Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Air Force Oath Follow-Up

U.S. Air Force LogoWell, I have some good news to report, as a follow-up to an entry I'd written last week, Air Force Makes Religious Oath Mandatory. The short background is that the Air Force had changed their official policy. Previously, a religious section of the enlistment/re-enlistment oath, "So help my God", was optional. No one was forced to say it who didn't want to. Just recently, they reversed that decision, and tried to make that portion of the oath mandatory again. After a complaint brought about by an enlisted airman, and the threat of legal action by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the Air Force went to the DoD's legal team for advice.

Apparently, either the DoD was the voice of reason, or someone in the Air Force came to their senses, because the oath has been made optional again (see story: Air Force: 'So Help Me God' in Oath is Optional).

I really don't see how this was much of a controversy at all. The requirement was clearly un-Constitutional, going against Article VI's ban of religious tests. And even if the Constitution had no such ban, that type of language in the oath still makes no sense. America is a multi-cultural society with people with all types of religious beliefs, from Christians to atheists* to Buddhists to Hindus. It's really only Christians and Jews who refer to 'God' with a capital G, so that part of the oath is very clearly a pledge to Yahweh. For the many people who don't believe in that god, forcing them to make an oath to him is lying - a tacit admission of his existence. Shouldn't we expect more integrity from the members of our military? Even at best, it makes that party of the oath an empty phrase, recited as a platitude that means nothing to the people saying it. In my opinion, that cheapens the oath overall, and I don't think that's what anyone wants.

Like I noted in that previous entry, if you really want to despair for our nation, go read the comments in the linked article. Here are a few from this one.

Yet another monumentally stupid decision by someone who shouldn't be making decisions, we take God our of our lives more and more and as this is done things get worse and worse. He whosoever denies me shall be denied before the father. If the military denies God then in the future you will lose and then you will all have to change the way you salute each other. Just wait till they make it mandatory to allow call to prayer 5 times a day. Apparently the Air Force Never heard of the phrase Stand Your Ground
Personally I don't trust anyone who refuses to end the oath, 'so help me God.' But that's just me.
Cowards all. Why not also make fighting and uniforms optional?
This shows an act of cowardess the part of the Air Force. My respect for them is down as this appears to be another act of appeasement on their part. Tolerance in this area will lead to tolerance in all other areas and the Good order and Discipline will go out of the window. The AF needs to get up some guts and so does their legal department at the national level.

On the plus side, many of those types of comments had responses from rational people, so it wasn't completely one-sided. It just amazes me that so many people have a problem with making optional a religious section of an oath for a non-religious organization. I don't even know what it's doing there in the first place, and look forward to the day when it gets removed completely.

For now, the voices of reason have a small win, and airmen and officers won't be forced to appeal to a deity they don't believe in.

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*Yes, I know - atheism isn't a religion. But these types of beliefs are mutually exclusive. You can't be an atheist Christian (at least, not in the traditional christian sense of accepting Jesus as your savior). So, I think it's fair to characterize them all under the blanket term of religious beliefs. Or to put it another way, not stamp collecting may not be a hobby, but the label does tell you something, even if only a very little, about the person's hobby habits.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Center Verse of the Bible

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleThis week, you get a bonus Friday Bible Blogging entry in the middle of the week. The main entry that I'll post on Friday covers Psalms 111 through 120, but it brings me to a slightly controversial milestone of sorts that I decided was worth covering in its own entry - the central verse of the Bible.

Right off the bat is trying to determine which manuscripts to use as your basis. As I discussed in the Introduction to this series, the development of the Bible wasn't straight forward. For many books, it would be difficult to pin down the 'original' version, even if time travel were possible, because of how those books developed. They were based on combining already existing books, which themselves were often based on even older stories, with Noah's flood developing from the Mesopotamian Flood Myth being one of the most famous examples. And as the books were passed down and copied, changes, additions, and subtractions were made. Even the New Testament, which is much more recent than some of the Old Testament books, has been modified. I was disappointed to discover that the story of Jesus telling the Pharisees to "let him who is without sin, cast the first stone" was most likely a later addition to John, and not part of the original gospel.

