Posts in this section were archived prior to February 2010. For more recent posts, go to the HOME PAGE.

Saturday, September 23, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Atheist group opposes campaign ad set in church

An atheist civil-rights organization on Tuesday charged that a Harold Ford Jr. campaign ad filmed in a church sends a "divisive" message and is bringing religion into public policy issues.

The television ad for the Democratic congressman from Memphis, who is running against former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, a Republican, shows Ford in a church talking about his religion and values.

The two men are vying for the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time a partisan political ad has been produced using the backdrop of a church," said Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, in a statement. "It's part of a larger and disturbing trend where candidates are invoking religion in order to woo constituencies and win elections."

The Ford campaign had a quick answer to the criticism.

"Being opposed by (American Atheists) makes us even more certain that Harold Ford Jr.'s Senate campaign is being embraced by people of faith," said Michael Powell, senior adviser to the Ford campaign.

Johnson said that "playing the religion card" excludes millions of atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists and other nonbelievers.


The ad was filmed in Mount Moriah-East Baptist Church in southeast Memphis.

Jeremy Leaming, a spokesmand for Americans United for Separation of Church and State was quoted in one article as saying, "It sounds problematic for a house of worship to open its doors to what appears to be blatant campaigning. I also think politicians should respect houses of worship and not try to drag them into politicking."

It is not clear whether the church could be charged with violation of the Internal Revenue Service laws that prohibit tax-exempt groups, such as churches, from involving themselves in campaigns.

Pastor charged with scamming

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Each year, the Rev. Robert Ascolese, a well-liked pastor in this town of 6,400, ran a “power ball” raffle, selling $100 tickets to raise money for a new building for St. Joseph Catholic Academy. Half the proceeds were to go to the school, and half to the lucky ticket holder.

But the authorities say the only winner was Father Ascolese, who stands accused of stealing more than $600,000 from his church and several charities. The pastor, known as Father Bob here amid the cornfields, stood handcuffed in front of a judge on Thursday in the Warren County courthouse, pleaded not guilty and was released on $75,000 bail.

A 32-count indictment charges that Father Ascolese, 45, who came here in 1999 to start the academy, wrote checks — including one for $100,000 — to fake people or to real ones who had never heard of the lottery, and then diverted the money to himself.

From 2001 to 2005, the indictment says, the church sold more than 4,000 tickets but no one ever collected a prize.

The school, which was holding classes on church grounds while awaiting the new building, closed in May because of a lack of funds.

Marianne Van Deursen, the mayor of Washington Township, had a son enrolled in the school and said she bought four lottery tickets each year to support it. She said she, her family and fellow parish members felt “betrayed and disheartened” upon learning of the allegations.

“Nobody wants to believe a man of the cloth could possibly have scammed us,” she said.

In a statement, Father Ascolese said, “The funds in question were always utilized for the parish, the parish school, the parish day care center and parish youth.”

Besides the fake raffle, Father Ascolese is also accused of stealing from Catholic Charities by reporting false church donations to homeless people, which were then reimbursed by the social services agency. He faces multiple counts of theft, forgery, tampering with public records, conspiracy and theft by deception. Some of the charges carry prison terms of up to 10 years.

The authorities also accuse Father Ascolese of teaming with William and Stella Quilban, a couple from neighboring Hunterdon County who worked at Merck & Company, to steal money from the company through bogus claims that the Quilbans had made matching donations to its charity, a fraud the pastor is also charged with perpetrating on Johnson & Johnson.

The Quilbans pleaded not guilty on Thursday and were released on $35,000 bail.

Father Ascolese has been on a leave of absence from the church since October, when staff members reported suspicions of theft to the diocese, which contacted prosecutors. He has been staying at Emmaus House in Perth Amboy, where he served his first eight years of the priesthood, but has not been working.

James Nolan, Father Ascolese’s lawyer and longtime friend, described him as well educated, sincere and generous, “kind of what you would hope to expect from a priest.” He said his client “did not steal $600,000.”

Walking out of the courthouse, Father Ascolese was asked if, when he drew a raffle ticket, the winner was a real person.

“Usually, yes,” he answered.


Anti-same-sex marriage pastor/campaigner accused by church

WICHITA, Kansas, -- He is the well-known pastor whose abrupt departure from a popular Wichita church left many wondering what happened. Now we are learning more about why Terry Fox and Immanuel Baptist Church parted ways.

Earlier this week, Immanuel Baptist Church issued a statement to "The Baptist Press" about Fox’s resignation. That statement includes some scathing allegations, including Fox’s misuse of church money.

For nearly 10 years, Terry Fox was the person Immanuel Baptists’ huge congregation looked to for spiritual guidance but it all came to an end in August.

In the statement, the church says, "careful examination of the church’s financial records revealed reallocation of cooperate program funds. A portion of the reallocation was used for a radio program — not affiliated with the church. This led to our agreement that it was time for him to resign."

That radio show, "Answering The Call", often focuses on controversial political issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

But Terry Fox, who is now conducting services at his newly formed Summit Church at Wild West World tells a much different story. He says financial issues had nothing to do with his leaving Immanuel Baptist.

