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Apparently the pope declared that the Catholic church is okay with condom use as a last resort to prevent AIDS.  Condoms are still seen as immoral.  I suppose I should be happy about their slow and gradual liberalization, but the more I read the more I feel like the pope and I live on different planets.

From the NYT
 
 
The pope made clear that he considered the use of condoms a last resort and not a way to prevent conception. The example he gave of when they could be used was in the case of male prostitutes.

Amid his vigorous defense of the church in contemporary society, Benedict also acknowledged some of the church’s failings, like in the sexual abuse crisis, which he calls “a volcano of filth” sent by the devil. He pointed to a “readiness for aggression” among those who criticized him for revoking the excommunication of a bishop who denied the scope of the Holocaust.
 
Oh right, an immortal red guy with horns and hooves who lives underground is responsible for the actions of priests who commit sexual abuse of children?  This is both ludicrous and disturbing, as it allows people to place responsibility for their bad actions on an external party instead of on themselves.  

The pope has over 1.1 billion followers --1/6 of the human beings in the world.  I don't know how many of the 1.1 billion take everything the pope says at face value and think there's really a red guy with horns who lives underground, but it's wild to think that so many people are being led to some extent by him.

This is why we need an alternative to religion as soon as possible.  
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I’ve often thought about how the leading vocal atheists have the wrong approach to religion.  They spend plenty of time making fun of the contradictions in leading religions and warning of the dangers of fundamentalism, but they don’t think about why people are attracted to religion to begin with.  Simply poking a stick at religion won’t win many converts, but providing something that meets the needs of religious people might do so.  One of the things that people find attractive about religion is that it provides them with an overarching worldview that helps answer the big questions in life, provides a value system, and helps create a central life purpose. 

What would the doctrine of such a religion look like?  Here’s an outline of how I would structure it:

----

The origins of the universe are unclear, but what is clear is that we as a species are something incredibly special.  As far as we know, Earth holds the only intelligent life in existence.  That may change in the future, but for now we are a lone bright candle of intelligence in the void.  The fact that an organized society of sentient beings emerged from a disorganized soup of chemicals is more than a miracle – it’s a long string of miracles.   It’s a wonderful triumph in light of physical laws that are neutral to hostile to complex, organized systems. 

These miracles were billions of years in the making. However, as self-awareness has increased, the pace of the “miracles” has greatly quickened.   Cultural and technological evolution and development have supplanted biological evolution as the primary driving forces in increased self-awareness.  For the first time, the emergent intelligence can consciously self-direct its own future development, for better or for worse. 

I'm going to take it on faith (or as a logician would say, as axiomatic) that self-awareness is good. A bacterium is more self-aware than a rock, a cat is more self-aware than a bacterium, a person is more self-aware than a cat, and a society is more self-aware than a person.  Self-awareness lets the universe understand and transform itself, allowing it to behold its own beauty. 

The ultimate purpose of the human race is to raise the matter of the universe to self-awareness, lifting ourselves up to the level of gods in the process. The universe may be beautiful, but it's a tragedy if it's never appreciated by an intelligent being. Science, art, literature, engineering, and other fields of human endeavor are tools to enhance self-awareness.

With our purpose in mind, we must tackle several huge issues.  We have to make sure that the lone candle of intelligence is not snuffed out through negligence or malice.  This means tremendous social progress – developing a society-wide immune system that prevents large-scale wars, catastrophic climate change, and other dangers to our existence.  We need to understand the human psyche and how it can be directed toward good and productive endeavors, both at an individual level and at a societal level.  We need to promote cross-cultural understanding and togetherness.  It also means that we need to start aggressively spreading our intelligence beyond the narrow confines of Earth and the fragile containers of our physical bodies.  Our civilization could be wiped out by causes outside our current control such as the sort of asteroid that led to the end of the age of the dinosaurs.  Developments in space travel, artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology will make our intelligence much harder to wipe out. 

Thus, our mission is clear.  We all have different gifts and different ways to contribute, but we’re working toward a common goal – the spreading of intelligence and self-awareness across the universe. 

