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Thursday, September 27, 2007                                                                                       View Comments


By Susan Jacoby, on the Washington Post blog

God Is Not...Well, He's Just Not

I am not too fond of absolutist ex cathedra statements, even when they come from someone who is definitely not the pope and with whom I am in total agreement about the irrationality of all faith in the supernatural. Modify the noun "religion" with the adjective "fundamentalist," and I'll sign on to that sentiment.

All belief in the supernatural; ie., that which contradicts the laws of nature, is irrational by definition. But there are many religious denominations that are no longer violent, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children. You know which ones they are. These are all, as Sam Harris has pointed out, religions that have allowed themselves to be modified by secular knowledge. But I respectfully disagree with Harris, Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, who have all suggested that "moderate" religion is even more dangerous than fundamentalist religion because moderate religion is the stalking horse for the worst forms of religious fanaticism.

Nonsense. It is fair to say that all religion originated in ignorance and tribalism, but I don't think this has much to do with all of the peaceful Unitarians and Reform Jews who invite me to lecture to their congregations today. However, one of the most disturbing religious developments throughout the world today is that the most literal, anti-rational, and anti-intellectual forms of religion are gaining converts at the expense of faiths that have been open to secular knowledge.

Nevertheless, making a sweeping generalization about all religion is the equivalent of saying the same sort of thing about Communism -- which, in fact, American ignoramuses regularly do. (I wonder if Hitchens's generalizations have become broader as a result of his having become an American citizen. Inflammatory generalization is an American disease, although the Brits do it in more witty fashion.) "Communism is violent, irrational, intolerant...." Well, Stalinist Communism and Mao's Communism certainly were. But that doesn't mean that all communist and socialist (small "c," small "s") ideas are without merit, in spite of the fact that our dim-witted president regards universal children's health insurance as the first step toward a
Kremlin-run health care system.

The outrage among many religious people at the success of Hitchen's book, however, is a manifestation of a widespread American phenomenon of which I was not fully aware until the publication of my own book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. That phenomenon is a near-pathological hatred of both atheism and atheists.

I continue to be dismayed, although I am no longer shocked, by the intense and often highly personal hostility, expressed by many bloggers on this site, toward atheists. I have never been exposed to this sort of venom in the past, because I almost never wrote about atheism until I was asked to participate in the On Faith panel. Freethinkers was an attempt to restore historical knowledge of the undervalued secular contribution to the American nation. There is almost no discussion of atheism in this book, because the most prominent 18th and 19th century advocates of secular government, and of separation between church and state, were not atheists but deists--believers in a disinterested Providence that set the universe in motion and subsequently took no active part in the affairs of men. Moreover, some supporters of America's secular government were deeply religious people who believed that entanglement between church and state was as bad for religion as for government.

Some bloggers imagine that I make a sumptuous living by "promoting" atheism. Sorry. Over the years, I have written about Russian culture, women's issues, education, Renaissance art, American history, and aging. That's how I pay my bills. On the other hand, one blogger mocked me last week for not having written a "bestseller" about atheism and suggested that I must be excluded from the "boys' club" represented by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have an ungrateful reader trying to tweak one's feminist pride....

Promoting religion, however, is much more profitable than writing about either atheism or American history. Harris's and Hitchens's books have sold several hundred thousand copies, while books about religion -- ranging from inane faith-based self-help books to the Left Behind series predicting the end of the world, sell in the millions. The atheist-bashers don't seem disturbed that the hucksters of religion make millions of out selling their beliefs in the supernatural and the anti-rational. In the marketplace of ideas, everyone has a right to speak--and to make money if enough people what to read what they have to say. In February, my forthcoming book The Age of American Unreason will examine the anti-rationalist and anti-intellectual American trends of the past four decades, and fundamentalist religion is one--but only one--of the many subjects I discuss. If the book does make money, it would indeed be nice to know that my bank account was fatter because I spoke out against anti-rationalism.

The real question is why so many religion fanatics are threatened by the fact that some Americans, albeit a minority, are paying attention to what secularists and atheists have to say.

The chief insulting comment about atheists, repeated ad nauseam on this thread and elsewhere, is that they are amoral or immoral. To be an atheist, in this view, is to be a member of the devil's party. Without a God to strike us dead, we must all be potential murderers. This strikes me as a form of projection, in the clinical psychological sense of the term, on the part of religious fanatics who are so terrified about what is inside them that they cannot imagine behaving decently without a vengeful God to keep them in line. While I reject the theology of all religions, I would never claim that goodness or evil has anything to do with whether people agree with my own views. There are good people who believe in all sorts of gods or no god. Why are atheists so threatening to so many Americans that the only way to deal with -- or, more precisely, to not deal with -- our arguments is to demonize us as human beings?

