Archives for category: religion

In which the atheist rants at some length without conclusion on matters of religious hypocrisy.

There’s this thought I’ve had about huckster preachers who scam their congregations and promise eternal rewards for handing over their temporal earnings. This is just a matter of public-facing behaviour of those who claim to be generally christians.

In these cases, they, it seems to me, can’t actually be ‘real’ Christians – they can’t actually believe in the afterlife they preach. If they did, they would obviously live their lives differently (rich man / camel / eye of needle – you know the drill) knowing that a vengeful god would have it in for them at the other end of things.

I throw around vague terms but the people I mean include American preachers who lead megachurches and live in mansions, Catholic priests who collect tithes for Rome but whose congregations live in poverty. And a few other types.

Those who believe in deathbed conversions have to step carefully given how easy it is for death to sneak up without warning.

Do I have a philosophical case to make regarding the benefits of atheism or living a Christian life without the hypocrisy of those of the cloth? Great question.

Listen. I’ll say it again. I’m a lapsed Jew with occasional tendencies towards Christian imagery in my writing and a firm belief that Jesus was a nice Jewish boy who got in with the wrong crowd but eventually made good. In addition, I’m fond of end of the world apocalyptic movies like The Omen and that one with Schwarzenegger from the 90s.

On the other hand, I carry animus towards exploitative religions and religious behaviour no matter their origins. Anyone who works against the protection of the young / the helpless / those in danger or in harm’s way is, however, working against the tenets of basic biblical teaching. The same holds for government officials who vote against the best interests of people in favour of corporations but show up in church on Sunday as if the latter cleansed them of the former – not doing the Lord’s work, really.

What does the huckster who leads such a congregation actually believe? Is there some special feeling that the afterlife of their preaching will be theirs anyway, despite the harm? I’m reminded of an article I read years ago about the tobacco industry. The writer was at an industry convention and there were cigarettes by the carton simply on display. ‘May I take one of these?’ ‘Of course, take two.’ In this moment, the writer realised the executives he was interviewing didn’t themselves smoke and he asked them about it. The reply, ‘No, we leave that to the stupid and the n****ers.’ (I’m 80% certain the article was in Rolling Stone, and probably in the early 1990s.)

Is this how megachurch preachers see their congregants? Live by actual biblical teaching? Nah, we’ll leave that to the gullible. We’ve got ours, jack. It seems to me that if you believe in a Christian version of the afterlife, then bilking followers (and at the far end of the spectrum, preaching actual hate) will keep you from that promised land. If you do believe, then doing good works, is the key.

There’s a strain of Christian philosophy in which what the believer believes has more weight than what the believer does in determining entrance to the afterlife of choice. If you believe a certain way, then your works aren’t necessary to get into heaven and that if you don’t believe, no amount of work you do will get you there.

Brother Andre Marie over at (note – there’s a bias here) suggests that the fundamentalist (Calvinist/Lutheran/Baptist) view is that faith is sufficient, whereas the Catholic take is that humans must participate in their salvation by doing good works. Faith alone is insufficient. The Jewish take (as emphasized in the Haggadah, read at Passover) is that we tell the story of Exodus as ‘what the L-rd did for me when he brought us out of Egypt’, thereby acknowledging the deity and taking part in our own salvation.

Again, I’m an atheist. I haven’t studied divinity (though I do have a friend with a degree in the subject and should corner her on her thoughts on the matter) and my reading of the bible tends to be to make sure I get an allusion correct rather than using it as words to live by. That said, as one who is at least aware of the tradition of rabbinic debate on all kinds of topics, this kind of concept slicing makes sense as brain-stretching thought exercises. However, it is the worst kind of game playing when you’re talking about making life better or worse in the now for large (if not huge) numbers of people.

The main reasons to practice a religion include community, indoctrination, desire for salvation, utility as a guide for living, the existence of a supreme deity gives meaning or structure to life. All quite good and meaningful. The issue becomes where the organisation of religion oversteps into the lives of believers/followers. The Catholic requirement of confession is an aspect of this – belief and inclusion in the community include giving priests all the secrets of the community to hold. Those who don’t confess are shunned and those who know the secrets of those in power are compelled to release them at personal risk, the seal of the confessional notwithstanding. From the outside, it’s another tool of coercive behaviour. From the inside?

