Empowerment Ethics: “Can There Be Objective Morality When So Many People Disagree About Morality?”

This installment of my Empowerment Ethics series is deeply indebted to a superb excerpt from David O. Brink’s Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy). Pgs. 198-209 of that book were republished in on pgs. 376-382 of Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau and Terence Cuneo and published by Blackwell [Read More...]

Witchcraft ‘expert’ sues her critics

Nigerian evangelical preacher and ‘witch hunter’ Helen Ukpabio is demanding half a billion pounds in damages.

The dangerous charlatan is suing the British Humanist Association and the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, alleging that both organisations had “misrepresented” her teachings.

According to the BHA, the  “Lady Apostle”, as she is known, claims to have expertise in identifying children and adults who are “possessed by witchcraft spirits” from which they can be “delivered”.

Her lawyers have informed the BHA and WHRIN that she is launching a legal case against them due to their criticism of her teachings and methods.

Claiming to be a former witch herself, the founder of the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries has been accused of exploiting superstitious beliefs centred on “possession”. This can and often does result in putting vulnerable children at risk.

The BHA has called for Ukpabio and others like her to be banned from coming to the UK on the grounds that they are a threat to child welfare and their practices are not conducive to the public good.

Her legal case is based on a claim that the BHA had “misrepresented” her writings on childhood “possession”. She has claimed  that a child “under the age of two” who is “possessed with black, red and vampire witchcraft spirits” can be identified by behaviour such as screaming at night, “cries, is always feverish, suddenly deteriorates in health, puts up an attitude of fear, and may not feed very well”.

She also teaches that children who stamp their feet may be:

Trying to make signs … to communicate with gnomes, the witchcraft spirit in charge of the earth.

Ukpabio claims that the BHA misrepresented her by saying that she ascribed these symptoms to Satanic possession and hence has damaged her reputation and livelihood to the tune of £500,000,000.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, commented:

Given her baseless identification of features of ‘possessed children’ and her dangerous and irresponsible teachings we feel a strong moral duty to point this out and will not be deflected by libel suits from wealthy ‘witch-finders’.

The fact that she is threatening to launch a legal claim for half a billion pounds over an alleged distinction between being accused of exorcising “Satan” or “Vampires” tells you all you need to know about Mrs Ukpabio. Threats of legal action like this are blatant attempts to silence critics of the harms done by these religious and superstitious beliefs and rituals.

Rather than entertaining her vexatious claims in the courts, we believe the UK should be ensuring that Mrs Ukpabio and her ilk are denied entry to our country to protect children from their degrading practices.

Gary Foxcroft, Executive Director of WHRIN, commented:

This court case is the latest in a long line of unsuccessful legal actions that Helen Ukpabio has pursued against me and other human rights activists. Previous cases were thrown out of court in Nigeria but this time she is looking to take action in a UK court. I have no doubt that a judge in the UK will reach the same conclusion as those in Nigeria.

Of course, the real question here is whether our Government should allow hate preachers such as Helen Ukpabio to enter the UK. Since her teachings have been linked to widespread child abuse in reports by the UN and various other bodies it would appear that this may not be in the public interest. This case also therefore provides the Home Secretary and the National Working Group to Tackle Child Abuse linked to Faith and Belief with a great opportunity to condemn the practices of such pastors, take concrete action and ensure that justice is served.

The eminent media lawyer Mark Stephens CBE of Howard Kennedy FSI, representing the defendants, said:

We thought witch-finding had been left behind in all civilised societies since the death of the last Witch-finder general, Matthew Hopkins in 1644. Hopkins had pursued innocent people – often elderly women living alone – and persecuted and executed them on the basis of a primitive and superstitious belief that they were witches. The horrific consequences of such beliefs are demonstrated in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

He added:

Whilst the medieval methods of Matthew Hopkins are no longer used to ‘identify witches, of course, we must remain ever vigilant of the danger of persecution of innocent children – babies, even – being branded as witches by latter-day self-styled witch-finders with perverse and pernicious views.

