TIME

ISIS is the Antithesis of Hajj, the Holy Pilgrimage

Crowd at Kaaba ahead of upcoming Eid al-Adha
Muslim pilgrims from all around the world circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, ahead of upcoming Eid Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) at Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 30, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

This year, hajj will take place against the ugly backdrop of a group that has come to represent the antithesis of what the pilgrimage signifies

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Every year during the time of hajj a feeling of nostalgia overcomes me as the media begins covering one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings. Although I performed hajj almost nine years ago, the experience feels like yesterday. It was the journey of a lifetime.

But this year, hajj will take place against the ugly backdrop of a group that has come to represent the antithesis of what the pilgrimage signifies: Unity through diversity, brotherhood and equality, and the sanctity of religion, its symbols and holy places.

As ISIS sends another two hundred thousand Muslim Kurds fleeing into Turkey after terrorizing Christian, Yazidi, and other populations for months, millions of pilgrims in Islam’s two holiest cities are gathered to peacefully commemorate Abraham, the father, not only of Islam, but of Judaism and Christianity.

The entirety of the hajj takes place in and around Mecca and commemorates the life and struggles of Abraham, who is revered as an important prophet in Islam. Many of the themes and rituals of hajj focus on Abraham’s devotion and submission to God and the sacrifices that he and his family made. They include walking in the footsteps of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, whom all Muslims emulate when they perform the required ritual known as Sa’i. During the ritual pilgrims run or walk swiftly in Hagar’s footsteps to commemorate her desperate search for water for her young son — water which eventually gushed up at his feet in what would become known as the well of Zamzam.

Another major theme of hajj is the interconnectedness of humankind, which is demonstrated by the simple white pieces of cloth which all male pilgrims wear during the duration of the hajj, no matter from where in the world they come.

One of the first things that struck me when I landed at the airport in Jeddah was the variety of airlines, each carrying pilgrims who had come for one singular purpose – to perform the fifth pillar of Islam which is required of all adult Muslims at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able to make the journey. While I was unable to communicate in words with most of the pilgrims who hailed from every part of the world, there was little need for words. We all performed the same rituals, speaking an unspoken language of common purpose and objective.

Central for the diverse group of 2-3 million people gathered for communal worship, is the Kaaba, the cubical structure believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael as the first house of worship. One of the highlights of my trip, as it is for most pilgrims, was setting eyes on the Kaaba for the first time as it stood in its simple splendor in the center of a sea of humans circling around it.

At the end of the week 1.5 billion Muslims will celebrate Eid ul-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, a story also recounted in the Hebrew Bible. Muslims across the world mark the holiday by sacrificing a lamb and sharing its meat with those in need. This year, Muslim charities offer dozens of choices for people who want to sponsor a sheep in countries where poverty and war have made meat a rare and expensive luxury. This act of sharing with those in need is at the heart of two other major Islamic pillars, zakat, or poor-due, and fasting in Ramadan.

All of these acts of worship have the dual goals of bringing adherents closer to God and encouraging good character, including the good treatment of other people. Ihsan, or moral excellence, is said to be the highest level of Islam.

Especially at this holy time, the stark contrast between the lofty goals of the religion and the actions of groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and others who make a mockery of Islam with their brutal and merciless behavior is a painful reminder that religion is not about terminology or slogans. Rather, true religion is explained in a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “I was only sent to perfect good character.”

Ameena Jandali is the Content Director for ING. Islamic Networks Group (ING) is a non-profit organization that counters prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of America’s history and cultural diversity, while building relations between American Muslims and other groups.

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TIME Parenting

The Pain of Passing My Disability on to My Child

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When my daughter was six weeks old, we received official word that she had inherited my bone disorder, a condition that would likely cause her many fractures and possibly painful corrective surgeries

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

When my oldest daughter Leah was born, many people made the same observation: “Look at those fingers! So long and skinny…just like yours, Ellen.” Right after she was born, my husband went with her for a bath as I was stitched up after my c-section. When he returned, he mentioned that her eyes were a “funny color.” All of those observations, straightforward and innocent on the surface, let me know that some of my darkest fears were probably being realized.

My daughter’s long, skinny fingers and toes, the bluish color in the whites of her eyes—these were signs that Leah had inherited a scrambled gene that would wreak havoc on her skeleton. When she was six weeks old, we received official word that Leah had indeed inherited my bone disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta (OI)—a condition that would likely cause her many fractures (I had about three dozen before the age of 11) and possibly painful corrective surgeries. I clutched her fiercely against my chest and told God that he had damn well better take care of this child. That day 14 years ago was the hardest day of my life.

I have spent much of the past 10 years or so writing about genetics and disability and the choices made possible by increasingly sophisticated technologies that allow parents to choose, to some extent, what sort of child they might have. I have talked to dozens of potential parents who, like me, have some serious genetic baggage and fear putting its weight on their children’s shoulders. And I have talked to some people who wonder whether, if their child does inherit some genetic menace that wreaks havoc on that child’s health and well-being, will they regret that they took such chances with a genetic lottery stacked against them?

I tell such people that I think it’s impossible, barring extreme psychological dysfunction, to regret your own child’s existence. And I tell them about my daughter Leah, who is bearing the weight of my own genetic baggage on her fragile skeleton, who has, yes, broken a dozen bones and deeply mourned the losses that come when yet another broken bone messes with our plans. I have watched Leah sink into a place that is really dark and really sad. But I have other stories to tell about Leah, not just the dark and sad ones.