Finally, I have absolutely no wish to "convert" religious believers to atheism. How would I do that anyway? I can't threaten you with a hell or promise you a heaven in which I don't believe. Only religious believers have made a business out of converting people by threatening them with damnation or promising them eternal rewards (and, oh yes, by killing them if all else fails).

For all of Hitchens's mean words about religion, he doesn't promise that the faithful will be devoured by flesh-eating locusts and thrown into a fiery pit for their beliefs.

The atheist-bashers really hate freedom of speech. They would have preferred a Constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion but not the freedom to speak out against religion. They lost that battle when the Constitution was written in 1787, and they have never gotten over it.

The Subtle, Lethal Poison of Religion

By Christopher Hitchens, from the Washington Post blog.

On Sunday the New York Times reported on the recrudescence of "faith-based" teaching in Russian public schools:
"A teacher named Irina Donshina set aside her textbooks, strode before her second-graders and, as if speaking from a pulpit, posed a simple question:

"Whom should we learn to do good from?"

"From God!" the children said.

"Right!" Ms. Donshina said. "Because people he created crucified him. But did he accuse them or curse them or hate them? Of course not? He continued loving and feeling pity for them, though he could have eliminated all of us and the whole world in a fraction of a second."

This grisly vignette, which almost perfectly summarizes the relationship between sadism and masochism in Christian teaching, probably wouldn't delight all those who think that morality derives from supernatural authority. After all, the Russian Orthodox Church was the patron of Czarist autocracy, helped spread The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the West, and compromised with the Stalin regime just as it had been allied with earlier serfdom and chauvinism. It is now part of Vladimir Putin's sinister exercise in the restoration of Russian supremacism and dictatorship: an enterprise that got off to a good start when our President admired Mr. Putin's crucifix and "looked into his soul". (Question: has Putin ever been seen wearing that crucifix again, or did his cynical advisers tell him that the Leader of the Free World was such a pushover for the "faith-based" that he would never check?)

So, and as with Salafist madrassas, it's easy to see how wicked it is to lie to children when it's done in the name of the "wrong" faith. But Ms Donshina's nonsensical propaganda is actually a mainstream statement of what the truly religious are bound to believe. Without god, how could we tell right from wrong, or learn how to do the right thing? I have never had a debate with a religious figure of any denomination, however "moderate, where this insulting question has not come up.

Yet is it not positively immoral to argue that our elementary morality and human solidarity derive from an authority that we must simultaneously (and compulsorily) love, and also fear? Does it not degrade us in our deepest integrity to be told that we would not do a right action, or utter a principled truth, were it not for fear of punishment or hope of reward? Moreover, we are told that we begin sinful and must earn our redemption from an authority whose actions and caprices (arranging a human sacrifice in Palestine in which we had no say, for example, and informing us that we are all guilty of it) were best summarized by Fulke Greville when he remarked ruefully that we are "created sick; commanded to be sound". This abject attitude, of sickly love for the Dear Leader combined with dreadful terror of him, is in fact the origin of totalitarianism. And there is nothing ethical about that.

I should like, for the continued vigor of this discussion, to repeat the challenge that I have several times offered the faithful in print and on the air. Can they name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever? I am still waiting, after several months, for a response to this. It carries an incidental corollary: I have also asked large and divergent audiences if they can think of a wicked action or statement that derived directly from religious faith, and you know what? There is no tongue-tied silence at THAT point. Everybody can instantly think of an example.

I don't rest my case but I have stated it as concisely as I can.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist and author whose latest book is entitled “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Teacher fired for saying Bible isn't literal

A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

"I'm just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master's degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job," Bitterman said.

Sarah Smith, director of the school's Red Oak campus, declined to comment Friday on Bitterman's employment status. The school's president, Barbara Crittenden, said Bitterman taught one course at Southwest. She would not comment, however, on his claim that he was fired over the Bible reference, saying it was a personnel issue.

"I can assure you that the college understands our employees' free-speech rights," she said. "There was no action taken that violated the First Amendment."

Bitterman, who taught part time at Southwestern and Omaha's Metropolitan Community College, said he uses the Old Testament in his western civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.

Bitterman's Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. A few students in the Osceola classroom, he said, thought the lesson was "denigrating their religion."

"I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn't given any more credibility than any other god," Bitterman said. "I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there."

Bitterman said he called the story of Adam and Eve a "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and was told the students had threatened to see an attorney. He declined to identify any of the students in the class.

"I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here," he said. "From my point of view, what they're doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century."

Hector Avalos, an atheist religion professor at Iowa State University, said Bitterman's free-speech rights were violated if he was fired simply because he took an academic approach to a Bible story.

"I don't know the circumstances, but if he's teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn't be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve," Avalos said.

"So it'd be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class.

"You don't fire professors for giving you a scientific answer."

Bitterman said Linda Wild, vice president of academic affairs at Southwest, fired him over the telephone.

