Saturday, March 5, 2011 Login

A History of God

Awesome video:

Can’t wait to see Part 2.

Who Would Jesus Snuff?

Looks like gOd has whispered the answer to yet another theist who is much more open-minded to the possibility of such things than any atheist I know:

Roanoke Man Charged With Threatening To Kill President Obama (WSET-TV; Dec 6)

ROANOKE, Virginia: A Roanoke man is facing federal charges after making threatening comments to the Secret Service about President Obama.

Steven John Gurczynski had been under investigation by Roanoke Police, who then turned the case over to the Secret Service.

Authorities say he said God told him to “put a bullet in President Obama’s head” and that it was “his duty”.

Court records show that at least one other witness heard similar threats.

Gurczynski was ordered to undergo a mental evaluation by late January.

I wonder if they’ll discover he was just high off incense and tea….

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Follow The Money

Ah, the holiday season is upon us.

Soon the newspapers will once again be full of stories about how churches are giving turkeys and toys to the poor.

Here’s a brief reminder of how they’ve more typically been spending their time and money in the month that I’ve been away:

Arizonia Church To Unveil $4.5 Million In Renovations (Diana Balazs/The Arizona Republic; Oct 19)

Nearly 50 years ago, the late John Pritzlaff and his wife, Mary Dell, donated the original organ for the sanctuary of their church, St. Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal in Paradise Valley.

The 2,768-pipe organ dedicated in February 1962 was built by Casavant Fréres of Quebec, a company that began making the sacred instruments in 1879.

A large tapestry, “Ode to Joy,” was later added to screen the organ but still allow sound to pass through. However, sunlight exposure over the decades caused the tapestry fabric to deteriorate. And the organ was in need of major repair.

A new organ combined with a mosaic glass art project replaced the old organ and tapestry as part of a newly completed $4.5 million renovation of the sanctuary.

On Friday night, St. Barnabas will celebrate the renovation with a free public concert by organist John Scott.

Mary Dell Pritzlaff pledged $1 million to replace the original organ in memory of her husband, a former state legislator and ambassador to Malta who died in 2005.

She said the new organ and artwork blend well and are beautifully done.

“It’s a brand-new face. It’s just all a fresh new face,” she said….

Connecticut Church Celebrates Installation Of New 14-Ton Organ (Michelle Koufopoulos/The Fairfield Minuteman; Oct 20)

First Church Congregational of Fairfield, noted for its socially progressive theology and commitment to community works, will be celebrating the dedication of their new tracker pipe organ with a series of Inaugural events on Sunday, Nov. 14….

Faced with the need to replace an aging electronic instrument, and encouraged by a generous bequest from the estate of Lewis and Alice Burr, as well as numerous individuals who came forward unsolicited with the necessary funds, the church began active planning for a new pipe organ in 2000, entering into contract in 2008 with Phillip Klais, of Johannes Klais Orgelbau, Bonn, Germany.

Klais, a fourth generation organ-builder, manages the same workshop his great-grandfather founded in 1882, on the street where Beethoven was born. Committed to building instruments with high aesthetic and tonal standards, steeped in tradition, but well equipped to meet the demands of the present time, Phillip’s motto is “Interplay Between Time and Space.” Together with a team of 65 master artisans, all musicians, each organ is painstakingly constructed by hand, custom designed for the space in which it will reside; 13,000 craftsmen hours went into the construction of First Church’s pipe organ, which contains 2,103 pipes, 36 stops on 3 manuals and pedals, 41 ranks, and weighs in at 14 tons. It is a moderate, but full-sized organ designed to fill the Romanesque revival sanctuary, which stands on the Town Green. The sanctuary underwent an extensive restoration in 2009, and the style of wood and carvings in the organ façade have been crafted to match the historic church décor.

Wisconsin Cathedral Debuts Massive $1.5 Million Organ (Terry Rindfleisch/The La Crosse Tribune/Oct 24)

The tower of sparkling organ pipes mimics the shape of the surrounding cathedral. Hundreds of these tin and lead alloy pipes line up as curtains in an elaborate 34-foot wooden case that reaches to the gallery ceiling in the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman, 530 Main St.

Inside is the smallest pipe, high-pitched, about the size of a pencil. The tallest is 32 feet, huddled among the deepest bass voices of the maple and Eastern pine wood pipes — squeezed behind the case incorporating motifs from the cathedral’s woodwork.

In all, 3,768 pipes surround the organ console. Each soon will sing with joy and praise during Mass at the cathedral.

The church’s $1.5 million Noack pipe organ is considered among the finest in the U.S., created by one of the most prestigious organ builders, said Brian Luckner, the cathedral’s organist and director of music.

“This is the top of the line, the best in organ design and, like the great organs in Europe, should last 200 years,” Luckner said. “It’s very exciting to have this magnificent instrument, which is also beautiful visually.”…

Luckner said the $1.8 million organ project, which includes a new, smaller organ in the sanctuary, began in 2003 when he told then-Bishop Raymond Burke about the need for a new organ.

Luckner settled on Noack as the builder, but the project was placed on hold so Noack first could build the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe organ.

The shrine organ has 40 “stops,” a set of pipes with a particular musical voice. The main cathedral organ has 58 stops, making it one of the largest pipe organs in Wisconsin and the largest built by Noack.

“The cathedral organ has more voices and a larger sound,” Luckner said.

Bishop Jerome Listecki followed through in 2005 with a fundraising project, led by Monsignor Bernard McGarty.

The project included renovation of the gallery, or choir loft, to accommodate the main organ, pipes and new risers and space for the choir. New beams and a stronger foundation were built to support the 15-ton organ, and the choir loft was extended forward about 9 feet.

New York Church Spending Millions On Renovations (James Barron/The New York Times; Oct 24)

Dennis Keene has been learning some new French words lately. The forklift parked in the center aisle of the church where he is the music director is a “chariot electrique.” The hoist above the altar is a “palans electrique.”