There’s this story: One Sunday morning several months ago, I slipped on some black ice when going to get our newspaper. Landing hard on my back, I broke two ribs and a shoulder bone, and partially collapsed a lung—the kind of injuries that stronger-boned people incur when they fall from trees and roofs. I managed to crawl from the frozen front walk into our entrance hall, but couldn’t go any farther. While I lay there waiting for the ambulance to arrive, as my husband reassured my two younger children and called my mom to come stay with the kids, as I struggled to breathe, Leah sat next to me on the floor. She just sat there, silent. At one point, I said to her, “You know, Leah, don’t you? You know how I’m feeling.” I wasn’t talking just about the pain, but also the crushing disappointment of a regular day ruined, the weightier knowledge of the ruined days to come. I was talking about feeling powerless in the face of something as stupidly mundane as ice, and being betrayed by the fragile body gaining the upper hand on the strong spirit. Leah nodded. Yes, she knew.

A few months later, I was heading to pick Leah up from church choir practice. I was dreading it, because I knew that Leah would be getting some bad news at the rehearsal. For Leah, singing is a passion, and when she joined our church choir about three years ago, she found another family, a community. The choirmaster was a young man called Dr. Roberts. Dr. Roberts is a talented musician but also a gifted teacher. Leah will, I’m sure, remember him for the rest of her life as the kind of teacher and mentor who changed her life. I knew that during this particular rehearsal, Dr. Roberts was planning to let the kids know that he had taken a job in New York City and would be leaving. I knew Leah would be devastated.

She came out from the church to the parking lot and with tears streaming down her face, she said, “You know Mom? This is his dream, this job he’s taking in New York. It’s good. It’s just all good.”

So it seems that, at not quite 15 years old, Leah knows what love looks like. She knows how to help carry another’s burden. She knows that sometimes an empathic presence is more helpful than words. She knows about wanting the best for someone you care about, even when their best is your worst. That she is capable of such wisdom at such a young age is proof to me that I can never regret anything about the person Leah is and is becoming, brittle bones and all.

I want to be perfectly clear, though, about what I don’t mean. I hate those clichés about how we should be grateful for the shitty stuff in our life because it teaches us so much, about how “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that one bit.

But I’m beginning to understand that Leah’s inheritance from me is not merely a faulty gene and a fragile skeleton, but also the truest kind of compassion—the kind that arises when you know what pain looks like and feels like, and you recognize another’s need, and know just what to do.

Do I regret that Leah inherited my fragile bones? I don’t love it. I even sometimes hate it.

But while I sometimes wish I could have spared her that particular genetic fate, I’m also profoundly grateful that it was not in my power to decide what kind of kid I would get.

Because I never could have predicted, much less devised, the wounded and gracious person my daughter is becoming.

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos. Dollar also serves on a working group sponsored by the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center on Bioethics, exploring bioethical issues related to health care and people with disabilities.

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TIME Parenting

It’s Time for the U.S. to Ban Spanking

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Studies show that spanking is harmful — and unnecessary

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I know very little about the case of an NFL player hitting his child, I have seen the photos in articles and it disgusts me that a grown person thinks it is ever okay to do that to a child, especially when you are the size of an NFL player. Not that ones size makes abuse any different, but to know you are a massive, strong person, and then unleash that strength upon a child, you are a vile human being.

But leaving the NFL behind, and looking only at the action of spanking, what is one to do? It is not uncommon in the US to hear of parents spanking their children, I was spanked, I know friends who spank, and I fully disagree with their decision to do so.

If my friend does something wrong, even terrible, it is illegal for me to hit them, it is assault and I can be jailed for it. Yet if my child eats a cookie when I tell them not to, I am legally permitted to hit them, or spank them as we call it because hitting sounds to violent. Yet there is no difference between hitting and spanking a child.

The defense in spanking is that by doing so you teach your child to stop an action you no longer want them to do. Spankers believe that the pain of being hit will remind them to listen and obey. But is this true?

No, it does not work, according to research done by Yale University psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, Dr. Alan Kazdin.

You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want,” says Kazdin, speaking to the American Psychological Association. “There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”

Even more so, there is evidence that spanking actually causes harm. Even cause the The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive in 2006 to call physical punishment “legalized violence against children,” and urging the practice be eliminated through legal and educational process.

Thirty countries around the world have banned spanking in all settings. These countries do not use the bans as threats against parents, but as tools to educate parents about better ways to discipline a child. Often, parents use physical punishment as a way to train a child, but if it doesn’t work, the parent then escalates the punishment and can cause even more severe physical and psychological damage.

In his book The Primordial Violence, Murray Straus says that spanking does correct behavior, but further explains:

“Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior. But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction, such as time out, explaining, and depriving a child of privileges. Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school.”

The author continues:

“More than 100 studies have detailed these side effects of spanking, with more than 90 percent agreement among them. There is probably no other aspect of parenting and child behavior where the results are so consistent.”

With such research and a huge understanding of spanking why is it still condoned in the US as a valuable practice?

Religion has a lot to do with it. Many religious groups condone and endorse corporal punishment techniques, with books like To Train Up a Child that is responsible in teaching physical punishment techniques that have been responsible for multiple deaths as a result of their endorsed methods.

While most religious parents do not go as far as To Train Up a Child suggests, the practice is highest among born-again Christians, according to research shown by FiveThirthyEight. (See article for graphics.)

