SkeptiCamp 2010 II

On October 23rd, 2010, several dozen skeptics descended on UBC for the second SkeptiCamp of 2010: a full day of science, education, questioning assumptions, and rap. Good times.

On October 23rd, 2010, several dozen skeptics descended on UBC for the second SkeptiCamp of 2010: a full day of science, education, questioning assumptions, and rap. Good times.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Jess Brydle had a jar full of candy corn at the back of the room, and attendants were invited to guess the number, with the closest guess winning a prize (an iPod Touch, I think). Though I tried to estimate the volume of a single piece vs. the volume of the jar, my guess (1050) was way off the actual number (around 770). On the other hand, it was almost bang on the average guess. Go me! Conformity over reality!

Google Maps

Jesse Brydle presented an interesting project: displaying bullshit and woo businesses on Google Maps. As you can see, there are a hell of a lot of them. If you look at the comments, (both on the map and Jesse’s blog post), it looks like it hit a major nerve with some of the local witch doctors—as well it should.

Reason Vancouver

Ian Bushfield presented an idea for a new Vancouver political party: Reason Vancouver. Though I approve of its mission statement of “developing policies based on reason and empiricism,” that still doesn’t tell me what those policies are going to be. Ethics (political or otherwise) is only partly based on reason and empiricism. Besides, I’m not convinced Vancouver needs an explicity secular party, since we all know facts already have a liberal bias. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

Hamlet: The Skeptic Prince

Joe Fulgham made a good case for Hamlet being a good proto-skeptic. When the guards tell him they’ve seen a ghost that looks like his dead father, he accepts that ghosts may exist, but grills the guards, asks for details, and withholds belief until he sees the ghost for himself and talks to it. Even then, after he’s told explicit details of his father’s death, he decides to get a second opinion and trick the truth out of Claudius. The theme of Hamlet (as Joe explained, I’m only familiar with the basics) was that giving in to his passions is what destroyed Hamlet. If he had stuck to reason (and yes, skepticism), things might have been different.

I’m not totally convinced of his conclusion that Shakespeare himself was a proto-skeptic, and spoke through his characters, though. C.S. Lewis (just to pick one example) wrote a couple of skeptics in his Space Trilogy, but he himself was far from one.

Baba Brinkman’s Rationalist Rap

Meet Baba Brinkman, “the propaganda wing of skepticism.” He brought the house down with his rationalist anthem, “Off That!” Totally awesome.

I got witnessed to!

When I got back to my car in the pouring rain, I noticed a little soggy piece of paper stuck in my car’s windshield. For a second I was afraid it was a ticket (though I hear parking tickets at UBC are only a problem for UBC students), but it was something very different:

Why settle for

Why settle for “OK”?

And if you read the Bible, you’ll see Jesus is the most inclusive person ever.

With love,
A brother.

Sigh. Just like that hip-hop drive-by witnesser of years ago, here’s a guy who couldn’t help reacting to my “Born OK The First Time” and “Celebrate Diversity” bumper stickers. I’m slightly impressed that he took the time to write his note in the rain, but very unimpressed at his blinkered world view. Well, I didn’t get angry this time, just shared the note with my atheist friends at the pub afterwards and we all had a good laugh.

This is what happens when you mix science and religion

Dr. Hugh Ross is full of shit.

Sure, he’s obviously a smart guy. He knows a lot about science–Astronomy, Mathematics, etc… But he’s also a biblical literalist, and what’s worse, he’s trying to support the one with the other.

Dr. Hugh Ross is full of shit.

Sure, he’s obviously a smart guy. He knows a lot about science—Astronomy, Mathematics, etc… But he’s also a creationist, a biblical literalist, and what’s worse, he’s trying to support the one with the other.

Last night I went to a debate sponsored by CFI and Reasons to Believe: “What’s right and wrong with Christianity?”, taking place at Tenth Avenue Church. Dr. Ross took the “right” side and spoke first, basically blathering on about how modern science fit so well with the biblical creation story, therefore it has to be true. Humans are so unlikely, what with our big brains with no survival value, therefore we must have been designed. Christianity is unique, therefore etc… And so on.

All this delivered at a well-rehearsed breakneck pace, too fast for the audience to do more than go “wait… what?” before moving on to the next bible verse or pretty graph or inspirational urban legend. It was dizzying, frustrating, incredibly condescending, but really not that surprising. I didn’t know Dr. Ross, but I’d read and heard similar “christianity is right and other religions are wrong neener neener” arguments before and, honestly, theists never come up with anything really new.

