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Dan Savage, not for the first time, is mostly right.

His plea in this video is to those Christians who consider themselves in the liberal and tolerant subset of their religion, who keep reminding him that not all Christians are bigoted homophobes.

The problem, as he points out, is that they issue these reminders by emailing him personally, much more often than they do so by publicly denouncing other bigoted or homophobic Christians. He wants them to do more to join non-religious types in condemning the extremists, and do some good while boosting Christianity’s credibility as a source of tolerance and compassion.

And I think it is worth trying to bring some liberal Christians onto our side here, and to ally with them to some degree in combating values that we both find abhorrent.

(We’re still going to think your faith is ridiculous. Fair warning. But that doesn’t need to be constantly on the table while we’re talking about stuff like gay rights or abortion.)

The thing to remember, though, is that these abhorrent values are unequivocally Christian values. The history of Christian progressivism or fundamentalism has been a complex and bumpy one, but The Good Atheist is right to suggest that “hijacking” is an over-simplified description of what the conservative fundamentalists are up to. Their justification for bigotry comes straight from the same Bible that liberal Christians find their inspiration to be compassionate and charitable.

One thing that’s different, though, is the claim to speak for all Christians. That is something you only here from the right-wing nut side of things, and this is to the liberals’ credit. But Dan’s right to point out that, a lot of the time, the end result amounts to “silent complicity” by the latter group of the former’s prejudices.

A lot of the liberal Christian reaction is limited to emailing complaints to people like Dan Savage for their unfair characterisation of Christianity as being wholly bigoted and homophobic. But members of the bigoted and homophobic wing of the religion are out there debating with him on national TV shows, and this is the kind of thing responsible for defining the public face of Christianity. If that face is one of intolerance and hate, whose problem is that? Who should it fall to to correct the imbalance, to stand up for a compassionate, tolerant, liberal Christianity, to make sure this is a view that’s also heard and appreciated and understood?

Not mine. Not Dan Savage’s. We’re not part of that movement. We can’t be responsible for its PR.

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Nobody’s cancelling Christmas.

Nobody. Let’s get that straight from the start.

Winterval was a thing that happened twice, around the Christmas periods in 1997 and 1998, in Birmingham’s town centre. It’s regularly cited by ridiculous tabloid fantasists as a dastardly secularist attempt to stifle Christian expression and abolish all the religious traditions of Christmas.

This notion has been described by Birmingham City Council as “bollocks”.

Their official statement describing this supposedly atheist-driven, Christian-bashing frenzy of political correctness went on to say:

[T]here was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

That’s Winterval, folks.

The war on Christmas is another of those things, like the imminent destruction of the world by the Large Hadron Collider, that’s only really believed by twats.

Ooh, that pesky war on Christmas, forcing supermarkets to put their own Christmas stuff on sale from the start of September, surely as part of some dastardly plot to make sure it’s all sold out or spoilt by the time any sane person would actually want to start buying advent calendars and mince pies.

(I don’t really have a way to integrate that line coherently into the rest of the piece, but I wanted to use it somewhere. It’s true, as well. There’s been Christmas stuff up in my local Sainsbury’s for about a month now, with expiration dates in November.)

There’s also a really terrible-looking movie coming out, to inspire Christians to be brave, stick to their guns, and hope that one day they’ll find wider acceptance, at a time of year when everything becomes all about them and their festival anyway. PZ’s description of it as “pandering to the Christian persecution complex” is spot on.

Ed Brayton‘s observation about this hideous movie trailer is also worth noting:

It begins with one character saying, “This is the only time of the year the entire world has this shared experience of peace and hope for the future.” Entire world? … That’s a very telling statement, don’t you think? They define the “entire world” as being populated solely by people that think like them. No one else exists for them. At the very least, no one else even needs to be taken into consideration.

