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Thursday, March 29, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor gets six years for molesting girl

THOUSAND OAKS, CA — Shortly after receiving a prison sentence Tuesday for sexually abusing a girl at church events and on church school grounds in 1988 and 1989, a former Thousand Oaks Baptist Church pastor wobbled inside an inmate holding cage and collapsed.

William Alan Malgren, who had just been sentenced to six years and four months in prison by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Bruce Clark, appeared to have fainted.

"Are you OK? Are you OK?" a bailiff asked him as other bailiffs called for medical help.

He was later revived.

Prosecutor Maeve Fox wasn't too sympathetic about a man who, she said, destroyed a girl's life.

"It is such a breach of trust, and it kind of rocks the foundation of everything we have been taught to believe in, which is that those kind of people are supposed to protect your children," Fox said.

Outside the courtroom, Malgren's lawyer, Lawrence Young, tried to put a positive spin on the sentence, noting that the judge could have sentenced Malgren to 12 years behind bars.

He said Malgren's family, which includes five children, are suffering.

"They are absolutely broken and destitute," Young said.

Malgren, 52, admitted to sexually abusing the girl when she was 7 or 8, but prosecutors, by law, couldn't charge Malgren with crimes that occurred before she was 14 years old, Fox said.

"She (the victim) wasn't into this for any kind of vindictive purposes. So I think the fact that he has to go to state prison makes a pretty good statement," Fox said. "I hope that she will be satisified with that. ... It's been rough for her."

Young asked Clark to put his client on probation and offer him therapy, noting that there were two dozen letters from people who speak highly of him and know his good works.

Fox told the judge that she was "shocked" to read some of the letters because they blamed the victim.

Earlier this year, Malgren tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his guilty plea.

Clark ruled that Malgren pleaded guilty "freely and voluntarily" to two counts of lewd acts on a child under 14 and two counts of lewd acts on a child over 14.

Pastor ordered to trial for rape

FRESNO, Calif.- A pastor was ordered to trial on child molestation and rape charges after two girls testified he had abused them for years, allegedly raping one after she became pregnant.

A Fresno County Superior Court Judge ruled Tuesday that there was enough evidence to try Pastor Charles Dickerson, 36, on several counts of rape and lewd and lascivious acts with a minor.

Dickerson, pastor of Pearly Grove Baptist Church in Fresno, was arrested last year. He has been a community leader who has spoken out against street violence and encouraged people to support black-owned businesses.

Monday, the pastor's wife, Jeneene Dickerson, testified that Charles Dickerson had become physically abusive but that she never reported it to police.

The girls, whose relationship to Charles Dickerson was not revealed, were coached by his estranged wife, who has a "vendetta," said defense lawyer Glenn LoStracco.


Youth pastor faces minimum 20-year sentence

A former self-described youth pastor pleaded no contest to 48 charges related to child pornography.

Paul Gagnon, 51, of Flint, Michigan, known to many as "Pastor Paul," faces an April 26 sentencing before Genesee Circuit Judge Archie L. Hayman.

"What Mr. Gagnon perpetrated on these children is deplorable," said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, who also had a warning for others who might become involved in child porn.

"The message today is that if you chose to prey on children, you will be held accountable for your actions," he said.

Gagnon was allowed to plead no contest because of potential civil liability from victims. In all, he pleaded no contest to 36 counts carrying up to 20 years in prison, four 7-year felonies, seven 4-year felonies and one 2-year felony.

The charges are for eavesdropping, using a computer to commit a crime, manufacturing and possessing child porn, and child sexually abusive activity.

At the least, Gagnon faces up to 20 years in prison at sentencing. He could face up to 40 years if Hayman sentences him consecutively.

Officials found thousands of pictures and videos of child porn, some in Gagnon's computer and others in photo albums or on videotape.

The case began in July when the teen who lived with Gagnon at his 508 Leland St. residence found an elaborate spy camera system that led to Gagnon's bedroom.

He later found pictures in Gagnon's office of himself getting dressed and of Gagnon standing over him and taking pictures as he slept nude, among others. Those items were taken to Flint police, who arrested Gagnon in early August.

Gagnon is being held on a $180,000 cash bond in the Genesee County Jail awaiting sentencing.

Gagnon conducted a youth ministry aimed at disadvantaged teens.


Creation Science -- stronger than ever

Creation "Science" Is the Christian Right's Trojan Horse Against Reason by Chris Hedges
"Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda -- before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone's disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world--lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world."
-- Hannah Arendt, "The Origins of Totalitarianism"

In the middle of the lobby of the 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., a 20-foot waterfall tumbles. Two life-size figures of children with long black hair and in buckskin clothes play in the stream a few feet from two towering Tyrannosaurus Rex models that can move and roar. The museum, which cost $25 million to build and has a sea of black asphalt parking lots for school buses, has a scale model of Noah's ark that shows how Noah solved the problem of fitting dinosaurs into the three levels of the vessel--he loaded only baby dinosaurs. And on the wooden model, infant dinosaurs cavort with horses, giraffes, hippopotamuses, penguins and bears. There is an elaborate display of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve, naked but strategically positioned so as not to display breasts or genitals, swim in a river as giant dinosaurs and lizards roam the banks.

