From the Department of the Obvious: “Churches use Facebook, Twitter to help tell Gospel story”

December 22, 2011

It’s a slow news day if they need filler like this. From The Observer & Eccentric:

God used angels more than 2,000 years ago to announce the birth of Jesus.

Today, churches are using Facebook, Twitter and other modern technology to help spread the Gospel message.

Though the message is the same — God loves everyone so much he sent his only son to save them — the way that message is delivered has changed over the centuries.

“We definitely see social media as one of the languages of the culture (now),” said Josh Isenhardt, 30, social media pastor at NorthRidge Church in Plymouth Township. This generation considers Facebook a modern-day town square. “Why wouldn’t we have a presence there?”

If you Google “Second Life Church” you’ll get a fair number of hits. Images, too. I don’t know how many people dived into that game wholeheartedly, but it’s not hard to imagine that some of them used it as an opportunity to proselytize in virtual neighbourhoods as they set up worship sites there. Landover Baptist mocks this approach, but via World of Warcraft:

“…the real True Christians™ pick the Horde to play as characters and start their guilds in Horde territory because they like the challenge of sharing Christ’s message in a perilous, lava-soaked, environment. Sometimes you have to pester people for weeks before they listen to you. I followed some stupid gnome around for 8-hours until he finally told me that he would accept Jesus as his Personal Savior if I would just shut up and promise not to contact him anymore. Now that rocks! Praise God!”

Of course they’ll use whatever popular social outlet exists in order to spread their message. They’ll go where the people are and Facebook alone has more than 800 million users. A large chunk of that may already be Christian but others won’t, and some will be the wrong flavour of Christian in need of correcting.

NorthRidge added a virtual campus this year. It has a brick and mortar campus in Plymouth Township, and meets in schools in Saline and Howell.

In the virtual campus, members from around the country and world simultaneously visit the church’s website (northridgechurch.com) at 7 p.m. Sunday to watch a rebroadcast of the weekend service and participate in a live-time chat room, even praying for each other.

“Church online is for those people who are not ready to step into the physical location,” Isenhardt said.

I got hooked on the internet back in 1995 while in university. Friends set me up on these things called “talkers” which were telnet based on-line hangouts. In its heyday, the one called Resort had a hundred or so logged on at any given moment of the day and an overall population of around 10,000. Maybe more. This was before most people even understood what the internet was or wanted access to it. Maybe it was happening to others but I don’t recall anyone trying to lure me to Christ in all the hours I used those places — they were too busy propositioning me for net-sex. I still keep in touch (via Facebook) with a few spods I net-friended back in the day, too.

The internet is large enough for any type of person to find a group that fits his or her interests, be they religious, or political, or controversial, or down right nuts. And if that group doesn’t seem to exist, it’s easily created and will get found by others who need it eventually. For example, atheist-based internet hangouts have been a boon to those in areas where their lack of belief would make them targets for abuse or worse. The internet is a hell of a good thing for atheists. It’s not always easy to get together in person but if enough people are reading a particular blog or aggregate, it creates a sorely-needed sense of community. And not only that — look at all the money atheist reddit users raised for Doctors Without Borders: $203,000. Talk about awesome.

Yet with all the modern technology available to churches today, nothing will take the place of people personally talking to their family and friends about Jesus and inviting them to go to church with them, Rose said. “At the end of the day there’s one best way (to spread the Gospel message) and that’s being involved in the life of your neighbors.”

True for atheists/humanists as well. I missed out on a Freethinker pubnight last night, alas, but I was too busy packing and sorting out things for my upcoming trip home for Christmas. I hope we manage to lure some more people into our group next year, not just as token members who rarely participate, but some who really want to be active and involved with what we’re doing. We have a great group and I’d like to see it get even better.


Io Saturnalia!!

December 17, 2011

Instead of Festivus this year, Saskatoon Freethinkers chose to celebrate the ancient traditions of the Roman festival known as Saturnalia. Including gift giving.

