Is There a God? by Bertrand Russell (1952)
The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.
Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.
I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.
It is not just that those others were white, and she was black. It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman. She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor. Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power. She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.
What did her greatness consist of? Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.
As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped. Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.
During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom. During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.
She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand. She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God. She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.
This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).
chapter seven – the legacy of freedom
Bookchin was an anarchist who believed it was possible to create a society without government or corporations, in which free people could live in peace with each other and with nature. I’m interested in Bookchin because of the failures state socialism and corporate neoliberalism and the unsatisfactory nature of current politics.
In the first six chapters of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin described how hierarchy emerged from what he called the original organic society, of how tribal shamans and warrior bands became priesthoods and armies and of how the idea of abstract justice to balance the power of ancient despots.
In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how Christianity shaped the idea of freedom, and how, for many centuries, the struggle between freedom and hierarchy was fought within the framework of Christian thought.
Early Christian communities, in many ways, fit Bookchin’s anarchist ideal. Early Christians came together voluntarily and as equals. They not only came together for worship, but to provide for each others’ needs, since the Roman government’s functions were mainly limited to collecting taxes, suppressing disorder and waging war.
Later on the Christian church developed a hierarchy that accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, and then to feudal lords and medieval kings, and to the modern state.
The medieval Papacy was the ultimate hierarchy. Its ideal was the Great Chain of Being—God and his angels at the peak, delegating authority to popes and kings, who empowered priests and nobles, with the common people at the bottom. Papal power reached its peak under Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for resisting the church’s claims to power.
But, as Bookchin noted, the memory and ideal of primitive Christianity never entirely disappeared. In time, Puritans, in the name of Christianity, beheaded their king and labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.
St. Augustine, he wrote, regarded government not merely as irrelevant, but as evil—a necessary evil, however, because people were corrupted by original sin. The ideal, however, was a community in which people were united by the bonds of love, and that ideal also never disappeared.
The ancient Greeks, Romans and most of the rest of the pagan world regarded history as cyclical, so that everything that happened would happen again. But Christians believed that history had a direction and a goal, starting with the Garden of Eden and ending with the Second Coming of Christ, in which a better world would come into being. That hope of a better world never disappeared.
One of the worst thing that could happen is an escalation of the U.S. “war on terror” into a global war between Christendom and Islam. That is the goal of al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
If it happened, the United States and much of Europe would become as beleaguered as Israel is today. The devastation that has been visited on Gaza, Palestine, Iraq, Libya and Syria would be spread to the whole world.
That is why Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were careful to distinguish jihadist terrorists from Muslims in general.
Unfortunately, there are Americans, such as Lt. General (ret) William “Jerry” Boykin, who don’t.
President Bush fired him in 2007 from his post as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence for saying that the United States is in a holy war of Christian crusaders against Muslim jihadists. Even though Boykin was a brave and patriotic soldier, Bush acted in the best interests of the United States.
Boykin has endorsed Ted Cruz for President, and Cruz has appointed him as one of his top advisers. I think Cruz also wants to make the “war on terror” a religious war.
Opponents of Ted Cruz link him to Dominionism, a little-known Christian theology espoused by his father, the Rev. Rafael Cruz, a traveling Pentecostal preacher and lecturer.
They’re circulating videos of a sermon that Rev. Cruz gave at a Dallas-area mega-church, New Beginnings, in 2012, about how true Christians are “anointed kings” whom God has appointed to take dominion over the earth.
When I watched the short version of the video, which at the top of this post, I found his ideas both strange and alarming. When I watched the complete version, which starts at the one-hour point in the next video, my alarm was a lot less.
Rafael Bienvenido Cruz was born in Cuba in 1939 and raised a Roman Catholic. He came to the United States in 1957, worked his way through the University of Texas and went into the oil business. He married, fathered two children and divorced, then married a second wife, Eleanor Darragh Wilson. They were in the oil business in Calgary, Alberta, when Ted was born in 1970.
Somewhere along the line Cruz lost his religion. He had a drinking problem, left his wife and 3-year-old son and returned to Houston. He accepted a co-workers’ invitation to join a Bible study group, had an epiphany and became an Evangelical Protestant. He turned his life around and invited his wife and son to rejoin him. Ted Cruz said that if not for his father’s conversion, he would have been raised by a single mother.