Before Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, museum visitors are told, all of the dinosaurs were peaceable plant-eaters. The evidence is found in Genesis 1:30, where God gives "green herb" to every creature to eat. There were no predators. T-Rex had such big teeth, the museum explains, so it could open coconuts. Only after Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of paradise did the dinosaurs start to eat flesh. And Adam's sin is a key component of the belief system, for in the eyes of many creationists, in order for Jesus' death to be meaningful it had to atone for Adam's first sin.

The museum has a theater equipped with seats that shake and gadgets that spray mist at the audience as the story of God's six-day creation of the world unfolds on the screen and the sound system rocks the auditorium. There are 30-foot-high walls that represent the cliffs of the Grand Canyon, floors that resemble rocks embedded with fossils, and rooms where a "Christian" paleontologist counters the claims of an "evolutionist" paleontologist. It has the appearance of a real science museum, complete with a planetarium, a gift shop and plaques on the wall with quotes from creationist "scientists" who have the title doctor conspicuously before their names. It has charts, timelines and graphs with facts and figures. It is meant to be interactive, to create, like Universal Studios, a contrived reality with an array of costly animatronic men and women as well as moving dinosaurs.

The danger of creationism is that, like the pseudo-science of Nazi eugenics, it allows facts to be accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained ideology. Creationism removes the follower from the rational, reality-based world. Signs, miracles and wonders occur not only in the daily life of Christians but in history, science, medicine and logic. The belief system becomes the basis to understand the world. Random facts and data are collected and made to fit into this belief system or discarded. When facts are treated as if they were opinions, when there is no universal standard to determine truth, in law, in science, in scholarship, or in the reporting of the events of the day, the world becomes a place where people can believe what they want to believe, where there is no possibility of reaching any conclusion not predetermined by those who interpret the official, divinely inspired text. This is the goal of creationists.

Other creationist museums are going up in Arkansas, Texas, California, Tennessee and Florida. Museums are part of a massive push to teach creationism in schools, part of a vast Christian publishing and filmmaking industry that seeks to rewrite the past and make it conform to the Bible. The front lines of the culture wars are the classrooms. The battle is one we are slowly losing. Twenty states are considering changing the way evolution is taught in order to include creationism or intelligent design. Only 13 percent of Americans in a 2004 Gallup poll, when asked for their views on human origins, said life arose from the strictly natural process of evolution. More than 38 percent said they believed God guided evolution, and 45 percent said the Genesis account of creation was a true story.2 Courses on intelligent design have been taught at Minnesota, Georgia, New Mexico and Iowa State universities, along with Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon, not to mention Christian universities that teach all science through the prism of the Bible.

The museum is an illustration of the movement's marriage of primitive and intolerant beliefs with the modern tools of technology, mass communication, sophisticated fundraising and political organization. Totalitarian systems usually start as propagandistic movements that ostensibly teach people to "believe what they want." This is a ruse. This primacy of personal opinion, regardless of facts, destabilizes and destroys the primacy of all facts. This process leads inevitably to the big lie. Facts are useful only if they bolster the message. The use of mass-marketing techniques to persuade and convince, rather than brainwash, has led tens of millions of followers to accept the toxic totalitarian line by tricking them into believing it's their own. Ironically, at the outset the movement seemingly encourages people to think "independently" or "courageously."

At first all have, in the totalitarian belief system, a right to an opinion, or, in short, a right to believe anything. Soon, under the iron control of an empowered totalitarian movement, facts become worthless, kept or discarded according to an ideological litmus test. And once these movements achieve power, facts are ruthlessly manipulated or kept hidden to support the lie. Creationism is not about offering an alternative. Its goal is the destruction of the core values of the open society--the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to advocate for change and to accept that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable. We are beginning to see the growing intolerance that comes with the empowerment of these ideologues. There is a bill in the Texas Legislature to strip all mention of evolution from Texas school textbooks and institute mandatory Bible classes for all students. This is just the start.

And yet, coming from the modern age, these Christo-fascists cannot discount science. They employ jargon, methods and data that appear to be science, to make an argument for creationism. They have created parallel research and scholarly institutions. They pump out articles in self-published journals to provide "evidence" that homosexuals can be cured, that global warming is a myth, that abortion can cause breast cancer, that something they call "post-abortion syndrome" leads to deep depression and suicide and that abstinence-only education is an effective form of birth control. This pseudo-science has seeped into the public debate. It is disseminated by nervous and timid media anxious to give both sides in every argument. Those who have contempt for facts and truth, for honest research and inquiry, are given the same platform by the press as those who deal in a world of reality, fact and rationality.

The movement desperately needs the imprint of science to legitimize itself. It achieves this imprint by discrediting real science and claiming creationist science as true science. All attempts to argue the creationists out of their mythical belief, to persuade them with logic, evidence, scientific inquiry and fact, will fail. They have created a "fundamentalist science." They know they cannot return to the pre-Darwinian innocence that let them believe the Bible alone was enough. They need, in the midst of their flight from reality, to reassure their followers that science, science not contaminated by secular humanists and nonbelievers, is on their side. In this they are a distinctly modern movement.

