Outreach & Events
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9/11 terrorists died for "white raisins"? Christoph Luxemberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany, contends that, due to a mistranslation, the paradisiacal rewards supposedly awaiting Islamic martyrs are actually "white raisins," not "virgins." Luxemberg, using a pseudonym, wrote The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran detailing Koranic misinterpretations. Source: New York Times, March 3, 2002 "God Bless America." A Jan. 24 Green Beret raid in Oruzgan, Afghanistan, decried by locals as an error, left 21 local soldiers dead (two with their hands tied behind their backs) and 27 others captured. Afterward a villager reported finding a piece of paper on the windshield of a destroyed truck, with an American flag and the words: "God Bless America. Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc." Source: Reporter Craig S. Smith, New York Times, Jan. 26, 2002 Christian Coalition eats Jim Crow. The Christian Coalition secretly settled a federal racial discrimination lawsuit in which 15 black employees alleged being forced to enter the D.C. headquarters by the back door, to eat in a segregated area, and being excluded from events, healthcare coverage and overtime pay. Source: Virginian-Pilot, Dec. 29, 2001 700 bodies and counting. A proposed Hindu temple to Ram at the site of a 16th-century mosque destroyed in 1992 by Hindus in Ayodhya, India, has set off violence so far claiming more than 700 people, mostly Muslims, and resulting in tens of thousands of arrests. Rioting over the mosque's destruction in 1992 killed 1,000-2,000 Indians. Source: New York Times, March 1, 2002; BBC News, March 15, 2002 McGospel: would you like to fry with that? For the past three years, the McDonald's in god-fearing Dayton, Tenn., has hosted a weekly Thursday night 2-hour gospel program attracting as many as 100 people, who imbibe the gospel along with high-fat fast food. Source: Chattanooga AP, Feb. 7, 2002
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Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, already keen interest in prayer has increased as part of the frenzied upsurge in religion in general. Topping The New York Times' bestseller list is a small book called The Prayer of Jabez, with "its message that lives can be profoundly changed by the power of prayer." Images bombard us on television regularly of masses of humanity kneeling in supplication, praying to some all-powerful deity. These images only increase the perception that prayer is a potent force in dealing with the world's problems that is endorsed by almost all of humanity. Many religious people want to cling to the ancient belief in the supernatural, including prayer, and yet accept the conclusions and benefits of modern science. They can't have it both ways. To study the natural world, scientists must have an implicit assumption that it operates only by natural, predictable processes, which cannot be affected arbitrarily by an all-powerful deity. One of the major ways that scientists provide proof of theories is through well-designed studies, of which the "gold standard" is the large, randomized, prospective, controlled, double-blind type. If such a study could be influenced by a personal god who responded to prayers to change the results, science would be in shambles. There would be no way ever to do a valid experiment since investigators couldn't be sure that someone, somewhere, hadn't uttered a specific or generic prayer that would affect the study. In short, science by its very nature, rejects any influence of prayer on the physical world. Even though prayer is an irrational concept, could it nevertheless be tested scientifically? Francis Galton, the brilliant and eccentric cousin of Charles Darwin, thought so and gave the idea scientific legitimacy. Galton was the father of biometry and a central figure in the founding of modern statistical analysis. He argued that regardless of how the prayers "may be supposed to operate," the efficacy of prayer . . . is a perfectly appropriate and legitimate subject of scientific inquiry" because it can be tested statistically. He then proceeded to set up such studies. In one statistical study, Galton examined the longevity of clergy. He reasoned that clergy should be the longest lived of all since they were the most "prayerful class" of all and among the most prayed for. When Galton compared the longevity of eminent clergy with eminent doctors and lawyers, the clergy were the shortest lived of the three groups. In this study of the clergy, he cited a previous study by Guy (Galton wasn't the first to think of analyzing prayer statistically but usually gets the credit) where Guy found prayer did not protect royalty, who were much prayed for, when compared to other members of the aristocracy. In analyzing the data on royalty, Galton concluded: "Sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence." Galton looked for other statistical data. He examined the insurance rates for ships. He reasoned that ships carrying missionaries and pilgrims should have lower rates since frequent praying by the occupants should decrease the number of accidents. He found that the rates were the same; ships carrying missionaries and pilgrims sank just as often as other ships. Following up on Galton's statistical studies on prayer, Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge-trained plant biologist, did one of his own, examining the effects of prayer in India. Most people there prefer having a son, and a tremendous amount of praying goes into the effort to produce one. Sheldrake examined statistics of live male births in India and used data from England as a control where the preference for sons was less strong. He found that in both England and India there were 106 males to 100 females, just as in every other country. He stated, "if this enormous amount of psychic effort and praying of holy men were working, you would expect on average the percentage of live male births to be higher." Although these statistical studies from the nineteenth century strongly suggest that prayer is not effective, they do not meet the "gold standard" of a completely valid scientific study. The media regularly mention a large number of contemporary studies that supposedly scientifically validate the beneficial effects of prayer on human health. So what is the truth in this matter? Actually, there are only three that meet the "gold standard." Happily, the fact that there are only three studies considerably reduces the amount of information freethinkers need to acquire to refute frequent and erroneous claims. When we say that a finding in a scientific study is statistically significant, "significant" has a specific statistical meaning. To be considered significant, a finding must be (.05) or less, which means the probability that it could be due to chance is 5 in 100. The main point to appreciate is that this figure, although reasonable, is strictly arbitrary. Therefore, the figure of (.05) is borderline significant, .04 (a probability of 4 in a 100 of being due to chance) is considered significant, and .06 (6 in 100) is considered not significant. The figure (.05) is the one accepted for "ordinary" scientific studies. But what criterion should be applied in proving a supernatural finding? After all, as the old saw goes, extraordinary claims should require extraordinary proof, and this requirement should especially apply to claims of the supernatural. The James Randi Educational Foundation has a standing offer of one million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate any supernatural event under carefully controlled scientific conditions. The foundation has never had a single person