Even in the modern day, when most churches have settled on their canon, there are many different compilations of the Bible. The Wikipedia article on Biblical Canon has a table showing the differences in canon between Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Slavonic Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Orthodox Tewahedo, and Assyrian Church of the East versions of the Bible. There just simply is no single 'The Bible', so there's no single central verse.

And on top of all that, the chapter and verse numbers certainly weren't part of the original manuscripts. To quote from Wikipedia's entry on Chapters and verses of the Bible:

Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro is often given credit for first dividing the Latin Vulgate into chapters in the real sense, but it is the arrangement of his contemporary and fellow cardinal Stephen Langton who in 1205 created the chapter divisions which are used today. They were then inserted into Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the 15th century. Robert Estienne (Robert Stephanus) was the first to number the verses within each chapter, his verse numbers entering printed editions in 1551 (New Testament) and 1571 (Hebrew Bible).

The chapters and verses weren't settled on until the 1500s.

Moving past all that, let's pick one version to go with, since that's the version I see used in practically all of these Biblical factoid type articles - the standard Protestant Bible. If you do a google search on 'center verse of the bible', you'll find many sites claiming that the central verse is Psalms 118:8. Here's an example of such a site, Fun Bible Facts for Christian Teens: Get Centered with Psalms 118. I've pulled a fairly extensive quote below, to show how they arrive at that conclusion, and the other types of claims these sorts of sites typically make.

Location, Location, Location
  • The middle chapter of the Bible is Psalm 118.
  • The longest Chapter of the Bible is Psalm 119.
  • The shortest chapter of the Bible is Psalm 117.

Adding It All Up

  • How many chapters exist before Psalm 118? 594
  • How many chapters of the Bible exist after Psalm 118? 594
  • Add the two together and you get 1188.
  • What is the verse at the very center of the Bible? Psalm 118:8*

Get Centered

Psalm 118:8 - "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man." (NIV)

Are you in the center of God's word? The very center of the Bible reminds us to trust in God over trusting in ourselves or other people. The next time you consider making God the center of your life, remind yourself to go to the center of the Word.

As part of this whole project of reading the Bible, I have a spreadsheet with the chapter count for each of the books. For the Protestant Bible, I count 1189 chapters - which matches the fun facts claims so far. And 1189 chapters total does mean 594 chapters before and after the middle chapter. However, since there are 478 chapters in all the books prior to Psalms, 594 - 478 = 116, meaning that the following chapter, 117, is the central chapter of the Bible, not 118. And if the central chapter is 117, then all the rest of the cute claims don't really mean much. (Interestingly, at the end of that article, the author does note some controversy over which chapter really is the center of the Bible, before dismissing it by saying, "Christians should make God the center of their lives, and numerical controversy should not take away from that spiritual guidance." It's a bit disingenuous to knowingly present something false, and then issue a disclaimer that people may or may not read at the very end of the article. Some people might call that lying, or bearing false witness, to put it in terms that author might appreciate more.)

But that's only one way to determine the central verse of the Bible. A way to do it that makes more sense to me is to add up all the verses in all the chapters, and determine which is the center of the whole thing. I don't have verse counts in my spreadsheet, and don't particularly feel like compiling all that information just for this blog entry, so I'm going to rely on other people's analysis here. I actually found a page where somebody went through this entire exercise, Center of the Bible, by Fran Corpier. Corpier found that there are 31,102 verses in the Bible (as somewhat of a double check, BlueLetterBible.org reports the same number). From that, since there can be no single central verse when the total is an even number, Corpier determined that the central verses are Psalms 103:1-2, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, / and all that is within me, / bless his holy name. / Bless the Lord, O my soul, / and do not forget all his benefits..."