They also show that spanking is associated with your political beliefs and demographic location in the US, and it is most likely no coincidence that Christian beliefs align much the same in these areas:

So really, is it any surprise the practice is still condoned in the US where the religious majority endorses the practice? Would it be going too far to speculate that a campaign in congress to end physical punishment would be met with cries of religious persecution?

We have a duty to protect children, and knowing that physical abuse is not only painful and unnecessary, but also psychologically damaging, we must act and bring this practice to an end.

Dan Arel is an author, journalist, speaker and secular activist. He writes on secular and humanist values on subjects such as secular parenting, church and state separation, education reform and secularism in public policy.

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TIME faith

Missouri Lawmaker Sues for Control of Daughters’ Sexuality

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Adult women should be allowed to make their own reproductive choices

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Did you see this one coming? (From MSNBC)

One Missouri lawmaker has taken the fight against birth control coverage to a new and very personal place: His own daughters, two of whom are adults.

State Rep. Paul Joseph Wieland and his wife Teresa are suing the Obama administration over its minimum coverage requirements for health plans under the Affordable Care Act, which includes contraception. They say the government is forcing them to violate their religious beliefs because they have three daughters, ages 13, 18 and 19, who are on their parents’ plan and might get birth control at no additional cost.

Wieland’s lawyer makes this comparison:

[Attorney Timothy] Belz also said that making birth control more accessible under health plans was “as though the federal government had passed an edict that said that parents must provide a stocked unlocked liquor cabinet in their house whenever they’re away for their minor and adult daughters to use, and Mormons came in and objected to that. It is exactly the same situation.”

Except that that’s not how insurance works. No one is requiring Wieland to hand his daughters birth control, or to keep a stock of birth control on the kitchen table for easy access. What the law says is simply this: health insurance companies must cover birth control with no deductible or copay. That’s it. Yes, Wieland has his daughters’ on his health insurance plan. His wife is on it too, so she, too, has access to birth control as well. It’s about ensuring that insurance companies cover women’s healthcare, period.

Look, health insurance companies cover blood transfusions. I suspect they’re required to by law, too. Could a Jehovah’s Witness parent object, because his adult son might get a blood transfusion should he ever be in need of one? Applying Wieland’s logic leads to a mess. I mean by his logic, parents should be able to pick and choose through their children’s health insurance and pick and choose which things their children can have covered, provided they can make a religious justification and completely irregardless of their adult children’s religious beliefs.

Now of course, the fact that Wieland’s daughters can get birth control on their parents’ plan doesn’t mean they have to get birth control. And if they share their parents beliefs on the subject, they won’t. But Wieland is concerned that they might not share his beliefs.

One of the judges pointed out that parents might have more control over their kids than employers, and that parents could just say to their kids, “We expect you do abide by our religious tenets.” Belz replied, “Well, we all have high hopes for our kids, that is true. We all expect and want them to obey us, they don’t always …”

These girls are 18 and 19. They’re not children, they’re adults.

There are two ways to look at this. We could say that Wieland is trying to prevent his adult daughters from having access to affordable birth control, and we would be correct. But Wieland’s legal claim is slightly different. Wieland says that paying for his daughters birth control would violate his religious beliefs. In other words, he says this is about his beliefs and his conscience, not about whether or not his daughters are using birth control. But again, this isn’t how insurance works. It wasn’t in the Hobby Lobby case, and it isn’t here. Unfortunately, Hobby Lobby won its case, suggesting that the Supreme Court thinks this is the way insurance works.

Now, Wieland could simply drop his daughters from his plan, and maybe we should be grateful for them that he’s not going that route. Wieland is arguing that his religion requires him to provide birth control for his daughters. The problem is that he’s using this argument to prove that the law requiring birth control coverage violates his religious beliefs.

The Wielands have argued in their brief that providing health coverage to their daughters – which, thanks to the same Affordable Care Act, they can do until their children turn 26 – is also part of their religious beliefs. “The Plaintiffs cannot terminate their daughters’ health insurance coverage without violating their religious duty to provide for the health and well being of their children,” they wrote in one brief.

I think it’s awesome that Wieland believes he should continue to pay for his daughters’ health and well being through providing them with birth control. It would be even more awesome if that belief extended to all of women’s health care. The problem is Wieland’s view of birth control. You would think that a parent in his shoes might want his daughters to abstain from premarital sex, but also want them to have access to birth control should they decide to have sex anyway (after all, a parent cannot prevent an adult daughter from having sex). But no.

Christians who oppose sex before marriage tend to feel that access to birth control increases the likelihood that young people will have sex. This is probably not all that true for young people who are already taught that sex before marriage is sinful. After all, if you belief something is sinful and may send you to hell, whether or not you are protected against STDs or pregnancy is the less important worry. Christians who oppose sex before marriage also tend to believe that having unprotected sex is less sinful than having protected sex. This is because using birth control shows that the sex is premeditated. You can see this last point illustrated in this short video clip:

Wieland is Catholic, which adds another dimension. The Catholic Church teaches that birth control is unacceptable for even married couples. Families may use natural family planning to space their children out—provided they go about it with the right attitude of openness to children—but that’s it. So for Wieland, this isn’t just about his adult daughters having premarital sex, it’s about them using birth control at all. Of course, they’ll have to leave their father’s insurance when they marry, so Wieland won’t have any say regarding their use of birth control in marriage.

I have no idea what Wieland’s daughters think of all of this. They may be completely involved and invested, as I would have been at their age. I would have seen it as a way to fight back against the big bad government in favor of our religious beliefs. But at 21 I would have seen it differently. At 21 I would have felt used, and I would have wanted out. Frankly, I probably would have gotten off my parents’ plan entirely and found a way to make a go of it on my own, were I in their shoes. After all, that’s what I did when it came to paying for college. I didn’t want anything else they could use to control me and my choices.