"We had the authority to designate mission dollars to different entities that we thought would promote the gospel, that would allow people to have a biblical world view and we felt that our program, "Answering The Call", does exactly that," said Fox.

Fox insists he left Immanuel because of philosophical differences.

Meanwhile, after telling his congregation he was leaving on August 6th, the church claims Fox spoke sternly to church staff.

"A threat in front of 50 deacons and ministerial staff was made by Reverend Terry Fox of individuals who might say anything reflecting negatively on him," said the statement.

Fox responded to that by saying, "we want people to realize that they cannot lie and continue to distort the facts. We have no plans to sue anyone but I’m just glad we live in a nation where there are laws that protect everyone."

While Terry Fox said he has no plans to sue, the church had no comment when we asked it about possible legal action against its former pastor.

link | video

Friday, September 22, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor charged with molesting two girls

Los Angeles CA — A pastor was charged Monday with multiple counts of sexually abusing two girls who attended his church in the San Fernando Valley, prosecutors said.

Joseph Gary Torres, 46, was ordered held on $2 million bail during an initial court appearance Monday, the district attorney's office said in a statement. He was arrested Thursday.

He allegedly met the girls at his Sunland church, Iglesia Bautista Reformada, which is Spanish for Reformed Baptist Church.

A call to the church seeking comment late Monday was not immediately returned.

Prosecutors contend he molested a 12-year-old girl several times from July to August last year. They claim he molested a 14-year-old girl from July 2005 to last month.

Torres was charged with 11 counts, including continuous sexual abuse, sexual penetration by a foreign object, sodomy by force, committing lewd act upon a child and oral copulation.

He faces up to 30 years in state prison if convicted of all counts.


More on this:

Pastor, son arrested for alleged sexual abuse

LOS ANGELES — A pastor and his teenage son were arrested for investigation of sexually abusing three daughters of a member of the congregation, authorities said.

Josephy Gary Torres, 46, of Los Angeles, was arrested Thursday in El Monte, said police Officer Mike Lopez. Torres' son, whose name wasn't released because he is a juvenile, was detained Friday and later released into his mother's custody, Lopez said.

Torres is the pastor of Iglesia Bautista Reformada in Sunland, north of downtown Los Angeles. Police said the father of the three girls recently told authorities about the alleged molestations.

Torres is being held on $5.4 million bail.

Police believe there may be additional victims, but no other information was immediately available.


Pastor arrested on child abuse charge

The pastor of a church in Jackson, Mississippi, has been arrested and charged with felony child abuse, a news release from the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department said.

John C. Evans, 47, 3919 McGuffee Road in Clinton, was arrested Wednesday, the release said.

Evans posted $2,500 bond, the release said. His case will be presented to a grand jury.

Evans is a minister at Cathedral AME Zion Church, 428 W. Northside Drive in Jackson, according to the church’s Web site.

Details of what led to the arrest were not mentioned. But the release said it was the result of a request for assistance from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

Efforts to reach Evans this evening were unsuccessful.


Monday, September 18, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Is your God supremely different from anyone else's God?

From the Seattle Times

Some folks like to say everyone worships the same God. But we know that isn't exactly so, and now we have a description of how American conceptions of God differ.

The Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and the Gallup organization recently finished a study that went beyond the usual questions — "Do you believe in God?" and "Do you go to church?" They tried to dig more deeply and find out how people see God, how they see themselves in relation to God and how that affects their ideas and behavior. What they found is that when Americans say "God," they are not necessarily talking about the same deity.

The researchers asked 29 questions about God's character and behavior, sifted through the answers they got from 1,721 participants and identified "two clear and distinct dimensions" to people's ideas about God.

Those are God's level of engagement and God's level of anger at human sins. People see God as engaged or not, angry or not. The four combinations of those two traits yield more information about the believer than the usual denominational labels.

Americans see God as engaged and angry (a god who is involved in world and individual affairs and who metes out punishment for bad behavior); engaged but not angry (involved in individual lives and the world, but behaving benevolently without anger); disengaged and angry (withdrawn from intervening in human affairs, but unhappy with the state of the world and likely to punish bad deeds in the afterlife; or disengaged and not angry (a god who set things in motion, then went fishing).

Basically what we have are lightning-bolt God, smiley-face God, bummed-out God and whatever, dude God. The researchers assigned them letters: A (authoritarian), B (benevolent), C (critical) and D (distant).

The combination you choose says more about you than about God.

The researchers found "a clear disconnect between how the media and academics identify American believers and how they identify themselves."

Few people use the term "evangelical," for instance, even when they belong to churches that have "evangelical" in their name. But when the data are organized by type of God, it's clear which groups people belong to.

Only evangelical Protestants showed consistency in their political views. "They agree with conservative agenda items and disagree with liberal ones." They tend to believe in an authoritarian God. Other groups crossed political lines depending on the topic.

It didn't matter whether people were Catholic, Protestant or Jewish; what determined their views on a number of topics was the version of God they believed in.