And the packing boxes in the back corner of the sanctuary? They hold more than 5,000 “tuyaux,” the essential parts for what he described as the city’s first French-made pipe organ….

“We’ve got quite a mess going on,” he said, leading the way into the sanctuary at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue….

The church is spending $2 million on renovations to its building, Mr. Keene said….

Mr. Keene said the organ was typical of an instrument in the $3 million-to-$4 million range….

Duluth Church Installs New Million Dollar Organ (Beth Koralia/The Duluth News Tribune; Oct 30)

First Lutheran Church will soon be enjoying a new organ. Local craftsman Dan Jaeckel, who has been building organs for nearly 40 years, is installing it….

The new organ at First Lutheran has 55 stops and 3,600 pipes. Roughly 12 percent, or 400, of the pipes are in place. Jaeckel expects that the organ will be finished in four months.

Jaeckel began working on the First Lutheran organ two-and-a-half years ago. Depending on the size, an organ can take from three months to four years to complete….

Because the construction was so labor-intensive, and the materials of such high quality, the cost of this custom-built organ is well over $1 million — though Jaeckel would not give specifics….

Irish Bishop Asks People Of Cork To Fund $1.6 Million Organ (The Irish Times; Nov 10)

The Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Rt Rev Paul Colton, has called on the people of Cork to support a €1.2 million [about $1.62 million US] appeal to rebuild a historic organ at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Bishop Colton said the organ was “central to the tradition of worship and music which has been synonymous with St Fin Barre’s”. Those who wish to get involved can sponsor a pipe of the new organ, at any level ranging from €20 to €500, with all pipe sponsors getting a commemorative certificate as well as having their names printed in a special donors’ book to be kept by the organ.

Virginia Church Getting New 8-Ton Organ (Bill Lohmann/The Richmond Times-Dispatch; Nov 11)

RICHMOND: Climbing into the belly of the magnificent new pipe organ at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bon Air, as I did the other day, felt a bit like dropping into a submarine.

“Little bit more headroom,” Aaron Reichert said with a laugh.

Not much more.

Surrounded and dazzled by pipes of every size and sound, you just hope no one takes a seat at the keyboard and launches into Bach while you’re inside the sonorous beast.

Reichert and his colleague, Christopher Bono, have been working since August to install the organ in a loft above the sanctuary at St. Michael’s. They’ve put in each of the 2,480 handmade pipes — ranging in size from less than a half-inch to one more than 16 feet long and shaped like a trombone. The organ is 20 feet tall and 19 feet wide, has three keyboards and 36 stops, and weighs 8 tons….

It’s expensive, too. Taylor & Boody’s pipe organs range from those that will fit inside a minivan and cost about $75,000 to one planned for a New York church that will be more than twice the size of St. Michael’s, require more than two years to build and cost about $3 million.

Crystal Jonkman, director of music and arts at St. Michael’s, didn’t want to say what the church was paying for the organ, which will replace a much smaller pipe organ, but acknowledged it is “a huge step of faith for this congregation.”…

$6 Million Spent On Massachusetts Church Organ Project (Austin Siegemund-Broka/The Harvard Crimson; Nov 16)

Edward Elgar’s hymn “Great is the Lord” is a piece practically made for the organ, as it surges forward in great swells, slowly cascades through climbing chords, and demonstrates delicate melodic interplay.

Fittingly, the piece was the central work at Memorial Church’s Veterans Day service on Sunday, which marked the unveiling of Appleton Chapel’s new organ, installed last week.

Nicknamed “the Skinner,” the newly installed instrument is part of a two-organ solution to a musical quandary that has plagued Memorial Church since its construction in 1932. Apart from enhancing the church’s musical capacity, however, this organ’s placement also restores the original spatial layout of the church and chapel, in a long-awaited renovation….

The Fisk organ was installed in 1967 because of an original organ’s inability to perform both tasks the church required—being too loud to accompany the intimate morning prayers in Appleton Chapel, yet never mustering the volume to fill Memorial Church for larger services.

But when Edward E. Jones came to Memorial Church in 2003 as Acting University Organist and Choirmaster, he saw the Fisk as having this same problem. Reverend Peter J. Gomes, a Divinity School professor, encouraged him to find a solution, and the church formed a committee….

Instead of making modifications to the iconic Fisk organ, Jones and Gomes arrived at the solution of removing it instead. They planned to then install two different organs in the church, each of which would serve a distinct musical purpose. Besides the Skinner, a larger organ—Fisk-commissioned, and currently being constructed—will be installed in the church’s rear gallery this summer. Scheduled to be unveiled on Easter Sunday of 2012, this new Fisk will accompany larger services….

This organ project, which costs approximately $6 million and will be funded by donors and church members, was inspired by more than just the desire to enhance the music of Memorial Church. The removal of the old Fisk organ also restores the original 1932 architecture of the church and Appleton Chapel, a change many have been awaiting since 1967….

The organ renovation marks the beginning of projects that celebrate Gomes’s legacy, as the preacher will retire in June 2012. According to Jones and Lane, Gomes has always supported the church’s music program and had long hoped to return the church to its original layout.

“This is not a vanity project for Peter Gomes. It’s really about the church and the music of the church having the instruments to do what it can do best,” Jones says….

Florida Church Unveils Lavish New Organ (The Orlando Sentinel; Nov 15)

The First United Methodist Church will dedicate its newly renovated sanctuary organ on Sunday, Nov. 1, at the 8:15 a.m . and 11 a.m. services….

The renovation by Randall Dyer and Associates of Jefferson City, Tenn., cost nearly $500,000 and included re-leathering of the entire instrument, the addition of a few new ranks and the exchange of a limited number of ranks from 1950 tastes to contemporary conventions….

For more examples of the obscene way religious congregations tend to lavish money on themselves and their own perceived needs while being praised to high heaven for the relatively small amounts they give to poor non-members with painfully real needs, see the entry I posted Feb 1, 2010 or Nov 24, 2008 (among numerous others).

