Religious heads to hold own summit during G8
TheStar.com - Canada - Religious heads to hold own summit during G8
Politicians attending meeting in Muskoka will get push to aid the poor, environment
March 19, 2009
faith and ethics reporter
When the world's most powerful government leaders gather in cottage country next year to discuss how to get the global economy back on track, religious leaders from around the world will be on hand to push them to remember the poor and the environment.
"How can the G8 ignore it if all these voices are speaking together," asks Rev. Karen Hamilton, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.
The Council of Churches is organizing what promises to be the biggest ever such gathering of religious leaders from around the world in a counter-conference to coincide with the annual G8 political leaders' conference planned for the Deerhurst Resort near Huntsville.
Hamilton says there will be top representatives from all the world's major faiths at the counter-conference, including South Africa's Desmond Tutu and the Aga Khan. She has also been told the Dalai Lama hopes to attend, which she says will give the meeting added clout with the political leaders.
Her group launches its countdown to the June 25-27 summit tonight with a public lecture by University of Toronto economist John Kirton at the Noor Cultural Centre on Wynford Dr. Word of the event has been spread by the centre through its network of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
Kirton, a world-recognized expert on the Group of Eight, says that while the group of the world's top industrialized nations has promised many times to address the needs of the poor, it has only a 47 per cent success rate in fulfilling its own promises for action.
"They just need to be held to account," says Kirton, an active member in the Anglican Church.
Left to themselves, the G8 leaders have fallen badly behind their promises to address the needs of the world's poor, he says.
Kirton points to promises made at successive summits to fight AIDS and polio in developing countries, for example, while funding for treatment programs has been cut and the diseases are once again on the rise. The same can be said for promises on global warming, hunger and numerous other issues, he says.
And with the financial crisis deepening around the world, Kirton warns, political leaders will be tempted to further cut their help for the sick and poor in developing countries. He has not, however, given up on the G8 leaders just yet.
"They really want to (live up to their commitments), they are not lying to their people," says Kirton. And that, he says, is where faith leaders can play a key role.
"We know faith-based leaders can push the G8 to go further," he says.
Unlike black-clad protesters who battle police outside the gates of each G8 meeting, it's harder for political leaders to ignore the admonitions of the world's religious leaders.
The religious counter-summit will be held at the University of Winnipeg, where school president Lloyd Axworthy, a former federal Liberal cabinet member, has donated the use of his campus.
That's a long way from Huntsville, Hamilton admits, but says that with all the security at such meetings, there is no way the religious leaders could meet at Deerhurst as well.
She is expecting more than 100 religious leaders, plus their staff and followers, to attend. It will be the largest ever such event, and open to anybody who wants to attend.
The first faith-groups meeting to be held alongside the G8 was in 2005, and organizers have typically spent only a matter of months getting ready. Hamilton and her team have been laying the groundwork since last summer when the Deerhurst resort in Muskoka was announced as the 2010 venue.
Kirton said such long preparation time will give the event added sway with the political leaders, adding the G8 tends to most respect groups that show a long-term commitment to organizing summit-related events.
Hamilton hopes that will translate into the first face-to-face meeting between political and religious leaders during the Muskoka G8.
'God cares for everyone,' new billboards tell transit riders
By Graeme Morton, Calgary HeraldMarch 19, 2009 3:03 AM
The debate over the existence of a supreme being will ramp up next week when 10 pro-God advertisements appear in response to atheist messages already running on Calgary Transit.
Calgary Muslim leader Syed Soharwardy, who has been leading the faith-based campaign, said the ads will start running on eight buses and twoC-Trains Monday.
They feature the slogan, "God cares for everyone . . . even for those who say He doesn't exist."
Soharwardy said he has raised about $12,000 from local Christians and Muslims, including a $6,000 cheque from an anonymous donor, to pay for the ads, which will run for four weeks.
The ads sponsored by the Freethought Association of Canada say, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." They've been running on city buses since March 9.
"We all believe in freedom of expression, and we recognize the atheists' right to their point of view," said Soharwardy.
"But we think their campaign sends a misleading message. It says that if you believe in God, you don't enjoy life, and nothing could be further from the truth."