These people must not be allowed to identify the vulnerable as witches. Freedom of speech is at its most precious when it permits voices to be raised against such evil. British libel laws must never be abused to censor matters of such public importance.

Hat tip: Adam Tjaavk and Ivan Bailey

It’s Labor Day!

And here to celebrate unions and labor is…an incoherent union-hating Republican. Watch Sarah Palin strain to be cute and bubbly and enthusiastic about socialist ideas — you can just see her brain breaking as she tries to paint a happy conservative face on progressive ideals.

Man, I’ve been cruelly slamming you with painful videos this morning, haven’t I? I should stop. I think I’ll go work with my fish for a while.

Good idea in the comments: here’s an antidote.

Objective Human Flourishing: A First Response To Jerry Coyne About Ethics

I had an amazing time last weekend at the Pennsylvania State Atheists Humanists Conference (affectionately known as PASTAH Con). I spent wonderful time with some old friends I rarely see in person and met some new people I completely loved. And I was blown away by the response to my talk. The enthusiasm and seriousness [Read More...]

With Germany Changing How It Collects the Church Tax, Many Are Leaving Their Churches Altogether

If you live in Germany, then you’re aware of something called a Church Tax.

As far as I can understand it — forgive me if I screw this up — here’s how this works: When you pay your income taxes, a portion of it (8 or 9%, depending on where you live) is set aside by the government for your place of worship if you’re Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. (If you’re a theist, you almost certainly fall into one of those categories.) This amounts to several billion Euros for the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant (Lutheran) churches.

What if you’re not religious? No problem. That money won’t go to a church. In fact, you won’t have to pay the amount at all! But in order to be exempt, you have to officially declare that you’re not a member of those religious groups.

Recently, the government decided to simplify the process. Instead of you paying all your taxes, and the government taking some money out of there and handing it over to the proper place of worship, they’re having the nation’s banks do most of that work:

Under a simplified procedure starting next year, banks will withhold that premium from church members earning more than 801 euros ($1,055) in capital gains annually and pass it on to tax authorities for distribution to the churches.

In other words, the banks will withhold the money right off the bat and give that amount directly to government officials, who will then hand it over to the houses of worship. It streamlines the whole process, without there being any change in how much money is given.

One German reader explained the situation this way:

The company you work for knows whether you belong to a church with “public corporation” status, so they send the income tax and the church tax (if it applies) to the finance office. The banks didn’t know about your religious affiliation, so they automatically sent taxes on your interest to the finance offices. They didn’t send a church tax on interest to the finance offices, so you could easily evade that church tax on interest, and almost everyone did.

Beginning next year, the banks will get automatic notifications about your religious affiliation, so they can also send the church tax on interest to the finance offices. This caused some stir in Germany due to our strong privacy laws. People didn’t want their bank to know their religious affiliation.

Guess what’s happened since the banks informed people of that change?

People started leaving their churches in droves:

The first half of 2014 saw a further upsurge of people leaving both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany.

Ten thousand Protestants formally left their Church in Berlin, more than the total number in the whole of 2011 and 2012, and in Catholic Bavaria 14,800 left between January and June compared to 9,800 during the whole of 2013.

(And that’s on top of all the Catholics who left the Church earlier after learning about the “Bishop of Bling.”)

It turns out when you can see the money the bank is withholding right there in front of you (as opposed to it being a percentage of a larger sum that’s already out of your hands) — and you have a choice between keeping it and signing it over to your church — many people are realizing they don’t take religious that seriously. (One reader informs me that part of the issue is that many Germans didn’t even know about the Church Tax until they received the letter from the banks.)

The Catholic Church says that those who opt out of the Church Tax won’t be able to receive the sacraments, get married in the Church, or even have a religious funeral.

But if you were only nominally Catholic to begin with… who really gives a damn?

