Archive for August, 2013

Archbishop urges Church to ‘repent’ over ‘wicked’ attitude to homosexuality / Photo: Getty Images, via the TelegraphI just blogged about some pithy remarks made recently by the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Well, his successor, the incumbent head of the Anglican Church just made some comments that are even more remarkable. As the (UK) Telegraph reports, while addressing an evangelical organization, he had strong words for the terrible manner in which many Christians treat gays (WebCite cached article):

The Most Rev Justin Welby told an audience of traditional born-again Christians that they must “repent” over the way gay and lesbian people have been treated in the past and said most young people viewed Christians as no better than racists on the issue.

These are noteworthy words, coming from a man who, as the Telegraph explains, had campaigned against permitting gay marriage in the UK and voted against in the House of Lords. He has a long way to go, himself, but he clearly has begun opening his mind to the concept that gays are human beings, too, and is telling other Christians so.

He further took note of the significance of the date on which he was speaking:

Noting the fact that it is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, he urged Christians to speak out about what they are in favour of rather than simply what they are against.

He praised the Alliance’s work tackling social problems by promoting food banks, working in social care or recruiting adopters and said that it was time for the Church to make “an alliance with the poor”.

But he went on: “One of things that I think is most noticeable where we make a bad impression in society at the moment is because we are seen as against things, and you talk to people and they say I don’t want to hear about a faith that is homophobic, that is this that that, that is the other.”

The Archbishop is correct in that Christians … and in fact, most religious people of whatever tradition … are much quicker to declare what they dislike and what they’re against, and to go after others, than to declare what they like and what they’re for, and to support others. The very nature of religionism is that it tends to define itself negatively rather than positively.

Oh, and I can see the whining now, before it’s even happened. “Welby called us ‘racist’ because we hate gays!” the more militant Christianists will scream. The trouble is, if they say that, they will have lied. Because Welby absolutely did not say that gay-hating is racism. Not at all! What he actually said is that “people under 35 … equate it to racism.” Which is not the same thing as saying gay-hating is, itself, racism.

In any event, let the screaming and crying from Christofascist quarters commence. I’ll be watching with glee as they show themselves, once again, to be sniveling little crybabies.

Photo credit: Getty Images, via the Telegraph.

Hat tip: Peter at Skeptics & Heretics Forum on Delphi Forums.

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you probably don't wanna knowNote: There’s some recent news in this case; see the update below.

I’ve long complained that Johnny Law tends to turn a blind eye to the machinations and lies of “psychics.” Criminal prosecutions are extremely rare. At worst, when caught, they pay off their victims (sometimes only partly) then lay low for a short time and move on to new targets. They almost never see the inside of a prison. No wonder it’s such a lucrative business!

But the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports on the unusual example of one such trial, which got underway today (WebCite cached article):

When Fort Lauderdale fortune teller Rose Marks goes on trial Monday, accused of masterminding a $25 million fraud, the case will offer a rare peek inside the secretive world of those who say they have psychic powers.

The amount of money involved in what prosecutors say was a 20-year scam and the celebrity status of the main witness — best-selling romance novelist Jude Deveraux, who they say lost $17 million — have brought notoriety to the case.

Though it’s not the first time a “psychic” has been criminally charged with fleecing customers, trials in such cases are uncommon, records show. Most fortune tellers accused of fraud have reached plea agreements with prosecutors or agreed to pay back what their clients said they owed.

Among the schemes employed by Marks and her family (the rest of them have already pled guilty) is their own variation on the old “gypsy curse” scam:

Marks and her family convinced some of the walk-in clients that their problems were caused by curses that had dogged their families for generations and that the family could perform rituals and other services to remove those curses, prosecutors said.

While they acknowledge that fortune telling is not against the law, “any more than performing magic or card tricks is not unlawful, or telling lies is not, per se, unlawful,” prosecutors say that Marks and her family committed fraud by making false promises and not returning money they said they would give back.

Marks herself protests her innocence and claims to be the victim:

In an exclusive interview about the case, Marks told the Sun Sentinel in December that she did nothing wrong.