Corpier also went so far as to determine the center of the Bible by word count, using the King James Version (KJV). However, I fear that she (he?) must have made a mistake here. Corpier found there were 782,222 words in the KJV of the Bible, and went on to claim that the center two words occur in Psalms 74:21. However, the verse Corpier used to determine those words was Psalms 105:21, not 74:21. So, assuming that Corpier did the math right and just pulled up the wrong quote, the center two words of the KJV of the Bible would be the second and third words in Psalms 74:21, " O let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name." Hmm. Not particularly noteworthy.

So, to summarize:

  • Center chapter, by chapter count: Psalms 117
  • Center verse, by verse count: Psalms 103:1-2
  • Center words, by word count (KJV): "not the", occurring in Psalms 74:21

So by chapter count, I reached the center of the Protestant Bible this week. However, I'm reading the Apocrypha as well, so I'm still not halfway through with this project.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Air Force Makes Religious Oath Mandatory

U.S. Air Force LogoI just recently wrote an article that referenced the recent Navy Bible brouhaha, A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle. Now, it seems like another branch of the military is violating people's Constitutional rights, and this time in an even more blatant manner.

An article on Military.com, Air Force Restores 'God' to Enlistment Oath describes the issue. There's a line in the Air Force oath of enlistment or reenlistment that says "So help me God". It seems that the Air Force had made that line optional, but has now reversed that decision and has made it mandatory again.

The American Humanist Society has gotten involved on behalf of an atheist airman, and it seems that the Air Force might be taking the complaint seriously. According to a more recent article in The Stars and Stripes, Air Force seeks DOD ruling on re-enlistment oath, the Air Force went to the DoD's top lawyer and is currently waiting on an opinion on the issue. I would think the decision should be easy enough to make, since Article VI of the Constitution makes it quite clear:

no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Requiring someone to make an oath to God seems a blatant violation of that clause. And it's not like the previous compromise was hard on theists at all. It wasn't removing the God reference to make the oath secular (which is what I'd really prefer). The 'so help me God' language was optional. Christians and Jews could still say it if they wanted to, while non-theists weren't forced to lie. But apparently, even that was too much for some brass in the Navy, who have made the oath mandatory again.

It seems pretty cut and dried to me, but with the way things sometimes go and the special treatment Christians seem to get in this country, I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to keep the God part of the oath mandatory.

Image Source: Dobbins Air Reserve Base

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P.S. If you really want to despair for our nation, go read the comments. Yes, there are several people with rational takes on the issue, but a lot more comments than I'd like to see supporting the mandatory oath. Here's a sampling.

nice to see that someone in the military has finnaly grown a PAIR
Very refreshing to see the US Air Force stand up against political correctness (much of what is wrong with this country) and the courage to stand up for God. God bless America, the foundation of this country.
The enlistment oath is correctly worded ! Deal w/it or don't sign the dotted line! It's that SIMPLE!
He doesn't have to stay in. He can believe in whatever he likes but, he can believe it as a civilian. Sick of all the whiners and liberals that think EVERYTHING should be because they want it. Atheism is stupid anyway. Don't believe in anything. When you die, we can just leave you on top of the ground for the buzzards. Time to pay back all the crap they've dished out to Christians. Notice they have said NOTHING about Islam? Wonder why?!


So as not to end this entry leaving a bad taste in your mouth or thinking that all Christians are so pig-headed, here are a couple good comments.

As a retired Chapel Manager I've got to say the USAF is flying too high on this one. If this Airman doesn't believe in God his oath to God becomes meaningless. It only had value to those who believe in God. It's like forcing a Christian or Muslim to give an oath to a fence post. What value would that promise have?
I'm a fundamentalist Christian but I find it immoral to force someone to in essence lie when taking an oath. In addition, as a conservative constitutionalist who served to support and defend the Constituyion, I also find it offensive to force someone to take recognize a religious tenet in order to serve in the military or any other government position.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Response to Mark Looy & Ken Ham's Complaints of Atheist Aggression

Mark Looy & Ken HamThrough a series of following links that began on an IFL Science Facebook post and went through Snopes, I came across an article on Answers in Genesis, Intolerant Atheists Viciously Attack Christian School, by Mark Looy and Ken Ham. There's a whole lot I could write about on that page (such as the hyperbole of using 'viciously attack' to describe strongly worded articles and e-mails), but I'm only going to focus on one part, actually a bit of a tangent from the main article - hypocritical and/or strange complaints by Christians against atheists. In the third paragraph, Looy and Ham wrote the following.

