Sunday, April 5, 2020
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Louisiana Pastor Opens Church to 27 Busloads of People to Fight “the Antichrist” | Hemant Mehta | Friendly Atheist

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Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell, who refuses to close his Life Tabernacle Church and is currently represented by attorney and alleged child molester Roy Moore, is holding multiple services today, putting countless people in harm’s way.

He’s already been charged with six misdemeanors, but none of that is getting in the way of cashing in on Jesus and his own supposed martyrdom during a pandemic.

Spell, 42, who plans to hold three services at his 1,000-member Life Tabernacle megachurch in a Baton Rouge suburb on Palm Sunday, has defied state orders against assembling in large groups…

The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist, let us assemble regardless of what anyone says,” he said.

Spell appeared on CNN this morning and said he planned to bring in 27 busloads of people for today’s services.

He says in that interview that he “believes the science” — uh-huh — but that he has “a command from God, and there are no governing bodies that can tell us we cannot worship and gather freely.” He sees this as a religious freedom issue, not a my-pastor-has-created-a-death-trap issue.

More people will suffer because they foolishly chose to accept Spell’s version of Christianity. And unfortunately, their theological virus will make them more likely to catch the coronavirus, which will then spread throughout their families, their communities, and beyond.

We are all worse off because of their religious delusions.

(via Joe. My. God. who is brilliantly referring to these still-open churches as “Branch Covidians”)





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Coronavirus Is a “Partisan Pandemic”

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I have subjected myself to listening to each and every press briefing from the White House in their entirety over the last few weeks. It is definitely a source of pain. You don’t need me to repeat myself again in exasperation that people could vote for the utter twit that is POTUS. Yes, saying this […]



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Famous Catholic Exorcist (Loosely) Weaves a Dangerous Tale in New Book | Val Wilde | Friendly Atheist

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On their website, Sophia Institute Press describes its wares as “faithful Catholic classics and new texts by the great enduring figures of the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

Father Gabriele Amorth, world-renowned exorcist, could hardly be called one of them.

Father Gabriele Amorth (right)

His recent posthumous biography, The Devil Is Afraid of Me: The Life and Work of the World’s Most Famous Exorcist, describes a man who, at the peak of his faculties, performed upwards of 17 exorcisms per day while relying on his fellow priests to update him on world events in the space of a single shared meal.

Amorth seems almost proud when he brags about coasting through university without studying or attending classes, saying “they gave me the degree as a gift.”

The book may tout his expertise concerning the world of demons, but when it comes to the human world, the man comes across as profoundly incurious and frequently ill-informed.

Father Amorth died some years before the book’s publication, and as he emphasizes strongly in the book, the dead cannot come into contact with the living to write biographies. (Ghosts aren’t real, he insists; only demons are.) So the actual text was written and assembled by Father Marcello Stanzione, albeit with enough reprints of Amorth’s old interviews to earn the exorcist full author credit. In fact, while the book’s cover credits him as a lesser co-author to the dead priest, it’s the only place the press bothers to acknowledge his contribution.

Stanzione claims no hard feelings, though. In fact, he called Amorth “the figure of Christ the Healer” and identifies him as a prime candidate for canonization:

If you will pardon the audacity of my affection and admiration (and ignore the decree of Pope Urban VIII that asked the faithful to leave judgment on the matter to the Church), I must say that Father Amorth was a giant, a teacher, an example of greatness, and therefore a saint.

I’m not so sure.

Promotional materials for the book love to mention that Amorth credits himself with more than 60,000 exorcisms during his career, at that punishing pace of 17 per day. Elsewhere, he’s claimed as many as 160,000 (circa 2013). This assembly-line pace doesn’t leave a lot of room for proceeding cautiously. Amorth claims, therefore, to have used exorcism as a diagnostic tool, reasoning that “if a person has a need for an exorcism, fine; if not, the exorcism does no harm.”

But the process of exorcism seems like it could be extremely scary, potentially traumatic to the person undergoing it. Amorth is equivocal on the issue of consent, at times insisting he won’t exorcise someone without it, only to later argue in favor of presuming consent when someone refuses the rite:

These [non-consenting] persons wish to have the exorcisms; it is the demon that is impeding them from reaching the exorcist. In those cases, one can force the person, even with force, to accept the exorcism. It is necessary, however, to have the consent of the family.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could add up to a harmful outcome, even a legally actionable one. But Amorth never addresses that question, and if it ever came up, it’s been well and truly buried.

