If Jesus Came to Us Today

What if Jesus came to us today? How would we recognize him? Presuming for a moment that the Christian story were true, how were the crowds who came to hear Jesus preach supposed to know he was a prophet, the Messiah, or the Son of God?

Think how radical the Christian message must have seemed to those who heard it. The Jews were and are monotheists. The idea of a God the Father having a God the Son who took the form of a man was blasphemy to them. Nothing in their religion prepared them for it. (If you have heard otherwise, see Rabbi Skobac debunk this notion.) Who expected the God of the universe to take a lowly human form and be born in a manger? Who would have accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah (which means King) when he never did anything remotely king-like (unless you count a ride into Jerusalem on a donkey). Who could have anticipated that this poor man’s execution was anything but the sad end of the story?

Today I know there are good reasons to believe that none of the Jesus story ever happened. Not only did Jesus speak in parables, he may himself have BEEN a parable—-a complete, or almost complete, fiction deliberately contrived by a gospel writer to teach a “greater” spiritual truth. (Check out: “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All” by David Fitzgerald.) But for the sake of our thought experiment, let’s just put ourselves in New Testament Galilee at the time Jesus was carrying out his ministry. We are standing in the crowd that came out to hear the Sermon on the Mount––“Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the peacemakers”––and we are so wowed we become disciples of THIS prophet. We listen to that inner voice that tells us right from wrong. We are humble and honest with ourselves; we refuse to squelch our moral intuition because of worries about what family, friends, and Pharisees might think if we decide THIS is a truth worth risking everything for.

But it is almost certainly too late for 21st century Westerners to be shocked by the thought of a god being born to poor Jewish girl. (Though the detail that Mary would have been about 12 at the time of the Immaculate Conception does give one pause.) So Christians often challenge themselves by transposing the story of the Incarnation into modern times. What if Jesus returned in our times embodied in the form we least expected––say a homeless person, a foreigner who didn’t speak our language, or a sexually active single woman––would we listen to the message of this person and judge the message on its merits, or would we dismiss this preacher out of hand because of our preconceptions?

As a Christian, one of the parables that impressed me most was the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is answering a question about the “Love your neighbor as yourself” passage from Leviticus. An “expert in the law” asks “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with the now-familiar parable: A man is attacked as he is traveling along a dangerous road and is left for dead. After a priest and a Levite pass by, it is the Samaritan who takes pity on the naked, dying man and gets him to safety.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asks.

The legalist is forced to reply, “The one who had mercy on him.”

It was explained to me that Samaritans were despised by the Jews because they had a very similar, but slightly different religion. (Transposing it into a modern context, the Samaritans “were going to Hell” over some theological difference.) And yet Jesus doesn’t seem very concerned with the Samaritan’s incorrect theology when he makes the merciful Samaritan the hero of the story.

The prophet Jesus warns us that we might be overlooking an obvious truth––we are all neighbors––if we focus too much on ethnicities and religions. Even today, I hear this story and want to applaud.

At some point, I committed myself to try be the sort of person who WOULD have recognized Jesus by the truth of his teachings. I would not squelch my moral intuition, I would judge alternative viewpoints on their merits. I would be fair and not presuppose “my people” had a corner on the truth.

This is the recipe for recognizing God if he reappears today, even if he unexpectedly appears as, say, a crippled Chinese woman. (She will be saying something interesting, enlightening, and morally uplifting.)

Putting this method into practice, I soon had a “problem”: In my new cosmopolitan surroundings (I was working in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand), I was hearing compelling and morally uplifting messages from all over. And the most compelling were not coming from Christians, and they did not involve God.

One Thai woman, when asked why she was there to help the Hmong, replied simply, “Because they are my brothers and sisters.” I remember this clearly because I knew immediately that her answer beat out the standard Christian response––something about reaching out [across a huge cultural chasm] to the “lost.” And this made me uneasy.

But on second thought, in what universe is too many morally uplifting examples a problem? It should be something to rejoice in if the people I meet turn out to be fairer and kinder than I had expected, and more effective than myself at making a difference in the world. It shows me a way to improve. If my religion prepares me to be disappointed when I find goodness, or even “way-betterness,” all around me, there is something seriously wrong with my religion. If my religion builds obstacles to understanding my would-be brothers and sisters around the world, there is something seriously wrong with my religion.