Soharwardy said people of faith draw strength and joy from their belief in God, particularly in uncertain times such as the current economic recession. "We have a responsibility to share what we believe is the truth with the public."
The new ads invite readers to visit the campaign's website, www.godexists.ca, to add their comments to the debate.
Cliff Erasmus, executive director of the Calgary Centre for Inquiry, an atheist group, said he welcomes hearing from the other side of the debate.
"I'm glad they feel they can counter our position," said Erasmus. "But it still comes back to the fact that they've been advertising religion for 2,500 years now. They obviously feel threatened by our message."
Calgary is the second Canadian city, following Toronto, where the atheist ads have been running on public transit. A number of other cities have not permitted the campaign.
Erasmus said he hasn't heard a lot of reaction to the atheist ads.
"It has certainly died down from the hoopla when they were first announced," he said. "I think people are seeing them, saying 'hmmm, that's cool,' and then getting on with their busy lives."
Ron Collins, spokesman for Calgary Transit, said they have received "some complaints" about the atheist ad campaign.
Author says secular world not a threat to religion's future
By Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald
March 21, 2009
It's not the easy, breezy read you'd take on your next beach vacation.
But few recent books are more important to those interested in spiritual issues than Charles Taylor's epic A Secular Age, according to Douglas Shantz, the chair of Christian thought at the University of Calgary.
Shantz examined Taylor's massive, 874-page study of religion's role in our secular era during last week's Iwaasa Lecture on Urban Theology, which drew a large crowd to Foothills Alliance Church.
"Taylor denies the popular idea that it is inevitable that religion will disappear as secularization increases around the world," Shantz said. "He suggests that, in reality, a religious 'nova effect' is taking place, that religion is remarkably adaptive and is expressing itself in all kinds of new forms, rather than diminishing."
Taylor, a 77-year-old Canadian philosopher and former McGill University professor, has legions of fans around the world. Shantz says part of Taylor's attraction is that his works are read by academics and the public alike.
However, Shantz cautions that A Secular Age will stretch the intellect, not to mention the patience, of many readers.
"It's a massive, meandering, intimidating book that examines the last 500 years of Christian life," says Shantz. "But I liked the way Taylor says to the reader, 'This is the world we have, this is the Christianity we have, now run with it.' "
Shantz notes Taylor is a practising Roman Catholic who talks about religion from an experiential, not theoretical stance.
"In the 1500s, Taylor says faith was much more of an 'enchanted' practice, where there was mystery deeply ingrained in it. Today, faith for a lot of people is chiefly a mental practice," says Shantz.
Taylor also notes the growing phenomenon of "minimal religion," where an individual will say "I'm a Christian, but don't try to put me into a denomination and don't try to get me inside a church."
Shantz calls A Secular Age a positive force for people of faith, despite the upheavals and uncertainty facing organized religion.
"Taylor says in modern society, people are hungry to find some outlet for the desire for fullness in their lives," says Shantz.
"He says it's a wonderful time in history, when people of faith shouldn't be on the defensive or feel guilty. But he also cautions Christians not be smug, to be better listeners to others with different views, to welcome variety, not feel threatened by it."
Taylor's interests have stretched far beyond the academic world. He ran a number of times for the NDP in federal elections, including an unsuccessful race against a young Liberal candidate named Pierre Trudeau in a Montreal riding in 1965.
Tony Blair's new mission in life is noble, but hardly modest.
Through his Tony Blair Faith Foundation, he hopes to bring understanding between the world's religions and therein see the harmony that will help solve war, the ailing global economy and epidemics, such as malaria.
The former British prime minister brought his quest to the swank Canadian Club in Toronto on Friday, speaking to about 400 of the city's elite at the Royal York Hotel.
He reminded his audience all situations now are basically global, and it was extraordinary the way "what happened in the American subprime mortgage market has significance to people in the remotest parts of the U. K., Europe and elsewhere," and that the world is in a fragile state.
"We live in a world where, like it or not, globalization is shrinking it and pushing it together. The issue is, does religious faith and do issues over culture pull the world back apart?"
Blair said he is often asked why he turned his attention to religious harmony.
