The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels
Newsletters ● 1999 ● July
In this issue:
- What's New on the Secular Web?
- Upcoming events
- Book of the month
- Internet Infidel of the Month
- No takers for Internet Infidel debate
- Pseudoanonymous writer poses as bishop
- Falwell warns: Lilith Fair based on "demonic legend"
- "See Change" Campaign underway
- Misremembering the past: prayer in schools no social panacea
- Sociologist finds Christians no more moral than non-Christians
- Feature: Pat Robertson reorganizes, chases gold, and bashes gays
Eric Roode wires you into news affecting freethinkers everywhere. Get wired.
Added Review of Psychic Medium Van Praagh on CNN's Larry King Live by Joe Nickell to the Paranormal section of the Modern Library.
Beginning in July, we're going to recognize an "Internet Infidel of the Month", an outstanding person whose contributions have had an enormous impact on the Secular Web as well as the freethought, atheist, agnostic, and humanist community at large. See our first award winner below.
- Celebration: Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall, July 2-4, Talladega, AL, USA
- Lecture and Panel: "Parapsychology: Status and Future Prospects," July 16, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK, Victor Stenger, Christopher French, Caroline Watt, Stanley Jeffers, Richard Wiseman, and others. E-mail Wayne Spencer for details.
- Convention: Freedom From Religion Foundation, July 30-31, San Francisco, CA, USA. E-mail Dan Barker or call +1 (608) 256-8900 for more information.
- Conference: "Science and God", Society of Humanist Philosophers, September 25-26, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA. E-mail or call (800) 446-6198, Ext. 311.
Two books for July!
Edited by John Leslie
Did the universe originate from a "big bang" as argued by leading astrophysicists and others? Or does some other theory more accurately describe its beginnings? Are there other forms of life in the universe? What about other universes? This volume discusses these and other topics in this hotly debated area where philosophy and science meet.
- Order the 1999 paperback now for $15.96 from Amazon.com (USA)
- Order the 1999 paperback now for £11.06 from Amazon.co.uk (UK)
By Lee Smolin
Internet Infidels' Review:
Lee Smolin is not afraid to think big--really, really big. His theory of cosmic evolution by the natural selection of black-hole universes makes what we can experience into an infinitesimal, yet crucial, part of an ever-larger whole. Smolin says, "the new view of the universe is light, in all its senses, because what Darwin has given us, and what we may aspire to generalize to the cosmos as a whole, is a way of thinking about the world which is scientific and mechanistic, but in which the occurrence of novelty--indeed, the perpetual birth of novelty--can be understood." Other scientists are, to say the least, divided on whether Smolin has much chance of being right, but they agree with Paul Davies that he is "a deep and original thinker."
- Order the 1997 paperback now for $13.56 from Amazon.com (USA)
- Order the 1997 paperback now for £6.39 from Amazon.co.uk (UK)
Helping you to sip from the information firehose
Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring to you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. This month mathew examines the secret religious origins of breakfast cereal, the weird science of Nikola Tesla, eternal life rings, teleportation devices, the reanimation of decaying corpses, and how to build your own UFO. Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan?
Beginning in July, we're going to recognize an "Internet Infidel of the Month", an outstanding person whose contributions have had an enormous impact on the Secular Web as well as the freethought, atheist, agnostic, and humanist community at large. We encourage you, our readers, to submit nominees to us as Contact. Each month, we will pick one outstanding person who has helped to educate others about secularism on the web. Our first pick is activist and writer Mathew Murphy, who goes simply by his first name "mathew" online.
Way back in the Internet's infancy during the early 90s, mathew played a pivotal role in successfully communicating atheism and critical thinking to the online community. He authored and maintained the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on the usenet group news:alt.atheism and his introduction to logic is still read widely today. He has also delighted hundreds of readers with his entertaining and informative column web.scan, published monthly on the Secular Web. We're pleased to make mathew our first Internet Infidel of the Month!
Welcome to two new volunteers! Richard Carrier, Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University and Stephen F. Roberts, web guru and IRC moderator have come on board as feedback editor and bookstore editor, respectively. We are very lucky to have them and their considerable talents will ensure that the Secular Web remains the preeminent secular site on the web.
The Council for Secular Humanism is trying to arrange a debate between Internet Infidel President Jeffery Jay Lowder and a willing theist at the September 24-25 conference of the Society of Humanist Philosophers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The debate topic will be "Naturalism vs. Theism: Where Does the Evidence Point?"