who even got past the preliminary testing. Its members think that a study that would prove a claim of the supernatural should eliminate the possibility that the result could be by chance, in the range of 1 in 10,000,000, a far cry from 5 in 100. Robert Park, in his excellent book, Voodoo Science, observes that a characteristic of voodoo science is that there are always very small differences in studies, just barely detectable, and that can't be amplified in further investigations. These barely detectable positive results usually indicate flaws in the studies themselves rather than real findings. Let's examine in some detail the three studies on intercessory prayer that were large, prospective, randomized, double-blind ones--the only three that pass muster as valid scientific investigations of the effects of prayer on human health. Intercessory prayer (prayer at a distance) was chosen so that the placebo effect of direct prayer would be eliminated. All of these studies were done on coronary care unit (CCU) patients. The first study was entitled "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population" by Randolph Byrd, M.D., published in the Southern Medical Journal, July 1988. Dr. Byrd stated: "My study concerning prayer and patients in a general hospital coronary care unit was designed to answer two questions: (1) Does intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God have any effect on the patient's medical condition and recovery while in the hospital? (2) How are these effects characterized, if present?" Over ten months, 393 patients admitted to the CCU at San Francisco General Hospital were randomized to an intercessory prayer group (192 patients) or to a control group (201 patients). After randomization, each patient in the prayer group was assigned to three to seven intercessors, who were all "born-again Christians (according to the Gospel of John 3:3)" of various denominations. Dr. Byrd wrote: "The patients' first name, diagnosis, and general condition, along with pertinent updates on their condition, were given to the intercessors. The intercessory prayer was done outside the hospital daily until the patient was discharged from the hospital. Under the direction of a coordinator, each intercessor was asked to pray daily for a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death, in addition to other areas of prayer they believed to be beneficial to the patient." The results were summarized in "Table 2" of the Byrd study entitled "Results of intercessory Prayer." There was no statistically significant difference between the prayer and control group in these measurements: days in CCU after entry; days in hospital after entry; number of discharge medications. Only when a list of 26 "New Problems, Diagnoses, and Therapeutic Events After Entry" was compiled was any statistically differences found and then only in 6 of the items: congestive heart failure (.03); diuretics (.05); cardiopulmonary arrest (.02); pneumonia (.03); antibiotics (.005); intubation/ ventilation (.002). When Dr. Byrd subjected these items to multivariate analysis (a statistical method of analyzing the overall significance when multiple factors are positive), he found the prayer group to better the control group at the statistically significant level of (.0001). In "Table 3," "Results of Scoring the Postentry Hospital Course," he constructed three categories, "Good, Intermediate, and Bad," using a self-designed and previously not scientifically validated method. The prayer group bettered the control group at a level of (.01). Although this study appears to meet the "gold standard" of a large, prospective, randomized, double-blind investigation, scientists have pointed out a number of flaws: The study was not "blinded' in two respects: 1) Janet Greene, the coordinator of the study, on whom Dr. Byrd depended for the collection of data, knew exactly who was being prayed for, and interacted regularly with the patients in the study. 2) "Table 3" was formulated by Dr. Byrd at the request of editors who initially evaluated his paper after the "blinding" had been removed. There was no difference in clear-cut end points such as days in the CCU, days in the hospital, or mortality between the two groups. Only when complicated statistical analyses were done on a long list of items do any data emerge that favor the prayed-for group--hardly evidence of an all-powerful deity. Also, if prayer had any effect, an overall improvement would be expected. Of the six items where the prayer group did better, four were of borderline statistical significance and only two were clearly significant. Are we to conclude that the deity is only concerned with reducing antibiotic use and ventilating patients in the CCU? This study provides no information on the physicians involved in this study. This information could be important since certain physicians use antibiotics and intubate patients much more readily than others. The method that Dr. Byrd used in his scoring in "Table 3" had not been validated by any previous studies. When Irwin Tessman, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, requested of Dr. Byrd that Dr. Tessman be allowed to review the raw data that went into the study, he was refused. Since Dr. Byrd's claim is one of the supernatural, it would seem appropriate that all aspects of the study be reviewed by independent investigators. The degree of obvious religiosity communicated by Dr. Byrd raises doubts that he could be completely objective on a scientific investigation of prayer, something that he deeply believes is effective. Under "Acknowledgments" at the end of the paper, he writes: "I thank God for responding to the many prayers made on behalf of the patients." The second study that appears to meet the "gold standard" for scientific studies is "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit" published in the October 25, 1999 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine. The investigators were William S. Harris, Ph.D., plus eight others of the Mid America Heart Institute. The study was conducted at Saint Luke's Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri, a private, university-associated hospital. "The purpose of the present study was to attempt to replicate Byrd's findings by testing the hypothesis that patients who are unknowingly and remotely prayed for by blinded intercessors will experience fewer complications and have a shorter hospital stay than patients not receiving such prayer," admitted the investigators. The intercessors (five to pray for each patient compared to three to seven in Byrd's study), were to pray for "a speedy recovery with no complications" plus "anything else that seemed appropriate to them." 1013 patients were randomized, 484 to the prayer group and 529 to the usual care group. After removal of those patients who spent less than 24 hours in the CCU (prayer was not started until 24 hours after admission), 524 remained in the usual care group and 466 in the prayer group (a high drop-out rate). A list of events after entry into the study was compiled, much like the one in the Byrd study, but with 34 events instead of the 26 in the Byrd Study. Again, a scheme was devised to evaluate the overall hospital course, a totally new and untested system, but different from the also new and untested one devised by Byrd. The Harris study scheme was called the Mid America Heart Institute Cardiac Care Unit (MAHI-CCU) Scoring System, and its criteria are presented in "Table 1" of his paper. The only finding in the Harris study that indicated the prayer group outperformed the control group was in using the MAHI-CCU Scoring System and then only at a probability level of (.04), a figure very close to the cut-off level of (.05). The Harris study is a much better study than the Byrd study because the number of patients is larger, it appears to be completely blinded, and the degree of religiosity of the investigators appears to be lower (although Dr. Harris supposedly supports the idea of "intelligent design"). Nevertheless, scientific investigators have noted flaws: 1) As already noted, the MAHI-CCU Scoring System has never been previously scientifically validated. Without such validation, any result produced by it is subject to question. 