Welcome to the Lake Superior Freethinkers

Please Join us. We meet in Duluth on the first Sunday of every month, 9am at the downtown Radisson. Our meetings are free and open to the public.

Upcoming Meetings

July 2014
Potpourri Our July meeting is an open meeting. Bring what's on your mind.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011

July Newsletter

July, 2011 Newsletter of the Lake Superior Freethinkers

Facilitators: Maxine Caserta - 525-8427, 348-4113 & Bill Guse - 834-4583, 343-4806
First Sunday - Radisson Hotel – 9:00 AM Social – 10:00 Brunch

George Erickson, editor, tundracub@mchsi.com

 

July Program: Charles Boyton from The Climate Project-US will talk about

"Climate and Energy"

              High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School
                                           By Greta Christina, AlterNet
Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did. But Fowler -- knowing that government-sponsored prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional and legally forbidden -- contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school -- at first, anyway -- agreed, and canceled the prayer.

Then Fowler's name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. As a direct result:
1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.
2) One of Fowler's teachers has publicly demeaned him.
3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to "jump
him" at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily
harm, and even death threats.
4) Fowler's parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of
the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Nobody -- not Fowler, not the ACLU, -- is telling anybody at Bastrop High School that they can't pray. People can pray at graduations and other school events all they want. The sole issue here is whether a public school can have a prayer at a graduation or other school event as an official, school-sponsored part of the program. Individual prayer? Hunky dory. Off-campus prayers at churches or private events? Knock yourself out. Government promotion of a religious agenda? Not so much. What with the First Amendment and the "establishment of religion" bit and all.

It's a law and a Constitution that protects everybody, not just atheists. If you wouldn't want to be subjected to a government-sponsored Buddhist prayer, you ought not to be subjecting others to a government-sponsored Christian prayer. So here's a little more detail about what exactly happened with Damon Fowler.

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community. He's become the center of what he terms a "shitstorm": he has been harassed, vilified, targeted with insults and name-calling and hateful remarks. He's been told t he's the Devil. He's been told, "Go cry to your mommy... oh, wait. You can't." (A reference to him being disowned by his parents.) He's
been told that he's only doing this to get attention. A student's public prayer at a pre-graduation "Class Night" event was turned into an opportunity for the school and community to gang up on Fowler and publicly close ranks against him -- teachers as well as students. (Here's video). And
people seen defending him have been targeted as well.

As just a taste, here are a few comments on the Bastrop Enterprise news story about the controversy: "I personally see him as a coward." "I hope they [Christians] put enough pressure on this kid to convert him and save his soul from the fire of hell." "The kid was likely a recluse and apathetic about most everything until now." "If he don't want prayer at graduation he can stay at home and not come to graduation." "After all, that's what she or he wants isn't it to be singled out! This just makes me ill." "I hope that the little atheist is offended." "What he is really doing is trying to shove his views down people's throats." "Why does this student only now decide to get engaged in what is happening at the school? Is it nothing more than our own self-destructive human nature to break down anything of which we may not approve?" "That student should just have to have his/her one man graduation ceremony all alone." "Satan continues to prowl and is deceiving many in this world."

2) One of Fowler's teachers has publicly demeaned him. From the Bastrop Enterprise:

Mitzi Quinn has been on the staff at BHS for almost 25 years, much of that time as a senior advisor. In the past, Quinn said there have been students who were atheist, agnostic and other non-Christian religions who "had no problems" with the prayer. "They respected the majority of their classmates and didn't say anything," Quinn said. "We've never had this come up before."

Throughout her time working with the student, Quinn said they never expressed their personal beliefs or that they had any problems with other students' Christian faiths. "And what's even more sad is this is a student who really hasn't contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates," Quinn said.

In other words: Because the majority of students want an unconstitutional prayer at their graduation, they're in the right. Because nobody's ever had the courage to speak up about this before, the law was not being broken, and everything was okay. (After all, it's not like anything bad happened when Fowler spoke up...right?) And because Fowler hasn't "contributed anything" -- other than, you know, a model of risking safety and security to stand up for a principle he believed in -- his legal right to not be targeted with religious proselytization by his public school is irrelevant... and he deserves to be publicly derided by one of his teachers.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to "jump him" at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler's parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the porch.

Let's be very, very clear about this one. At a time when their son was being bullied, threatened, publicly pilloried, and ostracized from his school and his community, his parents joined the party. Their initial response was to hold him in their house against his will, take his cell phone and cut off his contact with the outside world, and even cut him off from contact with his older brother, Jerrett. Their more recent response has been to cut off financial support, kick him out of the house, and throw his belongings onto the porch.

