30 September 2009

Paul Kurtz: Stick. In. The. Mud.

Of all the personalities at CFI, I've always been the least impressed with Paul Kurtz. At the CFI World Conference in Bethesda, he did little to change my opinion of him. His latest contribution to rationalism (which can be found, undissected, by clicking on the title of this blog) has actually earned him negative points.

The celebrating of "Blasphemy Day" by the Center for Inquiry by sponsoring a contest encouraging new forms of blasphemy, I believe is most unwise. It betrays the civic virtues of democracy. I support the premise that religion should be open to the critical examination of its claims, like all other institutions in society. I do have serious reservations about the forms that these criticisms take. For example, cartoons have been recently circulated ridiculing key figures in Christianity, such as a cartoon depicting a feminine Jesus painting his "nails" with red nail polish, or the drawing of the Pope with a long nose like Pinocchio.

This could be translated, faithfully as, You know I'm all for free speech when I am arguing against religious claims, or challenging religious authority, but when the speech violates my rather prudish sensiblities I'm going to have, ahem, serious reservations.

Clearly a humourless guy, Kurtz has no need of things like satire and ridicule to punch through the thin facade of power and authority the holds many hostage in religious communities, or even those living outside religious observance. Sometimes the comics, satire and ridicule that so offends Kurtz's refined sensiblities, are exactly the prescription for cutting through the anesthetic of religious influence. Holy crap that cartoon, just said what I have been thinking for years! Out loud! Think of the importance of such experiences in some people's lives. Do you not see the power of a single satirical image? Are you so dense that you fail to see the usefulness of such images?

When we defended the right of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons deploring the violence of Muslim suicide bombers, we were supporting freedom of the press. The right to publish dissenting critiques of religion should be accepted as basic to freedom of expression.

It was also assumed by many, the contributors to CFI, and its readers, that you were also defending the freedom of expression of the artists themselves. The cartoons, while certainly conveying the messages, were doing nothing terribly different than the pope-pinnochio-nose image you deplore. You cannot have one freedom without the other. Either you really are for freedom of the press and freedom of expression or you are simply for that which you agree with, and is framed in the way least likely to cause offense taking by some person, somewhere.

But for CFI itself to sponsor the lampooning of Christianity by encouraging anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, or any other anti-religious cartoons goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society. It is not dissimilar to the anti-semitic cartoons of the Nazi era.

Here you make your most ridiculous blunder. It is completely dissimilar my orthodox PC friend. You will note that in both of the cartoons you mention (recent submissions I presume) it is not Catholics, or Christians generally who are being lampooned, or charcteritured, but leaders or icons of a particular faith tradition. These are attacks on ideologies and leaders in said traditions. Anti-semitism is racism, not criticism. Anti-semitism is less about Jewish ideology and much more about hating a racial identity.

Yet there are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention. In doing so they have dishonored the basic ethical principles of what the Center for Inquiry has resolutely stood for until now: the toleration of opposing viewpoints.

Now you are just being silly Paul. Fundamentalist atheists? Fuck you. How is that for tolerating an opposing viewpoint? Vulgarity? Grow the fuck up. No one has dishonored, and certainly never violated (until now no less) your basic tolerance principle. The CFI, indeed all skeptical endeavors, in both small and large ways are always engaged in acts of intolerance of ideas. It is why we criticise a thing.

Now skeptics and freethinkers tend to be happy letting people believe what they want, which is certainly tolerance in the most important sense of the concept. However, it doesn't follow though that we should suddenly not be heavy handed with ideas, or utilize scorn, ridicule, satire or some other form of harsh critique. And we certainly shouldn't not do it because you are going whine about it when we do. You may want to go scowl somewhere else Paul. Sometimes bold statements are vastly more useful than the long, academic critique.

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance.

Again critique is a form of intolerance. Mild to be sure, but come on. Just say what you mean here Paul. You don't want people offending the liberal believers who contribute to and support CFI. That is what all this whinging is really about isn't it?