“I gave my life to these people. We’re talking about clients of 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. We’re not talking about someone I just met and took all their money and ran off,” Marks said.…

Marks told the Sun Sentinel that she earned the money Deveraux paid her during their 17-year friendship. She said she was a personal assistant to Deveraux and negotiated a fee of about $1 million a year when she agreed to give up her profitable business to work almost exclusively for the wealthy author, whose work includes more than 35 books on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Marks also said that she helped Deveraux write some of her novels.

“I was her inspiration and gave her insight on Romani mysticism and beliefs in the after life and religion and the psychic world and the spiritual world and romany theology and … it took a lot of time and effort,” Marks told the newspaper.

Oh, and, of course, this prosecution was triggered by anti-Romani prejudice:

Marks’ defense says she is the victim of bias against the Roma, also known as Gypsies, and that investigators drummed up the charges against her after some of her long-term clients experienced “buyer’s remorse.”

While there’s no doubt that there’s anti-Romani prejudice in the world, that doesn’t mean there can’t still be some crooked Romani out there who genuinely deserve to be prosecuted.

At any rate, it’s heartening to see the criminal justice system actually take on these metaphysical swindlers. What a lot of these psychics do is fraud — plain and simple — and it ought to be prosecuted a lot more often.

Update: Putative “psychic” Rose Marks was given a 10-year federal sentence for her swindle (cached) after being convicted in September 2013.

Photo credit: Flood, via Flickr.

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February 08-09, 2013 Blizzard Storm Total Snow Accumulation/ by Brandon Vincent (National Weather Service Raleigh, NC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsI’ve blogged a time or two about New England’s famous “farmer’s almanacs” (there are two: the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac) and their nonsense “predictions” of what the winter will be. The Farmers’ Almanac has just released its prediction, and as the AP reports via CBS News, it’s rather dire (locally-cached article):

The Farmers’ Almanac is using words like “piercing cold,” “bitterly cold” and “biting cold” to describe the upcoming winter. And if its predictions are right, the first outdoor Super Bowl in years will be a messy “Storm Bowl.”

The 197-year-old publication that hits newsstands Monday predicts a winter storm will hit the Northeast around the time the Super Bowl is played at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. It also predicts a colder-than-normal winter for two-thirds of the country and heavy snowfall in the Midwest, Great Lakes and New England.

“We’re using a very strong four-letter word to describe this winter, which is C-O-L-D. It’s going to be very cold,” said Sandi Duncan, managing editor.

The AP quite thoughtfully explains how we’re to be sure this “prediction” is accurate:

Based on planetary positions, sunspots and lunar cycles, the almanac’s secret formula is largely unchanged since founder David Young published the first almanac in 1818.

Modern scientists don’t put much stock in sunspots or tidal action, but the almanac says its forecasts used by readers to plan weddings and plant gardens are correct about 80 percent of the time.

Gee, I just love how the AP tells us that the Farmers’ Almanac must be accurate because its publisher says it’s accurate — and that, in turn, they back up by asserting that people use it to plan weddings. I am just so fucking glad they could clear that up for me!

I also love how they totally dismiss modern meteorology, as though no one has learned any more about the weather since 1818. I’m well aware of meteorology’s deficiencies … I was born and currently live in rural Connecticut, after all! … but to assume a putative prediction method dreamed up back in 1818 can’t possibly have been improved upon over the last two centuries? Come on. What a fucking joke!

The AP devoted just one clause of one sentence to mentioning that the two almanacs have skeptics, but nearly a couple of years ago, Discovery News ran a story addressing the almanacs’ accuracy, and they revealed there’s actually science behind that skepticism (cached):

Many atmospheric scientists and meteorologists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas used by the digests to prognosticate the weather.…

For nigh on to two centuries, Americans have taken a gander at farmer’s almanacs for auguries about the weather. Millions of readers think they are the bee’s knees but atmospheric scientists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas to prognosticate the weather.

“Based on my own analysis, and that of others, the monthly mean forecasts published by the ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’ (OFA) lack value,” Nick Bond, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington’s State Climatologist, told Discovery News.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” and the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” are in competition with each other, but also face stiff competition from meteorologists with millions of dollars worth of satellites, radar dishes and other new-fangled contraptions.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” has weathered these scientific advances with stalwart faith in the founder’s formula.…

In 2003, Bond compared “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts to actual weather events in the Pacific Northwest, the results are summarized in the Washington’s State Climatologist’s newsletter.