Fortunately, Damon isn't entirely alone. His brother Jerrett is bringing Damon into his own home in Texas, and will help put him through college. And Damon is fortunate enough to have the backing of the atheist community, who are providing encouragement, emotional support, practical assistance, and even a scholarship fund.

There are a lot of hot-button issues in Damon Fowler's story. There's the depressing fact of how common this kind of story is: the fact that, despite the law being unambiguous on the subject, public schools around the country are continuing to sponsor prayers and otherwise promote theocracy, in flagrant violation of the law... apparently in the hopes that nobody will want to make waves and speak out against it. There's the lack of understanding in the United States about fundamental civics: the all-too-common belief that "majority rules" in every situation, and the
all-too-common failure to comprehend the principle that the minority has basic civil rights.

There's the ugly reality of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination across the country -- especially in high schools. According to JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, "In Alabama, Auburn High School is refusing to allow an SSA affiliate. In Cranston, Rhode Island, a public school is facing an ACLU suit for refusing to take down a sectarian
prayer [a banner posted in the school gym]. In Texas we had a student who was told he could have a secular club if he called it a philosophy club and didn't affiliate with the SSA. The list of similar situations is a mile long and these are only the ones I've become aware of in my first four  months on the job. The Fowler incident is closer to being the norm than the exception."

There are rants about religion to be had here as well. There's the level of not only hostility, but panicked hostility, when entrenched religion gets its privileged status threatened. There's the way that religion relies on social consensus to perpetuate itself -- and how, when that consensus is
threatened, it commonly reacts by smacking down dissent and expelling dissenters. There's the idea that the unverifiability of religion -- the beliefs in invisible, inaudible, intangible gods promising an afterlife nobody can know anything about -- means that the harm done in its name has the unique capacity to spin off into the stratosphere... since there's no reality check. There's the image of religion as a colossal fortress protecting a house of cards: powerful, massive structures and institutions staunchly buttressed and hotly defended to ensure that nobody ever examines the ideas inside and sees how flimsy they are.

And of course -- duh -- there's separation of church and state. There's the principle that a public school should not be sponsoring prayers at graduations. What with that being a government establishment of religion and all, and thus being -- oh, what's that word? -- unconstitutional.

Damon Fowler has been embraced and welcomed by the atheist community. Atheist writers have been all over this story from the moment it broke: it's been covered on Friendly Atheist, Pharyngula, BlagHag, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Revolution, The Thinking Atheist, Atheist Underworld, WWJTD, Rock Beyond Belief... the list goes on. Several atheist organizations are applauding Fowler for his courage.

American Atheists said of Fowler, "This kid deserves mad props for letting his principal know on no uncertain terms that ACLU would be contacted if the prayer wasn't canceled. Good job, Damon, you speak for the freedoms of people who are trapped in the bible-belt!" JT Eberhard, high school specialist for the Secular Student Alliance, said, "Despite the vile threats, bullying, and hatred his community has given him, we recognize Damon for what he is: a brave student speaking up for religious liberty and inclusion." Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke about "his courage in speaking out for his and other students' rights."

And it's not just the atheist thought leaders. It's the on-the-ground community. Fowler has received an outpouring of support from atheists around the country and around the world. The "Support Damon" group on Facebook has over 10,000 members as of this writing. The Reddit post from Damon and his brother Jerrett discussing these events has been loaded with expressions of empathy and outrage. Atheist forums and blog comment threads about Fowler
all over the Internet have been extensive and passionate. And many atheists have written letters to the Bastrop High School administration expressing their support for Fowler's position and their opposition to the prayer.

This support isn't only emotional, either. Emotional support is not trivial, of course; it's hugely important, especially when you're being ostracized, targeted with a hateful smear campaign, and driven from your home. But a tremendous amount of practical and financial support is coming from the atheist community as well. Many atheists have offered Fowler transportation, legal advice, meetup groups, places to stay, physical protection, connections with others who could provide additional practical help, and more. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has given Fowler a $1,000 college scholarship.

And perhaps most dramatically, Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has established a scholarship fund for Fowler, so he can attend college despite being cut off financially by his parents -- and the response has been overwhelming. As of this writing, the atheist community has donated over $15,000. Essentially filling the role that his parents have abandoned. Why am I bringing this up?

One of the chunks of mud that's most commonly slung at atheists is that we're selfish. Amoral. That without a belief in God and the afterlife, people would have no moral compass, and would just act to please themselves, without any consideration for others. That without a belief in eternal punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, eternal reward in the afterlife for good behavior, and a supernatural authority figure refereeing it all, people would have no reason to be good people, and no reason to avoid doing terrible things. That without religion, people would have no compassion, no sense of justice, no empathy, no desire to see society running smoothly... and would just do whatever we wanted to do.

But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.