Wild did not return telephone or e-mail messages Friday. Bitterman said that he can think of no other reason college officials would fire him and that Smith, the director of the campus, has previously sat in on his classes and complimented his work.

"As a taxpayer, I'd like to know if a tax-supported public institution of higher learning has given veto power over what can and cannot be said in its classrooms to a fundamentalist religious group," he said. "If it has ... then the taxpaying public of Iowa has a right to know. What's next? Whales talk French at the bottom of the sea?"

Story Link

Sunday, September 23, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Army specialist harassed for being an atheist

Military officials in Iraq are investigating allegations that an Army specialist is being harassed for being an atheist but said Saturday that they cannot find an officer the soldier has named in a federal lawsuit.

Spc. Jeremy Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against Maj. Paul Welborne and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas, this past week. It alleges that Welborne threatened to pursue military charges against Hall and to block his reenlistment because he was trying to hold a meeting of atheists and non-Christians in Iraq.

The suit also alleges that Gates permits a military culture in which officers are encouraged to pressure soldiers to adopt and espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

On Friday, Mikey Weinstein, the foundation's founder and president, released to The Associated Press copies of e-mails from Hall in which the soldier said he had been harassed and threatened on blogs with being killed by friendly fire for filing the lawsuit.

Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, said in a statement from Iraq on Saturday that the Army was investigating Hall's situation. But he added: "Several media reports list a person named Maj. Paul Welborne as having been involved in this situation. To date, we have not located any soldier by that name."

In responding to the lawsuit, a Pentagon spokesman said the military does value and respect religious freedoms, but that accommodating religious practices should not interfere with unit cohesion, readiness, standards or discipline.

Hall, who is serving with the 97th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Riley, Kan., has been in Iraq since 2006, on his second tour.

‘I might be harmed or worse’

Hall wrote in a series of e-mails to Weinstein that he feared for his safety after being "hallchecked" — being shoved against the wall in a hallway — by fellow soldiers who objected to his lawsuit. Bloggers on the Internet have also referred to "fragging" Hall, or killing him by friendly fire.

"I hope I am not the victim of a hate crime while I sleep tonight. I do not want to die for my country this way," wrote Hall, who said a non-commissioned officer was threatening to beat him. "I'm doing my best right now. But I am still afraid that I might be harmed or worse."

Weinstein said Saturday that the issue was not locating Welborne, noting the incidents alleged in the lawsuit occurred in July and August and the major may have left Iraq since then. Instead, he said, the military must find the soldiers who are threatening Hall and prosecute them under military law.

"We're talking about stuff that happened 36 hours ago. If they can't find the people who have been harassing Jeremy, we will," Weinstein said. "This isn't that hard to do.

"If one hair on Hall's head is touched, there will be hell to pay," Weinstein said.

In the lawsuit, Hall said that his free speech and religious rights were violated a year ago when he sat down with soldiers to eat a Thanksgiving holiday dinner. When asked to join hands and pray, Hall declined, but sat as the other soldiers prayed over the food. A sergeant asked why he would not pray and Hall told him he was an atheist, meaning he does not believe in God.

The sergeant demanded that Hall move to another table and not sit with the other soldiers. Hall said he stayed and ate without speaking to the others.

Challenges to Hall’s beliefs

In July, Hall said he walked away from soldiers in his unit when a colonel wanted them to pray before they went on a mission in the city of Kirkuk.

The lawsuit names Gates as a defendant and alleges he permits a culture that sanctions activities by Christian organizations, including providing personnel and equipment.

It also says the military permits proselytizing by soldiers, tolerates anti-Semitism, placing of religious symbols on military equipment and allows the use of military e-mail accounts to send religious rhetoric.

Some postings on military-related blogs have been critical of Hall, with some people wondering how atheists can claim religious freedom if they practice no sanctioned faith.

One individual, posting under the name "Hidog," suggested Hall put on an orange vest and carry a sign "Bong hits 4 Allah" through the streets of Iraq, "because apparently, your Bill of Rights trump your CO's (commanding officer's) orders."

But others said the U.S. Constitution protects "freedom from religion," and defended Hall, adding that they were glad he spoke up against the pressures from some Christians.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor arrested in wife's 2006 death

Less than a week before Kari Lynn Baker’s death, she found crushed pills in her husband’s briefcase and confided to a friend that she thought Matt Baker was trying to kill her, the close friend said Friday.

“She was kind of panicked about the whole situation when she found those crushed pills. No. Really, she was a lot panicked,” Shae Dickey, who taught with Kari Baker at Spring Valley Elementary School in Hewitt, told the Tribune-Herald. “She suspected that he was having an affair, and she told me she thought he was trying to kill her.”

Read the arrest affidavit.

Those fears are included in the affidavit filed locally Friday to support Matt Baker’s arrest. By sundown, the 36-year-old former Central Texas pastor had turned himself in to authorities at the Kerr County Jail.