Up against a July 9 deadline, CSH organizer Anthony Battaglia has been unable to find a theist who is willing to debate Lowder. Battaglia has been in contact with several prominent theists who might be willing to debate, but no one has accepted the invitation so far. If an opponent is not found by July 9, the debate will be rescheduled.
For more information, contact Anthony Battaglia (cfianthony), Council for Secular Humanism, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226. 716/ 636-7571, ext 311.
A pseudoanonymous writer, posing as the Right Reverend John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, sent us a dire letter last month. The writer warned that a fundamentalist group named "Alliance for Anglican Renewal" and led by Anglican priest Aelred Stephens in Cambridge, UK plans to exhume Charles Darwin's body from Westminster Abbey for reburial on his family property in Down. The writer also insisted that Stephens was a Lecturer in Theology at Cambridge University's distinguished Gonville & Caius College.
The letter is perhaps the best spoof we've received yet, containing precise details, citations, names, and places. However, since we regularly receive forged letters we were skeptical of this one right away. Internet Infidel Bill Schultz investigated the matter and discovered that not only is there no group calling itself the Alliance for Anglican Renewal, but that there is no Aelred Stephens on the faculty at Cambridge either. (A followup search revealed an "A. Stephens" in the student directory of Queens' College, however.)
We also sent a message to Bishop Spong's secretary in Newark. She told us that Spong has no personal e-mail address but that she receives e-mails on his behalf. She assured us that the letter was not from him.
Further, we were unable to verify the truth of the pseudoanonymous letter writer's central claim, namely, that fundamentalists are lobbying to move Darwin's body from Westminster Abbey.
First Falwell was troubled by a cute little teletubby whom he thinks is gay. Now it's independent women musicians.
The June issue of televangelist Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal contains an article headlined, "Secrets of the Lilith Fair" that warns parents about the so-called demonic legend behind the popular Lilith Fair concert series.
Lilith Fair, featuring some of the nation's best women musicians, was launched by singer Sarah McLachlan in 1997. It spanned 37 cities that summer and was the top-grossing festival that year, according to Pollstar, a concert trade magazine. The fair is "a great example of strong women out there doing something they love, doing something really positive," said McLachlan.
Positive? Not according to Falwell's National Liberty Journal. "With the Lilith Fair concerts drawing such media attention in its third year, National Liberty Journal is presenting this article as an information tool to parents who may not wish their children to participate in a music festival that celebrates a pagan figure," the magazine warned darkly. "Many young people no doubt attend the Lilith Fair concerts not knowing the demonic legend of the mystical woman whose name the series manifests."
Lilith is a figure from ancient Hebrew mythology who takes on a variety of forms. According to various mythologies, she has been called Adam's first wife, a fiery, female spirit and a wild-haired, winged seductress who tempts men in their sleep. Some see her as the first feminist because of her independent ways.
Carole Shields, president of the People For the American Way Foundation, reacted to the National Liberty Journal article by offering to purchase Rev. Falwell a ticket to the popular concert series. "But he'll have to come to Washington, because I don't think the tour is going through Lynchburg," Shields said.
Catholics for a Free Choice has started a "See Change" Campaign to call on the UN Secretary General to review the church's current status as a Non-member State Permanent Observer. The Roman Catholic church is the only religion that has this level of representation at the UN. The group would like the church's status to be changed to "NGO" or non-governmental organization. Supporter Janet Brazill said that Catholics for a Free Choice has received endorsements from over 60 human and womens' rights organizations as well as the American Humanist Association.
"We believe that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world's other religions do--as a non-governmental organization," said advocate Denise Riley. The Holy See has been enormously influential at the United Nations in preventing birth control education programs from being funded in developing countries. No other major religion enjoys the political access to the general assembly that the Catholic Church does because the Church is organized as both an autonomous government and a church.
Proponents of the campaign urge everyone to sign a postcard at https://seechange.org asking Secretary-General Kofi Annan to open an official review of the Holy See's status at the UN.
In the early years of this century, while there was still prayer in public schools, we saw the first stag movies, racial segregation was enforced, and lynchings were common in the Bible Belt. Big cities were ripped by the submachine-gun fire of gangland wars, and the heartland was preyed on by megacrooks John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. We lost scores of thousands to a flu epidemic, and the Great Depression impoverished millions.
But since prayer has been barred from public classrooms, we have eliminated smallpox and polio, ended segregation, enjoyed repeated boom times, won scads of Nobel Prizes for medicine, seen ever more kids be graduated from high school and college and routed godless communism.
