Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Reading the Koran

By Michael O. Varhola

For many years I have been intending to read the Koran and have increasingly come to believe that doing so is critical to anyone who wants to better understand current world events and the growing ideological divides that shape them. I am not completely unfamiliar with this central religious text of Islam, of course, and have absorbed some knowledge of it over the years from any number of sources.

Muslims believe that the Koran, literally "the recitation," is a revelation from God passed on to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of about 23 years, beginning on December 22 A.D. 609 and concluding in A.D 632. They regard the Koran as the most important miracle of Muhammad, proof of his prophethood, and the culmination of a series of divine messages that started with those given to Adam. They further believe that it is the only book of revelation that has been protected by God from distortion or corruption.

The Koran is organized into 114 suras, or chapters, which are further divided into ayahs, or verses. According to tradition, several of Muhammad’s companions served as scribes and, shortly after his death, recorded the things that had been revealed to him. Interestingly, the Koran assumes familiarity with elements of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, summarizing some, dwelling at length on others and, presenting alternative accounts and interpretations in others. At some points it also offers detailed accounts of specific historical events and often emphasizes their moral significance. 

During prayers the Koran is recited only in Arabic and according to purists it can only be read in this language. Suffice it to say this presents to me as ethnic chauvinism that parallels the belief once held by many that the Bible could only be read in Latin, and there are millions of devout Muslims worldwide who study the Koran in their native languages.

Apropos of that, I am reading the Koran on a website devoted to providing translated versions of it in multiple languages. There are six such English versions  “Sahih International,” “Muhsin Khan,” “Pickthall,” “Yusuf Ali,” “Shakir,” and “Dr. Ghali”  all with different sources and varying characteristics. After some consideration I decided to go with the version translated by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an author, scholar, and early 20th century English convert to Islam, a primary reason being that I was most comfortable with his verbiage (e.g., he uses the term “Day of Judgment,” as opposed to the more alien “Day of Recompense” or “Day of Doom” used in some of the other translations).

My intent is to approach my reading with respect and piety and with as few preconceived notions as possible (although I am expecting, as with my reading of the Bible, to discover things that can in no way be correlated with the religion that has grown out of the text). I do not believe reading the Koran will in any way be spiritually harmful and, contrary to that, expect to derive some benefit from it. As someone who is already a devout person of faith, however, I do not suspect that I will end up converting to Islam as a result of reading it. 

As I read each sura I will post a brief commentary on it here. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Gods of the Bible

By Michael O. Varhola

It may come as a surprise to many people that dozens of pagan and gentile gods appear in the Bible, along with numerous supernatural beings, such as demons, angels, and Nephilim, and so we decided to make an examination of them here. Indeed, God himself has such varying characteristics throughout the Bible that it is valid to ask if the same being is actually being discussed at each point he appears. Most of the following entities were worshiped by the indigenous peoples of the Holy Land which, because they are the most reviled by the People of the Book, are also the most well known. We have also included hotlinks back to an online edition of the New International Version of the Bible for those who wish to read the verses in question and have included our favorite passage pertinent to each entry. Comments are welcome! 

Ares: While he is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the Greek god of war is implicitly present in the Book of Acts (Acts 17:19, Acts 17:22, Acts 17:34), in the episode where Saint Paul addresses the people of Athens from the place known to them as the Areopagus (shown above right). This "Hill of Ares" took its name from a mythological event in which the namesake god was tried  and acquitted  for murdering one of Poseidon's children, and the term also applied to a legislative assembly that met at the spot. Acts 17:22-23: "Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: 'People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship  and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.'"

Artemis: Artemis was worshiped as a mother goddess by the Hellenized residents of Ephesus — where her great temple became one of the Seven Wonders of the World — and turns up five times in as many verses in the New Testament, all in the book of Acts I (Acts 19:24, Acts 19:27, Acts 19:28, Acts 19:34, Acts 19:35). The Christian church in Ephesus is one of the seven mentioned in the Book of Revelation and, according to tradition, this city of Asia Minor is where Mary, mother of Jesus, retired to after her travails. Acts 19:35: "The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: 'Fellow Ephesians, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?'"