Since Kari Baker’s death April 8, 2006, — initially ruled suicide by overdose — Dickey says she has replayed her conversation with Kari many times in her head, including her friend’s worries concerning her husband.

“And every time I play it back, I wish I would have done something differently,” Dickey said. “I wish I would have told someone.”

Dickey said Friday she wasn’t surprised to learn that Hewitt police investigator Ben Toombs and Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon had obtained a warrant for Matt Baker’s arrest, charging him with murdering Kari Baker, the 31-year-old mother of his two daughters, and making it appear as though she killed herself with a lethal cocktail of sleeping pills and alcohol.

Like others who knew her, Dickey said she never believed Kari Baker killed herself.

Matt Baker, former pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church near Lorena and former chaplain at the Waco Center for Youth, has since moved with his two girls to Kerrville, where his parents live. He has been working as a substitute teacher and a church youth minister, officials say.

Baker surrendered himself at the Kerr County Jail at 4:20 p.m. Authorities will bring Baker back to McLennan County Jail, where bond will be set. His daughters remain with his parents in Kerr County, officials said.

The arrest warrant affidavit Toombs filed alleges that Matt Baker used an over-the-counter sleep medication and alcohol on his wife to “render her defenseless,” then used a pillow or another object to suffocate her.

Baker’s attorneys, Gerald Villarrial and James Rainey, said they advised Baker to turn himself in at the Kerr County Jail.

“We can’t make any comment because we don’t know anything right now,” Rainey said Friday afternoon before Baker’s arrest. “We are just going to have to wait until after they arrest our client to find out what happened and then determine the next course of action.”

Keeping steady pressure

Kari Baker’s parents, Linda and James Dulin, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Baker in July 2006, alleging he killed her and made her death appear to be a suicide. They have kept steady pressure on Hewitt police officials to keep investigating their daughter’s death and elicited the help of the Texas Rangers in their quest.

“My husband and I have been waiting for this day for a year and a half,” Linda Dulin said. “We always believed that we would see this happen. We owe a great deal of gratitude to Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon. This guy makes Chuck Norris look like a wimp. I truly think this is a man of honor and courage, and he truly moved a couple of mountains to make this happen.”

She declined comment when asked about the efforts of Hewitt Police Department investigators, with whom Justice of the Peace Billy Martin conferred before declaring Kari Baker’s death a suicide. Only this week did Judge Martin, following an inquest, change his ruling in the death from suicide to undetermined.

Toombs acknowledged Friday that much of the new evidence that led to his seeking the arrest warrant came from the investigative efforts of Cawthon and the Dulins’ civil litigation team, headed by Waco attorney Bill Johnston, a former federal prosecutor.

“We appreciate the work of the Rangers and others that resulted in this arrest and we also appreciate Judge Martin’s cooperation in the inquest and today,” Johnston said.

Dickey said she doubted that her friend committed suicide because “of our conversations about family and her spiritual life.”

She said they talked of their children and the upcoming school year, adding that Baker had interviewed for a new job a short time before her death and was eager to face a new challenge.

“She was always looking forward,” Dickey said. “She was charged up about the possibility of a new job teaching language arts at the middle school because she just had a passion for writing and she wanted to go to the next level.”

Toombs’ arrest complaint alleges that phone records indicated that Matt Baker called another woman on “dozens of occasions” between January and March 2006, adding that they were seen shopping for engagement rings within days of Kari Baker’s death.

An inspection of Matt Baker’s computer at the Waco Center for Youth showed that he had viewed Internet sites about drug overdoses with prescription drugs. On March 9, 2006, Baker conducted a computer search for “overdose by sleeping pill,” according to the sworn statement.

Baker also visited other Internet sites such as “SecureRXCart,” which authorities believe he used to buy prescription medication.

After Kari Baker confronted her husband about finding crushed pills in his briefcase, the affidavit alleges Matt Baker told her that youths from the Waco Center for Youth must have put them in his briefcase. Matt Baker reportedly told police investigators later that his wife must have hidden the pills there, police allege.

Other allegations included in the complaint revealed there was an abrasion on Kari Baker’s nose and bruises on her lips, possibly indicating that a pillow or other object was placed over her face to suffocate her.

Evidence reviewed

Also, forensic experts from Tennessee and Oklahoma, who have been hired by the Dulins to review evidence for their civil lawsuit, agree the timeline Matt Baker gave for his activities the night he discovered his wife’s body are contradicted by physical evidence, including lividity, or the time it takes for blood to pool in the lower extremities of a dead body.

Besides Dickey, Kari Baker reportedly told a counselor in April 2006 that she thought Baker was having an affair and that she believed he was going to kill her after she found the pills in his briefcase, according to the affidavit.

Investigators also learned that Baker reportedly switched computers with his secretary at the Waco Center For Youth when he learned police had a warrant to inspect the one he had been using.

“The defendant even switched inventory labels on the computers in an effort to disguise the computer switch,” Toombs alleged in the complaint.

