Morality debate questions human behavior without God

by Samantha Luhmann

Published in the La Crosse Tribune

A Minnesota atheist and a local pastor will go head to head Sunday and debate whether a person can be good without God.

The La Crosse Secular Student Society and the La Crosse Area Freethought Society will host a morality debate at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to show both perspectives on basic religious questions. The deliberation will feature Dr. Scott McMurray, pastor at Faith United Methodist Church, and August Berkshire, past president of Minnesota Atheists.

Hank Zumach, president of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society, said the series of debates was created because serious, religious questions are often not debated. And if these kinds of questions were discussed, they were likely done in private rather than in public.

“The point of the debate has been to raise these kinds of questions because we’re at a point here in our society where religious groups of one kind or another have been more active than in the past,” he said. “Having these sorts of debates out there gives people an opportunity to see both sides.”

The debates also allow people who are firm in their beliefs to discover why they trust what they trust. People often believe in something because it’s what they learned as a child and they rarely consider the opposing side, Zumach said.

“If you sincerely believe and there’s never been any questions that religion is a positive force in society, why would anybody not believe that?” he said. “Well, there are many reasons why that would be questioned. It’s the opportunity to hear perhaps the other side of what you have been taught or heard your whole life.”

After attending morality debates in the past, McMurray decided to step up and represent the Christian point of view this year. He said he liked the idea of “exchanging ideas in mutual respect” and saw the debate as an opportunity to spread the word of God.

“As a Methodist preacher, you take every opportunity to get a chance to proclaim the Gospel,” he said. “This is what’s led me.”

McMurray will refer to the Bible and present-day issues to argue that people cannot be good with God.

“Can we be good without God is basically impossible to answer,” he said. “We’ve had so much influence by Christian ethics, how can you say I can be good without God when God is everywhere and present in so many things?”

Berkshire, on the other hand, will argue that God isn’t real.

“We evolved as a social species,” he said. “It was to our benefit to cooperate (with each other).”

Berkshire has been a part of the Minnesota Atheists since 1984 and remains an active member of the atheist community. He debated whether God existed during the 2010 morality debate in La Crosse.

“The problem with basing your morality on God is if you lose your God you lose your basis for morality,” he said. “I’m here to say don’t worry about it.”

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Religion is Unnecessary for Morality

By Jeremy Fejfar, September 29, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

At 7 PM on October 20th, in the Cartwright Center at UWL there will be a debate between an atheist and a pastor titled, “Morality: Can we be good without God?”

This topic was chosen because possibly the most common question non-theists are asked is, “How can you be moral without god?” Atheists are underrepresented in prison populations, and countries with a majority of nonbelievers (Sweden, Denmark, Japan, etc.) have much lower rates of violent crime, are less corrupt, and are generally happier than the most religious nations. While nonbelievers are just as moral as believers, if not more so, many theists cannot seem to make sense of this established fact.

Many books have been written about morality, and some have appropriately divorced it from the misappropriated authority religion claims. Two such books are Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil”, and Harris’ “The Moral Landscape.”

Morality concerns how living beings interact with each other. A universe absent living beings would be absent of morality for this reason. Further, morality concerns actions only. While some religions try to tell us that thoughts can be immoral, only if thoughts result in actions affecting another being do they have moral implications. As a society we agree on this, as evidenced by the absence of “thought crime” laws.

We share similar experiences in life and have similar goals. It is not a subjective statement to say that health is preferable to sickness, that comfort is preferable to pain, and that life is preferable to death. There are aspects to the human condition, truly to the condition of all sentient beings that transcend subjectivity.

However, morality is typically not black and white, rather many shades of gray. In a criminal trial, we consider all kinds of information when determining guilt, including motive, intent, and mitigating circumstances. Because of this, it may be difficult, or even impossible, in a given situation to determine what the “best” action may be, however that does not mean that we are unable to analyze the options available to us and determine which actions are morally superior to others.

Moral decisions can be compared to a game of chess. There are certain moves that are objectively bad, and others that are better, because there are rules governing play, and a goal to the game. Similarly, in life there are a finite number of actions one may take in any given situation — some are objectively more moral, or better, than others. For instance, choosing to starve your child rather than feed him or her is immoral; society agrees on that, and we don’t need to consult a holy scripture to know it.

Recently, an Islamic court in Dubai sentenced tourist Marte Deborah Dalelv to 16 months in jail for having sex outside of marriage. The twist to the story is that her only crime was in being raped. This is the kind of lunacy we often see when religious moral codes are dogmatically enforced, whereas a secular moral accounting of this punishment shows just how absurd it is. Similarly bizarre rules can be found in the Bible (Deut 22: 23-24 & 28-29).

Those who wish to maintain morality’s divine origin must contend with the Euthyphro dilemma, which asks whether something is morally good because god says so, or whether things are moral or not of their own merits and god simply relays to us their moral status. If we assume the former, god could decree today that stabbing your children was moral, and we would have to conclude it was so because god said it. Unlike Abraham, the founder of the 3 major religions, I find this kind of “Might-makes-right” thinking unacceptable and untenable. So we are left with the latter arm of the dilemma, which means god is merely acting as messenger, telling us what is good or not. This would mean morality transcends god, thereby rendering god unnecessary for us to make moral decisions.

Nonreligious men and women all over the world are beginning to step forward and rightfully claim the superiority of secular morality. We find nothing admirable in complying with a voice in your head that tells you to murder your son, nor in jailing women for the “crime” of being raped, nor in denying homosexuals equal rights. We will not condone killing those suspected of the nonexistent crime of witchcraft, nor in issuing death warrants and rioting over men drawing a cartoon or arresting others for insulting Islam on Facebook.

The nonreligious are discovering their voice, and the ethereal and vaporous moral justifications religions offer will not sate their appetite for meaningful moral conversations and tangible justice.

Those who are interested in hearing the subject explored further are encouraged to attend the free aforementioned debate, where audience questions will be encouraged following the event.

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Ongoing Pursuit of Truth Demands Critical Thinking

By Matt Runde, September 1, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

A freethinker values the pursuit of truth above all else. He feels obligated to critically evaluate any information that is presented, regardless of its source. The relentless quest for truth underlies all of human progress, and it is only through knowledge that we can hope to surmount our future challenges.

How do we determine what is true? When we are young, we rely on adults for guidance, and we generally accept what we are told. We are evolutionarily programmed to accept the teaching of our parents without question, as the consequence of disregard can be catastrophic. The child who ignores the warning to avoid alligator-infested waters may not live to reproduce. However, with age we find that this type of knowledge, being inflexible and dogmatic, is not always reliable. Life experience provides us with the ability to discern truth for ourselves, and our own ability to judge takes precedence.

The principal manner in which we discern truth is through our physical senses. All of our learning in infancy is derived in this manner. Very early we learn that our senses provide a reliable reflection of the world, and that similar effects predictably follow similar causes. If a statement is contrary to our past sensory experiences, it should make us skeptical. We doubt a claim that a person lived to be nine hundred years old, because we have never met or heard of anyone that old, and we know much about human biology. Of course, we all have had experiences where our senses have deceived us. Mirages, intoxication, and neurologic illness can all fool the senses of an individual. However, where a single individual’s senses can be fooled, the accumulated experience of everyone will not be deceived. Anyone claiming to know a nine hundred year old person will need to supply extraordinary evidence if they want support from the rest of us.

