Alex’s Heresies – embracing a physical reality

news, commentaries and articles dedicated to a non-dualistic view of the world

Archive for September, 2009

Comment: Apply the Superstition Reality Check

Alan Sokal gave the third annual Sense: About Science lecture in February, 2008 where he suggested calling the religious spade a superstitious shovel. Or, to put it another way, if religion (faith) looks like superstition, sounds like superstition and argues like superstition, then it probably is superstition.

From a scientific or naturalistic worldview substitute the word ‘superstition’ every time religious writers or speakers use ‘religion’ and the synonymous ‘faith’ to see what they are really saying without our traditional reverance and respect. This makes a good reality check.

So George W. Bush’s quotations become:

“My superstition [faith] plays a big part in my life. And when I was answering that question what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my superstition [faith] is a very, it’s very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm’s way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls.
“But I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to. If you’re a Christian, Jew or Muslim you’re equally an American. That’s the great thing about America is the right to worship the way you see fit. Prayer and superstition [religion] sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, how do you know? I said I just feel it.

“Superstition [religion] is an important part. I never want to impose my superstition [religion] on anybody else. But when I make decisions I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That’s manifested in public policy through the superstition [faith]-based initiative where we’ve unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged how I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And superstition [religion] is a part of me.”
–Third Presidential Debate, Tempe, AZ, October 13, 2004

“I believe it is in the national interest that government stand side-by-side with people of superstition [faith] who work to change lives for the better. I understand in the past, some in government have said government cannot stand side-by-side with people of superstition [faith]. Let me put it more bluntly, government can’t spend money on superstitious [religious] programs simply because there’s a rabbi on the board, cross on the wall, or a crescent on the door. I viewed this as not only bad social policy — because policy by-passed the great works of compassion and healing that take place — I viewed it as discrimination.”
–Speech in Washington D.C., June 1, 2004

“I’m telling America we need to not discriminate against superstition-based [faith-based] programs. We need to welcome them so our society is more wholesome, more welcoming, and more hopeful for every single citizen.”
–Speech in Washington D.C., June 1, 2004

“It is the government’s strong desire to empower this fabric, this social fabric of our society where superstition-based [faith-based] programs large and small feel empowered, encouraged, and welcomed into changing lives.”
–Speech in Washington D.C., June 1, 2004

“It’s also important to strengthen our communities by unleashing the compassion of America’s superstitious [religious] institutions. Superstitious [religious] charities of every creed are doing some of the most vital work in our country–mentoring children, feeding the hungry, taking the hand of the lonely. Yet government has often denied social service grants and contracts to these groups, just because they have a cross or a Star of David or a crescent on the wall. By executive order, I have opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes superstition-based [faith-based] charities. Tonight I ask you to codify this into law, so people of superstition [faith] can know that the law will never discriminate against them again.”
–State of the Union Address, January 20, 2004

As a matter of interest here are some interesting definitions from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary:
Faith: (1) confidence, reliance, belief esp. without evidence or proof; (2) what is or should be believed; a system of firmly held beliefs or principles; a religion

Religion: belief in or sensing of some superhuman controlling power or powers, entitles to obedience, reverence, and worship

Superstition:  (1) irrational awe or fear of the unknown; belief in a religion considered false or pagan; religious belief or practice founded on fear or ignorance; credulity regarding religion or the supernatural; (2) irrational religious system

Alex McCullie

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News: Gays and Single-Mums Lesser People to God

Victoria is likely to allow discriminatory employment practices against homosexuals and single mothers by faith-based institutions where these people offend their faiths.

Religious dogmas continue to be placed ahead of humanity for many religions and we still allow them to occupy privileged positions in our Australian society. Read The Age article here.

Alex McCullie

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Comment:Pick Your Jesus

Not surprisingly, Jesus is worshipped by Christians all over the world. However different Christian groups revere quite different images of Jesus. Marcus Borg, a prolific progressive Christian writer, characterises two different views of Jesus as pre- and post-Easter Jesus, historical person and the risen Christ respectively. However I see three types of Jesus in play with scholars, theologians and laypeople: historical Jesus, Jesus of faith, and Christ of faith.

