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Saturday, December 30, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

God's Enemies Are More Honest Than His Friends

By Sam Harris

Reposted from:
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com

samFor better or worse, I am partly responsible for the recent emergence of "atheism" as a topic of conversation. This is somewhat ironic, as I do not like the term and rarely use it. I did not, for instance, refer to myself as an "atheist" when I wrote The End of Faith—and yet this book is my most substantial contribution to the discourse of atheism.

As I pointed out in my subsequent book, Letter to a Christian Nation, we do not have a term for a person who rejects astrology, nor do we need one. If legions of astrologers sought to bend our public policy to their pseudo-science, we wouldn't need to dub ourselves "non-astrologers" to put them in their place. Words like "reason," "evidence," and "commonsense" would suffice. So it should be with religion. Still, one can only spend so much time quibbling over words, and there are far more consequential matters for believers and nonbelievers to discuss. Despite my misgivings about answering to the name "atheist," I consider the stigma now associated with the term to be entirely unwarranted. This stigma is, of course, the continuous product of the inane and unctuous declarations that still pass for argument among the faithful. One need look no further than the responses to this week's question to find some mesmerizing examples.

As to whether atheists and believers can have "a productive conversation," I am quite sure that the answer is "yes." But I am uncertain whether this conversation can bear fruit quickly enough to keep civilization from becoming fully engorged by Iron Age stupidity and horror. Our capacity for self-destruction is now spreading with 21st century efficiency, and yet our beliefs about how we should pass our days and nights on this earth still spring from ancient literature. This marriage of modern technology and preliterate superstition is a bad one, for reasons that I should not have to specify, much less argue for—and yet, arguing for them has taken up most of my time since September 11th, 2001, the day that nineteen pious men showed our pious nation just how beneficial religious certainty can be.

As someone who has spent the last few years publicly criticizing religion, I have become quite familiar with how people of faith rise to the defense of God. As it turns out, there aren't a hundred ways of doing this. There appear to be just three: either a person argues that a specific religion is true, or he argues that religion is useful, or he simply attacks atheism as intolerant, elitist, irrational, or otherwise worthy of contempt. Any conversation between atheists and believers is liable to fall into one or more of these ruts, or lurch back and forth between them:

1. Religion is true: There are two problems with arguing that any one of the world's religions is true. First, as Bertrand Russell pointed out a century ago, the major religions make incompatible claims about God and about what human beings must believe in order to escape the fires of hell. Given the sheer diversity of these claims, every believer should expect damnation on mere, probabilistic grounds. The second problem with arguing for the truth of religion is that the evidence for the most common religious doctrines is terrible or nonexistent—and this subsumes all claims about the existence of a personal God, the divine origin of certain books, the virgin birth of certain people, the veracity of ancient miracles, etc. For thousands of years, religion has been a haven for dogmatism and false certainty, and it remains so. There is not a person on this earth who has sufficient reason to be certain that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in his cave. And yet, billions of people profess such certainty. This is embarrassing. It is also dangerous—and we should stop making apologies for it.

2. Religion is useful: The argument that religion is useful is also problematic—and many of its problems are annunciated daily by bomb-blasts. Can anyone seriously argue that it is a good thing that millions of Muslims currently believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom? Is it really useful that so many Jews imagine that the Creator of the universe gave them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? How psychologically beneficial has Christianity's anxiety about sex been these last seventy generations?

The worst problem with arguing for religion's usefulness, however, is that it is utterly irrelevant to the question at hand: the fact that a belief might be useful is no argument that it is true. While there are many ways to illustrate this, here is how I recently made the point in an online debate:

The fact that certain religious beliefs might be useful in no way suggests their legitimacy. I can guarantee, for instance, that the following religion, invented by me in the last ten seconds, would be extraordinarily useful. It is called "Scientismo." Here is its creed: Be kind to others; do not lie, steal, or murder; and oblige your children to master mathematics and science to the best of their abilities or 17 demons will torture you with hot tongs for eternity after death. If I could spread this faith to billions, I have little doubt that we would live in a better world than we do at present. Would this suggest that the 17 demons of Scientismo exist? Useful delusions are not the same thing as true beliefs.

3. Atheism is bad: Rather than argue for the truth of their religious beliefs, or produce evidence that religion is useful, apologists for God often attack atheism as though it were another religion. We are told that atheism is dogmatic, intolerant, irrational, etc. This homily has the virtue of being easy to remember and reproduce—and it now reverberates ceaselessly within the echo-chamber of American religious discourse. It relies, however, on a many false ideas about atheism. On Christmas eve of this year, I published an essay in the Los Angeles Times entitled "10 Myths – and 10 Truths – about Atheism" in which I attempted to set the record straight. I won't repeat these points here. Those interested can find this article on my website.

Friday, December 29, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor charged with stealing

A Lutheran minister who also served as the treasurer for the Fisher Chamber of Commerce for five years now faces charges of embezzling nearly $14,000 from the organization.

Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth issued a press release Thursday stating that his office has filed a criminal complaint in Polk County District Court against Rev. Michael Kevin Eminger, 47, formerly of Fisher and now reportedly living in his home state of Wisconsin. Eminger faces four counts of theft by swindle and four counts of felony theft, with possible penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison and fines of $10,000 to $20,000. Eminger is not currently in custody and is scheduled to make his first court appearance Jan.19.

According to the criminal complaint, Sue Meyer, president of the Fisher Chamber of Commerce, informed the Polk County Sheriff's Office in early October that the former treasurer had stolen more than $13,000 from Chamber's checking account. This came to light when the Chamber received an overdraft notice from the bank, which prompted a review of the checking account over the last five years.

The review revealed numerous checks Eminger issued from the account, primarily written to himself, for unexplainable expenses totaling $13,923.12. With an annual budget of around $4,000, that amounts to nearly all the Chamber's funds accumulated during the three-and-a-half-year period Eminger allegedly pilfered public funds.

Meyer told Deputy Randy Sondrol that when board members confronted Eminger about the missing funds the day before, he made no excuses and apologized for putting them in such a position.

However, at that time he only admitted to taking $4,000 to $5,000 from the account. Meyer presented Sondrol with a detailed list of unaccounted for, unexplained, or questionable expenses paid out of the Chamber account, which he used when questioning Eminger later in the month. Eminger then admitted using about $10,000 in embezzled funds to pay his personal expenses, but claimed the rest covered legitimate Chamber expenses.

Until his resignation about a month ago due to the alleged embezzlement, Eminger had served as pastor for Trinity Lutheran Church in Fisher and St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Euclid, both Missouri Synod factions, for nearly a decade, since the spring of 1997. He also filled in at other area churches as needed, including Our Savior's Lutheran in Crookston, where he served as interim pastor several years ago.

Meyer, also a member of Trinity Lutheran in Fisher, pointed out that there is no reason to suspect that Eminger took funds from his congregations and that he did not have access to church funds.

A spokesperson for the Minnesota North District of the Lutheran Church Missouri explained that Eminger is on restricted status with the LCMS and is currently not allowed to take a call to another congregation pending the outcome of the criminal case. While on restricted status, Eminger is also not supported financially by the LCMS and must find his own work outside the ministry.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Apocalypse threat tops this year's religion stories

Imagine the following event in your mind's eye.

President George W. Bush is addressing the United Nations amid global tensions about nuclear weapons. He closes with evangelical language that expresses his yearning for the triumphant second coming of Jesus Christ and prays that this apocalyptic event will unify the world - sooner rather than later.

