Enfield High School and Enrico Fermi High School will not be able to hold their graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall heard closing arguments last week in a legal challenge that five Enfield residents — two high school seniors and three parents — filed to block the town from renting the 3,000-seat mega-church in neighboring Bloomfield. The graduations are scheduled for June 23 and 24.

“By attempting to ‘neutralize’ the First cathedral by covering up many (albeit not all) of its religious images, Enfield Public Schools unconstitutionally entangles itself with religion,” Hall wrote in her decision dated Monday. “And … by requiring a graduating senior — or parent of one — to enter First Cathedral in order to be able to participate in his or her graduation — or to watch their child graduate — Enfield Public Schools has coerced plaintiffs to support religion.”

Although the Courant story discusses the religious imagery in First Cathedral, and inadequate attempts to cover it up, that isn’t the only problem cited. Another claim that Enfield Public Schools have made is that they cannot locate any alternative facilities for the same price; thus, by comparison, First Cathedral is their only available choice. In her decision, however, Judge Hall points out that the school board’s attempts to find alternatives were insincere:

The Board’s evaluation of alternative venues in March and April 2010 does not appear to be an open-minded consideration of legitimate available alternatives. First Cathedral was never included in the written comparisons offered at either the March 23 or April 13, 2010 Board meetings, and the minutes of those meetings reflect no discussion as to First Cathedral’s actual price or amenities. Furthermore, the Board was aware that several locations offered similar accommodations for graduation ceremonies at a price less than the $32,000 budget. The rental fee for Symphony Hall, for example, totals $11,400 for both schools — a figure that is at least $5000 less than the rental fee charged by First Cathedral. Although the facility seats 2611 graduates and spectators would likely require Enfield Schools to limit each graduate to eight (8) tickets each, it was deemed “that should not be a huge issue.”

Chairman Stokes noted that there were other ways in which Symphony Hall did not match First Cathedral in meeting particular criteria that the Board was looking for, but the Board never generated a concrete list of the precise criteria that needed to be met. Indeed, certain requirements that Chairman Stokes claims the Board believed a venue had to satisfy seem designed to eliminate First Cathedral’s competitors. During the May 24, 2010 hearing, for example, the court asked Stokes, “What size is a minimum size that you think makes a facility acceptable?” Chairman Stokes replied, “I think that being able to have unlimited seating where anybody can come in and celebrate with their families is probably where I have leaned to.” When the court inquired further and asked what constitutes “unlimited seating,” Stokes replied, “In this case here it is about 3000 seats.” First Cathedral’s seating capacity is 3000.

Looks like the board’s putative “search for alternatives” was cleverly skewed so as to arrive at the predetermined result. This means it was not a genuine “search” and thus, by claiming to have actually “searched” for alternatives when they never intended to permit the graduation to be held anywhere else, Enfield Public Schools is guilty of disingenuity.

This places them into my “lying liars for Jesus” club.

Something else that ought to be noted is that the chairman of the Enfield school board, Greg Stokes, is the pastor of Cornerstone Church, a Protestant evangelical church in East Windsor CT (just south of Enfield) (cached version of page). First Cathedral in Bloomfield is also — you guessed it! — a Protestant evangelical church (cached version of page). I wonder, Pastor Stokes … could there possibly be a conflict of interest here? Maybe? Ya think? Hmm.

Let’s see: Dishonesty, and failure to admit to an obvious conflict of interest … yep, Chairman Stokes has managed to live down to all my expectations of fundamentalist Christians. Way to go, Pastor Greg!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Hindu god brandishing a swordI blogged a couple years ago on this, and again a few times since, but it bears repeating: Religious violence is not limited to the sphere of the Abrahamic faiths. Sure, we tend to associate “religious violence” with things like the Crusades, the killings of abortion doctors, the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and the Palestinian conflict, and so on. We sometimes assume, therefore, that religions outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic realm are “peaceful” by contrast. That India is home to famous pacifists like Mahatma Gandhi and the Jainist religion may fool us into thinking that country, with its Hindu majority, is not prone to religious violence.

But that’s just not true.

Several people were recently convicted for their roles in a Hinduism-motivated honor killing there, as the Washington Post reports (WebCite cached article):

No one in this village visits Chanderpati Banwala’s home, which stands at the end of a lane full of sleeping buffaloes and overturned wooden carts. The boycott began three years ago when her son eloped with his sweetheart, a neighbor from his clan.