When it comes down to it, Wieland wants the right to use his daughters’ insurance coverage to control their sexuality. He wants to have a say over whether the insurance he obtains for his family gives his adult daughters’ access to birth control. In a world where patriarchy reigns supreme, this request would be reasonable. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where adult women are allowed to make their own reproductive choices (or at least, that is the world we should live in).

Libby Anne was raised in an evangelical family, was homeschooled and was taught that a woman’s place is in the home. She became a non-believer after college and now writes on purity culture, Christian right politics, and the importance of feminism.

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TIME Religion

What I Gained When I Lost My Religion

A former evangelical Christian reflects on the benefits of losing his faith

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

People often ask me if my life is better now that I’ve left my religion. My honest answer is that it’s a mixed bag. On the negative side, I have to say that the reactions of people who liked me better when I still had faith have been at times very strong. I usually become a target for re-evangelism for a while, but they eventually learn to quit pushing me after they realize that I’ve heard everything they have to say about this a thousand times. Most people probably just decide I’m being stubborn and/or that the Devil’s got me under a spell; but while the pushing may stop, the disappointment lingers on. Some do their best to keep a lid on that, which I appreciate, but you can still hear it in their voices and that can hurt. If you crave the approval of people, and if you live where I live, I wouldn’t recommend atheism for you.

But once you rule out how some have behaved toward me because of my unbelief, I have to say that (when I am not working too much) I am enjoying life in a way that I haven’t enjoyed it in a long time. It’s not always about what I’m doing at the time, either. Often it’s just about feeling more at home in my own skin than I ever felt when I still believed that Earth is not my home and that I’m supposed to be longing for some other place. To explain what I mean, here is a list of the things which leaving my religion has brought me. Not everyone will necessarily experience the same things I did, but these are the benefits that I see I personally have derived from this development:

1. Peace of mind. As a person who likes to try to understand the world around me, I have found that this perspective fits so much better with the world I see than the religious perspective ever did, and that brings a tangible sense of satisfaction for me. Every week, every month, I find things seem to get clearer and clearer to me. Things just make a whole lot more sense to me now. Julia Sweeney said it perfectly when she said, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.” I don’t mean that I understand everything, and I’ve still got plenty of unanswered questions. But you don’t have to be ruled by your need to have answers to all your questions. I think our religions feed that problem in order to perpetuate our need for them. Leaving your religion can free you up to find better answers to some questions while enabling you to let go of the ones that don’t really have good answers.

2. A rediscovery of a love of learning. For me personally, I found that the loss of my religious beliefs opened me up to a really big universe of fascinating and intriguing realities. I realize that faith and learning coexist in some people’s minds better than others, but more often than not they are in great tension with one another, and at times they are diametrically opposed to one another. My change of mind energized my dormant scientific side, and as a consequence I find that almost daily I learn something new which amazes me and further stimulates my love of learning about the world around me.

3. The ability to accept people I formerly judged. Religious belief taught me, for example, to judge the LGBT community for being attracted to anything other than “the appropriate sex.” It taught me that something is wrong with these people, and while it also taught me I’m supposed to love them and somehow accept them and reach out to them, I’m also supposed to condemn something that lies at the core of their identity. That’s no longer an issue for me. The main reason most people I know condemn same-sex relationships is because of their religion. Leaving your religion can free you from that burden. I now count several of them as my most supportive friends. In fact, I have found that losing my religion has opened me up to a much wider range of people because I do not have a 2,000 year old book telling me how I should see the world. I think I’m a better person for this change of mind.

4. Less judgement toward myself…for some things. Just as a loss of religion has made me more accepting of others, I am getting better at accepting myself, with certain caveats. I do not let myself off the hook for things I consider unhealthy, or unkind, or inconsiderate of others. There are good, non-religious reasons to work to eliminate those kinds of behaviors in life. I will not, for example let myself off the hook for being dishonest toward people, nor will I excuse substandard work in my professional life. But there are quite a few things which my religion taught me I should feel guilty about, and I don’t have to shoulder that anymore. This brings an improved quality of life. I will not consider it wicked, for example, to have “thought crimes” such as wanting something I don’t have or savoring the attractiveness of another person. Religion puts many layers of guilt on us for things which are perfectly natural, and the resulting manipulation is powerful. But I’m done with that now. The self-loathing and guilt my religion taught me was in retrospect incredibly unhealthy. It takes time to unlearn the negative self-talk. But once you’ve made some progress in letting that go, you can become a much happier person.

5. I give credit where credit is due, both to others and to myself. Like the preceding two, I think this makes me a healthier person than before. If someone does something good, I do not thank God for it. I thank the person who actually did it. They deserve credit for the things that they do. Doctors, for example, must get really tired of hearing people give God credit when their surgical/medical skills and learning are what saved a person’s life. My daily life isn’t so dramatic as that, mind you, but it’s analogous. The other side of this is that when I do something right, I allow myself to take credit for it. This, thanks to my evangelical upbringing, is much harder to do. I found that the Christian faith discouraged me from acknowledging positive things about myself so that I ended up with a terrible self image. I still suffer from that because I learned self-loathing so very well. But it’s getting better, little by little. I had to leave the Christian faith for that to happen.