A Catholic who believed in the authoritarian God was as conservative as any evangelical.

They also found that women leaned toward more engaged versions and men toward less engaged. People with lower educations and lower incomes also tended to believe in a more engaged God, who answers prayers. Most black people believed in a more engaged God. Southerners tend toward an authoritarian God, West Coasters are more into a distant God and Midwesterners lean toward the benevolent God.

Interestingly, not a single black person in the survey claimed to be an atheist. Asked whether they believed without any doubt that God exists, black Protestants were the only group in which 100 percent said yes.

Black folks overwhelmingly believe God is not happy with people's sins and will tan hides when necessary in this life or the next.

The survey was full of stuff you might not know: It found that 3.7 percent of the black population is Jewish, compared to 2.6 percent of white Americans.

Everybody's got a model of God to suit who they are. People's religious views reflected their income, education, gender, race and age.

People 18-30 are about three times more likely than people over 65 to have no religious affiliation. Americans are becoming less tied to denomination.

Americans overwhelmingly say they believe in God, it's just that folks have different ideas about who God is and what God wants from us.

The differences have social and political impacts. Who we vote for and which programs we support all affected by the way we see God, including the small portion of the population that filled in "atheist" on the survey.

On abortion, allowing gay people to marry, military spending and social programs, a person's description of God corresponded with his or her political stand.

If the government were going to back a religion, which version of God would it push? Looking at the survey will remind you why separation of church and state makes sense.

People have a bad tendency to talk past one another, using the same words to mean very different things, which leads to misunderstandings and makes it difficult to put conflicts to rest.

This survey gives people a clearer idea of what their neighbors are talking about when they bring God into a conversation.


Saturday, September 16, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Accused Of Defrauding DOE

CLEVELAND Oh — A well-known Cleveland-area pastor has been accused of defrauding the state’s Department of Education of $2.2 million.

The is a well-known pastor who works with ex-convicts.

Olds, 56, of Solon, is charged with conspiracy, money laundering and mail fraud in connection to his operation of a now-closed charter school, Cleveland Academy of Math, Science and Technology. Olds was the developer of the charter school.

According a news release from Auditor of State Betty Montgomery, others are involved with the case. Two people have been arrested and another is expected to surrender.

The former officers of the school, Shirley Haynes and Timothy Daniels are all charged with conspiring to defraud the DOE.

Also, five corporations have been indicted as a result of the state audit, the news release said.

The audit also discovered that the defendants:
  • received funds from the school's bank account for their personal use.
  • did not provide sufficient food to students during lunch.
  • a classroom wall collapsed during class hours close to children.
  • held classes in a building without heat, forcing students and teachers to wear coats.

link. More on this avaialable by CLICKING HERE.

Pastor convicted of having sex with children

A Columbus, Ohio pastor was found guilty of three sex charges with children Friday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, and may learn his sentence on Monday.

The Rev. Maurice L. Jackson, pastor of New Generation Church, 1173 Essex Ave., had been accused of having sexual contact about nine years ago with a girl who then was 7 or 8 and engaging in sex about eight years ago with a relative who then was about 14. Jackson was 22 when the latter offense was said to have occurred.

After about 12 hours of deliberation over two days, a seven-woman, five-man jury returned guilty verdicts on two counts of gross sexual imposition and one count of corruption of a minor. Jackson could face up to 11 ½ years for the convictions.

Duty Judge Richard S. Sheward revoked Jackson's bond and placed him in jail until Monday, when trial Judge Charles A. Schneider returns to decide when to sentence Jackson.

The defense said the charges had been built on “lies and revenge” because Jackson had removed the older girl from the church's praise team.


Atheist Pride

By David Horton

Much talk on the Left in recent years about how the Right have been able to co-opt religion for their own evil purposes. And endless answers from leaders of the Left, about how progressive politicians should proudly talk about their religious faith. And they do; and are shown obediently trooping into churches, bibles under arms, and then meeting pastors, and sitting in front rows staring adoringly up at the preachers just as the rest of the congregation is doing.

As Cenk Uygur said in a recent brilliant piece - 'We were told that if we didn't give up our freedoms and our way of life, the terrorists would win. No, you idiot, they win if we do give up our freedoms and our way of life.'

Seems to me the same applies to religion. To paraphrase Cenk 'We were told that if we didn't go to church the Religious Right would win. No you idiots, if you go to church the Religious Right wins.'

Need some politicians to stand up to the force of religion in society. To say, no I don't go to church, no I don't read the bible, and yes, I do have my own values based on liberal humanism. And most of all we need to standup and say 'Yes, I am an atheist, and proud of it'.

If enough of us do that then we might just postpone the coming western theocracies a little longer. If we don't, then I hope you are ready to face the new Inquisition, the new witch trials, the new excommunications, the new lynch mobs.