---

Of course, a religion is a lot more than just a central doctrine.   A religion needs powerful narratives, rituals, social gatherings, community outreach programs, and more.  If enough people are interested in discussing this, I might organize a local gathering to talk about it. 

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Dance with the hippies.  It doesn't matter if you agree with their views on politics, technology, or science.  They will show you how to be in touch with your body, feel the music, and free your mind from your troubles and constraints. 
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After a certain Iranian religious leader blamed a recent earthquake on immodest women showing off too much skin, an atheist student blogger decided to call him on it by getting as many women as possible to dress immodestly next Monday.  She'll monitor USGS data and report back on any statistically significant anamolies. 

It looks like the event has quickly picked up at least 70,000 people on facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=116336578385346

I'm an atheist and I've found some things lacking in the atheist movement today.  Most well-known vocal atheists today come across as fairly academic and pedantic, which make them accessible to a relatively narrow audience primarily consisting of existing atheists.  This sort of event, by contrast, is fun and silly.  People may complain that the event objectifies women but I would argue that participation is voluntary, the women who participate are likely having fun and getting a self-esteem boost, and it will be a great improvement to see female sexuality as a vector for selling atheism instead of cars and beer.

Though the boobquake is a step in the right direction, atheism will never pull in large numbers of followers until it offers the following:
1. A sense of purpose in the world and answers to the big questions in life.
2. A community of friendly, caring, like-minded people.
3. A chance to connect with a greater whole... a shared consciousness.

(Originally discussed here) 





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Hard-core atheists often forget that religion provides people with lots of warm fuzzy things that make them happier.  (Religious people are happier than atheists... Seligman and other psych people have shown this).  They're great at poking fun at the inconsistencies in the Bible and showing how religion has been used to justify various unspeakable evils, but if they want to win over the believers to their side, they need to offer the good things that religion offers.

In my opinion, these things are:
1. A sense of purpose in the world and answers to the big questions in life.
2. A community of friendly, caring, like-minded people.
3. A chance to connect with a greater whole... a shared consciousness.

Dance Church attempts to address (2) and (3).  Dance Church occurs on Sunday mornings and is a space where people of all ages gather to listen to entrancing dance music and move together to it.   D and I went to it for the first time today.  It was a lovely way to start the day, and it left us physically tired but emotionally energized.  We'll likely go again in the future, so you local folks should join us. :-)

PS... as for satisfying (1), science does that job rather well for me.  I think it could do the job well for most people if presented in an engaging fashion.  Although he was before my time so I didn't experience him directly, Carl Sagan was in a way a televangelist for science, tantalizing us with the wonders of the universe.   
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One of the most fascinating aspects of my visit to Damanhur was seeing a religious system in its early growth phase. Many of the founders are still alive, though some have died and been enshrined in the temple. The legends of their works are still known firsthand by some, but the knowledge is being passed on and reformatted for consumption in various forms: storybooks for children, temple paintings, stories told to tour groups etc. The tour guide joked that they were leaving all kinds of curiosities for future historians to study and puzzle over.* I can imagine dropping in on other religions during their early years and seeing many of the same patterns emerge as reality becomes legend and a power structure grows to deal with the complexities of managing the religion.

The Damanhurians are well aware of the dangers of growing too fast and are making efforts to ensure that their growth is sustainable. They want to reach out and help the world but not aggressively proselytize.

I learned a couple of months ago that Islam grew faster than any other world religion during its infancy, with hundreds of thousands of followers during Mohammed's lifetime. This left a massive power vacuum upon Mohammed's death, and the Shiite/Sunni division happened over an argument between various relatives of Mohammed over who would take over as caliph. They've been fighting over it for 1300 years even though differences in belief are minimal. The original populist spirit of Islam – a personal submission to Allah that could be practiced alone – was lost as a massive religious-bureaucratic complex became the middleman between the human and the divine.

*The main founder painted one of the rooms himself and did not (and still does not) bother to explain the significance of it – it's written in a vast array of different languages and is full of cryptic diagrams. It's either the deepest of his esoteric work or a massive prank.
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Today I checked out a very different, very modern sort of religious monument – Damanhur.

