Not far away from me, in Springfield, MA, there is a magical window, at Mercy Medical Center there. It bears an image of the Virgin Mary, it is said. People have flocked from all over to see it:

Hundreds of devout Catholics and curious onlookers have gathered to pray, weep and chant outside a Catholic Springfield hospital window where an image that some say looks like the Virgin Mary has appeared.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, with which this medical center is affiliated, is making hay out of it:

Mark Dupont, spokesman for the Springfield Diocese, said that when he saw the image yesterday it was a “clearly, well-defined outline.” …

He said about 100 people had gathered this morning to see the image – and that is what has moved him.

“You may debate the image, but you can’t debate the faces of the people who are gathered there,” he said. “That’s what is inspiring right now.”

The spokesman’s reference to faces is, of course, a form of the “democratic fallacy” by which things are claimed to have veracity merely because there are people who believe they do. Nice. Lots of logic there, Dupont.

Fortunately, some minds more rational than his have been called in to have a look — specifically some engineers, and they have determined there is actually nothing supernatural about the window:

Engineers say an analysis of a hospital window that hundreds claim displays an apparition of the Virgin Mary indicates the image may be due to a mineral deposit. …

Their report indicated the image may be a mineral deposit that built up in the sealed area between the window’s two panes of glass.

Like most windows in New England, this one is double-paned, meaning it’s two sheets of glass sealed with a vacuum between. Unforunately it’s all too easy for the seal to be breached and for air to get inside, letting who-knows-what seep in and stay behind. It’s much more common than most people are aware.

But it’s not magic.

And I defy anyone to show me where, exactly, the Virgin Mary is in these pictures (see links in this article for photos). Sorry but I don’t see anything recognizable — not even if diocesan spokesman Dupont says I must, just because some are convinced of it.

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That Saudi Arabia is stuck in the Middle Ages is not news. What is news is that a prominent Saudi cleric is taking on what has become a major cultural trend in the Arab world, as reported by Reuters:

A senior Saudi cleric has said purveyors of horoscopes on Arab television should face the death penalty, a paper said on Sunday, days after another cleric argued death for TV owners.

“Sorcerers who appear on satellite channels who are proven to be sorcerers have committed a great crime … and the Muslim consensus is that the apostate’s punishment is death by the sword,” Sheikh Saleh al-Fozan told al-Madina daily. …

Many of the hundreds of Arab satellite channels have sprung up in recent years specialise in horoscopes and other advice to callers on solving problems that is seen as “sorcery.”

In their capacity as judges, clerics of Saudi Arabia’s austere form of Islam often sentence “sorcerers” to death.

Fozan, a member of the Higher Council of Clerics, was responding to a controversy ignited by a Council colleague, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, who said last week that owners of Arab TV shows should be tried and face death over some shows. …

Lohaidan, who is the head of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic sharia courts, told Saudi radio: “I want to advise the owners of these channels that broadcast programmes with indecency and vulgarity and warn them of the consequences … They can be put to death through the judicial process.”

He was referring to comedy shows and soap operas airing in Ramadan, a month of fasting when Muslims are supposed to focus on God. Critics say Ramadan has become an orgy of food and television consumption once the fast ends at sunset. …

The Reuters article concludes by explaining the tension between state and religion in Saudi Arabia that drove these clerics to lash out:

The owners of Arab entertainment channels, including MBC, ART, Orbit, Rotana and LBC, are mostly Saudi royals and businessmen closely allied to them.

Concerned about the country’s international image, some key members of the Saudi royal family have promoted liberal reforms. The clerics fear plans to limit their extensive influence in what is the world’s largest oil exporter.

Like little children, when faced with opposition, the Saudi clerics react in typical immature fashion — by stamping and fuming and making threats. Nice, huh?

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It sounds unbelievable, but the latest advocate for teaching creationism in public-school science classrooms is Michael Reiss, who is director of education for one of the western world’s great bulwarks of science, the Royal Society. He wrote in the (UK) Guardian:

Teachers need to accommodate the differing world views of students from Jewish, Christian or Muslim backgrounds — which means openly discussing creationism and intelligent design as alternatives to evolutionary theory

Reiss’s justification for this is, in a word, bizarre:

Evolution and cosmology are understood by many to be a religious issue because they can be seen to contradict the accounts of origins of life and the universe described in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. The issue seems like an ongoing dispute that has science and religion battling to support the credibility of their explanations.

I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.