2) The much higher dropout rate in the first 24 hours in the prayer group is a very serious criticism of the study. The statistical probability that this finding would appear by chance is (.001), or 1 chance in a 1000, a statistically very significant finding. This higher dropout rate, since the mortality rate in the two groups was the same, suggests that the prayer group, for unknown reasons, was not quite as ill as the control group since patients discharged within a day often turn out not to have serious problems. If they were a little less ill at the start, we would expect them to have a more favorable course. 3) The conclusions stated in this investigation, as I'll describe shortly, are not justified by the data. Positive findings in a scientific study are not considered valid until replicated by independent investigators. So did the Harris study replicate the positive findings of the Byrd study? The answer is a resounding no! Of the 6 items in the list of 26 items previously described in the Byrd study where the prayed-for group did better, not one was statistically significant in the Harris study. When the Harris study subjected its data to the same scheme that Byrd had used in his evaluation of the hospital course of the patients (Table 3 in the Byrd study), the Harris study found the difference between the two groups of (.29) was not even close to being statistically significant. The Harris study did replicate the negative findings from the Byrd Study. There was no statistical difference in days in the CCU, days in the hospital, or mortality. In remarks at the end of the Harris study, the investigators stated: "Our findings support Byrd's conclusions despite the fact that we could not document an effect of prayer using his scoring system." This statement is erroneous. Not only do these findings not support Byrd's conclusions, they directly refute them. The most recent study and, I believe, the best designed one, was published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings in December 2001, entitled "Intercessory Prayer and Cardiovascular Disease Progression in a Coronary Care Unit Population: A Randomized Controlled Trial." This third "gold standard" study should settle the matter once and for all scientifically. The investigators were Jennifer M. Aviles, M.D., and six others. This trial was done on patients immediately after discharge from the Coronary Care Unit, a time when the intensity of extraneous intercessory praying by family and friends would generally be waning. Here is their summary of the findings: "Patients and Methods: In this randomized, controlled trial conducted between 1997 and 1999, a total of 799 coronary care unit patients were randomized at hospital discharge to the intercessory prayer group or to the control group. . . . The primary end point after 26 weeks was any of the following: death, cardiac arrest, rehospitalization for cardiovascular disease, coronary revascularization, or an emergency department visit for cardiovascular disease. Patients were divided into a high-group based on the presence of any of 5 risk factors (age > or = 70 years, diabetes mellitus, prior myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular disease, or peripheral vascular disease) or a low-risk group (absence of risk factors) for subsequent primary events." The investigators summarized their findings as follows: "Conclusions: As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit." Not even one difference showed up between the control group and the prayed-for group. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century, and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn't work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs. Now that you have the scientific information, don't let the statement that the efficacy of prayer has been proven by scientific studies go unchallenged. It's simply untrue. James W. Williamson, a retired medical doctor, is a Foundation member from Florida.
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The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and plaintiff Sally Flynn won their federal lawsuit challenging a Ten Commandments plaque at the entrance to the Chester County courthouse, in a ruling handed down on March 6. The society, a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was represented by Stefan Presser of the American Civil Liberties Union. U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell, following a two-day trial in Philadelphia, issued a 25-page decision ordering removal of the 82-year-old bronze plaque engraved with the King James version of the Ten Commandments. "We cannot pretend that the tablet's words do not mean what they say, or forget the sincere religious impulse of both the donors and the donees in 1920," wrote Dalwell. The 50"x39" tablet advances and endorses "mainline Protestantism," he added. "Disestablishment is not a lonely First Amendment redoubt occupied only by some federal judges and a few malcontents. It is in historical fact as American as the free exercise of religion." Principal plaintiff Sally Flynn, 72, of Pocopson, told media she was "elated" over the victory. Presser commented: "I am convinced that this nation has been spared the kind of sectarian violence we've seen in Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan because of the Establishment Clause, which was vindicated today." The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Margaret Downey, chapter director, received a threatening phone call the day after the decision, from a man who laced his remarks with obscenities, and warned: "You're going to get it." "It was a pretty horrible phone call," Downey said. She retrieved the phone number from Caller ID and reported the threat to police. County officials condemned the threat. "I really do think this gives the lie to the commissioners' position that this is not a religious issue," Presser told the Inquirer. "People don't threaten to hurt other people over secular documents." Flynn testified she had been the target of harassment since the lawsuit was filed in October 2001, purchasing Caller ID devices and removing her name from her house and mailbox. Also testifying: Downey; Kalid Yahya Blankinship, chair of Temple University's religion department, a practising Muslim, and Rabbi Leonard Gordon, a former professor of comparative religion, who said the decalog carries less weight with Jews than the Talmud, and considers that the Commandments plaque shows a Christian orientation. During the trial, Presser pointed out that of 71 letters received by the Commission about the lawsuit, only one favored removing the plaque, while many supporters employed religious language, such as: "It is time for a Christian nation to stand up for its God-given rights." Presser said: "You would concede that these people don't see this as a secular issue." The Chester County Commissioners almost immediately voted to appeal the decision. While most similar lawsuits are challenging monoliths erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this violation significantly predates the religious campaign by the Eagles. A group called the Council of Religious Education in West Chester, a coalition of churches, installed the plaque in 1920.