There is a second avenue through which we can assess truth. Our five senses give us an understanding of the way the world works, and this allows us to predict future events. This is the “sense” of reason that we develop in adulthood. Most of us will not directly experience the fact that atoms are the building blocks of matter, yet we can follow the logic that leads to that conclusion. Even though we cannot directly experience the rotation of the Earth around the Sun, a telescope and our sense of sight gives us the basic information and our sense of reason does the rest.

Why is truth important? Why not allow children to persist in their pleasant fantasies about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? Sustaining irrational beliefs is not only impractical but also dangerous. If we convince children that they must deny their sense of logic on some issues, it may make them susceptible to silver-tongued charlatans like Reverend Jim Jones, Bernie Madoff, Adolf Hitler and numerous others. They may lose the ability to determine when they are being fooled. That is why it is critical to reject irrational arguments whenever and wherever they are presented.

Furthermore, if we believe in ideas that are unverifiable, it leaves us susceptible to subjugation. Same-sex couples are finally making inroads toward equality, after years of persecution based largely on literal interpretation of scripture. Slavery is also implicitly condoned by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy books, and would persist today if not for social progress through reason and experience. Before we understood the nature of mental illness, schizophrenics suffered torture or murder for presumed demonic possession.

In order to accept a claim as truth, it must be theoretically possible to prove the claim false, either through our physical senses or our use of reason. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution is eminently falsifiable. All it would take is to find one fossil in the wrong geologic layer. That has never happened, despite innumerable challenges. On the other hand, the claim that a pink unicorn lives somewhere in the universe is not falsifiable, because it is not possible to explore the entire universe in order to refute that claim. If a claim is not falsifiable, it cannot be accepted as true.

Ultimately, then, if a claim is inconsistent with either our sensory experience or our reasoning, it must be rejected as false. No information can be accepted without conforming to one or the other test, no matter if it is a day old or two thousand years old.

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Debate: Can we be good without God?

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No, We’re Not a Christian Nation

By Charles C. Haynes of the First Amendment Center, published in the La Crosse Tribune.

“Culture warriors, pseudo-historians and opportunistic politicians have spent the past several decades peddling the myth that America was founded as a ‘Christian nation.’

The propaganda appears to be working.”

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Tax Subsidies for Bigotry

By Hank Zumach, August 4, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Freethinkers have a wide range of views, from liberal to conservative, on how government programs should affect the economy. However, we have near universal agreement that government programs must not be used to promote discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion.

For those readers who are concerned about the direction some of the unfolding political ideas might take the country, please consider just one facet of what has been injected into several states by the more conservative political party.

I am 71 years old. In my youth, Blacks were not allowed to vote or use public bathrooms or attend White- only public schools. Employers could refuse to hire women. Women were paid less than men for doing the same work and could be refused promotions simply because they were women. Homosexual activity was a felony and gays were imprisoned, some for life. Jews, because of their religious beliefs, were openly discriminated against in our country and were being killed in Europe. All of these practices had the active support of various religious denominations.

But gradually a few brave men and women, some of them religious leaders, began to speak out against the bigotry and irrational hatred. Some of these people were imprisoned and some were actually killed for speaking out, but others then stood up and took their place. For some of us the words “Selma” and “Stonewall” mark important turning points for when our country began to change our laws so that all citizens, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs were treated the same.

I am sure the large majority of Americans believe that those dark days are long gone and there is no need to be concerned about their ever returning. However, very few people are aware that laws have been passed which allow actual tax subsidies for groups who advocate severe discrimination against females and gays and who want to impose their religious beliefs on others. The political leaders behind these laws are being very clever in how they justify governmental backing for these egregious practices. These politicians use carefully chosen phrases such as “parents’ rights” and “freedom to choose.” The media have been drawn into using these phrases when reporting on any disagreements over the laws.

Do I believe that parents should be free to teach their children certain values and beliefs? Yes, of course. However I also believe the vast majority of our society believes that teaching children to be bigots should be seriously discouraged and certainly should not be supported by tax dollars. As a simple example, I abhor the idea that some parents want their daughter to believe she must be submissive to males, that she should not have a job where she would have to supervise and instruct male co-workers. A similar example would be teaching a son that he should physically or otherwise abuse any classmate believed to be homosexual. And no child should be taught that the leaders or followers of another religion are evil.

What is most distressing to me is that the political leaders who claim to oppose these tax subsidies do not have the courage to stand up and use clear, unambiguous language to directly defend women’s equality and gay rights, or oppose taxes being used to demonize a particular religious group. The dark days are slowly returning and these political leaders quietly stand by as the lights are dimmed.

If you do not believe what I have written is fact-based and true, take the time to learn what is being taught in some Wisconsin schools being subsidized with vouchers. While a number of denominations, both Christian and Muslim, use vouchers, I refer you to the following web site because it gives a comprehensive, easily understood description of what this one denomination believes and teaches. Also, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) is the largest Protestant school system receiving voucher subsidies in Wisconsin. There are a number of other denomination’s schools with similar teachings. Here is an ABC start of some of what is being taught using our taxes:

A. The statement on female’s submissive role:

B. The statement on homosexuality. In a previous article on the website it was stated that a person would be “promoting good civil laws” that would punish homosexuals in the same way as murderers are punished.

C. The statement on the Catholic Pope being the Anti-Christ:

Our basic social values of equality and non-discrimination are under attack and in danger. We need leaders, both secular and religious, to speak out against this contrived circumvention of the important principles of the separation of church and state outlined in our Constitution’s 1st Amendment. And we need to hear their voices now, before the darkness returns to the youths of the next generation.

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Less Bible, More Tolerance

By Raysa Everett, July 7, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

I was raised in Brazil in a Christian family and taught to trust the Bible, “the word of God,” most of my life. I went to church, participated in girls’ bible study groups, and even went on mission trips to “share the gospel.”

“Trust in the Lord. He has a purpose for everything in life. His word is perfect.” I heard that all the time growing up, and I really believed it. Anytime I was struggling or things got difficult, I was able to tell myself that God knew what he was doing – then I began the “horrible” practice of questioning everything. Initially I was scared – questioning such an integral part of one’s identity is scary and disorienting. However, afterwards I felt liberated.

Many people think of nonbelievers as sad, lonely people. On the contrary, we feel free knowing we can think logically and don’t need to judge people because they are different. We certainly don’t claim to be better than anyone else; we just base our decisions on reason and evidence, not holy books. We try to live our only life to the fullest; after all, we just get one chance so why waste it by following restrictions based on unsubstantiated opinions?

Contrary to what I was led to believe my whole life, the Bible is not perfect and is filled with both minor and major contradictions. I used to find excuses for every contradiction in the Bible, such as “it was different in the past,” “that was for a specific group at the time,” or “God has a plan and he knows better” (a Christian’s last resort for rationalizing the irrational and illogical).

The Bible contains some beautiful stories that teach truths, just like many fables, parables, myths, or legends also teach truths. However, we can also find a lot of stories that teach bad lessons or condone bad things.

Unfortunately, the Bible has frequently been used to justify some of the hate we have seen and still see in our society. In the Civil War many men of faith used the Bible to defend their “right” to have slaves: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9). How difficult could it have been for God to simply say, “slavery is wrong”?

Many Christians today use only the Bible to justify their opposition to marriage equality (all other “evidence” for this prejudice has long since been discredited). José Martí, a poet, said, “He who has rights does not have the right to violate those of others in order to maintain his own.”

