Why Gini Courter’s endorsement of Laurel Hallman rings hollow

March 2, 2009

The following is a comment I sent to the UUA’s Election-l mailing list which serves as a forum for the UUA presidential candidates. Gini Courter (pictured below) is the UUA’s elected moderator (their highest volunteer position, presiding at GAs and meetings of the Board of Trustees).

But her endorsement of Laurel Hallman (which you can read at http://hallmanforuuapresident.com ) is not to my liking, as you’re about to find out.

Gini Courter’s endorsement rings hollow

Gini Courter’s endorsement for Laurel Hallman may well backfire. Her
‘listening to congregations’ rhetoric sounds to me like the Bush
administration’s response to Global Warming scientists: ‘Let’s delay
action indefinitely by studying this some more.’ By contrast, Peter
Morales reminds us that we have already gathered plenty of actionable,
practical knowledge on fostering growth because we have been actively
listening to and working with the full spectrum of congregations for a
long time. His training DVDs, workshops, and success stories
(including the growth at his own congregation) prove conclusively that
neither miracles nor gobs of cash but only dedication are required.
However, too few congregations have yet seized on or even realized
their own potential.

Peter would be an inspiring leader who can make congregations aware
that various solutions adaptable to their local situations exist, have
been identified for some time, and are within their means. He would
impress on congregations that none of these solutions will likely work
if they skip the necessary self inspection to identify with painful
honesty why they still shrink or stagnate.

But most importantly, he gives it a distinctive religious thrust, even
mandate: We are the religion for our time, and we owe it to those who
are seeking a liberal spiritual home to truly welcome them.
My experience, as a humanist and atheist, is that UU offers the Good
of religion without the Bad (not counting committee meetings):
community, deep reflection about what is important in life, social
justice, good deeds and activism, joy, music, and caffeine. We reject
religious dogma as the arbitrary and often cruelly inhumane traditions
that they are and insist on thinking for ourselves.

Peter tells us Unitarian Universalism ought to be a life changing
offering for a very large number of Americans, and that we must get
our act together to become the denomination that makes good on that
liberating promise. This time of economic crisis presents an
opportunity not to retreat and refocus on our existing membership but
to invite others in to share what we have.

To me, Gini Courter’s talk about ‘listening’ further sounds like a
calculated appeal to those congregations who don’t want to change, who
neither want to listen nor to share, and to tell them that Laurel
Hallman is the candidate who will happily leave them to their own
devices. Her appeal sounds like fishing for votes among those who
don’t care about the association anyway. Peter has stated that he,
too, won’t force anyone to change. But it is because he wants to focus
the UUA’s energy on those congregations who have declared a desire to

Furthermore, Gini Courter’s harping on ‘listening’ ignores that Peter
(but not Laurel!) has identified and publicized new upcoming problems
for the UU movement that many ministers and lay leaders are not
sufficiently aware of (such as the demographic steamroller bound to
flatten us in just a few years, or the almost total absence of non-
white ministers in the training pipeline). Someone has to alert them
and call on them to jointly work on solutions. Listening goes both ways.

Gini Courter then claims we need a leader “grounded in our polity”
which seems to imply that only a ‘UU lifer’ could ever be eligible.
First, this denies the fact that our denomination would long have gone
extinct if not for the influx of adult seekers from other religions or
no religion at all. Peter is one of those, and he represents that
large, and active, segment of members who arrived here later in life.
For him, UU is not a family tradition but a deliberate choice. He has
turned his own calling into a call to expand our role and turn our
liberal and liberating approach to faith from a feeble and marginal
one to a clear and relevant voice in American religious life.

Secondly, our stagnation is bigger trouble than many realize (we are
in effect shrinking relative to population growth). It is often easier
for someone who has not been an insider his or her entire career to
provide a more helpful diagnosis. Organizations who managed to survive
crisis have typically brought in leaders from the outside. Peter,
fortunately, offers both: he has years of intimate inside UU
experience on the national, regional, and congregational level, as
well as perspectives gained working in business, government, and the

By contrast, Laurel lacks an outside perspective, and her
overoptimistic leadership in the failed million dollar Pathways “Fast
Start” Congregation endeavor is perhaps indicative that a UUA
president needs broader qualifications than long tenure and a
successful ministry. Had she googled “why churches fail” she would
have found out immediately that among two dozen options to create a
new congregation they picked the most expensive one, and the one least
likely to succeed. Optimism alone doesn’t cut it.

Finally, Gini Courter’s evocation ‘treat them not like customers’ is
empty rhetoric. Obviously, the UUA – by nature of its contingent of
fiercely independent members – will never be ‘top down’ or a mere
service pool. But of course Boston headquarters has a much appreciated
and needed role to be of service to congregations and to allocate and
steer resources. For that, we could make due simply with an
administrative manager, and that’s not the job up for a vote.