They seek the imprint of science and scholarship to legitimize myth. This is a characteristic they share with all modern totalitarian movements, which co-opt the disciplines of law, science, medicine and scholarship to give a modern veneer to their primitive and superstitious belief systems, systems that allow the rulers to dictate reality and truth. The "paraprofessional" organizations formed by the Christian right, organizations of teachers, journalists, doctors, lawyers and scientists, mimic the activities of real professional groups. They seek to challenge the legitimacy and the power of the traditional organizations. The duplication of the structures and methods employed by the non-totalitarian world, the use of pseudo-science to dress up fantasy, is slowly undermining our legitimate scientific and educational institutions. It is destroying the foundations of our open society. It is ushering us into a world where lies are true.


Sunday, March 25, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

The gods of Mt. Olympus are smiling

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – A clutch of modern pagans honored Zeus at a 1,800-year-old temple in the heart of Athens in January – the first known ceremony of its kind held there since the ancient Greek religion was outlawed by the Roman empire in the late 4th century.

Watched by curious onlookers, about 20 worshippers gathered next to the ruins of the temple for a celebration organized by Ellinais, a year-old Athens-based group that is campaigning to revive old religious practices from the era when Greece was a fount of education and philosophy.

The group ignored a ban by the Culture Ministry, which declared the site off limits to any kind of organized activity to protect the monument. But participants did not try to enter the temple itself, which is closed to everyone, and no officials sought to stop the ceremony.

Dressed in ancient costumes, worshippers standing near the temple’s imposing Corinthian columns recited hymns calling on the Olympian Zeus, “King of the gods and the mover of things,” to bring peace to the world.

“Our message is world peace and an ecological way of life in which everyone has the right to education,” said Kostas Stathopoulos, one of three “high priests” overseeing the event, which celebrated the nuptials of Zeus and Hera, the goddess of love and marriage.

To the Greeks, ecological awareness was fundamental, Stathopoulos said after a priestess, with arms raised to the sky, called on Zeus “to bring rain to the planet.”

A herald holding a metal staff topped with two snake heads proclaimed the beginning of the ceremony before priests in blue and red robes released two white doves as symbols of peace. A priest poured libations of wine and incense burned on a tiny copper tripod while a choir of men and women chanted hymns.

“Our hymns stress the brotherhood of man and do not single out nations,” said priest Giorgos Alexelis.

For the organizers, who follow a calendar marking time from the first Olympiad in 776 B.C., the ceremony was far more than a simple recreation.

“We are Greeks and we demand from the government the right to use our temples,” said high priestess Doreta Peppa.

Ellinais was founded last year and has 34 official members, mainly academics, lawyers and other professionals. It won a court battle for state recognition of the ancient Greek religion and is demanding the government register its offices as a place of worship, a move that could allow the group to perform weddings and other rites.

Christianity rose to prominence in Greece in the 4th century after Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion. Emperor Theodosius wiped out the last vestige of the Olympian gods when he abolished the Olympic Games in A.D. 394. Several isolated pockets of pagan worship lingered as late as the 9th century.

“The Christians shut down our schools and destroyed our temples,” said Yiannis Panagidis, a 36-year-old accountant at the ceremony.

Most Greeks are baptized Orthodox Christians, and the church rejects ancient religious practices as pagan. Church officials have refused to attend flame ceremony re-enactments at Olympia before the Olympic Games because Apollo, the ancient god of light, is invoked.

Unlike the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the old religion lacked written ethical guidelines, but its gods were said to strike down mortals who displayed excessive pride or “hubris” – a recurring theme in the tragedies of Euripides and other ancient writers.

“We do not believe in dogmas and decrees, as the other religions do. We believe in freedom of thought,” Stathopoulos said.


Harvard's God-Free Chaplaincy Turns 30

Salman Rushdie, others honored by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard

Sent in by Tom
Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

I wanted to contact you about a major event in the world of atheism that is occurring at Harvard this April. The Humanist Chaplaincy is hosting a once-in-a-lifetime gala to celebrate its 30th anniversary. I am very excited about attending, as are the majority of big names in atheism, humanism, secularism and the like (Salmon Rushdie, E.O. Wilson, Ned Lamont to name a few). I've included part of the conference press release. Also, please check out the for a great overview. We would love to see word spread about the conference, and would appreciate any action on your part, especially with your blog.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A group of renowned Humanists, atheists and agnostics will gather at Harvard in April, to take on an unlikely opponent: atheist "fundamentalists."

The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard has long been among the most distinct institutions serving the non-religious community, and this April 20-22 it marks its 30th anniversary with an international conference asserting humanism is a non-theistic philosophy that allows for understanding and respect between believers in God and atheists.

"Vocal atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have recently publicized the notion that atheists must defeat religion and that science is all we need to understand the world. The press dubbed this phenomenon 'the new atheism,'" said Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University Greg M. Epstein.

But Epstein said "Humanism", which encompasses but does not end at atheism, is the philosophy that best represents the diverse, emerging population of 1.1 billion non-religious people around the world. And so the Chaplaincy is calling its upcoming conference "The New Humanism."

The April 20-22 conference at Harvard will include some of the greatest thinkers of our time, including novelist Salman Rushdie, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning scientist E.O. Wilson, and renowned psychology professor and author Steven Pinker. Humanist Congressional lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown, of the Secular Coalition for America, will speak about how humanists can become more active in politics. Singer-songwriter Dar Williams will perform a private concert.