Some clergy have accused financial advisers of telling clients to quit their churches if they don’t want to pay up

“… [The churches] should ask themselves why such a personal decision as belonging to a church is reduced to the issue of capital gains tax,” said Thomas Lange of the local banking association in Duesseldorf.

It raises an interesting question: If the United States said a portion of your taxes would be going to your church if you designated one, how many Americans would suddenly declare themselves non-religious (or at least without a church)? I suspect the percentage of “Nones” would rise up significantly.

It seems many Germans call themselves religious for the same reason we do — it’s tradition — but when push comes to shove, they’re admitting they don’t need their house of worship that badly.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link and thanks to my German readers for helping me understand the basics of the law)

Did you know teaching is a skill?

It really is. I will readily confess that the professoriate doesn’t give it much appreciation either — we’re all just tossed straight into the classroom with negligible preparation — but at least we’ve got a kind of Darwinian mode going on to weed out the worst. Jonnny Scaramanga has a guest post from someone who was subjected to Christian fundamentalist education. It’s ugly.

Others were not so lucky, I remember one boy being ridiculed by the teachers for having “girl hair” and other members of my class were reduced to tears after being publicly screamed at by the head teacher’s wife for offenses as minor as not completing their lunchtime chores (which included vacuuming the classrooms and cleaning the staffroom) to a satisfactory degree. One of my chores included removing the spiders from the girl’s cloakroom… since I was terrified of spiders I refused in tears and was shut in the cupboard until the job was complete – afterwards I was told to pray for God to make me less of a coward. The school’s policy appeared to be ridiculing and humiliating children into submission.

Picture of a a chicken

In case you needed reminding, here’s what ACE’s sex education looks like.

Some of my more bizarre memories include “sex education” lessons. Sex ed in the ACE booklets is notoriously bad, so at the very least Maranatha tried to supplement these. All students over eleven were separated into boys and girls to, very awkwardly, talk about our bodies. I can’t speak for the boys but on our side this included the youngest girl being teased by the teacher for being too young to “understand menstruation” and being told no husband would ever want us if we were “used.” This is what happens when you have a group of mostly untrained (as someone studying for 3+ years to become an educator, I do not count the five day ACE “Professional Training Course”) adults in charge of the education and well-being of children.

If you’re going for a secular degree in education, it’s a skill — I have a lot of respect for the students at my university in the teaching program. If you’re in one of these ACE schools, though, ideology is the most important message, and the education is secondary. Or tertiary. Or, hell, forget it, not important at all.

LABOR: “Labor Day, the Less Radical Alternative to May Day”

“What I really admire about you black folk…”

If you ever find yourself using that line, thinking it excuses you from accusations of racism, stop. Just stop. Think about what you are doing: you are taking a diverse group of people, categorizing them by the color of their skin, and are about to make a sweeping generalization about all of them.

You know what that is? It’s racism.

But let’s make a sweeping generalization of my own. I’ve noticed that there is an entire syndrome of associated problematic attitudes: creationists who are global climate change denialists as well. Crystal healing wackaloons will tell you that GMOs are bad and vaccination is dangerous. It’s as if people can’t have just one fallacy to call their own, they have to adopt a whole library of bizarre beliefs. If your understanding of the world is so inadequate that Dunning-Krueger is triggered, you don’t stop with just one error — you go all out looney-tunes on a whole host of issues.

For example, Dave Futrelle has been posting lately about this pair of pompous vloggers, jordanowen42 and Davis Aurini, who are proposing to make a feature length film exposing Anita Sarkeesian, called The Sarkeesian Effect. Never mind that their introductory videos are laughably bad and show no skill at movie making at all, or that the two come off as insufferably pretentious; their views are simply odious. They’re just a couple more demented gamers/misogynists who hate “social justice warriors”.