Which, in the end, was the conclusion I came to.

Speaking to the Christians, I encourage you to live in such a way that you would not miss the truth if it comes to you in a way you never expected. Be as brave as those crowds in the story who recognized Jesus because of his compelling message even if they were expecting an earthly King.

Paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, speaking recently (April 7) in Columbus Ohio: “I hope you each have the opportunity at some point, like I did, to be proved utterly and completely wrong about something you truly believed. Because it is a wonderful liberating experience and it leads to something greater.”

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A Not Good Friday for PAT Buses


Does this look a notice from (1) a government office or (2) a church office?

spuGF2104

It turns out it is (1).  The Sun Prairie Utilities in Sun Prairie, WI, that decided to close tomorrow.  It also turns out that closing an government for religious reasons is illegal.

Fortunately, the Freedom From Religion Foundation jumped on the case and got them to remove the crown of thorns (round 1) and later remove mention of Good Friday (round 2).  SPU is still “Closed on Friday April 18” but not for stated religious reasons, which is closer to acceptable.

Jump over the Port Authority of Allegheny County.  What do you find? They will be close their Downtown Service Center in observance of the (Good Friday) holiday.  Also, their sacred Twitter account will not be staffed on Good Friday.  Yup.  No good news from PAT on Friday.

PortAuthorityGF2014

In posting these messages, PAT is ignoring the law.  On the FFRF website, they point out

Every spring, the Foundation receives complaints from members who cannot access public libraries on that day, cannot pay water bills because municipal and county offices are closed, or who cannot access the courthouses or other valuable government services. Good Friday is … a purely Christian holiday commemorating the legendary death of the Christian messiah. “It is a day of solemn religious observance, and nothing else, for believing Christians, and no one else.” Metzl v. Leininger, 57 F.3d 618, 620 (7th Cir. 1995). 

Of all governmental groups, the Port Authority should know better.  They are facing a lawsuit for disallowing a local atheist group to put a billboards on the buses and have since decided that no religious messages of any kind, including the word Bible, are allowed to appear on bus ads.

To have that public organization closed because it is “Good Friday” in someone’s religious book is inappropriate.  PAT needs to remove the religious reference from its website.  Even better would be to not close its service center at all, but instead provide services and tweets to its riders on April 18, 2014, which is just another Friday in my book.

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CFI Monthly Lecture and Movie Night!: 4/23/2014 at First Unitarian Church


Where: First Unitarian Church (605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213)

When: 4/23/2014

RSVP at: http://www.meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Secular-Freethinkers/events/153031722/

Pittsburgh Secular Freethinkers (CFI)

Welcome to CFI’s monthly lecture and movie night series!

Each month we alternate between a lecture and a movie.  This month we are pleased to announce speaker Tim Sommers, whose talk is titled, “OMG:  Just the Classics!”

Tim studied philosophy at Michigan State, Brown, and Harvard, and he has taught at Georgetown, Louisiana State, Pace University, and more.  His talk will cover all the “classic” philosophical (cosmological, teleological, and ontological) arguments for the existence of God:  the problem of evil; the question of miracles; the experience of the transcendent; and what, if anything, this all tells us about the relationship between science, philosophy, and faith.  Is there even such a thing as God or philosophy?  What have philosophers said about the idea of God?  Come find out!

See you there!

P.S.  We usually head to Ali Baba’s on nearby Craig Street at 5:30 p.m. for a pre-lecture or pre-movie dinner. Please leave a comment below if you are coming to dinner so we can include you in the reservation. Thanks!

P.S.S.  In cooperation with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, we are collecting nonperishable food items every month at this event. Please consider bringing an item to place in the collection box. Thanks!

To join, donate, or learn more about the Center for Inquiry, visit CFI-Pittsburgh online. To learn about all the secular groups in Pittsburgh, visit the Pittsburgh Coalition of Reason website…and you can follow Pittsburgh Secular Freethinkers and CFI on Facebook!

*CFI-Pittsburgh strives to be an ADA compliant organization.  Please email pgh@centerforinquiry.net to request accommodations.