This exercise in selective memory and the willful muddling of coincidence with cause and effect is by way of suggesting that the pleas for returning prayer to public schools, animated by the two recent schoolhouse shooting sprees, promise more delusion than hope.
The pleas are heartfelt. (Unless you count the radio commercials the ever-hustling Christian Coalition is running in key presidential primary states Iowa and New Hampshire.) Puzzled, distressed and caught in a cacophony of agendas, we look for an easy out. For many, having public school pupils pray seems just the thing.
That seems so in part because we misremember the past and misread the present.
It is now widely assumed that prayer and Bible readings were universal in public classrooms before the Supreme Court in 1963, as the hype has it, "threw God out of the schools.'' In fact, a 1960 survey found that only five states required Bible reading. Eleven had declared the practice unconstitutional -- Illinois as early as 1910. Many schools in states that allowed prayer and Bible reading practiced neither.
And, contrary to what the hellfire-and-brimstone politicians would have you think, America is flat-out the most religious developed nation.
A survey of 60 nations found that 44 percent of Americans attend religious services weekly. Our closest competitors are the Canadians at 38 percent. Most other nations are in the 20s, with some as low as 5 or even 2 percent. Another measure: 84 percent of Americans believe in heaven; only 31 percent of Germans and 27 percent of the French do.
About two-thirds of us belong to a congregation, up from 59 percent in the fabled 1950s -- and incomparably more than the 17 percent affiliation in 1776 when, as tendentious legend mangles history, we are wrongly said to have been founded as "a Christian nation.''
Our careful separation of church and state has been an incomparable boon to religion. To rail now that what ails us -- and something always ails us, after all -- could be fixed if only the government had children recite faithless pseudo-prayers is to counsel illusion and seed bitterness and nurture futility. A faux, state-run piety would be an insult to the honest faith at which Americans excel.
[Tom Teepen is a syndicated columnist for Cox News Service. Reprinted with his permission.]
This comes up sometimes in debates: morally and practically, are Christians better off than non-Christians?
I just read George Barna's book, The Second Coming Of The Church (Word Publishing, 1998). Barna is a born-again Christian, sociologist, founder and president of Barna Research Group, which releases many meaningful survey results.
Barna reports some frank statistics showing how the present church has "failed" in its mission. The numbers are based on his own studies, and other national studies. On page 6 he gives a table: "Examples of the Similarity of Behavior Between Christians and Non-Christians." Some of the 25 items on this list include:
Category Born-again Christians Non-Christians Have been divorced (among those who have been married) 27% 23% Gave money to a homeless person or poor person, in past year 24% 34% Took drugs or medication prescribed for depression, in past year 7% 8% Watched an X-rated movie in the past 3 months 9% 16% Read all or part of a book for pleasure, in the past week 50% 57% Donated any money to a nonprofit organization, in past month 47% 48% Bought a lottery ticket, in the past week 23% 27% Attended a community meeting on local issue, in past year 37% 42%
On page 121, he gives another table, "Examples of the Similarity of Attitudes Between Christians and non-Christians":
Category Born-again Christians Non-Christians Attended a community meeting on local issue, in past year 37% 42% Feel completely or very successful in life 58% 49% It is impossible to get ahead because of your financial debt 33% 39% You are still trying to figure out the purpose of your life 36% 47% Satisfied with your life these days 69% 68% Your personal financial situation is getting better 27% 28%
Barna concludes: "We think and behave no differently from anyone else." [p. 7] He also sheds some light on the definition of "God" that most Americans claim to believe in:
"Since more than nine out of ten Americans own at least one Bible, and 86 percent call themselves Christian, you might expect people to pay homage to the deity described and followed by the Christian Church. In July 1997, we asked a nationwide sample of 1,012 adults to describe the God they believe in. Two out of three adults (67 percent) said they believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe who rules the world today. The remaining one-third described their god as 'the total realization of personal, human potential'; or 'a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach'; or said, 'Everyone is God'; 'There are many gods, each with different power and authority'; or 'There is no such thing as God.' The remaining 5 percent said they did not know" (pp. 25-26).
So, according to Barna, one American out of three does not really believe in "God" at all.
[Dan Barker is Communications Director of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.]