Which is actually okay, for his usual audience. Because even though last night the people filling the pews were mostly atheists and skeptics, I had the definite impression Dr. Ross was only used to preaching to the choir. Everything he said was designed to appeal to Christians, to reassure them that their beliefs were right. There was nothing there for nonbelievers, or even believers of other faiths. In fact, he kept using loaded terms, like “atheist scientists,” that implied a definite us-vs-them attitude. I’ve seen that before, too, in that creationism vs evolution debate a few years back.

Brian Lynchehaun (who I remember from Skepticamp), addressing the “wrong” side, didn’t go into historical truth or scientific truth, though he easily could have. His speech (much shorter, less rehearsed) dealt with the morality of Christianity; his thrust was that the Bible was not a perfect moral code. In fact, it wasn’t even an especially good one. Its commandments are inconsistent, and its elevation of faith is dangerous because it leaves you open to a whole slew of scams that wouldn’t work on skeptics.

This is what happens when you don’t keep religion and science separate: leave the door open for God or mysticism in your theories and you’re opening a Pandora’s box, because there’s no end to what you can put in. You say Jesus’ body was never found? Maybe the apostles took him. Maybe the Pharisees took him. Maybe he rose from the dead. Maybe he was beamed up by time-traveling Christians out to clone a Messiah 2.0. Mr. Lynchehaun did point out that “God” as an explanation is no less silly than “superpowerful little green men.”

But Dr. Ross isn’t even doing that. He doesn’t respect science, he’s just whoring it out to service his pre-existing beliefs. He’s wrapping the bible in a white lab coat to give it extra prestige for his ignorant flock, thereby twisting and demeaning both spheres. And it’s ironic that he and his audience even want a reason for believing in Christ. What it tells me is that, if they seek (pseudo-)scientific justifications for their faith, then it’s probably a pretty weak faith to begin with, and they’re willing to grab at any straw to hold their house of cards together*. Frankly, I’d have a lot more respect for Christians if they just appealed to simple faith to defend their beliefs. They’d still be wrong, sure, but at least I’d respect the honesty.

(* Apologies for the mixed metaphor)


Quebec (the province and the city) has a lot of history. In Vancouver, “old” just means turn of the century (Gastown, some of Strathcona and New Westminster). But Vieux-Québec? Try turn of the eighteenth century, then we’ll talk. Everything just feels old, every street corner has a hundred stories to tell.

Quebec (the province and the city) has a lot of history. In Vancouver, “old” just means turn of the century (Gastown, some of Strathcona and New Westminster). But Vieux-Québec? Try turn of the eighteenth century, then we’ll talk. Everything just feels old, every street corner has a hundred stories to tell.

Maison Leber, 1686

Most of that history is Catholic. Half the streets are named after saints, many of the historical buildings are churches, convents, presbyteries and so on. Every aspect of French-Canadian history is soaked in religious tradition. I don’t especially mind, when I see it purely as history. As much as I despise organised religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, it has inspired some beautiful art and architecture.

Mind you, Quebec’s not as religious as it used to be. A lot of these traditions are dying off, and so are the communities. Just as an example, Île-d’Orléans used to contain six parishes, one for each village, each with its own church and presbytery (where the religious folks lived). And maybe school, too, although I’m not sure about that. About twenty years ago, those six parishes were merged into two. Nowadays, there’s only one priest to serve the entire island, assisted by one other priest from the mainland to hold services at all the churches on the weekend. Which, let’s face it, is not a big trek, but still. It’s a hell of a change in just a couple of generations.

Many cash-strapped religious orders have also sold off buildings and property, which have been converted to other uses. Just as a for instance, the former presbytery of Sainte-Famille, Île-d’Orléans, is now a genealogy museum. Not to mention that Anglican church in Strathcona, converted to an art studio. A big improvement in both cases, I think.

Genealogy Museum

We had dinner with a family friend, a parish priest in downtown Quebec who used to be assigned to our parish in Ottawa. He had some fun stories about the Dominican order’s internal politics, at the local and provincial level. But also stories of shrinking, and aging, flocks as well as priest communities themselves. Part of me felt a little sad for him. It can’t be easy to see your community and your whole way of life implode like that in his lifetime. As much as I believe the world is better off with less oppressive tradition, dogma and blind faith, it’s nothing personal. This friend of ours, he’s good people, and though I don’t respect his beliefs I respect the fact that they’re important to him.

One of the upsides is that nowadays, and especially for children, religious differences are not such a big deal anymore. As the bonds of faith are breaking down, so have the walls between faiths. We visited an Anglican church in Vieux-Québec: Holy Trinity Cathedral (the first Anglican cathedral built outside the British Isles, dating from 1804). There happened to be a gaggle of schoolkids on a field trip, and a guide (or the teacher, maybe) was explaining to these presumably Catholic children some differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism. For one thing, Anglicans display the Ten Commandments in the church. For another, they arrange them a little differently.