But to instigate our necessary national dialogue about directions,
problems, and solutions we need a president with a clear vision and a
voice that wakes us from complacency and tells us that, yes: We can be
the religion for our time. Peter Morales is that leader.

M.V., Golden, Colorado,
(a member of Peter Morales’ congregation, Jefferson Unitarian Church)
You can sign up for theElection-l mailing list here:



evidently, no god

February 11, 2009

I responded recently to someone who asked for simpler arguments in the debate over the existence of god; arguments that did not require a degree in  astrophysics, philosophy, or logic.  I took the bait.


Claims about the existence of God or gods or spirits or demons or life forces or fairies ….. are only made by humans. Living as a human being around other human beings will have taught you by now that we often make or hear claims that are lies, delusions, misinterpretations, bragging, conjecture, madness, jokes, ramblings or deceit. Every day there is fraud committed exploiting the gullibility or trust by con artists, religious or otherwise.

The problem is: when it comes to supernatural claims there are in effect
no criteria to distinguish the frauds from the messenger from god.

Because what it comes down to is that someone believes to have communicated with a deity, and later manages to persuade other people that it was really so.

In other words, later believers rely trusting in oral reports and imperfect manuscripts handed down to them (sometimes over generations).

In a fair court of law we have a name for this kind of evidence: hearsay without physicial evidence or independent confirmation. For obvious reasons, such proclamations are not admissible, because they do not deserve the name evidence. Otherwise we would have little hope to see through artfully invented excuses or malicious claims.

What’s worse is that in matters of theology, our ‘court room’ spans all of history and all of the globe: we have vastly different theologies all claiming to be true and all contradicting themselves. For both logical and practical reasons they cannot all be true at the same time. While it is theoretically conceivable that one theology gets it right, there is no way to figure out which one that might be because they all, without exception, offer no evidence that rises beyond the inadmissible claim of personal revelation. It is however extremely likely that they are all false.

And false they are as demonstrated over and over and over again when concrete religious predictions are empirically tested.

Take prayer. Prayer has been scientifically investigated extensively by both neutral researchers and those eager to find positive results. Negative. No better than chance. And the happy anecdotal reports are simply explained by people’s tendency only to count the ‘hits’ and to ignore the ‘misses’.

The existence of a specific personal god who does things only a god can do and makes specific demands on people apparently can not be proven.

But there would still be a way for a god to actively prove its existence once and for all: Many religions claim their deity has supernatural powers. In other words, it would be super easy for Super Daddy to put his fist down and give all non believers irrefutable physical proof of his existence and power by creating a miracle that makes his case. Again, nothing.

This god is like the “World’s Strongest Man ” who hasn’t won a single fight. Or like a starving beggar without apparent means of subsistence claiming to be the richest person in the world. In reality he is too poor to buy food and too poor for a coffin.

This impossibility to pinpoint any particular god’s existence has led some to speculate about what I’d call a god of last resort. They inveigh that the ‘ultimate’ miracle was the coming into being of the universe and life itself: and shout: “Only a deity could have jumpstarted the universe!”
Refuting that speculation is somewhat involved and I won’t deal with it here (read Victor Stenger if physics is accessible to you) but luckily, it isn’t necessary.

It isn’t necessary because it has no implications for humanity!

Suppose there was a divine jump starter. So what!?
While creating the universe is quite a feat it provides no basis for ethics whatsoever.
None. Because nothing was communicated.
And certainly no ‘meaning’.

Moreover, this alleged ‘creation’ happened a long time ago. Unimaginably long. Let’s just say that the statute of limitations to pay royalties has expired. Please note that this cuts both ways: we are in turn prevented from suing the supposed creator deity for shoddy workmanship.

Here’s a parable: I will liken our situation to the survivors from a plane crash stranded on an island. Imagine how at first there is justifiably enourmous gratitude for the captain whose flying skills managed to avert total disaster. But suppose no help ever arrives. Suppose the survivors are stuck on this island for hundreds of generations until the memory of the flight captain completely evaporated into the mist of time. Technically, after a few hundred years, the inhabitants still owe their existence to that captain in some manner of speaking.
But in practical terms?
His skills were about flying, alas they have no plane. His skill were not about growing foods, curing disease, building shelter, or solving disputes, or delivering babies, or sharing sexual bliss, or creating forms of government, or managing resources, or listening, or creative expression, or what have you.
Actually, let me take that back: unlike any distant jump starter deity who (necessarily!) lacks human characteristics, our ancient and long deceased captain was a human being, with all that entails! He will actually have contributed to the knowledge, wisdom, practices and custom of those islanders because he brought with him a body, a mind, and cultural and practical experience. Unlike this deist god who contributed nothing human.