I first read about Damanhur in the New York Times a couple of years back. The basic backstory is that in the late 1970s a spiritually-oriented intentional community formed near Torino, Italy. The community decided to keep a low profile, but they had grand ambitions. The result of this conflicting goal and restraint was a massive and stunning underground temple complex built deep under the house of their leader. It's a maze of hidden passageways and enormous common rooms, and it's over 180 feet deep in parts. They managed to keep it secret for over 20 years in a nosy small town, and it was only discovered by the authorities when a disgruntled member blackmailed them. The authorities, typical incompetent bureaucrats, ordered its immediate destruction due to numerous building code violations and lack of building permits. Eventually, they came to their senses and realized they had a huge tourist windfall on their hands.

I'm less spiritual than most people, but I have enjoyed seeing what the various religions of the world have to offer. My tour guide told me that they don't see Damanhur as a religion – it's a way of life. I'd argue that Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc are also ways of life if done properly and not merely as window dressing.

They requested I not take pictures, and for once I was okay with that, given that my tour would have taken twice as long if I were snapping away. Their reason for me not taking pictures was also reasonable -- they wanted me to take in the sight/sound experience deeply on my first visit so that the place would make a deep impression on me..

Here's what I learned about Damanhurians and the values of their way of life / religion:

- Independent thought: Damanhurians are encouraged to think for themselves and make informed decisions about their beliefs.
- The importance of Games. They see the human experience as a nested set of games, and encourage the use of games for teaching purposes and social experimentataion. The children play a game akin to Risk but with far more complicated and changing rules. Other games have involved yearlong epic art battles, survivalist romps in the wilderness, and giving the teenagers a house of their own to run and manage when they were complaining of too much parental conteol. Games are important enough that there's a whole floor of one of the temples devoted to them.
- God is within you and everywhere, and is reached through personal excellence: People are encouraged to develop their talents to their greatest extent as it brings out the divine nature within them. Instead of worshipping a creator, they worship the world, its life forms, and the talent within themselves as human beings. One of the most striking temples depicts masculine and feminine creative energies triumphing over destructive forces.
- Universal participation: In Damanhur, there are no followers. Everyone is a part of forming the belief system and creating the temples. All members create a sculptured clay likeness of themselves to be placed in the temple complex. The styles vary dramatically, as you might imagine, and it humanizes the temple experience.
- Embracing change: Damanhurian philosophy stresses that the world will change, and their belief system must change as well. Not only should they accept change, but actively seek it out. One example the guide gave is how the group has changed from very closed to very open and from a communal economy to a mix of common and private possessions. To me this contrasts strongly with religions that hold on to very old beliefs that seem outdated (at least to me) from a modern perspective, such as seeing menstruating women as unclean or completely avoiding certain kinds of meat.
- Keeping a sense of humor: The temples are filled with in-jokes, puns, and goofy secret passageways. People are encouraged to not take themselves or their work too seriously.
- Tolerance of other religions: One of the shrines depicts and celebrates the variety of the world's religious traditions.
And what I didn't like... )
Maybe I should design a religion. I've got some ideas.  Most atheists just point out how ridiculous and destructive religions can be, but don't propose alternatives that would serve the spiritual needs that most people satisfy with their religious beliefs.  If you want to successfully convert people, you have to use a carrot, not just a stick.
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This painting (from the main art museum in Warsaw) more or less sums up how I feel about religions that attempt to control human sexuality.

P1070311 by you.

Facial expressions are a lot clearer and more seductive in the full size version.

Here we have an old sinner about to die, and Death brings with an allegorical personified vision of each of the Seven Deadly Sins he committed. (Quick, match them up!) Presumably this was commissioned by the church to scare sinners into repentance or confession. In reality it inspires all kinds of sinful thoughts in at least half its viewers. The artist probably was a patron of certain sins; usually these sorts of artists are the ones with the vivacity and passion to paint that sort of subject well. So we have an institution that wants to control natural human impulses commissioning a passionate indulger of natural human impulses to paint an image of the evils of these natural human impulses. The result is pure Reefer Madness, a work that espouses the virtues of what it's supposed to condemn.
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Based on[livejournal.com profile] radven 's Texas radio listening experience, I dug up the Christian rock/rap "parody" group he heard.  Most of their songs are fairly lame, but this one is so bad it's hilarious. 