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Is Desmond Tutu Insane?

I suppose you remember who Desmond Tutu is.

If not, here’s a brief excerpt from his Wikipedia bio that will bring you up to speed:


The Most Rev. Dr. Desmond Mpilo Tutu (born 7 October 1931) is a South African activist and Christian cleric who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid. He was the first black South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (now the Anglican Church of Southern Africa). Archbishop Tutu has been active in the defence of human rights and uses his high profile to campaign for the oppressed. He has campaigned to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, homophobia, poverty and racism. Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Tutu has also compiled several books of his speeches and sayings.

One might classify Rev. Tutu as an activist liberal Christian whose good works would readily meet with the approval of virtually all the humanists I know.

That doesn’t mean that his core beliefs are any more logical or empirically defensible than the core beliefs of activist racist Christians or other, even more reprehensible theists.

While most people might be inclined to applaud Tutu’s good works and overlook the bizarre worldview that apparently resides within his head, I cannot. Crazy people remain crazy whether their craziness inspires world war or world peace. Choosing to completely overlook the craziness of anyone as famous as Tutu seems to me to increase the odds of craziness in general becoming more prevalent in the world. It also seems to me to reduce us to the level of those who judge their friends and family members by one standard and everyone else by another. I’m sorry, but… 2 + 2 = 4 regardless of whether you’re sending dollars to UNICEF or sending army divisions into Poland. If you think 2 + 2 actually equals 3 or 5 or 17, you need to be told so by your math instructor rather than allowed to pass the course just because you have a good heart.

What sparked these thoughts now is the fact that Tutu turned 79 on October 7 and, at the urging of his wife, retired. Time magazine noted the event in a story entitled The Laughing Bishop. Here are a few of the passages from that story that set off my Crazy detector:

On Sept. 25, 1977, 16 years before apartheid’s end, Desmond Tutu stood before a crowd of 15,000 at the funeral of murdered black-consciousness leader Steve Biko in King William’s Town, South Africa, and declared that white rule was finished. “The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation, have done their worst, and they have lost,” thundered the then 45-year-old bishop of St. Mary and St. James, Lesotho. “They have lost because they are immoral and wrong, and our God … is a God of justice and liberation and goodness. Our cause … must triumph because it is moral and just and right.”…”That’s the chief lesson I have learned,” he told Time recently. “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail.”…

“God is not evenhanded,” he summarizes it today. “God is biased, horribly in favor of the weak. The minute an injustice is perpetrated, God is going to be on the side of the one who is being clobbered.”

As a student of history and of life I found these comments to be a slap in the face, not only to me but to all the innocent and good people who have lived and died on this planet without good or laughter or justice raising a finger to help them, let alone prevailing. One need only visit a children’s hospital or a cancer ward or a nursing home – or open any day’s newspaper – to see good, innocent people being ground up by a million different kinds of hurt while Tutu’s gOd remains nowhere to be found.

And while some horrendous, historical injustices such as slavery and the Holocaust and apartheid eventually did come to an end, that end came far too late for millions upon millions of people – and it came not because any gOd acted but because other people did.

If Tutu’s gOd exists, he doesn’t deserve our thanks for the relatively rare happy outcomes that history serves up but our condemnation for creating and perpetuating the conditions that allowed evil to exist in the first place for a single minute.


“In the end,” says Tutu, “the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stage of the world often seemingly unbeatable — there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust.” The thought still delights him. “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” he roars. “Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”

There is something positively chilling about not just his acceptance of a logically flawed philosophy that’s contradicted by the evidence but by the glee he expresses over the inherent vindictiveness and meanness of that philosophy.

It is the same mindset we find in the Hebrew scriptures that Christians insist on calling the Old Testament: A jealous deity first creates the conditions that make evil people inevitable and then delights in striking those people down. It’s a mindset that sees nothing wrong with Yahweh drowning virtually all life on earth because one man allegedly ate a piece of fruit or hardening Pharaoh’s heart and then smiting him for having a hard heart – indeed, it’s a mindset that dares to call such insane behavior Absolute Morality.

As I said long ago, Absolutely Moral deities would not have made a world such as this one to begin with.

Having somehow found itself presented with such a world, Absolute Morality would not seek to destroy evil people but mercifully convert them to good.

And Omnipotent Absolute Morality would go further and rewind or otherwise erase evil actions and histories so that they never would have happened in the first place.

Tardy remedial actions are intrinsically inferior, after all, to rapid pre-emptive actions.

Preventing rape or war or genocide is morally superior to comforting the next of kin after the rapes and wars and genocides have occurred.

It is stunning that even those theists as prominent and as highly respected as Tutu seem to utterly fail to grasp these points.

And it is extremely troubling that so many actually embrace this allegedly divinely-orchestrated system of “morality” earlier theists have foisted off on them as holy when they ought to be screaming their outrage from the mountaintops or converting to a sane, gOd-free system of morality such as that expounded by humanists.

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Beliefs Have Consequences

And supernatural beliefs sometimes have consequences so horrible, they stagger the imagination.

Here’s a terrible reminder of these simple facts:

Mozambican Boy Castrated For Witchcraft (Capital Bews/AFP; Oct 15)

MAPUTO: Two men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for cutting off a nine-year-old boy’s testicles, penis and eyes to sell to a Malawian witchdoctor, Mozambican state radio reported Thursday.

One of the men was the boy’s uncle, who lured him with crackers to go rat-hunting in woods near the Malawi border, while the accomplice hid nearby, the court sentence read.

One attacker covered the youth’s mouth while the other hit him on the chest with a rock. They then cut off his organs and left him for dead, while one took the body parts in a bag to a middleman in Malawi, where they hoped to sell the flesh for about 560 dollars (400 euros).

The boy was discovered alive the next day and taken to hospital in Malawi.