Asherah: This mother goddess is the wife of Baal and carries a variety of titles, among them "Queen of Heaven." She is almost always referenced in terms of Jewish apostasy and often in conjunction with the term "Asherah poles," a type votive item associated with the goddess, and is mentioned 40 times in 40 verses (Exodus 34:13, Deuteronomy 7:5, Deuteronomy 12:3, Deuteronomy 16:21, Judges 3:7, Judges 6:25, Judges 6:26, Judges 6:28, Judges 6:30, 1 Kings 14:15, ). A representative and particularly evocative example can be found in Second Kings 17:16: "They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal."

Ashtoreth (Astarte): A Middle Eastern goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war who was worshipped by the Greeks in the guise of Aphrodite. She appears nine times in nine verses, all in the Old Testament (Judges 2:13, Judges 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:3, 1 Samuel 7:4, 1 Samuel 12:10, 1 Samuel 31:10, 1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:13). Second Kings 23:13: "The king also desecrated the high places that were east of Jerusalem on the south of the Hill of Corruption — the ones Solomon king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the vile goddess of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the vile god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the people of Ammon."

Athena: The classical Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare does not explicitly appear in the Bible but does so implicitly as the namesake for the city of Athens, which was named after and dedicated to her. The most famous structure in Athens, in fact, the Parthenon, takes its name directly from Athena Parthenos, the virginal aspect of the deity. This seat of philosophy and learning is mentioned five times, all in the New Testament (Acts 17:15, Acts 17:16, Acts 17:22, Acts 18:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:1).

Atum (Atum-Re, Re-Atum): This Egyptian sun god is implictly present in Ezekiel 30:17, in one of the characteristic Biblical passages about the bad things that are going to happen to other people: "The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity." Also known as Awanu, "the Place of Pillars," and translated from Greek as "city of the sun," Heliopolis was the principle seat of worship for Atum, "the evening sun." He was one of the most important and frequently-mentioned deities from earliest times, as evidenced by his prominence in various sacred texts. He is believed to have created himself and is portrayed as both a creator and a destroyer who will precipitate the end of the world and, as a result of these characteristics, was sometimes known as "the complete one."

Baal: A name that translates simply as "lord" or "master" and is widely applied variously to both the Caananite storm god and to the predominant deity of any particular place; this title is sometimes even used as a synonym for all the local pagan deities in an area (e.g., "the Baals"). This is the first proper name/honorific given to a foreign god in the Bible and, because of its sometimes generic but nonetheless reviled nature, it is referred to in some context in a staggering 134 verses, all but one of them in the Old Testament (so it will take us awhile to get all the pertinent links posted). We will devote two quotes to him here, one each from the Old and New Testaments. The first clear reference to Baal as a deity appears in Numbers 25:3: "So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them." The final reference appears in Romans 11:4: "And what was God’s answer to him? 'I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.'"

Baal-Zebub: This Semitic deity was revered in the Philistine city of Ekron in the era of the Old Testament and is apparently the same being referred to variously by the same name or as Beelzebul or Beelzebub in the New Testament, where he is identified as the "Prince of Demons." He is mentioned four times in the Book of Second Kings (2 Kings 1:2, 2 Kings 1:3, 2 Kings 1:6, 2 Kings 1:16). 2 Kings 1:2: "Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, 'Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.'" Meaning "Lord of Flies" or "Lord of Dung," this name may simply have been a perjorative modification of "Baal" (q.v.) rather than an actual reflection on the nature of Philistine religion.

Bast (Baast, Bastet, Ubasti): This Egyptian goddess is implictly referred to in Ezekiel 30:17: "The young men of Heliopolis and Bubastis will fall by the sword, and the cities themselves will go into captivity." Bubastis, the "House of Bast," was named for and dedicated to the cat-headed goddess Bast, who in her earliest incarnations was associated with a wild lioness but who ultimately came to be associated with the domesticated cat (an animal critical in agricultural Egypt, where rodents could ravage grain stores). In keeping with the cat's role as an enemy of vermin that might menace people in their homes, Bast is said to have battled and defeated the evil serpent Apep (often known by the Greek name Apophis).

Chemosh: Worship of "the vile god of Moab," who reportedly became angry with his people and allowed them to be enslaved by the Israelites, was introduced in Jerusalem by Solomon. He is mentioned eight times in eight verses, all in the Old Testament (Numbers 21:29, Judges 11:24, 1 Kings 11:7, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:13, Jeremiah 48:7, Jeremiah 48:13, Jeremiah 48:46). First Kings 11:7: "On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites."