Ultimately, though, the question of whether someone needs an exorcism or not is unfalsifiable. Once a person is branded as demon-possessed, there’s no losing for priests like Father Amorth. If the exorcism doesn’t work, it could be God’s plan. It could also be the fault of the victim:

Sometimes there are impediments to grace: the difficulty of a sincere, heartfelt pardon; the difficulty of changing a lifestyle that is rooted in sin; the difficulty of breaking certain ties with the Evil One that require breaking off certain human ties: sinful friendships, rooted vices.

It’s a great way to never have to grapple with the question of whether an exorcism really does harm the person receiving it.

The Church has at least gestured at considering those questions, putting rules in place to control who may perform an exorcism, and how, and under what circumstances. But whether Father Amorth accepts those rules becomes increasingly muddy over the course of the book. Certainly Amorth is critical of the Church hierarchy, complaining of neglectful bishops and power-hungry careerists, even alluding to “members of satanic sects” within the Vatican power structure. (Even the fairly-deferential interviewer felt compelled to ask, “Excuse me, Father Gabriele, but how do you know?” The answer was vague, but at least partly involved demonic snitches.)

So does Amorth believe ordinary Catholics can perform exorcisms? He pays lip service to the official restrictions, explaining that only duly-appointed exorcists may practice the exorcism rite while offering would-be demon-fighters the option of saying a “prayer of liberation”: less formal, but “as effective as true and proper exorcisms.”

Now, don’t misunderstand: nobody here is blaming him for disrespecting the Vatican hierarchy. I don’t respect it much myself.

But Amorth’s writings and interviews emphasize the tradition of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, roughly the equivalent of Protestant Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on individual Christians being moved by the Holy Spirit to act in God’s name. Encourage enough people to act on their instincts and preconceptions, telling them it’s the prodding of their deity, and the potential for truly ugly outcomes is apparent.

Potential demoniacs can’t prove they’re not possessed. Their efforts to refuse are potential evidence of possession. And the duty to “liberate” them is in the hands of any believer.

These are the sorts of issues Father Gabriele Amorth never took the time to consider deeply during his long and extremely busy life. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d cut down his caseload by ten thousand or so, instead giving a bit of thought to the potential consequences of his beliefs.

(Screenshot via YouTube)





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Coping With the Quarantine | Atheist Revolution

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face mask virus

We’ve been told to stay home to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus, and I sincerely hope most sane adults are now doing so. The Governor of Mississippi finally issued a shelter-in-place order that took effect yesterday. I believe that this measure came far too late, and I suspect that some of my neighbors will continue to ignore it. And so, the numbers of infected will continue to climb. A high price will be paid for incompetent leadership and conspiratorial thinking. We could have prevented the worst of this, but we did not do so. Now we have little choice but to try to ride it out over the next several months.

I hope that everyone who is now hunkering down in self-isolation, quarantine, or whatever else we might call this is doing as well as can be expected. I have few illusions that it will help since we all cope in different ways, but I thought I’d share some of what has been working for me. Even though I recognize that I am an outlier in that this sort of isolation is not a big departure from how I have lived for the last 20 years, I have found some things to be helpful that don’t have much to do with how unbothered I am by the social isolation aspect of it.

First, I have found it extremely helpful to limit my exposure to the news media. I was not initially doing this, and I quickly became overwhelmed with trying to keep up with the constantly changing virus-related news that I stopped sleeping and descended to a bad place. I now limit myself to no more than an hour of virus-related TV news within a 24-hour period. Since most social media platforms are full of virus-related content too, I’ve cut back the time I spend on them too. I’ve also become far more selective in the sources I consult for virus-related news. I focus primarily on the information provided by the CDC on their website and my state’s health department and steer clear of cable news, the conspiracy-oriented nonsense that continues to thrive on social media, and Trump’s ridiculous press conferences. I immediately delete the widely circulated hysterical emails everyone I know keeps forwarding me that purport to be written by “a viral epidemiologist.”

Second, I structure my time with a schedule in much the same way I do when I am at work. Since I am working from home, this is relatively easy. Much of my day is now filled with remote meetings and the same sort of work I am used to doing. I have been going beyond this and scheduling my time outside of these formal obligations. This helps me keep track of how I am spending my time but also prevents me from wasting it. Even though I sometimes resent the fact that I am working much longer hours now than I am used to, I suppose it helps to be busy because I don’t have time to obsess over the many things I cannot control.