Originally the gifts were symbolic candles and clay dolls – sigillaria – purchased at a colonnaded market called Sigillaria which was located in the Colonnade of the Argonauts, later in one of the Colonnades of Trajan’s Baths. Something similar is still practiced in Rome’s Piazza Navona today. Gifts which could also include food items such as pickled fish, sausages, beans, olives, figs, prunes, nuts and cheap wine as well as small amounts of money grew to be more extravagant over time – small silver objects were typical – as did their acquisition. How modern the first century writer Seneca sounds when he complains about the shopping season: “Decembris used to be a month; now it’s a whole year.” At the same time, Martialis may have been the first sage to remark “The only wealth you keep forever is that which you give away.”

I missed the note about bringing a gift for exchanging but fortunately a few people brought extras. I came home with cupcakes and cast-off smelly candles someone didn’t want. I also took home a couple pieces of the fabulous cake ordered for the party:

Those of you in the Saskatoon area would do well to consider contacting Cakes By Jen next time you want something awesome for your celebration. That thing was gingerbread and the best cake I’ve eaten in ages!!

All in all a good time. We skipped out on sacrificing animals (beyond the wings and the ribs) but koinosuke did something quite unique instead, an anti-sacrifice. She bought chicks.

Looking for unique gift ideas to give friends, family members, or teachers? Plan Canada’s Gifts of Hope directly benefit girls by ensuring they receive nourishment, education, and a safe environment.

Give a Gift of Hope on behalf of someone close to you and change the world for a girl. In turn, she’ll work to raise the standard of living for herself, her family and her community.

Your gift comes with either a personalized printed card or eCard that lets the recipient know the difference that is being made in their name.

The three birds will be raised by women who’ll be able to sell their eggs for a bit of income later on. Consider this kind of thing for that person on your list who already has everything.

Unrelated, but good news: left hand typing has become doable again. I can’t believe how much I’ve missed blogging. The angle winds up a tad awkward so I think posts might still have to be short ones but you should see my fingers go. Hooray! Progress!


Religious Canadians distrust atheists, too…

December 2, 2011

… going by results of a recent study published in the Vancouver Sun, at least.

Religious believers distrust atheists more than members of other religious groups, gays and feminists, according to a new study by University of B.C. researchers.

The only group the study’s participants distrusted as much as atheists was rapists, said doctoral student Will Gervais, lead author of the study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

That prejudice had a significant impact on what kinds of jobs people said they would hire atheists to do.

“People are willing to hire an atheist for a job that is perceived as low-trust, for instance as a waitress,” said Gervais. “But when hiring for a high-trust job like daycare worker, they were like, nope, not going to hire an atheist for that job.”

The antipathy does not seem to run both ways, though. Atheists are indifferent to religious belief when it comes to deciding who is trustworthy.

“Atheists don’t necessarily favour other atheists over Christians or anyone else,” he said. “They seem to think that religion is not an important signal for who you can trust.”

I’d agree with that last line. Ideally one’s religion (or lack of) won’t even come into play when it comes to deciding who you can count on. Morality and ethics are not the sole (soul?) property of one particular group, religious or not. I wonder if people who are religious get cause and effect mixed up a bit sometimes. Their religion might not be the reason they’re good, just, honest people. They might have been that way even if they didn’t have a religious explanation to fall back on. Can’t turn back the clock and send them down a different future to test that, sadly, but exposure to religion might not be the main reason a person’s decent anyway. What if it has more to do with who their parents were and knew and what sort of upbringing and education they were able to get besides that? I think it really comes down to the kind of person you are, regardless of the kind of beliefs you hold. It’s hardly the only trait with merit.

Gervais was surprised that people harbour such strong feelings about a group that is hard to see or identify. He opines that religious believers are just more comfortable with other people who believe a deity with the power to reward and punish is watching them.

I’d bet a cookie that it has to do with the same fear that Invasion of the Body Snatchers preyed upon back in 1956. Communists were feared not just because of their ideologies but because you couldn’t tell just by looking who was a commie. They could be anyone! Some probably would like it if every atheist stamped themselves with the big red A and relieved the confusion. That would almost be useful though; then when atheists inevitably stop getting served at various restaurants, or get fired, they could argue in court that it’s account of their atheism. And perhaps win. But anyway, on with the article.

“If you believe your behaviour is being watched [by God] you are going to be on your best behaviour,” said Gervais. “But that wouldn’t apply for an atheist. That would allow people to use religious belief as a signal for how trustworthy a person is.”