“The forecasts are sometimes correct. In terms of getting the sense of the weather anomalies right, for example whether it will be colder or warmer than normal, the OFA is correct about 50 percent of the time,” said Bond.

“Of course this is no better than flipping a coin,” he added.

Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services has compared “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts to actual weather conditions across the United States for much of the 2000’s. His results corroborate those of Bond.

Back in 1981 another study, published in Weatherwise, looked at 60 monthly temperature and precipitation forecasts for 32 weather stations across the U.S. and compared them to “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts. Once again, the accuracy of the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” was found to be no better than flipping a coin.

The almanacs’ claimed successes, it turns out, aren’t even true “successes”:

For example, the “Farmers’ Almanac” website notes they were “on the money,” when they forecast a hurricane threat for the Southeastern U.S. at the end of August, manifested in the form of Hurricane Irene.

“A forecast of a hurricane hitting the southeastern United States in August is probably a pretty good bet in any year,” said [U. of Missouri scientist Neil] Fox. “You tend to hear about these ‘remarkable’ predictions, but not, of course all the times they get it wrong! I certainly would not make my plans based on this.”

The bottom line is that the mass media have no viable excuse for reporting any of this bilge as though it were really “news.” They have even less excuse for reporting the almanacs’ claims about their own accuracy as though they were fact, when clearly they are merely raw assertions with no demonstrable basis. There’s no place for this kind of hypercredulity, at the AP or in any other newsroom. No one is served this insipid trash.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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'Help! I'm being oppressed!' / sublate, via FlickrFor many years now I’ve talked about how “persecuted” a lot of occidental Christians feel. The rationales they cook up for feeling this way, are as numerous as they are absurd. I just blogged about a Christian family that felt so oppressed that they foolishly took off across the Pacific Ocean in their own boat, only to have to be rescued. For as many years I’ve also talked about how childish devout religionists are, and how a lot of the things they say and do are motivated by their immaturity.

Well, the (UK) Telegraph reports that no less an authority on Christendom than the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, has made similar remarks about his fellow Christians (WebCite cached article):

Lord Williams, who stood down from his role as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of 2012 and is now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, said his perspective had been drawn from meeting believers from all faiths suffering around the world.

“When you have any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word persecuted very chastely,” he said.

“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable.

“I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought!

“But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.

“You have to earn respect if you want to be taken seriously in society.

“But don’t confuse it with the systematic brutality and often murderous hostility which means that every morning you get up wondering if you and your children are going to make it through the day.

“That is different, it’s real. It’s not quite what we’re facing in Western society.”

The problem with a lot of believers, especially in the Religious Right here in the ‘States, is that they absolutely refuse to “earn” respect. No. They demand it … loudly. And when they aren’t given it, automatically and reflexively, merely because they demanded it, they become furious. They truly do think that the fact that they have certain metaphysical beliefs, all by itself entitles them to run the planet however they see fit and to be obeyed in every way possible without question … and anyone insolent enough to dare refuse to grant them this power, is an enemy whom they cannot tolerate for even a second.

As I’ve said before and will say again, of course there are Christians in the world who are persecuted for their faith. It’s absolutely happening, and it’s not acceptable. But … it’s not happening here in the West. Christians in the US are not persecuted because they follow Jesus. It never happens here. Period. End of discussion.

Hat tip: Peter at Skeptics & Heretics Forum on Delphi Forums.

Photo credit: sublate, via Flickr.

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Help! Help! I'm being repressed! (Dennis the constitutional peasant, Monty Python & the Holy Grail)This is a seriously “WTF” story. Almost as if in support of the notion that religious people tend toward stupidity (something I’m not saying, although I just blogged about a meta-analysis that suggests so), we have this truly insane story. The Associated Press reports via ABC News that a devout Arizona family had to be rescued in the Pacific Ocean after they went adrift (WebCite cached article):

A northern Arizona family has survived being lost at sea for weeks after an ill-fated attempt to leave the U.S. over what they consider government interference in religion.