One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech. What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society. I apologize to my fellow citizens who have suffered these barbs of indignity.

Paul anyone nattering about hate speech simply does not really support free speech and expression, nor a free press, nor liberty in general. When I see some insulting image of atheists or free thinkers (and there are certainly no shortage of these), of some bit of parody or satire I simply try to address the arguments contained therein. I do not complain overmuch about the intolerance of the other side, I begin constucting arguments against their position to lay it bare. "These barbs of indignity" that so vex you, don't matter. What matters is that I can argue against them, and am permitted the freedoms necessary to do so.

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29 September 2009

ZOMGitsChriss is my new hero: She kicks Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron in the nuts.

Solid as they say.

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BLOG BIT: Obama's Olympic Gamble: This might be a good thing

While not going out for brunch the yesterday, I heard a bit of isolationist moaning on the Mike Gallager Show decrying Obama's presidential efforts to get the 2016 Olympic Games (summer) held in Chicago. A caller worried about all the potential terrorists that might be tempted to attack during the games, Galleger slammed the Olympics as too New World Order while complaining about poor treatment he felt American competitors (or was it just Americans) recieved at the Olympics. While this was going on I simply worried that the average US IQ had precipitously declined in the span of seconds or minutes. (I would later listen to NPR, and have those worries somewhat allayed, and then I was shaken again listening to New England football coverage.)

However I think this is a great overture to the international community given the isolationist policies, and generally icey international tone of the previous 8 years. No doubt the symbolism is not lost on Obama, or his advisors in the slightest. Having the Olympics here, even just campaigning for the Olympics to be held here on US soil is a bold statement to the international community, saying that we are indeed ready to be included in the international dialogue, while at the same time saying that we want to be a focal point in world affairs again.

Obama is clearly an international man (doing a little bit for his hometown too it has to be said), who wants the US to think in broader terms. What remains to be seen is whether or not the vitriolic, less than honest right wing nutter movements will hamstring this process enough to limit broader US involvement in the wider world. But that is an aside. What is very clear is that Obama is sending a clear signal to the rest of the world, in numerous ways, that the US seeks its leadership role in the world once again.
It is about damn time.

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17 September 2009

BLOG BIT: Defending Simon Singh or...:Screw the BCA

Click on the title of this blog bit for link to Olivia Judson's nice defense of Simon Singh (you should also get to visiting his site and signing his petition). Singh co-authored a book that seriously reviewed the claims of the Chiropractic practicianers, as well as other alt medicine therapies, and wrote a piece in the Guardian about chiropractic. This led to a stupid, stupid libel suit by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The BCA could not rebut Singh's scientific arguments (the Guardian did invite the BCA to defend, and produce science that supported their claims), so they resorted to this, potentially financially crippling, law suit. Thanks crappy English Libel laws that stifle scientific debate, and investigative journalism!

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13 September 2009

Karen Armstrong, and Theology?

I occassionally read an essay by Karen Armstrong, just to see if she has stopped writing badly, or at least stopped to think a bit before she starts pushing her boulder up hill. I am consistently dissappointed in her efforts to defend something she calls faith, but that nearly all the world's faithful would fail to recognize. Her latest contribution to the dialogue is equally innane, and wooly headed. But I thought I might take a moment to dissect it.

"Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core."

This to me seems a stunning consession on her part. If this is so, and I'm certainly in agreement with her that it is, hasn't she just removed not only the dominant interpretation of God, one who omniscient and omnibenevolent, but also the dominant practice of religious faith, especially among the Abrahamic traditions? Most religious believers do hold that purpose is built into the design of the Cosmos. Even the most progressive among the Abrahamic traditions who can accept the fact of evolution, one can hardly miss the way many smuggle purpose back into the discussion, with some form of directed evolution. The following paraphrase could essentially come from Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, or the Pope: "Oh yes, the evidence clearly shows evolution to be a completely natural process. I feel that god certainly intervened with humans, ensouled us and and enmoralled us."
Yes I know enmoralled isn't a word. The first paragraph of this essay, it seems to me, completely removes the need to take God, or religion seriously at all, and what is funny is that Karen Armstrong perforates her arguments with such statements all the time.