Over the past few years, we have seen atheists becoming more aggressive and intolerant towards Christians. (See the sidebar for just a few of the many examples we could cite.)

So I took a look at that sidebar. It's titled, "How Are Atheists Becoming More Aggressive in America?", and has a bulleted list of all the supposed aggressions committed by atheists (but without actually citing or linking to anything concrete). I tackle each claim individually below.

Billboards promoting atheism and attacking Christianity have popped up across the country.

Billboards like this?

AiG Anti-Atheist Billboard
Source

AiG Creation Museum Billboard
Source

Just in case you missed it, both of those billboards are from Looy & Ham's own organization, Answers in Genesis (AiG). Granted, that first billboard was AiG's response to an atheist billboard campaign. But, if billboards are inherently 'aggressive', is AiG operating under the playground mentality that two wrongs can make a right?

Here are a few billboards by organizations other than AiG:

Nothing's Too Hard for God Billboard
Source

Anti-Atheist Stalin Billboard
Source

These types of billboards promoting Christianity or disparaging atheism are very, very common in my neck of the woods down here in Texas. That one from the Assemblies of God was all over town for a while (not so much anymore), and I see several religious billboards along the route whenever I drive down to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. If it's wrong to put up billboards promoting your viewpoint on religious issues, why aren't Looy & Ham upset by all the Christian billboards?


The American Humanist Association has launched a special website for children to indoctrinate them in atheism.

You mean something like this, Kids Answers on AiG's own site. And check out the page, Good News - How Can I Become a Child of God. I agree that indoctrination is wrong, so why is AiG doing it?

I did go check out the page I think they're referring to, Kids Without God. After a bit of clicking around and browsing, it looks to be a very good page, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in humanism. It's not so much indoctrination as just explaining what humanism is, and offering resources to teens who might be having issues because of their lack religion. The 'kids' section is of course a little simple, but the teen section is pretty informative, and would probably make for a good introduction even for adults. Here are a few of the pages I particularly liked.


An atheist rally in Washington DC last year had a special promotion to encourage kids to attend their atheist camps.

I did a google search on 'Vacation Bible School Wichita Falls', just to see what type of results I'd get for my own hometown. Here were the first four results:

And there were more than that. Religious camps are pretty common.


Atheists have been increasingly using terms like "child abuse" to describe the efforts of Christians who seek to teach their children about creation, heaven, and hell.

It does seem like hyperbole to call a religious upbringing 'child abuse', but the guilt instilled by this type of indoctrination can be very traumatic. It was this guilt that I struggled with the most personally in becoming an atheist - much more so than the intellectual side of it. And it shouldn't be that way. I experience no sense of guilt when I learn about other ways I've been wrong. With the modern skeptical movement and Internet sites like Snopes and TV shows like Mythbusters, many of us have learned of urban legends that had us tricked at one point or another. But while we may feel a bit of embarrassment at being too gullible, there's no guilt that goes along with ditching those mistaken beliefs. Why should people, especially children, feel guilty about questioning the fundamental nature of the universe? It's one thing to examine different worldviews as an adult and pick the one you think is most likely. It's quite another to be taught that you'll be punished in hellfire for all eternity if you even question the teachings of your elders.

And of course, there are other aspects of religious upbringing by extremists (not mainstream Christians) that are much more abusive, such as refusing to give your children vacinations, or denying medical treatment in favor of faith healing.


Many atheists claim that children belong to the community, not to their parents.