Not just the thought of God watching, though. Other studies have been done showing how behaviour varies no matter what people think is watching, be it eyes by the “On your Honour” tea kitty or an invisible princess who might see you cheat at a game and report you.

Religious belief is known to have a variety of social functions. Past research has found that common religious beliefs can promote cooperation within groups.

Sure, but humans aren’t the only creatures on this planet that know how to cooperate in a group. Ants and termites can do it. Birds do it every day when they take wing suddenly, seemingly on cue. Many animals act as a team to take down their prey. Prey will often cooperate to avoid that. It might be possible to make the case that cooperation is simply an evolutionary by-product of herd/group living. Some might be better or worse at it, of course, and maybe in humans it made sense to further encourage cooperation by adding religious thought-processes into the mix. Animals don’t always cooperate, either. If you have two bulls after the same cow, neither will yield gracefully. Maybe religion has more to do with creating a means to combat our selfish instincts. Maybe the bigger pity is that it does take the fear of hell to make some people do the right thing.

Gervais started his line of inquiry about the exclusion of atheists after seeing a Gallup poll that suggested the majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate. Gervais and his colleagues conducted a series of six studies on a group of 350 American adults and a group 420 UBC students.

But even in more secular Canada, distrust of atheists ran high.

“We see consistently strong effects,” he said. “Even here in Vancouver, our student participants still say atheists are really untrustworthy.”

I got this story from friend and fellow Freethinker koinosuke, who’s made the point at various Sask Skeptic‘s pub nights that it’s always better to find the actual study and read it, but not all of us have that kind of dedication to the truth, I guess. Or the time. Or the ability to parse what’s hidden in there, for that matter. What I’m curious about with this is where these respondents got their information about atheists being untrustworthy. Not from actual/known-to-be atheists, probably. Where did they develop this bias? In terms of the students in Canada, where were they born? It’s probably the same everywhere, but universities in Canada are notorious for luring foreign money students over. I don’t know where I’d find the statistics on it, but I think Vancouver has a pretty high ratio of immigrants to “natives”, as well. If most came from countries that are typically anti-atheist, that’ll skew the results. If most were born here, where exactly? Some areas of the country are a lot more religious than others. Hell, some towns are super devout compared to a town 20 minutes away. There’s a lot of variation.

It definitely points to signs that atheist groups need to work a bit harder in the Vancouver area, and the rest of the country, too. Even though people like to say the opinions of others shouldn’t matter, I don’t particularly like the idea of strangers making that kind of assumption about me without evidence for it. It’s a stereotype that needs a serious shooting down.


Reader writes: “How was James Brayshaw?”

November 26, 2011

My reply: Whoops. This Man having has really cut down on my blogging time. Also it’s dark in the mornings and I’ve gotten lazy in terms of getting up early to write. None of those are good reasons to forget to write about an interesting Saskatoon Freethinker’s meetup, mind you. I’m just saying.

So yeah, James Brayshaw. I don’t know how well known he is, but he’s published three books so far on the history of the idea of Satan in Christianity/Judaism and a fourth book is planned for release next year. These are incredibly detailed volumes going back to the earliest of the Biblical writings, looking at the history of Babylonia, Persia and every other place the early storytellers and writers would have put their feet up after a long desert slog. His new one, Who’s the Devil Jesus Knew, looks at the notion of Satan throughout the New Testament. I don’t think he said what the fourth would focus on.

He’s not the only one doing research into the contextual history of the Bible but he was the one easiest for us to get, being somewhat local. He mentioned a few of his sources during his talk, specifically a book called The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels and earlier writers like Celsus that she quoted. (Breaks added)

What makes the Christians’ message dangerous, Celsus writes, is not that they believe in one God, but that they deviate from monotheism by their “blasphemous” belief in the devil. For all the “impious errors” the Christians commit, Celsus says, they show their greatest ignorance in “making up a being opposed to God, and calling him ‘devil,’ or, in the Hebrew language, ‘Satan.’ ” All such ideas, Celsus declares, are nothing but human inventions, sacrilegious even to repeat: “it is blasphemy … to say that the greatest God … has an adversary who constrains his capacity to do good.”