But I was talking about this weird phenomenon of people exhibiting clusters of fallacious reasoning. These guys are sexist, misogynistic, PUA-types, but guess what else? Racists. That quote in the title is straight from Davis Aurini’s video in which he lectures “black folk” about what’s wrong with them.

Dear god. So oblivious. I didn’t know whether to cringe or laugh.

Hey, guy, also…the affected display with the cigarettes and the alcohol? It doesn’t make you look cool. It makes you look sleazy.

Bugs Bunny has a little integrity

The old Warner Bros. cartoons have become increasingly painful to watch — so much racism, so much sexism. So what do you do? Throw the old classics in the trash? Pretend entertainment has always been fair and egalitarian? Warner Bros. is preceding the old cartoons with a disclaimer.

The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were common in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today's society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were common in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

That’s an appropriate response, but I think I’d still rather not watch some of those efforts from the 1940s at all.

CARTOON MOVIE: “The Church Through the Ages” / nakedpastor / David Hayward

Jewish Lev Tahor Sect, Where Child Abuse Is Allegedly a Way of Life, Gets Kicked Out of Guatemalan Town

When we last featured the mega-Orthodox Jewish group Lev Tahor, a Canadian cult, on this site, it was over credible allegations of systematic child abuse.

For instance:

[A] member told police about beatings with sticks, crowbars, whips and belts… A witness said he saw a woman struck in the face because she refused to wear the burqa-like outfit for women that has led some media to deride the group as the Jewish Taliban. Girls who were 13 or 14 were disciplined by being held in house basements while girls who were 14 and 15 were married to adult men, the police documents said. Children were also taken from their biological parents [and assigned permanently to other families in the sect] if the sect’s leader deemed they were not taught properly.

Lev Tahor’s rabbi and convicted felon Schlomo Helbrans

Lev Tahor’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans (pictured), has a record that we’d call odd for a self-proclaimed man of God, if it wasn’t for the fact that crimes against children are rife within patriarchal religions and sects.

[He] was convicted of kidnapping a young boy and served two years in a U.S. prison before being deported to Israel in 2000. He fled to Canada the following year on a temporary visa and was later granted refugee status.

When Canadian law enforcement began to investigate the latest child-abuse cases last year, the alleged perps fled from Québec to Ontario. That, predictably, didn’t end their legal troubles, so they began to look for farther-flung destinations, and decided on the Guatemalan town of San Juan La Laguna.

They didn’t exactly endear themselves to the local population — so much so that the entire group of 230 Lev Tahor fundies has now been told to scram.

The town’s Elders Council voted last week to force the group to leave because they say some members of the sect have mistreated indigenous residents and tourists in the area. Antonio Ixtamer, who lives in the community, said that several members of the group had upset residents because of their arrogant attitude. He said several times members of the Lev Tahor community would go into stores and pay whatever they wanted for the products rather than the marked price. He said they also bothered tourists. “On one occasion there was a tourist taking pictures of a hill and the Jews thought he was taking photos of them and they clashed,” Ixtamer said. “This is not normal behavior in a community that lives off of tourism.”


Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, a member of the elders’ council, said the villagers decided to expel the group because they refused to greet or have physical contact with the community.

Lev Tahor members claim they are the misunderstood victims of anti-Semitism, and that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Go public!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking for videos about how you came out as an atheist. View the ones they’ve already got, and send in more!

This one takes a little more nerve than just saying you’re an atheist — you’re going to have to put your face to the message and explain why you’re a freethinker.

Stop Reshelving Books Just to Get a Laugh

You’ve all seen an image like this before, of a Bible moved to a more entertaining section of the bookstore:

I’ll admit: I laughed the first time I saw that (a long, long time ago…). But as I wrote several years ago on this site, it’s an asshole move:

Most bookstore workers have nothing to do with where books are filed. They do need to know where the books are shelved, though, if customers ask. And if atheists (or others) reshelve them, it would just frustrate staff members that have nothing to do with the placements in the first place.