Rev. Cruz accepts a theology called Dominionism. In the sermon, he said that God has created “anointed priests” and “anointed kings” with dominion over society He said is the right and duty of the “anointed kings” to “go into the marketplace and … take dominion over it” as part of an “end-times transfer of wealth”.
That’s the short version. If you have the patience to watch the long version, you’ll see that what this means in practice is that people become “anointed warriors” by being baptized in a church and pledging to turn over a large portion of their income to the “anointed priests,” the pastors of their.
The test of faith, according to Cruz, is how much of your income you are willing to turn over to the “anointed priest”. A tithe (10 percent) is the minimum, half your income is desirable and there are those who give 90 percent.
When you make the commitment, you will move immediately from the “land of not enough” and “the land of just enough” to the kingdom of abundance. The priest, of course, does not use the money for his own benefit, but to advance God’s purposes.
This is foolish and sad. I don’t question Rev. Cruz’s sincerity. But a lot of people who believe this will be disappointed. I wonder what Rev. Cruz will say to poor people who give to the church at great financial sacrifice in the hope of becoming “anointed kings” and then find they are still poor. Perhaps that their faith was not strong enough!.
There is no fire like passion.
There is no shark like hatred.
There is no snare like folly.
There is no torrent like greed.
I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that they all had some error in them, and while I hold by my own religion, I should hold other religions as dear as Hinduism. … Our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should become a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian.
==Mohandas K. Gandhi
Mike Wallace: All is well?
Jack Kerouac: Yeah, we’re all in heaven, now really.
Wallace: You don’t sound happy.
Kerouac: Oh, I’m tremendously sad. I’m in great despair.
Kerouac: It’s a great burden to be alive. A heavy burden, a great big heavy burden. I wish I were safe in heaven, dead.
Wallace: But you are in heaven, Jack. You just said we all were.
Kerouac: Yeah. If I only knew it. If I could only hold on to what I now.
==New York Post, January 11, 1958
The followers of different religions quarrel about truth because they have never experienced it. Most of them don’t even try to experience it; they are much happier quarreling, fighting and killing each other.
[I said to Suzuki Roshi]: “I could listen to you for a thousand years and still not get it. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?” … He was not a man you could pin down, and he didn’t like to give his students something definite to cling to. He had often said not to have “some idea” of what Buddhism was. But Suzuki did answer. He looked at me and said, “Everything changes.”
==David Chadwick, quoted in The Sun
In LIFE AFTER FAITH: The Case for Secular Humanism (2014), Philip Kitcher argues that religion is not necessary to lead a happy, meaningful and ethical life.
His argument is obviously true, as far as it goes. I know of many people, through personal aquaintence and reading who aren’t in the least religious, but are happy, wise and good.
But there also are saints and heroes whose religious faith enables them to go beyond what average human nature is capable of, as well as many seemingly ordinary people for whom faith is a source of quiet serenity and unpretentious goodness.
Others are hurt by their religion. Their faith fails them in times of crisis. Or they are tormented by a sense of sin because they can’t obey certain rules or accept certain beliefs.
Religion certainly makes life more dramatic.
If I believed, and internalized the belief, that my life was a high-stakes test, leading to either eternal bliss with God or eternal pain without God, my life would be much more intense and meaningful than it is now, but not better.
I would have to struggle to stop myself from thinking about why a merciful and loving God would condemn people to infinite pain for sins committed during a finite life or, even worse, for choosing the wrong creed.
One way to have the satisfactions of religion without being chained to harsh dogmas is through what Kitcher calls “refined religion,” such as Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture or Reformed Judaism.
“Refined religion” puts theology on the same level as art, literature, philosophy and science—part of a treasury of human wisdom on which we can draw as needed.
“Refined religion” is not far from Kitcher’s own “soft atheism”, which doesn’t claim that science and philosophy have all the answers and which sees much of value in religious tradition, but sees no basis for affirming that religious beliefs are objectively true.
He admits that both refined religion and secular humanism are weak tea compared to the powerful emotions evoked by the great religious traditions and rituals.
But the great religions traditions have thousands of years’ head start, he wrote; there is no reason in principle why secular humanism cannot evolve rituals and traditions that are just as compelling.
Sam Roberts, an obituary writer for the New York Times, was asked to imagine what Jesus’s obituary would have been like.
Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean carpenter turned itinerant minister whose appeals to piety and whose repute as a healer had galvanized a growing contingent of believers, died on Friday after being crucified that morning just outside Jerusalem, only days after his followers had welcomed him triumphantly to the city as “the anointed one” and “the Son of David.” He was about 33.
For a man who had lived the first three decades of his life in virtual obscurity, he attracted a remarkable following in only a few years. His reputation reflected a persuasive coupling of message, personal magnetism, and avowed miracles. But it also resonated in the current moment of spiritual and economic discontent and popular resentment of authority and privilege, whether wielded by foreigners from Rome or by the Jewish priests in Jerusalem and their confederates.
After running afoul of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem for blasphemy and his arrest on Thursday, Jesus was sentenced to death by Governor Pontius Pilate. (The Jewish authorities lacked jurisdiction to impose capital punishment.) The charge, in effect, was treason, for claiming to be King of the Jews or “the anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew and Aramaic; Christos in Greek). After he was declared dead on Friday night, he was buried nearby in a cave.
On Sunday, his disciples reported that the body was missing.
Click on What Would Jesus’s New York Times Obituary Look Like? to read the whole thing in Vanity Fair. Hat tip to kottke.org.
Man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. … This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time.
Hat tip to The Vineyard of the Saker.
An attractive woman walked the streets of New York City for five hours attired in a T-shirt, tight jeans and a cardigan. She was the target of constant unwanted remarks and propositions.
The same woman walked the streets of New York City for five hours in a hijab, traditional Muslim dress. She was ignored or treated with respect.
Modesty in dress is a good thing, not a bad thing.
Saudi Arabia is heating up the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East. I think the U.S. government should think long and hard about letting the Saudis draw Americans further into it.
The Saudi Arabian government recently executed 47 opponents of the regime, including radical Sunni jihadists and the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
I think this means that the Saudi government feels threatened by the radical Sunni jihadist movements, and wants to redirect their rage outward by stepping up the conflict with Iran and with Shiites generally.
Either Sunni jihadists are killed fighting in Syria and other places, or Saudi Arabia’s enemies—Iran and its ally Syria—are weakened.
The Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East involved families who’ve lived side-by-side in peace for decades. Why are they at each others’ throats now?
I thinks that it is because the Sunnis and Shiites are used as proxies in a struggle for political power among Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Iran, Turkey and Israel.
And this is overlaid by an economic struggle for control of oil and gas resources and pipeline routes. It so happens that Shiites, although a minority in the Muslim world as a whole, are a majority in the oil and gas regions.
And all this has been made worse by the murderous and ineffective intervention of my own country, the United States.
But the tragic conflict also is kept going by the need of the Saudi royal family to appease Wahhabi jihadist clerics.
The Ayatollah Seyyid Hosseini Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, said that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons because this is contrary to Islamic teachings.
I believe him. The reason that I believe him is that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemical weapons, including mustard gas and nerve gas, in his 1980-1988 war against Iran, and Iran never developed or used poison gas of its own.
The then Ayatollah Ruhbollah Khomeini ruled that use of chemical weapons, and also nuclear weapons were contrary to Islamic law. Instead Iran defended itself against the invaders by sacrificing its young men in human wave attacks.
When I consider the history of how the United States developed and used atomic weapons, and our “balance of terror” strategy during the cold war, I cannot imagine my government behaving with such restraint under such circumstances. In fact, if I were an Iranian leader today, threatened with attack by war hawks in the USA and Israel, I would want nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
I think Iran’s ayatollahs have earned the right to be believed on this issue.
ISIS, al Qaeda and the other violent jihadist fighters are not from any one country. They are part of an international movement, so there are Arabs fighting in Afghanistan and Chechens fighting in Syria. In a sinister way, they resemble the international brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
ISIS, al Qaeda and their supporters are inspired by teachings of the Wahhabis (or Salafis), an extremely harsh theocratic sect with roots in Saudi Arabia and a strong following in Pakistan.
But a report by Christoph Reuter of Spiegel Online indicates there is a parallel movement among the Shiite Muslims, whose strength is in Iran:
Assad’s army isn’t just vulnerable, it also isn’t strictly a Syrian force anymore. For the last two years, the forces on his side have increasingly been made up of foreigners, including Revolutionary Guards from Iran, members of Iraqi militias and Hezbollah units from Lebanon.