Dagon: A major god of the once-seafaring Phillistines, Dagon is generally represented as a muscular, bearded man with the lower body of a great fish. He is referred to as a deity 10 times in seven verses (Judges 16:23, 1 Samuel 5:2, 1 Samuel 5:3, 1 Samuel 5:4, 1 Samuel 5:5, 1 Samuel 5:7, 1 Chronicles 10:10), and twice more in two verses as part of place names that may have been named for him (Joshua 15:41, Joshua 19:27), all in the Old Testament. Judges 16:23: "Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, 'Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.'"

"foreign gods": Unnamed foreign gods are referred to early in the Bible, not long after the first reference to similarly unnamed "household gods," in Genesis 35:2: "So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, 'Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.'"

"gods of Egypt": References to Egypt appear beginning in the the book of Genesis, but its as-yet unnamed deities are not mentioned until Exodus 12:12: "'On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.'"

Hadad: Hadad was an ancient Semitic war, fertility, and storm god who was associated with the Edomites among others and equated with the the Egyptian deity Set, the Greek Zeus, and the Roman Jupiter. He was sometimes referred to simply as Baal, or "Lord," and many of the occurrences in the Bible of this name are likely to have been references to Hadad. The name Hadad appears 63 times in the Bible, all in the Old Testament as an honorific in proper names (e.g., Hadadezer, "Hadad is my help"); generally these are the names of kings and in a few are of places but none are explicitly used as the name of the deity. 1 Kings 20:16: "They set out at noon while Ben-Hadad and the 32 kings allied with him were in their tents getting drunk."

Hermes: Hermes was, amongst other things, the god of messengers and the roadways to the ancient Greeks. He is mentioned once in the New Testament of the Bible, in Acts 14:12, when the Apostle Paul is mistaken for the deity Hermes during a visit to the Asia Minor city of Lystra in A.D. 48. Acts 14:12: "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker." The entirey of this episode, one of the most amusing in the New Testament, can be read in Acts 14:8-20. (The name Hermes turns up once more in the Bible, in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, but as the name of a mortal member of the church to whom the letter is addressed.)

"household gods": The first reference in the Bible gods other than the God of the Israelites is to the unnamed "household gods" worshiped by Rachel's father in Genesis 31:19: "When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods." These probably would have been hearth goddesses, minor tribal deities, and/or the spirits of ancestors, which watched over and protected the home and its inhabitants.

Leviathan: Not a deity in the sense that most modern people would understand it, Leviathan was an ancient elemental monster who appears in the pre-Biblical epics of Baal and Gilgamesh. It appears in the Bible mostly as a device for showing God's power over immense forces and is mentioned seven times in six verses, all in the Old Testament and half in the Book of Job [Job 3:8, Job 41:1, Job 41:12, Psalm 74:14, Psalm 104:26, Isaiah 27:1]. Psalm 74:14: "It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert."

Marduk: This deity was chief of the Mesopotamian pantheon and patron of the city of Babylon during the era of the Old Testament and was associated with water, vegetation, judgment, magic, and the planet Jupiter. He is mentioned explicitly just once, in the Book of Jeremiah, but is alluded to four other times — presumably as an honorific — in the composite names of two kings, Marduk-Baladan and Awel-Marduk (2 Kings 20:12, 2 Kings 25:27, Isaiah 39:1, Jeremiah 52:31).Jeremiah 50:2: “Announce and proclaim among the nations, lift up a banner and proclaim it; keep nothing back, but say, ‘Babylon will be captured; Bel will be put to shame, Marduk filled with terror. Her images will be put to shame and her idols filled with terror.’"

Molek (Molech, Milcom): "The detestable god of the people of Ammon" (Second Kings 23:13). Molek has the distinction of being one of the few divine beings who appears in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, a total of 16 times in as many verses [Leviticus 18:21, Leviticus 20:2, Leviticus 20:3, Leviticus 20:4, Leviticus 20:5, 1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 11:7, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:10, 2 Kings 23:13, Isaiah 57:9, Jeremiah 32:35, Jeremiah 49:1, Jeremiah 49:3, Zephaniah 1:5, Acts 7:43]. Leviticus 18:21: "'Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.'" Acts 7:43: "You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon."