The Bible should not be used as an excuse or justification for anyone’s prejudice against other groups, including homosexuals, nor as the basis for any argument against giving human beings their basic rights or for denying equal rights. Can we really justify discrimination and prejudice by relying on what amounts to nothing more than literary interpretations of a contradictory and, at times, ethically questionable book?

Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death.” However, Leviticus 19:19 says, “Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of materials.” How many of those who preach Leviticus 20:13 also practice or preach Leviticus 19:19? Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20 that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it, and that not the smallest letter would disappear from it. Why is one sin regarded as an abomination and others as forgettable? Because one sin is supported by prejudice while the others are not.

In a civilized, free society, we cannot force people to agree with us or do what we think is best for them, especially if it does not harm anyone (evidence proves homosexuality to be harmless). We have to respect every human being independently of gender, race, religion (or lack thereof), or sexual orientation, not judge or discriminate against them.

Marriage is defined as “the state of being united to a person by love, recognized by law.” Even if you believe that people should not be allowed to marry someone of the same sex, you do not have the right to prevent them from having the same right to be united to the person they love. The many, many rights granted to myself and my husband simply because we are two committed, consenting, heterosexual adults should not be denied to two committed, consenting adults merely because they are of a different sexual orientation. This is the definition of discrimination, and I hope that reason and logic will prevail rather than outdated prejudices.

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Character Is What Really Counts

By Mike Dishnow, June 09, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

It’s easy to name famous and accomplished atheists — Mark Twain, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jodie Foster, Marlene Dietrich and Richard Branson. It is also easy to name famous and accomplished believers — Francis Collins, Denzel Washington, Chuck Norris, Martin Sheen, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James C. Penny and Conrad Hilton.

As you can see from the names on this list, it’s character and what one does — not belief in a higher power — that counts.

There are many instances of intolerant and horrific events that have occurred in the name of Christianity and Islam, and there are many other instances of horrific events that have occurred in nations proclaiming a national policy of atheism. It’s the people, not their beliefs, that are the underlying factor.

The ongoing war of words between theists and nontheists is futile and unlikely to change many minds. Most adults have settled for themselves the question of God’s existence.

This debate might be valuable to young people, but the trick is to keep the debate positive and respectful so they don’t learn the wrong lesson.

Many questions have no answers, and a leap of faith often is required. For a Christian, this may seem obvious; for an atheist this may be problematic.
Why are we here? What caused the universe and all that exists? What does life mean? What are our responsibilities as sentient beings? Tolerance for those who have reached different conclusions to these questions is the ideal.

The label of atheist has always been a kiss of death in the United States. It was true in the time of Thomas Jefferson, and it continues to this day. Politicians often wear their religion like a badge of honor, and to run for office as an atheist is rarely a winning strategy.

Freethinkers are speaking up because they want and deserve the same respect afforded traditional Christianity. It’s easy to fall into the trap of tribalism, but this not healthy or practical. Respect for the worldviews of those who differ from us is the key that is often missing.

I left the fold of Catholic Church as a young man. I simply could not understand, nor believe, the statements and ideology espoused by the elderly priests in my local church. Yet many of my cousins, friends and classmates in Catechism classes remain faithful today.

As an atheist, I don’t know what is correct for anyone other than myself.
There are as many paths to the truth as there are people to walk these paths. One of the three major religious icons, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
A lifetime of philosophical and religious readings has provided gems of wisdom
from all major religious and philosophical tracts.

Travel has only heightened this awareness. A recent month-long sojourn in Taiwan exposed me to Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism — and combinations thereof. Observing the local culture and seeing the benefits of these practices first-hand is revealing. The respect the Taiwanese people afford other belief systems, including Christianity, provided a true “teaching moment.”

The truth lies in tolerance and respect for those whose beliefs and worldviews differ from our own. Only the most arrogant and foolish among us can say they have the answers to the great world’s mysteries.

Freethinkers are a diverse group, as are Christians or members of the other great religious traditions. There is truth and wisdom to be gleaned from the teachings of all of these belief systems. It is time for us to jettison the us-vs.-them mentality and realize we are all in this together.

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Gospel Lifts

By Ed Neumann, May 12, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Are the gospels purely historical accounts, or were elements borrowed from pre-Christian myths and rituals?

Those who’ve studied both ancient mythology and the bible often come away with the impression that certain scenes in the gospel narrative were purposeful literary imitations of older myths. Dennis MacDonald, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology, relates a striking example of one such lift by demonstrating how the disciples James and John had been based, at least in part, on the Gemini Twins.

The Twins, Castor and Pollux, had a mortal father named Tyndareus, while also going by the collective epithet Dioscuri—sons of Zeus, “the Thunderer.” Famed as Argonauts about whom bright-eyed muses would sing, Jove’s boys were also known to call fire down from the sky—referring to their father’s lightning bolts—and had been known in Greek myth to have destroyed entire villages with that power. Ancient coins and gems often depict them positioned on either side of enthroned deities such as Zeus, Serapis, Mars, and Mithras.

Compare these facts with the story of James and John in the Gospels. They are sons of the mortal Zebedee, yet in Mark 3:17, Jesus gives them the collective label Boanerges—“Sons of Thunder.” In Mark 10:35-40, we find James and John—who are always together and even seem to speak in unison—requesting to sit on the right and left of their Lord in his glory, the heavenly throne.

But the smoking gun is Luke 9:54. When Jesus is refused entry into a Samaritan village, the brothers ask, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?” Jesus rebukes them for their quick tempers, but it’s assumed they have this power.

Really? These two backwater fishermen could order destruction from the sky? No wonder Jesus wanted them on his team!

A possible model for another gospel scene was the ancient Jewish Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 describes the scapegoat ritual performed during the annual Yom Kippur observance. The high priest of the temple would order two identical goats brought to the altar, where he would kill one in blood sacrifice while the other was released into the wilderness to carry away the people’s sins.

Recall the pre-crucifixion scene in Mark. In what was not at all traditional, Pilate asks the mob to choose who they would have him set free, the murderer Barabbas or Jesus? The crowd chooses to release Barabbas, a name meaning “son of the father.” Interestingly, in ancient Syriac manuscripts he was Jesus Barabbas.

So here we have Jesus, son of the father released into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel, while Jesus, Son of God the Father is sacrificed to atone for those sins. Historian Richard Carrier feels Mark’s allegorical setup clearly duplicates this two goat tradition.

Finally, since before Christian times, the death & resurrection of Romulus was celebrated in an annual public ceremony in Rome. According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of the god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia. Rome’s king and namesake, Romulus, was killed by the first Roman senate. His corpse vanished from the tomb and he subsequently appeared to his loyal follower Proculus (Latin—“to proclaim”) on the road from Alba Longa to Rome. The demigod orders him to announce a message to his fellow Romans—if they are virtuous, they will conquer the world.

Likewise in Luke, after Jesus is killed and his corpse vanishes, he appears to Cleopas (Greek—“to tell all”) on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus, too, orders his follower to proclaim his words.

Let’s look at the parallels: Both Romulus and Jesus are born of virgins and are hailed as “God,” “Son of God,” and “King.” Both incarnated to establish kingdoms and are killed by a conspiracy of ruling powers. Both of their deaths were accompanied by a supernatural darkness, and both corpses later vanish. Both appear around the break of dawn to close followers whose names literally mean “to proclaim,” traveling from east to west on roads of roughly equal length. Romulus’ ethereal body gleams, befitting his glorious message of empire. Jesus materializes in humble disguise, befitting his message of humility—that the virtuous will join the spiritual kingdom.

The similarities here are too numerous to be accidental. The scenes appear to be parallel myths, the latter intentionally lifted from the former.