Third, I’ve made some attempts to reach out and connect with friends, family, co-workers, and others I am worried about. Some of these attempts haven’t worked out because others are busy or dealing with the situation in different ways, but most have gone well. I think most people appreciate the effort even if we don’t always manage to connect. The only people I am trying to avoid in this process are those who are still convinced that there is no virus and the whole thing is some sort of anti-Trump hoax.

Fourth, since I have not been able to be as physically active as I’d like due to the long work hours, I have reduced my food consumption. This has been helpful in making what little food I have been able to procure last longer than it otherwise would. With the few grocery stores in my area being unable (or unwilling) to stock a steadily expanding array of items (e.g., beans, rice, pasta, oats, flour, bread, many frozen items, meat, dairy), cutting back as much as I can makes sense. What I have must last as long as possible because there does not appear to be any more of it. We’ve been hearing for roughly two months that our food supply is fine and that our supply lines are strong. I have seen no evidence to support this. Paper products, soap, and cleaning supplies have not been available since early February, and the food supply now seems to be running low.

Contrary to what I keep seeing from Christians on social media, one thing I haven’t done is resumed belief in their preferred god or any other fictional entities. They seem convinced that all of us will do this, and some even think this is why their “god” visited this particular plague upon us (i.e., to bring us all to Jesus). They don’t seem to understand how belief works or to know much about atheists.

Anyway, I think the hardest thing about our present situation is the uncertainty about how much worse it will get and how long it will last. It sounds like it is expected to get much worse in the near future. I’d guess we are looking at a few more months of this and maybe more. The idea that everything will be over and back to normal by the end of April, one commonly repeated prediction, is unrealistic considering the slow and inconsistent nature of our response. Perhaps if we had implemented a nationwide shelter-in-place a couple weeks ago, we’d have a better outlook.

As for the finger-pointing, I don’t find it productive at this point. They’ll be plenty of time for that later. What I’d really like to see would be the development of a good plan for dealing with future pandemics that consolidates everything we are learning from this one. I’d also like to see this happen at the federal level because I think a big reason for our current predicament has to do with our puzzling practice of letting every state do whatever they want. The shelter-in-place orders should have happened at the same time everywhere and been preventive in nature. This seems obvious now, and we need to develop a system for doing it next time.



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Amid Coronavirus, Governor Whitmer Must Close Dangerous House of Worship Loophole

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Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s leadership throughout the ongoing public health emergency has been an exemplar of competence and responsiveness. Her actions have given me confidence that my family and loved ones are in good hands.

This is perhaps why her decision to exempt houses of worship from her March 16 and March 23 executive orders limiting gatherings struck such a discordant note. There is no constitutional obligation to exempt religious groups from public health and safety regulations, particularly when lives are on the line. It isn’t required by the Michigan Constitution, nor by the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It’s not just legally unnecessary—it’s bad policy, and could prove deadly. 

In Washington, D.C., hundreds of people were exposed to the coronavirus after a rector tested positive for COVID-19. In New York, hundreds of members of the Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic community have tested positive after ignoring social distancing guidelines. In Florida and Louisiana, churches are flaunting guidance from the CDC and local health officials and encouraging congregants to shake hands, potentially exposing hundreds more to this deadly virus. 

And in Arkansas, one pastor said “half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there’s no actual virus.” This worryingly indifferent attitude amongst too many of our community members is being fed by those who would minimize the threat of the virus for political ends, but also by relaxed enforcement and loopholes within the stay-at-home guidelines from government officials. 

We need decisive and clear guidance from our leaders. Conflicting directives or those undermined by exemptions and loopholes can cost lives. Listen to the advice of medical professionals—prohibit all large gatherings, including those at houses of worship. Gov. Whitmer has the authority under the Constitution to do so.

Public health experts and religious liberty advocates, including those with expansive views of religious exemptions, agree: our government has a compelling interest in protecting the lives of our fellow community members and can limit in-person gatherings, even at churches. The U.S. Supreme Court has been crystal clear on balancing religious liberty with public health, saying in the 1944 case Prince v. Massachusetts, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community…to communicable disease.” 

This isn’t a partisan issue. Governors across the country, including in Indiana, Washington, Maryland, and New Jersey, have not exempted religious gatherings from their bans on large group gatherings. 

While I understand Gov. Whitmer’s desire to not infringe on religious freedom, this virus does not care what religion you follow or which God you worship. It is just as easily spread in movie theaters as it is in church pews. And that spread will only continue unless we act now. 