This is the essence of the tribalistic “Us vs. Them” stance some people seem to find it necessary to take about Christmas. Anyone not joining them in celebrating it, in their way, must be against it and seeking its downfall. The idea of other people having their own traditions but not wanting to interfere with yours is alien to some people. Even the possibility that other people might be tolerant doesn’t occur to them.

I love Christmas. Always have. I’ll be listening to carols and spending time with my family and going along with all the standard festive traditions, except some of the more churchy stuff. But some people aren’t into that. And my suggestion, if you don’t want to look like petulant dicks, is that you leave those people alone and be happy with the substantial chunk of world domination you’ve already got. Stop looking for lies and made-up stories that let you feel like the oppressed underdog. You guys are winning.

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– I am an insufficiently funny atheist. This is genius. From that guy who brought you that weird email prank thing with the spider.

– Shock news: loud minority of idiots continued to get unbelievably upset and whiny about a tiny suggested change to the current way of doing things. Specifically, police have been advised to use an alternate term than “Christian name” when referring to someone’s first name, and this is apparently as horrible an infringement on our liberties as if they had BANNED CHRISTMAS FOREVER. Seriously, grow up. You call it a Christian name because you’ve grown up in a society where Christianity is the norm. Why would a Muslim have a Christian name? Or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or any non-Christian? I’m not going to be bothered one way or the other if someone asks me for mine, but… what the fuck is difficult about saying “forename”? Oh god now I’m looking at links to other articles on this site and I’m just going to bail out now for the sake of my blood pressure. (link via @NewHumanist)

– Jack of Kent has posted Jack’s Defamation Challenge, in which he claims to defame some notable public characters, but I don’t think he actually does. You can make up your own mind, though.

– I’m not going to personally be able to join in with lobbying the House of Commons on libel reform, but lots of awesome people will be more than making up for my absence.

– A couple of guys wrote a pretty crappy book about Darwin, and Adam Rutherford was not impressed with the Guardian’s lame reporting on how “everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong”. It’s probably not. Biology is just an ever-developing branch of science in which we regularly learn new things. This very lengthy book review discusses the problems with What Darwin Got Wrong in what I assume is a brilliant and insightful analysis but I can’t be sure because I haven’t read it because of tired.

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Hell has been imagined in various different ways, but let’s just start with the premise that God loves us, and also that he has the power to do pretty much whatever he wants. (Common enough religious tropes, though the specifics I use will probably stay somewhat Jesus-centric.) Why, then, would he choose to send some of us to Hell, generally agreed to be a place of eternal and infinite suffering?

Well, maybe we simply deserve this punishment. Most belief systems that include a Hell will also describe their god as just and righteous. Presumably, then, when he sends us to eternal torment, it is entirely fair of him to do so. His justice is unquestionable, and in this way as in all others his acts are entirely noble and good.

My question is… really? An infinite punishment meted out for a finite crime? Totally fair? It seems counter-intuitive to say the least. It also doesn’t allow for the chance that, eventually, people might start to feel a tinge of regret for whatever it was they did. I don’t know what the recidivism rates are like in this (or any) country, and I don’t care to do the research, but even if many people don’t turn themselves around after a decades-long prison stretch on earth, surely a few thousand millennia of unceasing pain might induce a smidgen of remorse.

And even if somebody isn’t remotely sorry for what they did, infinite punishment? Really? Look, however many people you’ve raped and murdered and taken to Westlife gigs, it’ll be no time at all in cosmic terms before every trace of suffering you’ve caused has been wiped clean and forgotten. Sure, if there really is a God, then the rapists and murderers and criminally insipid boy-bands might have a bit of explaining to do if they ever bump into him. But the suggested punishment is 100000000000000000000000000 times worse than any compendium of crimes a person could ever commit. And way more than that, too. Infinity’s pretty huge. If we’re supposed to accept that a just god could do this to us, then I’d want to be let in on the logic supposedly at work to justify what seems like a colossal over-reaction. At least give me a hint.

