The Hartford Courant ran a story recently on a restaurant not far from where I live. The building dates back to Revolutionary times (1780, I believe). For years I’ve heard stories about it being haunted. But now the Courant proudly declares — get this! — that the building is known to be haunted (cached version):

The ghost of Abigail Pettibone is known to haunt the upstairs of the locally famous Pettibone’s Tavern, which dates from the 18th century.

As I said, I’ve heard stories all my life, about that place. Rumors that the building was haunted. Tales about the ghost that lurks there. Assumptions about why she lingers there. And so on.

But until I read this, I had not realized that it was known to have been haunted. As in, certain that it’s haunted, or proven to be haunted.

This is interesting. I must have missed something, because a demonstrable haunting would have made the news — and much further away than just my part of Connecticut.

Sorry, but the reporter is incorrect. The haunting of Pettibone’s Taven is not “known.” It may be “assumed” to be haunted, or “claimed” to be haunted … but it is most certainly not “known” to be haunted.

If it were, I’d say someone ought to apply to the James Randi Paranormal Challenge and make a cool million bucks before the prize runs out next year!

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These days, in the US and the rest of the occidental world, it’s not uncommon to think of religion as promoting peace. The Quakers, for example, were pacifists; many Abolitionists were strongly religious; and more recently the most prominent leader of the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, was a pastor who promoted non-violent resistance to racism. A column in today’s USA Today follows this reasoning, and claims that religion can stop wars:

Faith is sometimes the fuel that feeds conflict and spreads strife. History is a witness to this. But lest we forget, believers also can be the salve to bring people and religions back together. …

Religion — a solution to the problem of religiously motivated conflict and violence? Yes, actually. Because in their best traditions, the world’s two dominant faiths do promote peace, both through their central teachings and the lessons-by-example taught every day by innumerable Muslims and Christians who take their scriptures seriously.

The author cites examples of this phenomenon in, for example, some recent defections from al-Qaeda, and the request for “understanding” by Christians, offered by some 138 Muslim scholars, a little over a year and a half ago.

I hate to say it but these are fairly meager examples, given the much-larger scale of religiously-fueled violence that has taken place — and which is currently taking place (as in the Palestinian conflict, among others).

And to be honest, many of the positive religiously-inspired movements I mentioned already (e.g. abolition, and civil rights) had strong secular components that went along for the ride; among abolitionists were many northern capitalists who hoped to gain from the decline of the southern economy if slavery ended, and the civil rights movement of the 60s was not made up solely of religious people, but was aided by secular organizations as well, such as the ACLU. While both of these had strong religious components, they were not solely religious movements.

Articles like this one tend to gloss over the damage that religion has done, and amount to an attempt to whitewash the harm that centuries of religious-inspired violence has done to humanity. It serves no one to minimize the horrors of religion, precisely because, without keeping this in mind, it’s far too easy for it to happen again. It likewise does little good to cite a couple weak examples of religion fostering peace, and assume that religion automatically will do so again. It won’t — and in fact, it can’t, unless people make it happen.

Another way of putting it is: Religion cannot and will not save humanity; only humanity can save itself. We will either choose to live with one another, or we won’t. Religion will not make that happen, all by itself. It will take societal maturity, willpower, patience, determination, and tolerance. None of these can be forced on people from pulpits or by reading sacred texts.

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Most religions have symbols that can be used to denote them. Christianity has the cross, Judaism a star of David, Hinduism the “om” syllable in Devanagari, Sikhism has its khanda, and so on. The various kinds of freethought (Atheism, Agnosticism, etc.) don’t really have a symbol, however. I encountered this problem in creating this site; it would have been nice to offer a nice distinct logo or even a favicon, but nothing really worked.

This is not something that hasn’t received attention over the years, and various groups have adopted their own logos, but none has really gained acceptance as an overall symbol.

But PeterM at the Effing the Ineffable blog has an interesting proposal:

The magnifying glass. Simply a circle and a stick. It can be drawn roughly or precisely, it can be incorporated into other designs, or it can be rendered in three dimensions – as jewellery, for instance, or sculpture.

The magnifying glass (we could refer to it as the rationalist lens) represents rational enquiry, scientific investigation and curiosity about the natural world. Like the Christian fish, it’s easy to reproduce in two or three dimensions, formally or informally. It can be executed as calligraphy, typography or jewellery. It’s simple to remember and easy to explain. And, if you’re of a subversive turn of mind or otherwise need to conceal your affiliations, it makes (like the fish in its day) an excellent piece of clandestine graffiti.

It’s definitely worth consideration! Think about it!

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Has the Discovery Channel become the Religion Channel?

Tonight I saw listed as airing on Discovery Channel a show called Noah’s Ark: The True Story. Folks, there is absolutely nothing “true” about Noah’s Ark. There never was a global flood, there was no ark that contained two of every species on earth, humanity was not saved and preserved by 8 people led by the righteous Noah. It never happened. Nothing about the story is true. Not one speck. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nichts. Nijako.

Of course, the Hebrew scribes who wrote about “Noah” in the 6th or 5th century BCE did not really make the story up, as might be claimed given the story’s ahistorical nature. They actually had a source, that being a story that had been told in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) for perhaps millennia already. The best-attested prior version of this story is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh; we know it from 7th century BCE tablets which in turn were based on legends dating back as far as the 14th century BCE, and were written in Akkadian, the language of Babylon (once ruled by the famous Hammurabi). The flood tale in Gilgamesh is a story-within-a-story, told by the man who survived the flood, named Utnapishtim. But even the ancient Babylonians didn’t make up their flood story … they, too, had a source, which we know from a few fragments in the Sumerian language, as well as mentions of the tale from Greek authors who heard it in classical times. Its hero is Ziusudra, priest-king of the city of Shuruppak.