I almost wrote an entry about just this single bullet because of the mindset it reveals. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but most atheists I know don't think children belong to anybody. They're their own person, not property. It is a parent's responsibility to raise their children properly, but the parents don't own the children. The community (i.e. government) will step in in cases of abuse or neglect, because children are too young to have any other recourse. It's to protect human beings, not to exercise control over property.

Do Looy and Ham really believe that children belong to their parents?


Atheists have actively opposed any effort in public schools to even question a belief of evolution or suggest there are any problems with it.

I know one of the primary purposes of Ham's organization is promoting creationism, but this is a silly complaint to anybody who understands evolution and accepts reality. It's about like the Flat Earth Society complaining about public schools only teaching about the Earth as a globe, or wanting moon landing hoax conspiracy theories taught in history class. Creationism is a bit more socially acceptable than Flat Earthism, but every bit as silly.

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Perhaps what struck me most in reading all of this was the sheer hypocrisy. So much of what Looy and Ham complained about is stuff that's very common among the religious, and stuff that they themselves do. It's a pretty stark double standard.

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle

Ben CarsonBen Carson has apprently just won a GOP straw poll in Indiana, getting a whopping 67% of the votes (see Christian Post - Ben Carson Wins Polk County, Iowa GOP Presidential Straw Poll by a Landslide; Says ISIS Must be Dealt With). His next closest rival, Ted Cruz, only received 7%, with Rick Perry in third with 4%, followed by a scattering of of several other potential candidates. I know it's awfully early to start taking these types of polls too seriously, and I suppose it's somewhat good news that Cruz and Perry weren't in the lead, but Carson isn't a whole lot better.

I've mentioned Carson on this blog once before in the entry, Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address (with the local university being Midwestern State University, an otherwise respectable institution). I made note of some extremely ignorant statements Carson had made about evolution, as well as his well-known bigoted remarks against homosexuals.

With Carson's recent straw poll win making headlines, I decided to Google his name just to see what else he was up to, and came across an article he'd written about the recent Navy Bible kerfuffle, Atheists forgetting the meaning of freedom: Nonbelievers seek to impose their values by banning Bibles. For anyone unfamiliar with this issue, the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, has a pretty good article, After Atheists Blow the Whistle, U.S. Navy Says Bibles Must Be Removed from Base Hotel Rooms. Basically, hotels run by the Navy had Bibles in the night stands, which may seem fairly standard given that practically every hotel room in the U.S. has a Gideon's Bible, but the Navy is a government institution, and per the Establishment Clause, isn't supposed to endorse religion. The Freedom From Religion Foundation got on the case, and the Navy originally agreed to remove the Bibles, but seems to have backtracked for the time being (as detailed in verse by the Digital Cuttlefish, Armageddon Gets Results; Navy Puts Bibles Back In Hotel Rooms).

Now, while it would be nice to see the Navy keep Bibles out of hotel rooms, out of all the issues in the country today, this one's a pretty low priority. But you can guess that certain right wing Christians were outraged when the Navy first removed the Bibles, which brings us back to Carson's article. I'll start off with the quote that ties in most closely to politics, and the fact that Carson just might be a potential presidential candidate.

We must also go back and read the Constitution, including the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion. It says nothing about freedom from religion and, in fact, if you go back and look at the context and the lives of those involved in the crafting of our founding documents, it is quite apparent that they strongly believed in allowing their faith to guide their lives.

Yes Dr. Carson, we are guaranteed the freedom of not having religion imposed by the government. To quote the Constitution since you brought it up, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." That has been repeatedly interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that government cannot endorse religion. And putting the holy book of one particular religion in a government run facility is endorsing that religion.

I don't doubt that many of the Founding Fathers were Christians and deists who were strongly motivated by their faith in how they lived their lives. But that's separate from how they framed the government. It's very telling that there is no mention of God in the Constitution (other than the convention of the date - year of our Lord). Even more explicitly, there's the Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously approved by the Senate in 1797, which contained the phrase, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." The majority of the founders wanted a secular government, keeping religion and government separate so that neither would interfere in the other (more info - Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone).