Rewriting our religious history

By B.J. Paschal — a Christian

Why are many religious conservatives obsessed with invoking the Founding Fathers? That is, why is there such a brisk book trade in re-examining the founders’ lives? For the religious conservatives, the fight is about proving that America was set up as a Christian nation. And their efforts to rewrite American history are paying off, since a recent Pew Forum survey found that 67 percent of Americans believe this falsehood.

A cottage industry pushes the false argument that the founders intended virtually no separation between church and state, and this industry (authors such as Dee Wampler, James Kennedy, Gary Demar and David Barton;; and, especially, FOX News) has been very consistent in pushing the no-separation and Christian-nation messages.

The “Creator” Jefferson employed in the Declaration of Independence is not specifically God the Father or the God of Abraham. This is also true for the God of public religion that the Continental Congress created Sept. 6 and 7, 1774. Historian John Meacham concluded: “The right’s contention that we are a Christian nation that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument.”

Right-wing propagandists can attempt to deny the historical fact that Jefferson, Madison (principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights), George Washington, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, among other founders were deists, but it won’t change American history. They were different men; they were true heirs to the Enlightenment. For example, Jefferson did not believe in the God of Christianity and opposed religious tyranny over the human mind. He distrusted the clergy.

“Deism is a non-Christian religious belief that a disinvolved creator started the universe in motion but has no present-day concern for human actions and welfare. . . . In terms of their distance from conventional piety, deists in 1776 occupied much the same position that wholly nonreligious people do today,” wrote Paul Kurtz.

In his latest book, “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood explains how this elite fraternity (those who lived into the next century) were very disillusioned by America becoming so “evangelically religious.”

Remember that the Pilgrims/Puritans were mainly Congregationalists and Presbyterians; that the Continental Congress was made up of principally Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and deists. They were determined to create a secular Constitution or Lockean Constitution. And they did. In the midst of religious obsession on the right, scholars such as Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins (agnostics or atheists all) argue “atheism is smarter.” Unlike the cottage-industry authors on the right, these authors have no geopolitical agenda; they’re interested in the metaphysics of belief, not the politics of the First Amendment. It’s the idea of putting trust in God they object to; that is, specifically God the Father, absent from the secular Constitution and Bill of Rights, whose authors knew “they were superior to other individuals,” wrote Wood. “They were unabashed elitists, and they weren’t embarrassed about it.” Yet the dominant feeling in American politics today is a blatant anti-intellectualism. It’s one of mixing religion and politics.

In the midst of this radical attack on separation, we are starting to hear from the 50-plus percent of Americans who never attend religious services. In fact, the 20 percent of Americans who are devout church- or temple-goers have a disproportionate voice in the forming of political opinion, according to the Pew Forum.

As a Christian, I’m convinced religion has failed (not God), and the religious right is trying to get government to do religion’s job. It’s time for thinking Americans to get angry, and not only with Islam.

The founders didn’t trust the clergy, and for good reason. Can you believe lots of evangelical Christians listen to the rot of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who told us that God allowed 9/11 because he was mad at America for harboring civil libertarians, gays and feminists?

It’s not hard to see how thinking Americans might listen to the message that “atheism is smarter.” They are fed up with the dishonest politics of the religious right.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Faces Sex Charges

The pastor of a Winston-Salem NC church has been indicted by a Burke County grand jury on charges of sexually assaulting a 15-year old girl, according to Burke County authorities.

Gregory Michael Butler Sr., 45, of Winston-Salem, was arrested in Forsyth County and returned to Burke County on Tuesday afternoon.

Butler is the pastor of Emmanuel Apostolic Church in Winston-Salem, said Burke County Detective Dean Hennessee.

Butler was charged on the indictments with two counts of felony statutory rape, two counts of felony statutory sexual offenses, and two counts of felony indecent liberties with a minor. He was jailed under a $100,000 secured bond. He was assigned a court date of Oct. 23.

The arrest was the result of a joint investigation between the sheriff's Offices of Burke and Forsyth counties, investigators said.

Hennessee said the investigation shows that Butler had sexual encounters with the minor in both Burke and Forsyth counties.

He said evidence in the case showed Butler was taking the girl to a motel in Burke County, where some of the alleged encounters occurred.

Butler is also under a $75,000 bond in Forsyth County, where additional charges were filed, according to Hennessee.

The Burke County indictments were handed down on Sept. 5.


Saturday, September 09, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Priest admits to Madonna bomb hoax

From the BBC

Christians in several countries have been offended by the Madonna's show.

A 63-year-old Dutch priest has confessed to making a hoax bomb threat in an attempt to stop a concert by US pop star Madonna, prosecutors say.

Her mock re-enactment of the crucifixion in one of the scenes offended some Christians during earlier shows in Italy and Germany.

But the concerts in Amsterdam went ahead as planned on Sunday and Monday.

A city official said the priest was arrested soon after making the call because he used his home phone.

Emergency services quickly traced the number.

The official, prosecutor's office spokesman Robert Meulenbroek, said that as this was probably the priest's first such offence, he was likely to receive a light sentence.

He has been released from custody pending a verdict.

"We take bomb threats seriously, but in this case it was clear very quickly that it was not real," Mr Meulenbroek told the Associated Press news agency.