Do you think the speech would cause a media storm? Do you think journalists would dissect his mysterious words, along with his theology? Would this be considered one of the year's most controversial religion-news events? Bush, of course, never delivered an address of this kind. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did say the following as he ended his dramatic United Nations speech on Sept. 20.

"I emphatically declare that today's world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet," he said, referring to a Shiite doctrine about a coming apocalypse.

"O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause."

If these references to "the perfect human being" do not sound familiar, there is a reason for that. This section of his address received little media attention. Thus, it isn't surprising that the Iranian leader's end times vision was not selected as one of the top 10 stories in the Religion Newswriters Association's 2006 poll. In fact, it didn't appear in the top 20 events.

Instead, the top story selected by the religion-news specialists was the deadly violence ignited by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in periodicals in Denmark and a few other European nations. Boycotts led to protests and then to destruction and, in Nigeria, Muslims and Christians died in the riots.

Clearly, mainstream journalists still struggle with the complicated religious beliefs that loom behind today's headlines. Offensive cartoons in the West are a huge story. But mysterious words in the East - even offensive words - do not draw nearly as much ink.

So what was Iran's outspoken leader saying?

"Ahmadinejad is calling upon God to bring about the coming of the 12th Imam . . . who heralds the Apocalypse," noted pundit Andrew Sullivan. "He is also saying that he will 'strive for his return.' It is the most terrifying statement any president of any nation has made to the U.N. We have a dictator on the brink of nukes, striving to accelerate the Apocalypse. . . . Paradise beckons."

Meanwhile, here is the rest of the RNA top 10 list:

-2. Pope Benedict XVI angers Muslims by quoting an ancient text linking Islam and violence. He quickly apologizes and later pays a diplomatic visit to Turkey.

-3. Episcopal leaders elect a female presiding bishop who favors rites to bless same-sex unions and supports the consecration of a noncelibate gay bishop. Thus, seven Episcopal dioceses refuse to recognize the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Some of America's most prominent parishes vote to align with Third World bishops and the Diocese of San Joaquin takes the initial steps to secede from the Episcopal Church.

-4. Ted Haggard resigns as National Association of Evangelicals president and is dismissed as pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs after allegations of gay sex and drug use.

-5. Candidates backed by the Religious Right suffer key fall-election defeats, while Democrats take steps to reach out to churchgoers, especially Catholics.

-6. Religious voices grow louder for peace in Iraq. However, sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims increase. Elsewhere, an Israeli incursion into Lebanon follows new Hezbollah attacks, touching off another round of combat.

-7. The schoolhouse shooting deaths of five Amish girls in Bart Township, Pa., draws global attention to Amish beliefs about grace and forgiveness.

-8. (tie) "The Da Vinci Code" movie calls new attention to Dan Brown's novel, which says traditional Christianity is a fraud. Churches are divided over whether to boycott or hold discussion groups. The plot argues that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child.

-8. (tie) Same-sex marriage bans pass in seven of eight states during midterm elections. Arizona becomes the first state to defeat a ban.

-10. Bush vetoes a bill calling for expanded stem-cell research, pleasing religious conservatives and the disappointing liberals.

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Christian help for responding to atheists, evolutionists

The following is from Agape Press (Reliable News from a Christian Source):

WM note: All you science minds out there, please read the following, watch the video clip, and let us know what's wrong with their thinking. Have fun!

A well-known evangelist and Christian television show host is trying to equip believers to respond effectively to atheists.

In his book Intelligent Design vs. Evolution: Letters to an Atheist, Ray Comfort uses actual e-mails between himself and an atheist that took place several years ago. When the atheist inquired why Comfort did not accept "scientific facts" supporting the theory of evolution, the evangelist responded that there was more proof that the world is flat. That interchange eventually led to Comfort's writing of the book.

Comfort contends that many Christians do not know how to respond to atheists' questions about intelligent design, or ID. The evangelist maintains that God's Word can be defended scientifically, historically, and logically.

"When it comes down to it, there are no scientific arguments for evolution," he points out. "Evolutionists use a specific language -- it's called the language of speculation ...."

And when using that language, Comfort contends that evolutionists use phrases such as "Well, we believe," and terms such as "perhaps," "maybe," "could have," and "possibly."

"They continually use [that phraseology] because there's no basis for what they're saying," says the host of the program The Way of the Master. "It's all conjecture."

But when it comes to creation, Comfort explains, there is what he describes as "absolute, hard, scientific, empirical evidence." In fact, Comfort claims to be able to prove God's existence scientifically in two minutes -- without the use of "faith."

Christians' response to naysayers, he suggests, is first to explain that the word "science" simply means "knowledge." Then, he says, engage them with the following: "Let me give you knowledge of a Creator. To have a building, you must have a builder. To have a painting, you must have a painter. Buildings don't happen without a builder; paintings don't happen without a painter. Creation cannot happen without a Creator."

Comfort's co-host on The Way of the Master is Christian actor and speaker Kirk Cameron. His book Intelligent Design vs. Evolution -- as well as a board game based on the book -- is available through the Internet at WayoftheMaster.com. Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis recommends the board game for families, saying it will help them to become better equipped to "defend our precious Christian faith."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Papa Pilgrim pops a plea

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A self-styled religious patriarch known as "Papa Pilgrim" pleaded no contest Tuesday to felony charges including incest.

Robert Hale, 65, was accused of molesting one of his 15 children over a seven-year span, including a period when his family lived in seclusion at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

The Pilgrims, as they once called themselves, gained notoriety for their feud with the National Park Service over access to the family's remote homestead within the 13.2 million-acre park.

In Tuesday's hearing, Hale pleaded no contest to consolidated counts of first-degree sexual assault, incest and coercion.

He told Superior Court Judge Donald Hopwood that he never sexually assaulted anyone but decided to plead "for the good of his family," said Palmer assistant district attorney Richard Payne.

Hale had been scheduled for a January 16 trial on 30 felony counts involving one of his daughters. The incest and two other counts were consolidated and charges of kidnapping and assault were dropped in a deal Hale made in exchange for a state-approved sentence of 14 years.

Family member Moses Hale, 22, said no one in the family wanted to comment.

link | Background story: Papa Pilgrim says he obey's God's will & The Pilgrim Story

Sunday, December 24, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism

By Sam Harris
SAM HARRIS is the author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president.

Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was "not at all to be tolerated" because, he said, "promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist."

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims "never to doubt" the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating.

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Collegue of Ted Haggard admitts sexual misconduct

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A pastor who worked with young adults at New Life Church has admitted sexual misconduct and resigned just weeks after former church leader Ted Haggard stepped down over sexual immorality.

Christopher Beard, who headed the "twentyfourseven" ministry that taught leadership skills to young adults, resigned Friday, said Rob Brendle, an associate pastor at the 14,000-member church.

Brendle said Beard told church officials about "a series of decisions displaying poor judgment, including one incident of sexual misconduct several years ago."

The church said in a statement that the misconduct was with another unmarried adult several years ago. Beard, who worked at the church for nine years, has since married.

Brendle would not elaborate about the nature of the misconduct. Beard's resignation was first reported Monday by The Denver Post and The Gazette in Colorado Springs. The church said it wouldn't comment further. A residential phone number listed in Beard's name was disconnected.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor charged with stealing Bibles and money

A pastor charged with swiping antique Bibles from a Royersford, PA, church in Montgomery County and peddling them on eBay is now facing another charge: stealing money intended for needy families from a fund he established at the church.

When confronted, the Rev. William Shrout Jr. admitted taking the money from the fund at First United Church of Christ and using it for personal purposes, according to a news release Monday from Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor.

Shrout will have a preliminary hearing Thursday in Limerick on his charges.