Nehushtan: This was the brass or bronze serpent that Moses raised up on a pole in order to protect the Israelites from the venomous snakes that an irritated God sent to bite them (Numbers 21:4-9). As what appears to be a generalized slip into apostasy, the Israelites had begun to worship this relic by the time of King Hezekiah, and he responded accordingly, as indicated in 2 Kings 18:4: "He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)" This idol appears to have acquired the label "the Nehushtan" during or after the time of Hezekiah and the actual name by which it was venerated is unknown.

Queen of Heaven: This celestial goddess was at one point especially popular with the people of Judah, who made sacrifice to her and baked cakes bearing her image, and is cited four times in four verses in the Book of Jeremiah (7:18, 44:17-19). She is variously identified as the goddess Asherah (q.v.) or Astarte (q.v.). Jeremiah 44:17: "We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm."

Rimmon: A major deity worshiped in Syria, and whose temple is believed to have been in Damascus, who may have been known as Baal in other places. He is mentioned as a deity just once in the Bible, although his name turns up at least 10 times in place names that may have been dedicated to him. 2 Kings 5:18: "But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also — when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”

Tammuz: A Sumerian god of fertility and vegetation who, as the length of days grew shorter after the Summer Solstice, was mourned by his followers as his influence over the world waned. He was adopted by the Greeks as Adonis and is believed by some to have been worshiped at the sport where the Church of the Nativity would eventually be established. He is mentioned just once in the Bible, in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel 8:14: "Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz."

Zeus: This chief god of the classic Greek pantheon is mentioned twice in the Bible, both times in the New Testament, as part of an episode in which two Apostles are so eloquent that they are mistaken for pagan gods during a visit to the Asia Minor city of Lystra in A.D. 48. Acts 14:12-13: "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

I was raised in the Midwest, Minnesota to be precise, in a Lutheran household.  Going to church every Sunday, attending Sunday school, and singing in whatever Choir was appropriate for my age at a given time was simply part of life. I will not go so far to say that faith or religion in general was of foremost importance to me in my youth, but it was a significant part of my life and did play a role in the person I grew to become.

As often is the case, once I left home my life grew too busy and my overwhelming schedule of working and going to college simultaneously led to my rarely attending services of any kind.  For more than a decade, I was pretty much un-churched other than the occasional ritualistic holiday service attendance.  I married and started a career, neither my job nor my husband at the time found religion to be important so it was actually quite easy to forget its former importance to me.

By the time my daughters were two and three, I began to feel that it was my responsibility to “expose” them to religion because I felt that by not doing so I was choosing for them.  So while living on a military compound in Mannheim Germany in the 80’s, I began to attend generic Protestant services each Sunday, and joined both the choir and a group called Protestant Women of the Chapel.

During that time, our entire family was a regular fixture at Sunday services as well as numerous other church sponsored activities.  This period was a fairly lonely time for me since my husband seemed to always be at work or at a work related activity and I found solace in my new church friends.  Beyond that, for the first time in my life, I saw something in these people, a light, a joy, a positive sense of direction and hope for the future that I had been missing. Many of these people had suffered great loss in their lives and yet they remained at peace and I wanted that peace, that joy, that sense of knowing what the future would bring.

As it turned out, my sense of well-being would be short lived.  My marriage ended abruptly while I was still in Germany and I ultimately collected up a few suitcases of belongings and my two daughters and headed home to Minnesota with no idea what I would be doing or what the future would bring. As they say, timing is everything and since my father had recently passed away, my Mother was overjoyed to have her daughter and grand-daughters close by.  There was never any question but that we would all attend church each and every Sunday together, and so we did.

For awhile, I considered staying in that small town of my childhood dreaming that my girls would benefit from growing up there, but career opportunities were limited and I actually missed city life.  So after six months, we rented a moving van, collected the furniture items we had acquired during our brief stay and moved back to the DC area.

This was during the administration of George H. W. Bush and employment opportunities were not good even in the DC area, but I was able to get a job which led to a better job and so on.  We tried attending a local Lutheran church nearby, but the pastor seemed really creepy and we never returned. By year three I was working at a state university near my home and enjoying life.  My daily commute took me by a small but attractive Lutheran church and eventually one Sunday I got the girls and I all dressed up and off we went to church.  Perhaps if things had gone differently, I might never have gone back, but these people seemed genuinely interested in us and even came by to visit us in our home. 

Once again I became a regular Sunday church goer and my girls really liked Sunday school.  Over time we all embraced our church family, all singing in the choirs, attending youth events, and vacation bible school and bible camp. Eventually I was asked to become an elder and proudly accepted thinking that perhaps I was finally one of those people that others saw joy and hope within.