Pat Robertson reorganizes, chases gold, and bashes gays
Everything blew up in televangelist Pat Robertson's face last month. Robertson is the founder of the Christian Coalition, a U.S.-based religious right group desiring to restrict the rights of gays and lesbians, to dismantle the Department of Education, to rewrite the First Amendment, and to influence the Republican Party's platform. He said famously at the 1992 Republican National Convention that "feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." Robertson spun the coalition out of his 1988 failed Presidential bid as Republican nominee, salvaging the mailing list and organization from that race to attract right-leaning voters to the coalition. By 1993 it had 900,000 members in 870 chapters in all fifty states, a database of 1.6 million people believed to be sympathetic to the organization, and an annual budget of over $12 million.
First, the coalition must reorganize in an attempt to remain viable in the wake of an Internal Revenue Service rejection of its application for tax-exempt status. The New York Times reported that coalition spokesman Mike Russell announced that the coalition would split into two groups. The first group will be called "Christian Coalition International" with a mission to engage in the political arena to include party- and candidate-advocacy. The second group will be called the "Christian Coalition of America" and promises to stick to nonbiased voter educational issues. Under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, organizations who accept contributions from supporters do not have to pay income tax on monies collected. However, to close campaign finance law loopholes, organizations approved under 501(c)(4) are not allowed to engage in "substantial" political activities nor can they endorse a specific party or candidate. The coalition has come under fire in recent elections for distributing voter guides that distort issues in order to endorse Republican Party candidates. For example, in the contentious 1994 Senate race between coalition favorite and Republican candidate Oliver North and Democrat Charles Robb, the coalition's voter guide stated that Robb favored "Government-financed obscenity" because he supported the National Endowment for the Arts. The coalition is headquartered in Chesapeake, Virginia.
From its inception the coalition has attacked the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), believing it to be a patron for gays and lesbians. In 1990, the coalition took out full-age advertisements in prominent newspapers warning, "There may be more homosexuals and pedophiles in your [voting] district than there are Catholics and Baptists." The ad went on to say that the NEA, with the approval of a Democratic Congress, was using government money to teach the sons of "working folks" to sodomize one another. Working through evangelical churches in local communities, the coalition managed to organize the campaigns of candidates who fit the "pro-family" profile: pro-life, conservative Christian, pro-gun, anti-government, and anti-intellectual.
Executive Director Ralph Reed recognized that the failure of the religious right during the eighties consisted in reaching for too much centralized power in Washington rather than at the local level in city councils and school boards. "What Christians have got to do," Reed insisted in 1990, "is to take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time and one state at a time." But it had to be done carefully. The lessons of Falwell's Moral Majority were that voters did not appreciate heavy-handed morality and wanted their elected representatives to remain neutral about religious matters. Reed engineered "stealth candidacy" as a result. Stealth candidates were those who refused to divulge their hidden agenda and often refused to admit publicly that, for example, if elected to the local school board, they planned to introduce creation science into the school curriculum. The coalition warned its activists never to mention the coalition by name in Republican circles so as to avoid calling attention to their efforts.
Another important factor in the success of coalition-backed stealth candidates was low voter turnout. Over sixty percent of eligible voters do not even bother to vote in general elections. In local elections, where voters often do not care or bother to inform themselves about county commissioners, town council seats, or school boards, voter turnout is even worse so that all it took was a block of several hundred like-minded voters to get a stealth candidate into office. Working through prominent evangelical churches in the local communities, the coalition used church membership mailing lists to register voters and to direct these voters to support the coalition-backed candidate.
In a patriotic July 4, 1991 fund-raising letter Robertson wrote:
"We at the Christian Coalition are raising an army who cares. We are training people to be effective--to be elected to school boards, to city councils, to state legislatures and to key positions in political parties . . . . By the end of this decade, if we work and give and organize and train, the Christian Coalition will be the most powerful political organization in America."
The war metaphor was intentional. Robertson likens the coalition to an Army of God and calls their struggle a "spiritual battle" against the "Satanic forces", the so-called "elite" that embrace communism and who control the country.
But there has been a vacuum in the leadership ever since the charismatic Ralph Reed left in 1997 as Executive Director of the coalition. This year alone, four top officials have either resigned or were asked to leave the organization. In early June, Robertson demoted Randy Tate, Reed's successor, and plans to take over the day-to-day operations of the coalition himself, suggesting that the coalition is in bigger trouble than insiders admit. With the rejection of their tax-exempt application to the IRS, it is unclear whether churches will continue to distribute coalition guides or to allow coalition members to speak during worship services. Association with a political group could jeopardize a church's own tax-exempt status since churches are not allowed to advocate or engage in any political activities under current tax laws.