Historical Jesus
We have a sketchy image of a Jewish preacher. Historical scholars – mostly Christian – use empirically-based research techniques to separate historical fact from theological claims. Though difficult at times we would hope scholars can put aside their personal beliefs to approach this work with as much objectively as researching other historical figures like Plato, Augustus Caesar, or Cicero.
With very few non-Christian references, the gospels form the primary source material for Jesus. It is critical that scholars use secular methods to assess potential authenticity the gospels, especially as explicit proclamations of religious faith. The gospels vary considerably how they weave sayings and events together in rough narratives to proclaim their Jesus, suiting the needs of the author and his particular audience. These are not historical documents by any modern understanding of the term. Furthermore the gospels were written some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus in a world largely illiterate and dominated by the fear of demons and spirits. Though Paul’s epistles were written earlier than the first gospel, Mark, they say little of Jesus, the man.  As history the gospels provide records of his one, synoptic gospels, or three year, John’s gospel, ministering periods.
Finally we need to remember that biblical writings have gone through considerable editing, re-writing and inaccurate hand copying over the years to reinforce different theological messages. This makes the historian’s task daunting, if not problematic, to produce a meaningful stripped-down Jesus, removed of all Christian supernatural and theological claims.
Ultimately we have very little remaining that is not speculative. Jesus was a Jewish itinerant preacher, living early first century mostly around Galilee. He was executed by crucifixion around 30 CE by the Roman authorities. The liberal Jesus Seminar estimates that less than 20% of the gospel sayings can be attributed to Jesus. Despite this acknowledgement religious scholars seem to be able to propose many diverse images of Jesus, the man – social reformer, philosophical sceptic and apocalyptic messiah to name a few.
What do we make of this historical Jesus? Pretty flimsy according to four professors of English in their excellent The Bible as Literature:
For a long time it was assumed that the “historical Jesus” existed within and behind the four gospels in such as way that, by following clues in them and combining information that they offered separately, it would be possible to construct a reliable general account of his human existence. Many attempts of this kind have been made, but all of them have proven unsatisfactory. They are acts of imaginative piety, not history. The gospels do not contain enough data which to build a real biography, and efforts to flesh out their sketchy accounts simply require too much guesswork. (Gabel, 2006 p. 227)
Jesus of faith
Progressive and liberal Christians revere an idealised image of Jesus, the man. Adding moral, spiritual and social superlatives to a limited Jewish itinerant preacher profile of historical research, progressives venerate the Jesus of faith as one of the greatest people, if not the greatest person, of all time, a concept generally unchallenged in western society after years of Christian indoctrination. Claims of unique greatness are perhaps curtailed by their equally strong desire to recognise the greatest of other religious founders and leaders, like Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and Mohammad.
Most progressives seek to modernise the demon-infested world of the gospels by interpreting the supernatural aspects of the Jesus stories – resurrections, miracles, and exorcisms – metaphorically. The Jesus of faith then becomes a most remarkable spirit-filled sage whose sayings and actions in first century Galilee continue to be relevant today some 2000 years later. Given the disparate and parochial nature of the gospel proclamations, progressives can find selections of biblical passages to support their enlightened view of Jesus. Despite their acceptance of the historical Jesus research, progressive Christians choose biblical quotations on their support rather than on any authenticity assessments by biblical scholars.
So the Jesus of Faith is a modern Jesus constructed from the four distinct and often contradictory gospel stories. Their Jesus is not the actual Jesus, but from images of the first and second century Christian communities saw him, long after his death. Finally, progressive Christians explain the purging of fanciful stories, the ones that gave early Christians authority, with metaphorical interpretations as giving greater truths than the discarded factual claims. The selected stories and quotations present a gentle, inspiring, inclusive, spirit-filled Jesus sage, acceptable to us all.
Christ of faith
The resurrection story, typically a physical resurrection, forms the centrepiece of the Christian faith for the last 2000 years. Belief in Jesus is more about salvation through his death and resurrection than his life on this earth. According to Dominations Comparison (Rose Publishing, 2005) the Roman Catholic concept of Jesus as Christ of faith is:
The eternal Son incarnate, fully God and fully man, conceived and born of the virgin Mary, died on the Cross for our sins, rose bodily from the grave, ascended into heaven, and will come again in glory to judge us all.
The same publication states that other major Christian churches have similar conceptions of their Christ of faith.
References
Gabel, J. B., Wheeler, C. B., York A. D., Citino, D. The Bible As Literature New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Rose Publishing Denominations Comparision  Torrance: 2005

Historical Jesus

We have a sketchy image of a Jewish preacher. Historical scholars – mostly Christian – use empirically-based research techniques to separate historical fact from theological claims. Though difficult at times we would hope scholars can put aside their personal beliefs to approach this work with as much objectively as researching other historical figures like Plato, Augustus Caesar, or Cicero.

