Category Archives: Press and Religion

#PopeInPhilly

You know a major event is over when businesses start complaining about not making enough money. Philly’s mayor blamed the media, “You scared the s*** out of people,” (9/28/2015 Philly.com for CroppedPopeBobbleheadthe Philadelphia Inquirer – I don’t mind spelling that word out in this blog, but I’m using a direct quote here.) Truth be told, the security was over-the-top and local people mostly got out of Dodge. Overall, the crowds were lower than the pre-event hysteria. I was able to get free tickets to Saturday’s event and even a train ticket two days before. So thanks to Mayor Nutter (who was once my boss when he was in City Council) for scaring the be-jesus out of everyone making it possible for me to get a last minute ticket. And even more important, I was able to get a coveted bobble-head doll.

Mayor highlights papal visit

In the suburbs, my local train station was one of the few regional rail stations that was open. The local NoParkingSignneighborhood responded by gouging pilgrims with daily parking fees of $20 to $40 with threatening towing signs, including at the local UCC church (sign pictured). Not so ecumenical, I think.

My writing history here has demonstrated that I am not a Christian chauvinist. As someone interested in religion, I was sincerely intrigued by the pope coming to Philadelphia though not romanced by the “World Celebration of Families.”  What I was not expecting from the papal visit, was to be moved. I was moved by what he said, and how many people he reached. Philly does have a significant number of Catholics, and of course there were stories of how far people had traveled for the papal appearance, but the crowds far surpassed just pilgrim Roman Catholics. Philly is gritty, corrupt, not very well-mannered, and yet still beautiful and historic. This is a city where no one should expect sentimentality, unless it’s about sports. So seeing thousands of people just trying to get a phone-photo of the popemobile was impressive.

The breadth of Center City is between two rivers is and under four miles from east to west with one IndependenceMallRevevent east and one west. All streets in the pope zone were closed for days, and all the city’s major arteries were closed Friday night to Sunday night. Mass transit was re-routed to accommodate papal visitors for regional rail and most bus routes were cancelled. Though it was possible to walk the four-ish miles from Independence Mall (Saturday event) the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Sunday event), even sidewalks were closed so it took quite a lot of zig-zagging. Still, I have to tell you that people were patient and polite. The mayor reported only three arrests: one DUI, one probation violation, and one genius trying to take unnamed drugs through one of the security checkpoints.

What’s the take-away? My own observation is that I watched tens of thousands of people captivated VendorsWatching by a religious leader who speaks about poverty and social justice. He calls for compassion and environmental stewardship. I didn’t think it was possible, but compassion was a well-received message. When the pope spoke at Independence Hall even the food vendors stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. I saw many moist eyes and robust applause for messages I had come to believe would be unwelcome, or at least ignored.

This pope not only spoke about religious freedom for all, he spoke of the value and importance of pluralism. I can’t emphasize enough how remarkable I found that. There are very few religious leaders, other than the Dalai Lama, willing to support pluralism and religious tolerance. The secular press is quite incompetent at religious reporting, so the Saturday speech that I heard was reported as an immigration speech. That was accurate, but incomplete.

The pope at Independence Mall

In spite of the pope’s emphasis on compassion, hate did not take a vacation from his visit. There wereIMG_20150926_131617 protesters right outside of security at Independence Mall with large signs and a bullhorn trying to make it clear that everyone of the Roman Catholic faith is going to hell. This is as ridiculous as it was offensive. I admit it pissed me off. I did get in the face of two of the protesters and told them, yes with some vigor, to go home. I said that this is “not what Jesus would do.” They told me I was going to hell and I told them there is no hell. You get the idea. No impact, of course.

What’s next? One co-worker told me that her husband was so inspired by the pope he was going to try and be a better husband. Well, even if that lasts one week-end, she got a lovely apple-picking family outing from it. Baby steps, right?

Don’t think I’m turning a blind eye to the unenlightened view of the Roman Catholic CroppedBishopsChurch toward ordaining women and reproductive rights, the latter which is mostly ignored by Catholics anyway. But take a look at this picture. Any organization run by all these old men is not going to improve quickly.

So for one wonderful weekend, compassion, social justice, and environmental stewardship were headline messages. This gives me hope. Recently a co-worker admitted she thought I am “too cynical.”  Well, I don’t think you can be “too” cynical. It’s one of those things that you are or you aren’t. I embrace my PopeQuoteT-shirtinner cynic, because I’m usually right. But the weekend of Pope Francis in Philly gave me the gift of hope. Think about the religious leaders we’ve seen on global mass media. Usually they are doing something awful or asking for money. Here’s a guy who carries his own bag and lives in an apartment but still has rock star appeal.

