bookmark_borderPublic school teacher tells class: “You belong in hell”

This story, which I reported on my blog on Sunday, has hit the mainstream media today, with stories in the Newark Star-Ledger, The Jersey Journal, and forthcoming on NYC-area radio and television (WCBS radio, 1010 WINS radio, and Fox 5 News and NBC 4 News television).

The basic story is that Kearny High School U.S. History teacher David Paszkiewicz used his classroom as a pulpit for evangelizing, as well as telling students that evolution and the Big Bang are false, there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and that the Bible is supported by confirmed prophecies. When student Matthew LaClair took this issue to the school principal, Paszkiewicz denied that he had said these things. LaClair then handed over two audio CDs, at which point Paszkiewicz declined any further comment except to tell LaClair, “you got the big fish… you got the big Christian guy who is a teacher!”

The newspapers have confirmed the content of the audio CDs and observed that there is no dispute that Paszkiewicz is the voice speaking on them.

School Superintendent Robert Mooney has said that corrective action would be taken, but declined to say what that will be–and he added that Pasziewicz is “a wonderful teacher.” Paszkiewicz is still teaching his class as of yesterday.

bookmark_borderReligions don’t deserve special treatment

A.C. Grayling writes under this title at Guardian Unlimited:

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule.

It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so.

Read the rest here.

I’ll just note that his overall point applies equally well to atheism–that one’s religious identity doesn’t intrinsically demand respect from those who believe otherwise, and should not be given privileged treatment. Grayling would no doubt agree, since he uses atheists in one of his examples, observing that “there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists.”

bookmark_borderBush just using Christians, says former faith office leader

Cross-posted from my blog.

MSNBC has the story, about David Kuo’s new book, Tempting Faith:

More than five years after President Bush created the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, the former second-in-command of that office is going public with an insider’s tell-all account that portrays an office used almost exclusively to win political points with both evangelical Christians and traditionally Democratic minorities.

The office’s primary mission, providing financial support to charities that serve the poor, never got the presidential support it needed to succeed, according to the book.

He says some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as “the nuts.”

“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” Kuo writes.

More seriously, Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly “nonpartisan” events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races.

Hat tip to stranger fruit.

bookmark_borderTop Ten Reasons Religion is Like Pornography

From P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula:

Top Ten Reasons Religion is Like Pornography

  1. It has been practiced for all of human history, in all cultures
  2. It exploits perfectly natural, even commendable, impulses
  3. Its virtues are debatable, its proponents fanatical
  4. People love it, but can’t give a rational reason for it
  5. Objectifies and degrades women even when it worships them
  6. You want to wash up after shaking hands with any of its leaders
  7. The costumes are outrageous, the performances silly, the plots unbelievable
  8. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it, but it’s nothing to be proud of, either
  9. It is not a sound basis for public policy, government, or international relations
  10. Its stars are totally fake

For more context and discussion of this list (including suggested additions and criticism) visit Pharyngula.

UPDATE (October 4, 2006): The slides for the talk in which this list was given–about why scientists should oppose religion–may be found here.

bookmark_borderReligious fraud increasing

Continuing on the theme of Christianity and giving away wealth, the Associated Press notes that religious fraud is on the increase:

Billions of dollars has been stolen in religion-related fraud in recent years, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, a group of state officials who work to protect investors.

Between 1984 and 1989, about $450 million was stolen in religion-related scams, the association says. In its latest count — from 1998 to 2001 — the toll had risen to $2 billion. Rip-offs have only become more common since.

“The size and the scope of the fraud is getting larger,” said Patricia Struck, president of the securities association and administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Division of Securities. “The scammers are getting smarter and the investors don’t ask enough questions because of the feeling that they can be safe in church.”

The last point is elaborated on with some specific examples in the article, and with this summary:

Typically, a con artist will target the pastor first, by making a generous donation and appealing to the minister’s desire to expand the church or its programs, according to Joseph Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission, who played a key role in breaking up the Greater Ministries scam.

If the pastor invests, churchgoers view it as a tacit endorsement. The con man, often promising double digit returns, will chip away at resistance among church members by suggesting they can donate part of their earnings to the congregation, Borg says.

“Most folks think `I’m going to invest in some overseas deal or real estate deal and part of that money is going to the church and I get part. I don’t feel like I’m guilty of greed,'” Borg says.

If a skeptical church member openly questions a deal, that person is often castigated for speaking against a fellow Christian.

Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation Inc. in Dallas, which investigates fraud and televangelism, partly blames the churches themselves for the problem. Anthony contends that the “prosperity gospel” — which teaches that the truly faithful are rewarded with wealth in this life — is creeping into mainstream churches.

Ole Anthony has worked hard to expose fraud by televangelists, occasionally teaming up with skeptics to do so. I heard him speak at an “unofficial session” at the Dallas CSICOP conference in 1992.

Hat tip: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

UPDATE (September 2, 2009): Another major fraud against churchgoers.

bookmark_borderA catalog of gods

P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula points out Godchecker’s “Your Guide to the Gods,” a searchable database of over 2,850 gods. You can search by pantheon (African, Australian, Aztec, Caribbean, Celtic, Chinese, Egyptian, Finnish, Greek, Incan, Japanese, Mayan, Mesopotamian, Middle Eastern, Native American, Norse, Oceanic, Roman, Slavic and Baltic, South American, and Southeast Asian), look at the Deity of the Day (available via RSS feed), read feature articles, or purchase items from the God Shop. There are also collections of links to other resources on mythology.

As Myers observes, you can make the point that evangelical Christians are atheists with respect to all but one of the listed gods. (Actually, the database lists Jehovah, Yahweh, YHWH, God, and Jesus individually, as well as non-deities like Satan, Adam, Moses, Noah, and the pantheon of Christian saints.)

bookmark_borderNoah’s Ark, discovered yet again

Evangelical Christian “Arkeologists” have again claimed to have discovered Noah’s Ark, this time in Iran. On a recent (second) trip to the site, the explorers included “some of America’s leading businessmen, an attorney who has argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and two leading apologists,” including Josh McDowell. The main explorer is “international explorer and author” Bob Cornuke of the “BASE Institute,” a former Costa Mesa, CA police officer. Unfortunately, they apparently forgot to bring along any scientists (it’s not clear if the “oil and gas geologist” quoted in the article was present on the expedition–but his quote is rather less than an endorsement).

The linked-to website has some rather less than astounding photographs.

Ed Brayton has ably dissected some of the claims in the report, and I comment a bit more on my own blog.

bookmark_borderRussell County High School students demonstrate their faith

It has been tradition at Russell County High School in Kentucky for graduating seniors to elect a “graduation chaplain” who delivers a Christian prayer at the graduation ceremony. This year, a Muslim student filed a lawsuit and a judge issued an injunction to prevent it. As the principal began his opening remarks, 200 students stood and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the rest of the audience gave a standing ovation.

When the Muslim student went up to receive his diploma, he was booed.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars quotes David Guinn of Baylor Law School with what he calls “the perfect response,” and I concur:

First, the students (as approved by Prof. Duncan) are using prayer not as a religious devotion but as a political act — to express their disapproval of the one student and the “unelected judiciary” and as a weapon against others that don’t share in that faith. That strikes me as sacrilege as well as a perversion.
Second, why is it necessary to make these prayers public in a public forum? This sounds a little too much like the hypocrites of Mt. 6:5 If it is a matter of needing community, why not a community made up of fellow believers rather than demanding the audience of those who might not believe (or believe as they do)?
While it may be “their” commencement, it is also the commencement of all of the other students and their families present. Should everyone be allowed to interrupt the service and impose their religious exhortation on everyone else?
Graduations frequently involve not just commencement, but a series of celebrations over the course of the weekend. Why not reserve religious celebrations for a separate ceremony shared among their community of faith? The only justification I can come up with is the belief that their faith is so weak that it must be endorsed by the school in the public ceremony.
I find the whole thing offensive and sad…..

More at Ed’s blog.

On a related note, I was recently in Washington, D.C. for a visit that happened to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, about which I made similar reference to Matthew 6:5-7. Although I didn’t view the proceedings on the Capitol lawn, I did take a few pictures of the setup and of the Justice House of Prayer cult members with tape over their mouths in front of the Supreme Court building.

bookmark_borderInside Scientology

Janet Reitman has written an excellent article for Rolling Stone magazine called “Inside Scientology.” She began with no cooperation from the Church of Scientology (not an unusual state of affairs), but then was given access to Scientology leadership, tours of facilities, and was able to interview current Scientologists. My first reaction on hearing about this was to suspect it would be something of a superficial puff piece like some of the entertainment news TV shows have done, but she did an excellent job of describing Scientology’s history, beliefs, practices, and human impact in a relatively short article.

For those wanting more detail, see Xenu.net and the Scientology links section of my Skeptical Information site.