But the marriage was short-lived. Village elders declared the relationship incestuous, a violation of ancient Hindu rules of marriage because the two were descendants of a common ancestor who lived thousands of years ago. As the couple tried to flee town, the young woman’s family chased them down and dragged them out of a bus on a busy highway. The groom, Manoj, was strangled, and his bride, Babli, was forced to drink pesticide. Their bodies were dumped in a canal. …

Despite pressure from villagers to remain quiet, Banwala took the case to court here in the northern state of Haryana. In March, five defendants were sentenced to death, the first time in India that capital punishment has been ordered in an honor killing.

This is, of course, far from anomalous:

Last year, officials in [the state of] Haryana recorded about 100 honor killings of young people caught in the war between clan, caste, culture and cupid. Banwala’s case is the first honor-killing trial to secure a verdict, although a similar trial is underway. In that case, four people are accused of beating and hacking a young man to death with sticks, sickles and scythes last year after he married a woman from a neighboring village, a relationship villagers also regarded as incest.

Unfortunately a lot of folks are unrepentant about this and consider “honor killings” of this sort a good thing and are openly advocating them:

In villages across northern India, the landmark verdict sparked an uproar, with clan councils fiercely defending prohibitions on unions within the same clan or gotra, a Sanskrit word, which each clan uses to trace its lineage. To these villagers, romantic love breaches codes passed down many generations.

“Manoj and Babli rubbed our village’s name in mud,” said Gulab Singh, a 60-year-old farmer, inhaling on a gurgling water pipe in a cattle shelter with other men in Banwala’s village. “For thousands of years, we have followed strict marriage rules. If my son transgresses these rules, I will kill him without a thought.”

The next time anyone suggests to you that it’s only the “religions of faith” (i.e. the Abrahamic religions) which are prone to religious violence, you can now explain otherwise. The truth is that all religions can cause things like this to happen.

Hat tip: Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Photo credit: ncracker.

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rodin gates of hell with thinker detail 05In a story I don’t know what to make of, a Vatican official has declared that abusive priests are damned to hellfire. CBS News reports on this declaration (WebCite cached article):

The Vatican prosecutor of clerical sex abuse warned perpetrators on Saturday that they would suffer damnation in hell that would be worse than the death penalty.

The Rev. Charles Scicluna, a Maltese priest who is a top official at the Vatican’s morality office, led a special “make amends” prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica. …

“It would be really better” for priests who sexually abuse minors that their crimes “cause them death” because for them, “damnation will be more terrible” in hell, Il Sole 24 Ore online news reported. …

Scicluna, who could not immediately be reached for comment, began with a meditation from St. Mark’s Gospel saying those who harm children would be better off tying a millstone to their neck and throwing themselves into the sea.

In case you’re not familiar with the passage in question, here it is, including as much of its context as I can reasonably provide in this space:

Sitting down, He [Jesus] called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:35-50)

Scicluna’s rhetoric, therefore, is a bit harsh, especially given the Church has only recently — as in, just over the past couple of months — begun the slow process of acknowledging that its clergy have actually done something wrong and that this scandal is not merely the invention of “masonic secularists” or “Jews” or “great newspapers” or any of the rest of the denials they’ve offered.

Photo credit: Jon Himoff via Flickr.

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Digital Bible: Library of Congress, Washington, DCIn an effort I can only label as “putting lipstick on a pig,” a company called Digital Immersion is releasing its own version of the Bible … as a package of multimedia software. In an article that reads suspiciously like a press release, the Orlando Sentinel reports on this development (WebCite cached article):

For a generation growing up with digital media, the written word printed on paper has little appeal — even if it’s the word of God.

It’s for them that an Orlando company came up with the multimedia digital Glo Bible.

“You have entire generations of people that don’t engage paper very well,” said Nelson Saba, founder of Immersion Digital. “If you look at Bible literacy among younger generations, it’s dismal. This is designed to be a digital alternative to the paper Bible.”

This is necessary, because apparently, not enough young people are picking up and reading Bibles in its traditional dead-tree format:

A Gallup poll in 2000 found that about a quarter of young people ages 18-29 read the Bible weekly — about half the rate of those 65 or older. Part of that, Saba contends, is the younger generation’s aversion to the printed word.