"We know as political leaders . . . that unless we can create a situation in which people of different cultures and faiths can live together peacefully . . . then it's going to be hard to resolve those questions of conflict and security that confront us."
Milia Islam-Majeed is a woman who walks the walk
By Zeyad Maasarani, IFN Staff Reporter
After years of representing her religion on an individual level, it didn’t take long for Milia Islam-Majeed to realize that religious studies was her calling in life.Islam-Majeed grew up in the Midwest where she learned to practice and convey her religion in an environment oblivious to her faith tradition. A renowned expert on theology and world religions, Islam-Majeed currently serves as the executive director of the South Coast Interfaith Council and is the first Muslim to hold the position.She obtained her undergraduate degree in World Religions and Psychology from Westminster College in Missouri and thereafter moved to Boston for her graduate work. She is a 2004 graduate of Harvard Divinity School where she earned her Masters in Theological Studies of World Religions.Before becoming the executive director of SCIC, Islam-Majeed served as the program manager of the Islamic Society of North America’s Leadership Development Center in Plainfield, Indiana.In her tenure at ISNA, she participated in more than 20 interfaith discussions, forums and programs through faith based organizations, academic institutions, governmental agencies as well as the general community.Since becoming the executive director of SCIC, Islam-Majeed has spearheaded numerous efforts for community outreach and unity amongst all traditions. Her colleagues praise her dedication, which is demonstrated by her track record and ambitious agenda.
IFN: What do you hope to achieve as head of the SCIC?
Milia Islam-Majeed: I think “faith” and how it navigates one’s life – or lack thereof – is fascinating. As the executive director of the South Coast Interfaith Council, I hope to illuminate the power of faith in the lives of everyday people. I want to provide a space where people can speak about their faith traditions and what it means to them. My goals include working on projects and programs together with people of different faiths in order to illustrate our common humanity. I want us to know what it means to be a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i and to learn from one another. Above all, I want everyone to see the point of commonality we all share amidst all the diversity and build on that so that we can live in this pluralistic society as a collective community that is characterized by respect of one another; a kind of respect that stems out of truly trying to understand “the other.”
IFN: What was the first project you spearheaded? What is the project most dear to you?
MIM: The first major project I spearheaded was in graduate school. I was the co-chair of Harvard’s 2002 Islam in America Conference. I worked with an amazing committee comprised of fellow graduate students and together we organized a two-day conference with over 20 renowned speakers entitled “Facing New Challenges and Building Solutions.” It was particularly important to have that conference because at that time there was a lot of talk about Islam’s role in the Middle East and other places in the world, but there was very little attention paid to the presence of the Islamic faith in America, including in academia. This conference aimed to give the study of Islam in America academic credibility as well as educate the American people about who Muslims in America truly were, not just who they thought we were based on a negative media portrayal.
I feel every project I have done is important to me and it would be difficult to identify one that is most important. These are dynamic times we are living in and the projects I have spearheaded are a reflection of the times, thus each one was, and is, different from the other. Nonetheless, one thing I hope to illustrate through the projects I work on is the importance of unity – respecting humanity amidst the differences that are existent between us. I hope that the projects that I have worked on and continue to work on show that we have much to learn about one another and the more we learn the more we see that, at the end of the day, we are all more alike than we are different.
IFN: As the first non-Christian to head the SCIC, what kind of dynamic do you think you bring to the table because of your religion?
MIM: By nature, I have always been an optimist. However, at the same time I am also cognizant of the reality that’s existent around us. First and foremost, I think it speaks volumes of the interfaith community here in southern California. As human beings, we aspire to the ideals of truly looking beyond stereotypes and acting in accordance to that – but to be a part of a community that truly illustrates that is an honor. I know no community is perfect and certainly there is always room to grow. Nonetheless, I am humbled and extremely grateful for the trust the community has placed in me and for this opportunity to serve them.
That said, I know that there are still stereotypes that exist about Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular, especially those who practice the hijab (head covering). So certainly, there are double takes sometimes as I walk up to a podium to deliver a speech or visit other faith congregations to introduce myself as well as the work of SCIC. But I feel truly privileged to be in a position by which I can dispel any stereotypes by merely doing my job and being who I am – by providing a real human face to counter the negative images that may exist in the minds of people. Everyday holds a new adventure and opportunity and I look forward to doing my part in dispelling any negative perceptions of Muslims by doing my job to the best of my ability.