The news release didn't disclose the amount of money taken.

As pastor of First UCC, Shrout set up "The Sunshine Fund" to help needy families. Shrout had sole control of the fund to keep the recipients anonymous, the news release said.

As investigators worked on the charges that Shrout and his wife, Carla, stole antique Bibles from the church, they learned Shrout had stolen from the fund, the news release said.

Shrout served as pastor at First UCC from 2003 to 2005. The month he left, an old cedar box and leather-bound Bibles, some of them dating to the 1920s, disappeared.

They then appeared on sale on eBay, and were spotted by a church member. That member successfully purchased them, and the package came with Shrout's return address in Upper Mount Bethel Township, where he moved after leaving First UCC.

The Shrouts were arrested in October and charged with theft, receiving stolen property and conspiracy.

A few days later at a Sunday service, the congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ in Upper Mount Bethel, where Shrout is interim pastor, gave him a standing ovation in support.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Convert or die!

Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Christian Alliance for Progress, two online political groups, plan to demand today (Tuesday, this week) that Wal-Mart dump Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game inspired by a series of Christian novels that are hugely popular, especially with teens.

The series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation and takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist.

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.

"You are fighting a defensive battle in the game," Frichner, whose previous company produced Bible software, said of combatting the Antichrist. "You are a sort of a freedom fighter."

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the retailer has no plans to pull Left Behind: Eternal Forces from any of the 200 of Wal-Mart's 3,800 stores that offer the game, including just seven in California. The nearest are in Chico and Redding.

"We look at the community to see where it will sell," said Tara Raddohl. "We have customers who are buying it and really haven't received a lot of complaints about it from our customers at this time."

Clark Stevens, co-director of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, said the game is not peaceful or diplomatic.

"It's an incredibly violent video game," said Stevens. "Sure, there is no blood. (The dead just fade off the screen.) But you are mowing down your enemy with a gun. It pushes a message of religious intolerance. You can either play for the 'good side' by trying to convert nonbelievers to your side or join the Antichrist."

The Rev. Tim Simpson, a Jacksonville, Fla., Presbyterian minister and president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, added: "So, under the Christmas tree this year for little Johnny is this allegedly Christian video game teaching Johnny to hate and kill?"

Both groups formed in 2005 to protest what their 130,000 or so members feel is the growing political influence and hypocrisy of the religious right.

In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."

Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.

When asked about the Arab and Muslim-sounding names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice. But "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ" -- and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game.

"That is so obvious," he said.

Left Behind is a real-time strategy and adventure game. Players don't role-play like in Grand Theft Auto -- it's more like the board game Risk than Clue.

Frichner said more than 10,000 retailers -- including Sam's Club, Target, Best Buy, Circuit City, GameStop, EB Games and various Christian stores -- offer the game. He said sales are terrific, though he wouldn't reveal figures.

Protesters are targeting Wal-Mart, where the game retails for $39.96, because it is one of the biggest video game sellers in the United States.

More than 60 million copies of books in the series have sold since the first volume came out in 1996.

Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at Gamespot.com, an online publication, said the game sn't popular. The game itself, which Gamespot rated 3.4 out of a possible 10, has lots of glitches.

"And it's kind of crazy," Gerstmann said. "One of the evil characters is a rock musician. ... If you get too close to him your spirit is lowered."

But Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, gave the game a "thumbs-up." The reviewer called it "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."

Frichner said that is precisely his company's ultimate goal in offering the game: to bring parents and kids together to talk about the Bible. He said most teens are playing video games, so it was natural to turn the books into one.

His business partner, Troy Lyndon, created Madden Football, one of the top-selling sports video games. Left Behind Games Inc. is based in Murrieta (Riverside County).

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Related articles: Kids Kill In Violent Christian Videogame | New Neo-Nazi Xtian Hate Game

Atheists coming out of the closet

Every soul in Christendom knows that sometimes, a supper is more than just a supper. “We are apostles,” Jim Hong, president of the Mid-Michigan Atheists and Humanists, exhorts at a Sunday, Dec. 3, meeting in East Lansing, Mich. “We need to go out and expand. We need to network.”

In recent months, biologist Richard Dawkins and several other high-profile philosophers and scientists fed up with religious fundamentalism have urged atheists to come out of the closet. Judging by the current membership boom in Hong’s group, a lot of local atheists are doing just that.

In less than two years, Hong, a structural engineering consultant who lives in Jackson, has seen attendance at monthly meetings spike from a single-digit trickle to an average of 20 and a high of 35, with 60 people on the group’s register. Most members are from the Lansing area, but others come from as far away as Lake Orion, Monroe and Flint.

This afternoon, Hong has invited a manageable fraction of the group to share thoughts and stories about coming out as atheists in a country overwhelmingly populated by the faithful. They’re also here to plan a Dec. 17 winter solstice celebration, an alternative to the religious festivals that dominate December. On the secular docket thus far is a silent auction and a talent show featuring songs, poems, dance and Hong’s dazzling demonstration on how to fold a shirt in 2.1 seconds.

Amid the laughs and short-term business, the word “apostle” rings a 2,000-year-old bell. As Hong suggests ways to go forth and spread the word about atheism, it’s hard not to notice that there are 12 other people at the table, sharing ideas while picking at lo mein remnants, fortune cookies and soft serve ice cream.

Could this be the start of something big?

Lights out, lightbulb on

Don’t expect an atheist millennium to descend upon the Earth anytime soon. Despite the accidental Last Supper head count, these potential apostles are not even the on the same page, let alone chapter and verse.

“Preach and it doesn’t work,” Therese Hercher, one of the group’s newer faces, says to Hong. “Put me in a corner, and I’m going to come out swinging. It’s better to be a role model.”

Some wear the group’s name proudly, but Hercher and others aren’t even sure they like the term “atheist.”

“Atheism is about what we aren’t,” Hercher says. “But there’s something we all are, too. We’re reasonable people. We rely on reason and not mysticism or superstition.”

“I don’t reveal much about being an atheist because of the conceptions some people have about us,” ventures Regina Fry, an almost painfully soft-spoken artist from Lansing. “I would rather that people see that I hold certain values about caring for each other and the earth and promoting justice.”

Tom McFarland, an enthusiastic member of the group who also drives to East Lansing from Jackson, is clearly more comfortable with the word “atheist” than Fry or Hercher. “We’re passionate about being atheists,” he says. “It’s not just, ‘I’m an atheist, get over it.’ There’s a lot of thinking, a lot of process involved.”

That, Hong says, is just why he wants the group to reach out. “Once people get a sense of who non-believers are, they might be more accepting,” he explains. “We’re moral people. We don’t have horns.”

While some people at this table have been atheists for decades, Hong speaks with the zeal of the recent convert. He says the turning point came when his brother-in-law told him the blackout that struck the northeast United States in August 2003 was a trial sent to Earth by God.

“That really got to me,” Hong says. “It didn’t make any sense at all. I got to thinking about how natural disasters, and how so many people in the world are hungry. Why am I so lucky? To say it was part of a plan didn’t make sense to me.”

Since then, the openly religious stance of the Bush administration, not to mention that of its terrorist foes, has provoked a slew of aggressively atheist literature [see box, “Unbibles for unbelievers”] and pushed Hong and others toward open avowal of atheism.

Against this backdrop of baroque-era-Bush backlash, Hong joined Steve Kwart of Lansing in May 2005 to overhaul a sputtering predecessor group of local atheists. In Kwart’s words, the original group was patterned on a business model, met in libraries and “wasn’t very much fun.”