Reiss is saying that because the religionazis of the world have defined evolution and cosmology as being their purview — merely by virtue of their holding metaphysical beliefs about them — that we are required to capitulate to this claim and allow their metaphysics to creep into science in return.

This is simply wrong, however. I’m well aware that believers truly consider themselves somehow “credentialed” as authorities on these subjects for the sole reason that they believe themselves to have such credentials … but they are not, in fact, so credentialed. It is therefore not in any way appropriate to act as though they have such credentials. Only scientists possessing the credentials to do so — and educators trained in science — are capable of deciding what is or isn’t science. Shoving creationism into public-school classrooms simply indulges believers’ mistaken, arrogant claim of possessing scientific credentials, and does nothing to correct the problem.

The answer to clearing up the minds of the young is not to allow the “forces of darkness,” to reimpose medieval thinking on humanity. No, the answer is, instead, to tell believers that their “faith” is not sufficient to allow them to determine what is or isn’t science — and if they don’t like it, well, too bad, no one said they had to like it.

Lastly, I agree with Reiss that creationism is a worldview … but that is precisely why it cannot be mixed with science. There are lots of worldviews, not all of them deserve a hearing in science classrooms. That the earth is flat, not spherical, is a worldview that a few, even today, hold to — but it should not be taught as science. I do not expect Reiss would propose the flat-earth notion to be taught in science classrooms … so why he would want creationism there, I have no idea.

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Led by the stalwart legions of Religious Right™ lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund (an outfit you need to learn more about, if you haven’t already), a bunch of pastors are going to fight off the IRS rule against churches endorsing political candidates (as reported by the Washington Post):

Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted

Declaring that clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors to do just that on Sept. 28, in defiance of Internal Revenue Service rules.

The effort by the Arizona-based legal consortium is designed to trigger an IRS investigation that ADF lawyers would then challenge in federal court. The ultimate goal is to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

“For so long, there has been this cloud of intimidation over the church,” ADF attorney Erik Stanley said. “It is the job of the pastors of America to debate the proper role of church in society. It’s not for the government to mandate the role of church in society.”

I’m disappointed in the headline. It conveys the idea that pastors are “banned” from saying anything. This is decidedly not the case. Like all Americans they have First Amendment rights to say whatever they want. No one is censoring them or “banning” them from endorsing candidates. Rather, their problem is that their churches have tax-exempt status, which binds them to the same restriction that all other tax-exempt entities must live up to, which is not to engage in politicking. So these ferocious pastors and their churches are, in fact, quite free to endorse candidates — they just have to forfeit their tax-exempt status in order to do so.

The legions of the ADF are, therefore, positing a “straw man,” one that the Post unwittingly (I think) is supporting in its choice of headline. The fact is that pastors are in no way “banned” from speaking. That they would claim so, makes them dishonest. They merely can’t campaign for political candidates and keep their churches’ tax exemption. That they would be so ardent about this shows what their true motivations are … money and power!

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This is one of those times I’m actually not surprised at all. The childish antics of fundamentalist preachers have long since become far too predictable ever to surprise me any more. I knew something like this would happen, as soon as I found out about the song “I Kissed A Girl” by Katy Perry:

For 24 hours, the message board outside Havens Corners Church, 6696 Havens Corner Rd., read, “I kissed a girl and I liked it, then I went to Hell.”The message refers to the chart-topping song by pop artist Katy Perry “I Kissed A Girl.”Pastor David Allison said he didn’t put up the sign to draw attention to the church.“We didn’t intend to get into all this, but it’s become a bigger thing,” Allison said.  

First and most obviously, the pastor’s assertion that he’s not trying to call attention to his church — by putting something on a billboard! — is as laughable as anything I’ve heard in the last few months. Of course he’s using it to call attention to his church … the purpose of any billboard, after all, is to call attention to things, is it not? I mean … what other purpose can a billboard possibly serve? The article continues with yet another false claim by the pastor:

He was just very concerned about the implications of the song for teenagers and what he called a music video so suggestive it borders on pornography.“If anyone’s seen the video and understands how lewd and suggestive the video is for this song, that is not something young people should go toward,” Allison said.  

Please, if he’s going to post lyrics on his billboard for every song that’s ever had a suggestive video, he’d have to do it for most songs released, because almost all music videos are suggestive! Oh, and the article adds this wonderful remark by the pastor:

He thought the message would be a loving way to remind teenagers that the Bible denounces homosexuality.  

Ah yes, what more loving a message can one offer to one’s fellow human being, than to threaten him or her with eternal perdition? How special. And this article ends with this final expression of love from Pastor Allison:

Allison said they do welcome the GLBT community but believe they are engaged in sin.   