Holy Trinity Altar

I’ve got a hard time imagining many pre-Vatican II Catholics willingly setting foot inside a hell-bound Protestant church, let alone having their children be educated on the finer points of Anglican worship and maybe learn that—gasp!—they really aren’t so different after all. Plus, Holy Trinity is supposed to be haunted. Those kids will go home thinking Anglicans churches are wicked cool.

But never fear, true believers. They say the heart of hardcore Catholicism is still beating, and from what I’ve seen I believe ’em.


Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, a little ways from Quebec City, has been a major pilgrimage site for over 300 years. The faithful—who these days are more likely to come in coach buses than on foot—can enjoy the Jerusalem Cyclorama (IIRC, a big diorama of the Passion, with some multimedia thrown in), visit the Museum to Sainte-Anne (gawd knows what’s there, the woman only appears in apocryphal tales and Catholic tradition), browse the gift shop for that perfect tacky plaster Virgin Mary or whatever, and even get their swag blessed by a priest.

No, I’m not kidding. A priest was actually sitting in a little glass-enclosed booth near the gift shop, in full priestly gear, waiting to bless things (for a modest donation, I’ll bet). I just hope that booth was air-conditioned, because it was really hot, and those clothes looked heavy.

First Station

But then you’ve got all the really traditional stuff: the Stations of the Cross behind the church, as well as a couple of small shrines whose purpose wasn’t too clear to me. And the church itself, a huge newly-renovated monster of a cathedral hiding, amongst the pretty architecture and frankly fascinating artwork, some pretty creepy shit.


Exhibit A: genuine holy relic of Sainte-Anne. Yeah. Never seen a relic before, and frankly I could have gone longer without seeing one. It’s a fucking arm, people! Who goes around putting parts of dead people literally on a pedestal? And who accepts on faith that these bits, the earliest dating back to 1670, are really from a woman who was said to exist 2,000 years ago?


Exhibit B: Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, as you may or may not be aware, is reputed to be a site of healing and other miracles. The front pillars of the main church are covered with dozens of crutches presumably left there by people who were healed. Not everybody was so lucky, though. We visited a smaller chapel in the basement, housing another tiny little shrine to Sainte-Anne. Most disturbingly, this one had a couple of photos of children propped up against the statue, and a few folded pieces of paper wedged under the statue’s base. Not hard to guess what that’s about.

I’ll never know how those kids are doing, or if those parents’ prayers were answered. I hope they’re doing better than these other pilgrims from a hundred years ago.

I’ll tell you this, though: at least Catholic faith healing is dressed up with nicer ritual than modern televangelists. Maybe that’s just me, though.

If I had to pick one word to sum up Sainte-Anne, it would be: horrifying. The whole complex, basilica and sideshows, is a monument to blind faith, superstition, and the fleecing of the sheep. It is a scary, scary look at old-school Catholic belief and I for one am so very glad I’m living in a time when the Church’s power is shrinking.

I’d say Jack Chick’s lost it, except I don’t think he ever had it to begin with

Seriously, what the hell?

Seriously, what the fuck? A nerdy vampire called Igor? A Christian girl called Faith repelling Igor like a 15th level Cleric? Igor accepting Jesus and becoming human? That’s kind of over the top even for Chick. Just what are potential convertees supposed to get out of this? Or should I not be applying Earth logic to this?

Burn in Hell, Jerry Falwell

Okay, I wasn’t going to write about Falwell’s death… but then I thought, what the hell, all the cool kids are doing it. Let’s start with a stirring eulogy by Christopher Hitchens:

Okay, I wasn’t going to write about Falwell’s death… but then I thought, what the hell, all the cool kids are doing it. Let’s start with a stirring eulogy by Christopher Hitchens:

“People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup.” Ha! Yeah, Hitchens is kind of an obnoxious asshole who loves to hear himself talk sometimes (seriously, “Chaucerian frauds”?). But when he’s right, he’s right.

Marc Adams came to SFU in 1998 to talk about his experiences growing up gay in a fundamentalist Baptist environment. Adams had gone to Falwell’s Liberty University. He survived—not all gay students did.

Marc talked about Kent, a student who was kicked out of Liberty for being gay. Even though they were in the same prayer group together, Marc was too busy trying to “become straight” to reach out to Kent. They never talked about being gay, not even as Marc helped Kent carry his suitcases to the curb. Marc feared a close association with Kent would arouse suspicions about his own sexuality. “A couple months after that I got a letter from him in the mail and the first thing he said was that his parents obviously did not kill him, but they did throw him out of the house and he was living on the street. He told me though, that he had found a way to cure himself of his homosexuality, that he had been able to do it, and he left a phone number for me to call. And so I called the number and it rang to his parents house and his brother told me how Kent had, just a couple days earlier, broken into their house and taken one of his father’s guns, and blown off the back of his head.”