When Hong and Kwart eliminated dues and by-laws, added humanists to the tent, and moved the monthly venue to a popular East Lansing restaurant, attendance went up.

Some members, like Ray Ziarno of Lansing, a retired state employee, value the group as a chance to network with like-minded people. “This is something that one could not experience, at least in the Lansing area, until recently,” he says.

But Hong has longer-range plans. He urges outreach with “measurable results,” suggesting the group distribute pamphlets, draft talking points, arrange lectures, even set up an atheist support hotline. “Otherwise, we’re just talking to each other,” he says.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

For some atheists, “just talking to each other” is comfort enough. Several recent polls put the number of self-described atheists in the United States somewhere between 1 and 3 percent, leaving few kindred spirits in the average atheist’s life.

Rose, an out-of-town journalist who has just moved to Lansing, requested her last name be withheld because she doesn’t want to jeopardize her employment prospects. “I’ve become ever less comfortable about discussing faith or religion with people I’ve just met or don’t know well,” she says.

This time of year, there are holidays to deal with, but most of the atheists at this table say they simply avoid the subject of religion at home.

“We have a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy at our house,” smiles Kwart, a bearded, mild-mannered investor in his 30s. “When we gather for the holidays we simply don’t discuss subjects that we know will only start an argument. We focus on what we do have in common. It makes life a lot easier.”

Kwart goes to his family’s religious ceremonies, and even served as his nephew’s godfather.

Ziarno, who is about 20 years older than Kwart, does the same. He goes to the religious weddings of friends and family, although he adds sadly that they are now outnumbered by funerals. “I generally participate out of politeness,” he says.

“I don’t hide my non-belief from anyone but my family,” explains Russ Rogers, a regular at the East Lansing meetings. Rogers says the subject of religion simply doesn’t come up in his family. “If any of them asked, I would honestly state my position.”

In recent years, the Internet has helped atheists reach beyond unsympathetic work and home environments to connect with others who feel the same way they do. Nevertheless, becoming an atheist is, overwhelmingly, a solitary journey that starts early in life and takes years, sometimes decades, to complete.

“I did well in school, had a lot of friends, but felt somewhat like an isolated island when it came to questioning religion,” Kwart, a former Catholic altar boy, says.

The sequence and timing may vary, but many atheists go through phases strikingly similar to the coming-out process described by gays and lesbians. Again and again, atheists talk of vague confusion, inner struggle, solitary resolve, one or more last-ditch attempts to put the godless toothpaste back in the tube, and a final, public break with the past.

Mike Foland, a soft-spoken retired Ford employee who has lived in Lansing all his life, can make the coming-out comparison with authority. He came out as both gay and atheist at the same time.

Foland found himself against the wall in 2003, when his parents e-mailed him, criticizing a female friend who was planning a commitment ceremony with a female partner.

“My parents told me how it was against God,” Foland says.

It wasn’t easy for Foland to answer that e-mail honestly. “I basically grew up in the church,” he says.

Foland struggled with his own sexuality since he was 13, and didn’t resolve it for himself until 1992. “I questioned my orientation before that, trying to work through Biblical verses that talked about homosexuality.”

When his parents sent him the 2003 e-mail, he steeled himself and wrote back: “What you’re writing about her, you’re writing about me, and that’s one reason I don’t believe anymore.”

“I had not come out to my parents until that writing,” he says. “So all in one e-mail, I came out to my parents as a gay man and an atheist.

“I think they were more upset about me being an atheist.”

Participation, not faith

Regina Fry loved going to church as a child. “There wasn’t anything about it I hated, or turned away from,” she says.” I found the sermons inspiring, but I never felt that I believed in God.”

She considered herself an agnostic for a few years, a phase described by several others at the table, but ultimately concluded she was an atheist — albeit a non-dogmatic one. “I don’t know if I can say I’m sure there’s no God, but I’m sure I don’t believe there’s a God,” she says.

Opposite the mild-mannered Fry sits Carolyn Dulai of Lansing, a former Green Party candidate for state senator who zeroes in on the sexual politics of religion with ferocious sarcasm.

“The Christians worship three males: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” she says, using the nasal drone of a standup comedian. “Where’s the vagina? Even at the Hindu temple, five miles from me in Haslett, they had a big ceremony installing the penis. No vagina in sight.”

With a sheaf of materials under his arm and quietly bookish air, Rogers looks like he could be the group’s theoretician.

“My metaphor is geological erosion,” Rogers says. “I was given a mountain and gradually watched it wear away as I became more factually aware of the universe.”

Like most atheists, Rogers grew up in a religious tradition (Lutheran, in his case), but describes his role as “participation, not faith.”

“Even a child, I could see that religion wasn’t solving people’s problems for them,” he says. “In my teens, I began to realize there is a wonderful natural world out there that doesn’t require a theistic interpretation.”

“It wasn’t rebellion,” he insists. “I simply investigated the matter, discovered it to be wanting terribly, and elect to live my life that way.”

Rogers’ opposite number is Aaron Stuttman, a Lansing masseur and Green Party member who ran unsuccessfully for governor this year. Where Rogers looks as if he’s been reading intently under a fluorescent lights for decades, Stuttman leans backward insouciantly, with a California tan and new age language to match.

“I think I was allergic to church,” he says. “The few times I went, it was boring and disturbing. The energy was bad. The best metaphor I can think of is that is made me feel sick, it wasn’t healthy.”

No pitchforks

Rogers’ erosion metaphor struck a common chord with many atheists at the table. When Ziarno left home to attend college at Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula, he met and lived with people “of other religions, and those with no religion at all.”

“And, they didn’t have horns and a tail, and didn’t carry a pitchfork,” he says with a grin. “Slowly but surely, I really gave up the formalities of religion, and, eventually, all beliefs in religion and a God as some sort of a being.”

Like most people at the table, John Kelly, a retired state worker who lives in Lansing, was raised Catholic. He grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, where he came to admire the Franciscan nuns who taught him. “They were dynamic,” he recalls. “They did wonderful things for people.”

While in high school, Kelly fell in love with science. “Science was exciting,” he says. “Science made sense, whereas the dogma was just, ‘Take this on faith.’”

A period of denial followed. “I tried to become a Catholic again, I really did, but I realized after a point that it was to no avail,” he says. “I just didn’t believe.”

“For years, I’ve never really been out front about my feelings. Here I have a chance to be among people who are of like mind.”

Like Kelly, Kwart went through a “one last try” phase after falling in love with science in high school. “For a time I thought my faith in God was just weak and I needed to try harder believing,” he says. “I decided to read the Holy Bible in its entirety with an open mind.”

Instead of giving Kwart a stronger faith in God, scripture study had the opposite effect. “It became more obvious to me that the whole thing was made up by uneducated, superstitious people thousands of years ago,” he says.

Ever the conciliator, Kwart qualifies his statement. “I don’t think they were bad people,” he says. “They simply didn’t have the luxury of 500 years of accumulated science, as we have today.”

Floppy doubts

Despite different backgrounds and personal stories, a common thread linked every story told at the table that afternoon:

Nobody could name a teacher, guru, mentor, friend or family member who showed the way to atheism.

On the contrary, most pulled against strong family and cultural currents, plagued by awkward, floppy doubts they couldn’t tuck back into their brains.

Here, they can wear those thoughts proudly untucked, but many still worry about public perception.

“The word atheist carries a lot of shock value,” Rose says. “Not only is it highly provocative and widely misunderstood, it doesn’t begin to express the values I do cherish and live by.”

“We don’t have morals — that’s the typical belief people have,” Hong says.

In response, Rose ticks off more than a dozen cherished principles she’s not averse to calling “beliefs.”