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It is not Yates who is on trial here, but our system of justice. It seems the oppression of women by religious fundamentalists has found a home in Christianity as well as Islam and Judaism. --Julio Noboa "Yates had many accomplices" San Antonio Express-News, March 3, 2002 Between fear and political correctness, it's not possible to say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam. --Unnamed scholar at American University New York Times, March 2, 2002 Just a month ago, the Pope led 200 religious leaders from round the world in prayers for peace. . . . And yet a month on, peace seems as elusive as ever. --Giles Wilson "Does Prayer Work?" BBC News Online, March 1, 2002 Can the attorney general be trusted to protect the rights of those whose spiritual life rests outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition when he has excluded them from the ranks of civilized people? Not to split angels on the head of a pin here--or to restrict Ashcroft's hearty expressions of his Pentecostal faith as manifested in his daily prayer meetings at Justice--but it is alarming when he defines his job in religious terms: "The guarding of freedom that God grants is the noble charge of the Department of Justice." What hooey! --Robert Sheer "What's God Got to Do with it?" Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 2002 How will we protect civil liberties in a war without end? --Anthony Lewis "Taking Our Liberties" New York Times, March 9, 2002 I know Cardinal Law to be a man of integrity. I respect him a lot. --George W. Bush Press conference, March 13, 2002 We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors. --Ann Coulter Conservative Political Action Conference Atlanta Journal Constitution, Feb. 14, 2002
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Islam Creates Saudi Tragedy Fifteen school girls were killed on March 11 when Saudi Arabia's much-feared religious police reportedly forced them back into a blazing school because they were not wearing Islamic headscarves and black robes. Saudi media reported a scuffle between firefighters and officials with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who tried to keep girls inside the burning building in Mecca. The police stopped bystanders trying to help the girls, warning, "It is sinful to approach them." A witness was quoted saying he saw the religious police beat young girls to prevent them from leaving the school for not wearing the abaya. A father of a dead girl claimed the school watchman refused to open the gate of the locked school to let the girls out. Students are routinely locked in schools to ensure segregation of the sexes. Most of the dead schoolgirls were killed during a stampede. An additional 50 girls were injured in the school of 800. "Lives could have been saved had they not been stopped by members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice," editorialized the Saudi Gazette. British press called the public criticism of the mutaween highly unusual. Yates & the Religion Connection Letters sent by notorious street preacher Michael Peter Woroniecki and his wife to Andrea Yates, 37, contributed to her downward spiral, according to Suzy Spencer, Texas author of Breaking Point. Yates, convicted of first-degree murder in March and sentenced to life imprisonment after drowning her children in the family bathtub last June, suffered from extreme post-partum depression and schizophrenia. The prayerful couple had five children in eight years. Russell Yates encouraged Andrea to have "enough boys for a basketball team" and to homeschool the children--ages 7, 5, 3, 2 and a baby--even after hospitalizations for severe mental illness. He told Time magazine (Jan. 28) that the "devil prowls around looking for someone to devour . . . Andrea was weak, and he attacked her." A psychiatrist who interviewed Andrea in jail testified the defendant herself believed she had been marked by Satan, and that killing her children while they were young was the only way to save them from hell. "Rusty" Yates, who met Woroniecki while a student at Auburn University, considered the preacher a "spiritual adviser" and sent money to support his ministry. Spencer said some of the letters written by the Woronieckis to Andrea told her "all women are descendants of Eve, and Eve was a witch," calling women who worked outside the home "wicked." In 1998, Rusty bought a GMC 350-foot bus from Woroniecki, living in it with Andrea and their two children until her parents insisted Rusty buy a house following a suicide attempt by Andrea. Defense attorney George Parnham put into evidence Woroniecki's newsletter "The Perilous Times," lamenting worldly mothers and asking, "What becomes of the children of such a Jezebel?" Houston psychiatrist Lucy Puryear told the jury this idea was what Andrea Yates' "delusions are built around." Puryear and forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz contend that when the Yateses copied the Woroniecki family lifestyle of homeschooling children and living in a bus, it precipitated Andrea Yates' suicide attempts. Happiness . . . Is No God? Researchers into happiness announced in January their findings that happiness is not linked to behaviors some researchers have assumed created general well-being. In their study involving about 100 college students, Dr. Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois, and Dr. Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, found that the happiest among them did not attend church services more frequently, exercise more or get more sleep than unhappier counterparts. Madison Scouts Pull Out of United Way The Four Lakes Council of Boy Scouts of America pulled out of United Way of Dane County, Wis., following continued turmoil over its bigotry against gays and atheists. The council will forego its annual $75,000 in funding, but will still be eligible to receive donations earmarked specifically for BSA. Last year, such donations totaled more than $60,000.