Christian parody of Eminem's "Real Slim Shady".

They rap about kids thinking independently and questioning the existence of God like it's a bad thing. :-)

Anyway, you all should know what the evangelists are up to.  They make atheists look, well, stodgy.


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I think one thing that atheists such as myself who grew up in a post-Cold-War environment don't realize is that, for earlier generations, atheism has a strong link to communism. The communist leaders of Russia, China, and other countries worked as hard as they could to eradicate all traces of religion and religious authority. Religious buildings (churches, syangogues, mosques, temples etc) were bulldozed or repurposed,* religious leaders were sent to labor camps or executed, and religious rituals were banned. Religion was seen as an ideological competitor and a power threat by the communist leaders, so they did away with it.

Thus, from the perspective of a God-fearing Cold-War era American, atheists are linked ideologically to the communist ideology. Thus, for you atheists out there, if you're talking to an older religious person about atheism, keep this in mind.

*Fortunately for the future tourist industry, the largest and most beautiful monuments were often spared because there would have been huge popular uproar if they were destroyed.
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One sect of Islam, the Sufis, is much more mystical than the other prevailing sects of Islam.  They emphasize music and dance as a way of gaining a greater emotional connection with Allah.  One particular group of Sufis (aka the "Whirling Dervishes") uses repetitive spinning to achieve a trance state for an even stronger connection.  This spinning is usually done to music involving a group of drummers and a reed flute. 

While I'm guessing the costumes and the spinning were glammed up for tourists, the look is quite good and at times rather kitschy.

So, let's review:
- Drum circles
- Crazy colorful costumes
- Spinning something as a performance
- Inducing trance states through ecstatic dance

Sounds like Burning Man to me.

I think a psychedelic revival of Sufi dancing should be the next big thing to hit Burning Man.  I'm thinking blacklight-sensitive op-art robes... or perhaps a kevlar robe with a flame wick sewn to the bottom so that you can be a flaming whiling dervish.   




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[travel] THE ROD OF MOSES The Grand Palace in Istanbul has an artifact called the “Rod of Moses”. It's very well protected and has a dedicated security guard. There's no blurb next to it – it just says “13th century BC.” Really? Did they take it out to the Red Sea and try it out, checking that it did in fact part it? Is there a “Serpent” button on the back? Seriously? This, from an otherwise credible museum. A bit further down, they had a bunch of objects that they claimed were Mohammed's personal effects. They had various ornate boxes and other such things. These were also very well protected and, unlike the Rod of Moses, actually plausible. While most major world religions were oppressed for hundreds of years before becoming dominant, Islam had to endure just a few years. The powers-that-be kicked Mohammed out of Mecca when he was becoming a bit too much trouble to the order of things, and he came back 12 years later with an army of 10,000 soldiers. Within 100 years, Islam had spread over most of the middle east. So it's entirely reasonable to assume that some very important people looked after his belongings after his death.
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More stories from Jerusalem:

This place is the closest you will come to experiencing day-to-day life in a city of 2000 years ago. Cars are kept out of the old city, so you pass through everything on foot. Streets are a cavernous human-scale tan stone habitrail of arched passageways, stairways, and narrow alleys. Religious buildings dominate the skyline, and people are squeezed into stone buildings in between. Every shop is a little hole-in-the-wall. It's glorious.

Ah, back to religion, the city's focus.