“There is nothing wrong with paper. I have lots of paper Bibles, but it’s just not the media they engage,” Saba said.

Unfortunately there’s nothing new about this; interactive multimedia Bible software has been around for a while now. Some of these include multiple Bible translations as well as its “manuscript” forms (i.e. in their original languages). According to the company’s own Web site, the Digital Glo Bible contains only the NIV translation and nothing else. So from my perspective as someone who’s familiar with many Bible translations, it’s not even as good as some of its forebears.

At any rate, the makers of this “new” Bible appear to think that all they have to do is repackage the Bible in a modern, hip, high-tech format, and young people will read it and convert in droves. I’m not sure it’s going to work out that way.

Oh, and I’m not sure how “hip” the Digital Glo Bible can be, since there’s not yet a Mac OS version. Just saying.

Update: Things have changed a bit since I posted this 5 years ago. The software is now also available for Mac OS and iPhone & iPad. And it includes the ESV, KJV, and The Message translations in addition to the NIV.

Photo credit: drhenkenstein

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Hagia Sofia with Cloudy SkyDuring the last 9 years, folks have proposed building lots of things at or near the site of the World Trade Center, felled during the September 11, 2001 attacks. Few, if any, of them have ever been built … for reasons that are puzzling to just about everyone on the planet. Among the proposals, however, is construction of a mosque. That sparked a bit of outrage during a Community Board 1 meeting in New York City, as reported by the New York Post (WebCite cached article):

Angry relatives of 9/11 victims last night clashed with supporters of a planned mosque near Ground Zero at a raucous community-board hearing in Manhattan.

After four hours of public debate, members of Community Board 1 finally voted 29-1 in support of the project. Nine members abstained, arguing that they wanted to table the issue and vote at a later date.

All the raging and fuming, however, was in vain, because this board cannot really stop the project even if it wished to:

The board has no official say over whether the estimated $100 million mosque and community center gets built.

I suppose the sanctimonious anger is understandable, however, ultimately it should play no role in the matter. You see, all over the world, there are religious buildings constructed at places where those religions committed atrocities; for instance, there are Christian churches in and near Jerusalem, the site of a massacre perpetrated by (Christian) Crusaders in 1099, and at Verden an der Aller, the site of a massacre of pagan Saxons by Charlemagne’s forces in 782. By this same reasoning, neither of these places … or good many others … should ever have any Christian churches, either! I wonder if these same folks would go along with that … ?

Photo credit: Luke Robinson.

Update 8/15/2010:

For the longest time I’ve had this nagging feeling there’s a great, pithy literary parallel to the situation of the so-called “mosque” (well, no, it’s not really a mosque) at (well, not really “at,” it’s a few blocks away from) the former WTC site. I just hadn’t been able to think of it.

Until tonight. It finally hit me. Not all of you will know this reference, but I’m pretty sure some of you will.

That recent literary parallel is: The monastery at Mar Terrin.

For those not familiar with this, it’s from a 5-book fantasy series called The Belgariad by the late David Eddings. In it, there had been — millennia prior to the events in the book — a race known as the Marags who lived in their own country called Maragor. They were invaded and slaughtered by a neighboring race, the Tolnedrans. Maragor was left a ruined land where no one lived (not voluntarily, anyway), haunted by the ghosts of its former inhabitants. In one of Maragor’s ruined border cities, Mar Terrin, a few Tolnedran monks settled, praying and chanting, in an effort to ease the suffering of the dead Marag souls still lurking in Maragor. In the books, the monks of Mar Terrin — who aren’t very numerous, since the vast majority of Tolnedrans prefer not even to think about how they destroyed all the Marags — are called “the conscience of Tolnedra.”

Building an Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center would effectively be very similar to that. Make that, it COULD be. I’m not sure what the motives of its builders are; I haven’t heard they wanted to build it as a way of offering some kind of appeasement to those who fell there. But their motives pretty much don’t matter, so long as they go about the process legally.

At any rate, it’s bothered me that, so far, I haven’t been able to think of that. Now I have. Not that it matters much … but there you are.

BTW … if you haven’t read these books, I heartily recommend them. The five books can be purchased grouped into a two-volume set: The Belgariad, Vol. 1 (Books 1-3) and The Belgariad, Vol. 2 (Books 4 & 5). Yeah, I know, this series is stuffed full of all sorts of obvious tropes … but it’s nonetheless a fun read. Call it a “guilty pleasure,” if you must. It was followed by a sequel series of 5, The Malloreon, which is not as good.