"Humanism takes science seriously, but is more than just science!" Epstein said. "Humanists love life here on Earth, find inspiration in human creativity, and respect all human beings."

"The time has come to say to the world that inclusiveness is the best approach, for non-religious and religious people alike," Epstein said.

Thursday, March 22, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Flapjack features a familiar face

"I flipped the pancake, looked down and then called for my finance. I get chills when I think about it." -- Amy Clark, pancake cook

Amy Clark of Conneaut, Ohio, can whip up one heavenly breakfast.

On Sunday morning, Clark was at her griddle preparing a batch of pancakes when one of the tasty concoctions caught her eye. She stared at the pancake -- and it stared back.

As the pancake cooked, an image began taking shape. The outline of a man popped forth -- a man with a dark beard. "Everyone I show it to thinks it's the face of Jesus," Clark said.

Clark, 25, was shocked to see a religious figure in her breakfast food.

"I flipped the pancake, looked down and then called for my fiancé," she said. "I get chills when I think about it."

Photos taken of the pious pancake were circulated among friends and co-workers for their opinions. Nearly everyone agrees with Clark's assessment.

"99.9 percent of them think it looks like Jesus," Clark said.

Clark describes herself as spiritual but no religious zealot.

"I go to church once in awhile," Clark said. "But I believe in God and pray to God."

The image appeared at a special time in Clark's life, she said.

"There's a lot of things I've been praying for," she said. "My fiancé and I are pregnant after trying for a long time. We're going to be married next month."

The happy couple are interpreting the visage as encouraging sign, Clark said with a chuckle.

Lots of folks feel good after seeing the image, Clark said.

"People think it's a blessing," she said. "They get happy."


Monday, March 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pentacostal leaders caught in scandal

SÃO PAULO: Only a few months ago, Estevam and Sônia Hernandes were on television preaching a gospel of material success and living a life to match.

But that was before they were arrested in Miami in January and charged with illegally smuggling cash into the United States, including $9,000 concealed in a Bible.

All told, the U.S. authorities seized $56,467 that the couple and other family members had hidden on their bodies and in luggage, according to the U.S. indictment. The Brazilian authorities, who have charged the couple with money laundering and fraud, are seeking their extradition.

Because the Hernandeses are prominent and controversial in Brazil, their travails have focused new attention, not just on their own church, but also on the growing wealth and power of the religious movement they are part of, the fastest-growing in Brazil: Pentecostalism, many of whose fundamentalist Protestant denominations stress speaking in tongues or other visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Hernandes, originally a marketing executive, and his wife, formerly a boutique manager, founded the Rebirth in Christ Church in the mid-1980s. They now preside over a religious and business structure that includes more than 1,000 churches, a television and radio network, a recording company, real estate in Brazil and the United States and, according to Brazilian news reports, a horse-breeding ranch and a trademark on the word "gospel" in Brazil.

On television and at their home church in São Paulo — which has been defaced with graffiti saying "You don't carry money in the Bible, thief!" and other insulting slogans — Hernandes, 52, and his wife, 48, preached a "theology of prosperity," often accompanied by her singing and sometimes by his saxophone playing.

Each year, the Rebirth in Christ Church sponsored a March for Jesus down the main avenue of São Paulo, the largest city in South America, mobilizing as many as three million people.

One of the couple's three children, Fernanda, is also a pastor and has asserted that the charges against her parents are part of a campaign of religious persecution against Pentecostals and the larger group they count themselves members of, evangelicals. She has complained that prosecutors in Brazil, the country with the largest Roman Catholic population in the world, are conducting "a new Inquisition."

"Brazil is still Catholic, but evangelicals are already 30 percent of the population," she said in a recent televised sermon. "That's why they want to destroy us and refer to us in a pejorative manner."

Coverage of the Hernandeses and the charges against them has been uniformly negative in the Brazilian news media, with many newspapers and magazines belittling their denomination as a "sect."

One newspaper regularly puts "bishop" in quotation marks when it refers to the couple and other church leaders.

"This is not just a religious issue, but one that involves media, political and commercial interests," said Luiz Flávio Borges D'Urso, a lawyer for the Hernandeses who is president of the bar association in São Paulo. "The truth is that television is very competitive and, since the church has a network of its own, the growth of their Gospel Network has generated antagonisms and confrontations with other media organizations whose interests are affected."

According to the nondenominational World Christian Database, Brazil has overtaken the United States as the country with the largest Pentecostal population. The survey, based on figures that churches provide, calculated that 24 million Brazilians belong to Pentecostal denominations and 138 million are Roman Catholics.

As the wealth and influence of Pentecostal and allied denominations in Brazil have grown, so have their involvement in politics. More than 10 percent of the members of Brazil's Congress belong to an evangelical caucus, and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva chose his vice president from a party dominated by Pentecostal groups.

The Hernandeses' troubles became public late last year when prosecutors, who had been investigating complaints from former church members, froze several bank accounts. When the Hernandeses failed to appear at a hearing — because of medical problems, their lawyer says — an order to detain them was granted.

In early January, after a judge set aside the detention decree, they left for the United States.

They have several churches in southern Florida and a home in Boca Raton, but they were stopped at customs because the Brazilian authorities had issued an alert in their names for "suspicion of money laundering and fraud related to Brazilian organized crime," according to an affidavit filed by an agent of the U.S. Bulk Currency Smuggling Task Force.