I’d say that this sentiment is far from “welcoming.” Although I’m by no means a fan of pop music these days, below is the video from YouTube as a kind of protest against wild-eyed fundie preachers like Pastor David Allison. Enjoy!

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We’re hearing a lot about Alaska governor Sarah Palin, John McCain’s chosen vice-presidential candidate. A lot of what’s being reported is sensational, a lot of the rest is pretty much what you’d expect of a Republican on the national ticket (e.g. she’s anti-abortion and anti-birth control). But one thing struck me as unusual, going above and beyond what one would see in a Republican now stepping onto the national stage. According to a report in the New York Times:

Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

Perhaps what’s even more bizarre than the idea of a United States mayor trying to ban books around the turn of the 21st century, is her “explanation” for this episode:

In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were “rhetorical.”

Huh? How does this make any sense? She went to the effort of firing someone, over a “rhetorical” question? Who the hell does Palin think she’s fooling? Not me, I’m not buying that lame excuse … and neither should you.

Note to Mrs Palin: If you really want to ban books, I suggest beginning with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; once you get that one out of everyone’s hands, banning others will become just a bit easier.

Folks, prepare for the worst, if Palin remains the VP nominee (not necessarily guaranteed, given her situation) — it’s clear to me that the GOP’s main issue, this election, won’t be cutting taxes, paring down government, or even McCain’s presumed strong-suit, foreign relations; it will be, instead, the “culture wars.” We’re going to hear all about how those eeeeevilll secular humanists (or to use Bill O’Reilly’s term, secular progressives) are trying to destroy the country. We will hear all about how Obama supports infanticide (when he doesn’t). We will hear about how the liberals want to hand the country over to “activist judges” (as if the conservatives who run the Supreme Court now are somehow not activists themselves!). We will hear about how terrible it is that God has been removed from “the public square.” We will hear all about how the Left is trying to malign poor Sarah Palin merely because she is a Christian (and by extension, presumably, the Left also wants to abolish all Christianity everywhere in the US).

In short, it’s going to get damned ugly, damned fast, and stay ugly, all the way to Election Day. Just the thought of it is giving me indigestion …

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I suppose it must be caused by the same impulse that also causes rubbernecking, but occasionally I read the column of Fox News religion consultant, Fr Jonathan Morris. Once in a while, in his effort to rationally justify Roman Catholic doctrines and castigate everything else, he engages in what can best be described as logical gymnastics — he doesn’t merely twist logic, he does flips and cartwheels with it. His latest installment, an open letter to the Democrats, is a case in point:

Two very smart people, at the highest levels of your Party, were pointing to science and theology as having something to say about the abortion debate. Yes, Senator Obama and Speaker Pelosi were saying that determining the physical and moral status of a human embryo actually matters. But strangely, Obama hasn’t cared enough to clear up his many doubts and Pelosi has decided to accept the view of an African theologian who lived 1,600 years ago.

This is an interesting comment coming from a Roman Catholic priest. By definition he has not arrived at his views of abortion, or when life begins, by a review of the science, or even by a review of the theology involved. He arrived at it by virtue of one document and one only … Apostolicae sedis, a 19th century papal bull. It tells him everything he needs to know on the subject, and everything he is permitted to think about it. His clerical vows, in fact, utterly prevent him from entertaining any other possibilities. So Fr Jonathan is disingenuous by suggesting that he’s waiting for either Pelosi or Obama convince him of the acceptability of abortion … because even if they were to do so, he’s duty-bound by his vow as a priest not to accept it!

Second, note how he dismisses Pelosi’s views, as those of “an African theologian who lived 1,600 years ago.” This is an extremely interesting — and dismissive — way for him to describe St Augustine, arguably the most influential (if not the most original, he took a lot of his material from the Church Father Tertullian and his mentor St Ambrose) Christian theologian. Would Fr Jonathan ever dismiss the Roman Catholic notion of “just war” (which Augustine first codified) as having come from “an African theologian who lived 1,600 years ago”? Of course not.

Fr Jonathan claims at the start of his column to be an “independent,” but let’s face it, he’s nothing but a Roman Catholic apologist for the Religious Right™, as he always follows their line.

I wonder if Fr Jonathan is aware how truly different the Protestant evangelicals (who comprise the vast majority of the Religious Right™) are from his own Church. There are many evangelicals who, if they had their way, would outlaw Roman Catholicism, since they consider Catholics to be “saint-worshippers.”

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