In Christian doctrine, there is one truly unforgivable sin, namely that of “blasphemy against the holy spirit”. Mark 3:29 reads: “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Quite what this Holy Ghost character would take as blasphemy seems to be left open to interpretation – which is just what you want in an explanation of what actions will condemn you to infinite punishment – but whatever it is, he sure don’t like it.

But, obviously, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation here. The thing is, y’see, is that God is the one being offended here, and he is infinite, so therefore a crime against the infinite god is an infinite crime and deserves infinite retribution. So, it all makes sense.

This, if you’ll excuse my using some technical jargon for a moment, makes no motherfucking goddamn sense. If you’re arguing that your God’s ego is infinitely fragile, then you might have a point, but that’s not a thing I’ve heard anyone proudly proclaim in so many words.

Maybe it works both ways. “Hey, God, lookin’ sharp today.” Is that enough to win me an eternal reward in paradise to balance out the endless punishment I already earned by tossing out an equally casual one-liner? No? So, the deal is, we have to work really hard for any hope of happiness, and one little momentary lapse into sacrilege is enough to bollocks up the whole thing. We’re all sinners, and the only thing that can save us from a hell-bound life of depravity is if we ask for God’s grace – from the right god, obviously.

Um. Why does it work that way around? I mean, is it just me, or does this God guy seem just a little bit eager – particularly for someone who loves us all infinitely – to watch us have our genitals skewered on pitchforks by all the demons of Hades? There are a number of people whom I love, but very few of them I would enjoy watching scream in agony while Satan eats their intestines and rapes them with swordfish for more than… I guess ten thousand years or so. Very few.

Our relationship with God is often compared to that of a child and a parent. God allows the existence of human suffering for the same reason parents don’t save their children from every possible harm: they don’t want to over-protectively shield them from the world, because this would do them the greater injury of preventing them from truly experiencing life. We’ve been told how to behave, and like a naughty child, sometimes we must learn the hard way what happens when we flout the instructions of our more knowledgable authority figure.

My question is… really? That’s how some people are justifying the existence of Hell? You don’t think there comes a point where maybe a parent should intervene for the good of their children – to protect them from, say, I don’t know, the worst thing that it’s possible to imagine? Even if it might diminish the richness of their experience of life, or impinge on their free will? (Oh, Christ on a cracker and Mary in a cheese toastie, don’t get me started on free will.)

Sure, letting your kids graze their knees from time to time with mildly dangerous activities is important, but that doesn’t begin to compare with what’s at stake here. A good, loving parent might be standing by with a bottle of Witch-hazel and an elastoplast. God, in this metaphor, is telling us, “Well, you used your free will to ride your bike across the roof, and it would’ve been wrong for me to intrude on that, and now you’ll never use your legs ever again. Let that be a lesson to you.”

Taking a blame-the-victim mentality to the extreme, the excuse is sometimes made that anyone who is sent to Hell has in fact chosen this path. They are responsible for their own fate, which could have been easily avoided simply by accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation, or by following God’s law and repenting their sin, or whatever else it is we’re supposed to do. Those who ignore these handy escape routes will be punished for their foolishness, and it’ll be their own fault. So, it’s not only disobedience and insufficient sucking-up which will lead to our benevolent creator allowing us to be tortured without end, but also making an honest mistake as to which improbable and incoherent mythos to buy into.

If you really think that a person whose only crime is subscribing to a belief system that’s different from yours is choosing pain and suffering without end, you really need to choke on the nearest sharp and pointy thing. Nobody walks up to the gates of Hell, accepts its reality, understands the exact nature of what lies inside, and genuinely decides, “Well, I think I’ll go in here and be brutally maimed and tortured for eternity or so”. It’s still God making the decisions about what happens to us.

