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An Atheist is Invited to Church

§ August 4th, 2011 § Filed under Religion, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , , , , § 1 Comment

My Evening Behind the Orange Curtain

 When I got a call from a woman named Lindsey inviting me to appear at the Moment Church during their Sunday evening service, some warning bells went off in my head. She sounded like a nice enough person, but why would they want me, a career atheist, to even be at their church, much less have a voice there?

This ain’t no UU Church, by the way. Moment’s  “what we believe” statement of faith on their website represents what I would call pretty hardcore Christianity – God is the ubiquitous, all-knowing creator of the universe; the bible is inerrant; you get to heaven through Jesus; marriage is between one man and one woman. You get the picture.

I’ve always been an experience junkie, so I said yes. My friend Spencer, an ex-cop, half-jokingly asked me if I wanted to borrow an old Kevlar vest. I laughed and said no… thought about  lunatics with guns for a second, and said no again. Was I missing something here? Could these people be for real? I asked them if I could bring some other secular types along and shoot our own video — just in case something memorable happened. They said yes to both. That eased my mind a bit, but I still wondered if there was something up their sleeve.

Moment’s Pastor Tony Wood called on the Wednesday before to talk about how he’d like the service to go. He emphasized that he didn’t want this to turn into a debate or argument. It would be more of a chat that might build some bridges between our very different communities. That sounded fine to me. It meant less preparation and less stress.

I’ve accompanied CFI L.A. Chairman Eddie Tabash many times deep into the hinterlands of fundamentalist Christianity for his formal debates, and have been in lots of heated theological discussions with red-faced, veins-a-bulging Christians incensed at the idea of someone so casually blaspheming before them. That’s an evening you have to be in the mood for.

The ride down to Orange County from CFI  in Hollywood was full of speculation about what might happen. Karl and Craig, two CFI members keen to experience this encounter, ran through a litany of arguments our side has been using on apologists for ages – just in case it turned out to be an ambush. I was like a boxer going through a pre-bout warm-up.

The church itself is in an industrial park in Irvine, which immediately brought back memories of a double exorcism I once attended at a church in Sacramento – also in an industrial park. Location’s where the similarities  ended, though. Moment Church sublets from a larger church that has many of the bells and whistles that mega churches have – live, big-screen overhead projection, a slick P.A. system featuring light-show elements and a smoke machine, and streaming video.

When we finally found the front door (there were a couple of Spinal Tap tries) we were all greeted warmly and I was allowed into the pre-service briefing. They run their Sunday services pretty tightly, and I told them their script reminded me of the Oprah Show, which I had been a guest on. Tony seemed impressed by this, but neglected to ask me what the show topic was. (The topic, incidentally, was “Should you have sex before marriage?” As a Chicagoan in my mid 20s at the time, I felt it an obligation to represent the Ayes.)

Pastor Tony and James Underdown

The crowd of 200 (250?) seemed young – lots of teens and twenties – which explained the band opening the service with some (Christian) rock and roll, the big screens, and the text-in-your-questions format.

As Pastor Tony prayed before inviting me up to the stage, it occurred to me that they were taking a bit of a chance on me being there. I was largely an unknown element to them. But I saw no reason to change the warm and fuzzy tone of the service by going off on a rant —  maybe with examples of the gospels contradicting each other, or by explaining how free will can’t exist if God is omniscient. These people really did sound sincere, and I had been listening hard for ulterior motives in the tone of their voices! So I relaxed and had a good time.

The interview went well, I thought. Tony seemed genuinely interested, and I don’t think I offended too many of those in attendance.  I threw one bone to the non-believers in the crowd when I said “You (Christians) stole Christmas from us (non-Christians who celebrate the winter solstice).” Whether Tony knew what I was talking about or not, he didn’t bite, and we rolled respectfully onward.

Pastor Tony and Executive Director Jim

After the interview, the dozen or so atheists in the crowd politely sat through a heartfelt sermon about prayer that used background music for added effect, and then retired to the lobby for a few post-service pics and some abbreviated theological discussion.

Both camps went to the same restaurant afterward, ate amongst their own (we had beer, thank goodness), then reconvened for more discussion. Some of the kids that I spoke to wanted to know about paranormal investigations I’d been involved with and actually seemed fairly skeptically minded. I tried to underscore for them the similarity between belief in the paranormal and belief in the supernatural. (See my ReasonFest talk here)  I’m not sure if they saw the connection, but the conversation was enjoyable in any case.

I never did pick up on any sinister ulterior motives they might have had for inviting me there. Maybe they just wanted to pray for someone as outwardly hell-bound as me. It’s hard to take offense at that, even if I do think praying is a waste of time.