Later, the computer in his secretary’s office “went missing” on a state holiday when the offices were closed.

One employee at work that day remembered seeing Baker in the office area, the report states.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Creation Science Evangelism Ministries attempts to silence opponents

From Wired Science:

YouTube has banned a group called the Rational Response Squad after it complained its videos were being taken down due to spurious DMCA requests from creationists.

The takedown followed copyright requests sent by Creation Science Evangelism Ministries, an organization founded by currently-imprisoned tax evader Kent Hovind. The Squad says the clips comprise material that is either public domain, covered by fair use, or entirely self-produced.

This again highlights a central problem with the DMCA, namely that it forces takedowns without any kind of review, and puts the burden on proof on the "defendant" to show that its material is non-infringing. But to ban people for protesting when the process has been used illegitimately is something entirely different. The creationist ministry's own website said that "none of the materials ... are copyrighted, so feel free to copy these and distribute them freely."

Looks like someone at the YouTube control center doesn't like to think about Satan's old bones.

Over the last couple of days, CSEM has been changing its website, retrospectively adding copyrights to its material.

More on this at RichardDawkins.Net

Pastor Admits Stealing Church's Money

A former Darien, Conn., pastor pleaded guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of church money by setting up secret bank accounts to pay for a life of luxury, including traveling around the world and buying a condominium.

The Rev. Michael Jude Fay, who resigned last year as pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church, pleaded guilty in federal court to interstate transportation of money obtained by fraud. He set up hidden accounts that he called the Bridget Fund and the Don Bosco account to commit the fraud.

"A religious leader who secretly uses contributions made to a church for his own personal benefit destroys the confidence and trust of everyone who donates money to a religious institution or charity," said U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor. "Prosecutions of this kind of serious criminal conduct should serve as a message that no one is above the law."

Investigators working for the Bridgeport Diocese last year said that Fay, 56, used church money for limousines, stays at top hotels around the world, jewelry and clothing from Italy. He also bought a condominium in Florida with another man. Federal investigators said that Fay also spent money to buy a condominium in Philadelphia.

Prosecutors said that Fay took between $1 million and $2.5 million over seven years, but the priest has disputed that estimate. He admitted to taking between $400,000 and $1 million.

Fay, dressed in a dark suit with a bandage on his hand, said that he has undergone chemotherapy for prostate cancer but learned Wednesday that the treatment was not working.

"It's my understanding, your honor, that I used church monies, parish monies for means and for needs other than means and needs of the parish or the parishioners of the parish," Fay said. "My understanding is that it's by fraud."

The Bridgeport Diocese last year released its investigators' report on the priest's lavish lifestyle.

Bridgeport Bishop William Lori, who ordered the investigation by Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, said that he was shocked and angered by the findings.

Lori has faced criticism for his handling of the scandal, especially when it emerged that another priest and the church bookkeeper had hired a private investigator to look into Fay. The pair said they decided to hire the investigator after they met with Lori, and Fay was not removed, according to the report.

Lori said that after he was made aware of potential financial misconduct, he took swift action to stop Fay from using church credit cards, notified civil authorities and forced his resignation.

The church report, which was limited to the past six years, calculated the "potential financial loss" at $1.4 million.

Fay, pastor since 1991, told church officials that the money was used to help needy parishioners and for other legitimate church-related expenses. The report acknowledged that some of the money might have been used for legitimate expenses, but said that Fay failed to document his claims.

Fay also charged $500 fees when he gave lectures.

Fay spent tens of thousands of dollars on home furnishings and meals and more than $20,000 to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination, according to the church report.

He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced on Dec. 4. He also must make restitution. Fay was released on $50,000 bond.


Friday, September 14, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

The opium of the atheists

The following is from the Turkish Daily News. The author, an Islamic believer, maintains that a person needs a lot of faith to believe in the non-existence of Allah. He calls atheism a religion. And interestingly, he parrots many fallacious Christian arguments, even quoting Christian apologists to make his point. He suggests that atheistic regimes of the last century far exceeded the purported cruelty of the entire Middle Ages, and... Well, read for yourself. And feel free to comment. -- WM

By Mustafa AKYOL

Krynica-ZdrOj – this little Polish town not only has a name hard to pronounce, but it is also quite difficult to reach. In order to arrive at this nice spa resort, you need to first fly to Warsaw, then take another plane to Krakow, and then drive for more than 200 kilometers. Yet this long and winding – and nowadays heavily raining – road apparently does not prevent thousands of people to meet here every September for what they call “the Davos of Central-Eastern Europe:” The Krynica Economic Forum, which brings together top-level politicians including heads of state, and businessmen from Central Europe, the former Soviet Union and many other places.