They are joined at the front by Shiite Afghans from the Hazara people, up to 2 million of whom live in Iran, mostly as illegal immigrants. They are forcibly conscripted in Iranian prisons and sent to Syria — according to internal Iranian estimates, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 of them fighting in the country.
The situation leads to absurd scenes: In the southern Syrian town of Daraa, rebels began desperately searching for Persian interpreters after an offensive of 2,500 Afghans suddenly began approaching.
It is the first international Shiite jihad in history, one which has been compensating for the demographic inferiority of Assad’s troops since 2012. The alliance has prevented Assad’s defeat, but it hasn’t been enough for victory either.
Furthermore, the orders are no longer coming exclusively from the Syrian officer corps. Iranian officers control their own troops in addition to the Afghan units, and they plan offensives that also involve Syrian soldiers. Hezbollah commanders coordinate small elite units under their control. Iraqis give orders to Iraqi and Pakistani militia groups. And the Russians don’t let anyone tell them what to do.
Source: SPIEGEL ONLINE
There is no inherent reason why Sunnis and Shiites should be at war. They have lived side by side in peace for more centuries than they have been in conflict.
The main reason they are in conflict now is that it is in the interest of governments such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to use armed religious militias to advance their own political and economic objectives. Another reason is the destruction of civil order as a result of U.S. invasions, so that the religious militias are the only source of protection.
There is a great danger to the world if the USA and Russia allow themselves to be drawn further into this conflict, the USA on the side of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Sunni fighters and Russia on the side of Iran, Syria and the Shiite fighters.
A confrontation between the world’s two main nuclear powers would mean that the killing and destruction now going on in the Middle East could spread over the whole world.
A blogger named Fred Reed, pointing out how potentially vulnerable the United States is, wonders why there have been so few successful terrorist attacks on the United States.
There is ignorant prejudice against Muslims in the United States, which I have criticized, but I believe that overall Muslims in the United States enjoy greater freedom than they do in Russia, China, India or even many majority-Muslim countries.
I am proud of the American heritage of religious freedom, and I would hate to see anything diminish it.
The Christian community in Syria dates back to the time of St. Paul, who was converted on the road to Damascus.
Today the survival of Christianity in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries is under threat. Syria has lost 700,000 Christians in the past five year, nearly two-thirds of its Christian population. Iraq has lost more than a million Christians since the 2003 invasion.
The so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh) singles out Christians for beheading and rape. It calls them “crusaders,” meaning that they are supposedly part of an age-old European invasion of the Middle East. Yet Syria was a Christian country for centuries before Mohammad was even born.
Christians and Muslims mostly lived together in peace during the Arab Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire and European colonial rule, and, if there was persecution, it fell short of genocide.
Despite all this, there are relatively few Christians among the Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees knocking on the doors of Europe and the United States.
An estimated 10 percent of Syria’s population is Christian, yet they constitute only 2.5 percent of the Syrian applicants for asylum in Europe. I would have expected more, if only because, unlike with Muslims, there are no predominantly Christian nations in the Middle East region.
I don’t think this is because of intentional discrimination. Asylum seekers are screened in refugee camps, and Middle Eastern Christians reportedly are reluctant to enter refugee camps because of persecution and abuse by Muslim refugees.
Certain American and European politicians have called for asylum of Syrian refugees to be limited to Christians. 
Barring refugees solely on the basis of religion is wrong and possibly a violation of international law. But there surely is justification for an affirmative action program for some of the world’s most persecuted people.
The New Exodus: Christians Flee ISIS in the Middle East by Janine Di Giovanni and Conor Gaffey for Newsweek.
Syria’s Beleaguered Christians by the BBC.
Christian refugees discriminated against by US and UK governments by Harry Farley for Christianity Today.
Why So Few Syrian Christian Refugees by Jonathan Witt for The Stream.
Why the question of Christian vs. Muslim refugees has become so incredibly divisive by Michelle Boorstein for the Washington Post.
 Actually, I think it would be a fine thing if Texas, Hungary or some other place became a haven for the world’s persecuted Christians.
The Shared History of Saudi Arabia and ISIS by Madawi Al-Rasheed for Hurst Publishers.
Crime and punishment: Islamic State vs. Saudi Arabia by Rori Donaghy and Mary Atkinson for Middle East Eye.