I also know that there are issues with writing about religion as a monolithic thing. One is that I don’t want to consider religion as a block of problems intractable of solution. For many, religion/faith *is* the solution. I want to consider merit in the teachings of religion and not discount what it provides to many. This goes hand in hand with rejecting Burroughs’ tenet in Words of Advice for Young People. ‘Don’t trust a religious SOB. Get it in writing.’

I’m beyond the age at which I find this humorous or useful anymore. It’s a matter of contempt – holding a person to be beyond worth due to professed belief or membership in a group. I may find that in examining the subject from the position of contempt will open me to accusations of intolerance. This is worth considering too.

I’m not easygoing when it comes to religion. I’m adamant about my agnosticism – I don’t have blind faith in a god of any kind. It falls in the category of religion not providing a better answer to questions that have been answered through application of the scientific method. I generally don’t put my trust in that which doesn’t subject itself to repeatability. (I know that there are some interesting limits to this as discussed in Adam Conover’s interview with oncologist Azra Raza.)

Each person has the choice to follow or not follow leaders, be they religious or secular, to parrot the BS found in social media, and to hold those with differing views in contempt. Bloody conservatives, stupid liberals, gun owners, and firearms absolutists being current objects of contempt in the matters of how we as humans at this late date hold others to be outside the pale of discussion.

god-hates-flagsThe issue I want to examine in greater depth is how those in positions of religious leadership preach one thing, or one set of things, based on salvation and faith in one interpretation of a set of teachings but flout the same standards, often flagrantly. The obvious example is the Westboro Baptist folks who quote a couple passages of Leviticus to preach a gospel of hate and derision.

The question of whether one can condemn the gay to hell both in this life and the next based on one bit of Leviticus, but still eat lobster is at the heart of this discussion.

If kashrut, polycotton blends, and interaction with men during menstruation are no longer matters of much contention and attention, then why homosexuality?

Of course, the reason is that homosexuality is a distraction from all the rest of what the huckster does that is obviously sin. ‘But I’m not gay – that’s the worst thing – this is what keeps the nation from being a shining city on the hill.’ And oddly, you end up with antigay preachers who are also practicing sodomites, hypocrisy being another aspect of hucksterism.

There’s obviously more to consider, but I wanted to get these notes out of my notebook and into the blogosphere.

A couple of Sundays ago, Rachel and I visited the city of Groningen which is hosting the David Bowie Is exhibit at the main museum. The museum is directly across from the train station, but after a two-plus hour train ride from Leiden, we needed lunch before our entry time and walked towards the town center.

As we walked to lunch we passed this synagogue, having had no idea it existed. Overview Groningen synagoge, ca. 1939Note that I had one goal for the day, and that was the museum exhibit. I had no reason to look further into what the town had to offer. Had I given the Groningen page in Lonely Planet Netherlands a peak, I would have taken note. So it was a surprise. Had we taken a different little lane into town, I never would have seen it. A sandwich sign in front announced hourly tours from 1pm until 5. At 4 we entered and requested a tour in English and shortly after a woman whose English was passable started to tell us about the building’s history we were joined by another half-Jewish couple and learned much of the following.

In 1916, the Groningen Jewish community numbered about 3000 and the previous synagogue was unable to seat weekly attendance in excess of 600 worshipers, so they hired an architect to design a new building. Oddly the architect was not Jewish, but he had a wide range of influences. Rachel (who was raised in the Church of England) has been in a few synagogues with me and when our guide asked, what’s strange about this one, her answer was immediate and accurate: ‘It’s shaped like a church.’ And indeed it has a nave and a transept, and a dome at the intersection. In addition, there are elements of Spanish mosques as well such as the alternating light and dark brickwork of the arches on the second level.

The tour itself, after the history lesson, was sort of Judaism 101, but the history of the building was quite interesting. Many of the original artifacts were destroyed, but the building itself was simply used for storage (What did they store here? The answer, ‘As far as we can tell, confiscated radios mostly,’ elicited a sigh of relief. After the war, it spent several decades as a laundry, but funding to reconsecrate it as a synagogue was successfully raised in the early 1980s.