I remember some members of the audience were in tears during Adams’ talk. Me, I wasn’t crying; I was angry. If I’d had the power, I would have cheerfully burned Liberty University to the ground right then. Though he didn’t pull the trigger, Falwell and his followers are to blame for filling that boy’s head with lies, fear and shame, making him feel he had no other options.

Here’s something I didn’t know: before getting into the homophobia and anti-abortion business in the 70’s, Falwell used to be a segregationist. From a sermon he made four years after the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education:

“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

Falwell’s jeremiad continued: “The true Negro does not want integration… He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.” Falwell went on to announce that integration “will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city,” he warned, “a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”

Not too surprising from a little toad (thanks, Christopher!) whose other career highlights include bigotry, lies, corruption, and the outing of Tinky Winky. Blaise Pascal wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Falwell spent his life proving Pascal right, and inspiring others to do the same. He was a monster and a creator of monsters. The world is better off without him.

PS: This will blow your irony meters. Apparently, Fred Phelps (yes, that Fred Phelps) will picket Falwell’s funeral. For real. Damn, that’s too funny.

Wanna see something really scary?

From Robot Chicken: Arise, O Great Pumpkin!
From AlterNet: The Thirteen Scariest People in America

Booga booga!

Three Missionary Tracts

There was a bit about sharing tracts in the old Rapture movie I reviewed a few days ago, (just about 6 minutes in) and that made me remember my own small collection of missionary tracts. I picked them all up one night many years ago, while waiting for the bus in downtown Vancouver. They were scattered all over the bus stop bench so I collected them (out of a dislike for littering, both physical and spiritual), and have kept them to this day (out of morbid curiosity and historical interest).

There was a bit about sharing tracts in the old Rapture movie I reviewed a few days ago, (just about 6 minutes in) and that made me remember my own small collection of missionary tracts. I picked them all up one night many years ago, while waiting for the bus in downtown Vancouver. They were scattered all over the bus stop bench so I collected them (out of a dislike for littering, both physical and spiritual), and have kept them to this day (out of morbid curiosity and historical interest). Incidentally, just how are tracts supposed to work, anyways? The scene in question in Are You Ready? shows the presentation of a tract leading to a joint reading and friendly discussion, but the reality is quite different: I actually saw a guy drop a couple of tracts off at a bus stop. He didn’t slow down, or look anyone in the eye, just threw his missionary litter down and kept on his way. I remarked to my then-roommate (who was also waiting for the bus) that the missionary guy didn’t look happy—his entire body language was very angry and defensive. I would have felt sorry for him, but I was busy throwing his tracts where they belonged: in the garbage.

Some of my tracts are fairly modern, and thus pretty forgettable. One’s about the Number of the Beast (666, naturellement) and how it’ll be imposed upon us by the Antichrist, and how this is a bad thing. One asks “Are You Free?” (answer: no, ’cos of all the sin). One asks “Will God Let You Into Heaven” (right, with no question mark. Anyway, the answer is: probably not). Another is about “The Horrors of Hell” (briefly: it’s pretty bad). Another, entitled “He Made The Coupling” is set in modern type but with old-fashioned language, used the metaphor of “coupling” between train cars to illustrate the “connection” between us and God. And also that alcohol is bad, mmkay. But three deserve special mention because they’re set with lovely old typeface and nicely old-fashioned language—turn of the century, I’d say—and tell interesting parables that provide a nice window into some Christians’ mindset, past and present.

“Nobody Ever Asked John To Come”

Nobody Every Asked John to Come

He was a blacksmith, and a most wretchedly wicked man. He knew everything that is blatant and blasphemous in infidelity. He hated everything that is good, and loved everything that is bad. He studied to make himself an irritation to all who believed in God, not even sparing his wife, who did the best she could in the patience and kingdom of Jesus. This man was given up as altogether beyond moral recovery, and so indeed he seemed. Prayer was made as though he had no existence; churches were opened and shut, but never with references to him; the Gospel was preached and mercy offered, but no one connected him with God’s message to the world.

Hello, Christian Stereotype Number One. Look, even the most antireligious atheists I’ve ever known don’t generally go out of their way to annoy Christians—though to some, just being openly godless is enough of an affront. Although I will say the bit about churches shutting him out is extremely plausible.

A few miles back in the country from this blacksmith’s town there lived an old couple, Father and Mother Brown. They were close to ninety years of age. Theirs had been lives of conscious acceptance with God and of patient, unremitting devotedness to Him; and they were waiting without sorrow and without fear for the promised home-coming.