"It was a misunderstanding, an inadvertently erroneous declaration," said D'Urso. "They go to the United States every January to preach and evangelize and weren't planning to stay. They want to come back, to show that the accusations here have no foundation."

While they await trial in the United States, the Hernandeses, free on bail, continue to preach to their followers, who include the soccer star Kaká, through Webcam and satellite broadcasts.

They practice long-distance faith healing, urge their supporters to keep tithing and proclaim their innocence.

The Hernandeses' trial on the cash- smuggling charges is scheduled for early May, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Miami said. D'Urso said negotiations for a plea bargain were "quite advanced," but the lawyers representing the couple in the United States declined requests for an interview.

In the meantime, the Hernandeses' problems at home continue to mount.

The Brazilian government is seeking their extradition and is moving to strip their church of some media properties.

In addition, two of their children and a son-in-law are being investigated on suspicion that a state legislator, who is also a Rebirth in Christ minister, gave them no-show jobs.

Hernandes has condemned all of the accusations as "the handiwork of the devil."


Atheist congressman honored

The American Humanist Association is honoring California Congressman Pete Stark because he's an atheist.

The group put an ad in the Washington Post congratulating Stark.

The California Democrat tells The Associated Press that he's "a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being."

Unitarian Universalism is creedless, allowing members to shape their own beliefs.

Stark said, "I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services."

Stark's beliefs gained attention after the Secular Coalition for America offered a $1,000 prize to the person who could identify the "highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of non-theist currently holding elected public office in the United States."


Sunday, March 18, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Moderate believers give cover to religious fanatics -- and are every bit as delusional.

Contributed by John Blatt

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

PETE STARK, a California Democrat, appears to be the first congressman in U.S. history to acknowledge that he doesn't believe in God. In a country in which 83% of the population thinks that the Bible is the literal or "inspired" word of the creator of the universe, this took political courage.

Of course, one can imagine that Cicero's handlers in the 1st century BC lost some sleep when he likened the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods to the "dreams of madmen" and to the "insane mythology of Egypt."

Mythology is where all gods go to die, and it seems that Stark has secured a place in American history simply by admitting that a fresh grave should be dug for the God of Abraham — the jealous, genocidal, priggish and self-contradictory tyrant of the Bible and the Koran. Stark is the first of our leaders to display a level of intellectual honesty befitting a consul of ancient Rome. Bravo.

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources.

Of course, no religion is monolithic. Within every faith one can see people arranged along a spectrum of belief. Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness: At the center, one finds the truest of true believers — the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can't be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Out further still, one meets religious moderates and liberals of diverse hues — people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.

Those on this spectrum view the people further toward the center as too rigid, dogmatic and hostile to doubt, and they generally view those outside as corrupted by sin, weak-willed or unchurched.

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin's Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren't sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

People of all faiths — and none — regularly change their lives for the better, for good and bad reasons. And yet such transformations are regularly put forward as evidence in support of a specific religious creed. President Bush has cited his own sobriety as suggestive of the divinity of Jesus. No doubt Christians do get sober from time to time — but Hindus (polytheists) and atheists do as well. How, therefore, can any thinking person imagine that his experience of sobriety lends credence to the idea that a supreme being is watching over our world and that Jesus is his son?

There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith — but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.

Let us hope that Stark's candor inspires others in our government to admit their doubts about God. Indeed, it is time we broke this spell en masse. Every one of the world's "great" religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain — from cosmology to psychology to economics — has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture.

Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.


Friday, March 16, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Christian musical artist reports to prison

Grammy-winning trumpeter Phil Driscol reported to federal prison this week to begin a one-year tax evasion sentence after a judge denied his request to remain free while he appeals the conviction.

Driscoll, 59, reported Monday to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, U.S. Bureau of Prisons records show. His projected release date, with credit for good conduct, is Jan. 24.

A jury last June convicted Driscoll
on charges of conspiracy and tax evasion involving his gospel music ministry.

Driscoll recorded with several pop acts in the 1970s, including Joe Cocker, Stephen Stills, Leon Russell and Blood, Sweat & Tears. He received a Grammy in 1984.

He recorded more than 30 of his own albums of gospel and patriotic music, which he distributes through his ministry based in Eatonton, Ga., and its Web site.

An indictment accused Driscoll and his wife, Lynne, of scheming with her mother, bookkeeper Chris Blankenship, to avoid reporting personal income totaling more than $1 million between 1996 and 1999.

An IRS agent testified at the trial that Driscoll and his wife improperly used his Mighty Horn Ministries to shield the money and evade $128,627 in taxes.

The jury acquitted Lynne Driscoll on the conspiracy count and deadlocked on a tax evasion charge that was later dismissed. Blankenship died before the trial.

At the end of the sentencing, Phil Driscoll's unpaid tax total was reduced to a range of more than $30,000 but less than $80,000. The white-haired trumpeter said at the sentencing that he never intended to take any money from the government of "the country that I love."

U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier at the Jan. 25 sentencing allowed Driscoll 45 days to report to prison while considering the bond motion.

Collier's order denying bond said Driscoll's arguments to remain free failed to "raise a substantial question of law or fact" likely to result in reversal, a new trial, a sentence that does not include imprisonment or a reduced sentence.