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This issue of Freethought Today debuts a new column. You will meet some people in uniform who allegedly do not exist--the atheists, agnostics and freethinkers among the men and women who serve in our armed forces and work for our fire and police departments throughout the country. We hope this column will put to rest the polemical claim frequently heard in times of national strife, that: "There are no atheists in foxholes!" It was on a Sunday around 11 a.m. when my fire department engine company responded to a teenage female having difficulty breathing. When we arrived, there were about fifteen people, mostly teenagers, crowded around a girl who was sitting on the porch hyperventilating. I was able to determine, from her presentation and history, that she was not having an asthma attack or other serious respiratory compromise, but an anxiety attack. For the next 20 minutes I sat with this girl, coaching her breathing, speaking calmly, holding her hand--just basic TLC. Success! Her breathing returned to normal, after which she felt a little tired, so we had her lie down on a sofa inside. As she lay down, the girl suddenly told me, "You know, you should come to my church with me!" Now, as a person in a position of trust, I have to be careful about what I say to people while on duty. I also knew it wouldn't take much to rekindle this girl's anxiety attack, so, smiling, I replied, "Uh, I don't think that would be a very good idea." I then attempted to change the subject back to her breathing, but she persisted, adding, "No, really, you should come to my church with me! It's a wonderful church, it's New Life . . ." I had to call in a report to my base hospital, so I took this moment to do so. While I was in the next room on the telephone another girl said to me, "Yeah, we really would like to have you at our church!" After this second invitation it dawned on me that we had walked into a Christian group meeting! This wasn't to be the end of it, however. When I returned to the first girl to give her some final instructions about "controlling her breathing," she continued with her mission: "You know, you really do need to come to my church." And then, putting her hand on my arm, she added, "It's OK, I used to be a bad person too!" I was stunned by this insult and asked her if I was a bad person because I don't go to her church? She immediately responded that she "hadn't meant it that way." Maybe. In either case, I told her that I have already been where she is, and have no desire to go back; and that she has much to learn and I hope one day she comes to understand that. What disturbs me most about this event is not what the girl said about me, but what she said about herself--that she "used to be a bad person," but now that she accepts Jesus, she's suddenly "good." Nonsense! She was undoubtedly a "good person" to begin with, and she would be so regardless of the religion she professed, if any at all. While the particular religious beliefs of these young people may be a great source of happiness for them, it is a shame that their church leaders teach them that anyone not believing as they do is "bad" or in need of "saving." We should also ask why, in accordance with Mark 16:17-18, the "laying-on of hands" by her Christian friends didn't help this girl, but the care provided by a heathen humanitarian did resolve the problem--no miracles required. Colorado Foundation member Bruce Monson is a professional firefighter-paramedic and former Baptist turned freethinker. He promotes religious tolerance, rational thinking, and the separation of church and state. For more information see his website at www.freethoughtfirefighters.org.
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Many local governments are starting to "Honor Thy First Amendment" instead of endorsing the First Commandment. Symbolizing that change is a recent agreement initiated by the Freedom From Religion Foundation with the City of Milwaukee. Following years of negotiation, the Foundation has persuaded Milwaukee officials to avoid a losing lawsuit by removing a Ten Commandments monument installed at the Municipal Building circa 1957. The presentation of the tombstone-like decalog in Milwaukee was the kick-off of a national campaign by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, working in cahoots with "Ten Commandments" movie director Cecil B. DeMille, to erect the granite bible monument in as many public locations as possible. "It is significant that the first such Ten Commandment Eagles monument ever placed on public property will be removed, in deference to the constitutional separation of church and state," said Anne Gaylor, president of the Foundation, a national watchdog association based in Madison, Wis. "It is a harbinger of change. Courts around the country finally are acknowledging that the sacred text of one religion does not belong on public property. "The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why government may not endorse these bible edicts. Citizens may worship whatever god they like, as many gods as they like, or none at all!" added Gaylor. The Ten Commandments monument was presented to Milwaukee Mayor Frank P. Zeidler by Judge E. J. Ruegemer, chair of the Eagles' National Youth Guidance Commission, at the International convention of the Fraternal Order of Eagles meeting in Milwaukee in 1955. The decalog dedication included an appearance by actor Yul Brenner. In recent years the Ten Commandments marker has rested on a grassy plot by the Market Street entrance to the Municipal building. Several years ago, the Foundation negotiated an agreement with the City of Milwaukee to remove the monument, if an appeal out of Indiana involving similar circumstances were lost. In December 2000, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which presides over Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, ruled that an Eagles Ten Commandments monument at an Indiana city hall was illegal. Last May, the Supreme Court let stand that 7th Circuit ruling (Elkhart v. Books, May 29, 2001). Milwaukee officials agreed last July to remove the monument. The resolution finally went before the city council on Jan. 22, which voted to abide by the city attorney's advice. Bolstering the move to divest government property of Ten Commandment markers was a more recent action by the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 24, the high court let stand another recent ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals barring Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon from placing a Ten Commandments marker in front of the Indiana State Capitol. The bible edict is expected to be removed from the Milwaukee Municipal Building sometime in April, once the ground has "thawed," according to a spokeswoman at city hall. The monument will be returned to the Eagles, which will likely place it in front of a private hospital. In related news, a federal court in Nebraska in February ordered removal of an Eagles Ten Commandments marker from a public park in Plattsmouth. In March, a federal court in Philadelphia ruled that a Ten Commandments plaque on a county courthouse is impermissible, in a case brought by a Foundation chapter. The Foundation is revisiting its legal challenge of a Ten Commandments monument donated by the Eagles to the City of La Crosse, Wis., in the 1960's. The Foundation's federal challenge of the monument in a public park in the mid-1980's was dismissed after trial on a technicality. In March, La Crosse Mayor John Medinger, who had promised to fight to keep the monument, wrote a guest editorial for the La Crosse Tribune recommending that the city remove it to avoid a losing lawsuit. No action has been taken yet by the La Crosse city council. The Foundation has also renewed its request that the City of Monroe, Wis., remove a monument donated by the Eagles, which is the centerpiece of its public park.