The holiest Christian site, the location where Jesus was supposedly laid to rest, was honored with an enormous church, but the six responsible Christian sects were fighting so bitterly about how exactly to decorate the church that they had to hand over the keys to the church to a Muslim because they couldn't trust one another. The responsibility of mediating for the squabbling Christians has been passed down through the same family for generations. Even now, Christ's tomb is decorated in a mishmash of six different styles of candelabra. The line for Christ's tomb was very long, but I found a porthole where I could look in. While the sight of a rock that may or may not have been the location of Jesus's final resting place didn't have much effect on me, I was very interested to see how it affected true believers. Their emotional reactions were stunning and beautiful. This was their culmination of a lifetime of faith – a trip to the holy lands, and a chance to ground their faith in something physical.

There's a huge jam-packed Jewish cemetery by the Mount of Olives. Apparently the Bible can be interpreted to state that at the end of the world, God will raise the dead starting at the Mount of Olives and then gradually working his way out. Basically, these people are all jostling (and I mean jostling.... these graves are cheek-to-cheek) to be the first in line to Heaven. They want to get all the good seats before they're all taken.

My friend Daniel was hustled by a rabbi at the holiest of Jewish holy sites, the Western Wall. While we were looking at an old copy of the Torah on display at the Wall, the rabbi pulled him aside, gave him some blessing, and then hit him up for cash. Daniel provided some, and then the rabbi tried to hit him up for more cash. So much for the holiest of holy sites.

I spent some time walking through the Muslim quarter. Parts of it have the edgy rough-and-ready feel you get in some lower-class neighborhoods in the US. However, other parts were filled with schoolchildren happily playing, oblivious to the tension. I noticed a lot of Palestinian kids with toy guns. These toy guns were all black, unlike the orange-lined ones you see in toy stores in the US. These also weren't little shiny funny-shaped ray guns. They looked sufficiently like real guns that I felt a bit uneasy. There were 14-year old kids waving around convincing-looking toy machine guns just a couple of blocks from where 19-year-old Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were standing around with real, loaded machine guns looking for signs of trouble. This can't end well.

I have very limited data to go on, but it seems like the Israeli government is already making a lot of compromises to the Palestinians to keep the peace in Jerusalem. Non-Muslims are not allowed into many sections of the city, and Muslims are given full control of the top of the Temple Mount even though it's also one of the holiest sites in the world for Jews, and there's plenty of empty space up on the Temple Mount to put up a Jewish temple in between the mosques.

My friends and I discussed various potential solutions to creating peace in the Middle East, but almost all of them came down to the same problem... there are enough fanatics on both sides who will screw up any compromise even if it's not in their best interest to do so.

I think the only real solution will have to involve forced cultural intermixing, and for that to be successful it has to be started when people are very young. It's hard to demonize a group when you've had playmates from that group as far back as you can remember. Currently parents can choose public integrated schooling or various faiths of religious schooling for their kids. Thus fundamentalists can raise their children in a very indoctrinating environment where they are not exposed to peers of other faiths. For intermixing to occur, public school needs to be mandatory and fully integrated, starting from preschool. This needs to happen for the good of society. It will require very effective teachers, as fundamentalist parents will probably be arming their children with various prejudices. It will also require Israel to give up some aspects of being a Jewish state, as ultra-orthodox Jews would no longer be able to raise their children in a biblically strict manner. However, the benefits of educating an entire generation of tolerant youth are well worth paying for, especially given the astronomically high cost Israel currently pays for security, both in terms of military budget and in terms of lost productivity.

I'm relatively new to this whole situation, so those of you who are experts on the Middle East should share your thoughts.
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There's so much to say about this place. It's beautiful, unique, and completely fucked up.

Jerusalem is an especially ancient city that happens to also contain the holiest sites of three of the world's religions. It's been fought over, captured, and recaptured by many different groups for millenia. It's currently filled with Israeli-Palestinean tension, and the police are constantly on high alert.

So what's it actually like in person? Here are some tales:

First, Jerusalem reminds me a lot of my visit to Houston. Why? Because it's full of Texans. There are more bible-belters here than just about anywhere else in the world, and that includes any blue state in the US. Jerusalem is basically a giant biblical pub crawl. Here's the place where Jesus had his last supper, there's where he dropped under the weight of the cross and Mary helped him up again, there's the tree that some prophet climbed up to hear Jesus give a famous sermon etc. It's fairly common knowledge that most of these sites were “discovered” in the 12th century when the crusaders showed up, but that doesn't stop the people from coming.