“The crime they committed was horrible. The court condemns them to 20 years’ imprisonment,” judge Jorge Langa said, according to the radio report.

Many Mozambicans believe in witches who use human parts in remedies to cure diseases.

To learn about some of the other terrible consequences that belief in witchcraft and the supernatural is inspiring in that part of the world, see the entry I posted on Oct 1.

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Francis Collins Admits Healing Prayers Don’t Work

Instead, he prays for wisdom – as if that works any better.

You can learn the details at the end of this recent essay of his (which you might find interesting for several other reasons as well):

Praying For My Friend Christopher Hitchens (Francis Collins/The Washington Post/On Faith; Sept 20)

I first met Christopher Hitchens at a “salon” organized by Ben Wattenberg a few years ago. The evening was advertised as a wide-ranging discussion of many topics, but soon evolved into a debate between Christopher and myself about whether a rational person could also be a person of faith. As expected based on our respective public writings, Christopher took the negative position, and I took the positive. It was an energetic and entertaining opportunity for intellectual jousting, and the quickness and edginess of Christopher’s wit was on full display – as was his remarkable command of history and literature. (In fact, I suspect he knew more about the Christian Bible than many of the Christians in attendance.)

[A recent poll seems to support Collins's suspicions.]

It was with dismay that I learned in June that Christopher had been diagnosed with cancer. And this was a very serious situation – esophageal cancer that has already spread to regional lymph nodes has a poor prognosis, and pursuing all avenues of intervention, even if experimental, would be highly advisable. As the Director of the National Institutes of Health, I am in a position to be aware of new developments in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Advances are occurring with great rapidity as technologies arising from the success of the Human Genome Project are making it possible to get a comprehensive understanding of what drives malignancy. The ability to match cancer drugs to the characteristics of an individual tumor is growing rapidly. New drug targets are being discovered. New protocols for treatment of cancer, listed in www.clinicaltrials.gov, are being developed every month.

So as I have done in other situations where a friend was in trouble, I reached out to Christopher and his wife Carol Blue to offer assistance. They welcomed that possibility, and we’ve met several times since then in their apartment. That relationship has led to some interesting ideas about how to optimize his treatment. Christopher will no doubt be writing more about these in his powerful series of essays in Vanity Fair.

Some observers have expressed surprise that the atheist intellectual and the Christian physician-scientist could become friends. After all, in the current political climate in Washington, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is supposed to be your enemy. But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17Open Link in New Window).

[It is unclear to me why Collins would choose to cite or follow that passage from the Hebrew scriptures rather than this one specifically addressed to Christians: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you." - 2 Corinthians 6:14-17]

On a personal level, I have been blessed by getting to know Christopher and Carol better – despite the “enfant terrible” reputation, Christopher has a warm humanity that is easy to perceive. And his willingness to be utterly open and transparent about his cancer diagnosis provides a breathtaking window into his personal integrity.

Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He knows that I am praying for him. But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention – as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience. Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” And I then give thanks for the chance to share in a deepening friendship.

(Francis Collins is Director of the National Institutes of Health, the researcher behind the Human Genome Project and a Christian who explained how he reconciles science and faith in his book The Language of God.)

Ok, so James 1:5Open Link in New Window pretty much offers us a no-exceptions guarantee. It basically says “IF you lack wisdom, AND you ask gOd for wisdom, god WILL give it to you.” And of course that’s easily proven to be false. If it were true, Christians would be the wisest people on the face of the earth – and they aren’t. (Go here for just some of the details of how they tend to lag behind others in this department.) The fact that Christians who pray for wisdom end up embracing an incredibly wide variety of contradictory opinions on virtually every subject under the sun further refutes James’s claim.

I doubt that anyone is very surprised by this. After all, the passage that Collins cites comes from the same book that falsely promises that the followers of Jesus will be able to drink any deadly thing without harm to themselves (Mark 16:18). That same book even promises that *nothing* is impossible for those with even a tiny bit of faith (Matthew 17:20). And of course it’s the same nearly 2000-year-old book that repeatedly indicates that the end is near and that Jesus will be coming back soon.

What *is* surprising (at least to me) is that someone in the position that Collins is in can seriously claim to believe and follow what James says.

At least he admits that prayers lack the ability to heal people. That’s progress, I guess.

But it leaves open the question of whether or not he believes what Mark 16:18 says about the ability of Christians to cure others merely by touching them with their hands.

Perhaps he’s suspending judgment until his National Institutes of Health thoroughly reviews the scientific data?

(For a clearer view of the intersection of medicine and religion, see the comments of Dr. Richard Sloan that’s I’ve shared here. For a few other examples of the failure of prayer, go here, here, and here.)

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Update On Those Fools For Christ…

… and for those scam artists working in his name:

US Church Financier Faces Ponzi Scheme Trial (Charles Wilson/The Associated Press; Oct 12)

INDIANAPOLIS: Karen and Fred Lamb tried to do their homework before investing their savings in an Indiana company’s fund to help churches build or expand. After talking with church friends and checking out Alanar Inc. on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s website, they decided the firm’s goals and beliefs meshed with their own.

“It was a good place where Christians would be investing in the work of other Christians,” said Karen Lamb, a 55-year-old Terre Haute, Ind., housewife.

More than five years later, the Lambs still are waiting to get most of their $53,000 investment back. Now a former pastor is going on trial for what authorities call a multimillion-dollar scheme that preyed on thousands of parishioners who thought they were helping build churches but were actually buying the man and his sons planes and sports cars.

Vaughn Reeves, 66, faces 10 counts of securities fraud. Jury selection began Tuesday in Princeton, Ind.

Authorities say Reeves, founder and owner of now-defunct Alanar, and his three sons duped about 11,000 investors into buying bonds worth $120 million secured by mortgages on construction projects at about 150 churches. The men diverted money from new investments to pay off previous investors, pocketing $6 million and buying two airplanes, sports cars and vacations, according to court records.