And here’s Christian Stereotype Number Two. Aren’t they adorable? All together now: awwww. Note how black-and-white the world is in these tracts: Christians are totally faultless, non-Christians are complete monsters.

Anyway, one morning Father Brown wakes up all agitated and goes into town. His first stop is John’s blacksmith shop, to tell him about a dream he had.

Together they went into the shop, and when seated, the old man said: “John, I had a dream last night, and I’ve come to tell you about it. I dreamed that the hour I have thought about so much and tried to keep ready for so long was come. It was my time to die. And it was just like I thought it was going to be, for it was just as the Lord promised it should be. I wasn’t the least bit afraid. How could I be? My room was full of angels, and they all spoke to me, and I loved them and know[sic] they loved me. Then some of them stooped and slipped their arms under me, and away we went. Beyond the clouds we mounted thru[sic] the starry skies. Oh, how they sang! I never heard anything like it in my life. On we swept, and on till one of them said, ’Look yonder now; there is Heaven.’

Heaven, as seen in Father Brown’s dream, is pretty kickass. There’s music and singing and happiness and everybody welcomes him. He sees all his children. After a time, his wife is also brought in. There’s gladness and rejoicing until he notices that John the blacksmith isn’t in Heaven. So Brown goes and asks Jesus where John is.

“And O John, that you could have seen how sorry He was when He told me that you hadn’t come. And He wept, as I suppose He often did when He was down here, and told me, ‘Nobody ever asked John to come.’ Oh, I fell at His feet. I bathed them with my tears. I laid my cheeks upon them and cried: ‘Blessed Lord! just let me out of here an hour, and I’ll go and ask him to come. I’ll give him an invitation.’ And right then and there I woke up. It was beginning to get light in the east, and I was so glad I was alive, so I could come and ask you to go to Heaven: and now here I am and I have told you my dream, and want you to go.”

Father Brown trots out some more Bible verses while John listens unable to move, as if in a trance. Then he leaves; John tries to get on with work, but none of his equipment is working right.

“God, be merciful to me a sinner!” he began to sob at last, and leaving the shop, he went home. He told his wife of Father Brown’s visit. “Blessed be God!” she said. “We will send the horse and buggy and have him come back.” “Yes,” he added, “for I mean to accept the invitation, and I want him to pray to God to keep me true and steadfast to the end.”

And the tract concludes with a few more choice Bible verses.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if one of my Christian friends came to me babbling about some dream of Heaven and begging me to convert? I’d tell them to fuck right off, though maybe not in those exact words. Fortunately none of them have ever tried, although I have been witnessed to by strangers on a couple of occasions, in video arcades and at bus stops. Not to mention having read the Bible several times in two languages, and reading all flavours of Good News on the Web. Yes, I’ve heard of Jesus. Now leave me alone.

These missionary types seem to believe faith is bubbling just beneath the surface, waiting for the right Bible verse to erupt. And I’m sure they imagine they’ll be the one to do it, because their spiel is unique and special and not at all recycled pablum that their target has heard a thousand times before. They think they’re being helpful when really, they’re obnoxious pests. Because these naive missionaries, so hopped up on spreading the good word, have no fucking clue how other people think and feel.

This tract is actually the least offensive of the lot, and falls more in the “extremely irritating” category. There’s no mention of hell at all, which is pretty unusual for old-time missionary literature. And, fun question: it’s a good thing that everybody important to Father Brown was there in Heaven. What would have happened if he had really died before inviting John? Would he still have missed him? Ah, but then his happiness wouldn’t have been perfect. Maybe what happens is that you forget about all the people you knew, and all the ones you didn’t, who ended up in The Other Place. That way you don’t have to worry about empathising with eternally tormented souls.

Speaking of which…

48 Hours In Hell

Hey, does anybody else have Love & Rockets’ fourth (self-titled) album? One song on it, Bound For Hell, relates a dream of a hell-bound train filled with damned souls, and concludes with the narrator waking up horrified by what awaits him if he doesn’t fly straight. It looks like it was actually adapted from an old folk song (which also inspired a pretty freaky short story by Robert Bloch), but it’s exactly what you’d get if you put one of these hellfire tracts to music.

A number of years ago, in a penitentiary coal mine, God permitted an inmate miner to see some of the horrors of damnation. It made such an impression on him that, upon his return to earth, he not only believed in an old-fashion[sic] Bible Hell, but gave his heart to God to escape it.

This miner accidentally gets buried for several hours and, when found, seems quite dead. Burial preparations are made but when the “corpse” is carried to the coffin, one of the inmates trips over a cuspidor (i.e.: a spittoon. Yes, I had to look that up). The only-mostly-dead inmate hits his head on the floor, and miraculously wakes up.