Second, Robertson damaged what little moral integrity he has left when he entered into an agreement with Liberian warlord Charles Taylor to allow Robertson's company, Freedom Gold Limited, to mine for gold in the Bukon Jedeh region of Liberia. In December 1998, Robertson formed the company offshore in the Caymen Islands and listed himself as the company's president and sole director.
Liberia has been in a bloody civil war since 1989 with an insurrection against then-President Samuel Doe by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Human rights observers have reported extensively on the atrocities that took place during the seven years of fighting, including the killing, torture and forced labor of Liberian civilians. Taylor considers himself to be a "man of God", removing and killing his own cabinet members whom he felt did not serve God. According to Amnesty International and reports by the United States Department of State "Liberian Country Report on Human Rights Practices," of Liberia's 2.7 million people, more than half are now refugees and internally displaced and more than 150,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed.
"Clearly, Robertson's greed knows no bounds," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), a Religious Right watchdog group. "This gold-mining deal with a vicious tyrant is shocking even by his standards." Lynn went on to add that "if there's profit to be made, it seems Robertson doesn't care who he has to deal with. Despite all the rhetoric and grandstanding, this deal shows Robertson is more interested in money than morality."
According to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot the new financial deal will need ratification from the Liberian legislature. If it passes, the country's government will receive a 10 percent equity interest in Robertson's gold-mining company. After an exploration period, 15 percent of shares in the company will be available to Liberian investors.
AU reports that Robertson's interest in African mining is nothing new. In the early 1990s, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko gave Robertson diamond-mining rights in Zaire (now Congo). That enterprise ultimately led to a Virginia state investigation when two pilots reported that Robertson's relief planes, intended for humanitarian purposes, were actually diverted to transport mining equipment instead. The results of that investigation are still pending, but the two pilots allege that Robertson routinely mixed nonprofit charity funds with his for-profit ventures.
As if his first two troubles were not enough, Robertson also caused an uproar on May 18 by claiming on his 700 Club television show that Scotland was a "dark land" under the influence of homosexuals. Religious, academic, union, and gay rights groups protested what was one more in a long line of extremist remarks from Robertson. Officials at the Bank of Scotland, who had been negotiating with Robertson to provide banking services in the U.S., scuttled the deal after losing over 500 accounts. The London Times reported that the nonprofit organization West Lothian Council closed its £250 million (U.S. $400 million) account with the bank over its association with Robertson.
"The Scottish people said they want nothing to do with religious political extremism," observed Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "They repudiated Robertson's bigotry and intolerance. Americans should take a lesson from the Scots. "Concluding this deal," continued Lynn, "proved as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster."
Robertson's greed has a long and sordid past. People for the American Way write:
"Ten for-profit businesses have also sprung from the non-profit CBN, including the tremendously successful International Family Entertainment (IFE), which owns the Family Channel, founded in 1977, and MTM Entertainment, a production company that holds the rights to a host of syndicated programs. The Family Channel, which airs the "700 Club" twice daily, reaches 58 million homes through 10,000 cable systems . Robertson recently sold IFE to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Kidsworldwide (FKW) for nearly a billion dollars - some of which came in the form of a new series of preferred stock of FKW. Robertson also owns an airplane charter company, a travel agency, a radio station, a luxury hotel, a news delivery service, a company that produces family films, and Kalovita, which sells toiletries."
Kalo-Vita is a multi-level marketing operation that spun out of a previous MLM con game called American Benefits Plus (ABP). In violation of the law, Robertson diverted $3 million from his nonprofit Christian Broadcasting Network to ABP to start it up. The idea was simple: you buy coupon books from Robertson (at the top of the pyramid) and sell them to other distributors in the food chain below you. Robertson promised monthly earnings upwards of $20,000 a month, however, the scheme soon collapsed leaving everyone but Robertson holding the bag. Robertson was forced to abandon ABP and reorganized it as Kalo-Vita, another MLM modeled after Amway. Hundreds of Robertson's distributors were stuck with thousands of dollars of worthless coupon books, which Robertson refused to buy back despite his earlier promises to do otherwise.
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Copyright ©1999 Internet Infidels, Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Internet Infidels' newsletter "ii" is a general information publication only. Internet Infidels, Inc. takes no position on the issues expressed herein and all opinions are the sole responsibility of their respective authors.