Category Archives: Atheists

Hell Hath No Fury: The Pissed-off Passive-aggressive Church Lady

ChurchTrialAt the time of this writing, two weeks have passed since the Methodist church trial in Pennsylvania, and two weeks remain for the final response to the quickie guilty verdict.  It is sad and paradoxical that the church denomination this minister served for 20 years wants him to choose human rules over his own conscience.  Rev. Frank Shaefer said, “Love was my only motivation.  I did what I believe Jesus called me to do and I acted out of love.”

One tension between atheists and people of faith is the response to paradox.  It is difficult to be a religious person if you have an intolerance of paradox.  Atheists interpret it as hypocrisy or evidence that religion is not valid.  I see it as interesting, often frustrating, and certainly sometimes it is hypocrisy.  In this case it is also tragic. 

I attended the first day of the Methodist church trial in rural Pennsylvania (11/18/2013) and read most of the news stories that followed.  It took place at their camp in rural PA about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  Serving as judge, was a retired Methodist bishop with a pronounced southern accent and perpetually creepy smile.  He frequently reminded everyone that “this is the work of the church,” something about which I thought he should have been embarrassed.

Philadelphia Inquirer on church trial

Usually the secular press is not very good at covering religion.  I asked one of the reporters if he liked doing religion stories.  He said he likes the ones that are less theological and more about crime and religion, then told me that this one is “largely a theological argument.”  He is the same reporter who had the stones (literally and figuratively) to follow Shaefer into the men’s room at one of the breaks.  This guy did write a good story, but I do not agree that the trial represented a theological debate.  It is a story of church politics, which is not really about God or theology.  The trial and what it represents is exactly like current secular politics, with the conservatives waging war on progressives, in this case using obscure Bible passages and an outdated Methodist rule book as their weapons.

Reuters story

Methodists call their rules the Book of Discipline.  The index alone is 75 pages and the two sections of content are 364 and 467 pages.  What do you think are the odds that some Methodist pastor around the country is breaking another one of those rules?  Of course they are.  So the trial of Frank Shaefer and others is selective enforcement of a cultural hot-button issue.  Please don’t pretend that the church is above the prevailing culture.  The no-gay-marriage rule for Methodists is only 38 years old.  It was not carved in stone on the 10 commandment tablets.

The Methodist gym-turned-courtroom had bailiffs, a jury, and clergy serving as lawyers.  The jury was not truly comprised of Shaefer’s peers because the “leadership” of the Methodist church is not only clergy but deacons and elders who are lay leaders and not obligated to have a theological education.  The “counsel for the church” was an Ichabod Crane (pre-Johnny Depp) sort of conservative.  The defendant’s counsel seemed educated, well-intentioned, but weak.  The only two witnesses were first the accuser, Jon Boger, and then the accused, Rev. Frank Shaefer.

Meet the first witness, the accuser Jon Boger, who is active military and clearly fancies himself as a hero in this.  It seems on Facebook that he lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids, though at the trial he said he hasn’t lived with his family for 27 months, while starting to weep slightly – in a manly way, of course.  If you take a look at his Facebook wall you will see guns, dead animals, and the link to a story on why semen is good for women’s health.  Boger has “liked” Pat Robertson, yet on the stand he said he doesn’t go to church.  On the stand he also lumped gay rights, abortion and gun control together and talked about his “interpretation of the Bible,” which of course is more morally correct than Rev. Shaefer’s.  The Pennsylvania church-goer in the family is Boger’s mother Deborah, who is a Century 21 real estate agent in Lebanon, PA.  On her real estate Web site, she lists being a “senior choir director” at Shaefer’s church for 33 years.  Do you see where this is headed? 

Deborah Boger was at Shaefer’s church before he was, and she clearly expects to be there after he’s gone.  I maintain that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off passive-aggressive church lady.  No one reported, at the trial or otherwise, what that disagreement was about.  The “defense counsel” barely questioned son Jon about it.  The accuser, young Boger, described the disagreement as “Pastor Frank requested my mom’s termination.”  Termination means fired, though other accounts are that the pastor suggested she resign, which she didn’t do.

Within 30 days of the disagreement between the choir director and the pastor, the non-church-going out-of-state son, did some online research.  He located a document for a legal gay marriage in Massachusetts.  By the way, why didn’t Deborah Boger do her own dirty work?  And why did the Methodist church accept the accusation of a non-church-goer?