6. Getting Sunday mornings back. Of course, it extends beyond that once you consider how much of a person’s life can be spent investing in things like prayer, worship, Bible study, witnessing/growing membership, or attending conferences which teach you how to do all these things more effectively. After you give those things up, you realize just how much of your life you get back. I never resented my religion for the amount of my time and effort it took up. I enjoyed it at the time because I believed all of it was pleasing to God and that’s all I wanted in life. But now that I’ve “given up the ghost” so to speak, I see that there are so many other valuable things toward which I could be devoting my time and energy.

7. Better health. I realize good health and spiritual commitment don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for me personally a shift in beliefs brought a shift in priorities such that my physical health became more important to me. Now I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life, and this significantly affects the quality of my life. Just yesterday I ran another one of those mud runs with some friends in another state and I had a blast. I hope to write a few thoughts and observations about that soon.

8. Better sex. You wouldn’t believe how much more you can enjoy sex once you let go of the subtle (or often not-so-subtle) body shame that accompanies religious devotion. I know a number of couples who once were devout Christians and now are both non-believers, and almost without exception they have reported an improvement in their sex lives. It’s not that religion always directly shames people for their desires and their pleasures. But the Christian faith in particular teaches you never to be totally at home in your own body. It talks as if you belong somewhere else, and this just isn’t compatible with fully embracing your own physical existence the way that really good sex requires.

9. Friends who are more fun. And the parties are way better. Even simple conversation is more entertaining, honestly. I know this may sound petty, but I’m just telling you what my experience is. When group A is dominated by a long list of things you’re not supposed to say, think, or feel, and group B doesn’t have that list, you can guess which group is gonna be more fun to be with. And again, I find it easier now to be friends with a wider range of people.

10. More realistic expectations about life. I no longer believe that I am special or that a ubiquitous, all-powerful paternal figure is orchestrating events around me for my benefit (or for the benefit of anything or anyone, really). So I act accordingly. And I find that I don’t get let down by things not going “the way they were supposed to.” I take responsibility for those things I can control, and I don’t look for a savior to come and rescue me. Again, I think I am a better person for it.

11. A greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Once you realize this life is the only one you’re gonna get, you learn to appreciate each day in a way you never could when you believed there would be trillions more in your future. I found that a belief in eternity only lowered my evaluation of daily life and it cheapened life, in a way. But once you realize this one short life is all you’re going to get, you will find it easier to throw yourself into what you do, knowing that you need to make the most of it that you can. You won’t minimize the suffering of others (or of yourself) by saying that life will get better after you die. You might even be more motivated to be an agent of change in the world once you realize someone’s not going to come in and magically reboot the whole thing one day. It’s up to us to make the most of our one life that we can, and I find that a disbelief in the supernatural has helped me to do that.

What things could you add to this list? How has leaving your religion benefited your life? I’d like to know.

Neil Carter is a blogger, teacher, father of five, and former evangelical Christian who now writes on skepticism and life in the Deep South.

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TIME faith

Catholic Confession Needs to Stay Confidential

A Louisiana ruling on the seal of confession may find its way to the Supreme Court

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I try not to make a habit of wading into swamps, but there’s something going on in Louisiana that should not be ignored. The state Supreme Court ruled that, once a penitent has waived confidentiality, what was discussed in the sacrament of confession can be fair game in court. The diocese of Baton Rouge has recently appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The case is particularly challenging because the confession in question was made by a girl who was being abused by a parishioner, and it appears from her testimony that the priest did not do anything to help her.

Much of the discussion thus far has been about what Louisiana law requires and whether or not the seal of confession supersedes it. But this misses two important questions — one about what should have happened, and one about why the seal cannot be waived, even by the person who made the confession.

What should have happened when abuse was disclosed in the confessional?

If a child told me, in the context of a confession, that she was being abused — by anyone — I would do everything in my power to counsel her to seek help, by disclosing the abuse to a parent, to a trusted adult, to a teacher or a counselor, or to me outside the confessional. (And were I told outside the confessional, I would report it to the appropriate authorities.) I would want to make sure that the child knew that it is the abuser who has sinned, not her, and that God loves her and wants her to be safe from whatever and whomever is harming her — and that no concern about being ashamed or fearing repercussions should stop her from asking for help.

What makes this case so troubling is that the victim alleges that the priest in question did almost the opposite of that, telling the child (according to her deposition) when she asked for advice on how to end the abusive relationship that this was her problem, and that she should “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

If that’s true, it’s reprehensible. If that’s true, it’s sinful and an utter failure of priestly ministry. If that’s true, it’s an abuse of the sacrament and a betrayal of God’s mercy and justice.

But we don’t, and can’t, and won’t know if that’s true — and that leaves us frustrated and angry. I feel that way myself. We don’t and can’t and won’t know how the fourteen year-old girl explained the abusive situation, or what else — before or after or instead of the terrible “sweep it under the floor” — the priest may have offered by way of counsel. The priest doesn’t have the option to tell us whether he did something right or something terrible, and there are good reasons for that.

Why is the seal inviolable even when the penitent waives confidentiality?

The Church demands the absolute inviolability of the seal of confession, to the point that priests are expected not even to confirm that a particular confession took place. Further, the priest’s responsibility to maintain the seal is absolute even when the penitent desires to break it — to the point that if someone I was counseling outside of confession wanted to talk about matter that they had confessed to me earlier, I would ask them not just to refer to it, but to bring it back up and discuss it again themselves outside the confession.