These were only a few examples of many that clearly demonstrate Mark et al drew from earlier source material for their versions of the gospel tale. Though such imitation was not an uncommon practice in ancient story writing, it casts doubt on the assertion that the New Testament narratives are “gospel truth.”

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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The Rise of the “Nones”

By Jeremy Fejfar, April 14, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

The religiously unaffiliated, or the “Nones” as they have come to be called, is the fastest growing religious identification in the United States. These are people who answer a survey question about their religion by saying they have no religion, no particular religion, etc.

According to a PEW survey from October 2012, the “Nones” have increased from 15% to 20% in just the past 5 years. This has many leaders in the Christian community frantically trying to arrest the scattering of their flock. Many of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in a god (or “universal spirit”), but it doesn’t seem to be the same sort of deity the typical religious person believes in. Only 18% of this group self-identified as a “religious person”, and most will never be found warming a pew. 72% of the “Nones” report Never/Rarely attending worship, and 88% of them are not looking for a religious identity, generally feeling religious organizations are too concerned with money and power and two-thirds feel they are too involved in politics.

What is fueling this rise in the religiously unaffiliated? One factor is generational replacement. 34% and 30% of those aged 18-22 and 23-30, respectively, ticked the “none of the above” box, while only 5 % of those over 85 years old did. I expect to see this momentum continue as these young Americans start families of their own, and choose not to make religion an important part of their childrens’ lives.

Politicians are seeing the Christian Right’s once-formidable influence diminish while increasingly vocal secularists are looking for politicians to end the unconstitutional pandering to religions. Groups like the Secular Coalition for America are stepping up their lobbying and giving a political voice to the “Nones”.

Membership in secular and skepticism advocacy groups is at an all-time high. The Secular Student Alliance, which had 50 affiliate groups in 2006, now has 408 groups- including a chapter at UWL.

While some had successfully managed to dupe Americans during the cold war by falsely conflating atheism and communism, this boogeyman is no longer effective to malign nonbelievers. Since 9/11, radicalized religion has come under the microscope as the greatest threat to civilization.

The internet is another variable that is likely contributing to the decline of religiosity. There is a reason small religious groups have often tried to isolate themselves from outsiders. Exposure to dissenting opinions can be toxic to one’s religious convictions. The vast majority of the world’s population disagrees with your religious affiliation (regardless of your religious affiliation), and our increased interconnectedness exposes us to opposing views like never before. Religious leaders know this, and some groups have tried to reduce this variable by restricting the access their flock has to the internet, through governmental action or spiritual threats. However, they will fail. Truth will always prevail, despite the best efforts of the overzealous peddlers of ignorance. Galileo taught us this lesson.

The media has also fueled the rise of the “Nones,” putting nonbelief on the map like never before. Since the publication of The End of Faith in 2004, and The God Delusion in 2006, atheism has experienced something of a renaissance. An avalanche of books has turned a skeptical eye on religion.

Main characters in popular television shows like House, Scrubs, Glee, The Big Bang Theory, The Office, and The Mentalist are either stated atheists, or have expressed skepticism of religion. Comedians like George Carlin and Tim Minchin present religious skepticism in the context of humor, where people are less defensive to criticism of their religion. Their videos, and others like them, have garnered many millions of views on YouTube. This has shown viewers that not belonging to a religion is an option, where in the past this would have been unfathomable.

The stars of the two most downloaded podcast shows, Adam Carolla and Ricky Gervais, are outspoken atheists. Many other award winning podcasts (such as Reasonable Doubts, The Atheist Experience, Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and Penn’s Sunday School) promote the virtue of skepticism to new audiences globally via iTunes. Skeptics and nonbelievers have embraced social networking, podcasting, and YouTube to find community even when they are not able to find others in their region who openly share their views.

Lastly, many church scandals and social issues are causing young Americans to be wary of religion. Evidence of the institutionalized protection of child rapists by the Catholic Church continues to come to light. From California to Australia, Milwaukee to Ireland, the depth of these crimes seems to know no bounds. Further, many sects of organized religion find a gulf separating them from the two-thirds of adults under 31 years-old who support gay marriage and nearly universal approval of birth control. Once again, organized religion finds itself on the wrong side of history.

In this rapidly-changing religious landscape in America, many young people are choosing to part ways with religion altogether. And they are increasingly finding they are not alone.

Jeremy Fejfar is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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The Dubious Power of Prayer

By Maria Runde, March 17, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

There are many kinds of prayers and many circumstances bringing them about. Selfishly, we may pray that our team wins, that we pass an exam, or that we win the lottery. Altruistically, we may pray for recovery of a friend’s illness or for world peace. However, is there any evidence that prayer actually brings about the changes for which we pray?

We have all seen various signs asking that we “Pray to End (fill in the blank).” Take a moment to analyze what it really implies. We have to assume God realizes that the activity is happening here on Earth. Isn’t it arrogant for us to tell Him to stop it? On the other hand, if God does not realize it is occurring, then He is not omniscient. If God knows it is happening, wants it stopped, yet does nothing because He demands more prayers from us, what does it say about our Creator? There is no scenario in which intercessory prayer makes sense. If God knows what is right, He doesn’t need us to tell Him what to do. If He doesn’t know what right, then why would we pray to Him? If He knows what is right, yet won’t do it unless we beg, isn’t that evil?

Intercessory prayer is that in which the one doing the praying is hoping to influence a particular situation. It is entirely plausible that prayer could affect the state of one’s own illness, but this may not be due to divine influence but rather due to the physical benefits of what is, essentially, meditation. Further, if a person knows that she is being prayed for, enhanced recovery could be the consequence of increased morale. After all, wouldn’t you fight all the harder if you knew others were in your corner? We need to examine this with a critical eye.

“God helps those who help themselves.” Shouldn’t a loving god help anyone who asks for it? Or better yet, wouldn’t He know when help is needed without being asked? How do I know what was God’s work or my own? Obviously, God doesn’t answer every prayer, or we would all be perpetually healthy and happy. We can assume there were innumerable prayers sent from Auschwitz, most of which went unanswered. Some people say that God answers all prayers, but that sometimes the answer is “No.” That seems indiscriminate and cruel. Of course, many of us can recall situations where our prayers seemed to have been answered. How can we separate random chance from actual Divine intervention?

A medical study published in the April 2006 American Heart Journal sought to investigate the power of prayer on the recovery of patients who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery at six major medical centers. It involved 1800 patients, who were divided into three groups. Some patients did not receive prayers. The patients who received prayers were divided into two groups—those who knew they were getting prayers and those who didn’t know. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before the procedure. This was a rigorous, carefully monitored study that was designed to account for biases. The study concluded that intercessory prayer itself had no effect on recovery from cardiac bypass surgery, but those who knew they received intercessory prayer had a HIGHER incidence of complications than those who didn’t know they received prayers and those who got no prayers at all.

There is no doubt that the human mind has a powerful influence on its physical body. There are direct nerve connections between the brain and the adrenal glands. Hormones released due to mental stress clearly play a role in certain illnesses in the body. Other hormones released through states of calm can relieve certain physical illnesses. However, the idea that we can influence the well being of others through prayer is dubious at best and homicidal at worst. Some religions teach that blood transfusion or organ donation is unacceptable, and that one should simply pray for recovery. We need to reject that sort of thinking and accept what science has taught us.