The directive that we all practice social distancing and minimize the opportunity for this virus to spread among our community requires that we’re all on the same page. Creating carve-outs and exemptions for any type of gathering will cost lives.

If we take seriously our obligation to one another as human beings sharing this world and in this fight together, we must follow the best practices advised by health officials to flatten the curve to prevent even more community spread of this disease. 

I urge Gov. Whitmer to act now and repeal this exemption that puts all Michiganders, but particularly the most vulnerable among us, at risk.

Nick Fish is the President of American Atheists and a native of Lapeer, Michigan.

Screenshot via YouTube



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Pearced Off! #4 – Free Will

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I am running a series of the old podcast segments from my Pearced Off! section of the Skepticule Podcast (a British skepticism-based podcast now on hiatus) that I used to contribute to. Some of the earlier ones have some quieter audio. Apologies. They run at around ten minutes. Something to keep you company outside of Netflix and the news…

Please subscribe to my channel if you can be arsed. One day, I might get to 1000 subscribers when they allow monetisation. Until then, it’s a labour of love.

 


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“Astronauts Talk Disclosure of Extra-Terrestrial Contact”

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This video was linked to me as a friend of a friend created it, by all accounts. It’s ironic as I am finally listening to Carl Sagan’s A Demon-Haunted World right now that deals explicitly with this sort of claim. Disclaimer – I have not watched this video yet, but am about to. It’s like […]



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With Stunning Lack of Corona-Caution, Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn Attend a Funeral | Terry Firma | Friendly Atheist

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How can you convince people that physical distancing is a must, if they believe they’ve been chosen by God and that He will protect them?

I guess you can’t.

Throngs of Hasidic Jews gathered in Brooklyn Wednesday for a local rabbi’s funeral, brazenly flouting social distancing orders amid the coronavirus pandemic pummeling the city, online video shows.

In the 30-second clip, which has been circulating online, dozens of members of the Jewish community — some wearing protective facial masks — can be seen marching in an outdoor procession down Avenue N near East 9th Street in Midwood as a close cluster of men carry a casket above their heads in the middle of the street.

They’re special, so the rules don’t apply to them.

The funeral gathering was an open violation of the social distancing orders by state and city officials who have repeatedly demanded that folks maintain at least a six-foot distance while in public as a way to stem the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

Oh, and it’s almost as if religion is the enemy of reason:

The funeral was held for 96-year-old Yosef Leifer, the rabbi of the nearby Congregation Karnei Reim on Avenue N, according to a man who answered the phone at the synagogue Thursday. “People were in such a panic that the rebbe died, they weren’t thinking about corona,” the man, who would not identify himself. … “They forgot about corona. They just wanted to be close to the rebbe.”

The NYPD issued no summonses and made no arrests, supposedly because the funeral was already over and the crowd had dispersed by the time the cops arrived, prompted by the complaints of tipsters.

Just two weeks ago, Hasidic Jews drew similar concerns when they packed in hundreds of people at a Williamsburg wedding. The New York Fire Department had to break up the gathering. Later that same evening, another wedding in the area presented much the same picture. In close quarters, revelers danced arm in arm, practicing no social distancing whatsoever.

At the rate these people flout the rules, if it’s funerals they want, it’s funerals they’ll get, and plenty of them.





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Sorry, Senator Hawley. It’s Unconstitutional to Bail Out Churches with $350 Billion Small Business Aid.

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Washington, D.C.—Today, the religious freedom watchdog organizations American Atheists, Center for Inquiry (CFI), Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), and Secular Coalition for America (SCA) corrected Senator Josh Hawley’s claim that “the SBA [Small Business Administration] is WRONGLY telling churches and lenders that churches and religious nonprofits don’t qualify for the new #COVID19 relief program.”

“Sen. Hawley could not be more mistaken,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “He should review the guidance we provided to SBA to better understand how key constitutional principles like church-state separation apply to this legislation.”

On Tuesday, a group of eight civil rights and religious freedom organizations sent a letter to SBA, urging the agency to respect existing regulations and the Constitution.

“The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Small Business Administration’s own long-standing rules are clear. The government may not use taxpayer money to directly fund religious activities,” said Nicholas Little, Vice President and General Counsel of the Center for Inquiry.

SBA’s policies prevent “businesses principally engaged in teaching, instructing, counselling or indoctrinating religion or religious beliefs, whether in a religious or secular setting” from being eligible for business loans and for economic disaster loans.