There were probably always little red flags that suggested something other than a desire to feel closer to God and serve him in some of the church members.  There seemed to be a profound emphasis on material things and affluence amongst some prominent members that made me uncomfortable but I chose to ignore. I think that by the time I retired in 2008, I was seriously considering looking for a new church home.  In 2009 we moved all the way to Texas and during the first few months I attended services at a few Lutheran churches and at one nondenominational church and none of them felt quite right.  After learning that one of the most prominent members of the one I favored the most was actually a convicted white collar criminal who had destroyed the lives of thousands of people, I stopped looking.

Probably the most profound disappointment of my life as a Christian came in the spring of 2012 when I spent a month back in the DC area with my daughters.  Because I was going to be in the area over Easter, I thought it would be fun to sing with my old church choir.  Sadly, I got a terrible cold and was unable to sing, but did attend several services. 

I was deeply disappointed in what my old church had become.  I had been a part of a huge fundraising effort to build a proper sanctuary for what had once been a quaint little church and had myself contributed more than $12,000 toward that end. I noted with great disappointment the nearly empty sanctuary on both Palm Sunday and Easter, days that the church used to be filled to overflowing. At first I wasn’t quite sure what was behind this poor attendance, but it soon became abundantly clear to me that the overall atmosphere was not one of peace, love, understanding or even mutual respect among the congregation.  In particular, during the children’s talk the lay minister asked the children about who they would invite to their birthday party.  When he specifically asked them if they would invite the President, and got a loud no from at least one very young child, which resulted in laughter by some of the adults and a comment from the woman seated next to me that it was great, I began to understand.

Over the next several days, I spent a lot of time wondering what had happened within that church and numerous others that condoned overt disrespect towards an elected official. I wondered if these same people who found this amusing because they held differing political views from the current President would think it equally funny when children showed disrespect to a teacher, a principal, or to a police officer.  After all, a message was being clearly conveyed to very young children that they need not show respect and it that it was even OK to say mean things and hate. I often hear Christian friends claim that allowing prayer in school will solve many of today's problems, but how can that be true when they are being exposed to hate and intolerance in their churches?

As I see it, religion has lost its way, lost sight of the love for fellow mankind that Jesus preached.  People now judge others, try to control the lives of others, discriminate against others, commit acts of violence against others and say mean hateful things to others, all in the name of religion.  I can only think that Jesus is heartbrokenly disappointed on what many religious institutions do in his name and the name of his Father.  I am a spiritual person, I believe in doing good when I can and certainly in doing no harm to others.  I also believe that people are free to do what they choose when it does not harm others, even if I don’t agree with their actions.

I now accept that I will never again be a member of any religious institution and I am comfortable with that decision.  Perhaps if there is a day of Rapture as many believe, I will be left behind, but so will many of the most prominent members and leaders of religious institutions, because they have long ago lost sight of the teachings of Jesus.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Can Blood Be Too Thick

All the time we see on TV friends and family members of criminals, politicians, and other public figures who are guilty of misconduct standing by their loved ones.  Most recently I recall the wife of General Jeffery Sinclair asking that he not be reduced in rank because it would be a hardship for his family to live on the retirement pay of a Lieutenant Colonel.  Really, I bet a lot of Lieutenant Colonels find that pretty hard to stomach.  Even more important is the given fact that during his career, Sinclair most certainly ended the careers of subordinates for far less egregious misconduct than he himself received a mere slap on the wrist for without giving a moment’s consideration to their families.
The family members of George Zimmerman come to mind as well. Not only were they strong supporters of his right to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager, they showed total indifference to the feelings of Treyvon Martin’s family, displaying a “he got what he deserved” attitude.
Looking at these two examples, I have to wonder if perhaps friends and families can and often do go too far in their support.  Personally I suspect that in the case of General Sinclair, the good ole’ boy network of Army General Officers chose to look the other way until they no longer could, as they always do when it comes to one of their own. 

