Monday, August 14, 2006

The "war on Christians" ...

... really is happening. But not because of us secular folks. It's being prosecuted by scumbags who claim to be Christians!

Church congregations often vulnerable to fraud and schemes
Billions of dollars turned over by the faithful lost to scam artists


Randall W. Harding sang in the choir at Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, Calif., and donated part of his conspicuous wealth to its ministries.

In his business dealings, he underscored his faith by naming his investment firm JTL, or “Just the Lord.” Pastors and churchgoers alike entrusted their money to him.

By the time Harding was unmasked as a fraud, he and his partners had stolen more than $50 million from their clients, and Crossroads became yet another cautionary tale in what investigators say is a worsening problem plaguing the nation’s churches.

Billions of dollars has been stolen in religion-related fraud in recent years, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, a group of state officials who work to protect investors.

Between 1984 and 1989, about $450 million was stolen in religion-related scams, the association says. In its latest count — from 1998 to 2001 — the toll had risen to $2 billion. Rip-offs have only become more common since.

Cases in recent years show just how vulnerable religious communities are and Chuck Crites, a former member of Crossroads Church, learned firsthand how effective con artists can be.

The businessman was swindled out of $500,000 by Harding in a Ponzi scheme, which uses money from newer investors to pay off older ones.

Crites said Harding, who pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud and money laundering, boasted about helping fund a new Christian high school for Crossroads and hired a music pastor from the megachurch as a sales agent. “At one point he even told me how much money he had given to the church that year,” Crites said.

Lambert Vander Tuig, a member of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., ran a real estate scam that bilked investors out of $50 million, the Securities and Exchange Commission says. His salesmen presented themselves as faithful Christians and distributed copies of “The Purpose Driven Life,” by Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, according to the SEC. Warren and his church had no knowledge of Vander Tuig’s activities, says the SEC.

At Daystar Assembly of God Church in Prattville, Ala., a congregant persuaded church leaders and others to invest about $3 million in real estate a few years ago, promising some profits would go toward building a megachurch. The Daystar Assembly was swindled and lost its building.

And in a dramatically broader scam, leaders of Greater Ministries International, based in Tampa, Fla., defrauded thousands of people of half a billion dollars by promising to double money on investments that ministry officials said were blessed by God. Several of the con men were each sentenced in 2001 to more than a decade in prison.

“Many of these frauds are, on their face, very credible and legitimate appearing,” said Randall Lee, director of the Pacific regional office of the SEC. “You really have to dig below the surface to understand what’s going on.”

“The size and the scope of the fraud is getting larger,” said Patricia Struck, president of the securities association and administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Division of Securities. “The scammers are getting smarter and the investors don’t ask enough questions because of the feeling that they can be safe in church.”

Typically, a con artist will target the pastor first, by making a generous donation and appealing to the minister’s desire to expand the church or its programs, according to Joseph Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission, who played a key role in breaking up the Greater Ministries scam.

If the pastor invests, churchgoers view it as a tacit endorsement. The con man, often promising double digit returns, will chip away at resistance among church members by suggesting they can donate part of their earnings to the congregation, Borg says.

“Most folks think ‘I’m going to invest in some overseas deal or real estate deal and part of that money is going to the church and I get part. I don’t feel like I’m guilty of greed,’ ” Borg says.

If a skeptical church member openly questions a deal, that person is often castigated for speaking against a fellow Christian.

Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation Inc. in Dallas, which investigates fraud and televangelism, partly blames the churches themselves for the problem. Anthony contends the “prosperity gospel” — which teaches the truly faithful are rewarded with wealth in this life — is creeping into mainstream churches.

Harding was nabbed with the help of Barry Minkow, who was himself convicted of fraud years ago. Minkow eventually became a pastor in San Diego and started the Fraud Discovery Institute, which is dedicated to investigating scams.

Crites is putting his money toward a new fraud-awareness kit for churches and other groups that Minkow is developing.

“It made me angry at how people are abusing the trust that exists in church communities,” Crites said.

Investigators say all denominations are at risk, but the most susceptible communities are ones where members are deeply engaged in church activities, such as service programs and small group prayer, giving con artists plenty of chance to ingratiate themselves.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

Is this 1706 or 2006?