We visited the mikveh which was discovered much later. The baths had been tiled over in the years since WWII and the architectural designs had long since been lost, but being an orthodox synagogue, it was known there had to be a mikveh somewhere. Just off to one side and just barely, as far as I could tell, within the property of the synagogue.

At this point there’s enough of a community in and around Groningen to justify services twice per month. I don’t remember the number precisely, but of a pre-War population of over 3000, something less than 50 returned. From what I gather, the synagogue in Leiden (which I’ve never visited, and which does not share a welcoming sandwich board with tour hours on a Sunday morning) also has services only about twice per month. The liberal synagogue in the Hague is a little more community-facing with weekly services, but I’ve only visited that one once as well.

Rachel commented that it would have been great to share the Groningen venue with my folks when they last visited. Perhaps next time.
It’s a strange and dangerous time we’re living in. The article indicates that those killed  in this missile attack in Iraq were members of the MEK, an Iranian opposition group welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein in the early 80s. No source in the article blames Iran, save for a member of the same group based in Paris. She’s adamant that all concerned know  it was Iran who made the strike.
Now that there’s a power vacuum in Iraq, those opposed to the government of Iran there are sitting ducks. (Much like the Kurds in Turkey and Syria now that Russia has joined the fighting there.) With the Revolutionary Iranian government a welcome party at talks about the future of Syria, and with a newly negotiated agreement between Iran and the US a done deal, it seems they have taken a free hand with regards their opponents. And as the MEK are right next door, they were an easy target. The situation reminds me of how Stalin got rid of Trotsky, but while Trotsky was easy to find and relatively easy to off, his murder was committed at close range with a small tool. The MEK was hit with missiles – they weren’t even given the benefit of looking their attackers in the eye. 

While I’ve been a reluctant supporter of the agreement to bring Iran in from the cold, I have a friend who has recently moved from Los Angeles to Jerusalem and she’s been adamant that this agreement is bad for the region and gives tacit support to the mullahs who have spent the 35 years since the revolution calling for the annihilation of Israel. This seems to be the first strike against foes outside Iran’s borders in a very long time. 

And, yeah, as noted above, the Russians are providing air support for Assad in his war against his own people. Dan Carlin recently noted that Putin is at least being forthright about wading in. (If you don’t listen yet to Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, I can’t recommend it highly enough.) He’s making a case for Russian legitimacy as a player in the region and in the current conflict. The US hasn’t been able to train a dozen fighters in the battle against Assad. We don’t even know what that means. Assad’s foes include long time opponents of the regime and new players like ISIS. The West doesn’t know how to distinguish these and hasn’t really made an effort to do so. Carlin makes the case that this is what accounts for the power vacuum in most of the places associated with the Arab Spring including Libya, Egypt, and, yeah, Syria.

And, as I’ve noted, none of this is new. Some of the issues date back to before World War I, others are closely related to other civil wars in the region – Lebanon’s for example. This is gonna sound like a hard left turn into one of my music posts, but bear with me for a minute. In 1984 (when Lebanon fell into chaos), The Human League released a single called The Lebanon. It was the first US single off Hysteria, and their first US flop in about 3 years. Part of the problem was the guitars, and part was the title. In England, that country nestled between Syria, Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea has an article. In the US, it’s simply called Lebanon. The lyrics are fairly simplistic, offering a verse each to a man who joins the army and a woman who simply recalls when life was easier, and a chorus that asked ‘Who will have won when the soldiers have gone / From the Lebanon’. I was in high school at the time working at an independent record store.  My boss asked me if I thought it would be a hit. I thought perhaps it would be top 30, as it didn’t have the bounce of Mirror Man or Don’t You Want Me. It peaked at 62.  Looking as deeply as Wikipedia offers into the history of Lebanon’s civil war (which lasted 15 years), it’s a surprise Syria didn’t sink into chaos a long time ago, but the factions in Lebanon were far more diverse and featured only a supporting cast from Syria.

I think brinigng Lebanon into my discussion is simply a way of saying the madness of Iran striking opponents in Iraq, and Russia taking out Syria’s opponents in Syria (not to mention of few of Turkey’s in Turkey who just happen also to be opponents of ISIS as well) is merely an extension of hte madness that region has experienced for decades.