This year I was in the “Turkish team,” assembled by TESEV, Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, and my job, to be frank, was to convince the Europeans that Turkey's accession to the EU would be beneficial, not harmful, to the already packed union. Thanks to the presentations of other Turkish speakers, and to the careful and receptive listeners, I guess the message reached its audience.

Yet the most interesting exchange of views I have had in this ex-communist (but seemingly not-yet-capitalist) land was the chat I had with two lawyers – one from Poland, the other from Britain – in a cozy bar. Besides their success in their profession, and their obvious smartness, they shared a philosophical bent: Both of them were atheists, and they believed that religion has been an evil force throughout history. “People have killed each other in the name of God for centuries,” one of them passionately argued, “religion only brought us carnage.”

Killing for God:

I hear that argument quite often from radical secularists. It bears, to be sure, some truth. Yes, we humans have killed each other throughout history during holy wars of all sorts. But, alas, in modern times, as we stopped confronting each other for God, we quickly found other reasons to battle for. Irreligious ideologies such as nationalism, fascism and communism have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocents throughout the past two centuries. Actually the modern secular cruelty has reached such incredible heights that no major religion ever imagined. Hitler's gas chambers and Pol Pot's killing fields were unprecedented evils in human history.

Therefore it is obvious that men can kill each without appealing to God. Perhaps there is something in human nature to fight and, if necessary, to kill for whatever it deems valuable. That might be religion, but also ideology, tribe, nation, and, of course, simply wealth and power.

The other point that anti-religious evangelists fail to see is the contribution of the great faiths to humanity. The official rhetoric of radical Enlightenment tells about nothing but the “darkness” of the faith-driven middle ages – as its Turkish version keeps on bashing the Ottoman times – but the truth is much more complex. As historian Rodney Stark unveils in his tell-tale-titled book, “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery,” the Judeo-Christian heritage has contributed to not just some nasty episodes but also many significant advances in the history of Western civilization.

The same is true for Islamdom, too: It was thanks to the message of Prophet Mohammed that tribal Arabs created a world empire under which arts and sciences flourished. Under Islam's golden age, between the seventh and 12th centuries, the Middle East became the world's center of sophistication, and created or preserved much of the classical knowledge that the West would later embrace. Islam also enlightened nomadic nations such as the Turks, who had little, if any, trace of science, philosophy, literature or architecture in their pre-Islamic times. The majesty of the Ottoman Empire would definitely not come into being had the Turks remained as pagan hordes.

One does not need to be a believer to see these great contributions of religions to mankind, or to appreciate the relief given by religious charities to millions of poor and needy people around the world. One just needs to objective. Yet that is just what the radical atheists lack. Take Richard Dawkins for example, the world's most famous atheist evangelist who notoriously calls religion a "virus" and faith-based education "child abuse." The title of his documentary aired on the UK's Channel 4 summarizes how he sees religion: "Root of All Evil?" The question mark is apparently an editorial touch, and the content only reflects Dawkins's zealotry.

Beyond reason:

Here is the third crucial point that most atheists fail to see: Although they claim to follow nothing but “science and reason,” theirs is also a belief that one needs to take a leap of faith to accept. Agnosticism can well be a position based on pure reason, but when one becomes an atheist, he asserts that there is no God without any empirical evidence that he can refer to. As philosophers Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek explain in their book, “I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist,” one needs a lot of faith to “believe” in the non-existence of the divine. And it is the atheist's opium, to borrow a term from Marx, to regard this unsubstantiated faith as an established fact.

This should help us realize that atheism and secular philosophies based on it need be considered as faith systems, too. Moreover, like traditional religions, they can have their moderate and radical versions, and can be interpreted in peaceful and violent ways. Like religious fundamentalisms, there can well be secular ones.

This philosophical conclusion has an important political outcome. It shows that secular democracies should be neutral not only between traditional religions, but also between modern ones with atheistic foundations. Their secularity should not imply taking sides with anti-theistic philosophies.

In other words, they should be secular but not secularist regimes – a distinction that we desperately need to make in many countries, and, especially, in Turkey.

Pastor arrested on child molestation charges

FRESNO, Calif. -— The Reverend John Bonine is accused of molesting two girls. John Bonine's public defender says the Pastor of Sierra Heights Baptist Church could be facing life in prison if convicted because there are two children involved.

Bonine faces more than 100 criminal charges of child molestation. John Bonine looked nervous as he made his first court room appearance Thursday afternoon and pleaded not guilty.

Jim Lambe, defense attorney, says, "What is important is that there are two alleged victims, so there for the case would carry a life sentence." It's been four years since Bonine started his job as Senior Pastor at Sierra Heights Baptist Church.

Mansel Trimble, youth pastor, says, "We're hurt and this is a very unsettling time. At the same time, we're looking towards healing." Mansel Trimble is the youth pastor and speaks on behalf of the 200 members. He and investigators say the molestations are not connected to the church.

Trimble continues to support Bonine. Trimble says, "I just hope these things aren't true. Either way, we're looking at being compassionate towards our pastor and especially towards his family."