Thursday, March 15, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Is your baby gay?

NEW YORK (March 15) - The president of the leading Southern Baptist seminary has incurred sharp attacks from both the left and right by suggesting that a biological basis for homosexuality may be proven, and that prenatal treatment to reverse gay orientation would be biblically justified.

The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., one of the country's pre-eminent evangelical leaders, acknowledged that he irked many fellow conservatives with an article earlier this month saying scientific research "points to some level of biological causation" for homosexuality.

Proof of a biological basis would challenge the belief of many conservative Christians that homosexuality - which they view as sinful - is a matter of choice that can be overcome through prayer and counseling.

However, Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was assailed even more harshly by gay-rights supporters. They were upset by his assertion that homosexuality would remain a sin even if it were biologically based, and by his support for possible medical treatment that could switch an unborn gay baby's sexual orientation to heterosexual.

"He's willing to play God," said Harry Knox, a spokesman on religious issues for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group. "He's more than willing to let homophobia take over and be the determinant of how he responds to this issue, in spite of everything else he believes about not tinkering with the unborn."

Mohler said he was aware of the invective being directed at him on gay-rights blogs, where some participants have likened him to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor notorious for death-camp experimentation.

"I wonder if people actually read what I wrote," Mohler said in a telephone interview. "But I wrote the article intending to start a conversation, and I think I've been successful at that."

The article, published March 2 on Mohler's personal Web site, carried a long but intriguing title: "Is Your Baby Gay? What If You Could Know? What If You Could Do Something About It?"

Mohler began by summarizing some recent research into sexual orientation, and advising his Christian readership that they should brace for the possibility that a biological basis for homosexuality may be proven.

Mohler wrote that such proof would not alter the Bible's condemnation of homosexuality, but said the discovery would be "of great pastoral significance, allowing for a greater understanding of why certain persons struggle with these particular sexual temptations."

He also referred to a recent article in the pop-culture magazine Radar, which explored the possibility that sexual orientation could be detected in unborn babies and raised the question of whether parents - even liberals who support gay rights - might be open to trying future prenatal techniques that would reverse homosexuality.

Mohler said he would strongly oppose any move to encourage abortion or genetic manipulation of fetuses on grounds of sexual orientation, but he would endorse prenatal hormonal treatment - if such a technology were developed - to reverse homosexuality. He said this would no different, in moral terms, to using technology that would restore vision to a blind fetus.

"I realize this sounds very offensive to homosexuals, but it's the only way a Christian can look at it," Mohler said. "We should have no more problem with that than treating any medical problem."

Mohler's argument was endorsed by a prominent Roman Catholic thinker, the Rev. Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and editor of Ignatius Press, Pope Benedict XVI 's U.S. publisher.

"Same-sex activity is considered disordered," Fessio said. "If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb, and a way of treating them that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science."

Such logic dismayed Jennifer Chrisler of Family Pride, a group that supports gay and lesbian families.

"What bothers me is the hypocrisy," she said. "In one breath, they say the sanctity of an unborn life is unconditional, and in the next breath, it's OK to perform medical treatments on them because of their own moral convictions, not because there's anything wrong with the child."

Paul Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris, wrote a detailed critique of Mohler's column, contending that there could be many genes contributing to sexual orientation and that medical attempts to alter it could be risky.

"If there are such genes, they will also contribute to other aspects of social and sexual interactions," Myers wrote. "Disentangling the nuances of preference from the whole damn problem of loving people might well be impossible."

Not all reaction to Mohler's article has been negative.

Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist critical of those who consider homosexuality a disorder, commended Mohler's openness to the prospect that it is biologically based.

"This represents a major shift," Drescher said. "This is a man who actually has an open mind, who is struggling to reconcile his religious beliefs with facts that contradict it."


Tuesday, March 13, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

YMCA kicks out kid's camp for atheists

HAMILTON, Ohio - A summer camp tailoring to atheist and agnostic children won't be held at a Butler County campground after a Christian group that runs the campground declined to renew their contract.

Camp Quest
says it caters to youths who question religion and teaches critical thinking and scientific inquiry. Next year it will move from Camp Campbell Gard to a Clinton County location.

The YMCA, which runs the campground, says neither a spate of recent publicity nor the group's philosophy prompted the break. Rather, it says the group violated a contract provision requiring them to get approval of publicity by providing photos of the camp to a reporter.

Camp Quest Board President Amanda Metskas disagrees and says she feels the YMCA was uncomfortable being linked with atheists.


Monday, March 12, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor, church delinquent in taxes and paying bills?

The Rev. Jerry Johnston and his ministries have a history of being slow to pay their taxes.

Records show that in 2002 and again in 2004, the Kansas Department of Revenue went to court to force Johnston to pay his state income taxes. Department officials said tax liens were filed only after numerous attempts were made to collect.

•A tax warrant filed in September 2002 charged that Johnston owed $5,732 on his 2000 state income tax. That judgment was satisfied in March 2003.

•A tax warrant filed in September 2004 charged that Johnston owed $5,422 on his 2002 state income tax. Johnston paid that off in February 2005.

•The Johnson County treasurer’s office reported last summer that First Family Church was delinquent in paying $8,000 in special assessment taxes to the county.