To stretch the analogy further, imagine a parent telling their young son or daughter, “Now Wayne/Ingrid, Mummy and Daddy love you very much, but if you spill any more food on our nice carpet, I’ll bash you around the head with a shovel. It might seem disproportionate, but because I’ve told you exactly how to behave and how to be safe, if I do have to smash your face in, you’ll only be doing it to yourself.” Better yet, rather than talking to their child directly, imagine that the parent leaves several notes lying around, all of which contradict each other about what the child should do, and make similar threats about what’ll happen if they get it wrong, and are all signed “Your loving parents”. This is obviously unhinged, and none of the qualities so commonly attributed to God give him any more of a right to be such a dick.

If you believe in Hell, and also believe that God is unfair, cruel, and evil, then at least that’s consistent, if just a mite cynical. But if you think that the kind of loving god so many religions claim to worship is also capable of allowing such brutality as this, then either you have a pitifully shallow imagination (and just don’t get quite how atrocious this kind of brutality would be), or the charade that you are any kind of a reasonable human being is a very flimsy one. Having to believe that anyone who wrongs your god will suffer for it forever is a contemptibly primitive way of thinking, which we as a species should really have grown out of centuries ago.

This is adapted for the Skeptictionary from some older material.

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So, the three-part channel 4 series Make Me A Christian has just finished airing. There were some likeable people there on both sides of the aisle, but in the end, I think pretty much all of them got it wrong.

The concept of the show is that a bunch of non-Christians live the Christian lifestyle, and try to conduct themselves according to the teachings of Jesus, for three weeks, under the guidance of four clerics of varying degrees of sympathy, hard-nosed intolerance, and hotness. Some of the volunteers were more open to the idea than others, and some had lifestyles supposedly very much at odds with the Christian faith, or at least with these four people’s idea of it.

For instance, there was Laura, the slightly muscular gay chick (I don’t know what it is with me and somewhat-but-not-too butch girls-loving-girls, but rawr), who had a whole bedroom wall’s worth of pr0n confiscated at the start of the experiment, as well as The Big Book Of Lesbian Horse Stories. Most of her journey involved being lectured at about her sexuality, and not getting any good answers to her questions about how she’s supposed to love a god who hates what she is. She was amazingly tolerant throughout the attempted education of her sin, which included being taken to a fairground to experience the atmosphere of being around families and children. Because, she probably doesn’t get to see many straight people, being so sequestered away in her own gay lifestyle as she is. And what with how gay people are totally different and don’t love each other like straight people. And of course she was entirely convinced by this, and decided at that moment that she would choose not to be sexually or romantically attracted to her long-term girlfriend any more.

Or not. She also visited an ex-gay preacher, and learns that all he needed was for some helpful Christians to point out to him that gayness is a sin, and all the desire for hot sweaty man-love vanished, just like that. Eventually, she found someplace called the London Metropolitan Church, on her own time, which is much more accepting of alternative lifestyles and more genuinely focused on Jesus’ message of love. But, of course, they were “in error”, and twisting the message of the scriptures. In the end, she was never really convinced that she could be both a lesbian and a Christian, but hers was the approach that most impressed me, and she seemed to get more out of it than most of the others.

There was also Faye, a lap-dancing witch, who’s addicted to buying shoes. “Her lifestyle is on a trajectory to hell,” it is declared, I think more in reference to the witchery than the footwear. She finds it all a bit much, and buggers off to visit her boyfriend for a few days. When she comes back, she gets a lecture about pre-marital sex. It’s observed that she’s a “broken lady” and this is actually a “really good place to meet the Lord Jesus”. Does that strike anyone else as really sinister? Yes, God loves us all, but especially the emotionally vulnerable.

Her story didn’t seem to go anywhere, I don’t think we heard from her at all in the final week, but I was annoyed that they were quite so rubbish in dealing with her. There were clearly some things she could have done with learning, and this would have been a great opportunity for that. She had some definite identity and esteem issues, and maybe it’s not a great idea to rely on sex entirely to feel better about yourself, but am I out of order thinking that if she’s in a serious and loving relationship, and she wants to go to her bloke for some snuggles, then sex might be part of a really positive and healthy rejuvenation for her? The shopping addiction seemed to be a big thing for her too, and I bet Alvin Hall could’ve done wonders for the girl.