Madonna has since gone on to do two concerts in Prague, and will play her final European date in Moscow next week.

Russian Orthodox Christians have also expressed concerns about the use of religious imagery in her show.


Is Evolution keeping us superstitious?

From The Times

HUMANS have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be susceptible to supernatural beliefs, a psychologist has claimed.

Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive — despite the lack of evidence and advance of science — because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, said Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.

This evolved credulity suggests that it would be impossible to root out belief in ideas such as creationism and paranormal phenomena, even though they have been countered by evidence and are held as a matter of faith alone.

People ultimately believe in these ideas for the same reasons that they attach sentimental value to inanimate objects such as wedding rings or Teddy bears, and recoil from artefacts linked to evil as if they are pervaded by a physical “essence”.

Even the most rational people behave in irrational ways and supernatural beliefs are part of the same continuum, Professor Hood told the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich yesterday.

To demonstrate his theory he asked members of the audience if they were prepared to put on an old-fashioned blue cardigan in return for a £10 reward. He had no shortage of volunteers. He then told the volunteers that the cardigan used to belong to Fred West, the mass murderer.

“Most hands went down,” he said.

“When people did wear it people moved away from them. It’s not actually West’s jumper. But it’s the belief that it’s West’s jumper that has the effect.

“It is as if evil, a moral stance defined by culture, has become physically manifest inside the clothing.”

Similar beliefs, which are held even among the most sceptical scientists, explain why few people would agree to swap their wedding rings for replicas. The difference between attaching significance to sentimental objects and believing in religion, magic or the paranormal is only one of degree, Professor Hood said.

These tendencies, he said, were almost certainly a product of evolution. The human mind is adapted to reason intuitively, so that it can generate theories about how the world works even when mechanisms cannot be seen or easily deduced.

While this is ultimately responsible for scientific thinking, as in the discovery of invisible forces such as gravity, it also leaves people prone to making irrational errors. “In most cases, intuitive theories capture everyday knowledge, such as the nature and properties of objects, what makes something alive, or the understanding that people’s minds motivate their actions,” Professor Hood said.

“But because intuitive theories are based on unobservable properties, such theories leave open the possibility of misconceptions. I believe these misconceptions of naive intuitive theories provide the basis of many later adult magical beliefs about the paranormal.”

This innate tendency means it is futile to expect that such beliefs will die out even as our scientific understanding of the world improves, he said. “The mind is adapted to reason intuitively about the properties of the world. Because we operate intuitively, it is probably pointless to get people to abandon belief systems.

“No amount of evidence is going to get people to take it on board and abandon these ideas.”

Credulous minds may have evolved for several reasons. It was once less dangerous to accept things that were not true than it was to reject real facts, such as the threat posed by a nearby predator. This may have predisposed humans to err on the side of belief. Superstition may also give people a sense of control that can reduce stress.

“I don’t think we’re going to evolve a rational mind because there are benefits to being irrational,” said Professor Hood. “Superstitious behaviour — the idea that certain rituals and practices protect you — is adaptive.

“If you remove the appearance that they are in control, both humans and animals become stressed. During the Gulf War, in 1991, in areas attacked by Scud missiles there was a rise in superstitious belief.

“I want to challenge recent claims by Richard Dawkins, among others, that supernaturalism is primarily attributable to religions spreading beliefs among the gullible minds of the young. Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces.”


Wednesday, September 06, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Major flaws in the Creationist argument

By John Paulos

A recent international study in the journal Science by Professor Jon Miller of Michigan State University and his associates finds that a growing number of Americans do not believe in the theory of evolution.

In fact, the survey of 32 European nations and Japan reveals that only Turkey has a higher percentage of its citizens rejecting Darwin.

The author attributes the results in the United States to religious fundamentalism, inadequate science education, and partisan political maneuvering.

With regard to the latter Miller notes, "There is no major political party in Europe and Japan that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform."

But there's another contributing factor to this opposition to evolution that I'd like to discuss here. It is the concerted attempt by creationists to dress up in the garb of mathematics fundamentalist claims about human origins and to focus criticism on what they take to be the minuscule probability of evolutionary development. (Even the conservative television pundit and ace biologist Ann Coulter has lent her perspicacity to this mathematical endeavor in her recent book.)

Creationists argue that the likelihood of, say, a new species of horse developing is absurdly tiny. The same, they say, is true of the development of the eye or the mechanism for blood clotting.

Creationists' Argument

A bit more specifically, the standard argument goes roughly as follows. A very long sequence of individually improbable mutations must occur in order for a species or a biological process to evolve.

If we assume these are independent events, then the probability of all of them occurring and occurring in the right order is the product of their respective probabilities, which is always an extremely tiny number.

Thus, for example, the probability of getting a 3, 2, 6, 2, and 5 when rolling a single die five times is 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6 x 1/6 or 1/7,776 -- one chance in 7,776.

The much longer sequences of fortuitous events necessary for a new species or a new process to evolve leads to the minuscule numbers that creationists argue prove that evolution is so wildly improbable as to be essentially impossible.