That phrase is displayed over a beautiful Danse Macabre in Fuessen, Germany. Spoken by Death, it means ‘Say Yes, Say No, Dance We Must. In the context of Medieval morality, it makes perfect sense. The rich, the poor, the virtuous, and the vicious all die eventually, and as such were taught what might lay beyond. 
I recently wrote about the town of Mittenwald in which a museum display indicated that the museum used to be on Jew’s Lane, but that in 1938, the name was changed. Walking through Rothenburg, Germany was a little bit different than walking through Mittenwald. At various places, one could see evidence of the former Jewish community there. Judengasse still exists – or exists again – with a plaque indicating the lane as the site of the community that was first expelled in 1520. A plaque in the garden that had once been the Jewish cemetery ‘commemorate[s] our fellow Jews who were expelled between 1933 to 1938 from Rothenburg’. Only since 1990, according to a few such plaques, has excavation of the town’s Jewish past been addressed in earnest. 
Note that Rothenburg is an ancient, well-kept town on the Romantic Road. It attracts a large number of tourists from around the world. For some reason, the region is very popular with the Japanese – enough so that signs indicating places or events of interest are posted in German, English, and Japanese. 

As Rachel and I wandered through this medieval town’s historical re-enactment weekend (commemorating since 1974 a victory that occurred in 1274), and relieved the Kathe Wohlfart shoppe of about 150 euros worth of Christmas tree decorations, and heard tourists speaking English, German, French and Japanese, I asked her ‘Why here and not Mittenwald? Why does this town pay more than lip service to its historic Jewish community (and that community’s destruction – at least twice)? Her answer was short and to the point: ‘American tourists.’ [Note: I’m a secular Jew from the US married to a secular Christian from England.]

She had a good point. Mittenwald hosts a lot of tourists – any established town in the Tyrol region will do well with tourists from Germany, Italy, and Austria, but not necessarily beyond, except for the participants in the annual nordic sports competitions. Attendants at those won’t have much time for sightseeing, is my guess.
But we’re at it again. At the moment it’s the damning of refugees from the Middle East and Africa in the press and social media, not those fleeing the Nazis. Perhaps Rev. Niemoller’s cry about speaking out for the ones everyone is speaking against before there’s no one left to speak out for you will make itself heard through the din. Now the Germans are calling for the EU to divide up the refugees teeming (and dying) on its shores somehow equally, and take care of them. [Note: NOT migrants – they haven’t left their home countries by choice – nor are they likely to be able to return any time soon. They’re seeking refuge. The hint’s in the name.] 
Now there are a lot of reasons Germany is better equipped economically and otherwise to absorb a large number of refugees than Greece or some of the other member states. [An argument might be made that supporting large-scale refugee intake programmes in Greece in exchange for – I dunno – debt relief maybe, makes a lot of sense. It’s for another blog, however.] The quartet that gets on my nerves right now are the so-called Visegrad states: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. These countries are fighting both against the tide of refugees, but against EU efforts to address the issue. The former US ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Kounalakis, wrote an interesting NY Times editorial on the matter this week  in which she asserts that the Hungarian authorities have been stirring up anti-refugee sentiment since this crisis was in its infancy. The thing is, these countries have had native populations of Roma (aka ‘gypsies’ – a derogatory term) for centuries. When one speaks of the 11 million victims of the Holocaust, Jews made up the majority at six million, but the number of Romani victims is variously estimated at between 220,000 to 1,500,000. Since WWII, the Visegrad countries have made little or no effort to integrate this group into society, regularly demonising them and occasionally going so far as to engage in forced sterilisation. [Oddly similar to how the US has treated poor African Americans at various times and how Australia has treated its aboriginal population. Homework: Compare and contrast.] The main issue is that parties in these countries already have a history of demagoguing an underclass to cover for their various stances and policies. Or simply to whip up hate and drum up votes. We’re doing it in the US right now, and my adopted home of the Netherlands has its own bastards in this regard. They’re all playing the same game that’s epitomised in a joke making the rounds: A billionaire, six white unemployed white people, a black person stand at a table with a dozen donuts. The billionaire takes eleven donuts and tells the white people, ‘Look out – the black guy’s gonna take your donut.’
  Many Hungarians and people all over the world who are addressing refugee crises [we haven’t seen much of the US border with Mexico in the press lately, but trust me, that situation hasn’t changed] know what needs to be done now – normal people are offering up their homes and resources to help people in need. Of course these aren’t the ones in the news. While we have to hear from the Viktor Orbans, Donald Trumps, Nigel Farages, Petra Laszlos, and Rita Verdonks of the world first, we’ve danced this dance before and really don’t need to dance it again.