Johnston responded to the tax questions through a spokesman, Lawrence Swicegood.

"Pastor Johnston and his wife have never failed to pay income taxes," he said. "On two occasions in the past, their personal property taxes were inadvertently overlooked and went unpaid. For the past several years they have been escrowed by the Johnstons' lender and are included in his monthly mortgage payment."

As for the church's delinquent county taxes last year, Swicegood said, "the taxes to which you refer were 'special assessment' taxes. When it was determined that the Church was subject to these special assessments and that they were due and owing, the Church paid them in full."

Tax troubles, however, go back many years. Records show that in 1988 the Internal Revenue Service filed a federal tax lien against Jerry Johnston Ministries for $19,700. When asked about the lien, Swicegood said, "Your question relates back 20 years. The Church has no record of it and Pastor Johnston has no recollection of it."

Former church members and contractors also complain that despite the money flowing in, the church also is slow to pay its bills.

Earlier this month, McKnight Development Corp., an Ohio company that built the children's building, filed a mechanic’s lien against the church for $533,341.

And a local contractor, Don Lewellen, filed a mechanic's lien in January for nearly $90,000 for work on the children’s building that he said he finished Nov. 7.

"I have a bill in for October and November, and none of them were paid," said Lewellen, whose company did metal stud framing, drywall and acoustical ceiling work on the building.

Jerry Simmons, a developer who served on First Family's building committee but left the church about seven years ago, said vendors used to contact him to complain about late payments.

Attorney Eddie James said First Family was working to resolve the lien problems "in a financially responsible manner."

"It's not unusual on a project of this size to have some liens filed as the project is being closed out and issues are resolved and worked through," James said.


Pastor held on $500,000 bond for sexual assault

The pastor of a small south Sacramento, California church has been arrested in connection with the sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy inside the restroom of a Meadowview library, Sacramento police said Saturday.

Frederick Dew, the 34-year-old pastor of the Praise Tabernacle church on 44th Street, was taken into custody Friday evening, according to Sacramento police Sgt. Matthew Young.

According to police, the boy was assaulted inside the rest- room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library on 24th Street at 4:38 p.m. Thursday.

The victim escaped and immediately reported the alleged attack to library officials, police said.

Investigators do not believe the boy knew his alleged attacker, Young said.

Library security personnel were able to provide police with a detailed description of the suspect after he left the building, according to police.

Dew was arrested about 6 p.m. Friday, Young said. He was booked into the Sacramento County jail on suspicion of a lewd or lascivious act with a child under 14 by force, oral copulation with a person under 16 and false imprisonment, according to jail records.

But parishioners believe charges against Dew will be dropped.

"He's a man of God. The devil has tricks. We believe God's report, not that of the news media," said one church member, who did not want to be identified.

Dew remains behind bars on $500,000 bond.

link & link

Thursday, March 08, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Latham cleared of lewdness charge

Lonnie Latham, the former pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, was found not guilty Wednesday of a misdemeanor charge of offering to engage in a lewd act.

The verdict came in his two-week nonjury trial in Oklahoma County District Court more than a year after his arrest in Oklahoma City.

Latham was arrested Jan. 3, 2006, after he allegedly invited a male undercover Oklahoma City police officer to his hotel room for sex. No money was involved.

Latham did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

His Oklahoma City attorney, Mack Martin, said Latham was ecstatic about the verdict when he spoke to him Wednesday afternoon.

Martin said Judge Roma M. McElwee ruled that Latham was not guilty but did not address the constitutionality of the law under which he was arrested.

Martin had argued in the Feb. 22 bench trial that Latham was charged under a lewdness statute that he said should be unconstitutional because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2003 that legalized consensual sex between men.

"If it's not illegal to engage in that conduct, then it shouldn't be illegal to talk about it," he had argued.

The case drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Latham's behalf, and national gay-rights organizations, which maintained that inviting someone to a hotel room
for sex is not a crime and that no arrest would have been made if the allegation had involved a man and a woman.

If convicted, Latham could have faced up to a year in jail, a $2,500 fine and 40 to 80 hours of community service.

Before his arrest, Latham was a nationally known Baptist leader. He was a member of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, with 42,000 churches, and was a member of the board of directors of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, with 1,700 churches. He resigned from both positions after his arrest.

He became the pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in 2002, leaving his position as the executive director of the Tulsa Metro Baptist Association, now the Tulsa Metro Association of Baptist Churches.

As a spokesman for Southern Baptists, he often defended the church's opposition to same-sex relationships.



Monday, March 05, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor charged with 11 counts of sexual exploitation of children

Camden SC — Northgate Colonial Baptist Church members say they need their faith now more than ever.

The church is trying to hold itself together while its popular pastor, the Rev. Kevin Ogle, sits in jail in Walton County, Ga., charged with 11 counts of sexual exploitation of children.

"We're a family," said Mike Clifton, head of the church's board of deacons. "We are there for each other. We keep each other lifted up."

The 42-year-old Ogle is accused of sending pornographic messages and pictures of himself over the Internet to a police officer posing as a teenage girl.

Ogle's congregation is praying for their leader and have organized meals for his wife and young children. Members say there hasn't been a time since the case broke Feb. 20 that they lost hope.

"We felt like we could go forward at once, that the Lord was on our side," said Evora Price, a member for nearly 20 years.