Yesterday, Nancy French, an evangelical blogger on this site, posted that her daughter did something similar in response to seeing a Fifty Shades of Grey display. You can see the picture here, but basically, she put Bibles in the section marked “After Fifty Shades/What We Recommend.”


Again, I get the joke. (I’d probably think it was funnier if I were a 15-year-old evangelical.) But it’s just causing more work for the staff — not converting those who supposedly need it. (Plus, I’m almost positive that Christian women make up a sizable segment of the Fifty Shades crowd to begin with…)

Does French think the picture at the top of this post is funny, too? If not, what’s the difference?

I would suggest you let her know, but she closed the comments after the first few criticisms rolled in…

My Many Names

SabiozIndentityIn my life, I have gone by many different names. I love experimenting with identity — see my posts on the subject.  Like many folks, I feel like I have lived several lives in one, so having different names has been fun to mark those periods.  But over the years, the majority of folks I meet look at name changes (first names, that is) with horror or disgust.  It seems only  a small percentage of people like to experiment with their labels.  How about you?

Here is a chronological listing of most of my names:

  • James: Birth Name – same as my father, his father, his father’s father (a Welsh immigrant) and perhaps further back.
  • Spider: Father’s toddler nickname for me. apparently I actively crawled all over the place.
  • Jimmy: Childhood name to differentiate me, my Dad and my grandfather.
  • Jim: Used by friends until I was 19
  • James: a girlfriend prefered my formal name so I stuck with it for several years.
  • Jaymuzu-ji: जेमुङुजि India (their version of “James” with the honorific “ji”). It was then that start to realize that names both do matter and don’t matter.  It how we hold them, and how we hold ourselves.
  • Seamus: Japan. A nickname used by my teaching colleagues — the Irish form of James. I started really enjoying the playful use of different names.
  • “J”: The name I gave myself on moving back to the USA. Used by everyone I knew in North Carolina while I was at Duke Medical School. I just wanted a change again.
  • “______”: My present name. Shhh, it is a secret to minimally shield my privacy. But it is a variant of Seamus which I chose upon moving to Seattle, Washington to honor my celtic roots. Since the city was new, I introduced myself by that name and then changed it legally to make everything simple. Ah, what great fun — and great surprise to family.
  • Zhàn Xiáng: 戰祥 “Propitious Battle” – the name I chose for myself in China where people receiving a green-card must choose a Chinese name. I was the medical officer for an American Chinese consulate and my staff wanted to make up a name for me, as they did for all other long-term American employees, but I would not let them. The names they made up were nauseatingly sweet, poetic or just bad choices to match the sounds of the person’s English name. I spent days choosing my name. Later, the Chinese would say it was a cool name — like pen name of a famous writer. I was proud.
  • Shaytan: Arabic for “Satan”. A name given to me by Peace Corp volunteers because they felt I was a little crazy and dangerous.
  • Sabio Lantz: my blogging name meaning “a paucity of wisdom” (which you can clearly see by reading my posts) + my mother’s maiden name (in her honor).
  • Shadrach: one of my present nicknames: an Akkadian Name used by many of my colleagues call me in my new Urgent Care medical job. More in another post.

The most important question ever asked: How long was Jesus’ hair?

I wave my hands up in the air
How long was Jesus’ hair?
I wave my hands up in the air
and wonder just who would care!

How long was Jesus’ hair?
Could he braid it down his back?
How long was Jesus’ hair?
Was it blond or was it black?

I wave my hands up in the air
How long was Jesus’ hair…

I could go on, but I’m laughing too much as it is. Does it look like I have a future as a rapper? I think so. Maybe the Man can throw some music onto that and we can record it for release on this blog. I’ll ask him. Oh dear, that’s some funny.. I throw my hands up.. Oh my. I’d want video, but we’re not equipped here.

Until then, watch this one (I can’t find a better sound quality version):

(The library does not have the film version of Hair. Damn it all to Hades!)