I am not suggesting that prayer has no benefit. It undoubtedly provides inner peace for some. However, it is unlikely that any amount of praying will result in supernatural alteration of our world. In the interest of advancing our society, we need to realize that prayer cannot solve our problems, but the human mind can.

Maria Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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What Is Meaning of “Christian”?

By Hank Zumach, February 17, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

We all have repeatedly heard and read the word “Christian.” It is used in common phrases such as “Christian nation,” “Christian values” and “Christian beliefs” to indicate some broad set of commonly held values and doctrines we all understand. But, other than the core belief that a man named Jesus Christ was born about 2000 years ago, was the son of God, and preached some basic human values, it seems that is as much as Christians have in common. To an outside observer, it might even seem they worship and follow different gods.

I attended a religious school for five years and over the course of my adult life I have had discussions with a number of devoted Christian laypersons and clergy and have read a range of religious publications. The more I have come to understand their sincerely held beliefs, the more I have come to understand that “Christians” have significantly different beliefs about which version, and which interpretation, of the Bible is the correct one. Perhaps more importantly, they have significant differences about how society should meet the social goals of the Bible. If, as is often claimed by various Christian leaders, the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, then it seems reasonable to ask that there be a clear understanding of what that means.

It cannot be said that Christians have a belief in “the Bible” because immediately the questions become: which Bible? the King James version? the New Revised Standard version? the New American Bible version? There are many different versions that have differences so significant that using the same book title seems meaningless. Do Christians believe the Bible was literally dictated to men by God or was it written by men who thought they knew God’s mind? Were its rules meant to apply only to the people living at the time or are the rules and stories largely metaphors that do not actually apply to the present society? Which rules still apply and which do not? If there is meaningful agreement among Christian denominations, why can’t they come together to write a clearly understood version, written in today’s verbiage, perhaps with explanatory footnotes? If something as simple as that cannot be done, using the term “Christian” has little real meaning or value.

On a separate, related topic not so entwined with doctrinal questions, there are important social issues that have slowly come to the forefront of modern society. Homosexuals’ rights and women’s health issues are in the news almost daily. These issues have not been settled, in large measure due to the serious disagreements within large segments of “Christianity.” If agreement on such basic social questions cannot be reached, I suggest that when the spokesperson for a denomination makes a public statement that, for the sake of clarity, they only use the name of their specific denomination, thus indicating they are not speaking for all, rather than use the term “Christian.” The same guideline should be used by the media.

I accept that the primary motivation of the leadership of the various denominations is to do good works as they believe Jesus Christ taught. There seems to be little disagreement between theologians that among the basic societal obligations taught by Jesus Christ are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick and shelter the homeless. However, throughout history and up to our present time, those societal obligations have seldom been met. While a few denominations have focused on those charitable works, too many have had other priorities. Can’t the various denominations set aside their sectarian differences, even briefly, to reach across the theological aisle to arrive at a sound, reasonably detailed description of how the poor should be helped, the homeless sheltered, the sick provided with professional health care? From a practical standpoint, the most effective method to achieve those highly desirable goals would be to come together with a true, non-denominational plan.

I am not writing this to criticize people with sincere religious beliefs. Rather I am writing as a person who has serious concerns that our country seems as politically divided as any time since the Civil War. There is little meaningful dialogue between the two political parties (or has it actually become three?). This divisiveness is due in part to the fact that some religious denominations have aligned themselves with one or the other of the political parties. Our social safety nets are fraying and neither side seems willing to cooperate in
developing workable solutions.

Nearly all Freethinkers, myself included, strongly believe in the need for the separation of church and state. However, what I am advocating would not violate that requirement of the 1st Amendment. This can be done in a way that meets the Constitutional requirements while actually improving our cultural health. Isn’t that a basic societal value we can all agree with?

Hank Zumach
President, La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Common Misconceptions about the Religious and Nonreligious

By Joshua Everett, January 20, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

As a former Christian minister, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of religious and nonreligious people. One thing I have found is most people are the same, regardless of their religious or nonreligious views. Both groups have their moderates and their hardliners, and both are guilty of misrepresenting those with whom they disagree because we can more easily dismiss their views through hyperbole and misrepresentation.

In particular, misconceptions about clergy abound on both sides. Nonreligious people can be quick to see all clergy as financially motivated charlatans, opportunistic manipulators, power-hungry pseudo-tyrants, or insincere con artists. We can all think of examples of the stereotypical televangelist in support of such views, but I’ve known many clergy and the average clergy person is the opposite of these descriptions. You might dislike their methods and beliefs, but most clergy really are sincere in their desire to help people and improve the world.

I have also heard it said most Christians, clergy included, have never read their Bibles and usually become atheists once they do so. I think most clergy would agree with the sentiment that too few of the Christian laity read their Bibles enough; however, I find it ludicrous to say that clergy have not read the very book they have chosen to devote their lives to studying, following, and implementing. They might be reading it and interpreting it in a different way than nonreligious people, but they have read it many times.

Conversely, many religious people can idolize their religious leaders and follow them unquestioningly. Your religious leaders do not become superhuman upon ordination, so you would be well advised to do some research on your own, verify their statements, and question their opinions on everything (most clergy would agree with that sentiment).

As a former clergyman who rejected Christianity for intellectual reasons, I find my very existence is offensive to many Christians. Many Christians, particularly those whose doctrine includes the “security of the believer” (once saved, always saved), find conflict between their beliefs and the existence of sincere clergy who reject their former religious beliefs. Many religious people have called me a great many horrible things and jumped to unfair and offensive conclusions about me.

Rest assured, I was sincere in my religious beliefs and truly thought they were necessary for improving the world and living a good life. While research into religion led me to change my views, that does not mean my good intentions or highly ethical character have changed. Malign me if you must in order to rationalize your beliefs, but please recognize if you are going to participate in this sort of divisive, unfounded stereotyping then you should not complain when others do the same to you.

Nonbelievers can frequently fall into the trap of representing all Christians based on the most despicable representations of their religion. We must realize for every Christian who advocates discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, many other Christians have risen up in support of equal rights for all.

Similarly, I have frequently heard many horrible characterizations of atheists. Atheists are frequently maligned as lacking purpose, but this is a mischaracterization. We share in the same purposes most religious people have: family, friends, loved ones, a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to help our fellow human beings. Many religious people think atheists consider existence, charity, love, and social justice to be meaningless. However, atheists appreciate this one life much more due to its ephemeral nature. Charity, love, and social justice become much more important if we want everyone to have a meaningful life and don’t trust our problems to all be sorted out after death.

We can all throw around references to pseudo-atheist Stalinism or pseudo-Christian Nazism all we like, but we are accomplishing nothing other than to degrade any attempts at dialogue on important issues. We need to remember the vast majority of religious and nonreligious people are motivated by the highest of intentions. Attacking well-intentioned people is unproductive and only serves to increase tensions and hostility.

We must be careful to respect people while recognizing that analysis and critiques of our ideas and beliefs are justified. Without debates over issues, we can never progress. Criticism leveled at ideas and beliefs are not personal attacks, even if those ideas and beliefs are of great personal value to some. We cannot progress if we cannot challenge ideas, but we must remember malevolent, reactionary attacks on the proponents of ideas are forms of intellectual laziness that destroy productive public discourse. Such stereotypes, exaggerations, and misrepresentations are unnecessarily divisive and all too common in a world where we frequently lack understanding and empathy to a shameful degree.