With very few non-Christian references, the gospels form the primary source material for Jesus. It is critical that scholars use secular methods to assess potential authenticity the gospels, especially as explicit proclamations of religious faith. The gospels vary considerably how they weave sayings and events together in rough narratives to proclaim their Jesus, suiting the needs of the author and his particular audience. These are not historical documents by any modern understanding of the term. Furthermore the gospels were written some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus in a world largely illiterate and dominated by the fear of demons and spirits. Though Paul’s epistles were written earlier than the first gospel, Mark, they say little of Jesus, the man.  As history the gospels provide records of his one, synoptic gospels, or three year, John’s gospel, ministering periods.

Finally we need to remember that biblical writings have gone through considerable editing, re-writing and inaccurate hand copying over the years to reinforce different theological messages. This makes the historian’s task daunting, if not problematic, to produce a meaningful stripped-down Jesus, removed of all Christian supernatural and theological claims.

Ultimately we have very little remaining that is not speculative. Jesus was a Jewish itinerant preacher, living early first century mostly around Galilee. He was executed by crucifixion around 30 CE by the Roman authorities. The liberal Jesus Seminar estimates that less than 20% of the gospel sayings can be attributed to Jesus. Despite this acknowledgement religious scholars seem to be able to propose many diverse images of Jesus, the man – social reformer, philosophical sceptic and apocalyptic messiah to name a few.

What do we make of this historical Jesus? Pretty flimsy according to four professors of English in their excellent The Bible as Literature:

For a long time it was assumed that the “historical Jesus” existed within and behind the four gospels in such as way that, by following clues in them and combining information that they offered separately, it would be possible to construct a reliable general account of his human existence. Many attempts of this kind have been made, but all of them have proven unsatisfactory. They are acts of imaginative piety, not history. The gospels do not contain enough data which to build a real biography, and efforts to flesh out their sketchy accounts simply require too much guesswork. (Gabel, 2006 p. 227)

Jesus of faith

Progressive and liberal Christians revere an idealised image of Jesus, the man. Adding moral, spiritual and social superlatives to a limited Jewish itinerant preacher profile of historical research, progressives venerate the Jesus of faith as one of the greatest people, if not the greatest person, of all time, a concept generally unchallenged in western society after years of Christian indoctrination. Claims of unique greatness are perhaps curtailed by their equally strong desire to recognise the greatest of other religious founders and leaders, like Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and Mohammad.

Most progressives seek to modernise the demon-infested world of the gospels by interpreting the supernatural aspects of the Jesus stories – resurrections, miracles, and exorcisms – metaphorically. The Jesus of faith then becomes a most remarkable spirit-filled sage whose sayings and actions in first century Galilee continue to be relevant today some 2000 years later. Given the disparate and parochial nature of the gospel proclamations, progressives can find selections of biblical passages to support their enlightened view of Jesus. Despite their acceptance of the historical Jesus research, progressive Christians choose biblical quotations for their support rather than on any authenticity assessments by biblical scholars.

So the Jesus of faith is a modern Jesus constructed from the four separate and often contradictory gospel stories. Their Jesus is not the actual Jesus, but drawn from images of the first and second century Christian communities, long after his death. Progressive Christians explain the purging of fanciful stories, the ones that gave early Christians all of their authority, with metaphorical interpretations as giving greater truths than the discarded factual claims. The selected stories and quotations present a gentle, inspiring, inclusive, spirit-filled Jesus sage, acceptable to us all.

Christ of faith

The resurrection story, typically a physical resurrection, forms the centrepiece of the Christian faith for the last 2000 years. Belief in Jesus is more about salvation through his death and resurrection than his life on this earth. According to Dominations Comparison (Rose Publishing, 2005) the Roman Catholic concept of Jesus as Christ of faith is:

The eternal Son incarnate, fully God and fully man, conceived and born of the virgin Mary, died on the Cross for our sins, rose bodily from the grave, ascended into heaven, and will come again in glory to judge us all.

The same publication states that other major Christian churches hold similar conceptions of their Christ of faith.

Alex McCullie

References

Gabel, J. B., Wheeler, C. B., York A. D., Citino, D. The Bible As Literature New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

Rose Publishing Denominations Comparision Torrance: 2005

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News: Karen Armstrong – Conservative Christian Blow-Back

Conservative Christians fight back against the religion-lite of Karen Armstrong and other progressive Christians.

I mentioned previously that Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong contributed articles to the Wall Street Journal about God, evolution, and God’s new role, if any. Now Albert Mohler, Author, Speaker, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees with Richard Dawkins that Karen Armstrong is an atheist in disguise. He further accuses her of being loose and dangerous with her theology.

Demonstrating the point that this exchange is really not a meaningful debate, Karen Armstrong begins her essay with this amazing statement:  “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.”