If atheism means we just do whatever we want to do... then apparently, what we want to do is take care of each other. What we want to do is help people who have been injured. Apparently, what we want to do is speak out against wrongdoing. Apparently, what we want to do is put a stop to injustice. Apparently, what we want to do is make sacrifices for people in need - A whole lot more than the Christians in Bastrop, Louisiana.

I'm not saying that atheists are morally superior to religious believers. [Though many are.] I don't think that. I'm aware that many religious believers are good, compassionate people with a strong sense of justice. I'm even aware that many religious believers, indeed many Christians, are appalled by what's happening to Damon Fowler. And I'm aware that many atheists are hostile, self-involved schmucks. (Believe me... I'm aware of that.) That's not my point.

My point is this: Human beings don't need God to be good. Human ethics seem to be wired into our brains, through millions of years of evolution as a social species, and every human being who isn't a sociopath has them. Some of us act on them better than others... but we all have them. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Rastafarian, Wiccan -- and atheist. The next time someone tells you that atheists are selfish and amoral? Remember Damon Fowler. Remember the religious community that bullied him, harassed him, ostracized him, and drove him out. And remember the atheist community that took him in.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 2011 Newsletter

June 2011 Newsletter of the Lake Superior Freethinkers

Facilitators: Maxine Caserta - 525-8427, 348-4113 & Bill Guse - 834-4583, 343-4806
First Sunday - Radisson Hotel – 9:00 AM Social – 10:00 Brunch

George Erickson, editor, tundracub@mchsi.com

 

Assuming that we have not been "raptured," our speaker will be

George Erickson - Who Are Your Heroes?

         During an appearance on a Baptist radio program when George was president of the MN Humanists, he was asked to name his heroes, and because he had never thought in terms of heroes, he was taken aback.

 

        Now, says George, "I could name at least 100 people who have made the world a significantly better place, but if I were required to name just 5, I now know who'd I'd nominate - and why.  As you might expect, I have no entertainers or sports figures on my list of men and women that span six centuries, but to learn who they are, and to contribute to the list, come to our June meeting!

 

***************************************

Centuries of Lying in the Name of Christianity:  Review of Bart Ehrman's 'Forged'
                                                       by Walter C. Uhler
 The Bible has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed. Tom Paine

      Professor Bart Ehrman has done something that more than 99 percent of American Christians have failed to do. He has devoted much of his adult life to a serious study of the New Testament.
     

 Ehrman commenced his studies at a fundamentalist Bible college, Moody Bible Institute, before completing his undergraduate education at Wheaton College. While at Wheaton, Ehrman did what every serious student of the New Testament must do; he studied Greek. As he explained, "I took Greek, so that I could read the New Testament in its original language." [p. 4]
   

After graduating from Wheaton, Ehrman went to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under one of the world's great experts on the Greek New Testament, the late Bruce Metzger. Among Metzger's many scholarly contributions is his indispensible book, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, which identifies the three classes of sources available for ascertaining the text of the New Testament: Greek manuscripts, ancient translations into other languages and quotations from the New Testament made by early ecclesiastical writers, such as Augustine, Eusebius, Tertullian and Marcion. [pp. 36-89]
  

 Readers of that book would learn, for example, that the oldest known portion of a New Testament is a few verses from John that were written during the first half of the second century - or approximately a full century after the crucifixion of Jesus.
  

 Readers also would learn that the two oldest surviving complete New Testaments are the codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus. Sinaiticus is a fourth-century Greek Bible discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century that not only contains the complete New Testament, but also The Shepard of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, books that were considered to be part of the New Testament for several centuries. Vaticanus also is a fourth-century Greek Bible that has been housed in the Vatican Library at least since 1475.
   

Because approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament have been identified, textual criticism became a necessity. As Professor Metzger put it, "The necessity of applying textual criticism to the books of the New Testament arises from two circumstances: (a) none of the original documents is extant, and (b) the existing copies differ from one another."
   

(These are facts to keep in mind whenever some biblical literalist, presumably incapable of reading Greek, tells you that the New Testament is inerrant.)
   

Having studied under Metzger and reading all he could, Ehrman not only abandoned his early belief that the Bible was inerrant, he also was compelled to conclude: "the Bible not only contains untruths or accidental mistakes. It also contains what almost anyone today would call lies." [p. 5] As he asserts in Forged, "Throughout this book it will become quite clear from the ancient writings themselves that even though forgery was widely practiced, it was also widely condemned and treated as a form of lying." [p. 36].
   

Given that 84 percent of Americans believe the Bible to be a holy book, one would think that such people would be concerned to learn that many of the New Testament books are forgeries. Yet, whenever I have brought New Testament forgeries, mistakes or contradictions to the attention of a Bible-believing Christian, he or she invariably falls back to the excuse: "Well, it's simply a matter of faith, isn't it?"
   