Pittsburgh, PA 15213 – USA

Wednesday, April 23 at 7:00 PM

Fee: Suggested Donation: USD 5.00 per person

Details: http://www.meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Secular-Freethinkers/events/153031722/

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Jerry Coyne’s Storer Lecture on the Incompatibility of Science and Religion


On April 9, 2014, Dr. Jerry Coyne, one of our guest speakers at this year’s Atheist/Humanist convention in Pittsburgh gave an address at UC Davis as part of the Storer Lecture Series.  The 80 minute address was titled, Faith is Not a Virtue: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

The presentation was extraordinary.  If you’re looking for a great way to spend your Dark French Roast and Belgium waffle ritual one morning this weekend, put this lecture high on your list.  You won’t be disappointed!

Coyne-Storer lecture

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Mano Singham Debates Pastor Joe


Dr. Mano Singham, one of our special guest speakers at this year’s convention of rationalists, heathens and sane people, will be debating Pastor Joe Puckett inside the Pastor’s church!  I always knew that the day would come when churches would begin to really utilize their true potential.  Seeing Dr. Singam bringing the heathen message right through the front door is proof enough for me!*

Dr. Signham informed me that plans are in the works to both video capture AND live- stream the debate!  Oh man, it just doesn’t get any better than this!

The debate is scheduled for June 21 at 6:00pm at the NW Church of Christ in Canton, OH.

You can learn more about the event and the debaters HERE.  I’ll be sure to keep everyone informed as the debate draws near.  You’re not gonna’ want to miss this one.

Maybe the Witnesses will begin to welcome the heathen message into their weekly Kingdom Hall meetups when the word gets out about Pastor Joe’s courage.

* Well, almost.  The brewery in Yinzerville converted from a church ranks pretty high up there.

Singham

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Gun wackos and the tragedy at Franklin Regional


If there is such a thing as a silver lining from the tragedy at Franklin Regional High School last week, it is this: nobody died. But if there had been two firearms involved instead of two knives, it might have been a whole ‘nother ball game.

Sadly, it didn’t take but 48 hours for some idiot gun wacko from Shaler to write an insipid letter to the Post-Gazette blathering about whether or not liberals were going to demand knife control now. I’m sure he thought he was being clever making such a ridiculous analogy, and obviously he has no sense of decency being in such haste to use that horrible tragedy to make a political statement so blithely, completely oblivious to the human suffering of that horrific event.

Needless to say, he was roundly hammered in the comments section by most of the commenters. And to be fair, two of the regular and more vocal gun proponents even slammed him good, although I’m not sure if they truly believed that he had gone beyond the pale or if they were merely engaging in damage control, concerned that his oblivious callousness was bad for their image.

His complete lack of critical thinking apparently made him unable to grasp the lessons from this tragedy, and there are a couple – starting with what one would think is a no-brainer. The fact that nobody died is an obvious testament to the fact that knives are a lot less lethal than automatic and semi-automatic firearms with high capacity magazines and are not even close to being capable to inflict massive amounts of carnage in a very short time or even seconds.

A second lesson that is clear is the refutation of the ubiquitous talking point of the gun lobby, namely that a “good guy with a gun is needed to stop a bad guy with a gun”. The kid at Franklin Regional was taken down by two unarmed people – a 60 year old vice-principal and a student. This is usually not possible with a firearm because of the ability of the firearm wielding attacker to kill or maim from a distance – something not possible with a knife. You have to get ”up close and personal” in order to do damage, making it possible for a defender to be in close enough proximity to take down or disarm the attacker.

One of the most important lessons here is not specific to this incident, but instead is a lesson learned from all of the myriad incidents that have happened in schools/public places over the years: there is no way to know just who is going to snap out and go berserk when. So if we can never know when or where somebody is going to go off, it seems that the rational thing to do is to make access to killing machines very, very difficult. It is a surprisingly simple concept.      0 guns = 0 gun deaths;  whereas a huge number of guns equals a huge number of gun deaths. Obviously, zero guns is unrealistic, but we can work toward limiting the number to a manageable level, especially those that serve no useful function other than to kill large numbers of people as quickly as possible.

If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, you don’t build structures to house people that are precipitously fragile. And the unlimited proliferation of these killing machines makes our house precipitously fragile.