Why? Because the seal of confession is not a contract between the priest and the penitent. The person who confesses has the right to privacy, but that’s only the beginning of what the seal protects. The Church wants to maintain the absolute freedom of anyone, under any circumstances, to seek God’s mercy without fear. If the seal of the confessional can be broken, for any reason, then that potentially becomes an obstacle to someone seeking to confess.

But wait – in this case the penitent herself wants the seal broken. Yes — but she’s not the sole “owner” of the rights in question. The priest has a duty to protect her rights but his duty also goes further, to protect the integrity of sacramental confession itself. Her decision to waive the seal might be well motivated, but in other circumstances, such a waiver could be coerced. I’m not suggesting that in this case the victim is being pressured to waive the seal; instead, I’m saying that making the seal absolutely inviolable eliminates any possibility of anyone ever being coerced to waive the seal.

Another way of saying this is that the inviolability of the seal is not a defense of the individual interests of any particular penitent, such that it could be waived when those interests call for it — it’s a defense of the availability of the sacrament to all penitents in any circumstances, whenever and wherever those may be.

Or consider it this way: someone who’s terrified and ashamed of something — whether it’s a sin they’ve committed or even abuse they’ve suffered — might not be able to muster the courage to take even the slightest risk of revelation. The inviolability of the seal offers them, and anyone who may in the future face the same fear, the freedom to seek help.

What happens next?

We aren’t going to find out what really happened in that confessional, because even if the Supreme Court upholds the state’s interpretation, I expect that the priest will continue to refuse to testify, even if he’s held in contempt and jailed for his refusal. I understand why such a refusal could be seen as cowardice and defensiveness, especially given the Church’s terrible failures, in so many cases of abuse by priests, to respond to victims and their reports of abuse, or, even worse, the Church’s sin of protecting the abusers and allowing abuse to continue.

I also understand the desire, in the present context where we keep learning more about the tragic prevalence of sexual abuse of children, to do everything in our power — including also the power of the state — to say that we will not tolerate any more of it, especially not under the guise of what ought to be sacred. Set against that very understandable desire, the Church’s assertion of confessional privilege and its own authority to interpret that privilege can seem craven, suspiciously convenient, and self-interested.

I hope that people of good will can also understand the claim that God’s law is higher than the state’s, and that the matter of confession ultimately belongs neither to the priest nor the penitent but to God alone. I hope that they can at least imagine why the Church is willing to defend the seal — and priests willing to go to jail rather than violate it — so that the rest of us can turn to the sacrament and seek forgiveness and counsel without having to submit our failings to public view and the power of the state.

Whether or not the priest in question offered the good counsel I hope he did when this poor child told him that she had been abused, he doesn’t get to defend, excuse, or explain himself. He doesn’t get to plead for forgiveness or even for understanding. He isn’t being protected for his own sake or because the Church deserves special rights. He has a responsibility — and lacks the freedom to defend himself, which are one and the same in this case — so that all the rest of us can have the freedom to seek God’s mercy and begin to work out our own repentance without having to figure out our legal standing first.

Sam Sawyer, SJ is managing editor of The Jesuit Post, a project of Jesuits in formation, exploring ways to use the web and social media for evangelization.

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Pastor Mark Driscoll Called Women ‘Penis Homes’

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Things have been getting worse and worse for Mark Driscoll in recent weeks. But what I want to point out for a moment is one of Driscoll’s posts from 2001, when he was posting to a church message board under the name William Wallace II. I have rarely seen an evangelical man assert male superiority and prominence this directly.

The first thing to know about your penis is, that despite the way it may see, it is not your penis. Ultimately, God created you and it is his penis. You are simply borrowing it for a while.

While His penis is on loan you must admit that it is sort of just hanging out there very lonely as if it needed a home, sort of like a man wondering the streets looking for a house to live in. Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife and when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home.

Yes, really. Men’s penises are on loan from God, and women were created to be “homes” for men’s penises. So much for any claims of men and women being “equal before God.” No, men were created by God and loaned penises. Women were then created by God to be penis homes.

Therefore, if you are single you must remember that your penis is homeless and needs a home. But, though you may believe your hand is shaped like a home, it is not. And, though women other than your wife may look like a home, to rest there would be breaking into another man’s home. And, if you look at a man it is quite obvious that what a homeless man does not need is another man without a home.

Notice that all women are portrayed as another man’s penis home, whether or not they are married. This squares with what I was taught—every woman is some man’s future wife, and that man owns her body even before they meet.

Paul tells us that your penis actually belongs to your wife, and once you are married she will trade you it for her home (I Corinthians 7:4), and every man knows this is a very good trade for him to make.

With his penis, the man is supposed to learn to please his wife and learn how to be patient, self-controlled and be educated on how to keep his home happy and joyous (I Corinthians 7:3). The man should be aroused by his new home, and the wife should rejoice at seeing his penis rise to greet her (Song of Songs 5:14b).

Oh yes, a man should keep “his home” sexually satisfied. And the wife, for her part, should be sexually arousing to her husband and “rejoice” when he has an erection. This sad attempt at mutuality fails when the one party is described as a penis home.

You can view the full screenshot here.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that this is the viewpoint taken by at least some evangelical men. All to many evangelical and fundamentalist advice books treat the man as the primary creation and the woman as, well, merely his helper. The man is primary, the woman is secondary. The man was created for God’s glory, the woman for man. These individuals claim that men and women are nevertheless equal before God, but that claim rings hollow when placed alongside the rest of their rhetoric.