The Flaw

This line of argument, however, is deeply flawed.

Leaving aside the issue of independent events, which is too extensive to discuss here, I note that there are always a fantastically huge number of evolutionary paths that might be taken by an organism (or a process) over time. I also note that there is only one that actually will be taken.

So if, after the fact, we observe the particular evolutionary path actually taken and then calculate the a priori probability of its being taken, we will get the minuscule probability that creationists mistakenly attach to the process as a whole.

Misunderstanding this tiny probability, they reject outright the evolutionary process.

Here's another example. We have a deck of cards before us. There are almost 10 to the 68th power -- a one with 68 zeroes after it -- orderings of the 52 cards in the deck. Any of the 52 cards might be first, any of the remaining 51 second, any of the remaining 50 third, and so on. This is a humongous number, but it's not hard to devise even everyday situations that give rise to much larger numbers.

Now if we shuffle this deck of cards for a long time and then examine the particular ordering of the cards that happens to result, we would be justified in concluding that the probability of this particular ordering of the cards having occurred is approximately 1 chance in 10 to the 68th power. This certainly qualifies as minuscule.

Still, we would not be justified in concluding that the shuffles could not have possibly resulted in this particular ordering because its a priori probability is so very tiny. Some ordering had to result from the shuffling, and this one did.

Nor, of course, would we be justified in concluding that the whole process of moving from one ordering to another via shuffles is so wildly improbable as to be practically impossible.

The actual result of the shufflings will always have a minuscule probability of occurring, but, unless you're a creationist, that doesn't mean the process of obtaining the result is at all dubious.

The Science study is disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which is that there's no telling to what length the creationist trunk of the G.O.P. elephant will evolve.


Pastor sued — affair alleged

NORFOLK Va - A Baptist minister who was ousted as pastor at a prominent Berkley church earlier this year now faces civil lawsuits accusing him of financial and sexual improprieties.

The allegations have shaken the congregation of the nearly 80-year-old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

The Rev. Charles F. Mc-Keller faces civil suits by an estranged couple who claim that instead of counseling them to repair their marriage he drove them further apart by engaging in a sexual relationship with the wife.

Hayward and Patricia Cuthrell filed separate lawsuits in Norfolk Circuit Court against McKeller and Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Each is seeking $2 million.

According to court records and interviews, the church suspended, then fired Mc-Keller after the wife recorded one of their sexual trysts and presented it to a church deacon.

After he was suspended, McKeller ran up thousands of dollars in charges on the church's credit card, according to another civil action filed in Norfolk General District Court by the church against McKeller.

McKeller counters in his own court filing that the church owes him severance and vacation pay.

McKeller declined The Virginian-Pilot's request for an interview, but his attorney denies the allegations in each lawsuit.

"If anyone loses, it's the church," said McKeller's attorney, Bruce C. Sams.

"They could lose members. It's already happened," he added. "It takes away from the mission of the church - serving your neighborhoods and your community. Instead, they're using resources to engage in back-and-forth litigation."

Church trustees and deacons declined to comment. Church members approached out side Antioch this week also declined to be interviewed.

Church member and state Del. Kenneth C. Alexander, D-Norfolk, said Antioch has lost members as a result, but the church is "forging ahead" and continues to hold services and operate its clothing and food banks.

"It's like any other assembly of people. Whenever ministers come to a church, some bring people with them and when ministers leave, some people rally behind the institution and some members go with that leader," he said. "There's no crisis. The order of things continues."

McKeller joined Antioch in late 2004 after serving at Oakwood Chapel Church Disciples of Christ in Norfolk.

In April 2005, the Cuthrells came to McKeller seeking pastoral and marital counseling, according to the lawsuits filed by the couple, who were living in Portsmouth at the time.

McKeller, one suit says, "abused his confidential relationship by mentally manipulating" Patricia Cuthrell into a sexual relationship with him. McKeller told her that her husband was having an affair, "which was not true," the court papers say.

The relationship between Patricia Cuthrell and Mc-Keller, which continued through February of this year, ruined the Cuthrells' already strained marriage, the court papers say. The couple, through their attorney, John W. Bonney, declined to be interviewed.

Patricia Cuthrell says in court affidavits that she did not resist McKeller's advances. At times, McKeller paid some of her bills, bought her alcohol and took her to a store called the Pink Banana Boutique in Virginia Beach to purchase sex toys, the affidavits say.

"Pastor McKeller told me during these encounters that I was not yet ready for baptism and that God had brought me to him for this purpose," she said in an affidavit. "He prayed with me after our sexual encounters and tried to dissuade my attempts to reconcile with my husband."

When McKeller objected to her attempts to end the relationship, she complained to a church deacon, the affidavit says.

An unidentified deacon asked her to obtain evidence so she tape-recorded a sexual encounter with him in the church office, the papers said.

In a letter dated April 23, church leaders informed McKeller that he was suspended with pay. McKeller's attorney said the pastor later was terminated.