“I believe in the power of reason, the non-aggression-principle, freedom and free will, and a moral code by which to live,” she says. “I believe every individual is important, and that every individual can and should make a positive difference in this world.”

Hong puts it more succinctly. “We believe in helping our fellow man,” he says.

“We just don’t pray for them."



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Wednesday, December 13, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor pleads not guilty to charge of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol

TOLDEO, OH — The Rev. Michael Pitts, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Maumee, pleaded not guilty today to a charge of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol during an arraignment in Maumee Municipal Court.

Judge Gary Byers released Mr. Pitts, 42, of 4055 South Wilkins Rd., Swanton Township, on his own recognizance after he entered the not-guilty plea. A pretrial conference with a Lucas County prosecutor was set for 2 p.m. on Jan. 16.

Mr. Pitts was randomly stopped at 3:54 p.m. Wednesday on U.S. 20A by a trooper who was pulling over motorists for routine vehicle inspection checks, said Lt. Robin Schmutz, commander of the Highway Patrol's Toledo post.

During the stop, Lieutenant Schmutz said, the trooper felt that Mr. Pitts was impaired and put him through a standard field sobriety test. He was arrested and taken to the patrol post, where a urine sample was taken. Results of that test might take a month to get back, the commander said.

Mr. Pitts was charged with a misdemeanor count of violating Ohio Revised Code Section 4511.19A1, which is "operation [of a motor vehicle] while under the influence of alcohol or ... with specified concentration of alcohol or drug in certain bodily substances."

He was issued a warning for, but not charged with, a misdemeanor violation of not having a front license place on his vehicle.

Attorney Steve Hartman, who is representing Mr. Pitts, said he hopes to have the test results back from the urine sample Mr. Pitts gave after his arrest before the pre-trial meeting with the prosecutor's office next month.

Mr. Hartman said his client had consumed two glasses of wine on Wednesday before taking a short drive to retrieve a newspaper when he was stopped for the routine vehicle check near his Swanton Township home.

Repeating his comments from a press conference yesterday, Mr. Hartman said today that he fully expects the urine test results will show Mr. Pitts did not exceed Ohio's legal limit for driving while impaired and expects the charge against his client will ultimately be dropped.

Mr. Pitts, who is pastor of the 3,000-member church on Reynolds Road and bishop of a network of 25 other churches in the United States and Mexico, spoke with reporters after his arraignment about the charge against him.

"It’s just part of the way life goes every so often,” he said.

The explanation that Mr. Pitts had only had a couple of glasses of wine before he was stopped was similar to that offered by the minister following a 2000 arrest and conviction for driving under the influence.

Toledo police stopped Mr. Pitts on Aug. 29, 2000, at Cherry Street and Central Avenue. He pleaded no contest and was found guilty of driving while intoxicated. His license was suspended for six months and he was fined $646 plus court costs.

Shortly after his arrest, Mr. Pitts told his followers at Cornerstone that he "had a little wine with dinner" the evening of his arrest, part of a celebration for his birthday and the completion of a book project.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Westboro Church Must Pay Marine's Family

BALTIMORE -- A Kansas church has been ordered to pay $3,150 for costs and fees associated with a summons and complaint filed by the father of a Marine whose funeral was picketed by the extremist group.

Albert Snyder, of York, Pa., is suing the Rev. Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church after church members demonstrated at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, of Westminster, and posted pictures of the protest on their Web site.

Lance Snyder was killed in Iraq in March. Members of the Topeka church claim U.S. soldiers are killed as God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.

His father's federal lawsuit, filed June 5, alleges church members violated the family's right to privacy and defamed the Marine and his family at the funeral and on the church's Web site.

Phelps and the church refused to grant a waiver in the serving of summonses in connection with the federal lawsuit, making the church liable for those costs.

Court documents say the church has 30 days to make the payment to Snyder.

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Monday, December 11, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Megachurch pastor confesses to being gay

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The founding pastor of the 2,100-member Grace Chapel has resigned after he said he had sexual relations with other men.

In a tearful videotaped message Sunday to his congregation, the senior pastor of a thriving evangelical megachurch in south metro Denver confessed to sexual relations with other men and announced he had voluntarily resigned his pulpit.

A month ago, the Rev. Paul Barnes of Grace Chapel in Doug las County preached to his 2,100-member congregation about integrity and grace in the aftermath of the Ted Haggard drugs-and-gay-sex scandal.

Now, the 54-year-old Barnes joins Haggard as a fallen evangelical minister who preached that homosexuality was a sin but grappled with a hidden life.

"I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy," Barnes said in the 32- minute video, which church leaders permitted The Denver Post to view. "... I can't tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away."

His wife, Char, cradled his hand. Barnes declined an interview request through the church.

Unlike Haggard, who had the ear of the White House, Barnes is not a household name. He is a self-described introvert who avoids politics, preferring to talk about a Gen-X service at the nondenominational church he started 28 years ago in his basement, church officials said.

Barnes and Grace Chapel stayed out of the debate over Amendment 43, a measure approved by Colorado voters last month defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

"I can't think of a single sermon where he ever had a political agenda," said Dave Palmer, an associate pastor.

Palmer said the church got an anonymous call last week from a person concerned for the welfare of Barnes and the church. The caller had overheard a conversation in which someone mentioned "blowing the whistle" on evangelical preachers engaged in homosexuality, including Barnes, Palmer said.

Palmer met with Barnes, who confessed. At an emergency meeting Thursday, a board of elders accepted Barnes' resignation after he admitted "sexual infidelity," violating the church's code of conduct. Church leaders also must affirm annually that they are "living the moral and ethical teachings of Scripture in my public and private life."

Asked for details of Barnes' transgressions, Palmer called them "infrequent events in his life" that to his knowledge did not take place in recent months.

Sitting cross-legged in jeans and an open-collar shirt, Barnes spoke in his video about evolving feelings growing up in a firm moral family: from confused little boy to adolescent racked with self-loathing and guilt.

In their only talk about sex, Barnes said his father took him on a drive and talked about what he would do if a "fag" approached him.

Barnes thought, "'Is that how you'd feel about me?' It was like a knife in my heart, and it made me feel even more closed."

When Barnes experienced a Christian conversion at 17, it gave him a glimmer of hope. But his homosexual feelings never went away, he said. He said he cannot accept that a person is "born that way," so he looks to childhood influences.

Barnes said he asked God many times why he was called to ministry, to start Grace Chapel, carrying a "horrible burden."

The soft-spoken Barnes is an unlikely big-church pastor.

After graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary, Barnes and his wife moved to Denver and began a Bible study. His church met in a school and a mortuary, bought property at Colorado Boulevard and Arapahoe Road, and now occupies a campus off County Line Road that used to be a car dealership.

Barnes described struggling with what he believes is the biblical teaching that homosexuality is an abomination. Over the years, he grew to accept that "this is my thorn in the flesh."

Barnes expressed hope for a future where one can "be who you are" and be accepted and loved in the Christian community and also spoke about "separating some of the teachings from Scripture" from Jesus Christ.

Palmer said he wasn't sure what Barnes meant, but Barnes told him that he believes God views homosexuality as a sin.

Barnes said he has been in counseling three times and never found anyone he could talk to.

His wife said on the video that she didn't know about her husband's struggles until he confided in her last week. The couple has two daughters in their 20s.

Char Barnes said she feels "like I'm living someone else's life" but was grateful her husband revealed himself. The couple said they hope to stay in Denver. Near the tape's end, Paul Barnes says, "This is what it is, it's right, and it's time."