(Expanded 8/13/06)

Recently, while researching unrelated stuff in the Mass. General Laws, I came across something that made me realize some of the religious wingnuts' ideas aren't that far from reality's surface (in a very scary sense). Here, in the state that legalized gay marriage and prides itself on being one of the most liberal in the nation, a book like Christopher Moore's comic novel Lamb, anything atheist, and anything challenging biblical accuracy are technically illegal.

Chapter 272: Section 36. Blasphemy

Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying,cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

There are obviously all kinds of things wrong with this statute. One of them is this: how do you determine, as a matter of law, whether something is done "contumeliously"? I might have heard that word once before, but still had to look it up to be sure it means what I suspected it meant:

adv : without respect; in a disdainful manner. [syn: contemptuously, disdainfully, scornfully, showing contempt]

In other words, the law is redundant as well as religiously biased. Without doubt, such laws are worthy of contumelious reproach in large quantities, especially if the phrase "his government" was intended to mean the human officials governing us. Any law suggesting that government is divinely sanctioned, even if it's a good government, is dangerous to democracy and free thought.

Even by standards of other existing blasphemy laws, the Mass. law is a little extreme (although not nearly as extreme as Pakistan's, which calls for death if convicted). Wikipedia has a good, brief summary which notes that the last person jailed for violating such a law in the US (specifically, the Mass. law) was Abner Kneeland in 1838.

According to AJ Rivers, a pro-Christian writer in the UK, British law reads:

Every publication is said to be blasphemous which contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England, as by law established. It is not blasphemous to speak of or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language. The test to be applied is as to the manner in which the doctrines are advocated and not as to the substance of the doctrines themselves.

Note the distinct difference in bold... although fundies tend to not consider ANY statements opposing them to be "decent and temperate."

Rivers, who supports having a blasphemy law on the grounds that Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice from 1671-76, claimed Christianity is part of English law in 1676, reasonably notes that people need to comprehend a law for it to be valid, and the fact that most Britons are secular means such laws are essentially unfair to them. He also notes that "the sincere heretic is not automatically a blasphemer."

Mass. law, as we've already seen, says otherwise, and Biblical "literalists" have no interest in being fair or considering the views of others. They'd rather enforce laws in much the same way God does in Exodus 32:10, when God threatens to slaughter the Israelites down in the valley for creating a golden calf despite the fact they do in to praise him and have not yet received his new law saying it's wrong.

Rivers writes, "For 'blasphemy' is inextricably linked to exclusive truth-claims." That's exactly the problem. Laws like this criminalize speech based solely on ONE side's definition of what is "truth," as opposed to what can be documented as fact for both sides.

"For the sceptic, religion is essentially a matter of uncontrolled, and thus arbitrary, choice," he writes. "But from within a religion, the commitment stems from a recognition of the truth. Unbelievers are blind, not mistaken. One's own faith cannot simply be changed at will."

The fact that millions of people convert between religions or give up religion entirely every year disproves Rivers' statements here. The only sense in which religion is NOT a choice is that in which children are taught its tenets from an age that's too young to question them; without the ability to seek alternatives, they naturally accept anything they're told as fact. When they eventually do develop the ability to think for themselves and the stockpile of experience and knowledge to ask good questions (if they're allowed to), the doctrine has a firm hold on their subconscious that is extremely hard to untangle. Religions would not survive without such ready-made believers.

We unbelievers are not blind; we just see where real world fact contradicts religious "truth" in ways that make religion not useful to us. To us, there's no point in allowing the Bible, Qu'ran, or other doctrine guide our daily lives any more than we'd want Tolkien, Heinlein, or Darwin to do so. If a source is accurate, it's worth borrowing from; if it's out of date or simply documentably wrong (in a factual, not moral sense), it needs to be corrected.

That concept is blasphemy to many serious religionists, who cannot accept the fact that their sacred books were written by humans, for humans. Often, those books do contain some ideas that reflect common human experience and make evolutionary sense -- they wouldn't stand the test of time if they didn't. But most such ideas do not need to be written down to be passed down the generations; ideas such as the Golden Rule are practiced by illiterate cultures as effectively as by literate ones. The existence of books only made it easier for specific codices of ideas and experiences to be disseminated more effectively than others ... and thereby expose both their strengths and their weaknesses more broadly.