"But Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive."

I actually laughed out loud at this line. I suppose Ms. Armstrong is incapable of noticing that it is hard to understand the capacities of an unproved entity, one that provides no positive evidence for its existance. God, bigfoot and the Lochness monster share this attribute. But perhaps parody is a better way to illustrate the problem: Despite our scientific understanding and technological brilliance our understanding of Zeus is remarkably undeveloped-even primitive.

In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart."

Apart from exageratting the number of non-literalists in the Abrahamic traditions, I think she is on liberal theologian autopilot here. She isn't really interested in arguing her case and simply content to intellectually felate the readers who already agree with her. She assumes that the interpretation she favors is the one all should understand, without justifying why we should be in agreement with her. Why should more literal readings, shades of which have by far been dominant to "God is mearly a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable trancendence" crowd, be rejected? Here Armstrong has no credible answers.

"But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity."

Can Armstrong really be saying that prior to the 17th century Christians were looking at the symbol, to the "God beyond god?" It is safe to say that the inquisitors would disagree. Christians had and always have, by and large, been in the business of transforming God into hard fact. Does that mean that there have not been enlightened people and sects who realize that literalism doesn't work because the facts don't allow it? Of course it doesn't. But they lose out to the literalists for a simple reason I think. The stories don't really allow for comfortable non-literal interpretation, especially taken as a whole (as in the bible for instance). We can take some of the stories individually and say, if we work at it, well this could be interpreted as an allegory, or metaphor. But its when you view the stories in context of the larger narrative that such non-literal interpretations break down. In any event, this statement is stunning in its odd disconnect from the religious history that preceded the 17th century.

"But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource."

Here Karen get its all, unmistakeably wrong. Did Darwin show there could be no proof for God's existence? No, not at all. There are numerous ways God could proven it is just that there is a dearth, to say the least, of such evidence on offer. What Darwin did was render the design inference null. An intervening God has become completely unnecessary as an explaination for life because of evolutionary theory. The evidence does not support the God inference, that is something religious believers impose on the facts. But rendering proof of God impossible? God could show up on the White House lawn, convene a pressconference and say, "For you guys, I'm going to turn Venus, and Mars into new Earth like planets complete with shopping malls, and roller coasters, and national parks, and adjust for various gravitational influences so as not to upset the orbit of or life on this Earth." And while it wouldn't establish that it was definately the Abrahamic God, it would be consistent with the kinds of powers often attributed to him. Such a thing would certainly be hard to explain scientifically. In any event, all Darwin, and later researchers have done is establish that God is certainly an unnecessary part of the explanation.

"Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words. Jews and Christians both developed audaciously innovative and figurative methods of reading the Bible, and every statement of the Quran is called an ayah ("parable"). St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history."

Again with this pre-17th century nonsense. Simply because a minority of religious thinkers in any time period adopt audacious, innovative and figurative contortions to preserve their religious conclusions doesn't mean such contortions are terribly intutitive to most religious minds, or even implied by the texts, often odious, that inspire them. Nor does it mean that such contortions were implied by the authors of said texts or that such an approach to religious scholarship is the correct approach. Does the historic persecution of Jews, homosexuals, heretics or the preoccupation with witches and the occult of the times pre-17th century smack of literal, or figurative mindedness dominating the intellecual landscape of that era?

"Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity."

Bald and somewhat bold assertion here, and it results from her tendency toward confirmaiton bias. She sees a scholar or two that agree with her sybolism only approach and then inflating the frequency of such scholars in history.

In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites' exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology."

So it was all just therapuetic? No one believed a word of it? This is a fascinating story Karen, but it fails to explain the rather real history of sectarian conflict in any substative way. She should have prefaced this paragraph with the phrase, "I think, maybe, based on my gut instinct." It would have been a more honest bit of scholarship on her part.