Statements like these lead to Mohler’s assessment that Armstrong “offers a superficial and theologically reckless argument that comes down to this:  Until the modern age, believers in God were not really believers in a God who was believed to exist.” And, later, he claims that, “she makes statements that amount to elegant nonsense.” Amusingly Mohler agrees with Dawkin’s statement that:

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”

Like Dawkins, Mohler clearly puts Armstrong and other progressive theologians into this group of sophisticated modern theologians and comes to the conclusion that:

So the exchange in The Wall Street Journal turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds.  The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not.  Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one.

Perhaps surprisingly, many atheists and other non-believers have sympathy with Mohler’s conservative view that progressives like Armstrong, Borg and Crossan are being ‘too clever by half’ in promoting a very benign, slippery non-god God.

Alex McCullie

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News: US Conservative Christians Rile Against Obama’s Social Reforms

More marginalised with the Republican Party out of power, the US religious conservatives are having to work harder to continue their fight against progressive social reforms. Their target is Democratic President, Barack Obama and his attempts at long-overdue reforms of the discriminatory health care systems in the US. There is no doubt that the US has excellent health care for the well-off but it’s dismal for everyone else.

Still that doesn’t worry the Christian conservatives. They fear state-funded abortions and the breaking of their God’s law. As I have said before, a consistent theme for traditional religions is theology over humanity. Read an article from Reuters.

Religious critics and progressive and liberal religious together should show these Christian conservatives for what they really are – dangerous moralisers working against human interests.

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Religious Reactions to Criticism

The Progressive Christian Network (PCN) in Victoria in Australia posted a series of responses by members in May, 2007 to comments by Richard Dawkins about his book, God Delusion, and to local newspaper columnist, Catherine Deveny. Here are my reflections on the PCN member’s articles. Most are familiar with Richard Dawkins and his knack of irritating people of faith, including liberals and progressives. After holding privileged positions in society, religions seem to react poorly to his type of overt criticism.

Atheists, like Dawkins, see that the sciences provide the most reliable and coherent explanations for our world and, in particular, for our species evolution. In this view we are physical beings in a physical world driven by physical causes, nothing magical. “Physical” means any combination of mass and energy as investigated by the sciences. So, most importantly, our sense of consciousness, self, free-will, and morality has strictly physical causes. In fact, scientists and most philosophers today accept that mental states arise from brain activities and not some “magical source”. Even though not fully understood, researchers continue seek physical explanations without declaring them to be permanently mysterious. Very few promote separate physical and non-physical dualistic-type explanations.

So Dawkins like many others sees declarations of “extra” realities as not only unnecessary but simply wishful, deluded, and misguided attempts to claim something special for humans. And proclaiming this really irritates the religious. Some critics go further to claim that all religions are outright harmful and dangerous. Many non-believers find this claim extreme, even though they often want to reduce or eliminate the special societal and financial privileges that religions and their religious schools receive.

To take one PCN response, Rob Sutherland, in God Is the more, abuses Dawkins and Deveny for attacking a monarchical form of God, the sky-god, as the only form of Christian God instead of recognising Sutherland’s nicer ineffable essence, the “more” (a la William James). He then continues with confusing arguments about atheism as some sort of rejection of non-physical consciousness; new-age mumbo-jumbo about quantum theology, thankfully quoted; and atheistic fundamentalists, Dawkins and company, as close-minded, non-seekers of the truth. Perhaps Dawkins best sums up Sutherland’s type of open-minded searching. “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.

I agree with progressive Christians that atheists and other non-believers need to be aware of the variations in Christian belief. There are vast differences between the traditional sky-god and the progressive loving essence, the “more”. However progressive Christians also need to recognise that they are a very small part of the world-wide Christian marketplace. From recent Pew Forum surveys in the US, it appears the 70 million religious people over 14 years take their sacred texts as the inerrant word of God. Another 70 million take them as the word of God written through people. So, I would expect millions to believe in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus, a very anti-scientific and unsustainable attitude. These are the true targets of religious critics. The more benign progressive Christians do not register on their radar.

Sutherland construes a unique definition of atheism. Usually atheists do not believe in a god or explicitly reject the existence of a god. Atheists, like most Christians, have a monarchical sky-god in mind. Many atheists then go on to reject any and all supernatural postulates. Naturalism extends this into a worldview of a physical reality, and only then do naturalists need to address questions like consciousness and free-will.

