Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Notes on religion: Links & comments 10/5/14

October 5, 2014

The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson by Wyatt Mason for The New York Times Magazine.  (Hat tip to Anne Tanner)

The Christian essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson deplores the American culture of fear, our failure to appreciate the wonder of life and of humanity, and our unwillingness to talk about the things that concern us most.  I like Robinson’s books and I thought there was a lot of meat in this interview.

The Myth of Religious Violence by Karen Armstrong for The Guardian.

The late Christopher Hitchens said religion spoils everything.  Karen Armstrong says religion is spoiled when it is weaponized to serve non-religious purposes.

In Medicine We Trust by Brian Palmer for Slate.

A secular humanist faces up to the fact that Christian medical missionaries are the largest group of people on the ground fighting the Ebola plague in west Africa.

Cultivating a gratitude practice

September 7, 2014

This is from A Way in the Woods: awakening and mindfulness

In all my years of following the Buddhist path, there has been only one teaching that made me cringe.  Whenever I heard it, my reaction was, “Are you kidding me?!”  Here’s the story:

Buddha is approached by a monk, who asks for advice regarding desire.  It is distracting him from his spiritual practice, not to mention his life.  What should he do? 

quote Buddha unknown source by H.Koppdelaney on Flickr 7758674308_ba9df335eaBuddha’s response is to tell him that it is important to remember that seeing our desires fulfilled always leads to suffering.  Once we get what we want, we’re afraid we’ll lose it—which, when you think about it, we always will in the end.  Better to know that the less we pursue our desires, the less we’ll suffer.  So far, so good.

The monk thanks him for his advice, then mentions that he will be heading out for the village of Sunaparanta. 

Buddha is taken aback.  He asks the monk if he knows that the place is known for its “fierce roughness”—what will he do if they abuse and threaten him?

The monk responds, “Then I shall think these people are truly kind in that they did not give me a blow with a fist.”

But Buddha can’t leave this alone. What if they do punch you?

The monk says, then he will think that they are truly kind because they didn’t hit him with a clod.

Well, what if they hit him with a clod?

He’ll be grateful that it wasn’t a stick.

What if it was a stick?

They were truly kind to not stab him.

And if they did stab him?

Well, at least they didn’t kill him.

What if they did kill him?

The monk’s response is to tell Buddha that he knows that there are some monks who, “being humiliated by the body and by life, sought death.”  He would consider himself lucky to find death without seeking it.

Are you kidding me?!


Why I wouldn’t want to live forever

July 20, 2014

[This is the draft of a lay sermon given at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., on July 20, 2014]

I remember lying in a hospital bed some 20 years ago after having had a pre-cancerous lobe of my right lung removed.  I got to thinking that this body part was not going to regenerate and that, in fact, the warranty had expired on many of my body parts.

Lying there in the bed, I began to fantasize about what it would be like if this wasn’t so—if I didn’t have to grow old and die, if I could live indefinitely, in vigorous physical and mental health, like  Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain.

life's.clockI imagined having infinite time to do everything I ever had dreamed of doing.  I could read every book I ever wanted to read.  I could study every subject I was ever interested in, and could master every skill I lacked.  I could travel and see every sight I ever wanted to see.  There would be nothing I could not do—that is, if I were capable of doing it and willing to do the work.

I tried to imagine my future life for 50 or 100 or 200 years into the future and, to my surprise, I couldn’t imagine a future that I would like.

 There are only two things I know with certainty about the future.  One is that it will not be like the present.  The other is that I can’t predict it.  I am amazed at the transformations that have taken place during my lifetime.  None of the changes that I expected in my youth have come about, but things that I took for granted have been utterly transformed.  Sometimes it seems to me that the only things that haven’t changed are the structures of economic and political power.

The future brings the challenge of having to adapt to change.  Learning new things is delightful when it is voluntary.  I delight in things new technology makes possible—my blog, for example.  At the same time I am happy to be old and retired, and to be in a position in which I don’t have to master new knowledge and skills that I’m not interested in.

The worst thing about living forever would be that I would leave my friends behind.  If you live long enough—I haven’t yet lived to that point myself—you see all your contemporaries disappear, one by one.  I have made newer and younger friends, but to me, at age 77, a “young” friend is someone in their 40s or 50s.  I don’t really share the experience and thinking of the new generation.

If I lived long enough, not only everyone that I loved and cared about were gone, but everything that I loved and cared about would be no more.

The world during my lifetime has changed in many ways that I don’t understand and can’t relate to, from the music to the technology to the manners and morals. What would it be like in 50 or 100 or 200 years from now?  I would be as alienated as someone from the 18th or 19th century in the world today.