Anywho, this article:

The apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians offers an insightful commentary into the Jewish attitude of men’s hair. It notes, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him?” Paul’s argument is that men were not to be known for hair that looked like that of women. While this does not indicate the length of Jesus’ hair, it does reveal that He likely had hair shorter than Jewish females of the time. Though some exceptions are found in the Bible of men with long hair (such as Samson and John the Baptist), most Jewish men kept shorter hair to distinguish themselves from women as well as for practical purposes.

Samson’s story is one I can say I’m slightly familiar with. His hair gave him strength for some reason. God magic, essentially. He falls in love with Delilah and all would have been well but the leader of the Philistines wanted to know his secret and insisted Delilah find out so they could defeat him. They bribed her with what sounds, even now, like a hell of a lot of money. Samson outwits all of them repeatedly but then at Judges 16:15,

Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” 16 With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

Damn, chick! Three different nights you set the man up to be attacked by Philistines in the bedroom and you’re pissed off because he got the better of you every time? Alas, this love bribery works on him and he confesses:

17 So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

So, she tells the Philistines this and they slice his braids off with a razor, defeat him, and pay her all they agreed to give.


At that point, I don’t know who we’re supposed to root for in this story, or for what outcome specifically.

Samson get tortured, his eyes get cut out, and the Philistines put him in prison sentenced to hard labour. They promptly forget about his magic hair power and let the stuff grow, however. They continue to worship and rally around their god, Dagon, and one day call for Samson the loser to be put on display to entertain the priests and three thousand other people at the temple.

28 Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.

All’s well that ends dead? Revenge is a dish best served flattened and crushed? It’s the bible. What more do you expect?

Moving forward to the new testament and John the Baptist — a writer at answers.com calling himself WisdomOfSolomon notes that John was probably a Nazerite like Samson and therefore would have had long hair at the time. Details out of Luke seem to suggest that was his culture and lifestyle based on the verses indicating what he would and wouldn’t drink or eat.

Unrelated to the hair thing, but a good example of what makes bible translation so hard to do let alone get “right”:

John the Baptist’s diet has been the centre of much discussion. For many years it was traditional to interpret locust as referring to not the insect, but rather the seed pods of the carob tree. The two words are very similar, but most scholars today feel this passage is referring to the insects. Locusts are mentioned 22 other times in the Bible and all other mentions are quite clearly referring to the insect. Locusts are still commonly eaten in Arabia. Eaten either raw or roasted they are quite nutritious and a source of many vitamins. While most insects were considered unclean under Mosaic law, Leviticus 11:22 specifically states that locusts are permitted. Albright and Mann believe the attempt to portray John the Baptist as eating seed pods was concern for having such a revered figure eating insects and also a belief that a true ascetic should be completely vegetarian.[5] What is meant by honey is also disputed. While bee honey was a common food in the area at the time, Jones believes that it refers to the tree gum from that tamarisk tree, a tasteless but nutritious liquid, rather than the honey made by bees.[

Short of inventing a time machine to go back and find out if any of these people ever lived at all, the debate will rage on in the circles of those who care. Not me, overmuch, but I’m a fan of fact as much as any other skeptic. Aim to be as accurate as possible, even in terms of biblical storytelling.

So much confusion is sown by misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Aim to get it right. Do whatever research into the history of those ancient peoples might be required in order to do that. Don’t just quote the text and smile because you remembered the verse verbatim. Aim to understand the culture and history that led up to that verse getting written down anywhere at all.

Even an atheist can respect that level of commitment to a faith. I certainly do.

Filed under: religiosity Tagged: bible, culture, hair, history, jesus, Samson

The Lucifer Effect – September 2014

There have been numerous cases of police brutality and misconduct recently with the horrible murder of African American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. The resulting protests by members of the community and surrounding areas drew media and a highly militarized police force who made the streets of Ferguson look like a war zone. Here are a few videos of these