Officials say the scheme operated mainly in Indiana, though church members in other states, including Florida, Michigan, Maryland and Oklahoma, also were victimized.

All four men have pleaded not guilty. An attorney for Vaughn Reeves did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Experts say the Alanar case is a prime example of affinity fraud, in which scammers prey on people who share a common interest, such as religious affiliation, ethnicity or even age.

The Security and Exchange Commission doesn’t track cases of affinity fraud separately, but Lori Schock, director of the agency’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, estimates investors have lost hundreds of millions of dollars to such schemes in the last two years.

Many victims never report the crimes because they are ashamed to tell authorities they’ve been duped, Schock said.

A warning on the SEC website says schemes have targeted retirees, blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Armenian-Americans. Schock said recent schemes have gone after bus drivers in California, Latin Americans in Miami and Mormons in Utah.

Investigators say Reeves and his sons assembled teams of church members to sell bonds to other church members, urging them to fulfill their “Christian responsibility” by supporting church construction projects during the early part of the decade. The teams were given training materials that instructed them to open sales calls with a prayer and to quote scripture.

“Never sell the facts, sell warm stewardship and the Lord,” urged materials quoted in court documents.

Five years after a federal judge froze Alanar’s assets, Bradley Skolnik, the Indianapolis attorney who has served as Alanar’s court-appointed receiver since 2005, has repaid about $35 million to investors who lost nearly four times that. He expects another payout of about $10 million late this year or early next.

The money, he said, comes from about 150 churches across the country that issued the bonds. Some were able to pay off their debt, but Skolnik said about 20 percent were in default. About eight churches face foreclosure proceedings and likely will lose their buildings, he said. Skolnik said that in some cases, Alanar had never determined whether the churches could afford to issue bonds on their projects.

The Lambs, who invested about $53,000 from inheritance money and their two sons’ trust funds, have gotten back just $6,000.

“We wanted to invest in something honest, and doing the Lord’s work – and that just sucked us right in,” said Karen Lamb, whose 57-year-old husband works as a millwright.

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, whose office led an effort to toughen criminal penalties for affinity fraud last year, said people need to verify that they are investing in legitimate enterprises before handing over cash.

“The point isn’t to make everyone distrust their friends and loved ones or be afraid of their own shadow, but to reinforce the fundamentals of sound investing,” he said.

The SEC’s Schock said such due diligence can “protect these people from a lifetime of hardship.”

“Some of these people are too old to regain this money they’ve lost,” she said.

For another recent example of the ease with which trusting Christians can be ripped off – as well as for links to my more in-depth entries examining the enduring relationship between religious faith and financial stupidity – see the entry I posted on Oct 1.

(NOTE: “Fools for Christ” is a term derived from the Bible – not something I invented just to be mean or slanderous.)

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Hope For Young Atheists

Were you an atheist, agnostic, rationalist, humanist, or other type of non-theist during your early to mid teenage years?

Did you feel isolated? Alone? Alienated? Shunned?

Did you ever find yourself wishing that there was a group of like-minded people you could hook up with for mutual support and enlightenment?

Alas, no such groups existed when I was a teen.

Fortunately, that finally seems to be changing.

Here’s a recent story with a few of the details:

Secular Students Share Disbeliefs (Meredith Heagney/The Columbus Dispatch; Oct 8)

Delaware [Ohio] group one of 12 chapters in alliance at high schools in U.S.

The kids in the Secular Student Alliance say, only half-joking, that some people think they worship the devil.

The students are well aware that questioning the validity of faith can have consequences.

But questioning is a key component of this small group at Rutherford B. Hayes High School in Delaware [a town of about 25,000 people about 20 miles north of Columbus].

The students in the group discuss belief systems, science and politics in after-school meetings on Thursdays. They’re planning community-service work, possibly with a Christian club at the school, and considering field trips.

This high-school chapter of the Secular Student Alliance has been around for six years and is advised by Earth-science teacher Jeff Bakunas.

Nationally, the Secular Student Alliance has 228 chapters, with 12 at high schools and 216 at colleges and universities.

The umbrella group is based in Columbus and exists to support students who are “non-theists” in this religious, majority-Christian country, said August Brunsman, the alliance’s executive director.

The goal is to “normalize being an atheist or an agnostic or somebody who doesn’t have a belief in God,” Brunsman said. “It can sometimes be a pretty lonely place to be as a freethinker in certain high schools.”

People who identify as atheist or agnostic are a small but growing minority in the United States, totaling about 3 percent of the population, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who serves as a senior researcher for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[For other estimates of the number of atheists in the US - as well as a brief analysis of the many problems associated with coming up with any estimate - see the entry I posted on Feb 20, 2005.]

But the group of Americans unaffiliated with any religion is rapidly growing, estimated to be as high as 15 percent. The group includes those who believe in God and those who don’t.

The generation younger than 30 is less religious than their parents were at their age, Green said.

In the next couple of decades, the younger generation could mature without ever seeking religion, leading to a rise in the numbers of atheists and agnostics. Or the young people might follow the Baby Boomers and find church when they marry and have children.

Either way, Green said, being a nonbeliever has become more socially acceptable, though the term “atheist” is still off-putting to many. In polls, atheists are often more unpopular than Muslims and Mormons, two groups that are traditionally viewed unfavorably by the American public, he said.

The Secular Student Alliance has been contacted by high-school students who want to start a group but can’t find a teacher willing to advise. Taking that role can hurt an educator’s career in some places, Brunsman said.

Bakunas and Hayes Principal Brad Faust said they haven’t encountered resistance to the group, though the members say some teachers and students are uncomfortable with the concept.

Faust welcomes the group, saying that high school is “an opportune time for them to be developing their thoughts and beliefs.”

To Christian educator Chris Joseph, principal of Gahanna Christian Academy’s middle and high schools, such freedom is dangerous. Teens who think they can be “good without God” miss out on a relationship with Jesus that will offer them salvation, he said.