McKeller's salary was $75,000 and he was living in a Portsmouth house that overlooks the Bide-A-Wee Golf Course. The house has a "for sale" sign out front.

Sams, McKeller's attorney, called the allegations in the lawsuits "baseless and false" and added that McKeller never engaged in any "inappropriate behavior" with Patricia Cuthrell.

In the church's civil action against McKeller, he is accused of making more than $3,700 in unauthorized charges on the church's credit card. Court records show that three days after his suspension, McKeller purchased two $900 computers, color printers, a cell phone with a pre paid wireless plan, cleaning supplies and air sanitizers.

McKeller counters that the church owes him more than $12,000 in severance and vacation pay. His attorney said that dispute likely will be settled out of court.


Monday, September 04, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

The New Naysayers

In the midst of religious revival, three scholars argue that atheism is smarter.

From Newsweek

Sept. 11, 2006 issue - Americans answered the atrocities of September 11, overwhelmingly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual. Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil libertarians. Sam Harris, then a 34-year-old graduate student in neuroscience, had a different reaction. On Sept. 12, he began a book. If, he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion—something that had been going on since long before 2001, of course—then perhaps the problem was religion itself. The book would be called "The End of Faith," which to most Americans probably sounds like a lament. To Harris it is something to be encouraged.

This was not a message most Americans wanted to hear, before or after 9/11. Atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6—only 2 percent answered "don't know"—and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll—which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.) "The End of Faith" struggled to find a publisher, and even after Norton agreed to bring it out in 2004, Harris says there were editors who refused to come to meetings with him. But after winning the PEN/Martha Albrand award for nonfiction, the book sold 270,000 copies. Harris's scathing "Letter to a Christian Nation" will be published this month with a press run of 150,000. Someone is listening, even if he is mostly preaching, one might say, to the unconverted.

This year also saw the publication in February of "Breaking the Spell," by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, which asks how and why religions became ubiquitous in human society. The obvious answer—"Because they're true"—is foreclosed, Dennett says, by the fact that they are by and large mutually incompatible. Even to study "religion as a natural phenomenon," the subtitle of Dennett's book, is to deprive it of much of its mystery and power. And next month the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ("The Selfish Gene") weighs in with "The God Delusion," a book that extends an argument he advanced in the days after 9/11. After hearing once too often that "[t]o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Christianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam."

Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition. (In the spirit of scientific evenhandedness, both would call themselves agnostic, although as Dawkins says, he's agnostic about God the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.) They ask: where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur'an. "Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible," Harris writes, "and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." He asks: How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? How does it advance our understanding of the universe to suppose that it was created by a supernatural being who communicates only through the one-way process of revelation?

These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the "theodicy" problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress. Neither author claims much success in arguing anyone out of a belief in God, but they consider it sufficient reward when they hear from people who were encouraged by their books to give voice to their private doubts. All the same, this is highly inflammatory material. Dawkins acknowledges that many readers will expect, or hope, to see him burning in hell (citing Aquinas as authority for the belief that souls in heaven will get a view of hell for their enjoyment). Harris says he has turned down requests for the rights to translate "The End of Faith" into Arabic or Urdu. "I think it would be a death sentence for any translator," he says. Harris himself—who traveled the world for a dozen years studying Eastern religions and mysticism before returning to finish his undergraduate degree at Stanford—asks that the name of his current university not be publicized.

These authors have no geopolitical strategy to advance; they're interested in the metaphysics of belief, not the politics of the First Amendment. It's the idea of putting trust in God they object to, not the motto on the nickel. This sets them apart from America's best-known atheist activist, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a controversial eccentric who won a landmark lawsuit against mandatory classroom prayers in 1963 and went on to found the group now called American Atheists. When a chaplain came to her hospital room once and asked what he could do for her, she notoriously replied, "Drop dead." Dawkins, an urbane Oxfordian, would regard that as appalling manners. "I have no problem with people wishing me a Happy Christmas," he says, expressing puzzlement over the passions provoked in America by the question of how store clerks greet customers.

But if the arguments of Dawkins and Harris are familiar, they also bring to bear new scientific evidence on the issue. Evolution isn't necessarily incompatible with faith, even with evangelical Christianity. Several new books—"Evolution and Christian Faith" by the Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden and "The Language of God" by geneticist Francis Collins—uphold both. But to skeptics like Dawkins—and to Biblical literalists on the other side—Darwin appears to rob God of credit for his crowning achievement, which is us. In particular, evolutionary psychologists believe they are closing in on one of the remaining mysteries of life, the universal "moral law" that underlies our intuitive notions of good and evil. Why do we recognize that acts such as murder are wrong? To Collins, it's evidence of God's handiwork—the very perception that led him to become a Christian.

