bookmark_borderPope forming exorcist squads to wage war on Satan

I thought for a moment I was reading The Onion, but this story is from what at least sometimes purports to be a real newspaper, the UK’s Daily Mail:

The Pope has ordered his bishops to set up exorcism squads to tackle the rise of Satanism.

Vatican chiefs are concerned at what they see as an increased interest in the occult.

They have introduced courses for priests to combat what they call the most extreme form of “Godlessness.”

Each bishop is to be told to have in his diocese a number of priests trained to fight demonic possession.

The initiative was revealed by 82-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican “exorcist-in-chief,” to the online Catholic news service Petrus.

“Thanks be to God, we have a Pope who has decided to fight the Devil head-on,” he said.

The Vatican is particularly concerned that young people are being exposed to the influence of Satanic sects through rock music and the Internet.

Looks like the Catholic Church is continuing its regression and perhaps trying to become more competitive with Pentecostalism.

UPDATE (December 31, 2007): A Catholic World News report quotes the Vatican’s press officer denying that the Pope has made such an order (thanks to commenter Jeff for the reference), but doesn’t deny that Amorth said what he did to Petrus, suggesting that Amorth was speaking out of turn. So either the Pope made such an order but finds it embarrassing to admit, or he didn’t make such an order and Amorth was confused or otherwise mistaken or confabulating, which would not be a new thing for him given his past record.

bookmark_borderCelebrity atheists gallery

Australia’s Daily Telegraph ran a story “Christ-miss for atheist celebs” on Christmas eve which features a gallery of celebrities who are atheists (but not celebrities because of their atheism), such as Keanu Reaves, Angelina Jolie, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Bill Gates, Katherine Hepburn, Jodie Foster, Marlon Brando, Ricky Gervais, John Malkovich, and Bjork. Has anyone ever seen a story like that in a U.S. newspaper, that acknowledges that someone of prominence is an atheist without a note of disapproval?

Hat tip to Larry Moran at Sandwalk. And don’t forget to check out the Celebrity Atheist wiki.

bookmark_borderThe Economist on Mormons, the Bible vs. the Koran, and New Age

The year-end issue of The Economist has three articles of interest regarding religion. One article, “The battle of the books,” describes how Christianity and Islam are competing to distribute their holy books and convert followers, and how their respective demographics have changed dramatically since 1900. In 1900, Islam had about 200 million followers concentrated in the Arab world and southeast Asia, while today it has 1.5 billion followers around the globe. 80% of Christianity’s followers were in Europe and the United States in 1900, while today 60% of the 2 billion Christians are in developing countries and its membership has declined in Europe. It’s a fascinating article, which includes commentary on how Muslims work to memorize the Koran without understanding it, while Christians purchase Bible after Bible but most are almost entirely unfamiliar with its contents (the subject of a previous post on this blog).

The second article, “From polygamy to propriety,” discusses the history of the Mormon religion in the United States and the implications of Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency. The article discusses the origins of the Mormon religion and its current structure, as well as how it has changed in response to past political necessities and how Mormons interact politically with non-Mormons, including in Salt Lake City where Mormons are no longer the majority.

The third article, “Where ‘California’ bubbled up,” is about New Age spirituality in the United States, focusing on the Esalen Institute at Big Sur.

All three articles are well worth your time.

bookmark_borderAntony Flew’s new book

Philosopher Antony Flew has a new book out titled There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

But what’s interesting is that he didn’t write it–Christian apologist Roy Abraham Varghese did.

Today’s New York Times has the fascinating and disturbing story about how some evangelical Christians have exploited an aging man’s loss of memory and critical thinking capacity to make him the basis of a fallacious argument from authority in support of their views.

UPDATE (November 8, 2007): Richard Carrier, who was quoted in the New York Times story, has given more information at his blog.

bookmark_borderScientology offering “Hubbard study tech” to low-income Christian churches

CNN reports that the Church of Scientology is partnering with Christian churches in low-income areas to offer free tutoring (and indoctrination in L. Ron Hubbard’s “study technology”). This is actually not a new development–Scientology has long partnered with a number of pastors of Baptist churches to promote its “Applied Scholastics” program, such as Rev. Alfreddie Johnson and the Rev. Fred Shaw.

bookmark_borderPentecostal rave party

(Hat tip to Ed Babinski, who found this at the Wittenburg Blog. The music is titled “Det snurrar i min skalle” and is from a Swedish group called Familjen–they’ve got several other songs on YouTube.)

I found an apposite quote about this in an Economist article published last year titled “Christianity reborn”:

“A Pentecostal service is an unforgettable experience, part religious service, part spectacle, part rock ‘n’ roll rave. … Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard, points to two things that have put wind into the movement’s sails. One is the fact that it reconnects people with primitive religion: it taps into a deep substratum of primal spirituality, filling the ‘ecstasy deficit’ left by cooler religions. The movement’s emphasis on experience rather than doctrine gives it a remarkable ability to absorb other faiths, from spirit possession in the Caribbean to ancestor worship in Africa, from folk healing in Brazil to shamanism in Korea. As the Pentecostals say, ‘the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with a doctrine.'”

bookmark_borderMother Teresa’s crisis of faith

During her life, Mother Teresa wrote numerous letters which she asked to be burned upon her death. They were not burned, but have instead been published in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. These letters show that “for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever.” At one point, she wrote that she had been driven to doubt the existence of God.

This adds a new perspective to Christopher Hitchens’ critiques of Mother Teresa for her hypocrisy in his book The Missionary Position and in numerous articles, such as a 2003 piece on Salon.com and a 1998 interview about his book. (William Donohue of the Catholic League wrote a 1996 response to Hitchens’ book.)

bookmark_borderBorn-again British Olympic gold medalist becomes atheist

Jonathan Edwards, who won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was an evangelical Christian who “decided to risk everything to follow God’s revealed path, moving to Newcastle in 1987 to become a full-time athlete in the belief that his preordained success would enable him to evangelise to an unbelieving world; since he withdrew from the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991 because his event was scheduled for the Sabbath.”

But now that he’s retired from athletics, he’s lost his faith:

“I never doubted my belief in God for a single moment until I retired from sport,” he says. “Faith was the reason that I decided to become a professional athlete, in the same way that it was fundamental to every decision I made. It was the foundation of my existence, the thing that made everything else make sense. It was not a sacrifice to refuse to compete on Sundays during my early career because that would imply that athletics was important in and of itself. It was not. It was always a means to an end: glorifying God.

“But when I retired, something happened that took me by complete surprise. I quickly realised that athletics was more important to my identity than I believed possible. I was the best in the world at what I did and suddenly that was not true any more. With one facet of my identity stripped away, I began to question the others and, from there, there was no stopping. The foundations of my world were slowly crumbling.”

But even as he toured the nation’s churches with his BBC crew, Edwards was confronting an apocalyptic realisation: that it was all a grand mistake; that his epiphany was nothing more than self-delusion; that his inner sense of God’s presence was fictitious; that the decisions he had taken in life were based on a false premise; that the Bible is not literal truth but literal falsehood; that life is not something imbued with meaning from on high but, possibly, a purposeless accident in an unfeeling universe.

The Times Online has a very interesting interview with Edwards about his loss of faith.

It’s my impression that Edwards was a typical Christian in that his faith was not a position he held on the basis of evidence, but one he found himself in because of his upbringing, but never challenged. Once in a position where he began to question, he found he didn’t have good reasons for what he believed, and had the integrity to stop believing.

(Hat tip to Ed Babinski.)