“It might distract people from actually developing a faith,” he said. “It’s obviously eternally damaging to some people.”

[Long-time readers of this diary as well as close observers of the news media will note that this is yet one more story about atheists in which the reporter felt it necessary to seek out and include the highly predictable comments of a theist. Stories about Christians and other theists, in sharp contrast, rarely include comments from atheists. Even worse, perhaps, is that the comments of these sought-out theists are rarely allowed to be directly questioned or countered by the atheists at the heart of the story. If the atheists I know had been given that opportunity, they might have pointed out to Mr. Joseph and others that raising a child as a Christian can be a dangerous thing to do in that it often seems to distract children from developing their critical thinking skills - something that can cause long-term damage not only to that child but to the society and the world he or she helps shape as an adult.]

At Hayes, Bakunas takes a hands-off approach to group discussions, occasionally interjecting with a question or to challenge a statement.

He has a rule that students stay positive and avoid bashing anyone.

[Do Christian high school groups have a similar policy? Is it really fair or appropriate for frequently attacked minority groups like atheists to be told that they can't say anything negative about those who attack them?]

Not all the students who participate are atheists; many have not attached a label to their world views yet.

At the Sept. 30 meeting, Bakunas, two senior boys and a 2010 alumnus who formerly served as president were in attendance.

The group often starts small at the beginning of a school year, Bakunas said, but has grown to include as many as 15 students.

Those at the meeting talked about why people believe, with Forest Wilson, 17, pointing out that religion gives people hope that “there’s more to life.”

Seth French, 18, said the government shouldn’t be able to use religion to challenge the teaching of evolution or to forbid gay marriage or the construction of a mosque near ground zero.

Timothy Hyatt, 18, the 2010 graduate, said he used to call himself an atheist but doesn’t anymore. He said everyone should be allowed their own idea of “God.”

“To me, personally, God is whatever’s going to give you that level of motivation and satisfaction to get you through the day,” he said.

[Do you agree or disagree with Timothy?]

French, who does identify as atheist, says it’s important for nonbelievers to be accepted by broader society, especially in a “conservative Christian town” such as Delaware.

“Barriers need to be broken down,” French said. “I know people who are atheist and agnostic, and they can’t be open about it or tell their parents because they would be rejected.”

So there you have it – a brief glimpse of how young Ohio atheists are trying to clarify their thoughts and find a home in the social landscape of a predominately Christian culture.

Some readers might be struck by how few their numbers are and how great the obstacles they face seem to be.

As someone who has lived in Ohio a very long time, I am most struck by the fact that at least a few young atheists here finally have a club in a public school and now have had a story about them appear in one of the state’s most important newspapers.

Progress *is* being made, though it can seem at times to be painfully slow….

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NPR: What Fair & Balanced Really Sounds Like

Secular Students Find Their Place On Campus (Michel Martin/NPR; Oct 8)

Religious surveys find that 15 percent of Americans identify themselves as non-religious. Now, college students who identify that way are finding or creating opportunities to fellowship with others that fall into that category. But how does identifying as atheist, agnostic or humanist play out for black college students? Host Michel Martin talks with Mark Hatcher, founder of the Secular Students of Howard University, Debbie Goddard, spokesperson for the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group that promotes secular values, and Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Michel Martin.

Coming up, you tell us more about what you thought about this week’s program. That’s Backtalk, and that’s in just a few minutes.

But first, it’s time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. That’s the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

But as school is back in session, and we’ve been digging into education matters, we thought we would talk about the rise of secular, agnostic and atheist groups on college campuses.

Now that might not seem so remarkable. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 15 percent of Americans now self-identify as nonreligious, and college is often the time for students to question the values and points of view with which they were raised.

But we found that across the country, more college students who fall into that category seem to be seeking out opportunities for fellowship, for celebration and community service events with like-minded peers.

To talk more about this, we called Mark Hatcher. He is a Howard University Ph.D. candidate in neurophysiology, and he is founder of the Secular Students of Howard University. He’s seeking official recognition for that group. And if and when it is granted, it will be the first such group recognized by a historically black college or university. He’s here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Also with us is Debbie Goddard. She’s a spokesperson for the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group that promotes secular values. She’s the director and campus outreach coordinator for the group African-Americans for humanism, and she’s with us from member-station WBFO in Buffalo, New York.

And we welcome Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He’s also author of the book “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” and he’s with us from the studios at Harvard. I welcome you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK HATCHER (Founder, Secular Students of Howard University): Great to be here.

Mr. GREG EPSTEIN (Humanist Chaplain, Harvard University; Author, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe”): Thank you very much.

Ms. DEBBIE GODDARD (Spokesperson, Center for Inquiry): Thanks for having me on today.

MARTIN: Now, Mark, let’s start with you because, as we mentioned, you are the founder of the Secular Students of Howard University. So, Mark, in order to get official campus recognition, you have to get 10 signatures, presumably from your peers.

Mr. HATCHER: Yes.

MARTIN: And even getting those 10 signatures was hard.

Mr. HATCHER: The signatures was, it was a task because once they see the word secular, 90 percent of the people on campus say oh, no, that’s I’m going to hell. And a lot of people who are sympathetic, they don’t want their name on a piece of paper that says secular in case they’re running for president one day, and it pops up. And, you know, you can’t run for president in this country if you have anything associated with secular.

MARTIN: I do want to ask, did you have any hesitation about pursuing your studies at Howard because religion, as it’s traditionally understood, is such a big part of life? There’s a chapel. It’s a center for African-American worship, theology, scholarship around religion. Did you ever hesitate, thinking I won’t fit in?

Mr. HATCHER: Oh, no, not at all. I celebrate Christmas, and I go to church with my family. And I mean, I have I understand the country is so very wrapped around religion. So I had no problem with going to Howard.

I thought that it would be a great opportunity for me to be in a place that is so important to black people, and then bring something new to the conversation.