Kevin was a real party lad, somewhere in his twenties. Claims to have slept with 150 or so women, and never been faithful to his girlfriends. He said he wanted to become a “different person”, but I don’t think his heart was ever really in it. He wanted to assuage some of the mild guilt associated with being a total slut, but not badly enough to give up promiscuous sex. He practises safe sex “maybe 3 times out of 10”, and is somewhat flummoxed and amazed when the show’s evangelical preacher makes the unquestionably sensible suggestion that he get tested for STDs. He was so evidently stuck in his childish attitude to sex: he claimed to understand that there are risks attached to what he’s doing, but I don’t think he really grasped that this was something real, that might affect him. He was made too embarrassed and uncomfortable by all the grown-up discussion, even to bring in a urine sample to see whether he had chlamydia. It brought to mind the innocence/ignorance distinction on my sex post again.

There was clearly so much he could really have benefited from learning, and he could’ve got something out of this, but all the beneficial stuff was couched in such unnecessary Jesus-y rambling that I’m not surprised he was put off by a lot of it. There was less actual education about condoms and the risks of unprotected sex, than blather about how sex “wasn’t meant to be a recreation”. He was told that he’s not respecting these women he’s sleeping with, and that he should “love your neighbour as yourself” (though I thought the fact that he was “loving” them as he “loved” himself was exactly the problem). It all undermined the good stuff he could’ve been learning; he didn’t change much, and was actually using the “I’m a Christian, I can’t have sex out of wedlock” line as a quite effective seduction technique.

In the end, he was still a drunken slut, but allegedly did come clean to his girlfriend about how unfaithful he’d been. We only have his word that it did happen off-camera, but if he was lying, the prime-time documentary has probably made the point moot by now. Maybe at least he can be an honest slut in the future.

Martin was the burly tattooed biker, who hated his strict Christian school upbringing, and pulled out most of his teeth with pliers long ago, because they hurt and he was scared of the dentist. Yikes. He took the most aggressive and contrary stance to the whole thing, and only sometimes made an idiot of himself. He had some valid criticisms, like that nobody was making any attempt to explain “why this book is true”, but he also objected to the Bibles even being handed out with suggestions that they all study them, and refused to even go into a church to start with, on the grounds that it had “fuck all to do with learning about Jesus”.

And this brings me, at long last, to the main point that struck me about this show. Most of the participants really weren’t taking what I would consider the most useful approach. The show is called Make Me A Christian. They all knew that when they signed up, and all presumably wanted to try living the Christian lifestyle, learning more about this Jesus guy, and whatever else the preachers wanted to show them. So why did they keep opting out of stuff, just because it was nonsense, or not their sort of thing, or didn’t appeal to them or suit them for whatever reason? Obviously it’s not something you want to do, that’s why you’re not a Christian, but isn’t that the entire point of the programme?

Look, (I wanted to say to the participants over the course of the last three weeks), you’re not going to achieve anything by just getting into yet another pointless argument. You’ve been given a real opportunity here, to let these representatives of this religion make the argument for it as best they can, to show you what they consider the strongest possible case that can be made for the way of life they espouse, to see the most convincing and persuasive reasons they can put together that anyone should listen to them. And you should help them as much as you can, go along with every suggestion, listen to every sermon, attend every event, abstain, sing, pray, utterly immerse yourselves in the way of life being advocated.

Because then you are in the most sound position imaginable from which to call them out. You could say that you did everything in your power to assist their efforts, and look at what you got out of it.

If anyone could really have got through it all and said that, it would have been great. Because honestly, the cases put forward by the Biblemunchers were completely empty.

They helped some other participants, a married couple and their children, with partially useful advice about maybe turning off the TVs once in a while and having some family time together, talking to each other over a meal, maybe – which I think helped them somewhat, but Supernanny would have done a much more thorough job, and had her priorities much better organised.