The story (except for the concluding paragraphs) is narrated by a reporter—named “Mr. Reynolds” only at the very end—who somehow learns of these unusual events and gets the miner’s story, which he relates verbatim. (And maybe it’s just me, but it feels like an old-fashioned story structure. The only evidence I have for this is that H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was written is that way.)

The miner was working down in the mine; suddenly there’s darkness, then an impression of “a great iron door” through which the miner passes. Then:

From some cause unknown to myself, I started to move away from the doorway, and had traveled some distance, when I came to the banks of a broad river. It was not dark, neither was it light. There was about as much light as on a bright star-lit night. I had not remained on the banks of this river very long until I could hear the sound of oars in the water, and soon a person in a boat rowed up to where I was standing. I was speechless. He looked at me for a moment and then said that he had come for me, and told me to get into the boat and row across to the other side.

(Nice Greek Underworld motif there. Except I believe Charon stands up in his boat and poles across the Acheron.)

On the opposite shore, the miner sees two roads: one broad and well-travelled, one narrow. He of course takes the well-travelled road, and meets a demon.

He resembled a man somewhat, but was much larger than any human being I ever saw. He must have been at least ten feet tall. He had great wings on his back. He was black as the coal I had been digging, and in a perfectly nude condition. He had a spear in his hand, the handle of which must have been fully fifteen feet in length. His eyes shone like balls of fire. His teeth, white as pearl, seemed fully an inch long. His nose, if you will call it a nose, was very large, broad and flat. His hair was very coarse, heavy and long.

The African-American demon guides him to another, similar, demon who announces Thou art in hell. Then—just to add insult to injury—the miner is granted a glimpse of Heaven before being cast into the Lake of Fire. There are flowers and singing and walls of jasper and angels and all sorts of lovely stuff. He sees his mother there, “who died a few years ago of a broken heart because of my wickedness.” He is then led through another door:

Just before me I could see, as far as eye could reach, that literal lake of fire and brimstone. Huge billows of fire would roll over each other, and great waves of fiery flame would dash against each other and leap high into the air like the waves of the sea during a violent storm. On the crest of the waves I could see human beings rise, but soon to be carried down again to the lowest depths of this awful lake of fire. When borne on the crests of these awful billows, for a time, their curses against a just God would be appalling, and their pitiful cries for water would be heart-rending. This vast region of fire echoed and re-echoed with the wails of those lost spirits.

Presently I turned my eyes to the door through which I had a few moments before entered, and I read these awful words This is thy doom. Eternity never ends.

Meh. It’s no Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. Sidenote: until I reread this tract recently, I’d remembered the words on the door as “Eternity begins now.” Which I think would have been much cooler.

Just as the miner is falling into the lake, he wakes up, and vows never to enter Hell again. He’s seen both his reward and his punishment, and he’s giving his heart to God.

The miner was permitted to see Heaven and Hell just as he described them to Mr. Reynolds, which tallies wonderfully with the Bible description of each place—the home of the saints—the place of the damned.

Well, first of all, no it doesn’t. There’s no boatman or bat-winged demons mentioned in the Bible. Dante’s Inferno, yes, but not the Bible. And while the New Jerusalem (as mentioned in the Book of Revelation) does indeed have a river and foundations of jasper, there’s no mention of flowers or beautiful fragrances. (Though maybe that’s in the Paradiso, it’s been ages since I’ve read it.) Second, even ignoring these embellishments, near-death experiences are culture-specific, so of course this miner (if he weren’t fictional) would see images from the Christian afterlife, instead of, say, the Eater of Hearts.

Enough nitpicks. The real horror here is that, first, the writer is totally getting off on describing the screams and the torments, which he believes are literally real. So what am I, the reader, supposed to get out of it? Fear of eternal punishment? I admit, if I saw the Lake of Fire (outside of some near-death hallucination), I’m sure I’d scream and cry and soil myself just as if I’d rolled into Treblinka or Auschwitz. I’d probably beg and plead for mercy. But I wouldn’t wholeheartedly convert just because God is big and strong and can make me fry for a long time, or promises flowers and harps and all the best X-Box games if I behave. And when my pleas are ignored, you better believe I’d be cursing God too. Because only an infinitely cruel tyrant would sentence even one person, no matter how evil and depraved, to an eternity of torture. And only a morally deficient coward would call that justice or the act of a loving being, and get others to worship this monster. God created Hell, and decided the rules for who ends up there, so he’s ultimately responsible for the suffering in his fiery basement. But smug self-righteous Christians either don’t see that or don’t care; as long as they get to frolic with the angels when they die then everything’s peachy.

Cuff — A Negro Slave

Cuff - A Negro Slave

Cuff was a negro slave who lived in the South before the Civil War. He was a joyful Christian, and a faithful servant.