"There can never be a definitive version of a myth, because it refers to the more imponderable aspects of life. To remain effective, it must respond to contemporary circumstance. In the 16th century, when Jews were being expelled from one region of Europe after another, the mystic Isaac Luria constructed an entirely new creation myth that bore no resemblance to the Genesis story. But instead of being reviled for contradicting the Bible, it inspired a mass-movement among Jews, because it was such a telling description of the arbitrary world they now lived in; backed up with special rituals, it also helped them face up to their pain and discover a source of strength."

Perhaps, but we only really have her word to go on here that this was religion as therapy. It may be the case, or it could be the case that the mass movement was another example of rather literal-minded religion. Simply because Isaac Luria created another creation story isn't proof that he, or the followers of the movement didn't treat it as literal truth. Numerous religious figures from then to now create rather literal minded movements. Scientology is a prime example of this.

"Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?"

Says Karen Armstrong. I think her interpretation is actually the one that is unsustainable, and why it is always a minority view among religious people. In any event, both approaches opt for certainty in advance of evidence. In either approach does anyone see trepidation, an "I could be wrong about this" in the expressed sentiments. Armstrong is certainly not in doubt about God. In this she and the fundamentalist are the same. She just dresses her God in smoke and provides mirrors.

"Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the "God beyond God." The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection."

What Darwin made clear was that nature is sufficient to explain the origin of biodiversity, adaptation and behavior. Extra, supernatural variables were unnecessary after Darwin. I will have to disagree with her assessment that her religious ideas, or any ideas infuse the bearers of said ideas with anything like wonder, or awe at the mysterious. Whether Karen can find the words for it or not, her certainity about "God beyond God" is in no way diminished by her inability to articulate the concept clearly.

"But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God."

Do all the major traditions really insist on meditating on pain and misery? Do they do this in the warm fuzzy way Armstrong implies? What conclusions are reached from these meditations? The compassion that lies at the heart of faith? She says these things as if they have a single particular meaning. What uninsightful, and painfully trite, nonsense.

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07 September 2009

More "Health" drivel from HuffPo (click here to see the craptastic medical journalism)

The Huffpo often astounds one with the strange, and unsubstantiated material it publishes on health care. Nary a credible citation. Nary a rational assessment of possible confounders, and a whole lotta woo. It is unclear to me why the Huffington Post should be so abysmal with regard to its health issues coverage, and it doesn't give me much hope for the rest of its journalism. If the Huffpo has serious aspirations to be the internet paper of record, a bit of editorial oversite is going to need to be excersized in a big way.

Its recent article on autism is really representative of their coverage. While the underlying cause of autism may indeed be radically different from the current thinking, there is no reason to accept the unsubstantiated anecdotal account offered Doctor Hyman. His solution appears to be that it all what we eat, and he sorta subtley hints at vaccinations. Its all about detoxification, its all about food allergens and pro-biotics. And the research he promised to explore in the begining of the article that supported his hypothesis that everyone is wrong about autism? If it exists, he sure decided to skip it. He didn't even give us any references.
Fuck Dr. Hyman.

Later tonight I will dissect some of the most egregious errors of this silly piece later, but I just wanted to point out to you, for the moment that this is a terrible article.

02 September 2009

The ship of stupid sets sail from Kansas City

Just click on the title. This doesn't require any commentary from me.
But here is the image that caused all the trouble in Kansas City.

Can you fathom creating a stink over this image?

01 September 2009

Jack T. Chick sends me email.

I don't know if you have ever heard of Jack Chick, but he is a special brand of moron. Good with pencils (no one would say great), practices a pretty literal theology (no one would say smart), and enjoys making the bad guys in his little comic books look like stereotypical jews, or (and slightly more recently) stereotypical Muslims of Middle Eastern decent (no one would say tolerant). And there is the just plain weird (one would not know what to say). I ought not leave out the plain stupid either (surrounded by a cloud of anti-smart particles). Go on read a few, or at least some. I'll be here when you are ready to continue.