MARTIN: Debbie, what about you? Tell me about the group that you are a part of, African-Americans for Humanism. Why was it important to have this kind of group? And what kinds of things do you do on campus?

Ms. GODDARD: African-Americans for Humanism was started back in 1989 by Norm Allen, Jr., who was at a conference run I think by the Council for Secular Humanism. And he stood up and said, why aren’t there more African-Americans represented?

So they started this outreach program specifically to try to help humanism have a bigger impact in the African-American community.

MARTIN: Greg, I confess that I went to Harvard. I did not know there was a humanist chaplain in Harvard. Tell me a little bit about your post, and why was it created?

Mr. EPSTEIN: There has been a humanist chaplain at Harvard for about 35 years now. But when I came here to Harvard six years ago, most people did not know that such a thing existed. And, really, just the same way that most people don’t know that there are organizations and communities and educational programs for people who define themselves as humanist, atheist, agnostic, nonreligious.

But there are. There are some great programs and organizations and opportunities out there. And I wanted to set out to create something that would really give people a sense of community, and also that would create a top-notch educational program, where we could really train young people on this campus to be great and well-trained leaders within a movement of people who are humanist, atheist, agnostic and nonreligious. And we’ve seen tremendous, tremendous growth and enthusiasm over the last several years.

MARTIN: Can I just ask, how do people find their way to you, and how do you try to support them in that community?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, we’ve got people who find us in such a variety of ways. I mean, you can imagine everything from people who have had really negative experiences with religion to people who have had almost no experience with religion whatsoever. Or they really have no problem at all with anything religious, but they find themselves looking for something to make them feel a little bit more connected to those around them than their sort of average, everyday clubs or activities that they might join, something that has the shape of a community that we might expect from religion but without any of the material about God or the supernatural or worlds beyond this one.

And people just sort of show up, and they say how can I get involved. I never knew that anything like this existed before. Let me do something with my humanism, my atheism, whatever it might be.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re speaking with advocates of nonreligious or secular students on college campuses. And we’re speaking with Greg Epstein. He is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. We’re also speaking with Debbie Goddard. She’s the spokesperson for the secular group Center for Inquiry. And Mark Hatcher is the founder of the Secular Students of Howard University.

So, Mark, tell me a little bit, if you would, about how you became attracted to humanism. You said that you grew up in a religious family.

Mr. HATCHER: Yeah, I grew up a Catholic. I grew up in that I’m a Catholic school boy. So basically, I mean, I got into sciences. I got into looking into physics and looking into biology and evolution and things of that sort. And it would be a lie if I didn’t say that that kind of pulled me away from the theistic sort of outlook on life.

And I really just started looking into other religions, other cultures, other beliefs and came to the conclusion that, well, what makes more sense, that one person’s right or maybe nobody’s right?

You know, so I just stepped away from it and said hey, I’m going to look at it from a point of view of agnostic. I don’t know. I’ll let the evidence talk to me as opposed to making it what I want it to be.

MARTIN: Was this a crisis for you?

Mr. HATCHER: Not really. I’ve had some rough times as a result from it, you know, maybe a couple relationships that were strained because of it. But mostly, my family’s very supportive. My mom I love my mother to death, and she’s extremely supportive of me and everything I do.

MARTIN: Is this one of those things you can agree to disagree on?

Mr. HATCHER: Yeah, and it is. It’s one of those things where she’s like, you know, hey, believe what you’re going to believe. I love you. And I’m fortunate. I’m extremely fortunate. I’ve heard some horror stories.

MARTIN: Tell me about that because, as we know, I mean, this is, as you discussed, a very religious country, a very observant country, particularly compared to, say, our peer economies in, you know, Western Europe.

Mr. HATCHER: Right.

MARTIN: And I think in the African-American community particularly, traditional religion has been a very powerful source of leadership, culture, inspiration, community, all of the above. Even if people may have their private doubts, it just is not something that one hears commonly expressed openly.

Mr. HATCHER: And that is exactly why I felt the need to start the Secular Students at Howard University because a lot of times, if people feel like they can’t be themselves because they think it’s committing social suicide, and in some circles it really is. In some families, they won’t talk to you.

And like I said, I was lucky because I have a very understanding, a very intelligent family who says, you know, we believe something different, but hey, we can have the conversation with you.

MARTIN: Debbie, what about you? Talk to me a little bit about your interest in humanism. What do you hope your group will accomplish?

Ms. GODDARD: I got interested in humanism and nonreligious ethics when I was a kid, also like Mark, in Catholic school. My father is Jewish, but my mother was raised Catholic. She’s from Trinidad, and it’s a pretty Catholic country, generally. There’s a lot of Catholic influence and culture.

In sixth grade, I was supposed to go through confirmation, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be Catholic forever and ever. And so, I thought maybe I could convert to Judaism. I told my father I wanted to convert to Judaism to get out of the commitment ceremony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GODDARD: And he suggested instead that maybe I should start preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, so I could be Jewish forever and ever. And I thought oh, crap, here’s my choice, either be Catholic forever or be Jewish forever.

And then I thought, well, what about the Hindus? What about Muslims? I grew up in Philadelphia, which is a very diverse city in a very diverse neighborhood and thought how do I know that they’re not right? How can I evaluate who’s right because they can’t all be right.

And so rather dramatically, one day I decided that their stories were probably made up and reinforced over time through culture and whatnot. And I told my teacher the next day, Sister Terez(ph): Sister Terez, I don’t think there is a God.

And she wasn’t as happy as I thought she’d be, and I was punished. And so that gave me a keen interest in promoting critical thinking and doing ethics.

MARTIN: And can I ask you though, Debbie, of all your sort of various identities, do you ever feel like being African-American and being a humanist are ever in conflict in a way that you find difficult to resolve?