Times are hard, and his master sells him to an “infidel,” who vows to stop Cuff from praying. But Cuff says:

O Massa, I loves to pray to Jesus, and when I pray I loves you and Missus all the more, and can work all the harder for you.

Massa doesn’t like it, Cuff keeps praying and gets whipped, but still goes on working.

Meantime, God was working on the Master. He saw his wickedness and cruelty to that poor soul, whose only fault had been his fidelity, and conviction seized upon him. By night he was in great distress of mind.

Massa feels so bad that he thinks he’s dying. But he doesn’t want a doctor, he wants someone to pray for him because he’s afraid of going to hell. So they send for Cuff.

The master, groaning, said, “O Cuff, can you pray for me?”

“Yes, bless de Lord, Massa, I’se been prayin’ for you all night,” and then dropped on his knees, and, like Jacob of old, wrestled in prayer; and before the breaking of day witnessed the conversion of both master and mistress. Master and slave embraced, race differences and past cruelty were swept away by the love of God, and tears of joy were mingled.

Cuff is set free and the master goes out to preach the Gospel. The reader is asked not to resist our loving Saviour any longer. The End.

There. Wasn’t that heartwarming? Of course the characters are the same one-dimensional stereotypes we’ve seen before; the Christian is a meek and passive doormat who does nothing but obey his earthly and divine masters, while the “infidel” is an inhumanly cruel bastard who hates Christianity for no reason. And then, just as arbitrarily, repents of his misdeeds. Which begs the question of why God couldn’t have been “working on” the Master before he tortured that poor slave—and also begs the other question of where the Master’s free will was in all of this.

Story logic aside, there’s an extra dimension to this tract, which easily makes it the most disturbing in my collection, and that is its glorification of slavery: Cuff’s humble and helpless condition is held up as the ideal for Christians, something to inspire them. His sufferings aren’t depicted to show the inherent injustice of slavery, how wrong it is for one human being to own another and have complete power over them. No, we’re supposed to admire Cuff for his unconditional obedience, sweet childlike faith, and (most of all) contentment with his lot in life. This, along with his mangled English, makes Cuff very much a stereotypical Uncle Tom character. Images and stories like Cuff’s—along with many Bible-based arguments—served to justify or excuse slavery and, later, the Jim Crow laws. This attitude persists even today, though you’ll only see it displayed openly in some hardcore bigots such as Promise Keepers.

Apocalypse Then And Now

Exhibit A: an ancient, horribly low-budget film about the Rapture.

Exhibit B: They’re making a video game based on the Left Behind movies.

Exhibit A: an ancient, horribly low-budget film about the Rapture.

I guess what’s really shocking isn’t the bargain-basement production values, or the dull pacing, it’s the cheap and mundane fears being peddled. Maids going missing? Milk not delivered on time? A lot of open graves? All right, they get into rivers of blood and so on near the end, and the bit about vanishing doctors and train engineers is a bit worrying… but, you know, that could be avoided by forbidding born-again Christians from performing critical tasks since they could be raptured any time. “Do not operate heavy machinery while saved.” Which, by the way, raises the question: assuming for the moment it’s real, how many people will actually vanish during the Rapture? In other words, who are the Real Christians™? Well, even the self-identified born-again can’t agree on that one; but the requirements must be pretty harsh, so the number of raptured people is probably small. I’ll just guess offhand they’re mostly—though not exclusively—in the Bible Belt, rural, on average less educated (not many heart surgeons, then). And they’d tend to cluster, so whole communities would be carried off together. Here in Canada I guess we’d lose… Abbotsford? Meh, I can live with that.

The film continues with more tales of Sugarcandy Mountain, about how wonderful it’ll be to fly through the air away from from the woes of this world, heartache and war and icky unbelievers. But the way they blame Christians for the sufferings of unbelievers who are doomed to live through the Tribulation (and could have been reached if only you the viewer had witnessed just a little bit harder) is frankly sick. Just what fundie nuts need: in addition to fear of God and fear of the Devil, now they’ve got to deal with the guilt that rightfully belongs to their so-called loving deity as he maims and smites.

Digging around I found another film by this guy, helpfully explaining why we need Christ’s loving dynamite to turn our hearts to manure, which will then undergo nuclear fusion. Or something. I may have tuned out a couple of times.

Exhibit B: They’re making a video game based on the Left Behind movies.

I saw a few minutes of the first Left Behind movie years ago (the bit where every True Xian™ vanishes, leaving their clothes and possessions behind), then I changed the channel. What was the point? I’d read the Book of Revelation, I knew how the story was going to play out. Although I guess the Bible didn’t have some tragically hunky reporter witnessing the last days. (Well, sorta hunky. I used to think Kirk Cameron was soooo hot, back in the day. Now? Not so much.) But underneath the special effects, it’s just the same warmed-over crap. And now that crap becomes interactive. Wheee.