Celsus is outraged that the Christians, who claim to worship one God, “impiously divide the kingdom of God, creating a rebellion in it, as if there were opposing factions within the divine, including one that is hostile to God!”” Celsus accuses Christians of “inventing a rebellion” (stasis meaning “sedition”) in heaven to justify rebellion here on earth. He accuses them of making a “statement of rebellion” by refusing to worship the gods-but, he says, such rebellion is to be expected “of those who have cut themselves off from the rest of civilization. For in saying this, they are really projecting their own feelings onto God.”

Brayshaw explained a bit of his own history to us, coming from a Pentecostal upbringing filled with the notion of Satan’s hand in everything horrible to the place he’s at now, believing in God but arguing that Satan as a being at cosmic odds with God is strictly a human invention brought on by misinterpreting biblical writing over thousands of years like the meaning of the term Satan/sawtawn.

The bible is full of allegory and metaphor, he further explained. Storytellers the world over have loved to embellish their tales with fanciful, flowery prose because it’s a hell of a lot more interesting to listen to than a dry report of facts. One story he talked about was of the fall of the King of Tyre. It’s written about in the bible, but couched in metaphorical descriptions of a man who thought he was a god, specifically the god Venus, the one “star” that beats the sun up in the morning. Oh Lucifer (lit: light bringer, used on account of some ancient idea that Venus caused the sun to rise?) …

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Isaiah 14:12 KJV

He talked about Job and his adversaries; they were most likely to be men he knew, not some ethereal being sent from God to ruin his life. He also mentioned Jesus calling out to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Based on his research, and the sources he used, he’s certain that calling Peter a satan, or sawtawn, was meant to be an insult, a derogatory word for a person opposed to what God wants. A chapter earlier in Matthew (15:19-20) it’s stated that the real adversary is ourselves and our thoughts. What is more likely, that God created an enemy for us, or we created our own problems by the way we think? Jeremiah 17:9 blames our hearts for it instead. Either way, it’s our own damn fault and nothing else’s.

(I’m bouncing around a bit but I’m stuck going by scribbles I made in a margin six days ago. Sorry.)

Brayshaw put up a great list during his talk showing just how similar God and the Devil wind up being in terms of abilities. Both can kill and cure, both answer prayers, both have tremendous power over human beings, etc etc. This winds up being part of the basis of his argument that people created Satan to be a god as well, even if they don’t tend to think of him as one. Christianity wound up with this dualism on account of the Jews going into the area that became Persia and being influenced by Zoroastrian ideology and the Magi there. They were there long enough to assimilate some of those beliefs into their own culture and take it away with them when they left. The modified belief system of those post-exile Jews is how the dualism of God vs. Satan got started.

Plus, Christians got into the habit of considering every other cultures’ gods to be demonic interlopers on the strength of scripture. He listed many places in the bible where verses “prove” the existence of only one God (thus acting as “proof” that Satan couldn’t be one). It was an important distinction in an era where neighbours and enemies had all manner of gods in their own pantheons. It was necessary to insist the Jews had the best and only one. (Heaven forbid if they were wrong about that.) Everyone wants to feel special and it was important for the Jews to believe they were specially chosen by their God. It helped justify all the shit they had to go through. Tests from God…until the Jews left Persia, anyway. Then every evil thing that happened had to be the fault of Satan instead, apparently. Unless I misunderstood the history lesson.

He said a lot of interesting things and I wish I could remember more of them. I have a notation on my paper here about him thinking that the New Testament never should have been considered holy writ. The bulk of it is a series of letters written by various people including Paul (and those who forged letters under his and other names) and he made the point that none of them men writing letters then would have been thinking of them as potential doctrine or scripture. It’s just correspondence that happened to get saved long enough to make it into the collection of works. It’s stories and letters intended for a different audience than the one today.

Speaking of audience, I quote from the email I received this week:

I’m so curious because on Gormley on Tuesday he mentioned that he met with CFI, to which Gormley unaffectionately replied, Oh those are the Atheists!” It wasn’t nice. Much to Gormley’s relief, Brayshaw confirmed that he is still a Christian and believes in the personal God of the Bible. Did Brayshaw discuss this discrepancy at the meeting – how, for God he suspends the critical thinking that he so aptly applies to support the non-existence of Satan?