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Easter Sunday Happy Hour and Dinner: 4/20/2014 at Silk Elephant Thai Tapas and Wine Bar


Where: Silk Elephant Thai Tapas and Wine Bar (1712 Murray Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15217)

When: 4/20/2014

RSVP at: http://www.meetup.com/Steel-City-Skeptics/events/175889852/

Easter Sunday Happy Hour & 
Thai Dinner at Silk Elephant 
Sunday, April 20, 2014 
5:30 PM Happy Hour, 6:30 PM Dinner 

1712 Murray Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 
Located in Squirrel Hill near top of Murray Ave 
Google Map:  http://goo.gl/maps/Lu… 
Website:  www.silkelephant.net

HAPPY HOUR & THAI DINNER:  Feel free to show up anytime between 5:30 PM-6:30 PM for drinks at the bar. This gives us time to mix and mingle before the meal. Or you can just come at 6:30 PM when we’ll be seated in the dining room for dinner. The Silk Elephant has a full bar and will write separate checks for each person. An 18% gratuity will automatically be added to each check. After dinner, we can walk a few doors down the street to Murray Avenue Grill for drinks.

DELICIOUS MENU! I highly recommend that you read Silk Elephant’s menu online and decide what to order in advance. It will take them a while to prepare separate meals for 30 people, so if you know what you want when the waiter or waitress arrives at our table, it will expedite the process. The menu can be found here:  www.silkelephant.net.

PATIENCE:  Please be patient! It takes time to write 30 separate dinner orders, prepare 30 separate meals, and bring food for 30 people to the table. Likewise, it will also take some time to get our checks paid at the end of the night. Please be aware of these issues, and please bring your patience. Let’s relax, and enjoy ourselves. Thank you.

PLEASE HONOR YOUR RSVP! Silk Elephant is one of the few restaurants open on the holiday, and they will be extremely busy. We only want to reserve seats for those who really plan on attending. Please be considerate of the restaurant, other customers, and other Meetup members, and ONLY RSVPing if you can be there. And please change your RSVP from “Yes” to “No” if your plans change, and you can no longer attend. Thank you.

MY CONTACT INFO:  I will email my cell phone number to those who RSVP “Yes” the day before the event. If your plans change at the last minute, you’ll be able to send me a text, or call to let me know. That way, we can return seats to the restaurant for any people who cancel.

LATE ARRIVALS:  If you will be more than 30 minutes late for the 6:30 PM DINNER, but still plan on joining us, you MUST call or text me (Deena Alansky)! Otherwise, if you have not arrived by 7 PM, you will forfeit your reservation with our group.

Depending on how busy the restaurant is, I can’t guarantee a seat to anyone who arrives late without letting me know he or she is still coming. Unfortunately, there has been a problem with “No Shows” at events. But if you contact me to say you’re running late, I’ll be more than happy to save your seat. 

Thank you for understanding why it’s important to honor your RSVP or contact your event organizer if you’re going to be late for the dinner. (No need to contact me if you’re late for the happy hour, only the 6:30 PM dinner!)  

CROSS-POSTED:  Please note that this event is cross-posted to four other Meetup groups (listed below), so this is not exclusively a Skeptic Meetup! For future reference, please DO NOT CROSS-POST one of my events without checking with me first. Thank you.

This event is cross-posted by me to:
Pittsburgh Dining N’ At

This event is cross-posted by Barbara Klein to:
Pittsburgh Foodies & Fun
Jewish Singles & Mingles
Life Begins at 40 (Women)

Pittsburgh, PA 15217 – USA

Sunday, April 20 at 5:30 PM

Details: http://www.meetup.com/Steel-City-Skeptics/events/175889852/

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CAIR – Just another gang of Islamist thugs?


By now, everyone has heard about the Brandeis/Hirsi Ali debacle and the subsequent fallout. Sam Stone has given his take on it in a previous post. As he said, it is really ironic that this has struck a chord with both the secular left and the neocons on the right. But that’s not what has really resonated with me.

Nothing in this world happens in a vacuum, and this incident is no exception. Hirsi Ali has been a lightning rod for Muslim hatred for ten years, ever since her collaboration with filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (she wrote the screenplay) on the movie Submission, for which they received death threats and for which Van Gogh was subsequently murdered – having his throat slashed on a public thoroughfare in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim. The film, along with Hirsi Ali’s autobiography entitled Infidel, was highly critical of Islam and the rampant misogyny in Muslim communities worldwide.