I am curious to know the future.  The far future would be an interesting place to visit.  But I’m not sure I would want to live there.

What would be the point of living so long if I lived it as a grouchy old man? I already find myself talking much too much about how different things are today from the way they used to be.


Sunni-Shiite couples form ‘Sushi’ families

July 18, 2014

BqfEw5cIUAEB8myThis origin of this photo is unclear, but it is being widely circulated over Twitter and other social media, and it illustrates an important point—that not all Muslims are caught up in “age old” hatreds. The Iraqi government estimates that 2 million of Iraq’s 6.5 million families are mixed Sunni-Shiite marriages.

Click on Raw Story: Sunni-Shia Family Photo Wins Twitter But Not the War by Jorge Ramos and Colin MacDonald of Fusion TV for background on the photo.  Hat tip for the link to Jack Clontz.

Two Founders on religious freedom

July 4, 2014

George Washington to the Newport, R.I., Hebrew congregation on August 18, 1790

1presIt is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

via Teaching American History.

Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist association on Jan. 1, 1802

jeffersonthomasbigBelieving with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

via Teaching American History.

Something I cannot understand

June 26, 2014

I’m not well-traveled, and I speak no language other than English.   The way I try to understand why people in foreign cultures do what they do is to imagine myself in their place.  Usually I conclude that if I were in their situation, and had had their life experiences, I probably would do as they did.

But recently I read news stories about people who wanted to kill close relatives because they were of a different religion.  I cannot understand this.

One report was about “Josef,” a Pakistani man who is in hiding in Afghanistan from his Muslim family who want to kill him because he has converted to Christianity.   The other was about Meriam Ibrahim, a woman who was raised a Christian in Sudan after being deserted by her Muslim father.  She narrowly escaped being sentenced to death after her father’s family accused her of “renouncing” Islam—a religion in which she had never believed.

I believe that people have a right to believe in whatever religion they choose, or, to put it more precisely, I believe that people have a right to state openly that they believe whatever they inwardly feel compelled to believe.   I cannot imagine wanting to kill a relative or loved one because they reject my beliefs and values.

Naziism is the most abhorrent belief that I can think of.  But if a relative become a Nazi, my response would be to make him see the error of his ways, as long as I thought this were possible.   I might give up meeting him on a regular basis if all he did was harangue me.  In an extreme case, if he planned a murder or a dangerous act of violence, I would threaten to report him to the police.  But I can’t imagine killing a loved one or relative just because of what they think, however barbarous.

I don’t think these two news articles justify a general condemnation of all the world’s one billion Muslims, who certainly are not all alike.  But they do justify a feeling of pride and gratitude for the religious freedom of the USA.  I can’t imagine the most intolerant American Christian attempting to kill someone for renouncing Christianity and, if such a person existed, they would be put in trial for their crime.

Despite the harassment and prejudice that Muslims sometimes endure in the United States, I think that they not only enjoy more freedom than do Christians in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Sudan, I think they enjoy more freedom here than do Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Sudan.


A Christian Convert, on the Run in Afghanistan, by Azam Ahmed for the New York Times. Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

Meriam Ibrahim freed again after rearrest at Sudan airport by the Associated Press.

Sudan death penalty case reignites Islam apostasy debate by BBC News.

Kurdistan, haven of religious freedom

June 24, 2014

kurdistan_people__2007_12_20_h0m58s56Not everybody in Iraq is a Sunni Arab or a Shiite Arab.  The country is full of other religious and ethnic groups, including Assyrian Christians who’ve been in Mesopotamia longer than the Arabs, and their hope of survival is the continued semi-independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Overall, I think the invasion of Iraq was a disaster, but one good thing to come out of it was freedom for the Kurds, a valiant people who’d been fighting for independence for generations, and without terrorism against civilians.

The Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, the same religion as the murderous I.S.I.S. militia, but their attitude toward freedom and tolerance is exactly the opposite.  And the Kurds are willing, able and armed to fight.

Military analyst Gary Brecher, who’s lived in Kurdistan, wrote:

The men and women of the [Kurdish] Pesh Merga—the Middle East’s only truly gender-neutral fighting force—are the only thing saving all the terrified, dwindling minority communities of Northern Iraq from the savagery—yeah, savagery; why lie?—of a new zombie generation of Wahhabized Arab/Sunni jihadis.  [snip]

Let me tell you, for a Sunni Kurd to say, “I have Shia friends, I have Christian friends” is about as brave and radical as it gets, short of suicide, in the Middle East. I never heard any of my Saudi students say anything remotely like it. Well, how could they?  By law, Shi’ism and Christianity are banned in the Kingdom.  So they didn’t have the opportunity, even if they’d had the mindset which they didn’t.