Nearly seven years ago, Shaefer presided at a restaurant wedding of his son and gay partner.  He reported this to his Methodist supervisor at the time.  Shaefer did not disclose it to his Pennsylvania church – probably because there are lots of homophobes there, but also because it was a private family function.  He was not making a political statement at that wedding.  He has not presided at any other gay weddings.  The gay community has not been a ministry for him, either expressed or covert.  He did not lie to his congregation; he kept family business private.  He was acting as a father who loves his son and believes God also loves and accepts his son.

When testifying, one of the quirky things Jon Boger said, which was picked-up by a few of the reporters, “When I see him, I see a clerical collar that is shattered.”  That is a nice sound bite; however, it was odd because every single clergyman (of course they were all white men) at the trial wore a suit and tie, not the collar of clergy, which many Methodist ministers do not wear.  Further, take a look at the church’s Web site and you will not see even a necktie on Pastor Frank.  So who coached Jon Boger on that sound bite?

Zion United Methodist Church of Iona

Methodist Web site version of the first day of the trial

A huge blow to Christian compassion was delivered in the closing comments by Ichabod.  Here’s how the Washington Post reported: ‘“You’ll give an account for that [verdict] at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.’  Prior to that threat, Ichabod had implied that the reason Shaefer’s son is gay is because of parents who don’t “have their children in proper submission.”  He raged against “sexual immorality and perversion.”  Again, this is why people don’t go to church.

Washington Post story

Even with seedy church politics, vengeance of the church lady, and the redneck military son, there was an inspiring paradox.  In the gallery during the trial there were about 100 people, with another 30-ish outside.  Among the spectators, inside and out, about 90 percent were there supporting Shaefer.  When Ichabod was on his final tirade, appointing himself to speak for an angry judgmental god, something happened in the gallery with the spectators.  Slowly, without prior collusion, the people started to stand silently in an unspoken protest of his homophobic Biblical interpretation.  It was not pre-planned because most of the people there came from different geographic areas and didn’t know each other.  It was silent, one-by-one, and powerful.  It gave me chills.  As the jury was being dismissed the same people started spontaneously singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

In everything I write on this blog, now nearly 10,000 views, it is my intention to tell you a story that is worthy of your consideration, whether you are a person of faith, an atheist, or someone in between.  It is my hope that as a reader, in the story of Rev. Frank Shaffer, you see something of humanity at our best, in a father risking his career for his son and his conscience.  For every good and decent Frank Shaffer in this world, there will be a pissed of church lady, an avenging son, and a host of those in hierarchy who want to put someone in their place, simply to prove they can.  This is not only in religion, but neither is religion above it.  It is a human dynamic, sadly.  So when someone is out there trying to do good stuff, stay tuned, because there will be someone trying to undermine them, fire them, or worse.  I encourage you to look for your opportunity to stand silently – or not so silently – supporting the Frank Shaefers of the world. – J.B.

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The Funeral of Carlos

Carlos was in his late twenties and married for less than a year when he died.  I had worked with him for just over a year in an office of 64 where too many people took themselves too seriously.  I enjoyed having him around because he was really sarcastic.  He had a way of saying “That just stupid” which was hilarious.  I guess you’d have to hear him, but trust me.  He was funny.

Carlos enjoyed looking at shirtless men on the computer at his desk, for example, and had in the past been on more than one vacation with a male lover.  I would describe him as a portly African American with a taste for nice shoes.  When I met him he had just married a bi-sexual exotic female dancer and both of them were trying to be straight and monogamous.

His funeral was at an independent Christian church in North Philadelphia and there weren’t a lot of white folks there.  By way of description, and with respect, I would say the ceremony was a mix of Roman Catholic mass and New Orleans.

The funeral started late with a procession of at least 40 people into a full church of about 175-ish.  The gait of the procession was a mix of dancing and shuffling to the music, at least two or three people wide, in a jumble that couldn’t be called rows.  Their costumes and/or color of clothing had to do with their role in the church and the status that went with it.  The parade came from the back to where the casket was centered just in front of the stage, and then snaked to the right as they started filling pews in the front half of the right-hand side of the church.  All the while there was clapping, swaying and amen-ing all throughout the church.  I’m sure some of the white folks thought this was Baptist service, but I’ve been to numerous Baptist services and this service was different.