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During the entire month of December, the Foundation received a deluge of Christmas cards from well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) Christians. They weren't very imaginative in their messages--usually all that was scribbled inside the card was an assurance that "Jesus loves you!" or that "We're praying for you." Included in one such card was a digitally remastered photograph of Jesus on a cross with his skin burned off. I'm still not sure how sending such a photo was supposed to inform us about the sender's loving and almighty God. (Of course, if Jesus loves us so much, then we must be doing something right.) The whole thing amused me, because back home, nobody would think of sending religious cards to those who didn't practice said religion. "Back home" for me is Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country sandwiched in between Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. It's a small country with a population of 22 million, and this population consists of three main ethnic groups. There are the Malay and indigenous people, which make up 58% of the populace; the Chinese, about 27%, and the Indians at 8%. Other ethnic groups make up the remaining 7%. After the country gained its independence from British colonialism in 1956, the ethnic groups conferred and agreed that Islam would be the official religion, but everyone would be free to adopt their own religion (or lack of) and not be persecuted for it. Therefore, even though Islam is the official religion, citizens are not expected to be Muslim. Buddhists are not expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, nonMalays are not required to wear clothes that cover their arms and legs, nor are there Hindus who try to convert the nonreligious. (One thing that does strike me as interesting is that the few people who go door-to-door in an effort to convert others are Christians. I have yet to see a Buddhist or a Taoist try to sell his or her religion door-to-door.) There's no denying that religion plays a big part in Malaysia--the main religions consist of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and to a smaller extent, Christianity. If you glimpse our calendar of national holidays, more than half of them are religious: Aidilfitri (Muslim), Vesak Day (Buddhist), Thaipusam (Hindu), Deepavali (Hindu), Christmas (Christian), etc. The holidays apply to all public/government operations, so even though Deepavali is a Hindu celebration, all public workers get the day off, no matter their religion (or lack of). Before the main religious holidays, it is common practice to send greeting cards to friends or family who celebrate the event. If you were a Muslim, friends would send you Aidilfitri cards during the Ramadan season. If you were Chinese, you'd receive Chinese New Year cards in February (although Chinese New Year is actually more cultural than religious). The senders don't even necessarily share the same religion; a Muslim could send a Deepavali card to a Hindu friend, etc. The point of sending cards is to convey goodwill, not to cheerfully inform the recipient that "Jesus loves you and we'll be waiting to receive you with open arms once you decide to return to the true path." During religious holidays, the celebrating groups have an "open house." A hosting family has all their friends and families visit, regardless of race and religion. Some Malays/Muslims restrict their visits during celebrations like Chinese New Year, since pork is often served in Chinese households and Muslims cannot eat pork. However, I know of several households that make the extra effort of cooking certain dishes separately, so that their Muslim visitors can partake in the feast without having to worry about eating something against their religion. Winter Solstice isn't a celebration back home. This is partly because nontheists are such a minority in Malaysia, but another reason is due to the fact that our tropical climate is the same all year long. The days don't grow shorter or longer, so there is no symbolic representation of the sun's "rebirth." Nontheists may lack a holiday on the calendar, but in my experience they could always tell friends about their nonbelief and not expect any backlash for it. When a friend of mine commented in passing that she was a freethinker, the most she got was an "Oh" from others before continuing the conversation. I suspect most people assume freethinkers just practice a different kind of "belief." They receive the same treatment of tolerance that others do. Officially the government lists "belief in god" as a virtue for citizens. Pledges cited in schools, as well as the national anthem, include the word "god." Because of its "freedom to choose any religion" clause, though, the government cannot persecute citizens for their religious or nonreligious beliefs. For example, in rural parts of Malaysia, many indigenous tribes practice shamanism. The government cannot order them to convert to Islam, even though Islam is the national religion. Unless a person is from the Malay ethnic group (in which case that person is expected to be Muslim), there is no expectation of anyone being of a certain (or any) religion. Religion weaves in and out of our daily lives (sort of like the U.S., you could say, whether we like it or not). We have both a justice system and a syariah court system; however, the latter only applies to Malays and Muslims, and tries them according to Islamic law. I've always been glad not to be subject to syariah law, because for one thing, if you are caught being in the same room (or enclosed space) with a person of the other sex, and both of you are unmarried with no chaperones around, you are committing a crime and can be tried for it. Even if you have a group of peers with you (sometimes that becomes even greater cause for scandal). Public spaces are fine for socializing, but heaven forbid a group of Muslim teens hanging out at home by themselves. Religion maintains an uneven balance, sometimes intruding outright, sometimes not even an issue. Take the public school I attended, for example. As Islam is the "official" religion, the weekly school assemblies always include a minute of Muslim prayer read by one of the Malay students. NonMuslims were not required to say it, but we had to remain silent "out of respect" for our Muslim classmates. Unlike some U.S. schools (or like some U.S. schools), we didn't have the option of leaving the assembly while the prayer was being said. Two or three times a week, classes are divided in two: the Muslim students would study Islam, and the nonMuslims would study (literally translated) "moral education." This essentially consists of the same old syllabus from primary school (grade school to Americans) to high school, with little variation in questions: "If you find a wallet with money in it, what would you do? If you turn the wallet over to the police, would this be an example of (a) honesty, (b) kindness, (c) purity of heart?" So even though religion has a presence in public schools, these schools aren't considered "religious schools" because the religious education that takes place in the classroom only affects Muslim students. The other students were not required to study the subject. My high school class, by chance, had no Muslim students in