Joshua Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Celebrating Holidays as an Atheist

By Raysa Everett, December 16, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

I have a confession to make: I’m an atheist and I love the Christmas season. Atheists who celebrate holidays such as Christmas are frequently maligned as hypocrites, but I do not agree. My nonreligious celebration of a traditionally religious holiday is no different from Americans celebrating Cinco de Mayo or Christians celebrating Easter and Christmas with traditions that come from the pagan religious rites that form the foundation of these holidays. Neither does it mean that I agree with Christmas or other holidays associated with religions being supported by the government. Christians can celebrate these holidays, pagan traditions and all, without being hypocrites because the pagan mythology means nothing to them. I celebrate Christmas in a nonreligious way without being a hypocrite because the Christian mythology no longer means anything to me.

Like most nonreligious or marginally religious people who celebrate Christmas, I enjoy the opportunity to spend time with my family and friends rather than focusing on the contradictory, un-historical legends of the virgin birth of a supposed deity.

I also enjoy some of the wonderful values espoused at this time of year, such as peace, joy, charity, and love. Some of you might consider these values to be intrinsically religious, but I do not find that to be the case. The biblical account of Jesus does include an angel saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14, NIV). The operative phrase here is the limitation that peace and goodwill should be shown only to those who merit God’s favor.

However, humanity has largely rejected that limitation in word if not always in deed. Most people prefer to show peace and goodwill to all, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender, or race. This is an important step forward for all societies, and one cannot help but wonder why people have been able to improve on the more limited, divine sentiment found in this story.

This example demonstrates a much larger trend throughout the centuries since the books of the Bible were compiled by the Council of Nicea at the command of the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE: human values and ideals have gradually progressed through the centuries to become more humane, inclusive, and tolerant, despite scriptures advocating the opposite. For many, sexism, slavery, racism, witch-burning, holy wars, inquisitions, stonings, homophobia, and authoritarianism are no longer considered praiseworthy qualities despite their strong historical ties to Christianity and scriptural foundation (depending on one’s interpretation, of course).

Religious values tend to be tribalistic and exclusive. This means that such positive values were meant to be shown to an in-group, such as one’s own tribe, culture, or fellow believers. Historically, this is not an unusual circumstance as Christianity is joined in this exclusive tendency by most religions in the world. Only more recently in the Modern Era have humanist ideals of inclusiveness softened the tribalistic tendencies of many religions.

Certainly I do not mean to say that these religions are, or were, entirely inwardly focused, since proselytizing has always been an integral component of Christianity. However, one must not confuse the desire to grow one’s in-group with the desire to include other out-groups in one’s circle of compassion, tolerance, and acceptance. We must distinguish between an isolationist exclusivity that does not permit outsiders to become insiders (not inclusive at all), and an expansionist exclusivity that welcomes outsiders once they prove their willingness to follow the rules of the in-group (a highly conditional, limited form of inclusivity). Christianity has historically belonged to the latter, including those who follow the rules and agree to specific doctrines and excluding those who do not, though some modern, liberal denominations have begun to adopt highly inclusive approaches.

However, one must ask whether these trends toward inclusiveness are the result of a return to the fundamental values of Christian scriptures, progress due to newer or “better” divine revelations, or progress due to the influence of a more progressive surrounding culture. Historically, the traditional interpretations of scripture have never lead to more inclusive, tolerant values; the Bible bears the marks of the troubled periods of history in which its disparate and conflictive accounts were written.

Remarkably, new realizations, interpretations, or divine revelations about faith systems seem to occur well after such improvements in values have happened in the surrounding culture. Advances in humanist values that become widely accepted in society have eventually forced religious groups to accept such advances in order to stay relevant. Explaining ethical advances as products of culture rather than religion certainly explains why religion frequently begins on the conservative, traditionalist side of such advances, as well as why religious people, despite having nearly identical beliefs, find themselves on both sides of many issues. They reach their conclusion on such issues not through scriptural study, but rather through cultural influences. These cultural influences can exert positive and negative pressures, as history has shown all too well.

This Christmas, don’t limit your ideals. Follow the trend toward inclusive, humanist values and show peace and goodwill to all, regardless of your differences or disagreements.

Raysa Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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Apocalypse Now?

By Ed Neumann, November 25, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

More than 40 percent of Americans believe a biblical apocalypse — where Christ returns and wages a battle with the antichrist — will happen one day, and over half of those folks think it will occur within their own lifetime. A look at the historical record should shed light on this unlikely prognostication.

For thousands of years, people have been predicting a catastrophic end of the world or, for those who saw time as cyclical, the end of an age. Many also expected a glorious return of their gods or saviors to repair what they considered a fallen world and to judge the quick and the dead.

The Hindu god Vishnu is to come back in the last cycle of time as Kalki riding a white horse. The Persian prophet Zoroaster promised to resurrect his followers and vanquish the powers of darkness in some final struggle. The Book of Setna speaks of the “Day of Awakening,” when the Egyptian god Osiris will return in judgment. Similar second-comings were expected for Krishna, Buddha and Quetzalcoatl.
In the centuries prior to the rise of Christianity, apocalyptic Jews also prepared for a coming kingdom of God. Such sentiment, expressing Yahweh’s timetable in cryptic language, can be seen in the literature of the time.

During the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah spoke of the restoration of Israel in 70 years. When this didn’t pan out, the Book of Daniel reinterpreted Jeremiah to mean “70 weeks of years,” or 490 years. Wrong again. The apocalyptic fever continued as the Essenes, Pharisees and John the Baptist predicted an imminent eschaton, or End of Days, when Yahweh would exalt Israel to reign over nations.

Later, in Mark’s “little apocalypse” (Mark 13), Daniel’s failed prophecy was altered to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus instructed his disciples about the destruction of the temple and Daniel’s coming Son of Man — specifically stating that their generation would not pass away before all these things happen. Clearly, the Son of Man was a no-show.

Despite this, the devout held on to their expectations, and there have been hundreds of failed predictions made over the 2,000 years since.
The following are the most widely known:

Year 60: Paul expected the Day of the Lord would occur in his lifetime.

90: Clement of Rome said the end would come any moment now.

375: Martin of Tours claimed the antichrist was already born and there would be Armageddon before year 400.

992: Good Friday coincided with Feast of Annunciation, surely heralding the end.

1000: Pope Sylvester II said the Rapture was imminent. Many starved as farmers saw no reason to plant, and thousands gave away possessions. A legend arose that a king would waken from his slumber to battle the antichrist, so the bones of Charlemagne were disinterred.

1186: Alignment of planets thought to signal the end.

1600: Martin Luther said this was the end.

1666: “Fifth Monarchy Men” of England claimed the 666 in this year indicated presence of antichrist.

1697, 1716, 1736: Various failures and revisions of Puritan Cotton Mather.

1844: Followers of William Miller gave away all possessions because the rapture was near. Successive disappointments gave rise to new interpretations. Moving the goal posts farther ahead, deluded doomsday-ers would rationalize, “With the Lord, a thousand years is as a day.”

1975: Jehovah’s Witnesses thought the world was now 6,000 years old — it must be time.

1987: Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” said this was the year. His book sales were second only to the Bible. When this failed, he set his sights on 2000.

2000: Jerry Falwell and the “Left Behind” authors, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, also chose 2000.

2007: Pat Robertson was strangely sure it was this year.

2011: Pastor Harold Camping said the rapture would occur May 21; later he revised the date to Oct. 21. His followers gave him their life savings.

If Jesus really meant he’d be back in a couple thousand years, wouldn’t he have just said so? It’s time stop fooling ourselves and admit these failed prophecies were a product of an apocalyptic fever from a less enlightened era.