The final person in the procession was the officiant, dressed like a Catholic or Episcopalian bishop with a long robe and high hat.  I can see why Carlos was crushing on him.  He was truly gorgeous.  Creepy, but stunning.  He looked just like the guy who played the Mummy in the 1999 movie, only a little younger.  The “bishop” was preceded by a bevy of middle-aged women who were dressed in white nurse costumes, circa 1950.  They dispersed themselves around the room.  I was told they were poised to help anyone ‘overcome by the spirit.’  That never happened, but the presiding clergy did frequently lapse into ‘speaking in tongues.’

The service lasted about two hours.  I didn’t want it to end, but not because I was enjoying it.  I kept waiting for something to happen that actually gave Carlos his due – so little was said about who he was.  His bride was exalted like royalty and was seated on the dais, behind the podium where the “bishop” was speaking.  She frequently burst into dance (though she did keep her clothes on).  She was wearing a white suit, white shoes, and a huge white hat.  Carlos himself had on a long brown robe with a Nehru collar and buttons down the front, indicating he had some leadership status in the church.  I sincerely hope he had on nice shoes.

What I really believe killed Carlos was the impossibility of reconciling who he was with what his church required.  He loved being an active part of his church and holding a leadership position.  It is possible he loved the Mummy-Bishop more, but we’ll never know.  Nonetheless, cultural acceptance by the group to which he wanted to belong would not have been possible without pretending to be straight.

I’m not a shrink, but it seems to me there were a series of events that led to Carlos’ early demise.  He was only slightly overweight and not at all disciplined.  In spite of those two realities, he found some doctor to give him gastric bypass surgery.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well.  He had one complication after another until he eventually died.  If his church could have accepted him, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to make himself surgically thin and lovable.

The author in the CNN story linked below learned to stop trying to “pray away the gay.”  It seems that was not the experience for my friend Carlos.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/22/my-faith-how-i-learned-to-stop-praying-away-the-gay/?hpt=C2

In my way of thinking, Carlos died for his religion.  His was not the usual path of a martyr, to be sure.  Atheists would use this example to say why religion is bad.  The life and death of Carlos is not about what’s wrong with religion, but what’s wrong with people, especially when they are influenced by cultural paranoia.  There is no justification in Christianity for homophobia.

I have had a life-long interest in religion, so I understand what drew Carlos to commit himself to a community and a spiritual life.  This drive cost him the essence of who he was, and eventually his life.  It was irreconcilable.  This was the community in which he wanted to participate and their narrow view of ethics and Christianity made that a destructive path for Carlos.  For some people it is not as easy as just going to another church.  Where is the church that feels right?  Where is the  sense of belonging?  Sometimes the church where you feel you belong doesn’t want you.  In that we see that the Church is as flawed as every other human organization.  And that is the tragedy of the life and death of Carlos.  -J.B.

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Religion and Theatre of the Absurd

If you think religion and religious people are not influenced by popular culture, then you just aren’t paying attention.  More often, the religious folk are in search of headlines and news clips, not truth or enlightenment.  This happens in small towns and mega-churches.  For the record, I have blogged about mega-churches before (“The Religion of Me Part Two: The Mega-church,” 09/29/2010).  They are not churches, they are theatrical events with a religious theme.  If you disagree with me, then I ask you to consider a Texas story.

Yes, I understand Texans like to do things in a big way.  My best friend from college lives there and turned me on to this story, so apologies to the Lone Star state, but sometimes y’all are just crazy.  At Fellowship Church in Grapevine, “Rev.” Ed Long thought the Easter story of Jesus rising from the dead was not dramatic enough.  He authorized the church to hire a real lion, lion handler, and four-day-old lamb to symbolize Jesus as both a lion and a lamb (April 2012).  One story reported the show cost the church $50,000.  I guess that’s not a lot of money to Pastor Ed because he makes more than $1 million per year.  (Usually I would offer links to stories, but my best source was the Dallas Morning News and you can’t get the story for free.  The Humane Society of Flower Mound has a good summary.)