 I once supervised a young soldier who had served in a clerical position in the Office of the Vice Chief of Staff, Army.  He candidly told me that misconduct by the Army’s most senior leaders was fairly common place and included numerous instances of adultery, misappropriation, and even shoplifting.  He was responsible for typing up the letters of reprimand, i.e. wrist slaps that never kept these officers from being further promoted because they were maintained in an area of their personnel file that no one would ever see. Mind you, he never told me the names of these personnel, but having been a Military Police Officer and seen some cases myself, I found no reason to doubt what he said. So the question I pose is how long do friends and family members have to ignore the bad behavior of a person before it causes real harm and/or escalates to more serious criminal behavior?
I was inspired to write this piece as a follow-up to an earlier blog Bad People Do Bad Things, Count on It. I had known the subject of that blog (let’s call him “Sam”) for nearly five years and had personally witnessed him behave inappropriately on a number of occasions.  Beyond that, I had heard of other things from mutual acquaintances that Sam had done before I ever knew him.  Even I was guilty of looking the other way and making excuses for him on some level.  When you have an adult man (pushing 70) who doesn’t make any attempt to control his use of profanity in public no matter how many young children are present, chases waitresses into the kitchens of restaurants, and actually salutes the breasts of the well endowed daughter of a friend, and the only response he gets from his wife is to giggle and say “Oh Sam,” you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that he probably doesn’t actually see his behavior as at all inappropriate.
I wrote the initial blog as an outlet for frustration due to his actually getting away with unethical and illegal conduct, but I admit that I secretly hoped that either he or a member of his family would see the piece and know who I was talking about.  I don’t know what kind of response I expected from any of them if any of them read it, but fantasized about Sam stomping around the room blustering about slander and law suits and even contacting a lawyer only to learn that not only had he not been named in the blog, but neither was the school or the community so he had no case. Of course beyond that, I hadn’t written anything that was not 100% true, he really did those things.  In any case, as recently as this week it became obvious that someone in his family had read the blog and knew who it was about.  I know this because his adult children had “unfriended” me, my husband, and both my daughters on Facebook.  Really, like I want anything to do with people of this caliber.  I am laughing picturing the family meeting with the wife blubbering about their reputations and Sam trying to figure out how to get revenge. Sadly, what I cannot imagine happening is either of those children asking him “did you do those things?”  Obviously the “rotten” apples didn’t fall far from that tree.
Life has many lessons and one of many things that I take away from this experience is that some families stick together no matter what; beyond that, they justify the bad behavior of each other.  We did not raise our daughters to never question the behavior of their parents or to accept everything we do as the best and only way.  You can bet that had my husband done what Sam did and someone wrote about it identifying him only by his conduct, I would never, ever have told my daughters about it and asked them to support him.  Their first question would have been, “did Dad actually do those things?”
No one is perfect and good all of the time, but I firmly believe that especially as parents, we lead by example.  What we teach our children when they are young and the examples we set for them are what makes them who they are as adults.  Here, and in everything, the adult children of Sam are behaving the only way they can, circling the wagons and justifying his bad behavior…and their own children are watching.  That alone in all of this makes me sad.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The New Atheist Activism In America

My good friend Darin Anthony sent me the following survey that he developed as part of a project for a social psychology class he is taking. I think it asks some interesting questions and made me articulate my own views on the subject of "atheist activism," to the extent that such a thing exists, and the attempts of Creationists to impose their sectarian viewpoints on society. As the graphic at the bottom of this page indicates, in any event, atheists comprise a very small percentage of Americans. Comments are welcome! 

1. How would you describe your faith life?
I am a person of faith with an active religious life, which includes daily prayer and monthly worship.

2. What is your personal opinion of atheists?
My view of American atheists in general is that they have renounced religion because they have been exposed to too much rather than too little of it. I furthermore believe that many have confused the concepts of "religion" and "God" and that if they understood they could renounce the one while still embracing the other that many might be persons of faith.

3. What is your personal opinion of the atheists you have known?
On par, most atheists I know are more intelligent and better educated than religious people I know. Most appear to have made an intellectual decision to choose atheism and many of them have become atheists after being driven away from religion by extremist family members or negative experiences in fundamentalist congregations. They run the gamut in terms of morality, many being genuinely good people and others being completely amoral.

4. Have you done anything to support your faith or belief system?
Yes. I make myself available talk to people about faith, God, and religion when they want to discuss them or have questions. I do not proselytize in any way because I think it is counterproductive and that other people can make legitimate religious decisions that are completely different than my own.

5. Why do you think atheists become activists against things like creationism being taught in schools?
Under the best of conditions, I believe they are doing so to keep America from becoming a dumbed-down, medievalized, fundamentalist state (i.e., in the way that Iran is often criticized for being). Often, however, I get the impression that they are also being driven by a personal contempt for religion.