Eddings also wrote another, different, series of 3 books called The Elenium, now available in a single-volume set: The Elenium. That trilogy had a sequel trilogy, too, called The Tamuli, but as with The Malloreon, it’s also inferior to its predecessor. And yes, The Elenium is its own massive romp through many tropes, but a lot of readers prefer it even to The Belgariad.

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One of the mantras repeatedly intoned by proponents of “alternative medicine” — to deride science-based (or “conventional”) medicine — is that pharmaceuticals are “toxic” to the body; they’re vile, alien substances that fight the body and attack tissues, rather than working with the body “holistically” (whatever that means). The sad truth is that lots of “alternative medicines” or “dietary supplements” (they’re called the latter, in order to evade FDA review) are no safer. I blogged a couple years ago about “ayurvedic medicines” that are — sometimes — dangerously toxic. But now, the New York Times reports on a GAO study that reveals the danger (WebCite cached article):

Nearly all of the herbal dietary supplements tested in a Congressional investigation contained trace amounts of lead and other contaminants, and some supplement sellers made illegal claims that their products can cure cancer and other diseases, investigators found.

The levels of heavy metals ó including mercury, cadmium and arsenic ó did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous, the investigators found. However, 16 of the 40 supplements tested contained pesticide residues that appeared to exceed legal limits, the investigators found.

On top of these revelations, the GAO found that manufacturers had made illegal claims about their products:

Investigators found at least nine products that made apparently illegal health claims, including a product containing ginkgo biloba that was labeled as a treatment for Alzheimerís disease and a product containing ginseng labeled as a treatment to prevent diabetes and cancer.

This study had to be done by the GAO, because the FDA is forbidden to evaluate “dietary supplements”:

In 1994, Congress passed legislation that allowed supplement makers to sell products without first getting approval from the F.D.A. for their ingredients or for basic health claims. But scientific organizations have warned repeatedly since then that the F.D.A. should do more to ensure that the supplements are safe and that their health claims are substantiated.

The law referred to here is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (aka DSHEA). It may be changing, and the GAO’s study is related to that:

[The report’s] release comes two weeks before the Senate is scheduled to begin debate on a landmark food safety bill that is expected to substantially increase the federal governmentís authority over food manufacturers.

Even so, prospects for rationality in the manufacture and sale of these alternative medicines are bleak:

But it is uncertain how tough the bill will be on supplement manufacturers, and it has been the subject of fierce lobbying. Capitol Hill staff members familiar with the process said the bill was unlikely to include provisions opposed by supplement manufacturers.

If you live in the U.S., you should contact your House representative and both Senators and ask that they bring some sanity back to this industry.

Hat tip: Consumerist.

Photo credit: Neeta Lind.

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'Bombhead' cartoon by K. WestergaardPakistan’s censorship of the Internet over its potential to convey “sacrilege” has extended to Twitter as well as Blackberry service. The Indian Express reports on this (WebCite cached article):

Pakistanis are hopping mad following the ban on social networking sites Facebook and Twitter and the blocking of Blackberry services in the wake of a controversy over a contest featuring blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Mohammed.

Some Pakistanis apparently aren’t happy about it:

Raza Rumi, the editor of a popular ezine, described the banning of Blackberry services as “absolute madness”. …

“The zealots want us to go back to the stone age. These decisions should be reversed at once. There are other ways of dealing with this issue and not by an absolute ban of connectivity in the 21st century. In any case, it is not easy to ‘ban’ stuff in this day and age.”

That’s true, but the fact is that this will inconvenience a great many Pakistanis, only to satisfy the juvenile lunatic Islamists in that country.

I’m not sure I can really be sympathetic with Rumi and others like him, though. The Pakistani government that he — and the rest of Pakistan — voted into office, is doing precisely what it was voted in to do. Perhaps he — and other Pakistanis — should not have voted those folks in? And maybe they should consider getting rid of those people at the next election?

I’m betting this will not happen, however; Pakistanis will probably continue with an Islamist regime. If that’s the case then even the little sympathy I might have for them, will have vanished entirely.

I hope these zealots keep up their insanely immature campaign of futile censorship, it provides me with a wonderful opportunity to keep posting incendiary images that defy Islam’s proscriptions.

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