It’s so good to see the courage of Brayshaw to discount Satan in such a scholarly way and that is a big chunk of the delusion, but I wish that he would take the next inevitable step.

The Freethinkers were very polite and didn’t grill him on that critical thinking disconnect, unless it happened after I left. He’s certainly come a long way and maybe he will reach a point where he realizes that since people made up Satan then it’s entirely possible they made up all the gods as well. Then he’d have to conclude that he invented the personal one he believes in, the one that fits what he needs his God to be right now, perhaps a different god than his wife invented, or his pastor, or his friends. It’s nothing I had to go through, being atheist all my life, but I know that’s a hard step to take and one that tests all who are faced with it.


Satan wants you to read my shirt

November 20, 2011

And presumably check out my boobs as well. This is the shirt I’m wearing to my Saskatoon Freethinkers meet today. It’s all about Satan and Christianity, as explained by James R. Brayshaw, a local author who’s something of an expert after writing several books on the topic. I skimmed through the first one (it was lengthy) and found it very interesting. I’m sure Mr. Brayshaw will entertain and educate us all today. I’ll try to post about it later this week.

In other Satanish news, a Georgia factory worker was fired because he refused to wear a badge with 666 on it. It referred to the number of days his company had been accident free and, fearing for his mortal Christian soul, he didn’t dare lure Satan’s eye upon himself with such a display. Billy E. Hyatt

had worked for the north Georgia plastics company since June 2007 and like other employees wore stickers each day that proclaimed how long the factory had gone without an accident.

But he grew nervous in early 2009 as the number of accident-free days crept into the 600s. As the company’s safety calendar approached day 666, Hyatt said he approached a manager and explained that wearing it would force him “to accept the mark of the beast and to be condemned to hell.” He said the manager assured him he wouldn’t have to wear the number.

When the day came on March 12, 2009, Hyatt sought a manager to discuss his request. He said he was told that his beliefs were “ridiculous” and that he should wear the sticker or serve a three-day suspension.

He took the suspension, and later got the sack. He’s suing Barry Plastics Corp. now because he feels he was being forced to abandon his religious beliefs in order to comply with a company rule and his unwillingness to yield cost him his job.

I recall from my Wal-mart days that we were lucky to get to an “X Days Accident Free!” pizza party. I can’t recall if we’d be rewarded at the 30 or 60 day mark or if it had to be higher. Sometimes we couldn’t go a week without someone doing something stupid or careless. 666 days is a hell of a milestone. Hehe. Hell…

I think his beliefs and superstitions about the number are a bit ridiculous but I don’t think he needed to lose his job over it. If he’s that sure the Devil’s gonna get him if he wears the 666, let him skip the sticker and have him wear 667 the next day. Problem surely solved. Or he could have just called in sick, or timed things so the big day would hit while he’s on holiday. Wouldn’t that have worked just as well?

What happens with staff who are mortally afraid of Friday the 13th or some other arbitrary perceived unluckiness? Is there any compassion for their plight, or are they told to merely suck it up when the calendar’s against them? I’m kind of curious.

I feel sorry for the guy, myself, a slave to a truly meaningless number. I think that whate3ver John thought he was revealing in Revelation has certainly caused people much more existential grief than anything else ever written. Fear of a number. Fear of things that don’t exist and will never ride the earth to torment unbelievers. Fear over a future that will never come to pass.


Saskatoon Freethinkers thanks James Randi for an amazing evening of fun and learning

September 27, 2011

A magician by trade and debunker of woo-woo by reputation, the Amazing James Randi provided last night’s audience with plenty of laughs and thoughtful moments as he explained why critical thinking and skepticism are so crucial to getting to the truth of a thing and why it’s so easy to fool everyone, whether they claim they think critically or not.