Church elder Russ Pilcher said the reaction at services Sunday was largely concern for the couple. "I thought, 'Where did I fall short in making myself so unapproachable that he couldn't come to me?"' Pilcher said.

Paul and Char Barnes will get counseling, but unlike Haggard, they will not go into seclusion or report to a board of reconcilers, Palmer said. He said it will be more personal and that church members will play a role.

Associate pastor John Zivojinovic is the interim senior pastor, and choosing a successor is still months away, Pilcher said.

Given the Haggard story, Pal mer was asked whether Barnes' fall from grace would expose the evangelical community to further charges of hypocrisy.

"The criticism is valid if you look at perfection being the mark, because the next person who stands at our pulpit is going to be guilty of not being perfect as well," he said. "Does that mean we have to change what we say about the word of God? We can't do that."

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Clergy sex abuse widespread across every denomination

Catholic and Protestant worshippers will dutifully file into churches across North Texas today as they do every Sunday.

They will listen to sermons, some of which will be tailored for the holiday season and serve as a traditional reminder of the real meaning of Christmas.

They will listen, but the question is how many will be thinking more about last week's revelations of how the Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese covered up allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Will there be more empty seats as a result? Will some look up from pews with a wary eye at the man behind the pulpit?

The Watergate-type cover-up of sexual abuse detailed in diocese documents released by a district court judge Tuesday has saddened and angered people of all faiths, locally and across the nation. There is also a strong sense of betrayal by spiritual leaders, which is devastating to worshippers, religious authorities say.

"No religious community is untouched by this," said Nadia Lahutsky, associate professor of religion at Texas Christian University. "If there isn't some prayer in churches [today] for the victims, it may be where some people bail out or jump ship."

But there are those of other faiths -- Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Christian denominations, as well as Jews and Muslims -- who might disagree with Lahutsky and conclude that sexual abuse is a "Catholic problem."

And a majority of all worshippers -- "perhaps to a fault" -- will quickly and clearly distinguish between their faith -- and its leaders -- and the Catholic priests, says David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

But he says this would only excuse inaction on the part of their church and chalk up abuse by clergy to human frailty.

And it would be misguided, the experts say.

Religious authorities interviewed say that sexual abuse is not an aberration, but widespread.

"We're hearing more and more from non-Catholics," Clohessy said.

Lahutsky says that all faiths have some scarring from sexual abuse. Christa Brown has more than anecdotal evidence. The Austin attorney and activist has a Web site, stopbaptistpredators.org.

Brown says she was sexually molested by a Southern Baptist minister when she was 16. Sexual abuse of teenage girls and adult women by ministers and other religious leaders is more common and unreported than we suspect, she says.

And other faiths also have secret files with information on abusers.

"There is a dreadful notion that this is a Catholic priest problem and gay problem," Brown said. "The fact that Catholics are muddling along trying to do something about this enables the focus to land there.

"Southern Baptists' doing nothing allows them to land under the radar. By not admitting they have a problem, by turning a blind eye, they're leaving kids at risk for terrible harm."

Brown has campaigned to no avail for the Baptist General Convention of Texas to open its confidential files and name the Baptist ministers who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

The regional SNAP office in Texas has made a similar request. Brown says that confidentiality allows ministers who have molested children or had extramarital affairs to move undetected from one church to another and prey on unsuspecting congregations.

In an article posted on the Baptist Standard Web site last March, Jan Daehnert, then an interim director with the Baptist convention, said the convention takes acts of sexual misconduct seriously and tries to prevent them. He said that the list remains confidential in large part to protect the identity of victims.

The public has learned of only a handful of cases involving non-Catholic leaders. Those sex abuse cases typically have come to light because of legal actions. Among them:

Terry Hornbuckle, founder of the Agape Christian Fellowship Church in Arlington, was convicted in August of sexually assaulting three women and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In March, Larry Nuell Neathery, who had been pastor of Westside Victory Baptist Church near River Oaks, was convicted of 25 felony charges involving sexual assault or molestation of five boys in his Fort Worth home and church.

John Warnshuis, former pastor of the Oak Hills Community Evangelical Free Church near Argyle, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in December 2001 for molesting five boys. In his case, leaders of the Dallas seminary he attended knew that he had been accused of molesting a boy but allowed him to graduate and enter the ministry.

In November, the Web site EthicsDaily.com reported that a lawsuit filed against pastor Larry Reynolds of the Southmont Baptist Church in Denton for having sexual relations with a teenage girl was settled out of court.

"The problem of clergy sexual abuse is not just a Catholic issue -- the problem extends to Protestant denominations as well," Joe Trull wrote in his book Ministerial Ethics. Trull, a retired ethics professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, "Decentralized denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention have no national policies. Sexual misconduct is routinely covered up in these settings."

Systemic issues

So why does the Catholic Church remain in the crosshairs? Those interviewed identified several reasons:

The church hierarchy -- Unlike Protestant denominations that are autonomous and have no defined central authority or supreme leader, there is a clear structure in the Catholic Church, where all roads lead to Rome and the Vatican.

"The heart of the problem is that there are no checks and balances in a monarchy," Clohessy said.

Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and a psychotherapist who recently co-wrote a book, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, added that "All priests are male, take a vow of celibacy and are trained to say the same thing."

As a result, any controversial issue affecting the Church and the way it's dealt with appears systemic, rather than a series of isolated incidents.

The nature of the abuse -- Publicized allegations of sexual misconduct committed by Catholic priests usually involve boys. Revelations of sexual misconduct by Protestant ministers, on the other hand, often seem to involve female victims -- and generally adult women.

"Frankly, stories of male-on-male sex are seen as more salacious in people's minds," Christa Brown said. "Protestants are seen as not so bad because the abuse is with adult women."

All interviewed agree, though, that sexual misconduct is as much about power and control as it is about satisfying latent urges.

"Predators have and will always gravitate toward positions of power over people and access to children," Clohessy said.

Brown says that religious leaders, especially in Baptist churches in the South, tend to be charismatic men, not unlike political figures, but even more influential.

"There is a mistaken notion that the clergy sex offender is about sex," she said. "But from my own experience and that of others, it's about power, pure and simple."

Practice what you preach -- The "glove fits perfectly," Richard Sipe says of the analogy of Catholic cover-ups of sexual abuse to Watergate. While the original crime or act of immorality is not condoned in either case, the efforts to conceal it are perceived by the public as more nefarious. "In the Gospel, Jesus condemns hypocrisy," Sipe said. "And it is applicable here too."

Clohessy of SNAP says that those he has talked to view the sexual misconduct of priests as a sickness. But bishops who cover up sexual abuse and routinely move troubled priests from parish to parish to avoid detection are seen not just as sinning, but also committing a crime. "Those who struggle with their faith in this crisis do so more because of the complicity of the church hierarchy than priests," he said.

Lahutsky, the TCU professor, said: "When someone in position of trust betrays your trust, it's your heart that breaks. These people have the gift of the Holy Spirit; it's why they are elevated in the minds of parishioners."

Celibacy and sexual orientation -- Some try to draw a connection between sexual abuse and the vow of celibacy required of priests, saying it is unreasonable to suppress biological needs. But does that contribute to sexual abuse?

Sipe doesn't think so and points out cases, including heterosexual relationships, that demonstrate that celibacy "is not well-observed by priests and bishops."

And don't expect the Church to change the rules.

"The power of the priesthood is connected with their celibacy," Sipe said. "Few people get that. In fact, the Council of Trent [1545-63] defines priests as higher than angels. It's what makes them unique."