I was unable to find anything about the pastor’s credentials or education online, but I was able to find plenty of press.  He and his wife made news (February 2012) by doing a 24-hour bed-a-thon on the roof of the church to promote sex in marriage.  More accurately, Rev. Ed was promoting his latest book, from which he doesn’t have to share sales revenue from with his church.

The absurd is not limited to big-time money-grubbing showmen.  It also infects in smaller arenas.  I posted a story on my Web site (http://allthingsreligiousonline.com/) about an Assembly of God Church in Central Pennsylvania that kidnapped youth group teens at gunpoint to show them what life is like for missionaries.  Neither the teens nor their parents knew this was going to happen and the designated kidnapper was an off-duty police officer with a real gun.  It wasn’t loaded, but the kids didn’t know that.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/pennsylvania-church-kidnaps-teens-holds-them-at-gunpoint-to-teach-a-lesson_n_1382605.html?ref=religion

Stories like these are why atheists think religious people are nuts.  It’s a difficult point to defend.  The practice of faith is not a concrete endeavor.  Still, there are lots more people quietly honoring their own spiritual interpretations without circus stunts and contrived violence – or real violence for that matter.

If the church folks in Central PA wanted to demonstrate real courage, they would fire their minister.  Rural Pennsylvania is known as fertile ground for hate groups like the Klan.  I am certain that the Assembly of God church could find actual mission work spreading compassion, if they chose, like that ‘love your neighbor’ stuff that is in their Bible.

The best thing that they could do in Grapevine, Texas would be to convert their ‘mega-church’ into a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.  Then they wouldn’t need their $1 million-per-year Showman Preacher and his private jet.  Even if they took all that money and started a business, they would be creating jobs, which would be of more service to the community than devoting extraordinary resources to religious theatre.

Jesus had a lot to say about peace, poverty and humility.  But you wouldn’t know that if you went to church in Grapevine, Texas or Middletown, Pennsylvania.  It’s not just ironic that these two churches are doing such a poor job of representing their own religion – it’s tragic.  These stories demonstrate that you can’t immunize religious practice from human ego any more than you can protect organized religion from politics, or politics from organized religion.

There is a desperate need for reasonable people to have a stronger voice.  This is true in religion and in democracy.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how to make that happen.  The only response I can think of for us non-wealthy regular folks, is to respond to news stories.  I want to believe that if regular people, regularly, demanded better news, we would get it.  If we stopped being consumers of sensationalized non-news, maybe there would be less of it.  That means writing letters and e-mails to news editors.  It also means turning off the TV, or changing the channel.  It might mean getting more news from National Public Radio.

I admit that watching a story about “tanning bed woman” from New Jersey (where else?) who is being referred to as beef jerky on Facebook is a hoot.  We might need to watch a water-skiing squirrel to balance our day.  But if we don’t work in some real news stories of greater length and depth than sound bites, then we can’t expect much more than sound bites and beef jerky, the latter offering more to chew on.  –J.B.

Atheists in Foxholes

As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.  As reported in an AP story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Army has 2,500 soldiers who describe themselves as atheist, and 101,000 who report no affiliation, out of approximately 548,000 (11/8/2009 “Faith and furor: Muslims say Ft. Hood gunman does not define Islam”).

When I mentioned to someone that I was reading a book about atheism she said, “Oh, it’s good to know the enemy.”  I admit it was my mistake for trying to have a sensible conversation with a Christian fundamentalist, but calling someone with different religious views an “enemy” is simply not very Christian.  I will return to the vitriol later, but I want to address what I believe are the essential issues first.

I finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I am struggling to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Both of these books were New York Times best sellers. Since I am a person with a life-long interest in religion, I never felt compelled to study atheism before now and reading both of these books was both challenging and disturbing, as I believe both authors intended.

Hitchens’ book was a brilliantly written page-turner while Dawkins’ book is occasionally amusing but primarily tedious.  For people of faith, or those even mildly interested in religion, it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of, or worse – hate, atheists.  Faith is the opposite of fear, so how intelligent, well-read atheists think should provoke consideration not anger.