PA tourism used to have a slogan: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” Well, thanks Padre. You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania. Lots of them, actually. Thank you for making compassion and tolerance mass media messages. -J.B.

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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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Potato chips and religion

Having grown up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I know from potato chips.  My great-grandmother made them on GroffsChipsher stove-top in lard and sold them at the local farmer’s market, which later turned into a hugely successful business.  Sometimes you can find a Groff’s can on display at Cracker Barrel.  As a kid I visited my great-uncle’s factory and snatched a few fresh, hot, salty chips from the conveyor belt on their way to one of those cans.  Today, I can pretty much leave chips alone.  I can see a bag and know the pleasure of the taste, but walk away.  However, if they are a particularly good brand sitting next to French onion dip, it is conceivable that I would sit there and eat the whole damn bag.  But perhaps I have extended the metaphor too far.

Gossip is like potato chips.  It is seductive.  Once engaged I can’t stop.  After consuming a quantity of it, I feel disappointed in myself for doing something that just wasn’t good for me or anyone else.  I once tried to give up gossip for lent.  I don’t always participate in that Christian custom, but there were times I tried the big ones like sex, chocolate or booze with reasonable success.  Gossip was the hardest.  I didn’t last two weeks.

This brings me to churches and gossip.  Holy crap.  Literally.  In my work life, I have spent more than 15 years in both leadership and support roles in nonprofits of various sizes with different missions.  So I have quite a bit of experience with organizations that are similar to churches.  Sadly, I have to say, that I have never seen gossip as vicious in any of those organizations as I have witnessed in churches.

I was involved in one church where a new clergy person was hired and after only a few months was under siege by a barrage of brutal gossip that any secular organization could have labeled a ‘hostile work environment’ and perhaps even slander.  In my opinion, the behavior was unfair by basic social standards, but also unreasonable by secular professional standards.  And here’s what was missing: in a Christian church, the standards established by the words of Jesus were ignored.  Simply put, these church folks, however dedicated to their church activities and church friends, were not behaving like Christians.

On a good day, I would describe myself as a reluctant Christian.  I have views on the Bible and the salvation theology of today’s church that are not pertinent to this column, and would make many Christians uncomfortable.  But the overpowering reason I hesitate to proclaim an association with Christianity is how many really awful and embarrassing Christians I have experienced and have the displeasure of bumping into on a daily basis.  This is one curse of Facebook, for example.  I have relatives that are regularly posting Bible verses and praise-Jesus rhetoric who are the same people who refused to visit our cousin who was dying from AIDS.  So they can post as many Bible verses as they want, I will always remember what they didn’t do.  For those of you who are less familiar with the Bible, let me report that there is a verse where Jesus responded to questions by saying, “’And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’…I tell you just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me,” (Matthew 24:35-41 NRSV).  I’m no Bible scholar, but I’m thinking this is exactly the kind of thing to which he was referring.

For reasons I can’t explain, self-appointed religious personalities frequently get away with worse behavior than non-religious people.  Unfortunately this takes me to responses to the  December 14 Newtown, Connecticut shootings.  Even one of the darkest forces of our culture, the National Rifle Association, had the good sense to shut-up for a week.  Not so with religious wing-nuts like James Dobson.  The link to a Huffington Post story on his comments follows.  They are too appalling to quote, and malicious gossip of the worst kind – gossiping for god in the media.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/james-dobson-connecticut-shooting-gay-marriage_n_2318015.html

Not only are these type of charlatans guilty, but so are those who listen to them and send them money.  There can be power in community.  If no one listens to them or sends them money, what they say will be marginalized and eventually the moot will become mute.  They don’t deserve the platform they are routinely provided.  (Kudos to the mainstream press for not giving Dobson et. al. much coverage.)

What amazed and encouraged me about the responses to the Connecticut tragedy, is how many people found a way to come together.  People created community in candlelight vigils and prayer services around the country.  These were both organized and ad hoc.  Ordinary people and complete strangers looked for ways to express empathy and support in a situation where all of us felt powerless.  Not one of us can bring back the deceased and innocent children and adults.  We have been touched by the loss.  Even the fat, lazy, cowardly politicians in Congress have been stirred to at least consider appropriate action.