Nothing about the Noah-Flood story as found in Genesis is a “historical” record. It was, rather, a very old legend even in the Hebrews’ time, which their priesthood used for its metaphorical value — and we have every reason to suppose that previous versions of the story, as told among the Babylonians and Sumerians before them, also had been used for its metaphorical value.

Humanity desperately needs to get over its compulsion to confuse these morality-tales with actual history — because they are not history, they never were intended to be history, and they never will become history, no matter how ardently anyone looks for the Ark. It’s a story, nothing more. Just a story.

We certainly do not need the Discovery Channel — known for its science content, including the excellent show Mythbusters — to provide us with documentaries pretending to tell us “the True Story” about something that never fucking happened!

If you wish to believe that Noah existed, that YHVH saved him and his family from ruin; that he, his wife, his sons, and all their wives gathered aboard an ark, along with two of every animal on earth; and together they all survived a global flood lasting 40 days — well, you go right ahead. Just don’t expect me to accept it as true, and for cryin’ out loud, stop telling everyone else that they should, too, just because you do! Your belief, no matter how deep or sincere, does not equate with veracity. It just doesn’t.

And we sure as hell don’t need television channels usually dedicated to scientific content, to be peddling religion, of all things!

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Things were looking pretty dark for the Anglican Church (known here in the ’States as the Episcopal Church) after the elevation of the openly-gay Gene Robinson to Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 (he took office in 2004). A number of congregations have left the Anglican Union over this, including one not far from me here in Connecticut, about a year ago. Fortunately, aside from some rogue priests, congregations, and (in the Third World) even a couple of bishops, the Anglican Union managed to stay together.

But recently the Anglican church made yet another controversial decision that might cause even more departures:

The Church of England’s move to accept women bishops further roiled an already troubled Anglican communion Tuesday, infuriating conservatives and complicating efforts to promote unity with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church of England’s ruling body on Monday night voted to back women becoming bishops without giving traditionalist supporters of male-only bishops the concessions they had sought.

Yes, folks, that’s right, the Anglican Union — which has ordained women as priests for some years now — is still having trouble with the idea that men and women are equal.

Or should I say, a conservative wing of the Anglican Union is having difficulty with the concept. This conservative wing, along with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as some Protestant denominations, are still afflicted with Neanderthal thinking about women.

In reality there is no clear, logical, rational basis for not allowing women to be ordained, to whatever office. There is nothing about one gender or the other that makes one better as clergy, or precludes being clergy.

As for why and how the Roman Catholic Church believes it has any authority to tell the Anglican Church what it can or cannot do, your guess is as good as mine.

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I blogged earlier about Texans who want to proselytize to public-school kids in science classrooms, cloaking their religiosity behind a (false) veil of science. Well, the battle is heating up:

A former state science curriculum director on Wednesday sued the Texas Education Agency and Education Commissioner Robert Scott, alleging she was illegally fired for forwarding an e-mail about a lecture critical of the movement to promote intelligent design in science classes.

Christina Comer, who lost her job at the TEA last fall, said in a suit filed in federal court in Austin that she was terminated for contravening an “unconstitutional” policy at the agency. The policy required employees to be neutral on the subject of creationism — the biblical interpretation of the origin of humans, she said.

The policy was in force, according to the suit, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching creationism as science in public schools is illegal.

“The agency’s ‘neutrality’ policy has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion, and thus violates the Establishment Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit said.

Hopefully this lawsuit will rein in the avalanche of hyperreligiosity which is rapidly overtaking Texas … you know, the state where it’s now lawful to hurt people so long as you do it for “religious” reasons. Then again, this is Texas we’re talking about, arguably “the Buckle of the Bible Belt” (or should I call it, as they do, “the Bobble Bay-Elt”? Dis is da state where we dun go bah what ahr preacherman dun tol’ us ’cause he’s in touch widda Lorduh! Hal-lay-loo-yah ’n’ puh-rayz Gawduh!

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The New York Times recently reported on the mild controversy surrounding a tablet (known as “Gabriel’s Revelation”) containing Hebrew text from the pre-Christian period which suggests the Jesus story had an earlier Judaic ancestor. While I’m certainly amenable to the idea that the messianic story of Jesus was not original to the gospels — there are, after all, antecedents to gospel events in Hellenistic literature and tradition going back centuries — I hesitate to place too much faith in this discovery. The reason for my reservations and skepticism (aside from being a generally-skeptical person in the first place!) can be found here:

[The “Gabriel’s Revelation” tablet] was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home.

In archaeology, one must be wary of objects whose origins are not documented. We do not know where this tablet was when it was found, its position, location, what was found with it, or anything else. It was hanging around in a collector’s home for an unknown amount of time, as well, which means its patina (the coating of dust, corrosion, debris, etc. which generally collects on ancient objects) may have been compromised, as well.

Therefore I urge a great deal of caution when it comes to claiming that “Gabriel’s Revelation” is “proof” of anything about Christianity’s origins. Until we know more about this tablet we cannot take it at face value.

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