So there you go: for all practical purposes, we have to depend on ourselves.
We arrived without instruction manual.
The people who claim to possess one turn out to be deceived deceivers with stunning regularity, and we observe that religions and their supposedly holy books have come and gone and vanished through the ages, proven to be fake by their extinction. And as of yet: no miracles.

Instead: We created a wealth of knowledge thanks to applying the scientific method, helped by judicious use of other human qualities such as compassion, love, curiosity, yearning, and unrelenting effort (to list just the nice ones – history is also advanced by cruel assholes).

Note that in essence, the scientific method simply means this:

“Take obsessive care not to fool oneself.”

Theology, by contrast, encourages, even glorifies such self deception. Just look to any religion and it will be instantly obvious (it is easiest with religions whose tenets you don’t share).

What many hope of religion is that with its magical silver bullets of divine law, divine love, and divine guidance all our questions, the global and the personal ones, will instantly receive a correct answer. Apparently, it’s easier to be “born again” than it is to grow up! (as a bumper sticker by the White Bear Lake,  MN Unitarian Universalist congregation reads).

We humans have great potential but we have to figure it out on our own.
The search for ‘ultimate meaning’ is futile.
It won’t help to solve the real puzzles, quagmires, and problems that we are facing. But that futile search has so far done a lot to sidetrack us and divert talent which could otherwise have contributed to real solutions.

Lets phase out religion.

To cold-shoulder religions won’t deprive us of experiencing and sharing love, wonder, exitement, pleasure, or the joy of discovery. No one can take our humanity from us, and creative minds will always produce properly labeled fiction and mystery in the form of literature, film, theatre and the arts.

Finally, religions has strived for so long not because their philosophical claims were so convincing but because they created communities (if often by force).

If we can develop healthier ways of providing communities and togetherness without the high cost and ill effects triggered by religions we’ll reap just the benefits. Advancing religious tolerance may be a first step in the right direction.

So is joining an undogmatic, tolerant religious community such as the modern Unitarian Universalists who, it is joked, only truly worship the coffee urn – as a symbol of human dialogue and belonging. As a hard atheist I’m a happy member of one such congregation (sample some sermons here ).

Once you realise that obtaining answers to ‘ultimate’ questions is a fool’s errand you’ll see that satisfactory answers to more proximate, more concrete questions are, by contrast, quite achievable.

We lose nothing of substance when we lose belief in a god.

Two future presidents? Peter Morales gives invocation for Barack Obama in Golden, Colorado

September 16, 2008

Peter Morales gave the invocation at Barack Obama’s campaign event in Golden, Colorado!

Sunday morning, our Golden Obama office looked a bit like UU coffee hour: a quarter of the volunteers, or so it seemed, are also members at Jefferson Unitarian Church, and among the hundreds queuing up for tickets outside were many familiar faces (and I saw most of them again for the 11am service as the church was full!).
That’s where I first heard a rumor: 
Peter Morales had been asked to give the convocation for Barack Obama’s speech today at the Colorado School of Mines.
Low and behold, this morning it came to pass! 
Even though I have a deep dislike for linking politics and religion I’m very heartened by that decision by the Obama campaign to let a Unitarian Universalist minister invite the audience to reflection. What better religion to call for inclusiveness and openness! As you will see, Peter Morales had the courage of his conviction, calling faiths that preach hatred false! Thank you, Peter, for saying what few others dare to say.
Here’s my video: 
[blip.tv ?posts_id=1273224&dest=-1]
Here is Peter’s convocation transcribed from the video:
“As we gather today for a political event in a heated election season, at a time of great uncertainty in our nation, let us remind ourselves that we are one people – and here in Colorado: “Somos un pueblo!” In this troubled time, let us remember the lessons of all the great religious traditions, let us remember that the task of a leader is to serve the people.
All the great traditions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism – teach that we are all connected to each other. They teach us that we best demonstrate our religious faith by showing compassion for one another. If we are to be faithful, we are to help one another, we will work for justice, we will work for peace.
When God works through us, we will marginalize no one.
When we are truly faithful we will see that religion is what ties us together. Any faith that divides us, that creates enemies, that preaches hatred, is false.
Finally let us remember that being faithful to our ideals of peace and justice is far greater than this campaign: it’s the work of our lives. It’s easy to pray for peace and compassion and justice, [but] our faiths call us to do much more than pray with words.
Our lives speak much louder and more truthfully than our words. 
Oh, loving spirit, use us. Use us, guide us, give us courage. Our time demands courageous acts from each and everyone of us.
Let each of us say, in the words of the prophet Isaiah: Here I am, send me.
May it be so, amen.”