Something wonderful came out of the horrors of 20th century Iraq, among the Kurds of the Northern hills.  They became the only non-sectarian population in Iraq, and perhaps the only such group between Lebanon and India.

All the hill peoples, the few who’d survived Sunni pogroms, were kind to each other. When violence came into the hills, it came from the plains to the South.

All the vulnerable minorities in the Northern hills had been hit by waves of violence from the Sunni majority to the south: the few remaining Assyrian Christians who held out in little mountain towns like Zakho, a pitiful remnant of the genocides perpetrated against them by the Ottomans, and then by Sunni militias in the 1930s; the Turcoman, who are Sunni but Turkish-speaking—in other words, not Arab—and don’t you ever doubt that Arab chauvinism has a HUGE part in what passes for Sunni jihadism.

via The War Nerd:  PandoDaily.


Lifelong Christian may die as a Muslim apostate

May 22, 2014

 A woman raised as a Christian, who has been a Christian all her life, has been sentenced to death in Sudan as an apostate from Islam, because her father was a Muslim.

Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced a week ago after refusing to renounce her religion and her marriage to Daniel Wani, a Christian man born in Sudan and now a U.S. citizen.   She said her father deserted his family when she was a child, and she was raised by her Ethiopian-born Christian mother.  She said she never was a Muslim.

She is eight months pregnant.  Her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair, was allowed to visit her Monday.  He said she was shackled to a wall.  Her 20-month-old son, Martin, is in prison with her.

Sudan officials said the verdict is not final.  There has been a great international protest of the sentence, and I hope the Sudan government will force the religious court to back down.

What kind of a religion is this?  I believe that how you live is more important than your opinions about religion.  But suppose, for the sake of argument, that your soul is doomed if you do not believe that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet.  What is the point of forcing someone to give lip service to that belief, or any belief, against her will?

Does the court believe that God wants a hypocritical and unwilling submission?  Or do they think that God can be fooled into believing the conversion is sincere?

I do not believe that the Sudan religious court represents all Muslims.  History shows that intolerance is not an inherent part of the Muslim religion.  At certain times in history, persecuted Jews and heretical Christians took refuge in Muslim lands.

The problem is with a Muslim sect called the Wahhabis, who originated in Saudi Arabia and whose teachings are spread through the Muslim world by the Saudi monarchy.  They are among the few Muslim sects that persecute other Muslims.  Wahhabis are not necessarily terrorists, but Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement arose from Wahhabi teachings.

The rise of Wahhabism is a historical accident—the fact that the Ibn Saud family allied itself with the Wahhabi movement in its rise to power in Arabia, and the fact that so much of the world’s oil wealth is under control of the Saudi family.


India to be led by pro-business Hindu nationalist

May 20, 2014

The founders of the Republic of India were secularists.   They wrote a constitution which, like the U.S. constitution, was friendly to religion, but religiously neutral.  Like the U.S. founders, they sought to instill a patriotism based on constitutional loyalty rather than loyalty to a racial, religious or ethnic group.

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, rose to power as a Hindu nationalist. This is cause for concern.   Ethnic nationalism linked to religion is poison.  It links the total loyalty that is demanded by religion to the narrow and exclusive interests of a particular racial or cultural group.

The Hindu religion has given the world great spiritual insights, but in recent years rioting Hindus have killed Muslims, Christians and other minority groups, and Modi has refused to condemn them.

When Modi was chief minister of Gujarat province in 2002, rioting Hindus killed 1,200 Muslims and drove out hundreds of thousands more.  Modi was accused of egging the rioters on.   The U.S. State Department denied him a visa on human rights grounds.  However,  an Indian investigating commission found no evidence of guilt.

During the current election campaign, Modi said his priority will be economic development.  He even appealed for Muslim votes, much like Gov. George Wallace appealing for African-American votes the last time he ran for governor of Alabama.

His Bharatiya Janata Party won 37 percent of the national vote, but that was enough to give it a majority of seats in Parliament.  The Congress Party, which governed India since independence, received only 23 percent.  The other 40 percent was divided among regional and splinter parties.

french book indiaAnalysts think Modi’s success was largely due to public disgust with the corruption of the Congress Party.  Some weeks ago I read a book, India: a Portrait by a journalist named Patrick French.  The author pointed out that not only have almost all the leaders of the Congress Party been members of the Gandhi and Nehru families and their widows, but the successful candidates in the lower levels of the party also are members of family dynasties — India’s version of the Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes.

This being so, ambitious people with ability but no connections joined the BJP, and their aim is a country open to enterprise and initiative and free of Congress’s stifling bureaucracy.  Modi said his priority will be economic development — more toilets, not more temples.  May it be so!



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