The Hitchens’ book builds a convincing case for the negative impact of religion on social history and individual experience, especially in the treatment of children and when connected with politics.  Ordinarily I enjoy sarcasm, but the Dawkins’ book is so relentlessly facetious it was nearly impossible for me to appreciate his perspective.  While Hitchens hoped to influence readers, Dawkins’ was shameless in attempting to convert the faithful into godless.  I found Dawkins’ attempt at proselytizing no more or less offensive coming from an atheist than a born-again Christian.  (See my blog column “Missionary Go Home” 8/25/2010.)

I don’t see value in arguing over the existence of God.  That is ultimately an individual question.  No panel of theologians can prove the existence – nor can a panel of atheists disprove it.  I see theologians denying science or atheists disavowing the possibility of anything mystical equally non-productive.  The intersections that matter are when theologians try to dictate to science or atheists want sanitize culture of any presence of religion.  That time would be better spent by theologians speaking to their own followers and leaving the rest of us alone, and atheists limiting their arguments to the inappropriate influence of religion in this secular society.

Atheists make an important contribution to our culture by being the conscience of religion.  Religion does enjoy too much societal protection legally, financially, publicly, and tacitly.  For example, in a capitalistic country, tax breaks are an enormous practical advantage as well as a demonstration of governmental approval.  There is no real reason why churches should be tax-exempt any more than social clubs.  This will be a future column, but my short answer is that if churches or religious organizations are not contributing social services to those outside of their own group, there is no reason for exemption from taxes.  Locally, I see very little difference between the YMCA and LA Fitness, except that the Y has a better swimming pool and is tax-exempt.

I would distill these issues to a few basic questions.  Primarily, the pivotal question is: Do you believe in the supernatural?  If not, then any god arguments are irrelevant, as well as any discussion on humans having a soul or spirit.  Dead is dead.  That is not a subject that is possible to debate.  As impossible as it is to debate, it is pointless to be angry because that is someone’s point of view.  Both books had stories of hate mail and death threats.  There’s no excuse for any person of any religion to stoop to bullying atheists.  You discredit your own religion.  If someone else’s view is that threatening, then your faith doesn’t really amount to much, does it?

Often I conclude these columns with what I personally believe, and I am tempted to do so this time, but I resist that temptation because it is irrelevant.  I read an amazing book by Hitchens that deeply disturbed me in many appropriate ways.  He influenced my thinking but did not change my point of view.  I am grateful such a great thinker lived among us and was unafraid to ask difficult questions that make us uncomfortable.  I would like to say, rest in peace, but that would be disrespectful.  So, Mr. Hitchens, I celebrate your life and contribution to this planet by encouraging tolerance of atheists and promising to read more of what you wrote.

To the religious, I would say that a faith unquestioned is just stupidity.

-J.B.

Take Christ Out of Christmas

There is an old Gene Autry version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” with a lyric that says, “And let’s give thanks to the Lord above because Santa Claus comes tonight.”  This is a blend of the secular and religious that belongs on Anderson Cooper’s “RidicuList.”  Another disappointing example of blending religious themes with non-religion was posted on CNN’s “Belief Blog,” written by Tangela Ekhoff, “My Take: Being poor on Christmas.”  She said, “As our family awaits the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we anticipate and long for a better world not just for us but for others who suffer in the ‘new’ economic reality: poverty.  My greatest hope, as we await the birth of Jesus, is that God restores our family financially.”  (The full column can be read at the following link.)

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/17/my-take-being-poor-on-christmas/?iref=allsearch

The lead paragraph of Ekhoff’s column talks about the purchasing of “the Showstopper” gift for her children as the highlight of Christmas.  The inability to purchase a “Showstopper” gift is not poverty.  Not being able to buy groceries is poverty, and that’s for the working poor.  How about not having drinking water readily available?  There are millions of children around the world who do not long for a “Showstopper” Christmas gift, but a meal and a drink of water.

All those Christian fanatics complaining about putting Christ in Christmas need both a history lesson and to take a look at their own congregations.  The Christmas season has become a shopping holiday.  Secular capitalism owns the season from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) to after-Christmas sales extending to Martin Luther King Day in January.  Even King is losing his day to shopping, as dead presidents do in February.  Occasionally there is some Secular Humanism mixed in the holiday season and some attention is paid to charitable gifts and actions.  However, Christianity does not have exclusive ownership of those activities either.