IFN: How would you characterize your experience of growing up as a Muslim the Midwest in a town with few Muslims and little knowledge of Islam?
MIM: It was challenging, but something not impossible because of the support system that my family provided. First and foremost, I will always be eternally grateful to God for truly being there every step of the way. I will also forever be indebted to my family, especially my parents Fatema and Matiul Islam, for inculcating in me the love of God and religion from a very young age. I think, ultimately, a sense and practice of faith has to start and be cultivated in the home. That is not to say that it wasn’t difficult during my adolescent years, because it was. However, I think the experience of growing up as such a minority also forced me to interact with people who weren’t “like us.” As such, some of the greatest friendships I developed were with people of other faith traditions. Everything happens for a reason … perhaps it is precisely because of my childhood experiences interacting with people of other faiths that prepared me to be in this position today.
IFN: Many Muslim-American women feel they combat a stigma of oppression and ignorance. As a Muslim-American woman who has achieved great feats and has developed as a leader in the community, what would you advise young Muslim women dreaming of following in your footsteps?
MIM: I would tell them that there is nothing that they cannot do by being a practicing Muslim – whether they chose to wear the scarf or not. Religion in no way limits you. For me personally, it has provided me with a strong foundation for which I will forever be grateful. We as Muslim women should not espouse a defeatist attitude or an inferiority complex. Often times, it's our own perceptions of what we think the others see us as that work against us – it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be proud of your Islamic heritage; know that it’s a gift and a source of empowerment. Use that source of empowerment to make a difference in the world for the betterment of all others around you – regardless of what religion they are. We must show through our actions that we are not oppressed or inferior than our brothers in faith. Rather we have to demonstrate through our actions that Islam is a religion that cares about humanity at large and that the ideologies embedded in the Islamic tradition are our motivating factor to truly make a positive impact in the lives of others.
IFN: When you were a Program Manager with ISNA you facilitated leadership training seminars. What do you think leaders of the Muslim-American community could have learned from your seminars? What do you think they can do better?
MIM: I think one of the greatest challenges we face is the process of integration within the greater societal paradigm we live in. Integration does not mean we lose our Islamic-ness, but rather we incorporate it within the cultural context we have here without compromising the core Islamic beliefs and principles. Certainly, there are ills that we must stay away from, but this society we live in also has a great deal to offer us. Thus we must not live in segregated communities, but rather have a sense of ownership of the society we live in by being participating members. We must be more involved. We must have more social service workers, community organizers, journalists, and people in the local governments. I whole-heartedly believe that it is in this country that we can show the beauty of what Islam truly is by being engaging citizens.
Another challenge we face – from my experiences within the Muslim communities in America – is that of religious leadership. I think we have some amazing individuals who are unbelievably versed in the Islamic sciences, however they know little about this cultural context we live in. As such, there is a gap that is created and that is hurtful to the Muslim communities. I feel it is imperative that we have religious leaders who are not only versed in the Islamic sciences, but that they are also able to lead and show the community how to apply those Islamic sciences and principles within this cultural context. We are a growing community, so I am confident we are moving in the right direction when it comes to this, but it still remains a challenge today.
IFN: You directed the "Meet the Author" program with ISNA. What was your most notable experience?
MIM: Having the opportunity to work with Dr. Robert Fisk was probably my most notable experience. I think he is a remarkable man and there is so much the world can learn from him. That and also being able to work with some of my personal role models in academia such as Dr. Sherman Jackson, Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah and Dr. Muneer Fareed. I think these are some of the individuals who have contributed significantly to Islamic scholarship, particularly to scholarship pertaining to Islam in America and it was such an enriching experience to be able to work with them.
IFN: You received a Master's of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Were you satisfied with the way Islam and Muslims are scholastically and academically portrayed? What can non-Muslim American institutions/authors do to better understand and teach Islam?