The Council of Trent (a reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine in response to the Protestant Reformation) also states that "Christ and the priests are one priest."

This is why many Catholics believe priests are godlier than other clergy.

Sipe says that, because priests cannot marry, the calling has become a sanctuary for gay men. According to research by Sipe and his colleagues, an estimated 30 percent of the nearly 50,000 priests in the United States are homosexual.

But, he cautions not to make the leap that gay priests are pedophiles.

"The scientific distinction you make is that homosexuality and pedophilia are no more connected than heterosexuality and rape. One is an orientation; the other behavior. Most gays are not attracted to boys," Sipe said.

Clohessy added that "an extraordinary tiny percentage of pedophiles go into the priesthood."

But the sexual orientation of the predator will not make the pain any less for his victims, many of whom may harbor their secret for years.

For those not directly affected by the abuse, the question remains whether sexual abuse by members of the clergy will threaten fundamental religious beliefs or whether people of faith will find a rationale to hold on to their beliefs.

"We're in the Christmas season, and a glow will probably spill over," said Lahutsky of TCU.

"People will go to church for a connection and to pray. And if participation in church is just one part of their spiritual life, if they have God and not just the priest, then it's possible to reconstruct that spiritual life."

Following the paper trail

Former Catholic priests Richard Sipe, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Wall have collaborated on a book called Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.

Sipe and other authorities say it is wrong to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. Most homosexuals are not attracted to children, said Sipe, who is also a psychotherapist.

Extensive research by the three authors, which includes documents in church archives, indicates that about 30 percent of the 50,000 priests and bishops in the U.S. are homosexual, Sipe says.

About 9 percent of priests in the U.S. over the past 50 years have sexually abused a minor at least once, he says.

The abusers include homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals, he said. He estimates that 64 percent of the abusers are homosexual, 27 percent are heterosexual and 9 percent are bisexual.

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Fraud in the church

ELYRIA, OH — Sarah Presnell did not think she would ever come home from the hospital.

Before she went in, the Tennessee woman got her finances in order for her elderly husband and disabled daughter. She cobbled together $25,000 from the couple's savings and her daughter's mea ger earnings from bundling silverware at a restaurant and sent it to Gary McNaughton, an Elyria church leader recommended to her by relatives.

As promised, he sent her a check for $250 the next month.

The first check would be the last.

McNaughton, former youth assistant at Church of the Open Door, sits in jail without bond. The 51-year-old Canadian was charged last month in federal court with fraud and tax evasion, accused of selling $17 million in bogus securities. He tricked 200 people from 1999 to 2003.

Many of those people attended the church or had relatives who did, prosecutors say.

Authorities say scams that sprout in church pews and beneath steeples are among the fastest-growing frauds in America.

In 1989, the North American Securities Administrators Association found that 15,000 people lost $450 million over five years in schemes centered at church.

Those numbers have ballooned. The association found that 80,000 people were victimized between 1998 and 2001, losing nearly $2 billion.

"I've seen more money stolen in the name of God than in any other way," Deborah Bortner, the group's former president, says in a news release on its Web site.

Bob Webster, spokesman for the securities administrators group, said fraud linked to religion thrives as society grows more threatening and people more cautious. One lasting place of trust is the church.

"People tend to let their guard down there," Webster said. "Con artists realize that. Outsiders look to penetrate the circle of trust."

The Ohio Department of Commerce says church-based and ethnic fraud was one of the state's leading investment scams last year, behind cons against the elderly and the sale of crooked promissory notes.

Since 1990, state regulators have shut down 16 people accused of investment fraud based in churches, including McNaughton.

In a notice titled "Preying on the Faithful," the department warned investors of new church members with "sure-fire" investment plans.

McNaughton promised just that, court records allege.

Under the name Haven Equity Co., he promised clients interest rates as high as 20 percent annually on investments and told them their principal was guaranteed, which it wasn't, according to court records.

Church of the Open Door, incorporated in 1950, is one of Lorain County's biggest and most visible religious institutions. It boasts 1,800 people at Sunday services, a rambling campus and a school that enrolls 640 children from pre-kindergarten through high school.

The interdenominational church never invested money in Haven Equity and had no involvement with the sales, Open Door's attorneys said.

"The church was only in the business of religion," attorney Kate Ryan said.

But the pastor at the time, David Walls, and other church leaders invested their own money and recommended the investments to church members, according to court records filed by the investors' attorneys. Walls left the church in 2003 and could not be reached for comment.

Presnell, the Tennessee woman, and James and Dorothy Jevack, of Medina, said the only reason they invested their money was because they believed it was connected with the church.

"Open Door's public venue and promotion of the scheme provided a ripe environment for unscrupulous shysters," according to court documents filed by the Jevacks, who lost close to $200,000 and sued the church.

Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery dismissed the couple's suit, saying the church did not have anything to do with McNaughton's business. The Jevacks are appealing the decision.

The Jevacks declined to be interviewed on the advice of their attorneys. Other victims would speak only anonymously because they are embarrassed they were duped. A Grafton couple who lost nearly $200,000 say only their children know about it.

Some victims believe the church should not be held liable. "Any judgment against the church will turn me upside down," said Seth Stevens, who blames himself for being naive and McNaughton and his Canadian partner, Andrew Lech, for deceiving him.

Stevens, who lost almost all of his $750,000 investment, is still a member of Church of the Open Door.

David Miller, executive director of Yale Divinity School's Center for Faith & Culture, said clergy have to be especially careful not to endorse businesses. But he also said it is common for a church to tap its members' expertise to conduct adult education classes or other programs, which may generate clients for the members' businesses.

Former church employee Scott Russ, who did not invest with McNaughton, said church leaders became a megaphone for McNaughton's investments.

Russ was fired as youth pastor in 2002. He said McNaughton's presence at the church changed the atmosphere for the worse.

"The focus was taken off of God and the ministry and the work of the church, and a lot of it shifted over to Gary and his money. He flaunted his money before a lot of people," Russ testified in a deposition.

McNaughton and his family lived in a $350,000 house about a mile from the church, owned boats and motor homes and drove expensive cars.

A Lorain man who lost $90,000 said he once saw a new Mercedes SL500 sitting in the driveway at the McNaughtons' house. "I joked to his daughter, 'Your dad bought a car with my money,' " he said.

McNaughton donated $250,000 to the church from 1996 to 2002 and bought meals and vacations for at least one church member, according to court records and Russ.

In a deposition, McNaughton said the investment business had nothing to do with his job at the church. McNaughton said he told investors that he was not a financial planner and that he would be sending their money to Lech, a stock trader in Canada whom he had done business with since the late 1980s.

Lech is in jail on contempt of court charges for refusing to give information in one of the civil cases filed by investors. Criminal charges related to the investments are pending.

McNaughton filed for bankruptcy last year, citing debts of more than $1.1 million. He is represented by defense attorneys Mark Stanton and William McGinty, two prominent attorneys in Cleveland.

Stanton declined to discuss how McNaughton could afford the pair.

As for the Presnells, they were forced to sell their home of 27 years for a smaller house and abandon their dream of securing health insurance for their 56-year-old daughter, Diana, who has cerebral palsy.

Sarah Presnell said she was grateful to recently receive a check for $1,980 from Lech's settlement in a class-action case in Canada.

"I've never lost my faith in God," she said.

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Baptist leaders and clergy sex-abuse

DALLAS -- Recent sex scandals among Catholic and evangelical leaders are prompting renewed calls for action against clergy sexual abuse. But with research indicating such abuse is more prevalent among clergy -- including Baptists -- than other counseling professionals, abuse-victim advocates are asking if enough is being done.