Authorities are not releasing many details. But, the district attorney filed a 43 page criminal complaint. In it, Bonine faces 107 charges for molesting two children.

The document states the crime started in January of 2003 and spanned continuously nearly 5 years to August 31, 2007. The alleged victims are two teenage girls.

Bonine's family declined to comment. Bonine remains in jail. His bail is set at more than $5 million.


Monday, September 10, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Church defends pastor charged with child porn

WACO TX -- Members of a local church whose former part-time pastor has been arrested on child pornography charges don’t think he meant to do anything wrong, the church’s full-time preacher says.

Henry Edgington, 63, stepped down from his leadership position at Elm Mott Church of Christ before his arrest Thursday, says Sam Armstrong, the church’s main pastor. Although Edgington maintains — and some church members believe — that he had the graphic images because he was doing research to try and get child pornography sites off the Internet, he decided to quit his post the past week or so because he feared he might be charged with a crime, Armstrong said.

Those fears played out this week when Edgington was arrested on seven counts of possessing child pornography. According to affidavits supporting his arrest, he had multiple illegal pictures of children in a padlocked box at his home. They were found and brought to police by the fiancée of Edgington’s son. She found the box in his bathroom, the affidavits say.

Such circumstances might seem damning to people who don’t know Edgington, Armstrong said. But he and the other 60 people who attend the church fully believe Edgington’s claims, he said. For one thing, Edgington is a spiritual person and a family man, with three children and several grandchildren, he said.

Plus, Edgington had talked about his project long before the pictures were turned over to police, Armstrong said. About six months to a year ago, Edgington told him he was contacting a group from Florida that works to get child pornography off the Internet, he said.

One of the group’s strategies, Edgington told Armstrong, was to involve legislators in the fight. His plan, Armstrong said, was to eventually turn the information he gathered over to U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.

A spokesman for Edwards’ office, however, said it has not received any communication from Edgington.

Armstrong concedes Edgington may have violated the letter of the law. But in his defense, he said Edgington never expected anyone to go through the materials, which Armstrong was told were in the lockbox in a closet.

Asked about Edgington’s son’s fiancée, Armstrong said he didn’t want to comment much on the woman. But he did say she has behaved strangely at times.

“It’s just a real tragedy,” Armstrong said. “He was kind of like one man against the world. He was just trying to get something done.”

The Tribune-Herald found Edgington, who was released from jail on $70,000 bond, at his home Friday. He declined an interview but did make a few comments.

“My side of the story will come out,” he said, adding that knowing that some people think he is a pedophile is a horrible feeling.

Asked about the group in Florida, Edgington said it is not an official organization but rather a network of child advocates, including ministers. The approach they have used has worked in Florida, he said.

Edgington said he has been in the ministry for 37 years and that for 35 of those years he was a state prison chaplain. A prison system spokesman said he couldn’t find any record of Edgington being employed as a chaplain. But it’s possible he has volunteered as one, the spokesman said.

Scott Holt, the Waco police detective working the case, said Edgington mentioned being a chaplain during his interview with police. However, Holt said he hasn’t been able to verify that information.

What police do know, Holt said, is that Edgington was also working part time at the Czech Inn of West. That’s where he accessed the illegal images. Edgington doesn’t have a computer at his home, he said.

Holt said he doesn’t know the circumstances of how Edgington’s future daughter-in-law came to find the box. Police only got involved after she showed up at the police department and handed the box over to officers, he said.

This is the first time Holt has ever dealt with a situation like this, he said. Occasionally someone will call the police department after stumbling across what appears to be child pornography. But he has never heard from anyone claiming to have done an investigation on his own.

Holt said it’s difficult to know what to make of Edgington’s claims. Edgington produced a magazine article about a group in Florida that is trying to combat child exploitation, but Holt said he doesn’t know the details of what that group does.

State laws do differ on child pornography, Holt said. But he said he doubts any group, in Florida or elsewhere, is doing what Edgington claims to have done because federal statutes prohibit it.

“The federal law is the same everywhere and possession is possession,” Holt said.

The detective said that while some people might think Edgington was doing a heroic thing, the truth is that every time he accessed an illegal image, he was exploiting the child pictured in it.

“He believes his heart was in the right place, but that was not a defense,” Holt said. “He decided to play police and it was a mistake.”

Under the law, the only people who can legally access child pornography are licensed peace officers investigating a case involving the images, Holt said. Members of the public who come across what they believe to be illegal pictures should contact their local law enforcement department, he said.

Donna Holdbrook, general manager of the Czech Inn, said no one at the hotel knew what Edgington was doing on the computers there. He has not been to work since late August, when he asked for time off so he could spend more time with his church, she said.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Says He's Victim in Sex Abuse Case

A high-profile pastor from Kanawha County says he's one of the sexual assault victims of another pastor -- and he's written a letter to the public.