Most of the latter come from the fact religions evolved within a specific cultural and historical period; those who founded them did not actually target all of humanity for all time, and would have thought doing so an impossible if not ridiculous task. They were concerned mostly with their own people -- often, literally, their biological kin, or at least kin groups descended from some shared ancestor, real or imagined. Religion evolved as law for societies in which most people were related and illiterate, but the times have changed significantly and religion needs to catch up, just as secular law should.

In that vein, I sent the Massachusetts blasphemy law to my state rep with the following note:

I came across this outdated law while doing some other research. Since it clearly dates back to colonial times and clearly expresses favoritism of one religion over any others in violation of the U.S. Constitution, I'm asking you to propose a bill to repeal it: [Text of law here cut for space].

I realize it probably hasn't been invoked in a century or more, but that's beside the point. As long as archaic and discriminatory laws like this exist, they can and eventually will be used by those who seek to repress free thought.

His response:

You make an excellent point regarding out of date laws. I am happy to file this on your behalf if you would like for the upcoming session, which will start in January of 2007. Let me know if this has your approval.

Obviously, I approved.# He's a Republican, but around here, most GOPs are pretty sane; they'd be Democrats in most other states. Most likely, this bill will pass with few objections.

But I bet that wouldn't be so in some of the "Red" states, and that's the whole point -- Puritanism is far from dead, and anyone who cares about freedom needs to find this kind of law and push for its repeal before it can be used to bludgeon us back into the Dark Ages.


# It was not lost on me, though, that he can only be sure of this b/c he has no opposition this November. Nor does my state senator or US rep., and my US senator's token opposition has no chance of winning. Although I love the fact that Mass. is very liberal, I would like to see more interesting elections.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

'Damnation Alley' vs. Done Very Badly

The Book: By Roger Zelazny (1968; *** of 5)
The Movie: Starring George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent (1977; * of 5)

About the only two things the book and movie versions of Damnation Alley agree on are these: (1) The main character, Tanner, is on a life-threatening journey across a hostile, bizarre post-apocalypse America in an specially-built armored vehicle and (2)the skies are regularly colored by weird, almost hallucinogenic aurora storms. Otherwise, they might as well be about two very different stories.

I don't remember if Zelazny's name was mentioned in the movie credits, but if I were him, I wouldn't have had anything to do with it. It's that bad; that far off the book's plotline. The ONLY thing warranting even one star was the atmospheric effects -- the acting is horrible, the characters have no personality, their journey is pointless, the various encounters are implausible. Hell, even their route cross-country doesn't make sense: Why would someone traveling from California to Albany divert to Detroit... when the early scenes specifically state Detroit's gone?

In the film, Tanner is this half-assed, wanna-be biker who quit the military after the war because he saw no point in staying in. The bike just exists to show how "cool" he is ... and he rides it at every stop, regardless of the fact that many of them would still be glowing with radiation. The film, however, has almost no reference to radiation at all. Instead of being a sever challenge, the journey is essentially a lark undertaken solely for selfish reasons -- Tanner and other military folks go 3000+ miles to check out a recorded, repeating signal in Albany that isn't saying anything, and would be impossible given the atmospheric disturbances. (In the film, the events happen about 2 years after the war.)

The real Tanner has a first name that says a lot about him: Hell. He's a REAL (stereotyped) biker -- the "last Hell's Angel," leader of a rapacious gang who terrorized struggling California communities until he got caught. He's been in jail a few times, killed several people, smuggled things to other surviving communities, and is finally given an ultimatum: Take plague serum to Boston (NOT Albany) or rot his remaining years in prison.

There's no radio -- just a radiation-sick Bostonian messenger who struggles into Los Angeles pleading for help. In Zelazny's vision, California knows Boston still exists, and believes it might be the only other organized nation left on the continent. As it turns out, at least two other places are still organized, Salt Lake City (which, in the movie, is occupied solely by carnivorous cockroaches; the filmmakers clearly didn't have the skill to portray the complexity of interaction with a living community) and Albuquerque, and others are populated but essentially lack government. These events take place at least a generation after the war -- Tanner was born afterward, and is somewhere in his 20s. It might be longer; Tanner encounters an insane scientist on his journey who remembers the war and the anti-science pogroms afterward; he could be in his 50s. (This character, one of Zelazny's more interesting side characters, doesn't exist in the film.)