Upon hearing this excuse, I always respond: "No, if it were simply a matter of faith, I could assert that my cell phone is my savior, and so could you." You obviously believe that your faith in Jesus Christ is superior to my faith in my cell phone, because it is based on nearly two-thousand years of tradition that was legitimized by the stories told in the New Testament." Protestants are even more focused on that book, because -- ever since Martin Luther -- they've been told, Sola scriptura, "by scripture alone."
   

What's worse is the sad fact that few Christians even comprehend the disturbing paradox: Had Jesus returned as quickly as he predicted, nobody would need a New Testament.
    

Remember the biblical passages that suggest Jesus' imminent return? "Verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here which shall not taste death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come to power." (Mark 9:1)
   

Or, how about Paul's expectation that he and some of the Thessalonians will be alive when the apocalypse occurs. Remember how he contrasts 'those who have died' with 'we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord?'" (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17) [The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p.314]
   

Obviously, either Jesus or Mark got it wrong - and so did Paul. According to Professor Ehrman, Paul "appears to have no idea that his words would be discussed after his death, let alone read and studied some nineteen centuries later." [Ibid]
   

Nevertheless, "as hopes of Christ's imminent return began to fade in the later first century,...Christians began to realize that they must create structures which might last at least for a generation or more amid a world of non-believers. [Diarmaid MacCullough, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, p. 118]
   

Structures? Yes, Christians attempted to create a universal faith based upon: (1) an agreed list of authoritative sacred texts, (2) the formation of creeds and (3) the establishment of an authoritative ministry (bishop, priest and deacon) [Ibid, pp. 127-137]
   

Thus, as Ehrman notes, "Christians from the very beginning needed to appeal to authorities for what they believed." [Forged, p.7] "The ultimate authority was God, of course. But the majority of Christians came to think that God did not speak the truth about what to believe directly to individuals. If he did, there would be enormous problems, as some would claim divine authority for what they taught and others would claim divine authority for the completely opposite teaching. Thus most Christians did not stress personal revelation to living individuals." [Ibid]
   

Yet, it was precisely the need to establish authority that prompted Christians to forge parts of the New Testament books, as well as entire books of the New Testament, by falsely claiming that they were written, for example, by Peter, Paul or Mark.
   

Consider, for example, the fact that neither of the two oldest complete New Testaments (codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus) contains the last twelve verses that we find in Mark today. According to Professor Metzger, "Since Mark was not responsible for the composition of the last twelve verses of the generally current form of his Gospel, and since they undoubtedly had been attached to the Gospel before the Church recognized the fourfold Gospels as canonical, it follows that the New Testament contains not four but five evangelic accounts of events subsequent to the Resurrection of Christ." [p. 229]
   

Professor Ehrman is less diplomatic. He simply notes: "Whoever added the final twelve verses of Mark did not do so by a mere slip of the pen." [p. 250] Somebody forged them so they would pass as being written by Mark.
   

Ehrman doubts that the letters of 1 Peter and 2 Peter were actually written by Peter. Through the examination of word usage that didn't gain currency until after Peter's death in 64 CE - such as the word "Babylon" which was a code word for Rome that came into use near the end of the first century - scholars have come to believe that the letters are forgeries. Moreover, "there are excellent grounds for thinking that Peter could not write." [p. 70]
   

Now consider the thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to have been written by Paul. According to Ehrman, "Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon." Six, probably, are forgeries: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. (Readers who are interested in the evidence used to categorize them as forgeries should turn to pages 95-114 of Forged.)
   

Thus, readers might now find it ironic that 2 Timothy 3:16 claims "All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." After all, 2 Timothy, as noted above, is one of the Pauline letters now thought to have been forged.
   

Equally ironic, and more amusing, is the use of forged New Testament scripture by the leading proponent of Christian Economics, Gary North. As reported recently in the New York Times, Mr. North not only believes that" the Bible is opposed to organized labor, and especially to organized public employees," he also believes "that no form of government assistance 'will escape the ethical limits' of the Apostle Paul's dictum, in 2 Thessalonians, that 'if any would not work, neither should he eat." Being an evangelical Christian, the poor soul doesn't even suspect that 2 Thessalonians is a forgery.
   

Unwittingly, Mr. North and all Christians who take the New Testament at face value commit a disastrous procedural mistake. They establish their Bible-based moral code of right and wrong before ascertaining the true and the false in that Bible. "Effective virtue, as Socrates pointed out long ago, is knowledge; and a code of right and wrong must await upon a perception of the true and the false." [Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, p. 20]
   

Now that Professor Bart Ehrman's Forged has demonstrated, "from the first century to the twentieth century, people who have called themselves Christian have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize views that they wanted others to accept," today's Christians have no excuse for their procedural confusion.
   

Walter Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in  The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). waltuhler@aol.com