I have to admit, I am overwhelmed by the tragedy and consider the ongoing news stories now exploitative and painful.  Still, the night of the shootings, I found some solace in seeing full churches.  This is not because I am a church promoter or one who fantasizes about the conversion of others.  It is because I am encouraged that in the midst of grief and anger, large numbers of people were seeking to come together and look outside of themselves.  Perhaps they were looking to God.  Perhaps they were looking to each other.  But they were and are looking out and up, not in and down.  They are not dwelling on the hate and evil that were the very forces that provoked this tragedy.

It seems that more often than not, organized religion disappoints rather than inspires.  But we could say the same thing about our families and friends, our spouses, our jobs.  We are all flawed human beings trying to get through the day.  And whether it’s at church or school, in tragedy or in decadent pleasures, maybe this week, we could just cut each other some slack.  I’m pretty sure that most religions would agree with me on this one.

So this week, be kind to yourself.  Eat some potato chips.  Don’t feel guilty.  And spread it around a little if you can.  –J.B.

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.

Religion and democracy and blogging

Why does religion matter in a secular society?  First of all, I am thrilled this is a secular democracy, even when the democracy part isn’t working very well.  That means that there is not an official state religion and those governing are expected to separate their religious views from their governance.  In other words, clergy (of any religion) do not have the right to approve government action.

I don’t want a state religion because it will inevitably be a religion I don’t like; also, because it’s not fair.  Remember how we learned about what’s fair by either having siblings or getting to kindergarten?  Well, democracy should be fair.  It’s not fair to impose your religion on someone else.  I really think that is a kindergarten-simple value.

The vast majority of folks in these United States believe there is a God.  (Feel free to e-mail me if you want citations, I have several.)  We are increasingly a pluralistic society, with practitioners of many different religions in close proximity to each other (learn more in A New Religious America by Diana L. Eck).  The majority (over 70 percent) of religious people in this country claim to be part of some kind of Christianity.  That is the rub: how to manage undue influence by the majority religion.  That is a secular issue.  That is a subject that should matter to everyone, especially the non-religious and those in minority religions.  It matters to Christians who disagree with each other.  It matters in society and it matters in how religion is covered by the press.  And that, my friends, is why I write.

I have been writing this blog since April 2010 and the views are nearly at 3,000 now.  This particular column is intended to provide new readers with some general information on how and why these blogs are posted.  In high school, one of my favorite English teachers, Murphy, told me you can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader.  It was one of the smartest things he ever taught me.  I do not ever write a blog without research and some general reading.  Though I quite enjoy musing and an occasional rant, the actual writing is the result of research and reflection and is not just reactionary.  Honest.

I recently completed a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  In order to graduate from Penn I had to be able to read, write and be competent at doing primary research.  My master’s research was a content analysis of the Philadelphia Inquirer in contrast with the Wichita Eagle (Kansas) and Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (public television).  Sparing you tedious (and perhaps sleep-inducing) findings in this column, I will summarize by saying that I entered the research with low expectations and was still amazed at how poorly religion is covered by most of the press.

The reason religion in the news matters is because even if you are not religious, most of your neighbors have some religious orientation that may influence how they vote, and how they vote has impact on your life.  Sadly, intelligence in not required for voting, so when politicians trot out religious-related rhetoric, most people are ill-prepared (or disinclined) to understand the real implications of that propaganda.  (See my April 1, 2011 column “Newt the Nightmare” for a specific example.)

If you read a number of my columns you may conclude I am more critical of Christianity than other religions.  That is intentional.  The majority religion takes looking after.  Constant reminders are required to challenge the influence of the majority religion and the interpretations by its practitioners.  I have appointed myself to this watch-dog role.

I have a favorite animal communicator, Anita Curtis, who does amazing work.  She said that most of our domestic animal family (my words, not hers) have a perception of what their role is, or what their “job” is.  My cat, Sunny, has appointed herself to watch birds.  (Unlike my other cat Zoey who stalks bugs.)  It is very important to her to be able to go from window to window keeping an eye on those rascals.  She is quite serious about this job and seems to find satisfaction in keeping watch on behalf of the household.  Well, I have appointed myself to be the watchdog of religious rascals, and perhaps to no greater end than my cat watching birds.  I hope you find some measure of interest in reading my blogs as I find in watching Sunny watch birds.  –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.