6. What impact do you see if any has atheist activism had on our country?
Overall, I believe anything that could be explicitly identified as "atheist activism" has had a negative effect on America, in large part because it has led fundamentalists to believe they are being attacked and to respond accordingly. "Secular humanist activism" or somesuch would come off as much less antagonistic, and not necessarily be incompatible with peoples' religious views. The promise of America is, in any event, that people should be able to have any sorts of beliefs they want and still be able to peacefully and productively coexist with people who have differing or even opposed points of view.

7. What effect do you think creationism is having as it is taught in schools?
Mythology, taught as such, has great value in understanding the universe and our place in it. I believe that teaching myths as if they represent a literal truth diminishes the value of those stories, does not give them the respect they deserve, and has the effect of making people narrow minded and intellectually backward.

8. If atheist activists win their cause how do you think it will affect you personally?
Not sure if anyone will "win" if compromise, mutual respect, and coexistence are not the results. In a sense, atheists and religious people alike both already "won" more than 230 years ago, when America was founded as a secular state that guaranteed freedom of religion. Understanding the collective value of this is what will allow everyone to "win."

9. If atheist activists win their cause how do you think it will affect the nation?
If their goal to is to keep America a nation where religion does not dictate policy but where people can worship as they see fit while respecting the rights of others then it will affect the nation positively. If their goal is to curtail peoples' rights to worship privately or to antagonize religious people then I believe it will have a negative, fragmenting effect on the nation.

10. What do you think will happen if atheist activists lose their battle against creationism being taught in schools?
If creationism is taught in schools then it will severely damage efforts to effectively educate American students. Football and overemphasis on athletic activities that benefit only a few, standardized testing, cutting of arts and humanities programs, etc., have already harmed the true mission of education — to provide students with facts and to teach them how, not what, to think. 

Percentage of atheists and agnostics by region.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Page, or Yours

I have to admit to being somewhat addicted to Facebook.  For me it has become a way to reconnect with friends and classmates from my youth so that we can reminisce about the good ole days. I also spent 32 years in the Army so have friends located pretty much all over the world and Facebook makes it possible to easily keep in touch with them. My preference is to post only feel good or amusing things and cute cat pictures. Occasionally, I will about write something more serious or use Facebook to promote a blog that I have written so that friends who are interested can read what I have written.
I take writing very seriously, as I feel everyone should.  I carefully collect my thoughts and read what I have written aloud to my husband Michael, who is a professional writer and journalist, to make sure my intent is clear and concise.  I have always been open to comments from others on my page so long as they more or less stick to the topic being discussed and remain respectful of the fact that they are writing on my page and not their own.

Yesterday I felt a need to do something on Facebook that I have never in the past done, I deleted several posts from an individual on my page.  The post was in reference to the last blog I wrote on this site, Bad People Do Bad Things, Expect It.  As I clearly indicated in the posts introduction, I sometimes write when I need to figure out situations that I have trouble understanding. I did not write the piece to convince anyone of anything, not did I ask them to pass judgment on anyone person or institution, and I most certainly did not want anyone to incorporate their own baggage, make numerous assumptions, and make a case for why the conduct I had concluded was bad, was in fact somehow justified.
Initially, I simply ignored the comments, actually feeling a little embarrassed for the author that not only were they off topic, but poorly written with numerous spelling and grammatical errors.  Ignoring them didn’t seem to get the point across; they just kept coming, finally reaching a point where they were stating a need for more information so they could “pass judgment” and implying that I had written only one side of the incident, and ultimately that the school had something to hide.  How he came to these conclusions is beyond me given that he does not live within a thousand miles of the community where the incident occurred and does not know anyone who was involved.

It certainly appears that this man has his own history (baggage) with Christian schools and that he was, without any facts or information, assigning any and all shortcomings he had experienced or witnessed to the school about which I was writing.  I, on the other hand, live in this community and know the players involved in this incident. The vast majority of the information I wrote about came from the person I ultimately concluded had acted badly, not from the school.
What is also clear to me is that some people just need to argue.  If you see what looks like a duck, see it walking like a duck and quacking, you don’t need to interview the duck to know it is a duck.  By the same logic, when a person agrees to do something for a certain amount and receives what is obviously an overpayment and says nothing and then complains when they receive the agreed upon amount the next pay period, they are just plain wrong.  Quitting any job without notice for such a preposterous reason furthers that wrong as does stealing school property and making threats against school staff members.