Okay, drink a glass of water, shake the bone-jarring stupid off and lets get on with this introduction, and inevitable farewell to Jack T. Chick.

Now I wouldn't fault anyone for independently producing comics but his material is pretty lousy, and worse it is terribly predictable. Some people might fold predictablity into lousy but I am going to seperate them. The stories could be lousy, but unpredictable like say Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter. Instead though Jack Chick opts for the two-fer and reduces even novelty readership. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.

If you don't know Jack T. Chick his claim to fame is authorship, and often pencil work of many of the dubious, and poorly researched Christian gospel comic book tracts you have found littering, sometimes surrepticiously, churches of every variety, coffee house community event tables, public restrooms (who picks up anything in a public restroom), and any where else Christian witnesses can think to put them. Fundamentalist Christians can buy by the bundle and at 25 tracts/$3.75 you can see how it is possible to inundate a small unsuspecting populace with these things. So now that you know who Jack T. Chick is, and what has made him famous, or maybe infamous I can move on with the point of this.

You may think the point will be to critique his theology which is terrible. But no, you would be wrong. While Jack certainly misrepresents much in the bible to suit his own particular religious and political needs it is pointless really to go there. Because almost everyone who adopts a good book goes there in some way. It all seems to become, from the very best theology, to the most simple minded and mean, cherry picking verses that appeal to the person doing the picking. So while I think Chick is simple minded, I also think he shares a simple problem with all believers. Besides Chick has no arguments and thus nothing really to analyze. The bible is true because Chick believes it is true. It is also unnecessary review his theological arguments and evidence because I think Jack also knows he has none to offer.
On some level. The bible is true and that, for he and his ilk is really, really, literally, no I mean literally, true, and that is all there is to it.

I suspect this because his method isn't really about converting through the power of arguments, and evidence but about using fear, and self interest to drive people to his point of view. Chick tracts glory in often graphic depictions of violence (particularly gleeful are the hosts of angels who happily pitch the unsuspecting into hell). What his tracts almost universally do is demonstrate torture and violence either on earth or in hell in the most graphic ways, and then offer up salvation at the very end. The violence is offered up in such detail, along with intimations of homosexual sex that I suspect a psychologist might have a field day with Mr. Chick. So violence, repressed sexuality are always front and center and always they function as the lever to scare the mark (that is the reader) into imagining their own eternal torture in hell. And all the tracks end with a few magic words, to recite that allow you, I guess, to be forever saved. In addition to all these manipulative tricks the man and his tireless staff are conspiracy nuts. Islam? Catholic conspiracy. Evolution? Catholic, or Jewish, and or Cathojewlic conspiracy. Of course this would be the case because Satan clearly leads all faiths except the one to which Jack T. Chick belongs.

Kooky conspiracies, subtle racism and a somewhat strange fascination with things he claims to hate comprise the Chickoverse. I got an email from someone who said I should examine the Chickoverse, which prompted me to get on his website, and sign up for updates. I used to examine the strangeness, I even debated via email one of Chick's website personalities, though I cannot now remember who the hell that might have been. I got acquainted with the depth of his conspiracy jones through the crazy newletter that goes up once a month. I've continued to get email updates for years, and today, I followed the links provided therein and found that none of it was really very funny anymore. I used to be amused by Chick's comics. But as looked at what amounted to forty years or so of his life's work I marveled at what an incredible, destructive and mean spirited waste it was. Unlike the guys who masterfully parody Chick's work, Chick and his equally brain dead acolytes actually believe in all the hateful, anti-intellectual nonsense they spew. The Chickoverse is a place that doesn't support honest argument, evidence, reason or principled disagreement. It favors fear, simple-mindedness and naked self-interest. It is a deeply unethical place, that can no longer even pull off the so bad-its-funny manuever.

Jack is one sick Chick....and his other writers are too. I happily hit unsubscribe!
Take that gospel tract man!

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