I soon realized something: In terms of both tourists and, especially, residents, Jerusalem attracts fundamentalists of many faiths, and the trouble with many fundamentalists is that they're fervent, stubborn, unswayed by logic, and sometimes a bit crazy. So essentially, the city is a magnet for crazies. This partially explains why things are such a mess. I've met fairly secular Jews in Tel Aviv who basically see Jerusalem as nothing more than a big security risk.

An anecdote about the crazies: As many of you may know, orthodox Jews see the Shabbat as a day of rest and contemplation of the Torah. Many things are forbidden on Shabbat, including the use of any fire or its modern equivalent, electricity (except for the use of candles for reading light). I watched as a group of rabble-rousing Muslims gathered in an open field at the corner of the city to shoot off fireworks right after the start of Shabbat just to piss off the Jews inside their homes studying the Torah.
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A friend of mine heard a group of American college students having the following conversation through the hotel wall:

"Man, I really need to get laid!"

"Don't worry dude. If god wants you to get laid, you'll get laid."
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I didn't realize that some sects of Buddhism employ some very heavy-handed fear tactics similar to Christian concepts of Hell. One day I used a motorbike to visit a forest monastery, among other things. Inside the monastery there was a large temple. As I walked in I was greeted by two smiling elderly nuns, who welcomed me to look around. The room was filled with a 360 degree lushly painted panorama of various serene Buddhas dispensing serene Buddha wisdom. However, below that panorama was another panorama of various people suffering, and there was more sex and violence depicted there than in your average Tarantino film. There were naked women impaled on stakes, with their giant tits pointing toward the sky, demons forcing injured, bloody people to climb spiky trees, decapitations, people being burned alive, and other such horrific scenery. It all made for an interesting tableau... smiling old ladies, serene Buddhas, and scenes of attractive naked men and women getting tortured and killed in horrific ways.

It would be an interesting thought experiment to take Buddha and Jesus through time to show them the enormous monuments built to worship them. They'd probably both be horrified. Buddha would take one look at the giant golden statue of himself and would immediately start preaching about how everything is impermanent and how an overly strong attachment to possessions and worldly pursuits is the root of suffering.

Buddhism also seems to be substantially a philosophy of mind, but a philosophy of mind isn't enough to meet the religious needs of a diverse population. Thus, Buddhism in its evolved form also offers superstitions, rituals for good luck and other worldly aims, ancient relics (branches of the Bodhi tree where Buddha first attained enlightenment... very similar to the fragments of the True Cross offered by various cathedrals in Europe), fear-instilling cautionary tales, beautiful shiny temples, multi-tiered donation systems that stroke the egos of wealthy patrons, and knick-knack idols that people can buy for good luck.

In the end I think that any religion that becomes dominant must do so by displaying the trappings of power and getting in bed with the government. The government uses the religion to help legitimize its own rule and control the people, and the religion uses the government to suppress competing religions and get the funds to construct imposing monuments to its own power. Ultimately the religion's actual philosophy is somewhat irrelevant to this coevolutiion of church and state.
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I found these for sale at a Walgreens in Tennessee.
DSC03254.jpgDSC03252.jpgDSC03251.jpg

Yes, a Walgreens.  At least the Walgreens didn't sell T shirts with confederate flags on them. (You had to go to souvenir shops for those)     The shirts are surprisingly effective.  They get your attention, then force you to look deeper and understand the semi-hidden message.  All this, of course, is proven to increase recall.   Classic psychology.

I looked up the name, and it turns out there are literally hundreds more available at www.kerusso.com.  They mimic every available style, from the trendy emo-rock-gothic motifs of current shirts to popular brands to athletic wear to "princess" shirts for little girls to other companies' ads.  Browsing through the catalog is kind of like looking at lolcats... it's funny, mind-numbing, and disturbing all at the same time. 

Some highlights:
Faithbook 
Global Warming
Blood donor

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