it. Also, in every public school, there is a surau, a Muslim prayer room. I used to think (with considerable amusement) that it was for "emergency prayers," when one would suddenly get the urge to pray and had to race to the surau in order to do it. However, as far as I can recall, none of my teachers or classmates ever missed a class "because they had to pray," nor would such an excuse have been acceptable. Also, considering that Muslim men and women are not allowed to pray together, it would have been more convenient for them to pray at home rather than suffer the hassle of reserving the room or creating a prayer schedule. Therefore, the surau was mostly used by those who were still in school during prayer time, after classes were done or before they had begun. For the schools in my district, there were no classes during Friday midday periods, as that was one of the five prayer times for Muslims. School morning sessions had schedules ending around noon, and afternoon sessions wouldn't begin until after 1 p.m., allowing Muslim students to pray at home or in a mosque. This was easier than requiring students to pray at the school surau, since the room could only fit a few people at a time. Aside from that, though, religion didn't pervade the classroom much. Everybody learned the same subjects, unless if it was a language class or the Islam/"moral education" class. We had no Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu religionists coming into the classroom to preach, and I'm certain that if any tried, the teachers would have been piqued (they guarded their allotted classtime jealously). Neither did the teachers try to push their religious doctrine on the students, because of the tolerance and "everybody is entitled to their own beliefs" clause. Plus it would have been difficult for them to try to convert a class full of diverse races and religions. At one point my high school class consisted of 80% Buddhists, so despite Islam being the official religion, my Muslim teacher would have definitely failed if she had tried to promote her religion to us. We also have convent schools, and a long time ago its teachers were Christian nuns. Not anymore. These schools are now run by the government instead of churches. Despite still being called "convent schools," these schools have no classes on Christianity, and do not subject students to religious indoctrination. In short, there are no public religious schools, other than privately owned ones. However, one instance in which religion was emphasized in the curriculum does come to mind. Students in Form 4 (10th grade to Americans) have to study a history chapter dedicated to Islam, learning its origins, various prophets, architectural influences, scientific contributions, etc. This chapter consistently bugged me during my school years, because in the rest of the textbook, other religions were only given a cursory half-page introduction. The only consolation I had was that it didn't try to push readers into converting, although it did do its best to highlight the wonders of the religion (I suspect they left out much of the unpleasant details). The extent to which religion (Islam in particular) is practiced varies according to location. In urban areas, such as Kuala Lumpur, the nation's capital, not all Muslim women wear veils over their heads. Many wear T-shirts instead of clothes covering their limbs, as required by the Koran. In rural areas and villages, however, Malay traditions are strongly heeded, and the women cannot be in the presence of men without covering up appropriately. While not as restrictive and as much of a hindrance as the Arabic burqa, these veils and clothing can be stuffy in our hot and humid climate. Fortunately, Malaysian women do not suffer a "second citizenship" status that some Islamic nations impose on the female sex. We work, we earn our education, and we are not confined indoors. However, Muslim women are subject to syariah law, which among other things, states that a husband can divorce his wife by telling her so three times. Religious extremists do exist here, just like they exist everywhere else. In the state of Kelantan, the ruling political party is PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia. This is the group that wants Malaysia to be a "true" Islamic nation, instead of the moderate and modern kind of Islam practiced in other parts of the country. This is the group that wants the full syariah legal system in practice, meaning thieves would have their hands chopped off and adulterers would be stoned to death. They have already banned discos and karaoke clubs, and Kelantan women must wear a veil over their hair and not wear jeans. I remember going to a Kelantan shopping center once, and standing at a check-out lane with my mom and other women. The other check-out lane had only a few male customers, but none of the women in our long line went to that one. My mother explained that here, men and women were required to stand in separate check-out lanes. The concept seemed inane to me, considering that at that time of the day, few men visited the shopping center. All those women could only use one particular lane until the male customers were gone from the other lane! Another incident I recall was of a billboard poster of a locally made movie. I had seen that poster several times back in my hometown, and it appeared innocuous enough: a close-up of the hero and heroine's faces. In Kelantan, however, I saw the same poster, except a white cloth had been stretched and pinned over the heroine's hair to imitate a veil. Kelantan's tourism revenue may suffer because of such growing extremities, as well as because of visitors' fears and discomfort. The BBC once reported that female tourists here felt uncomfortable being stared at when they wore shorts and sleeveless tops. I recall walking through a Kelantan town in a close-fitting top and jeans once, and although I was ready to stand my ground had anyone objected to my attire (which they technically had no right to do, of course, since I was not Muslim), I did feel a brief twinge of wariness. As tolerant as my experience of religion has been in the past, sometimes I wonder how long it will be before some of PAS's right-wing mindset seeps into the federal government. It concerns me whenever my friends back home tell me about the dress-code specified by the local public universities. Students--female students, in particular--must wear clothing that covers their legs (and in some cases, their arms). This is an Islamic practice, but in Malaysian public universities, it extends to nonMuslims as well. Fortunately I attended a private college, otherwise I would have rebelled strongly against the dress-code. I'd like to think the worst-case scenario would be that everybody would have to wear headveils, but I wouldn't count on it. Religion has a way of worming into our lives and making us think we're the better for it. Once governments start specifying a certain god to look up to and constructing its laws all around it, you know we're in trouble. Lynn Lau graduated last May from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in Communication Arts, and is currently the Foundation's assistant editor and web"mistress." Besides writing and drawing comic strips, she enjoys spending time with her pet cockatiel, Sin, who still refuses to learn to sing.