Now I will admit that some of her statements tend to be a little over the top, and some of her rhetoric can be a bit fiery. And she has worked with the conservative American Enterprise Institute advocating for very aggressive policies toward the worldwide Muslim community. But there are fewer women who have as much right to such an attitude, given her life history. (BTW, when she spoke at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown in April 2007, extra special security was required because of Muslim protests, let by Imam Fouad El Bayly who said that she deserved the death sentence.)

Fast forward to 20014. Brandeis University announced plans to give Hirsi Ali an honorary degree in recognition of her work for women’s rights around the world. Almost immediately, the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) mounted a campaign to harass and attempt to intimidate Brandeis University into changing their mind. In the first place, Brandeis is a Jewish university, which complicates relations with the Muslim community to begin with. But secondly, and I think more importantly, there is always the underlying threat of Muslim violence, a sort of unspoken extortion. (Can you say Van Gogh? Can you say Danish cartoons?)

Guess what. Brandeis University caved and rescinded their offer of an honorary degree. Parroting the CAIR position, they tried to give themselves cover by claiming that she is an “Islamophobe” and intolerant, yadda, yadda, yadda. The irony is that the statements that they are quoting from her have been public record for five years and more. These aren’t new, nor is her aggressive anti-Muslim stance. Hasn’t anybody at Brandeis ever heard of Google? Not only that, but her criticisms of Islam and its treatment of women are valid. Having lived it, she knows first hand the extreme misogyny of Islam and the Koran.

But……… that’s not the end of the whole story. Emboldened by their extortion of Brandeis, CAIR also threatened two other universities, forcing them to shut down screenings of a film making similar (valid) complaints about Islam. The film is called Honor Diaries and features nine courageous women who have seen first hand the horrors inflicted on women in the Muslim world and are working for change. Neither Hirsi Ali nor the women in Honor Diaries are making this stuff up – they have lived it and/or have seen it on a daily basis. So it’s obvious what the Islamist thugs at CAIR are trying to do – stifle any and every criticism of Islam by extorting anyone who would like to provide a forum for those speaking out, no matter how valid that criticism is. And since all of those doing the criticizing are women, it’s just one more bit of Islamist thuggery against women.

CAIR tries to portray itself as the moderate, mainstream voice of Muslims in the US. That may indeed be accurate, I don’t really know. But if it is true, then that means that the moderate mainstream Muslim community is not really interested in dialogue or in addressing the issues of human rights abuses within the worldwide Muslim community. That is indeed a shame, because it makes them no better than Al Qaeda or the Taliban or any other Islamist thugs. Maybe Hirsi Ali is correct in her assertion that we need to defeat Islam itself.

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2014 convention planning meetings: 4/19/2014 at K Leroy Irvin Science Building


Where: K Leroy Irvin Science Building (CCAC Allegheny Campus, Legacy Dr off Ridge Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA)

When: 4/19/2014

RSVP at: http://www.meetup.com/Steel-City-Skeptics/events/176779792/

Room 503, 5th floor.

Pittsburgh, PA – USA

Saturday, April 19 at 12:00 PM

Details: http://www.meetup.com/Steel-City-Skeptics/events/176779792/

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Drinking Skeptically: 4/18/2014 at Rock Bottom Brewery & Restaurant


Where: Rock Bottom Brewery & Restaurant (171 E. Bridge St., Homestead, PA 15120)

When: 4/18/2014

RSVP at: http://www.meetup.com/Steel-City-Skeptics/events/162082522/

Drinking Skeptically is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals.  There is no specific topic. It is just an open discussion among fellow freethinkers about science, religion, skepticism, beer, life and leisure. Both teetotalers and those who imbibe are equally welcomed.

This month will return on one of our favorite locations, the Rock Bottom Brewery in the Waterfront (Homestead).  We have a private room, so there is lots of opportunities to mingle and meet others.  This is a great place for newcomers to meet other liked minded individuals, as we won’t be fighting bad acoustics or loud music to be heard.

We start gathering at 7 pm, but latecomers are more than welcome. Hope to see you on Friday night!

Homestead, PA 15120 – USA

Friday, April 18 at 7:00 PM

Details: http://www.meetup.com/Steel-City-Skeptics/events/162082522/

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