Let’s face it, the chances are slim that Zoroaster, Quetzalcoatl or Jesus are coming back. More likely, the idea of their return is just part of the savior mythos.

A few doom-and-gloomers are even tying the arrival of Christ and antichrist to the end of the Mayan long-count next month. When December 21, 2012 passes by with the world still intact, on what date will they next set their sights for the final holocaust? Some claim 2020 — a perfect year for seers.

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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Tribune Article: Atheist, UW-L professor to debate whether religion is positive force

Expect some fire and brimstone at this debate, but it won’t be a pre-election fracas.

Preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker appears ready to stoke the fire when he squares off against philosophy professor Eric Kraemer on the question “Is Religion a Positive Force in Society?” Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. […]

To continue reading this article, please click here.

For more details about the debate, please click here.

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The Greatest Story Never Told

By Jeremy Fejfar, October 28, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

If you ask the average Christian for something Jesus is known to have said, it is likely this verse will come up. It is from the story of a woman caught in adultery, and Jesus famously shows her mercy (John 7:53-8:11). There is just one problem: This exchange almost certainly never occurred.

In his book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” biblical scholar Bart Ehrman takes many things that are common knowledge among scholars and disseminates it to the layman.

In the first two to three centuries of the church, Christian texts were copied not by professional scribes, but rather by the few church members who were literate. Because of this, mistakes in transcription were common. This is understandable as the ancient Greek text used no punctuation marks, no capitalization of letters and no spaces between words. If this didn’t make it difficult enough, scribes commonly used abbreviations, which were easily misread by subsequent scribes who were often barely literate themselves.

This was such a problem that third-century church father Origen wrote, “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.”

In fact, Revelation 22:18-19 seems to be a direct warning against those who would alter the scriptures: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book;

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life …”

When John Mill wrote his new testament in 1707, he noted 30,000 variants among the 100 manuscripts available to him at that time. We now have more than 5,700 Greek manuscripts, ranging from the size of a credit card to that of several books. Scholars estimate that the number of variants among them is between 200,000 to 400,000 — more differences than there are words in the entire New Testament.

While the majority of the deviations among the manuscripts are accidental — omissions, additions, misspellings — some passages important to Christian dogma also come into question.

But don’t take his word for it. The evidence is right there in the Bible collecting dust on the shelf. Preceding the aforementioned story of the adulteress is this disclaimer in the New International Version Bible: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not contain John 7:53-8:11.”

The concept of the Trinity, for example, is only supported by one passage in the Bible. “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one” (1 John 5:7-8).

This is the way the verse appears in the King James Bible. However, the oldest manuscripts read, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”

The modified version that supports the Trinity does not appear in any Greek manuscript before the 14th century. It appears that a scribe at some point added content to this verse to support a particular sect’s belief in the Trinity. Likewise, John 1:1-18, John chapter 21, and Luke 23:34 appear to be later additions.

Similarly, the book of Mark originally ended at Chapter 16, verse 8. The concluding 12 verses found in current Bibles are not in the oldest manuscripts. These added verses give biblical basis to those who speak in “tongues,” snake-handlers and faith healers. They also state that Christians can drink any poison without harm.

Mark Wolford, a Pentecostal preacher, died this year as a result of a snake bite he received while following this particular scripture. One wonders if he would have partaken in these rituals had he known this verse was not in our oldest manuscripts?

Ehrman is one of the most distinguished scholars in the field, and his conclusions are representative of scientific biblical studies. He points out that because we don’t have any of the originals of the New Testament writings, it’s impossible to know if any given verse had been altered. Truly, if the verses mentioned here are not in our oldest copies, as significant as they are to modern dogma, what verses could possibly be above reproach?

Ehrman gives many other examples in his book, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about how the Bible as we know it came into existence, how scholars determine what was originally written and who changed the Bible and why.

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Variety of Belief One of Religion’s Major Downfalls

By Maria Runde, September 30, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

One of the many difficulties with the world’s religions is that each believes itself to be correct — and all the others to be wrong.

Each religion holds critical beliefs that are utterly incompatible with the others. How do we know which we should believe? If having the wrong ideas leads to eternal suffering, we need to know which ones are right.

There are about 2.2 billion Christians on this planet. In order to be identified as a Christian, one must believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he was raised from the dead and that his death offers eternal salvation to all of mankind.

If people don’t accept these basic ideas, they really cannot call themselves Christians.

Most Christians believe the biblical stories about Jesus to be literal, historical truth. However, Earth contains more than 7 billion people, meaning that a large majority do not believe these ideas about Jesus.

How can it be that so few have this vital knowledge? Does it make sense that a majority of the world’s people could be condemned to eternal despair simply due to geography?

There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. They believe that Jesus was a lesser prophet than Mohammed, and that God’s true word is revealed only through Mohammed. Though they believe in essentially the same God, they have very different ideas about how he wants us to live in order to be accepted into heaven.

There are about 13 million Jews in the world, and none of them believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God or that his death gives us eternal salvation. They believe he was a false messiah and that the true messiah has not yet come.

Islam, Judaism and Christianity therefore have irreconcilable, non-negotiable ideas about the divinity of Jesus Christ. They cannot all be right.

There are about 1 billion Hindus on this planet, and they do not believe Jesus was a divine being. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions on the planet, predating all the monotheistic religions by centuries. Its followers believe we are reincarnated to live on Earth over and over again. Hindu belief spans monotheism, polytheism and atheism, clearly an irresolvable conflict with Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

There are about 500 million Buddhists in the world, and none of them believes in a personal God. They are, therefore, atheist by definition. They do not believe that humans possess an eternal soul. They believe in reincarnation, which is irreconcilable with the beliefs of the monotheistic majority. Buddhism predates those religions by centuries.

There are about 500 million Taoists and Confucianists in the world, and none of them believes in a personal God or the central ideas of Christianity. They identify with multiple gods, but they believe death is final and irrevocable. Consequently, the idea of salvation has no meaning for them.

There are innumerable other religions, each with their own ideas about our origins and our fate. Does it make sense that something as important as the knowledge of the fate of mankind would be revealed to only a minority, and that the knowledge is not verifiable, but available only through word of mouth?

Any sufficiently advanced society in the world could verify the speed of light and the basic laws of planetary motion. Anthropologists of any culture could discover the fact of evolution in the fossil record. Anyone could derive the Pythagorean theorem from simpler mathematics. Such concepts, independently verifiable by anyone of any culture or age, are very likely to be true.

The world’s religions, on the other hand, are mutually incompatible with one another. Therefore, they cannot all be correct. However, they can all be wrong.

From the dawn of human consciousness, we have sought answers to the big questions of why we are here and where we are going. However, we must remain humble enough to say that we simply do not know. No other answer is supported by evidence, and any claim to specific knowledge will be opposed by a majority of the world’s people. It then comes down to faith.

Where faith is concerned, I agree with the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dan Barker, when he said, “Faith is a cop-out. It is intellectual bankruptcy. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits.”

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Debate: Is Religion a Positive Force in Society

Excerpts from the Debate

Posted in Debates, Events | 3 Comments

How Business Can Be Bad for Religions

By Hank Zumach, September 2, 2012

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

It is an unfortunate and disturbing fact of U.S. politics that misinformation, half truths, deception and even outright lies have become a routine tactic when trying to influence public policies.

However, what is even more disturbing is the recent use of this type of tactic by certain denominations and organizations in the religious community, often with the wholehearted complicity of some politicians who expect the religious groups’ support in return.