Comprehensive studies are difficult to find. But a 1993 survey by the Journal of Pastoral Care found that 14 percent of Southern Baptist ministers admitted to engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior. Seventy percent said they knew another minister who had.

A 2000 Baptist General Convention of Texas report indicated more than 24 percent of ministers said they had counseled at least one person who had sexual contact with a minister. The BGCT report called the level of sexual abuse by clergy "horrific" and noted that "the disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists."

Christa Brown, an attorney from Austin, Texas, maintains www.stopbaptistpredators.org. She works with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a volunteer self-help organization of survivors of clergy sexual abuse. She also recently handed out brochures at the annual BGCT convention Nov. 13 in Dallas.

"We call upon the Baptist General Convention of Texas to stop shielding clergy predators and to take action for the protection of kids," the SNAP leaflet said. It called on the BGCT to hire independent experts to investigate sexual abuse cases within the convention, which maintains that autonomy among local churches -- a Baptist tradition -- sometimes makes it difficult to ferret out and prosecute sexual predators.

Brown, 54, who said she was abused by a Southern Baptist youth minister in 1968, insists if Baptist leaders cared enough about protecting kids from clergy abuse, they would not let congregational autonomy be an impediment to action.

But representatives from the Baptist General Convention of Texas take issue with Brown’s characterization. They say they're actually the only Baptist group to take a proactive stand against clergy abuse -- all the while working within a denominational structure built to maintain autonomy in local churches and resist top-down management.

Emily Row, coordinator of leader communication for the Texas convention, said her initial reaction to hearing from any victims group is one of sadness. She acknowledged that "there have been and continue to be gaps within the system," and said she understands "the grief and the anger and the frustration that is bound to be a process of having been a victim."

Still, she said, there's a lot of misunderstanding about how the BGCT deals with clergy misconduct, and some of it is hearsay.

"Groups like SNAP say that we are harboring people guilty of sexual misconduct," Row said. That's not the case, she added. Instead, churches can report sexual misconduct to a confidential file on a volunteer basis. "What happens is that duly-elected members of a church provide us with information of incidents of sexual misconduct…. It has to be in writing."

That practice is intended to protect both the accuser and the accused, Row said.

The issue of confidentiality versus secrecy has remained a large part of the debate, especially concerning the BGCT's file of ministers who reportedly committed sexual misconduct. SNAP officials criticized the Texas file in a letter they delivered Sept. 26 to the SBC Executive Committee in Nashville calling for an independent review of Baptist abuse.

But BGCT leaders point to the file as proof they're doing more than other Baptist groups in trying to stop sexual abuse. Indeed, while the file remains confidential, it is a step that others have not yet taken, Row said.

Row stressed that the "file of incidents" is often misunderstood. If a minister is convicted of any indecency or confesses to such, then church leaders can choose to report it to the list. And other churches can have access to the file as well, if they submit an official request.

To check the "confidential, not secret" BGCT file, an elected member of a church must submit a written request inquiring about a particular person. Should that specific person appear on the list, BGCT officials "respond with a form that says if the person indicated has an incident on record in that file."

"Because we're autonomous as Baptists, we can't make anyone tell us anything," Row said. "Our information is only as good as the church information that is provided, which means that when a church doesn’t report to us what has happened, we don't have any way of knowing, and that information is not in the file."

Any clergy members recorded as public sex offenders against children are listed in public records, and churches "are encouraged" to reference those lists. Those names are not listed on the BGCT file because "it's already part of public record," Row said.

Christa Brown, however, called that limited availability a "very dangerous way of thinking." FBI reports say less than 10 percent of child molestation cases are ever detected, much less prosecuted, so hundreds of cases go unreported in public databases every year.

"The contents of that file are kept secret from the very people who are most in need of knowing what's in it -- the parents in the pews of Baptist churches," Brown said. "In my own case, the perpetrator's name sat in that secret file at the BGCT while he continued working in children’s ministry in Florida. If I was a parent in one of those Florida churches, I would be outraged to learn that Baptist leaders in Texas knew about a minister with a substantiated report of having sexually abused a minor…."

Secrecy contracts, or agreements that forbid the victim from speaking about the inappropriate contact, have contributed to the problem, Brown said. Often, women who had an affair with a pastor are asked to quietly leave the church in order to save themselves -- and the church -- the embarrassment of a scandal.

"Even if [Baptist leaders] can't actually remove men from ministry, they could at least take on the obligation to inform people in the pews when there is information about a minister reported for molesting a kid," she said. "To keep that kind of information a secret from parents is unconscionable.”

For her part, Row stressed that not all of the people in the file were guilty of child abuse. Some are included because of adultery with consenting adults, for instance. Others may have looked at legal pornography. And she urged churches to contact authorities immediately in cases of illegal behavior, harassment or rape.

What's more, the BGCT has an "intervention specialist" who deals with cases of clergy misconduct, Row said. And the convention has published several guides on ministerial ethics, one specifically about preventing and confronting clergy sexual misconduct.

In June 2002, the Southern Baptist Convention also passed a resolution on the sexual integrity of ministers. It urged seminaries to emphasize ministerial integrity in the training of pastors and other leaders, and called on civil authorities to punish to the fullest extent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors.

"We call on our churches to discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse in obedience to Matthew 18:6-17, as well as to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases," the resolution said. "…[W]e pray for those who have been harmed as a result of sexual abuse and urge our churches to offer support, compassion and biblical counseling to them and their families."

Phil Strickland, in a letter of introduction for Broken Trust: Confronting Clergy Sexual Misconduct, wrote that 96 percent of sexual exploitation by professionals involves a man in power capitalizing on a woman’s trust. The late director of the BGCT's Christian Life Commission, Strickland said clergy sexual misconduct happens when a person in a ministerial role engages in sexual contact, threats or sexual behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student, staff member, colleague or volunteer.

Sometimes it’s done once, spontaneously, by a leader who is emotionally vulnerable and lonely. Other times, the abuse happens from a leader who has a pattern of abusing power -- a serial abuser who actively looks for opportunities to take advantage of congregants.

"Congregations should conduct background checks on prospective staff and assure appropriate supervision of all staff," said Strickland, who died last year. "If there is a complaint of sexual misconduct, the church must act immediately to investigate and intervene properly and responsibly."

Dee Ann Miller, an author and former Southern Baptist missionary, has worked with people affected by clergy abuse for more than 15 years. Of the 2,500 clergy-abuse survivors she has helped, she said on Brown’s website, at least 300 of them claim to have been abused by Southern Baptist clergy.

Miller, who wrote How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct, said she had good response from Baptists when she first got involved with the issue in 1995. But she sees little progress toward training ministers and lay people to prevent and deal with sexual misconduct.

“I could not understand then and still have only partial understanding of the rationale that would put other individuals and congregations at risk while giving 'opportunity for restoration' to a perpetrator with multiple victims...," Miller wrote in a series of essays for Baptists Today.

In an issue so mired in hurt and mistrust, solutions seem few and far between. Miller and Brown have repeatedly and emphatically said the BGCT's action is "not even close" to proper investigation and prevention of misconduct. Brown has called it "a bit of talk and some words on paper" that effectively recycle predators from church to church.

Row maintains that the convention has committed to improving "communication and to make use of our clergy sexual-misconduct file." Convention leaders truly want to prevent sexual abuse and help those whom it affects, she said.

"My hope is that as more of these instances are made public knowledge, that churches will see the need to begin to report these things," Row said. "That they will see that they can be a part of bringing about a solution. My hope is that those who have been bold enough to step forward and say something will be rewarded."

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