Zelazny gives us scenes of life in Boston -- it's a real place, with real people (the almost hopeless mayor, the greedy businessman, the teen lovers, cops hunting down looters, all struggling under the threat of extinction by plague). That's unlike the movie's Albany, which is a complete fantasy, a religious heavenly escape from reality. It is the fundamentalist end-all-be-all salvation as a selfish goal rather than the book's salvation as something people give to each other to help them through tough times.

In both versions, there are huge animals marauding across the landscape. The movie depicts them with exceptionally bad special effects -- it's so obvious they've spliced images of scorpions into a set background, for example. The book's beast are more variable -- huge bats, scorpions, snakes, Gila monsters, etc. But they are no more plausible: Evolution doesn't work that way. Radiation-induced mutations MIGHT create extra-large lifeforms, but only in very small numbers, not hordes. A far more likely probability would be a much LESS fecund landscape, smaller creatures, deformities that harmed their ability to adapt, etc. Zelazny's story is really a nightmare that happens to have an apocalyptic setting, not a survival novel. But he gives the character a palpable humanity -- flawed, but not entirely evil.

The movie plot also makes no sense. In the beginning, text says the war "knocked earth off it's axis," and at one point a character claims "if it comes back, everything could go back to normal." That's complete bullshit, not just very bad, lame pseudo-scifi. Of course, in the film, the latter happens at the end -- a deux ex machina where the hero rides into the sunlight over a green landscape. The book has no such nonsense -- Hell Tanner's success doesn't change the world; the sky is still full of garbage & electromagnetic storms. It doesn't even change him that much -- Boston erects a statue in his honor, and he's "the most likely suspect" in its graffiti defacement.

All it does it save some lives.

Oh, and one personally quirky thing I liked about the book (and disliked the film for completely omitting it) was that Tanner used Mass. Route 9 for the last leg of his journey. As a kid, I LIVED on that road. At one point, about age 4, the cops even had to take me home because I was "directing traffic" in the middle of it :-).

I'm not sure what Zelazny saw as a target at 90 mi from Boston, though -- that's in the middle of the rural Berkshires. The nearest town of any size is Pittsfield, and that's not worth nuking. The nearest probable target is Westover Air Base in Chicopee, about 60 miles from Boston, but that's not on Rte 9. (He has several scenes of Tanner avoiding radioactive craters that aren't near any plausible target.)

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Friday, August 04, 2006

"Common sense" & the Simplification hypocrisy

Over at David Brin's blog Contrary Brin, there are always intresting threads on the rampant misuse of "common sense," primarily by Republicans, to uphold their own influence at the expense of changes that would benefit the vast majority of the world (such as technological changes sparked by the effort to counter global warming). In one, he quotes former GOP White House staffer Peggy Noonan as saying:

"I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”

Attitudes like this underlie and even create the kinds of blame games -- and, ultimately witch hunts -- I talked about a few posts ago in "Messing things up..." In those books, the fuel is religion, but as Brin & his readers note, the underlying problem is that some people have a vested interest in believing that if we win, they lose. Therefore, they feel they have to win at all cost, regardless of what that may do to our (and, by definition, their own) future generations or other long-term considerations.

Instead of blaming the truly responsible parties -- those who were unable or unwilling to negotiate or to look at the situation from someone else's viewpoint; those who put their own narrow wishes above the needs of the many -- the forces expressed by Miller's Simplification, or Brackett's New Mennonites, or any number of historical pogroms find scapegoats that are easy to identify. Ironically, those kinds of processes are often started by people who, by most reasonable definitions, are themselves intellectuals (for ex., Marx, Lenin, Neitzche), but achieve their bloodiest expression later under a second tier of leaders who are essentially thugs (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler). Anti-intellectual attitudes can be found on the fringes of the political spectrum under any label.