The leaders of these religious groups know this deception is taking place even though telling the truth is claimed to be one of their most basic doctrines.

Nearly everyone has repeatedly heard the false claim that the United States was formed as a “Christian Nation.” A few stories and partial facts have been used in an attempt to legitimize this claim. Quotes from some of the Founding Fathers may have been used.

So called “experts,” such as David Barton or Dinesh D’Souza, will be cited, even though they have been overwhelmingly discredited by legitimate scholars.

Unfortunately, very few people make the effort to seriously question the “Christian Nation” claim and so some of our political and religious leaders are leading their misinformed followers in a direction that was never intended by the writers of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States of America.

The Constitution is a God-free text, making no reference to any divine authority but instead vesting power in “We the People.” The only reference to religion in the Constitution is a negative, a statement saying that there shall be no religious test for holding public office.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As if that weren’t clear enough, less than a decade after the Constitution’s ratification the Senate unanimously approved the Treaty of Tripoli, which expressly stated that the young nation “was not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.”

But now we have a number of religious denominations, most prominently the Catholic Church, making the claim that businesses that have any affiliation with a religion are exempt from government laws and regulations.

The claim is even made that an individual business owner should not have to comply with laws that apply to the business if the owner has some “moral” objection to the laws. These claims are based on the lie that religious freedom trumps all other considerations.

What the leaders of these religious groups have refused to answer are questions about how far religious freedom should go. They do not want to discuss the fact that nonprofit organizations that exist for the purpose of practicing their faith, in other words actual religions, are exempt from many government regulations.

Let me be very clear about this: I believe it is vital to our society that religious denominations must have full freedom to determine the wages and working conditions for those who are priests, ministers, rabbis, nuns, monks, etc. of the religion. However, if we are to have a democratic and open society it is even more important that our public facilities such as hospitals, retail outlets, manufacturing operations and all other forms of commerce must be subject to evenly applied rules that reflect our society’s values.

What is hardly mentioned by the media coverage of this is that the religious denominations are claiming that when they are operating as a business, the business is covered by the First Amendment’s language about religon.

The argument thus far has focused on the Catholic Church’s claim that healthcare businesses and medical facilities that are somehow affiliated with it should not have to provide certain medical benefits to its employees that might conflict with Catholic doctrine.

What they are actually advocating would result in some sort of theological anarchy, where any business could even create their own rules if the owner claims some “moral” reason. An Islamic affiliated business might require its female employees to wear burkas. A Christian Science affiliated business might refuse to pay for Medicare or job related medical treatments.

Some sects might claim the right to use child labor, refuse to hire minorities or females, pay minimum wages, comply with job safety standards or pollution controls.

Do we really want the court system deciding which religious doctrines and practices are valid, and therefore should have priority over society’s secular laws, and which do not?

The obvious, simple solution to this is that religious sects should stop operating businesses. Stated another way, if the leaders of a religion feel they can not comply with business regulations, it should not operate a business. This would not stop them from healing the sick, providing shelter for the homeless or giving aid to the poor.

As has always been true, they can do these things as acts of charity, a virtue claimed by all religions.

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Freethought Radio Interviews LCAFS Member Joshua Everett

Freethought Radio, a production of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, interviewed LCAFS member Joshua Everett on August 16, 2012 about is article published in the La Crosse Tribune and republished in Freethought Today about The Clergy Project.

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Burden of proof is on the theist

By Jeremy Fejfar, December 19, 2011

In response to Rev. David Olson’s column (Dec. 11 Tribune), Olson takes umbrage with those using Stephen Roberts’ statement “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Olson doesn’t feel that his god is subject to the same evidential criteria as gods from other religions. It seems that his justification is basically — my god is bigger than your god.

Because he has defined his god as the source of creation, apparently his god is more likely to exist than other proposed gods. This is a non-sequitur. If Olson finds this sort of logically fallacious argumentation compelling, perhaps his future articles could use the “evidences” — my god is older than your god, my god is nicer than your god, or more people believe in my god than your god.

Olson states that atheists build straw men of less “sophisticated forms of religious belief.” Please define which beliefs are unsophisticated? A six-day creation? A 10,000-year-old universe? Noah’s flood? Zombies (Matthew 27:52)? That Latin incantations can transmute a wafer into delectable human flesh? Or that an omnipotent deity would require blood sacrifice in order to forgive?

If Olson thinks these are all unsophisticated religious beliefs, then we agree. However, there are many millions of Christians who claim these beliefs, so I’d hardly dismiss critiques of these notions as mere straw-man pugilism.

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Religion doesn’t always take high moral ground

By Hank Zumach, November 3, 2011

The Rev. David Olson’s recent letter (Tuesday’s Tribune) can serve as an important learning opportunity for those readers who are interested in fact-based reality.

In Olson’s version of reality, it is acceptable to claim that a review of theist-based morality should be looked to as the height of moral leadership. He supports his claim by asserting that a teaching of Christianity directly led to the stopping of a horrendous cultural practice many centuries ago.

He then claims that freethinkers would have no philosophical basis for condemning any cultural evil.

Olson somehow failed to cite the Bible’s commands to commit genocide — including killing all of numerous nation’s men, women, and children (well, it was morally OK to keep the virgins for later use).

Olson also overlooked the Christian theists’ use of extensive torture and eventual killing of heretics, witches and others. And the Inquisition, the crusades, the theft of land and decimation of Native American culture, slavery, the suppression of women, the Holocaust. All of these were given religion-based moral justification.

The fact-based reality is that as freethinkers have gained influence in societies, those societies have experienced a decrease in such things as murder, unplanned pregnancies, childhood mortality, income disparity, etc.

Those who want the basis for this information can find it at

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What matters most is how we live our lives

By Mike Dishnow, August 24, 2011

Who or what is the creator of “the creator”? The “first cause argument” is without merit. One can always seek a reduction of one more step.

As Dean Stroud wrote in a column in Sunday’s Tribune, simplicity has its virtues. The concept of a creator God sounds complex to me — omniscient, omnipotent and Omnipresent are not simple ideas.

For this man, it is reasonable to believe it more likely that “man created God in his own image” than that “God created man in his own image” — incredibly more logical and more simple.

A simple review of the various religious and philosophical views, theist and non-theist, through historical and contemporary time suggests this is true.

Stroud is not wrong, nor is he right. There is a God. There is not a God. He cannot prove his thesis, nor can I prove mine.

Belief does not equal goodness or evil.

Disbelief does not equal goodness or evil.

What counts is how one lives this life; standards of conduct, ethics and values reign supreme.

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National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional

By Jeremy Fejfar, April 21, 2011

I was disappointed to see that a court overturned Judge Barbara Crabb’s finding that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. It’s clear to me that this practice is unconstitutional.

The recurring national day of prayer is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was made an annual observance in 1952 and was officially assigned to the first Thursday in May 1988 at the behest of the Rev. Billy Graham.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” yet this is exactly what this government-mandated day does.

The president, whether he likes it or not, is required by a law passed by Congress to proclaim this day “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer …”

There was no prayer at the Constitutional Convention, despite frequent claims to the contrary, and Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying, “civil powers alone have been given to the president of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

Prayer is exclusively a religious practice and has no secular purpose. While I would applaud Graham or other religious leaders to proclaim a day of prayer, the president has no business compelling me to participate in religious rituals.

Substitute the word prayer for another religious exercise (meditation, fasting, chanting, animal sacrifice), and it becomes apparent how improper this proclamation is.

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