Some examples he provided that I still remember well enough to paraphrase:

You’re a stranger sitting on a park bench in a small town you’ve never been in before and spot a sign advertising a riding academy with an arrow pointing in the direction it lies. A local’s seated on the bench as well and after a little while you hear the “clippity clop” of hoof beats coming from somewhere behind you. “Must be someone riding their horse to the Academy.” The local laughs at you and says, “That might not be a horse. It could be a zebra!” I forget exactly what the terminology was, but Randi pointed out that there are varying levels of deception. Another person may have believed the hoofbeats were evidence of unicorns, for example. It’s simple enough to debunk the zebra claim: there’s no zoo around for them to break out of, no circus in town, and the town isn’t smack dab in the middle of typical zebra country. While it’s certainly possible, the probability of the hooves belonging to a zebra is ridiculously minute. (And a walk in the direction of the sound would provide visual confirmation of either theory soon enough anyway.) Unicorns, though — Randi reminded people that we can’t prove negatives. You can scour South Africa for proof of unicorns. If you don’t find any, it’s not proof of non-existence. They just don’t appear to exist in South Africa…

He receives hundreds of queries every day from people who’d like to pick his brain and use his expertise. He also promotes the James Randi Educational Foundation and their million dollar “prove it” challenge where he encourages anyone who claims to be psychic or capable of other supernatural tricks to put their reputation where their mouth is. A reputable educational facility jam-packed with intelligent degree-owners contacted him once offering up some guy from Israel who could do this amazing thing with his mind that baffled everyone in the building. He’d asked these scientists to provide him with a random matchbox (hilariously described by Randi as being rigorously and ridiculously over-tested by said scientists beforehand to make sure “no trick” was going on with it) and he could make it rise and fall on the back of his hand without physically touching it. Randi sent them a fax of a copy of page of an old magic trick book he had on hand that outlined just how simple the gag was to perform. Those clever people had been completely fleeced by a foreign charlatan. They also hung up the phone in a hurry.

He played a couple of videos from his days on the Johnny Carson show. In one, he performed the psychic operation trick that thousands of people have spent serious money on because they believe it to be a real cure for what ails them. In another, he had absolute proof a faith healer named Peter Popoff was scamming his audiences. He’d hired a private detective with a decent radio receiver of some sort who recorded clear evidence that Popoff’s wife was feeding the man information about audience members through an ear piece: names, home towns and what ailed them. With this secret stash of facts, he’d claim (and still does claim) that God himself gives him the clues for who’ll be cured next. With just a few minutes of research, anyone can easily find out he’s a huckster, yet the man continues to get rich off this scam ministry. Randi said he’s making more now than he did when he was revealed on television as a fraud.

Randi pointed out the difference between himself as a magician and these other guys. Randi tells you flat out that he’s going to deceive you and then does just what he said he’d do. These other folks tell you flat out that they can cure you, or read your mind, or sell your house or whatever the hell their ruse might be and then go through with their deceptions and rip you off. Randi is honest about his intent to trick you. The rest are not.

So, all in all, that was a very fun evening. The questions at the end got a little less fun, unfortunately, when a local author tried to shill his kooky tripe and hoped to denounce what he thought were Randi’s claims that the supernatural doesn’t exist. It was a bit of a challenge to get the man to relinquish the microphone so someone with an actual question could have a turn. Randi handled the situation with aplomb; no doubt it’s a common type of audience member, the one who thinks he can prove Randi wrong. Randi admitted that he’d love to have someone approach him with that one thing he can’t explain… but it doesn’t happen. He knows the tricks. He’s done the research. He’s immune to the typical tomfoolery that tends to throw people, be they doofuses or geniuses. He even sounded kind of bummed about that, poor guy.

The key point he wanted to drive home with all this was the need to be aware of just how easy it is to be tricked — but also how easy (relatively speaking) it can be to protect ourselves from the worst of it. We all need to educate and train ourselves to look for the real truth, not just the (possibly dubious) truth someone else claims is there.


Tickets still available for James Randi in Saskatoon

September 17, 2011

September 26th at the Roxy Theatre (320 20th St West). Tickets can be bought on-line here. There might be some available at the door the night of but it’s cheaper to buy ahead of time. $20 or $10 if you’re a student/Friend of the Centre for Inquiry (you can get your membership at the same site if you want one).

The talk is being put on by CFI-Saskatoon (aka Saskatoon Freethinkers) and should be fascinating. He’s had an interesting life and will give us his perspectives on critical thinking and how necessary it is to promote reality over supernatural silliness. Woo might be soothing and comfortable compared to hard truths, but truths should still be preferred over cozy lies.

Come even if you’re skeptical of James Randi and all he stands for. I’m sure that would make for some great Q&A after the talk.


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