Ms. GODDARD: I find other people tell me so. But I grew up in a very African-American neighborhood. However my mother is from Trinidad and so my black identity was different than that of many people around me. I didn’t grow up on soul food. I grew up with Caribbean food. And I’ve talked to other people who have a Caribbean background who have said the same thing. That we need to kind of expand our idea of what it means to be African-American sometimes.

MARTIN: Mark, I’m wondering if you think that other campuses will follow your lead. I know that this is very new. I’m curious about where you think it will go.

Mr. HATCHER: I think that this is, hopefully this is just the spark that ignites the fire because there are so many people. I know that they’re out there and the issue is that they don’t know anybody else is out there. I have people come up to me on campus when I table. I mean I get a lot of responses such as you know, I don’t want to go to hell or you know I’ll be praying for your soul. But most of the time I get very, you know, we have conversations, people who want to know what atheism is and how I came to it and this, that or the other.

But occasionally, rarely I get this person who comes up and very quietly says you know what? I don’t believe either. I had no idea that there was anybody else that was black and that had this type of culture that grew up in the church that walked away from it as well.

MARTIN: And is it your hope to persuade people of your perspective or…?

Mr. HATCHER: I don’t. I want to have a conversation. I think that the problem is that we’re not having the conversation. That’s all I want to do. I’m not going to change anybody’s mind. The only person that’s going to change their mind is you. That’s it.

MARTIN: And Greg, can I have a final thought from you? I’m curious because you don’t really think of the Ivys as being a place that’s hostile to people who are humanists or secularists or atheists. So I guess I’m curious about what it does there and what role you think you’re playing in people’s lives?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure, well a few quick things Michel. First of all, I think that the entire idea of our community, the humanist community at Harvard and beyond, is that we are really trying to get beyond just hostility or responding to hostility. This is about a positive identity. It’s not just that I disbelieve in any god. Anybody on Earth has things that they disbelieve in.

But this is about standing for something. It’s about standing for humanism. It’s about standing for secular values. It’s for standing for the idea that this is the only life we’ll have. And for the first time we really believe that this community is unified and important enough that it ought to have a home, not just on our campus but eventually, and this is what we’re working towards, on every campus.

MARTIN: Greg Epstein is the author of a book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Non-Religious People Do Believe”. He is also the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and he joined us from their studios there.

Mark Hatcher is here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. He’s the founder of the group, the Secular Students of Howard University. Also with us Debbie Goddard, she is the campus outreach coordinator for the Center for Inquiry and the director of African-Americans for Humanism and she was with us from member station WBFO in Buffalo, New York. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Thank you very much.

Mr. HATCHER: Thank you Michel.

Ms. GODDARD: Thanks for having me on.

This broadcast prompted Christopher Thompson to share these comments at the NPR website:

Kudos to Mr. Hatcher and Ms. Goddard for their efforts. I went to Morgan (just an hour from Howard), and saying you’re an agnostic or atheist on a black campus is like saying you’re into biting the heads off of kittens. I was hounded by people trying to “save my soul”, literally! They would follow me to class, spitting fire and brimstone about how I would go straight to hell. One time, I was told that Satan made my mother sick with cancer to keep me from attending some church event with a friend. After a while, I just told people I was (something) just to shut keep the hounds at bay. It’s good to know that Mr. Hatcher was able to bring together a secular group on Howard. He’s doing wonders.

To learn more about black atheists, see the entries I posted on Feb 6, 2005, May 30, 2009, and May 22, 2010.

To learn more about secular student groups on college campuses, see the entries I posted on March 13, 2005 and March 17, 2008.

To learn more about one especially impressive secular college student, see the entry I posted on April 9, 2010.

Are you aware of any atheist, humanist, or proudly secular organizations that are making a difference in the lives of students on a college campus near you? Please share the details!

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Same As It Ever Was

One of the great things about science is that it has obviously progressed over time.

One of the terrible things about religion is that it’s progressed so little despite having a much longer history.

While scientists have embraced increasingly sophisticated techniques and theories over the centuries, religious adherents seem to have been content to stay in the same muddy little patch of the human imagination, endlessly spinning their wheels (when not engaging in demolition derbies with each other).

Here’s a recent story that reminded me of this:

NY Mosque Debate Echoes Fears Of 225 Years Ago (Paul Vitello/The New York Times/The Columbus Dispatch; Oct 10)

Many New Yorkers were suspicious of the newcomers’ plans to build a house of worship in Manhattan. Some feared the project was being underwritten by foreigners. Others said the strangers’ beliefs were incompatible with democratic principles.

Concerned residents held demonstrations, some of which turned bitter.

But cooler heads prevailed; the project proceeded to completion. And this week, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in lower Manhattan — the locus of that controversy two centuries ago — is celebrating the 225th anniversary of the laying of its cornerstone.

The Rev. Kevin V. Madigan, who is the pastor of St. Peter’s, was not initially struck by the parallels between the opposition the church had faced and what present-day Muslims have encountered in proposing a community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero.

But as an uproar enveloped the Islamic project over the summer, the priest said he was startled by how closely the opposition mirrored that brought in 1785 against St. Peter’s, blocks from the proposed mosque site.

City officials in 18th-century New York urged project organizers to change the church’s location, in what was then the heart of the city, to outside the city. Unlike the organizers of Park51, the Catholics complied.

Then there were fears about nefarious foreign backers. Just as some opponents of Park51 have said that the $100 million-plus project will be financed by the same Saudi sheiks who bankroll terrorists, many early Protestants saw the pope as the enemy of democracy. They feared the church would lead a papal assault on the new U.S. government.

The Park51 organizers say they will not accept foreign backing. But St. Peter’s Church was made possible by a handsome gift from King Charles III of Spain.

The angry eruptions at demonstrations this summer against the Muslim center were not as vehement as those directed at St. Peter’s, Madigan said.

Two decades after the church was built, Protestants started a melee that killed a policeman. They were incensed at a celebration going on inside that they viewed as an exercise in “popish superstition” — Christmas.

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