How someone can in one post talk about how the solution to this and every other problem is for more people to go to church and then justify the actions of a thief and an extortionist is lost on me.  If a person carelessly leaves their front door unlocked and someone enters their home and steals their TV, the person is still a thief and has still broken the law.
Were I to give advice, I would say to anyone that writing is a serious business. How you write is just as important as what you write. Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar are important if you want to be taken seriously and get your point across. The more errors in your correspondence, the less credibility you will have. Lastly, your own unsubstantiated opinions do not belong on someone else’s page, that is what your own page is for.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bad People Do Bad Things, Expect It

When did people stop doing the right thing? When did they stop caring whether their actions harmed others?  I guess the answer to that is that there have always been some people who did not think about anyone but themselves. Thankfully, and perhaps naively, I still believe that the vast majority of people do care about others. However, I recently witnessed what I consider to be a pretty deplorable situation and have been so bothered by what transpired that it led me to write this piece. 

There is a recently organized small Christian charter school in our community that caters to those children who simply cannot learn in a traditional classroom environment.  The school’s founder did not establish it to make money but rather to provide a service, it was her calling.  There are only about 40 students enrolled in the school and the tuition is what I would call ridiculously cheap, but then the parents of these students are not affluent.  What this means is that before this school was established there was not an alternative available to them.
This is a bare bones environment; those who teach at the school do it as a service to the community for very little pay.  Witnessing the teachers reach out to their students gradually adapting to their individual learning disabilities and challenging situations is truly heartwarming.  This is the kind of individual attentiveness that can only be accomplished in a class room with no more than eight students. Any person with an ounce of common sense could look at the school and see the tuition charged and completely understand that this school is not about profit, it is about the kids, giving them a chance they otherwise probably would not have.
Back in January, my husband and I heard that the school needed a math teacher to teach one class. I mentioned this need to a few people, none of whom expressed an interest. We finally thought about an acquaintance that had always made great play of all the volunteer work he did and who also frequently professed that he did not need compensation.  We provided his name to the school administrator and he was subsequently hired to teach one class each day beginning the last week of January.
By all accounts, although a bit forgetful, he did a good job and the kids liked him.  All appeared well until the February pay checks were given out to the staff just prior to Spring break.  He was extremely dissatisfied with what he was being paid and quit immediately without notice. Further investigation determined that he had in fact been accidently over paid in January by a factor of five since he only taught one week that month and thus extrapolated that that he should receive five times that amount for February.  It should be noted that he demanded to be paid more than the full time staff members and indicated that if he was not paid the amount demanded that he would “bad mouth” the school.  He also stole books from the school and said he would not return them unless they paid him. Needless to say, my husband and I were mortified that we had ever suggested him as a candidate, but then who knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.
This whole situation devastated the school, particularly the administrator who was responsible for the accidental overpayment.  Hoping to minimize any potential damage to the school and erroneously believing that paying him off would put an end to an ugly situation, the school paid him.  Actually, the administrator forfeited her own salary for the period of his employment to cover his unearned and extorted pay. To say that they should not have done this would be an understatement given that he was not only a thief, but an extortionist as well, and he had already begun to make malicious and false statements about the school and many of its staff members. He acted like a classic bully, and the school gave him their lunch money.
Perhaps they should have known better, perhaps they should have known that a person who did the kind of things this man did could not be trusted, in any and all things. But they are, after all, a Christian school and were ill equipped to deal with actions so vile.
Looking at this situation, I ask myself, why did he accept a position for pay that he ultimately considered inadequate? Did he simply hate teaching there and use this as a way of leaving? Why did he not ask why his initial paycheck was five times the amount he was told he would be paid? Did he not care about the significant impact his departure would have on already-challenged kids? Did he not care how the other far more qualified teachers would feel about his being paid at a rate five times what they were receiving? Had he known that an individual would be giving up their own pay to compensate him would he have done the same thing?
I think the only conclusion most people would come to is that he is incapable of thinking about anyone other than himself, that the charitable nature he has presented to so many is nothing but a fa├žade, that he didn’t give a hoot about the kids, or that he is a truly bad person.  Or, maybe he just needed the money and was willing to forfeit any pretense of decency to get it.