This next passage is the worst one from the article, and what motivated me to write this entry.

This last sentence may seem out of place if you don't realize that atheism is actually a religion. Like traditional religions, atheism requires strong conviction. In the case of atheists, it's the belief that there is no God and that all things can be proven by science. It is extremely hypocritical of the foundation to request the removal of Bibles from hotel rooms on the basis of their contention that the presence of Bibles indicates that the government is choosing one religion over another. If they really thought about it, they would realize that removal of religious materials imposes their religion on everyone else.

That is just plain idiotic. If lack of religious materials imposes atheism, then I'm surrounded by atheist propaganda, from the weather report on the 10 o'clock news, to the donut shop on the corner, to the stop light on my way home. If they don't hang a crucifix at the intersection, they're shoving atheism down our throats!

If the FFRF were demanding copies of Why I Am Not a Christian, The God Delusion, or God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, then Carson could claim that they were imposing their beliefs on everyone else. But as it is, they're simply asking for religious neutrality.

He also seems to paint with a pretty broad brush in saying atheists believe "all things can be proven by science". Heck, I'm rather scientific minded myself, but even I wouldn't go that far. 'Science as the most reliable method of answering questions with objective answers?' Sure (see my article, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge). But it's not magic that will answer any and all questions ever posed. And there are plenty of atheists who aren't necessarily of a scientific bent (see for example, Massimo Pigliucci's article, On the scope of skeptical inquiry).


The FFRF even offered what seemed to me a good compromise, making Bibles available to the guests that wanted them, along with other religious materials for other guests. Carson didn't seem to like that idea.

Some atheists argue that there should be a library or cachet of religious material at the check-in desk of a hotel from which any guest could order a Bible, Torah or Koran for their reading pleasure. No favoritism would be shown through such a system, and those who reject the idea of God would not have to be offended. This is like saying there shouldn't be certain brands of bottled water in hotel rooms because there may be guests who prefer a different type of water or who are offended by bottled water and think that everybody should be drinking tap water. The logical answer to such absurdity would, of course, be that the offended individual could bring his own water or simply ignore the brand of water that he does not care for.

Except that choosing bottled water isn't a Constitutional issue like the Establishment Clause. Really, this type of complaint by Carson just drives home how much this issue is about privelege, and not freedom of religion. The FFRF offered a solution that still made Bibles available to Christians. Not only would a Christian have the right to 'bring his own water' in the form of a Bible, but the front desk would even have extra Bibles on hand for the Christian who forgot their own personal copy. If that's an unacceptable compromise, then you're really arguing for special treatment, not just freedom.


Here's a quote I couldn't resist turning around on Carson.

As a nation, we must avoid the paralysis of hypersensitivity, which will allow us to get nothing done because virtually everything offends someone. We need to distribute "big boy" pants widely to help the whiners learn to focus their energy in a productive way.

I agree with the sentences, but not what Carson meant by them. Some books were taken out of hotel rooms. No one is stopping you from taking in your own Bible to read. Put on your 'big boy pants' and get over it.


This final quote came from near the start of the article, but considering how the situation has turned out, I figure it goes better here at the end of this entry.

The surprise is not the hypocritical stance of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but rather the fact that an established bulwark of American strength and patriotism caved to a self-serving group of religious fanatics.

I wish I could say I was surprised "that an established bulwark of American strength and patriotism caved to a self-serving group of religious fanatics", but that's the special treatment Christians seem to get in this country.


I wasn't impressed by Carson last year when MSU invited him to give the commencement address, and this recent article has only hurt his reputation in my eyes. If this is the best hope for a Republican presidential candidate for 2016, I sure hope the Democrats come up with somebody electable. (Maybe I'll just vote for Kodos.)

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Updated 2014-09-10: Added link to my Confidence in Scientific Knowledge essay.

Updated 2014-11-17: Added note about the Treaty of Tripoli.

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