Pastor Mike Lewis of the New Life Center in Cedar Grove sent a letter to local media outlets Tuesday night. In the letter, he says he was one of the victims of Sandy Martin Cook more than ten years ago when he was a teenager.

Cook was and still is the pastor at the Shrewsbury Church of God.

Cook was arrested by West Virginia State Police on Monday. He's charged with 3 counts of sexual abuse by a person of trust, and 44 counts of sexual assault in the 3rd degree.

During his arraignment in Kanawha County magistrate court, Cook said, "I'm scared to death."

According to the criminal complaint, the alleged crimes happened around 1994 -- and so far, three alleged victims have come forward in the case. All were between 13-16 years old at the time.

One victim stated he developed a close relationship with Cook -- and that Cook told him it was "normal for father figures to perform/receive sexual acts on each other and that the performing of such acts was part of growing up."

Another victim told police Cook performed sexual acts on him during two sleepovers at Cook's house, according to the criminal complaint. That victim told his parents, who reported the matter to the church; but the matter was later withdrawn during a meeting at church in Chesapeake "for conflicting reasons" and was not reported to police at the time.

A trooper verified the victim's statement about the meeting and the fact that the issue was withdrawn.

Investigators say the suspect's actions are similar in each case.

"Each of the 3 victims live separate lives and one lives in another state," as stated in the criminal complaint. "However, each of their allegations provide details of the intricacies of Cook's conduct that are exactly the same."

Police say they first learned of this case when one of the alleged victims came forward on August 3. According to investigators, the first person led them to Mike Lewis, and he led to the third victim in the case.

The criminal complaint states that a majority of the alleged crimes happened either at Cook's home in Belle, or in one of Cook's cars.

Cook is currently out of jail on $150,000 bond. It has also been learned that he works full-time as the head at the the cardiac cath lab at Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) Memorial Hospital.

State Police say more victims may be out there. They urge you to come forward if you have any more information in this case. Trooper M.J. Napier is handling the investigation: (304) 558-7778.


Here is a letter Pastor Mike Lewis wrote to the public after he says he was sexually abused by Sandy Cook more than ten years ago:
From the Office of Pastor Michael A. Lewis
Senior Pastor of New Life Center
Cedar Grove, WV 25039

To Whom It May Concern,

Four weeks ago my world was rocked when State Police investigators contacted me concerning allegations of sexual abuse by a local Church of God pastor. My name was given to investigators by another victim who had suspicions that I may have suffered the same abuse that he did over a decade ago. For thirteen years I have hidden this secret in the deepest part of my being, never to let it out. Over these past years I have shared this secret with no one. Not my wife, parents, family, or leaders. I assumed that my abuse had been limited to me alone and that no one else was suffering what I suffered. My assumptions were wrong.

I have since learned that multiple victims have come forward seeking justice for what was taken from them by a person who was suppose to protect and guide. I now know that I was not alone and I have a right & responsibility to speak up. I would have taken this secret to my grave, but when Investigators approached me and asked the question… ‘Are you also a victim’, I could not lie. The fact is, I am a victim of sexual abuse, suffered at the hands of this so called pastor who is in serious need of help.

My abuse started around the age of thirteen and continued for around four years. I was too afraid to speak up or speak out. I was told by this so called leader that these things must happen to me in order for God to use my life to make a difference. As a young boy with no church background and not many possessions, I was suckered into this web of lies and deceit. As I matured I realized that his excuses for abuses were all trumped up lies and that my relationship with God was between me and God alone, and did not require a third person.

The realization of the fact that this persons sexual abuses were brought to the attention of other local Church of God pastors, as well as the State Overseer of the Church of God, and that it was swept under a rug and not reported to the authorities is simply appalling. To think that the abuse I suffered and the victims that came after me should not have been, had the Church of God denomination followed the law and reported this first allegation in 1994. They failed to follow the law and I stand here today, with many other victims asking why.

I give praise to God because unlike many victims, my abuse did not stop me from reaching my goals. God has called me to His work and I am thankful that God brought me through the difficulties I weathered as a young teen. My life is not messed up. I have the greatest wife & family on the planet, the greatest church family and the greatest circle of friends anyone could ask for, and it is all because I stayed focused on Jesus. The abuse that I suffered was simply a trick of enemy to try and stop the plans that God has for my life – and he failed, and failed miserably!

I was not the first victim to come forward in this investigation, and I will not be the last. My sincere prayers are with the other victims and their families today. I know what you are going through and I encourage you to speak up if you haven’t already. The way I view this situation is simple – the hard part is over, meaning that the abuse is behind us. He can never touch us again, and it is our responsibility to make sure that he can never touch anyone else again either.

Seeking Justice,

Pastor Mike

A spokesman for the Church of God's international offices in Cleveland, Tennessee, says Cook has been placed on administrative leave.

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