It seemed to me that these young evangelists are less angry, more tolerant, and more open to interacting with their secular neighbors than their parents’ generation. Time will tell if those qualities will ever find their way to elections, school board meetings, and their treatment of good people who don’t share their views. It’s a start, though. It is a start.

Burning Korans

§ September 8th, 2010 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Religion § Tagged , , , , , , § No Comments

Gainesville Uber Alles!

I was watching my brain while it wrapped itself around the Koran-burning story in Florida. (Some pastor at a Gainesville church wants to have a booking-burning featuring the Koran as the main source of fuel.)

My first thought was…

What kind of a nut burns books in the modern age? Doesn’t this guy know that book-burning and Nazism are two peas in the same rotten pod? Or if not Nazis, some other group of extremists who can’t stomach living in a world where Catcher in the Rye is allowed to warp the minds of our cherubic youth?

 But book-burners are usually too crazy or dense to see how crazy or dense they are.

 Then I thought…

Technically, you should be able to burn a Koran – if you own it. Of course, same goes for bibles, Books of Mormon, Bhagavad-Gitas, and American flags for that matter. You’re probably not going to win any popularity contests, but publicly destroying an icon that is revered by large groups of enthusiasts should not be against the law – anywhere.  It might be risky. It might be in bad taste. But against the law? No. That minority opinion must be allowed to be expressed is a hallmark of our constitutional democracy.

 So…maybe we could have a bible-burning across the street. What a riot that would be – literally. (A guy once told me he smoked his bible. He said the thin pages made good rolling paper.)

But then I read that General David Petraeus, our top military man in Afghanistan, said that torching Korans might further motivate devout Muslims to kill our citizens — both here and in the Middle East…

That’s all our servicemen and women need – some fool over here trying to fill his contribution box in his cozy little church in Florida while they’re ducking extra bullets and IEDs because of him. Pastor Pyro gets all the press and they get all the heat from it. Thanks a lot pal.

Now I’m thinking…

It’s one thing to criticize a Koran (a bible, any sacred text). It’s another thing to burn it or piss on it. The former is born out of disagreeing with – even challenging – an idea, while the latter is just a provocation. In this (Florida) case, the guy doing the provoking is probably not the guy who’ll have to deal with the backlash.

Ultimately, burning Korans in Florida is just an act of bravado, and ultimately of cowardice. Destroying a book never refutes the ideas inside. It just exposes the person doing the burning as hate-filled, insecure, and short-sighted.

My First Exorcism

§ September 1st, 2010 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Religion, Supernatural § Tagged , , , § 10 Comments


When I got a call recently to see a real live exorcism, I jumped at the chance. The movie The Exorcist came out in 1973 when I was a kid, and I still remember hearing stories about all the vomiting – and I’m talking about audience members vomiting in the theaters. (That movie scared the hell out of the Catholics I knew back then.)

In one scene Father Karras – the exorcist – throws some holy water on Regan, the possessed little girl. Have a listen here.

Ok I knew I wasn’t going to see any spinning heads or projected streams of pea soup (I did ask one of our crew if I should wear a raincoat), but it was hard to imagine modern day people taking exorcism seriously. But they do! Nowadays there are actually people who believe that evil spirits can invade a person and cause illness, pain, and even psychological problems. When these folks talk about battling their demons, they mean it literally, not metaphorically. They also believe that an exorcist can rid them of all that.

Well, we’ll just see about that.

I drove from Hollywood to a non-denominational Christian church in an industrial park in Sacramento, CA. The church was in the same kind of commercial space as the fiberglass shop a few doors down. Inside, a fifteen foot crucifix hung in front of a roll-up steel garage door. I sat with a dozen or so people on stackable chairs in this makeshift chapel waiting to see demons chased out of some poor woman’s body.

The woman to be exorcised – I’ll call her Mary – had lost a child, was fighting a drug problem and had been abused when she was younger. She saw her depression and unhappiness as the manifestation of evil spirits inside her. Evil spirits, apparently, can wreak all kinds of havoc in a person.

Enter the exorcist, a big South American I’ll call Brother Pablo, a self-styled preacher untrained by the church. But his lack of official sanction had no effect on his confidence that he could help this woman.

Pablo squares off with a possessed woman

He called Mary over to sit down and told her to look him in the eye. He asked her why she was here. When she told him about her hard times, I felt bad for her — she’s having a tough life — but when Brother Pablo started reading bible verses over her and chanting to the evil spirits “I command you to come out!”, I just took notes, snapped a few pictures, and thought about how she should be getting some real drug counseling and seeing a professional shrink. I had wondered if I would get caught up in the emotion immediately before me.