Adventures this week included a wander around central Innsbruck, Austria and a visit to Das Geigenbaumuseum (violin museum) in Mittenwald, Germany. 

In Innsbruck, Rachel took note of a plaque that honoured the Allied soldiers who liberated the city and Austria itself. ‘There’s a difference,’ she said, ‘between liberation and defeat.’ In the 30s, two of the main parties vying for control of the Austrian parliament with the Christian Socialists (also known as the Austrofascists) and the Nationial Socialists. When it looked like the National Socialists were going to win 40% of the vote in Innsbruck, Engelbert Dollfuss and the Austrofascists banned state and municipal elections. While Dolfuss was against reunification with Germany as long as the Nazis were in power, he was allied with Mussolini. His successor Kurt Schuschnigg (1934–1938) also maintained an anti-unificaiton stance, while also maintaining Dolfuss’ Catholic corporatist policies. Yes, the Nazis marched on Austria in 1938 and installed a puppet governmnent, but did so to cheering crowds. (Note: while all this info is nicked from Wikipedia, I’m entirely open to especially this last generalisation being shown as incorrect.)

So what are we doing in Germany and Austria? Our plan this year was to holiday in Scotland – enjoy a week of the Fringe and maybe drive about and taste some whisky. When the euro crashed, we decided to stay in the eurozone. We wrapped our holiday around my desire to re-visit Fussen, home of two of Mad King Ludwig’s crazy castles. In advance of that, we’re spending a week in Seefeld, Austria mostly hiking, taking in the spas, and enjoying the fact that mountains exist somewhere (just not in the Netherlands, where we spend most of the year. 

Back to Mittenwald and the museum: Interesting exhibits, but a dearth of postcards. The museum provides a history of the town by way the families who established the town as an instrument-making center in post-Renaissance central Europe as well as by description of the town as a trading centre between Italy and points north.

Rachel wasn’t interested in the violin museum, and I wasn’t keen on the Leutasch Geisterklamm (Leutasch Spirit Gorge) walk that she wanted to do. Metal walkways anchored several hundred feet up the side of a mountain – not so keen, me. I’d done a chair lift the day before and feel I have appeased the deities of my acrophobia for this trip. So I left Rachel at the entrance to her walk and drove the four kilometres to Mittenwald where we planned to meet a few hours later. 
  The museum is on Ballenhausgasse – as far as I can figure, Ballenhaus is the local equivalent of a customs warehouse where trade goods are stored until duties are paid. This makes some sense as the Ballenhaus is about 80 metres down the lane (Gasse) with a plaque on the wall. Both the house in which the museum is located and the balllenhaus are about 300 years old. 

The museum takes up two floors. The upper floor displays are concerned with the actual instruments, their makers, and the various processes used to create them. The ground floor’s are mostly concerned with the town’s and the museum’s history and are punctuated with banners containing text in German and in English. My interest in the entire experience took a dive with one particular text covering the history of museum. It was founded in 1930 and moved to its current location in 1960. Apropos of little, the display indicates that until 1938, Ballenhausgasse had been called Judengasse. Does that mean what I think it means? The word wasn’t translated on the English column of text. Yes. Jews Lane. 

Perhaps no explanation, beyond the year of the change, is really necessary. On the other hand, towns, villages, and cities all over this part of the world had thriving Jewish communities. And then they didn’t. The obliteration of the people in these places is a matter of established record. I don’t believe it’s been long enough to excuse with a mere, ‘Well, naming the street for the building just made more civic sense.’ The grafitti artists of Seefeld, 20 kilometres away know that fascism and its attendant horrors are a continuous threat.