The claim that women are uplifted and honored as caregivers and nurturers in the home also rings hollow in this context. In Driscoll’s treatment, women are no more than penis homes. Women were created to satisfy men. There is nothing uplifting or honored in that. Even many evangelical and fundamentalist women, who are attracted to those beliefs in part because of the rhetorical value they place on homemaking, must surely be appalled by Driscoll’s rhetoric.

In a sense, Driscoll’s downfall was only a matter of time.

Libby Anne is a blogger for Patheos.

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The Blasphemy of a Homophobic Jesus

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Well my goodness, it would seem that yet another “pastor” in yet another “Christian” church has found his 15 minutes of fame on the interwebs by intentionally whipping up theologically inaccurate, fear-based, power-hungry homophobia.

Get a load of this little ditty as reported by Raw Story

A pastor of a large Southern Baptist church near Chattanooga, Tennessee said this week that Christians would never repent for discriminating against gay people like they had for racism because African-Americans could not change the color of their skin.

Brainerd Baptist Church Senior Pastor Robby Gallaty devoted his entire hour-long sermon on Sunday to justifying Christian opposition to the sexuality of LGBT people.

After spending about 20 minutes recounting the perils of homosexuality throughout history, Gallaty asserted that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God because of gay sex.

“God said that the sins of the people had infected the very land in which they live,” he explained. “So what happens to people who engage in this activity, this sexual immoral activity? Go to Leviticus 20, God gives us the punishment for engaging in these sins… ‘If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, they have both committed a detestable thing. They must be put to death. And their blood is on their own hands.’”

Blah blah blah, ““It’s the most lethal attack we have today against the family,” he insisted. “And if the enemy can ruin the family, he wins.”

“Yada yada yada” “You’re not a homosexual, listen to me! You’re not gay! You’re not a lesbian! You’re a child of God!”

It would seem that Mr. Pastor Pants is more a disciple of Big Daddy Duck Dynasty rather than Jesus. The vile and pugnacious Phil Robertson just this week uttered the blasphemous “I’m as much of a homophobe as Jesus was,” Robertson told ABC News. “The people who are participating in homosexual behavior, they need to know that I love them.” – thus invoking the name of God and claiming he said something he did not – blasphemy!

SO Mr. Gallaty, your little sermon RANT is nothing more than blasphemy. You are claiming something about God and Jesus that is utterly indefensible through scripture, reason or experience. You are taking God’s name in vain, G, and I can see right through this great little publicity stunt to get your name in lights and draw some willfully ignorant, fearful and hateful people to your “church.” This hour-long tantrum is all about you (vanity) and since you had the gaul to claim it in God’s name, well – honey, that there is straight up blasphemy.

Since you seem to be throwing around on Hebrew Scripture willy-nilly (that’s the Old Testament in case you were confused) let me share a few other helpful pericopes that might clear things up.

Ezekiel 16:49

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.”

Or Proverbs 6:16-19

There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

What, no queers on these lists? Ruh-roh!

Oh yeah, and our main man Jesus said nothing, not one thing, nary a syllable about homosexuality. He did though say A LOT about the religious leaders of his day who obsessed over man-made laws to prove their own self-righteous, misplaced piety. Maybe touch base with one, any or all of the Gospels in case you are unsure.

If you want to cast your lots with the brood of vipers, you know those power hungry religious leaders who created savage barriers between God and people, you go on with your bad self. As for me and mine, we will choose to follow the One that the scrunched-up religious elite conspired with the state to hang on a cross.

Kimberly Knight is the Director of Digital Strategy at a southern liberal arts college and Minister of Digital community with Extravagance UCC.

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Florida Atheist Kicked Out of City Meeting For Refusing to Stand During Invocation

"I don't have to do that," he said

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

At yesterday’s meeting of the Winter Garden City Commissioners (in Florida), Mayor John Rees announced that they would begin with an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, as many government meetings do, and asked everyone to stand up.

John Thoreau, an atheist, remained seated. Normally, that would be irrelevant since he has every right to do that, but Rees had other ideas.

As the first syllable of the invocation was uttered, Rees told everyone to hold up because Thoreau was still sitting down…

Rees: We’re waiting for everyone to rise.

Thoreau: Sorry, are you waiting for me?

Rees: Yes, sir.

Thoreau: I don’t have to.

Rees: Well, we appreciate — you may rise or you may leave the room as we give our prayer and our Pledge of allegiance to the flag.

Thoreau: I don’t believe I have to do that, thank you.

Rees: I believe you have to [unintelligible]…

Rees didn’t press it and the sectarian invocation (in Jesus’ name) continued. Then when it time for the Pledge, the conversation started up again:

Rees: Now, sir, please stand while we do the Pledge… please stand. Children have to do it in school, too.

Thoreau: Yes, and they don’t have to be there…

Rees: This is respect for our country…

Thoreau: I understand that, sir.

Rees: You have one of two choices, sir. You may please stand for the Pledge. You don’t have to say it. Please stand.

Thoreau: I don’t have to do that.

Rees: Okay…

Audience member: Just stand up, man.

Rees: [I'm] asking you to either stand or please be escorted out [as we do] the Pledge. It’s just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.

Cop: What do you want to do? Do you want to stand or leave?

Thoreau, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community, was quickly taken out of the room.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to the city today spelling out the constitutional violations of which the Mayor is guilty and telling them how they must remedy the situation:

(1) The government may not force citizens to stand for the Pledge of allegiance.

(2) Government officials may not ask citizens to stand for prayers or, (3) say prayers themselves.