Pablo knelt bible in-hand next to Mary as she writhed on the floor screaming one minute and dry heaving the next. (People being exorcised really do dry heave, burp, cough and vomit, by the way. Who knew?)

Pablo and a helper chant over the woman

Pablo chanted and urged the spirits to leave Mary, but it looked to me like Mary was taking subtle cues from him. Pablo would say something like “Demons be gone from her neck!”, and Mary would stiffen her neck. Pablo mentioned her dead son and she began to cry. I’m not saying they were pretending, but the power of his suggestion was clearly steering her behavior. He spoke and she reacted.

This went on for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, and by the time it all ended, Mary was calmer and seemed relieved. Brother Pablo’s power of suggestion made Mary believe that the demons she thought were in her had now been exorcised.

So if Mary felt like she was cured – whether by suggestion or not – what’s the problem with exorcisms?


People suffer from real illnesses all the time. They get appendicitis, bladder infections and countless other treatable problems. But exorcisms are no substitute for appendectomies. You may get a few minutes of relief, but real cause of the problem may still be there.

If a guy is hearing voices he thinks are evil spirits, he might in fact have a treatable form of schizophrenia. But Brother Pablo doesn’t treat schizophrenia. Brother Pablo is unqualified to diagnose or treat any physical or mental illness. He has no medical or psychiatric training. Pablo might bring some temporary belief to the believers who seek him out, but he’s not curing people in any sense of the word.

In fact, a guy Pablo exorcised later that day had been hearing voices since he was in his 20s. When I asked him if he’d ever been to a psychiatrist or psychologist, he said no. I told him that I was morally obligated to strongly suggest that he seek professional help. His symptoms sounded like schizophrenia – not that I am qualified to diagnose him, but no one around him seemed to be steering him toward at least getting looked at by a professional.

Did I mention that this guy was on his 5th exorcism?

 Oh, and let’s not forget that the very concept of demons and evil spirits is primitive as hell and not based in fact. Before you try to flush an imp out of some frightened woman, you ought to be able to detect the imp in the first place.

Science has never seen an imp.

Finally, blaming bad behavior on a demon is just skating past the responsibility for your actions. “The devil made me do it?” Ha. Tell it to the judge. If I see one more crying televangelist blaming his unethical or illegal behavior on Satan, I might be the one throwing up.

Exorcisms on the silver screen are great scary fun. But in real life, they’re a sad blast from our distant past.

Matthew 7:1

§ January 26th, 2010 § Filed under Religion § No Comments

A recent article in the L.A. Times reconfirms that millions of dollars from churches helped pass Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on gay marriage in California. That well-churched pockets were so deep over this issue is now part of the battle.

The Mormon and Catholic churches were the most eager to fund the intolerance, but there is evidence that Baptists and Evangelicals gave generously and also voted lopsidedly for their version of what marriage should be defined as.

Can there be true separation between the laws of the land and religious institutions if churches are working so vehemently to pass laws that derive their inspiration from scripture? Is the pious population now using California’s flawed proposition system to cherry-pick bible verses and turn them into law?

Apparently they are. Here in California a coffer full of cash, some scary campaign ads and slim majority can buy you a change in the constitution. That’s right, a 50.0001% majority can rewrite the California Constitution .

Last time I looked, constitutions were designed to guarantee minority rights and due process despite changing political climates – but that’s another story.

What’s interesting here in this Prop 8 battle is that the Bible has become the standard of law – not the greater good, not the Constitution – the Christian Bible.

Alarm bells should be ringing in everybody’s ears, including Christians themselves, because someday, some other Christians may want a line or two from the Good Book enforced that doesn’t quite jibe with their own views.

Gaze below into the future my children. For once we start pointing at bible verses to justify our laws, all hell will surely break loose.

At the risk of getting too entangled in the massive thicket of insane rules throughout the bible, let’s take a look at a few wacky biblical ideas – just from Matthew — that could be the next well-funded intrusion into your personal liberties.

Proposition D

Divorce is now illegal in all 50 states where there is a Christian majority.

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Matthew 19:6

Any devout Catholic who’s tried to get an annulment (they don’t like the “D” word) knows how the Church frowns upon divorce. If the Church (and God) thinks divorce is wrong, how can society possibly justify legal sanction for this awful practice?  Just because lots of people get divorced doesn’t make it right. What God hath frowned upon, let no man legalize.

Proposition $

No citizen’s income shall exceed 110% of any other citizen’s income.