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests—say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness—but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are attacks on religious "moderates" as well—indeed, the very idea of moderation. The West is not at war with "terrorism," Harris asserts in "The End of Faith"; it is at war with Islam, a religion whose holy book, "on almost every page ... prepares the ground for religious conflict." Christian fundamentalists, he says, have a better handle on the problem than moderates: "They know what it's like to really believe that their holy book is the word of God, and there's a paradise you can get to if you die in the right circumstances. They're not left wondering what is the 'real' cause of terrorism." As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading. He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath? Obviously our culture no longer believes in that, he adds, so why not agree that science has made it equally unnecessary to invoke God to explain the Sun, or the weather, or your own existence?

Even agnostic moderates get raked over—like the late Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist who attempted to broker a truce between science and religion in his controversial 1999 book "Rocks of Ages." Gould proposed that science and religion retreat to separate realms, the former concerned with empirical questions about the way the universe works, while the latter pursues ultimate meaning and ethical precepts. But, Dawkins asks, unless the Bible is right in its historical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm? And can science really abjure any interest in the claims of religion? Did Jesus come back from the dead, or didn't he? If so, how did God make it happen? Collins says he is satisfied with the answer that the Resurrection is a miracle, permanently beyond our understanding. That Collins can hold that belief, while simultaneously working at the very frontiers of science as the head of the Human Genome Project, is what amazes Harris.

Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a "movement." American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than $1 million. On the science Web site, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes. Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world—for "the people who want to know that they're going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.


Friday, September 01, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor confesses to murder

SWEDEN — In an interview with TV4's news programme Nyheterna, Knutby pastor Helge Fossmo has admitted involvement in the murder of his wife in their home in 2004. Fossmo also said that several others were involved in the crime.

"I feel that I have recovered. I lived a lie and I don't want to do that any longer," he said as an explanation for his confession.

On January 10, 2004, Alexandra Fossmo was shot dead while she slept in the village of Knutby, not far from Uppsala. She was the wife of Pastor Helge Fossmo, one of the leaders of the extreme Pentecostal sect that dominated village life, and sister of the woman many claimed was the cult's real leader, Åsa Waldau - otherwise known as the Bride of Christ.

A short while later, the killer knocked on the door of a neighbour - whose wife was having an affair with the pastor - and shot him as he opened the door. He survived.

The Fossmos' nanny, Sara Svensson, admitted to the shootings from the start, but claimed that she was being controlled by the manipulative pastor.

The pastor denied all accusations but was found guilty of instigating murder and attempted murder. Svensson was found guilty of murder and attempted murder in November 2004 and sentenced to secure psychiatric care.

The trial caused a sensation in Sweden and hogged the country's headlines for months, as defendants and witnesses described the cocktail of sex, violence and religion that defined the cult. But it seems that the full story has still not been told.

"I'm going to discuss what I've previously kept quiet regarding the events in Knutby," Fossmo told TV4.

"I'm going to put my cards on the table and talk about my role in what happened and other facts which I know."

The pastor says that he can admit and accept that he is responsible for what happened.

When TV4 asked if he meant both the murder of his wife and the attempted murder of the neighbour, Fossmo said yes.

"Since I left Knutby I have gone through a long process. Feelings, thoughts, behaviour - my whole self - were impregnated by a poisonous sect culture,"

He said that he has slowly recovered and that todat he sees both his own role and that of others differently.

However, Fossmo still declined to reveal specific details about what happened. He said that he did not want to give any information "that the media can wallow in". He said he was refraining out of respect for other people who were involved. He will instead hand over his information to the police.

"Then they can handle it," said Fossmo.

Anne Sjöblom was one of two prosecutors who dealt with the Knutby case.

"There isn't really much more to say since he's already been sentenced for it and we knew that he was guilty," she said to TT.

"Perhaps I'm a little surprised that he has admitted it."

Sjöblom added that no other people were suspected of involvement.


Pastor casts out demons with a rod of power

LEONARD RAY OWENS FORTWORTH -- A 63-year-old pastor accused of raping a church member last year during a ceremony to cast out demons has been indicted by a Tarrant County grand jury.

Leonard Ray Owens, who is free on $25,000 bail, is now awaiting trial on a charge of sexual assault -- a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison.

Police have said that they began investigating Owens last year after a 22-year-old woman reported that Owens raped her on two occasions at his Fort Worth home. The woman told police that, several months after she began attending the Prayer House of Faith at 1303 E. Seminary Drive, she went to Owens' home for counseling after having a miscarriage.

There, the woman told police, Owens said she had a sex spirit and lesbian demon inside her that he needed to cast out. The pastor then asked her to lie on the floor and began yelling at her as if she were a demon, saying "Loose her in the name of Jesus," according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

The woman told police that Owens pulled down her pants as he called for the demons to come out. When she tried to get up, he pushed her down, the affidavit said. The pastor then began to fight with her as if she were a demon before climbing on top of her, pinning her down and raping her, police have said.

The woman told police that the pastor wore a condom. Afterward, Owens, a self-proclaimed prophet, ordered her to wash her face in the name of Jesus and to read Psalm 105:15, which says to do no harm to prophets, the woman told police.

The woman told police that Owens raped her again a month later, after he asked her come to his house to pray for another woman.

Owens has denied having sexual contact with the woman, police have said.