MIM: It’s always a bit challenging studying Islam in western academia, although I must say we have more and more individuals engaged in this task and, nowadays, there are more younger professors who have themselves been through the system, which really helps. I was very satisfied with the resources that were available at Harvard. What I didn’t learn in the classroom I was able to obtain through the library collection there as well as the many amazing people I was honored to meet and learn from. I think we, as Muslims, have to a play a more proactive role in writing our own history. I did feel that was missing in academia. In regards to what non-Muslims can do better to understand Muslims – interact with them on a personal level and understand that we are not monolithic people. We represent all cultures and ethnicities and that is both enriching and challenging. As non-Muslims I think its important to understand that often times a culture paints the religion, rather than the religion coloring the culture. I think to gain a deep understanding of Muslims both a basic understanding of the faith as well as personal interaction is a must.
IFN: As a Muslim women immersed in interfaith, who meets leaders from all faith communities, what have you done to strengthen the place of Muslims at the interfaith table? What needs to be done?
MIM: In my position, it’s important that I provide room for others to speak. However, I also think that at times actions speak louder than words. So I hope that my mere presence there as an organizer and facilitator of interfaith dialogues and projects illustrate that Muslims play a vital role in strengthening communities of faiths here in America.
I do hope that Muslims take a more proactive role in being a part of the interfaith community. I think if we expect non-Muslims to take the time to understand who we are, then we must extend the same courtesy to them. Certainly, we have come far as a community and I hope we continue to be more engaging in the interfaith world. By doing this, we show that we are not a faith that is only concerned about our own people, but that we feel that we must also understand our neighbors who espouse different beliefs. I feel that by being more engaged in interfaith work, we show others that we are an effective, and positive, member in the larger family of faiths here in America.
May 6, 2009
Can the Pope Bring the Peace?
By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr.
SYMBOLIC gestures are the tools of any leader’s trade, but nowhere do they spell the difference between life and death quite like the Middle East. For example, the visit in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site of two Islamic shrines, helped set off the second intifada.
Thus when Pope Benedict XVI visits Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories starting on Friday, the world may be excused for holding its breath. In his four years on the job, this pope has not always demonstrated a deft symbolic touch. If he simply manages to get back to Rome without starting a war, some might declare the trip a success.
Yet Benedict can, and should, do much more. Granted, the pope is not a politician, and this trip is more a pilgrimage than a diplomatic mission. Nonetheless, Benedict can make a unique contribution to the peace process at a moment when it obviously needs the help.
The reason for this is that popes enjoy a tremendous advantage over Western politicians in engaging the Middle East. This is the realm of “theopolitics,” where religious convictions always shape policy choices. A pope can engage those convictions in a way that secular trouble-shooters like former Senator George Mitchell, President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, never could.
To be sure, Benedict doesn’t have the same reputation as a healer that his predecessor, John Paul II, had. The late pope was seen as a friend of both Jews and Muslims, while Benedict has had problems with both faiths. Diplomatically speaking, however, that’s far preferable to being perceived as a nemesis to one or the other. Even Benedict’s recent run of bad press in the West stemming from his comments on condoms and AIDS has an upside. It may make him a more sympathetic figure for devout Jews and Muslims, who know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Western secular taboos.
If he plays his cards right, Benedict could move things forward in four ways.
First, the pope can emphasize that the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects a global moral consensus. He arrives at a moment of growing despair, after the new Israeli government seemed to cast doubt on its commitment to Palestinian statehood. Wielding the bully pulpit of the papacy, Benedict can stress that respecting the natural right of Palestinians to sovereignty isn’t about statecraft but about justice.
Yes, while in Israel Benedict will have to mend fences after his controversial decision in January to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop. He should not allow damage control, however, to blur his message about the urgency of a just peace.
Second, Benedict can insist that the Palestinians reject extremist elements within their leadership — an application of his broader push for a reformed Islam that respects both faith and reason. On that front, the pope has momentum. Since he angered Muslims in 2006 by citing a Byzantine emperor with nasty things to say about Muhammad, Benedict has improved his pitch, suggesting that Christianity and Islam ought to be natural allies against forms of secularism hostile to religion. Last month, for example, the Vatican signed a memorandum of understanding with the Arab League.