Hannah Gastonguay and her family will fly back home Sunday after taking their two small children and her father-in-law and setting sail from San Diego for the tiny island nation of Kiribati in May.

Weeks into their journey, the Gastonguays hit a series of storms that damaged their small boat, leaving them adrift for weeks, unable to make progress. They were eventually picked up by a Venezuelan fishing vessel, transferred to a Japanese cargo ship and taken to Chile.

The article explains how their little trip to Kiribati went awry. This family ended up adrift in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, far from any land and off of usual navigation routes. They were lucky they’d been discovered by a fishing vessel and didn’t perish at sea.

The reason they made this perilous trip? They were persecuted, you see:

Hannah Gastonguay said her family was fed up with government control in the U.S. As Christians they don’t believe in “abortion, homosexuality, in the state-controlled church,” she said.

U.S. “churches aren’t their own,” Gastonguay said, suggesting that government regulation interfered with religious independence.

Among other differences, she said they had a problem with being “forced to pay these taxes that pay for abortions we don’t agree with.” While federal law bars public funding for abortion, state attempts to block Medicaid funding for organizations that provide the procedure have met with legal hurdles. Opponents say that funding allows those groups to perform abortions.

The poor little things. They’re so oppressed!

I’ve blogged many times previously about many Christians’ claims that they’re being persecuted here in the ‘States. They aren’t, as anyone with half a brain knows. The reality of their status is summed up elegantly and succinctly in the following graphic:

'Help! I'm being oppressed!' / sublate, via Flickr

‘Help! I’m being oppressed!’ / sublate, via Flickr

That said, I do understand why they say this. It’s part and parcel of the psychopathology of Christianity. The founder of their religion was killed for his preaching, and his apostles were killed because of him, too. They largely can’t help themselves but wish to be persecuted for their faith just as Jesus and the apostles were. I really do get that.

But if you need any further evidence of how devastatingly harmful this kind of delusional thinking can be, consider that the Gastonguays barely survived their compulsion to flee “persecution” that’s not even going on.

Any more questions? I thought not. Glad to have cleared that up.

Photo credit, top: Based on Monty Python & the Holy Grail; middle: sublate, via Flickr.

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portrait of crying baby girl on living room at homeBrace yourselves for a full-blown meltdown by sanctimoniously-enraged believers! The (UK) Independent reports on the release of a meta-analysis that claims religious people are, collectively, less intelligent than atheists (WebCite cached article):

A new review of 63 scientific studies stretching back over decades has concluded that religious people are less intelligent than non-believers.

A piece of University of Rochester analysis, led by Professor Miron Zuckerman, found “a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity” in 53 out of 63 studies.

According to the study entitled, ‘The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations’, published in the ‘Personality and Social Psychology Review’, even during early years the more intelligent a child is the more likely it would be to turn away from religion.

Before I go any further with this, I need to point out that I’m always a bit skeptical about studies that talk about “intelligence.” Measures such as IQ are far from ideal in evaluating that quality people refer to as “intelligence.” The frequently amorphous, subjective, and biased nature of such measures all too easily can lead people to suspect conclusions. This is a meta-analysis, which required different measures of intelligence to be related to one another. To call this a slam-dunk is premature at best.

Even so, this analysis can’t be dismissed outright:

The review, which is the first systematic meta-analysis of the 63 studies conducted in between 1928 and 2012, showed that of the 63 studies, 53 showed a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, while 10 showed a positive one.

Only two studies showed significant positive correlations and significant negative correlations were seen in a total of 35 studies.

To dismiss the authors’ conclusion out-of-hand would be just as foolish as proclaiming it flawless and unassailable.

The reason I’m commenting on this, is because, as I said in the first sentence, it will no doubt trigger fury and outrage among believers. They will refuse to accept that it even might be remotely true, and will bluster and fume about how awful it is that someone dared insult them for their metaphysical beliefs.

As a matter of fact, just such a tirade can be found at the Independent itself (cached). Among the complaints:

As a sociologist the question that interests me is why do people embark on a project that seeks to determine the relationship between intelligence and religious belief.