“Taxpayers cannot be forced to fund churches, even in a pandemic. The Small Business Administration must include some constitutional protections in its coming emergency regulations to implement the CARES Act to ensure that American taxpayers will not be footing the bill for church mortgages and preachers’ salaries,” commented Andrew L. Seidel, Director of Strategic Response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  

Last Thursday, in a call with the Christian nationalist organization Florida Family Policy Council, Senator Marco Rubio promised a “cash injection” from the stimulus bill to churches. The following day in a separate call, Vice President Pence assured Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council that “we most certainly are” concerned about the economic impact on churches.

“The Trump Administration is not only handling this crisis irresponsibly, it’s selling out the American people,” said Casey Brink, Director of Policy & Government Affairs for the Secular Coalition for America. “For every single dollar churches get their hands on, that’s one dollar less for a small business owner. It’s disgraceful.”





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My Coronavirus Lightbulb Moment: It’s When, Not if

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This is in one sense blindingly obvious and implicitly understood, but in another sense something I only properly consciously clocked today. This piece may seem callous and uncaring: I realise I am talking abstractly about that which refers to real people and real deaths, and my intellectualisation may seem a little distant from emotional reality.

Just in case you were in any doubt, these precautions we are all experiencing ([self-]isolation, shutting down of society) are not about us not getting coronavirus (CV). They are about when we get it. Yes, this is about flattening the curve to take the strain off our healthcare systems. But, implicitly within this, I guess I have always subconsciously thought that there was an intention to stop people getting CV, period.

In reality, of course, they “merely” don’t want us all to get it at the same time, but to spread it out and delay cases until a vaccine comes about or a herd immunity is developed. But I guess we’ll all be directly touched by CV at some point. This is not to stop us getting it, period, unless you personally remain in lockdown forever.

In other words, if you are in the vulnerable or extremely vulnerable categories, you will remain in these categories after the main period of this pandemic passes. You will have just as much chance of dying from this disease in six months time as you do now.

As my friend asked when I announced this elsewhere:

So where does that leave the vulnerable? Those with COPD? Will they have to remain isolated for the (approx) 18 months that it will take for a vaccine to become available? Because even with a flattened curve and a fully prepared health service those people will still die in droves.

I said: yup, I guess so. He replied:

Well that’s depressing. It will certainly mean that my children won’t see their grandparents this year…. [A]nd the longer we go on, the more that become immune, the greater the risk of complacency amongst the vulnerable as society returns to normal.

This appears broadly correct.

What we are doing is playing around with when people die in order to stop them dying as a result of hospital overcrowding. Those who would die from CV now in a hospital under capacity are just as likely die later if they were to get it in, say, six months, or a year. Either herd immunity or a vaccine are required for this these people (arguably including me) to feel somewhat safe going forward, where herd immunity is defined as:

…the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease, especially through vaccination.

We can see that vaccination is still arguably a vital component of herd immunity.

The only mitigating factors that I can think of off the top of my head is whether the strain is more virulent now or the manner in which it is caught in high volume cases makes it more virulent somehow (?); and again, whether some kind of herd immunity can help inoculate vulnerable people over time.

This means that, as stated by my friend, when the worst of this “passes”, the old and vulnerable amongst us will need to remain in isolation or social distancing for perhaps 18 months.

Underlying health conditions

Every single person, short of hospital complications, malpractice and so on, who dies from coronavirus has underlying health conditions (UHC). Sometimes it gets reported that x% of the deaths had UHC, the rest normal. This can be misleading: UHC are, for many people, unknown. You may know, for one reason or another, that you have a heart defect, or asthma, or whatever. Likewise, you may not. Your chance of dying from CV sits on a digital scale, but also on a longer continuum from definitely going to die given scenario A to just about dies (where if A was marginally changed you would not) down to definitely wouldn’t die, and everywhere in between. So you will either die or not, but the amount you would have to change the scenario A in order not to die, or to die, would vary considerably (I hope my explanation makes sense!).

So there will be an awful lot of people who are in the vulnerable category who won’t know it and who, when the worst “passes” won’t know that they are in for a shock. You and I and our friends and family could be those people.

So when this thing gets over the peak and is back down around the foothills, if there is still no vaccine, things will likely be no safer. This virus is equally deadly to an individual (external issues aside) no matter what stage of the curve you meet it on.

Beware, my friends and interlocutors, beware.

I’ll try to be happier in the next piece…


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