Benedict can now spend some of that capital, pressing Palestinians to embrace religious freedom, and Israel’s right to exist, as the price of admission to any Christian-Muslim partnership.
Third, Benedict can energize support for Christians in the Holy Land, who are poised on the brink of extinction. During the British mandate in Palestine, Christians were around 20 percent of the population; today they’re under 2 percent because of tremendous emigration.
Historically, Arab Christians have promoted a pluralistic vision of society, standing between resurgent Islamic fundamentalism and ultranationalist strains in Judaism. If they disappear, prospects for peace become dimmer. The pope must assure these believers that global Christianity will not abandon them.
Fourth, Benedict can advance the end game of the peace process by urging the leaders he meets with to bring Iran on board in all regional discussions. The Vatican has been holding talks with Iran’s Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, a government-affiliated body, for two decades. Moreover, Roman Catholicism and Shiite Islam, which dominates Iran, have a natural affinity: a strong clerical hierarchy, popular devotions and saintly intercessors, and a core theology of martyrdom. Benedict could open the door, leaving it up to the Iranians to walk through.
In the Middle East, religion is either part of the problem or part of the solution. The drama of the pope’s voyage comes down to which way he nudges things along.
John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent of The National Catholic Reporter.
Pope's Jordan tour fails to heal rift with Muslims
Pope Benedict XVIs attempts to heal a rift between the Vatican and Islam appeared to have fallen on stony ground Saturday after he failed to make key compromises during his tour of the Middle East.
The Pope appealed for an end to divisions and violence between Muslims and Christians during an unprecedented speech at a mosque, part of a tour that was billed as an act of reconciliation with the Muslim woi Id.
But he did not give the apology demanded by many Muslim leaders for remarks three years ago in which he quoted a medieval text describing the Prophet Muhammad's legacy as "evil and inhuman."
Nor did he make any symbolic gestures of unity, such as praying with his Muslim hosts.
He did not even remove his shoes as he entered the prayer hall of the King Hussein Mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman.
Sheik Hamza Mansour, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the Jordanian parliament, said the Pope had aggravated his previous offence. The Brotherhood has boycotted the visit, saying the Pope's previous "clarifications" about the 2006 comments were not enough.
The Pope's tour of Jordan, Israel and the West Bank has met with ambivalence from both Muslims and Jews. Even some Palestinian Christians have said he should not be visiting Israel so soon after the invasion of Gaza.
The Pope's host was Prince Ghazi, a cousin of King Abdullah and his principal religious adviser. He leads the Common Word group of Muslim leaders who seek to find common religious ground with Christianity.
As the Pope looked on impassively, he referred directly to the "hurt" the 2006 comments had caused to Muslims.
He added: "Muslims especially appreciated the clarification by the Vatican that what was said in the Regensburg lecture did not reflect Your Holiness's own opinion."
In 2001 Pope John Paul made a gesture shown around the Muslim world when he stopped to pray in the Umayyed Mosque in Damascus. Pope Benedict by contrast did not pray in the mosque Saturday. His spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said he had paused for a moment of silent meditation, but had not "prayed in a Christian sense."
Fr. Lombardi also said that the visiting party had been prepared to remove their shoes, as is customary when entering a mosque's prayer hall, but their hosts had laid down a mat and did not ask them to.
The Pope holds amass for Jordan's Christian community today, before travelling to Israel on Monday.
Khalil Mazraawi, AFP-Getty Images Pope Benedict XVI neither offered apology nor prayed Saturday at Amman's King Hussein Mosque.
President Obama is making his long-awaited speech to the Muslim world tomorrow morning in Cairo. Everyone is talking about what message he should send to the Muslim world. But the truth is, it isn't just citizens of Muslim majority countries that will be tuning in.
Obama will be addressing the 930 million Hindus in India, and the 5 million Jews in Israel, and the 38 million Catholics in Spain, and the 500,000 Muslims in his own city of Chicago.
Tomorrow, Obama does more than discuss how the United States will relate to the Muslim world. He sets the precedent for how diverse peoples and nations should interact in the 21st century. I have no doubt that Cairo was chosen as the stage for this message because of its history of religious pluralism, a history it shares with America and with Islam.