Inhuman Monsters: Islamic State vs. Saudi Arabia by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.
These links are from my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack and his friend Marty.
THE Most Amazing Falafel Assembly OF ALL TIME 🙂
The Soldier Who Voluntarily Became A Prisoner in Auschwitz
[Not about Jews, but an interesting story nevertheless -M]
Hitler & the Muslims
[2 books reviewed from ‘The NY Review of Books’ -M]
She gives me partridges – Domineering, drunk, anti-Semitic: The composer Alma Mahler sought relationships with Jewish men. She wanted to “improve” them
Preaching to the converted: how Kabbalah keeps on growing
This Day in History: October 30, 1944 – Margo and Anne
[The last days of the Frank sisters -M]
The Sunni-Shiite war is a tragedy, but it would burn itself out if Saudi Arabia and Iran were not using the two Islamic factions are proxies in their struggle for power in the Middle East.
The lineup is Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Turkey and the Sunni militias on the other.
The U.S. government has inflamed the conflict further by taking the side of Saudi Arabia. This has undermined our “war on terror,” because Al Qaeda and ISIS are among the Saudi-backed Sunni militias warring against Syria.
Now Russia is befriending Iran and giving military assistance to Syria, and the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq is thinking of calling in Russian help. All this is in the name of fighting ISIS, which is a good thing, not a bad thing. But if Russia is lining up permanently with Iran’s proxies against the U.S.-backed Saudi proxies, this is quite another thing.
A U.S.-Russian proxy conflict would increase human suffering in the Middle East, and be of no benefit to the American or Russian peoples It would be dangerous for the world.. Washington should open negotiations with Moscow to keep the conflict from escalating further.
Isis in Iraq: Shia leaders want Russian air strikes against militant threat by Patrick Cockburn for The Independent (via the Unz Review)
The Return of the Syrian Army by Robert Fisk for The Independent (via Counterpunch)
Putin Forces Obama to Capitulate on Syria by Mike Whitney for Counterpunch.
Turkish Whistleblowers Corroborate Seymour Hersh Report of False Flag Syrian Gas Attack by Peter Lee for China Matters.
Nationalism and religious fanaticism are a dangerous combination in any country.
It means that people worship their collective selves instead of a universal God, and regard rival nations as the equivalent of demons.
I hesitated to post this video because I don’t want to associate myself with the anti-Semites in the comment thread. I have had many Jewish friends and acquaintances during my life, none of whom adhered to the theology described by the brave Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz. I do not think that what he describes represents the best values of Judaism.
But I think what he describes is real, and should not be ignored in the name of tolerance.
I do not criticize Israeli policy from the standpoint of moral superiority. I don’t think the Israeli government has done anything that the American government has not done.
Nationalism and religious fanaticism are a dangerous combination.
It means that people worship their collective selves instead of a universal God, and that they regard other people as the equivalent of demons.
Very few, if any, countries are immune from this danger—certainly not mine.
Hat tip for these links to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack and his friend Marty.
Go Delhi Go | Hyperlapse (2 min)
Colonial Photography in British India
Where Do Languages Go to Die? – The tale of Aramaic, a language that once ruled the Middle East and now faces extinction
Mount Everest to be declared off-limits to inexperienced climbers, says Nepal
Map: Where the East and the West meet
Zen and the Art of Bonsai Maintenance
The most significant thing about Pope Francis’ address to Congress is that it happened.
During most of American history, a majority of Americans saw the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy of American freedom and democracy. Persecution of Catholic immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s was worse than persecution of Muslim immigrants today.
This would be unthinkable today, and it reflects changes in both American public opinion and Vatican policy.
The Founders of the American republic defined themselves in opposition to the absolute monarchs of Europe.
The French Revolution was a revolution against the church as well as against the king and aristocracy, and, after the defeat of Napoleon, the Papacy aligned itself with the Holy Alliance, a union of Austria, Prussia, Russia to suppress any democratic uprising in Europe.
Vatican policy for more than a century was based on opposition to the legacy of the French Revolution, and, as a result, all revolutionary movements in Catholic countries were anti-clerical.
Catholics in Protestant countries were persecuted sometimes by law and almost always in public opinion. Poor Catholic immigrants into the United States had equal legal rights, but in the early 19th century were targets of mob violence, both because they were poor and foreign and because they were regarded as proxies for the Vatican.