My friend Kathleen (I’ve mentioned her before-she’s the smart science teacher) reminded me that Jesus’ birth was not observed by the early church until hundreds of years after he died (Rome c.336, Oxford Dictionary of World Religions).  For those of you interested in the life of Jesus, he spent his time with the poor and disenfranchised.  When the Christian Bible talks about gifts, it is usually referring to the gifts that enable Christians to serve the needs of humanity.  By the way, I also don’t think Jesus expects Christian households to have a birthday cake and sing him Happy Birthday.  (Yes, I do know people that do this.)

Before any of you get all uppity about having Christmas swiped by consumers and non-believers, bear in mind the Christians stole this holiday from the pagans.  There is no record of Jesus actual birth day and the December observance coincided with winter solstice parties – which were not to be missed.  In other words, the early Christian church was having trouble hanging on to members so they adopted Saturanlia and transformed it to fit their own mythology.  So it should not be shocking to anyone that the run-away capitalism of this country would do the same thing in this century.

Santa Claus and Christmas gifts are no more Christian than July Fourth or Thanksgiving.  Both of those are secular holidays with non-religious traditions.  You can still go to church on these holidays and your religion can adopt its own interpretation of the holidays in keeping with its ideology, but in a pluralistic society, it would be ridiculous to impose those interpretations on everyone else.  In fact, trying to impose your personal beliefs on others is inherently un-Christian.

None of this means that Christians can’t enjoy a Christmas tree or gift exchanges – though I’d skip the birthday cake because that is over-the-top trite.  The point is that those activities, while pleasant, are essentially not related to Christianity.  So what?  There’s nothing wrong with secular rituals.  These help us connect with other people, which is what Jesus did all the time.

Consider Habitat for Humanity.  This is an openly Christian organization.  They offer houses to qualifying families, regardless of religion, and accept donations from religious and non-religious organizations and individuals.  They may have some religious expression, but conversion is not required to receive a home or to help build one.  One volunteer said, “Hey atheists don’t pool together and help build houses for poor people – we’ve got to go somewhere,” (p.211 Habitat for Humanity, Jerome P. Baggett).

Putting a nativity scene on your front yard does not keep Christ in Christmas and the compassion of Christianity is not a seasonal activity.  Enjoy the gifts, the food, the parties, and even the family – if that’s possible.  But consider my thoughts on how little of this season is related to the life work of Jesus.  Christmas is not an opportunity to bully people into the same interpretation that you have.  It could be the opportunity to share traditions in a pluralistic society in a way that we can learn from each other, rather than force a false theology.

What would Tiny Tim say?  “God bless us, everyone.”  Yes, everyone.  Even the pagans.

Happy Holidays Everyone! -J.B.

Billboards and God

There was a time I worked for a small environmental nonprofit.  Instead of concentrating on environmental education, for which they were funded, they would periodically get on a rant about billboards.  (The logic to that escapes me.)  When I first moved to Philadelphia, billboards helped me find restaurants, bars, and frequently the right exit.  I always like to know at which exits I could expect find a Dunkin Donuts, for example.  However, I must withhold my enthusiasm for outdoor advertising when it comes to religion.

Consider the New Jersey turnpike.  A friend of mine was once pulled over and ticketed for driving the speed limit because she was impeding the flow of traffic, i.e. going too slow.  I am convinced that if you get in the way, those trucks will very willingly run you down.  So why does anyone think billboards along the New Jersey turnpike are an effective means of communication?

Last December some ambitious atheists decided billboards are a great place to attack Christmas.  Really?  Attacking Christmas is quite like hating puppies.  I applaud the American Atheists for being “reasonable since 1963” but I’m thinking that was not the most reasonable campaign.  Naturally, there was a response.

Granted, that’s sort of old news, but while on the New Jersey turnpike this week I noticed several boards.  First I saw “The Bible” board, which said something like, “Infallible.  The Truth.”   (It’s hard to capture perfectly while driving to avoid being run down by truckers.)  Shortly after that I saw one with a 1-800 number over an American flag that said “Why Islam?”  Congratulations to American Muslims for jumping in the fray, but no one has time to write down a 1-800 number while driving on the NJ Turnpike.  We’re all just driving to stay alive.

Here is an attempt at something more artsy that was edited with graffiti.  Now that’s public discourse!