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The question no longer seems to be if Cardinal Bernard Law will resign for his role in the cover-up of pedophile priests in the Boston Archdiocese, but when. Another timely question: How many bishops will be felled directly by being exposed as pedophiles themselves? A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and author of Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, predicts future scandals will involve eight or ten bishops or other high church officials, according to the West Palm Beach Post. Sipe, who conducted a 25-year study of sexual misconduct within the church, maintains that in 1990, he had "validation of 16 bishops in the country who had been abusers." The most shocking fallout of the Boston scandal to date has been the resignation of Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell of Palm Beach, Fla. Appointed to replace a bishop removed for pedophilia, O'Connell admitted he had abused a teenager 27 years ago at a Missouri seminary. A $125,000 settlement by the Diocese of Jefferson City in 1996 allowed O'Connell to guard his secret and become bishop. Even more pressing: When will a prosecutor finally criminally indict a bishop for covering up these crimes? Sixteen years ago, a confidential report to the Catholic Conference of Bishops predicted the church would pay out a billion dollars within a decade to victims of priest abuse. The authors warned the Catholic Church would be perceived as providing "sanctuary for perverts" if immediate reforms weren't adopted. Associated Press in March estimated the range of mostly confidential payouts to victims is from $300 million to the prophesied $1 billion. The Palm Beach Post placed the total cost to the Catholic Church at $600 million to $1.3 billion. The New York Times, quoting attorneys for victims, reported that in the past two decades, dioceses have reached more than 1,000 settlements in priest sex abuse cases, many of them sealed. The revelation that the Boston archdiocese--and four other church officials besides Law who are now bishops--directly covered up for molesting priests for 20 or 30 years has set off aftershocks in diocese after diocese. The Boston Globe's legal fight to unseal records over recently defrocked priest John J. Geoghan resulted in the release of 10,000 pages of damning documents in January. The archdiocese subsequently was forced to admit it has known about more than 80 priest-molesters. (The Boston Archdiocese revealed in March, in the midst of a $300 million fundraising campaign, that its insurance policies won't cover an estimated $100 million in settlements over priests accused of sexually abusing children.) A few other dioceses followed Boston's example, such as the Diocese of Manchester, NH, giving prosecutors the names of 14 priests, and Philadelphia firing "fewer than 10" priests. The Boston Globe reported on Feb. 25 that the largest dioceses "continue to allow priests who have abused children to return to parish work and keep accusations of clergy misconduct secret from police." The diocese in Portland, Me., initially took no stand against two parish priests who are admitted molesters. Portland's new policy, according to the Globe, permits a priest who has molested a "single minor" multiple times to stay on the job, but not a priest who molests more than one minor once! The Archdiocese of New York, publicly exposed by a New York Times columnist for its policy to keep such scandals in-house, announced in March that for the first time it would report new incidents of child sexual abuse directly to law enforcement authorities, if victims agree. The diocese ruled out reporting old cases. The Diocese of Rockville Centre, on Long Island, NY, completed a review of 300 clergy files, but will not release the names or number of priests with allegations against them, claiming no one currently working in the diocese has been "credibly" accused. Long Island's bishop was named as a defendant in lawsuits by Geoghan victims. So was Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, newly under fire for ignoring three nuns who came forward in 1996 to report three priests sexually abusing boys, as well as allegations by a priest in New Jersey who told the bishop in 1998 that he was abused as a youngster by another priest. "There have been 1,800 priests named in civil and criminal proceedings over the last 15 years, and there are 47,000 priests in the U.S. That approaches 4 percent, and that is a staggering number," says Catholic reporter Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not into Temptation. The pope included a one-paragraph apology to victims of clergy for "great suffering and spiritual" harm in a 120-page missive to Catholics in Oceania late last year. In January, it was learned the Vatican had issued secret rules ordering that accused priests must be tried in secret church courts overseen from Rome, without advising whether civil authorities should be informed if a priest is found guilty. The Vatican imposed a 10-year statute of limitations beginning on the victim's 18th birthday. The Vatican sparked renewed anger when spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, in response to New England sex abuse scandals, deflected blame from the church by equating homosexuality with pedophilia, and declaring gay men should not be ordained as priests, despite estimates that as many as half of priests are gay. Wrote New York Times columnist Bill Keller ("Let Us Prey," March 9, 2002): "Every detail of this sordid story has had to be dragged from the reluctant archdiocese, mostly by the dogged investigative reporting of The Boston Globe." "American Catholicism may not be a democracy, but it lives in one," added Keller. "And while the separation of church and state is a precious freedom, the First Amendment was never intended to provide sanctuary for criminals."--Annie Laurie Gaylor
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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked the Cambridge Public Library, Massachusetts, to remove an eye-poppingly ostentatious Ten Commandments engraving and other religious verbiage on prominent display in the first floor of the main library. "A public library simply has no business saying it was 'built in gratitude to God, to his son Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Ghost,' or to warn patrons, including children, that 'if you obey these commandments you will be happy. If you disobey them sorrow will come upon you,' " the Foundation wrote Cambridge Public Library Director Susan Flannery. The city of Cambridge agreed in 1889 to post the Ten Commandments and additional religious proclamations (see photograph) in exchange for obtaining the building from a religious benefactor. Although it posted a "disclaimer" following a 1995 complaint, explaining that it considers the engravings to be "historic," the Foundation said the disclaimer "does not mitigate the effect of these religious orders, threats, and injunctions." The city, which signed an agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1985 to ensure preservation of the architectural and historical integrity of the library building, has taken no action on the Foundation's February complaint. Mayor Michael Sullivan's response to the Cambridge Chronicle was to ask: "Does this mean bibles should be removed from public libraries?" "What civil power could the Cambridge Public Library invoke, which would supersede the dictates of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?" wrote Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation staff member, in the letter of complaint. "Mere financial gain or advantage cannot justify a union between religion and a public library." Now is an ideal time to rectify the violation since the Main Library will soon be renovated. Ask the Cambridge Public Library to remove the religious displays. Write: Ms Susan Flannery, Director Cambridge Public Library 449 Broadway Cambridge MA 02138 Send a copy of your letter to: Mayor Michael Sullivan City of Cambridge Office of the Mayor City Hall Cambridge MA 02139