To remedy the Pledge violation, at the next meeting, Mayor Rees ought to explain that citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the Pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism… [Police] Chief [George] Brennan should make a similar statement. Patriotism and religiosity are not one and the same

To show solidarity with Thoreau, several atheist members of the CFFC will attend the city’s next meeting in two weeks and remain seated during the invocation and Pledge. (That should be fun.)

I should point out that “John Thoreau” is a pseudonym because the real person doesn’t want to face any public backlash or threats.

That the Mayor doesn’t understand First Amendment rights is appalling. That he would single out one member of the crowd for not standing is even worse. Can you imagine how much more awful it would’ve been if this was a teacher calling out a teenager in the classroom?

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. His latest book is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.

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5 Reasons Christians Are Rejecting the Notion of Hell

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France, Haute Savoie, Saint-Nicolas de Véroce, Hell painting in Saint-Nicolas de Véroce church Fred de Noyelle—Photononstop RM/Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

More and more Christians are beginning to reject the traditional view of hell which states the unjust will experience “eternal, conscious torment”. Perhaps you’ve seen this change in the Christian landscape and grown confused as to why so many of us are experiencing shifting beliefs. While my Letting Go of Hell series goes further in-depth on many issues surrounding hell, here are 5 key reasons to help you understand why we are rejecting the notion of “eternal, conscious torment”:

1. Something in our spirit tells us that torturing people is morally wrong.

During the historically recent debates over whether or not it’s okay to torture people, it has only been the most sick and twisted minds among us who have defended torture as being anything less than morally reprehensible. In fact, we know that torturing is such an egregious offense to morality that we even have laws against doing it toanimals. The assertion that God himself would not only torture people but take great pleasure in it, is something that many of us in Christianity are finding utterly offensive.

2. The concept of eternal, conscious torment runs contrary to the whole testimony in scripture.

Part of the reason why a growing number of us are rejecting the traditional view of hell, is that we’ve actually re-read the scriptures without our prefabricated evangelical filter, and find scripture describe something different than a traditional hell. Yes, there are some verses that seem to hint or describe eternal torture, but like many issues, the Bible is inconsistent on the matter. However, when we look at the entire testimony of scripture, we most often see the disposition of those who refuse to enter into God’s love described as a “second death”. Traditional hell isn’t death at all; traditional hell is instead an eternal life of torture. This simply isn’t what the Bible describes when taking into account the entire testimony. Instead, we find that those who ultimately reject God– the one who sustains life– to be granted their wish: their names are blotted out of the book of life and it is as if they never existed.

3. The final judge of each individual is Jesus, and torturing people seems contradictory to his character.

We believe in a coming judgement, and believe each one of us will have to stand before the “judgement seat”. However, we often forget that this judge will be Jesus! Most of us still affirm those who refuse to be reconciled to God’s love through Christ will ultimately be eternally lost, because we believe love must always be chosen– it cannot be forced. However, the idea that the end result of rejecting God’s love will be a slow-roasting eternal torture session with Jesus at the controls, is almost asinine. This isnot the Jesus we find in the New Testament. The Jesus we find in the New Testament is loving and just– but not dementedly cruel. In fact, in the New Testament we see a Jesus who notices suffering all around him and repeatedly states “I have compassion for them”. That compassion consistently moves Jesus to action, often breaking the taboos of his day to alleviate their suffering. The Jesus of scripture is hardly the type of person who’d enjoy torturing people.

4. Jesus would become a hypocrite, demanding that we nonviolently love our enemies while he does the complete opposite.

Remember, Jesus is the ultimate judge of humanity so anyone who ended up being tortured in hell would only go there by the decision of Jesus himself. This is the same Jesus who pointed out in the Bible of his day the permissiveness of using a tit-for-tat system of justice (an eye for an eye) in dealing with enemies as being wrong. Instead of affirming we should follow this part of scripture, Jesus taught his disciples to no longer obey this part of their Bible– instructing that they should become nonviolent enemy lovers instead (Matthew 5:38). In fact, Jesus goes as far as telling them that loving enemies is a requirement of becoming a child of God. If Jesus commands that we love our enemies, refuse to use violence, and that we actually do good to those who hate us yet– eternally tortures his own enemies– he’s guilty of hypocrisy. I don’t believe this is the case– I believe Jesus commands we love our enemies because he loves his enemies… and torture is never loving.

5. We simply can’t get past the idea that we are more gracious and merciful than Jesus himself.

This is the key area I cannot reconcile with eternal torment: I have been wronged by a lot of people in my life, but I have absolutely zero desire to torture anyone. I could never make the call to sentence one to torture or “pull the switch” to commence torture, because seeing people suffer is something that disrupts my spirit. I want no part in the causation of suffering, but instead want to be an agent who helps to relieve suffering. Furthermore, the longer I follow Jesus the more and more I desire that people be shown mercy. If I were to sit on the judgement seat (something I never will), there’s just no possible way I could ever sentence people to eternal torture– especially for things like being born into an Amazonian tribe who never heard the message of Jesus. If I were judge, I would always lean on the option of radical mercy.

The question then becomes: am I, a hopelessly flawed and sinful human being more merciful and compassionate than Jesus? There’s no possible way that is true, which tells me there might be more mercy than I can even fathom dished out at the final judgement.

As more and more Christians return home to a radical faith centered squarely on Jesus, we will continue to see a growing number of bible believing, soundly orthodox Christians, reject the evangelical concept of “eternal, conscious torment”. This should be viewed as a beautiful thing, not a travesty, as we rediscover that God actually is altogether wonderful, altogether lovely, and altogether like Jesus.

Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book is Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus (Release date, August 2014).

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