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

If you think Obama is a socialist, get a load of this! In order to please God and gain a seat near him in heaven, we must ensure that no one becomes too rich – at least compared to his fellow citizen. Therefore, Proposition $ will institute a tax and rebate system which will redistribute all the wealth in this country until everyone makes about the same amount of money.

Proposition 0

No one will be allowed to defend himself when sued.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

Matthew 5:40

Hereafter, there will be no need for defense attorneys. This civil court admonition in the Bible follows on the heels of the “turn the other cheek” passage which covers criminal court issues.

Of course, these examples from the New Testament are just the tip of the bad-law iceberg. A casual perusal of the Old Testament will reveal mountains of Draconian rules that most enlightened people would find ridiculous.

So why don’t we find some other sources for inspiration for creating laws? As far as the law is concerned, marriage is simply a contract between two people. Why not let those two people decide if they want to enter into the contract or not?

After all…

Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Matthew 22:21

Pat Robertson Is a Nut

§ January 15th, 2010 § Filed under Religion § No Comments

Before I belabor the obvious, let me first say that the hearts, sympathies and best wishes of secular America go out to the good people of Haiti as they struggle through this difficult time. We sincerely hope the emergency workers and medical teams can stem the tide of suffering soon. (Go here to help.)

Now, if you haven’t already seen this, watch it now before I proceed. Pat Robertson’s foot-in-mouth disease .

My question is, at what point do Pat Robertson’s handlers duct-tape him to a chair and let someone else run the Cirque du 700 Club? The guy is clearly a few bricks shy of a load.

Illustration by Doug Hart

Oh, that’s right… there are lots of people out there who actually believe Pat’s little parable about the Devil and the CCHFPNDS (the Council of Colonial Haitians Formed for the Purpose of Negotiating Deals with Satan.) Disappointing, isn’t it?
I’ll Take Haitian History for $400, Alex…

Ok, first let’s start with the easy stuff. Haiti officially became independent from France in 1804, over 4 years before the birth of Napoleon III and over 48 years before N3 took office. So Pat, not only were the Haitians not under his heel, he didn’t even have a heel yet. So right off the bat, Pat’s little history lesson is way off.
A Blessing In (a very good) Disguise

When Pat asked if all the destruction might be a blessing in disguise, I wished for a moment that his house would fall down just to see if he’d feel blessed after such an event. That probably won’t happen, so I’ll spell it out.

Pat, having buildings crush and maim thousands and thousands of human beings is never a blessing. Countries can be rebuilt and improved before suffering massive loss of life. If I can figure that out, God should be able to.
Vengeance is Mine Sayeth…

By the way, at least 9 out of 10 Haitians call themselves Christian these days, and none of them participated in Pat’s alleged “pact with the devil” 200 years ago. Why would God punish so many of his own believers in 2010? That’s a hell of a way to make a point.

Now let’s talk a bit about this pact with the devil Pat spoke of. It’s not so unbelievable if you just close your eyes…

Imagine if you will a group of Haitians (whom Pat simply refers to as “they”) who somehow became the consensus representatives of all the islanders who wanted the French gone. They might have been chosen for their shrewd negotiating skills, their connections to populations throughout the island, or by height. We don’t know, but apparently Pat thinks they had the power to speak and act on behalf of the entire native population.

With the imprimatur of the whole island, this group then met somewhere – possibly a known hangout of the devil – and… what… stood around with toothpicks in their mouths trying to look tough until the Prince of Darkness happened to hoof by?

Why not.

Satan’s not such a bad guy if he helps us with the French…
Deal or… Deal

Alright, so Big Red eventually shows up in a dark alley packing heat and whispers out of the side of his mouth to one of the Representatives of Rebellion:

Satan: “Say chum, you look like someone who can use a little help getting some frogs to swim back to their lily pad.”

RoR: “What if we are?”

Satan: “I might be able to help. But it’ll cost ya, see.”

RoR: “We don’t have very much money, sir. How much are we talking about – for complete independence I mean?”

Satan: “You get half the island, savvy, but your neighbors will always live better than you. When you rebels die, I’ll torment all your immortal souls for eternity, then I’ll plague the island with hurricanes, poverty, disease, political instability and corruption for the next 2 centuries, then level the place in 2010 with a devastating earthquake. But you’ll all be dead and in hell by then, so don’t worry about it.”

RoR: “It’s a Deal!”

…And most of the French died of yellow fever and the Haitians all lived happily ever after…

True story? Really, Pat?

Well… not really.

And this is the man who had the ear of presidents?

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