Honestly, who believes this can work as a conversion tool? What will people learn about Xianity, except that it involves fighting the United Nations and racking up points for saving souls? Or is it just aimed at paranoid fundies so they can live out their end-of-the-world fantasies?

The sad thing is, there are people who take this stuff very seriously. In 1941, the prophecies were “not far from fulfillment” (no doubt because of World War II). Sixty-five years later, some people are still insisting the Apocalypse is almost at hand. Fifty years from now, sadly, I’m sure there’ll be more wars and famines and plagues for fundies to get excited about. I wish I could be witty about this, but really it’s just depressing. Millenial fundies really get turned on by wars and calamities, because it’s clear they hate this world and want it gone. Other people’s sufferings are not real to these loons, just a sign that they’ll get their reward. It’s just monstrously selfish.

Exhibit C: George W. Bush himself and his creepy fundie crowd. I’ll just let that speak for itself.

A Wedding in Sooke

For the second time in three weeks I was on the Island; not in Tofino but the little town of Sooke, for my friend Nathan’s wedding. It was a very nice ceremony, nothing fancy, with Sooke Harbour as a gorgeous backdrop. Which became a grey and rainy backdrop the following day, so we really lucked out.

For the second time in three weeks I was on the Island; not in Tofino but the little town of Sooke, for my friend Nathan’s wedding. It was a very nice ceremony, nothing fancy, with Sooke Harbour as a gorgeous backdrop. Which became a grey and rainy backdrop the following day, so we really lucked out.

Sooke Harbour

Les and Suzanne


Ring Exchange, 2

Five of us stayed in a lovely bed & breakfast for the weekend. The scenery was beautiful, the amenities spotless, the breakfasts yummy beyond description. The only irritant was one of the owners, who turned out to be a hardcore evangelical Christian. I only found this out the evening after Nathan’s wedding, when we’d all gone back to the B&B to relax, and he struck up a conversation with Jon, one of our friends who I knew was also a devout Xian (but, to his credit, had never preached to me). I was upstairs, trying to lose myself in Stephen Baxter’s excellent Exultant but I couldn’t tune out the harsh dogma, talk of “church-planting” and other bizarre jargon. Finally I couldn’t take any more, and went for a walk. I headed down the Galloping Goose trail, got bored by the lack of scenery, so I decided to explore a trail following Ayum Creek down to the water. That was a lot more interesting, and washed away the unpleasant taste of dogmatism. Plus, it gave me some very nice pictures.

Red and Black

Ayum Creek

Cooper's Cove

Things got sour again the next morning as we were heading out. Sandra, an elementary school teacher and very politically active, got into an argument with the aforementioned Xian about the upcoming strike vote and teacher’s demands. He was absolutely opposed to the strike action (and, it seemed, pretty much any social activism), self-righteously accused the teachers of being greedy, and other equally insulting arguments. Sandra held her own but was getting visibly upset by the guy’s assholish attitude, so I stepped in. Partly out of chivalry, partly because I agreed with Sandra’s position, and partly because I enjoy a good argument every now and then. But it’s a good thing we were on our way out.

To be fair: we didn’t see much of him until our last morning, and his wife was extremely nice. Still, there’s no way I’m staying there again.)

Some more pictures over here!

Man Walking Against The Wind… OF SIN!!!

Just when I think I’ve seen everything, along comes a Web site so unique, so startling, so fucking ridiculous that I instantly feel humbled and relieved. Because there are whole dimensions of crazy and stupid out there, and if I searched for a lifetime I could only scratch the surface. Gawd bless the Internet.

Just when I think I’ve seen everything, along comes a Web site so unique, so startling, so fucking ridiculous that I instantly feel humbled and relieved. Because there are whole dimensions of crazy and stupid out there, and if I searched for a lifetime I could only scratch the surface. Gawd bless the Internet. And Gawd bless Something Awful for featuring this as an Awful Link of the Day. Okay, I’ll admit, this site isn’t of the “Let me go fetch the gentlemen in white coats” variety (for example?), but more of a “They can’t be serious, can they? Oh, I guess they can” sort of thing. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, put your hands together for (warning: Flash-heavy site):

K & K Mime Ministries

See? Isn’t that awesome? Don’t you just love the overused lightning-arc effect? The hip yet tiresome quick cuts? The flying white-gloved hands? The hilariously pretentious “I appointed them as prophets to the nations” bit? The amateurishly over-the-top echo (echo) (echo) at the end? The absolutely crappy site design?

And also: mime ministry? Seriously? Wow. Those are two words I never expected to see together. Who knew there was a demand for that?