Bad karma? What would you do with a rattlesnake hanging out under the tomatoes?

August 4, 2008

Our house borders the open space of a dry table mountain (mesa) in Golden, Colorado. Last week my wife had quite a shock: bending down to pick some ripe tomatoes she noticed – just barely in time – a rattlesnake coiled up under the tomato bush. We took some pictures, called in the neighbors and their kids so they would learn to recognize one and know to keep their distance, and then shooed it away with a ski pole. The rattle sounded exactly like one of those pop-up lawn sprinklers. Also, the snake turned out to be quite a bit longer than it appeared rolled up, 26 inches as we now know.

Anyway, we thought that encounter should have frightened her more than us and that we’d never see her again. Wrong. Four days later is was me who almost got bitten. I had looked carefully before going near the tomatoes but had seen nothing. But when I turned to the plum tomatoes there it was, 2 feet away, coiled to strike and rattling full throttle. I jumped back instantly, ‘enjoying’ a huge rush of adrenalin, and losing some cherry tomatoes.

It didn’t take me long to decide. We have a five year old girl, a clumsy St. Bernard, the kids across the street are even younger, and this deadly critter seemed undeterred and comfortable under those tomato plants by the brick wall that was radiating back the day’s heat until late at night. I got my camera, took a few last pictures and then hit it with a long shovel. 

Despite its partially severed head the body continued to writhe for another 20 minutes. My daughter was fascinated. I finally sawed the head off (with the shovel), sealed it into an empty can in the trash, and my neighbor moved the body onto a rock where birds of prey could easily spot it. 

Live and let live – sometimes. Still, I felt lousy and shaken.

In hindsight, I probably could have ushered the rattler into a tall garbage bin and let it out on top of the mesa. But it’s amazing how visceral those emotions get, and how they affected me.

Maybe that’s what I’ll do next time. Coincidentally, the authoritative book on rattlesnakes by Laurence M. Klauber “Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, Abridged edition”  had arrived that same afternoon. I had hoped to find more information on how to handle this slithery situation there but hadn’t checked the mail yet.

nothing moderate about the fundamentalist, apocalyptic, Christian-right ideology of Pastor Hagee

July 30, 2008


I highly recommend the article Going Undercover at Mad Pastor Hagee’s Christians United for Israel Summit” by Ali Gharib published on alternet.org on July 26.

Why undercover? Because in an effort to control the message the press was kept out of the conference.

There was nothing moderate about the fundamentalist, apocalyptic, Christian-right ideology of the attendants and speakers at the CUFI conference.

 “For us,” Hagee said, “there are only two ways to live: The Bible way and the wrong way. Christians United for Israel is a Bible-based organization now, tomorrow and forever, without apology to anyone for anything.”


on Alternet.org: Do Shock Jocks Spur Murder? Opportunity to chime in.

July 30, 2008

People may want to chime in and perhaps also educate other readers about Unitarian Universalism on alternet.org (registration required).

Editor Joshua Holland asks Did Right-Wing Shock Jocks Motivate Knoxville Killer?


astrological signs on blogger accounts – how to get rid of them

July 29, 2008

In the course commenting about the UUA elections and reading about this Sunday’s tragedy in Knoxville I’ve come across many UU blogs and have often encountered a blogger’s astrological signs listed in their profile. And lo and behold, my own profile showed them!


Most of you know that astrology is a pseudo science that has conclusively been proven to be utter bunk. There’s no mechanism to effect the supposed influence of ‘the stars’, the so called alignment points to empty space in the sky because the earth has rotated away from the position that it had when the ‘constellations’ were first put on paper, the attribution of ‘properties’ is totally arbitrary and assigned differently in different cultures, the predictive track record of astrology is zero and always has been, and the psychological mechanism of ‘recognizing’ horoscope descriptions as personally valid are well studied as cognitive delusions.

It’s utter rubbish for the gullible.

People have an aversion to hearing that something is false, claiming we can’t ‘really’ know what is true. This is a logical reverse that doesn’t hold up. Astrology’s claims have been shown to be false, unsupported and contradicted by evidence, and without predictive power. There is no way to assign astrology any likelihood of being somehow true. That’s when you have no choice but to call it false.

I would urge you to get rid of those absurd ‘descriptors’ if you have a blogger account. Just go to your profile and look for the appropriate check box. Unfortunately, it’s checked by default.

What’s next, I’d like to ask Blogger? Make it mandatory to indicate my “personal Feng Shui color”?


(The image is linked from the fabulous James Randi Education Foundation whose aim is “to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.”)