Finally, quantum mechanics is the physics of subatomic particles and its language is mathematics. It appears a bizarre world where a particle can occupy two places at the same time and two particles can affect each other with no apparent connection. Also it is a world of probabilistic determinism unlike the apparent casual determinism of our physical world. But it is pure speculation to draw any sort of metaphysical conclusions about our own reality. This research provides no evidence for spirits, gods, consciousness, the soul or free-will. In particular it is not the “backdoor for God”.

Many religions continue to be sensitive to criticism of all types. Many traditional religions expect blatant contradictions, wishful thinking, unsupported claims of authority, and dangerous moralisations to be accepted without question. Unfortunately they often are! Classifying their most vocal critics as fundamentalists or militants seeks to marginalise them with the bombing-wielding religious fanatics whom we all deplore. It is an effective, though, dishonest ploy.

Alex McCullie

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News: US – More Evangelicals & Non-Believers

USAToday reports that the biggest US churches are modern and evangelical – no surprise there. In an older related article USAToday describes a 20 year comparison of religious profiles in the US with a survey of generational religious changes over last 20 years.

Most religions lost ground with significant state-by-state variations. The broad non-believer category increased significantly (8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008).

One big casualty has been the mainstream Protestant churches, experiencing sharp declines. As discussed before, progressive Christian leaders present more credible religious beliefs (or perhaps  better described as non-beliefs) and progressive social attitudes to essentially the disenfranchised, liberal-minded, Christians. However the overall push towards evangelicalism and non-belief does appear ominous for progressives and liberals to compete in that  US religious market-place.

One article goes on to suggest the willingness of non-believers to declare themselves with today’s more tolerant society and as a rejection of the perceived irrelevance and destructiveness of organised religions. Child-sex scandals have dug deep into the churches’ moral standings. As an aside, modern religious people rightfully talk about the importance for religious tolerance but often do not apply that thinking to non-religious beliefs.

Alex McCullie

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News: 4 Night Course Problem of Evil Melbourne

16 November: Monday 6.00-7:30pm for four nights, discussing the history of this argument, how can a  loving, all-powerful, morally-perfect God exist with all the suffering (evil) in the world. I shall run this as a balanced review of the key arguments. CAE Melbourne City-centre

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Seeing Through a Religious Lens

“What is a religion?”

“What is being religious?”

… are very contentious questions especially among philosophers of religion.

I have floated the idea that it is something to do with seeing intentionality and purpose in our world where a naturalist would see none. A naturalist sees a pattern whereas a “religionist” sees a purpose. I saw god(s), heaven, hell, spirits as outcomes from that difference. Instead of claims of great revelatory insight, I got a rejection and indifference from friends and class and lecture attendees!

Here, in Australia, the vast major of people operate their everyday lives as naturalists even if they hold strong religious feelings. That’s how we work and live together.

So, what is seeing the world through a “religious lens”?

  1. There is something more than the physical world as specified by the sciences. Call it the “more” (from William James).
  2. Unlike the transitory nature of the physical world, the “more” is seen as permanent and unchanging, providing the “bedrock” of the world and our place in that world. The “more” provides structure, continuity and purpose to all reality and meaning to people’s lives as part of that reality. The “more” is taken as pre-eminent, overarching the physical world. It is revered as something fundamentally more important.
  3. Commonly the “more” is seen as having a consciousness that willed our physical world into existence and maintains its ongoing existence
  4. Religious beliefs, doctrines and practices are seen as human attempts to mediate with the “more” and therefore they are considered foundational to a person’s ultimate well-being. Most religions provide teachings and moral exemplars on leading lives in harmony with the “more”.
  5. Many attempt to “sharpen” their religious lens by objectifying and personalising the “more” with well-defined god or gods; sacred objects and locations; sacred texts; and sacred ceremonies.

Alex McCullie

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Comment: Armstrongs God Fades Into Irrelevance

Progressive Christianity writers, like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, and Francis Macnab, seek to make God more reasonable within today’s scientific view of the world. God is now portrayed as an ineffable essence instead of a well-defined infinite being, now less conflicting with science. His influence is through personal experience and not physical interventions. The risk for Armstrong et al. is that they move God from unbelievable to irrelevant.

Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins submitted pieces to Wall Street Journal arguing this point (see link).

NZ Myers in his blog unabashedly declares that Saving gods by making them even emptier of meaning

I made a similar point about Progressive Christianity’s loss of authority by claiming so little at a recent public lecture to the local atheists society (and was taken to task by a member of the Progressive Christian movement).

Here are two formats of the presentation:
Atheist Society talk Sep 2009: Progressive Christianity pdf (right-click to save)
Atheist Society talk Sep 2009: Progressive Christianity (new web page)

Alex McCullie

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