They visited an abortion clinic, to see where the magic happens. This is hardly an important cornerstone of Biblical wisdom, just a hot-button issue, and one in which it’s easy to forego reasoned debate for emotional reactionary…ness, as was evidenced here. Okay, so the termination of a foetus doesn’t make for a pretty sight, but if any of these people visited a sausage factory, I’d bet at least half of them would swear off eating meat ever again, and not because of any rational argument.

They got involved in some charity work, which the volunteers tended to find the most uplifting and worthwhile activity of the lot, but the connection between this genuinely good and important altruism and the relevance of the Bible was never really made. Any regime claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus should certainly include a good chunk of time spent feeding soup to homeless people, but there’s something to the fact that everyone was universally pleased to get involved in this anywhere, however seriously they were taking the idea of Christian faith. It’s not like generosity and kindness are a rarity outside of Christianity, or even outside of religion. These are just good things to do. The fact that Jesus is credited with some great ideas doesn’t make the zany stuff in the Bible any more credible.

They worked to separate themselves from “bad company”. Kevin spent some time hanging out with some “sober, young Christians”, rather than with his friends. Hmm, cutting previous ties, where does that come on the cult checklist? (To be fair, he just had quite a good night out bowling and not drinking as much as usual, and chatting to some girls in a less lascivious manner than he was used to.)

They went off on a jaunt to a crematorium, and asked the question “Is that the end of the story?”, and contemplated life after death. Because, obviously you’re better equipped to take a rational look and make a genuine decision about such things in an emotionally charged environment, sitting right next to an actual dead guy, and watching them being cremated. And then seeing a boxful of bits of dead guy from yesterday, with lumps of bone and bits of ash all smooshed about. Everyone got quite emotional and shuddered a little seeing it, which was understandable, and some of them were maybe starting to hope that there could be something more worth looking forward to after death after all. But what the hell did you think happened to corpses, post mortem? It’s another purely emotive action intended to provoke only an irrational, emotional response. Death is scary, therefore praise Jesus.

And somebody’s mum got the all-clear from a cancer scare, after singing a hymn in a church that one time. So, Jesus definitely cured her. It’s called Post hoc ergo propter hoc – the one thing happened after the other, therefore the second thing was caused by the first thing. It’s science, people. Oh, wait…

And the preachers continued to express surprise and consternation when people didn’t fall into line and go along with any nonsense they were presented with, or didn’t immediately capitulate after a few days’ being moaned at for having a sex life out of wedlock.

Eugh.

The documentary was put together in a way that wasn’t actively proselytising, but wanted to leave us with a warm, fuzzy glow, and the comforting idea that maybe everyone learned something from this, and that there might be something good to this religion idea after all. And I think most of them did learn something worthwhile, and had some good experiences, and won’t regret their involvement. But this is probably because they’ve been hanging around with some caring, compassionate, nice people, doing things they wouldn’t normally do, having their horizons broadened, learning, involving themselves with some good charity work, and all this great stuff which has bugger all to do with Christianity. Not that the religion doesn’t include any of that stuff, but why would you have to be a Christian to do any of it? Why not do all that, get involved, do good stuff, be happy, but maintain the conviction that it’s all nonsense, and keep hanging out with your biker friends, or your lesbian lover, or the many dozens of women you want to bone on a nightly basis? Why not take what’s constructive and useful, learn from whatever sources you can, but abandon anything making rigidly and repressively dictatorial pronouncements, which has no authority to do so besides that of tradition?

Well. That’s what I thought.

Anyone else see the show? Maybe someone who’s mastered the art of brevity?

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Courtesy of the latest Amateur Scientist podcast, a music video from Lewis & Lewis, for their hit gospel country song, Come On Down To The Farm. It’s the most utterly adorable homophobia ever. And the comments are no less wonderful than you’d expect from a YouTube video with nearly three million views which is something to do with religion.

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