And let’s not forget the warning of impending doom.  How did that work out Harold?  I want to see: “Oops.  I got the date wrong.  My bad.”

Here are two of my favorites from the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” Web site.

I may now have to amend my view of religion and billboards.  This proves that outdoor advertising can be public expression and pop-art.  It reminds me of my favorite Joan Osborne song, “One of Us.”  (She did the theme song for “Joan of Arcadia.”)  One of the lines is, “What would you ask [God] if you had just one question?”

“What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us.  Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.”  I’m wondering what God would look like on the Number 9 bus from Center City to Roxborough.  Is God really everywhere?  “If God had name, what would it be?  And would you call it to His face?”

I want a billboard that just says, “Why?”  That’s it.  Nothing else.  You know everyone would be claiming credit – both the atheists and the religious folk.  So this summer while you’re traveling, instead of playing “I Spy,” how about playing “What would you ask God?” or any of the questions in the Joan Osborne song.

Enjoy your summer.  And don’t forget the Dunkin Donuts.  Eating Boston Kreme can be a religious experience.  –J.B.

Read Before Rapture

This is going to have to be a quick blog since I only have another day before the rapture.  There is too much being said about the latest Doomsday Theology fad, but I am compelled to add a few thoughts that are not prominent in the stories I’ve read.  I will not, however, summarize the rapture fantasy.  You’ll have to Google that yourself, or read CNN or MSNBC.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43082513/ns/us_news-life/

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/18/tick-tock-goes-the-doomsday-clock/

I have been doing research on how the secular press covers religion for my University of Pennsylvania master’s work.  Not surprisingly there isn’t much news about religion and it’s not usually covered well.  Since I started my studies at Penn in 2005, however, religion coverage has increased and CNN’s “belief.blog” is one example.  Still, both reporters and media consumers make assumptions about religion and the coverage of religion.  If I can do one thing with this blog, it is identify what is really religion, what is cultural, and what is just sensationalism.

When every single generation has had predictors of the world’s end, what is newsworthy about this latest claim?  Yesterday (5/18/2011) doomsday predictions were on CNN’s home page, but bumped to the third story on their “belief.bog” by 10:00 p.m.  This morning the story was back on the home page and the blog had over 5,000 comments.  The MSNBC story moved from a liner with a link on the home page to three pages into their Web site.  There have been billboards from the Doomsdayers and responses from the atheists.  I did check out “Post Rapture Looting” on Facebook, but it has fewer “friends” than this blog.

“This is how religion hurts people, one of the many ways religion hurts people,” American Atheists President David Silverman told CNN Oakland, California, affiliate KGO.  Now I am a fan of atheists because they have given religion some thought and taken a position.  I would disagree with Silverman about his assumption.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, crazy is as crazy does.  The view of the “Family Radio” people is not embraced by the vast majority of Christians just like the vast majority of Muslims didn’t agree with Osama bin Laden.  In fact, I would say those rapture predictors are to Christianity what “Girls Gone Wild” is to a college education.  Probably the most appealing aspect of this story for the press and those Facebook links going viral, is hoping we get to laugh at them being wrong on May 21st.  Admit it – you do enjoy the chance to say ‘I told you so.’

The Oakland, California based “Family Radio” has been leading the cry on this one.  I do admire anyone willing to be viewed as a fool while honoring their convictions.  It is so sad that these convictions pertain to picturing the rest of us going to hell.  To understand this kind of misguided theology means considering the psychology of religion.  Some people just need a religion with a deadline.  And some people can’t imagine a religion without fear.  Perhaps this is what John Lennon was singing about.  Do not confuse the need of these individuals for drama and attention with divine inspiration.  These people need a scary primitive religion with a judgmental, angry God.  That doesn’t make them inspired.  Their god perception is just a reflection of what they are capable of imagining.

Still, just in case there is a rapture, I’m sure many of you will join me in hoping the rapturees provide for their pets during their eternal absence.  (Yes, I am expecting to be left behind with all the interesting people.)  I’m joining the rest of you in enjoying the Web site of New Hampshire atheist Bart Centre who is offering post-rapture pet care for those best friends that are left behind – of course for a fee.

http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/

I really do hope he makes some good money on this one. But Bart, you better donate that money to a local shelter or we will all know why you’ve been left behind.

See you on the 21st! –J.B.