Apparently the angry author of this plaintive whine thinks this is a question no one should be allowed to ask, and worse, that anyone who thinks to ask it, must be insane, mentally deficient, or evil or something. Moreover, he chalks this conclusion up to “sciencism” (whatever that might be). He apparently is unaware there’s been no law passed that decides what questions researchers can and cannot look into. He can’t handle that someone dared reach a conclusion he disapproves of.

As I said, there are problems inherent in any studies or analyses like this. Its validity, or lack thereof, will be thrashed out in the process of peer review. Throwing hissy-fits over someone daring to release it, cannot and never will invalidate it. Religionists would be better off growing up and accepting that questions like this might be asked, rather than getting all bent out of shape over them being asked in the first place.

Hat tip: Peter at the AntiBible Project on Delphi Forums.

Photo credit: Fiery-Phoenix, via Flickr.

P.S. Concerning the relation between religiosity and intelligence, something I find more measurable — not to mention more compelling — is that non-believers tend to be better-informed about religion, than believers (cached).

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Angel statueMany of my readers will have heard about the so-called “angel priest” in Missouri. If not, here’s a quick sketch: There’s a car accident and a teen is trapped in a car. Crews are trying to extricate her, but having no luck. A priest magically materializes out of nowhere, prays with her, tells rescuers their efforts will now be effective, and voilà! they free her. The priest then magically disappears. Later photos show no one at the scene who looks like a priest. There doesn’t seem to be any way a priest could have just wandered up to the accident and left without anyone seeing him go, so everyone decides this “priest” is an “angel” and the teen’s rescue is a genuine miracle. It was widely reported, including in this USA Today article (cached), although virtually every media outlet in the country mentioned it in some way.

I’m sure some of you wonder why I never mentioned this story while it was racing through the country last week. The reason is, I was sure there was more to this story that hadn’t been revealed, and didn’t want to remark on it until additional information had come in.

It turns out I was right to wait. There was more to be told about this event. As CNN reports, we now know this priest was no “angel,” but a plain old flesh-&-blood human being (WebCite cached article):

[The Rev. Patrick] Dowling, a priest since 1982, revealed in a comment on a story posted on the National Catholic Register that he was the man who prayed over Lentz, 19, while emergency workers treated her for injuries after an August 4 accident.

Dowling wrote in the comment, which has since been deleted: “I absolved and anointed Katie, and, at her request, prayed that her leg would not hurt. Then I stepped aside to where some rescue personnel and the pilot were waiting, and prayed the rosary silently.”

Dowling’s presence had been a mystery because officials at the scene said it seemed as if he appeared from nowhere, couldn’t be found in any pictures taken at the scene and left without anyone seeing where he went.

Rescuers said the mysterious priest told them to be calm and their tools would now work.

I want everyone to note that Fr Dowling’s account of this event differs a bit from the reports of those involved. In particular, he never says he told crews their equipment would now work, when it hadn’t before. It turns out, there’s a reason they were able to free the trapped teen: Right about then, the car had been righted, and fresh equipment was brought up to the crash, those did the job.

He also mentions that he identified himself to a trooper or deputy, so people later claiming that no one knew who he was, were lying.

This is a sterling example of how “miracle” stories can be confabulated and fabricated from otherwise-mundane events. We have an accident scene with a lot of people around, all trying to get something done (namely, free someone from a wrecked car, and gather evidence for an accident investigation). It’s chaotic and hard for anyone involved to know what’s going on outside of whatever it is s/he is doing. There’s also a little embellishment, plus some strategic omissions (e.g. the trooper to whom Fr Dowling identified himself conveniently failing to mention he knew who the priest was, while this story about an “angel priest” flashed around the country). And there’s also the little matter of lying about the circumstances (i.e. folks insisted there’d been no possible way anyone could have approached the accident scene; obviously that couldn’t have been true).

I have to give credit to Fr Dowling for his honesty afterward in revealing who he was. I’m sure lots of believers out there will nevertheless view this is a “miracle” in spite of his admission and in spite of the fact that it was righting the car — plus a fresh rescue crew with fresh equipment — that got Ms Lentz extricated, not some mysterious “angel priest’s” magical intervention. Believers never let pesky little things like “facts” get in the way of an emotionally-compelling story.

Note: The famous urban legend debunking site Snopes just weighed in on this story (cached).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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