The night Ogle was arrested, Price and other members were called to the church for an emergency meeting. "As a congregation, and as Christians, we have to focus on what God wants us to focus on," Clifton said.

Clifton has become "the rock of the church," Margaret Sowell said.

"A lot of them are hurting, and hurting very deeply, and it is just going to take time," Clifton said. Healing "is not going to happen overnight."

Experts say a pastor's missteps of any kind shake a congregation's trust.

It's a kind of "a betrayal of sacred trust," said the Rev. Tony Everett, a professor of pastoral care at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia.

Everett has worked with congregations to heal after such conflict. The most successful churches, he said, ask hard questions and work through the roller coaster of denial, anger, grief and sadness.

The ones that just "want to put it behind them" rarely succeed, he said. Complete healing "may take a generation."

Clifton hopes his church can emerge from the adversity stronger.

"I think an event like this, if it is handled in the right way, will make us more cohesive and stronger than we were before," Clifton said. "I think it shows how weak we can get sometimes if we don't stay part of the group and rely on everybody - and especially God."


Related story: SBC Sex Abuse

Thursday, March 01, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Mary appears in a pizza pan -- Mama Mia!

They kneeled. They cried. They asked for healing.

Before them, on an altar of roses and prayer candles, was a metal baking sheet, stained with what hundreds of Houston Catholics now believe is an image of the Virgin Mary.

Guadalupe Rodriguez, a Pugh Elementary School cafeteria worker, discovered the possible miracle on Ash Wednesday, while scrubbing away the last crumbs from the pizza lunch.

By Friday, a steady stream of people were filing through the southeast Houston front yard of Sylvia Calderon, a PTA member who took in the sheet pan after school leaders decided they couldn't accommodate the curious crowds.

At dawn, one woman arrived at Calderon's home in the Denver Harbor neighborhood asking to see the Virgin's image before her 8-year-old son had surgery. That afternoon another woman came for a blessing bearing a picture of her grandson, who has cerebral palsy.

Scientists call this phenomenon religious pareidolia, when the eye sees religious images in objects such as tree trunks and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Believers say it's a miracle.

"It was beautiful," said Angie Bentancur, who left the picture of her grandson beside the sheet pan Friday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Rodriguez, a longtime kitchen worker, was leaning over the sink of the cafeteria at Pugh Elementary washing sheet pans — the kind that normally hold rows of chocolate chip cookies or chicken nuggets.

It was with the last pan, pulled from the cold rinse, that the Virgin appeared, Rodriguez, 59, said.

"I started looking at it, and started looking at it, until I realized it was the Virgin," she said.

The pan appears to be stained, maybe by grease, with an image several inches tall. A splotch of missing color resembles the Virgin Mother's down-turned face, a slight rainbow stain running alongside this could be a shawl.

Her hands still wet, Rodriguez took the pan to the cafeteria, and held it up to her co-workers. What do you see, she asked?

The Virgin Mary, they said, undeniably — on a sheet pan.

Someone got the cafeteria manager, Coralia Pacay, who said the same: undeniably, the Virgin Mary — on a sheet pan.

Pacay and Rodriguez went to Principal Lyda Guerrero. They asked her what she saw.

"It was a silhouette," Guerrero recalled. "A silhouette of the Virgin Mary."

For believers, there is no doubt about Rodriguez's discovery. It is a message from God. The find created a logistical problem for school officials. When they got home Wednesday, many pupils who had seen the sheet pan told their parents, many of whom returned to school to see for themselves. Pacay propped up the pan near the lunch line.

The crowds grew to include neighbors, and soon district officials, including Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who agreed the tray had to go somewhere else. That's when the PTA agreed to take it to Calderon's house.

"Right now because it is attracting a lot of attention, we just don't want it in the school," said Rebecca Suarez, HISD spokeswoman. "But we want to treat it with respect."

Calderon, who has a 7-year-old daughter at Pugh, has been up since dawn and stayed awake until near midnight every day since then. She only takes the sheet pan in when she sleeps.

A steady stream of people continue to shuffle into her yard. Most are women, some with children. They walk from neighboring houses or park down the street. Some hold bouquets, others candles or pictures.

They brush the Virgin's image with their palms, fingertips, the backs of their hands. They close their eyes and make the sign of the cross.

Some hope to set up a permanent spot for the baking pan in the neighborhood, where anyone can visit, day or night.

Regardless, school officials say they doubt it will go back to the wash bin any time soon.

"I think someone was watching over us," Guerrero said. "I think someone is watching over this community and this school district and this school."

Religious simulacra is the name scientists give to images, like Mary or Jesus, that people say they see in inanimate objects.

• Sandwich: In 2004, Florida resident Diana Duyser sold her grilled cheese on eBay for $28,000. She claimed the sandwich was 10 years old, and she had kept it, preserved in a plastic container, after noticing a shape that looked like the Virgin Mary on the bread.

• Tortilla: In 1978, a woman frying tortillas in New Mexico said she saw an image of Jesus within the pattern of burn marks on her tortilla. She set up a shrine and thousands came to see it.

• Egg: Last year, villagers in Kazakhstan said they found an egg with the word "Allah" inscribed on it in Arabic. A chicken laid the egg just after a hail storm hit the Kazakh village, state media said.