Noonan and many others are themselves intellectuals, and essentially recognize that their "zero-sum" perspective cannot survive over the long term if we as a species are to continue growing intellectually and technologically. So they hypocritically appeal to the mob mentality so easily created among those who aren't as well educated but see (accurately, in many respects) that the "eggheads" in fact have a less restricted life than they do. Zero-sum folks take that energy and target it at other people, pointing out the differences between "us and them" in terms of "their" failings (in Noonan's case, how "they" lack "common sense" or "morals" or whatever).

By contrast, people who see the benefits of a "positive-sum" approach take that energy and target it at the ideas and behaviors that are holding those people down, encouraging them to get educated, to question their situation, and to use their talents to benefit everyone including themselves. Instead of appealing to manufactured differences, it appeals to the common ground we all share. That is the basis of the practice of science, efforts for civil rights, and liberalism in it's broad sense -- expanding the numbers of people who are educated or at least feel like they're a valuable, equal part of the complex national (ultimately, global) community.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Doomsday begins at home...

...Especially when the household involves child abuse, or, worse, child sexual abuse.

Sick stories involving the creatures who do such things have been popping up in the media with greater frequency in the past couple weeks than I've seen in quite some time. I've seen at least six such stories. A few are: Here in MA, 11 guys got nabbed in "Operation Trenchcoat" for using the Web to solicit sex from minors. Another couple recently got convicted for molesting their own kids... and encouraging them to have sex with each other -- the husband got 5 life terms, the wife, 40 years. And now, a Cleveland guy purporting to be promoting the arts -- and self-proclaimed pedophile -- is being held for molesting autistic children.

In part of the last article the Herald didn't print, AP added:
"Not all pedophilia is bad, and sex with boys can be healthy,"
Distasio said. "It's an argument I'm willing to make, but my attorney is not."

No shit. That's because the attorney's not a twisted fuck. These kinds of self-justifying arguments are common for pedophiles, who typically have little ability to see things from another's point of view (esp. their victims'). Detective Mark Gado has several common traits of pedophiles here.

The first website a Google search for Distasio's group turned up said, "Arcadian Fields is a ministry of the Universal Life Church. The goal of the ministry is to provide free food and shelter for artists and musicians in order to promote education and health through interactive entertainment."

Since this pervert is apparently AF's FOUNDER, I can guess what kind of "interactive entertainment" he had in mind. Even more twisted details of "Brother Patheticus" can be found here.

The ULC has zero qualifications for ministers. They will literally ordain anybody, and that points to a serious problem. Groups like ULC, while they might be well-intended, provide cover for those who see authority of any kind as a ticket to express their own whims. Those can be good; I believe the group aims to give Pagans a chance to practice their faith with legal protections other ministers get, including the right to marry others. But for some (obviously including this creature), the authority is solely being used to benefit themselves.

As a step-brother to two people who are developmentally-disabled & someone who worked with autistics and others for several years, I can't really put into words how disgusted people like this make me. But I can summarize it this way: Child sexual abusers are among the VERY few criminal types I have no problems executing.

But that doesn't prevent the problem from recurring. As someone I interviewed once said, child abuse "grows like mold in darkness." The only way to prevent it is to blow open the doors of secrecy, to stop treating children as if they're the property of adults and acting as if their ideas and their reality mean nothing. I think a big part of that means standing up to our society's acceptance of religion as an excuse for people's behavior. While the vast majority of religious folks are NOT child abusers/molesters, all too often, molesters justify their abuses with religion or use religious threats as a weapon against their victims.

Child abuse, with or without molestation, just continues the cycle of violence we see writ large in society's drug abuse, gang and international wars, and less obvious manipulations of people for the benefit of a few. If we want real peace, it literally has to start at home, by ending child abuse.

A few good sites on this issue:

The National Assoc. to Protect Children
Andrew Vachss's website
David Baldwin's Trauma Pages
Men's Resource Center for Change

Thanks to Dispatches from the Culture Wars for the tip.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

putting things in perspective

Hmmm... As i mentioned a few posts ago, I got laid off a week ago. I hate job hunting, but even if I find no job for the rest of this year, the money I've made so far makes me wealthier than 87% of the WORLD's population.

Wow. Where do YOU stand?

I've known for a long time that we Americans take our wealth for granted, but seeing that really brings home how much of a disparity there really is.


I don't think there's ANYTHING we could not achieve with our nation's wealth if we really wanted to do it.

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