Take for instance the Fatimid dynasty, which ruled from Cairo from the 10th to the 12th century. This dynasty was known for its pluralistic nature of rule, demonstrating religious tolerance for other sects of Islam, Jews, and Coptic and Maltese Christians. In 975, the Fatimid dynasty, ruled by Shi'a Muslims, also established what is now widely considered the global center of Sunni Islamic scholarship - the famous Al-Azhar University.
Or consider the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, at the close of which Charles Bonney declared: "Henceforth the religions of the world will make war, not on each other, but on the giant evils that afflict mankind."
I hope that President Obama points to examples of religious pluralism like these to highlight the potential the future holds - and then talks about how we can get there together.
In the past few months, Obama has made interfaith cooperation an international priority and has stated that service constitutes the common ground between the world's diverse religious communities. The speech in Egypt is an opportunity to affirm this message and layout a strategy which presents concrete commitments to interfaith cooperation through service.
Obama should pay particular attention to the commitments made by young people - the leaders who will define religious identity by building bridges, rather than barriers or bombs:
- the city-wide initiatives creating real partnerships between diverse religious communities in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and the Twin Cities;
- the international exchanges between Americans and Muslim communities around the world which train religiously diverse young leaders in the vision, knowledge base and skill set they need to run interfaith service projects;
- the 30 Faiths Act Fellows dedicating a year of their lives to work together and raise awareness about the devastating effects of malaria in Africa.
Let us hope that these are the stories President Obama tells tomorrow morning. Because we know that the whole world is listening, and the soul of a generation is at stake.
For more commentary on Obama's speech to the Muslim World, go to the Saban Center at Brookings' Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World
By Eboo Patel | June 3, 2009; 10:38 AM ET | Category: Interfaith Issues , Religion & Leadership , Religion & Politics , Religious Conflict , The Faith Divide , Theology
Pitting religion against spirituality
By Douglas Todd, Canwest News Service
August 29, 2009
"Many people are already aware of the difference between spirituality and religion. They realize that having a belief system -- a set of thoughts that you regard as the absolute truth--does not make you spiritual no matter what the nature of those beliefs is."
That's the influential opinion of one of the world's most famous living spiritual teachers. Vancouver-based Eckhart Tolle, promoted by Oprah Winfrey, has sold millions of copies of his books. His repeated message is "religion" is bad (oppressive) and "spirituality" is good (liberating).
As Tolle writes in his latest mega-seller, A New Earth: Awakening to Life's Purpose, religious people are convinced "unless you believe exactly as they do, you are wrong in their eyes, and in the not-too-distant past, they would have felt justified in killing you for that. And some still do, even now."
Tolle is promoting what is fast becoming conventional wisdom in the Western world: "Religion" is institutional, almost always authoritarian. "Religion" is equated with the
Crusades, terrorism and judgmental U. S. televangelists. "Religion," in the mind of Tolle and those who read his books, is rigid and divisive and absolute.
This same anti-religion message is being advanced by spiritual authors such as Neale Donald Walsch and a host of other New Age teachers. To them "religion" is "fundamentalism." In contrast, Tolle prefers the term "spiritual," which he describes as "the transformation of consciousness" --to a state of "awakening."
In line with Tolle, many people in Canada, now find it necessary to tell anyone who cares to listen: "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."
Much of it has to do with shifting definitions. What, after all, is "spiritual?" What is "religious?"
The Oxford Dictionary defines "religion" as "the belief in and worship of a superhuman power, esp. a personal God or gods." Oxford adds that religion is "a particular system of faith and worship." Most interesting is that the Latin root of "religion" is "to bind together." Even though I quibble with this Oxford definition, I accept it's relatively straightforward compared to the ever-evolving meanings of the amazingly popular and vague word, "spiritual."
Philosopher Ken Wilber is highly aware of the problems that occur when people don't nail down what they mean by "spiritual." He cites several usages. One common understanding of "spiritual" is that it's a state of consciousness, such as those achieved through meditation. Another definition of "spiritual" refers to embodying an attitude, like love or wisdom.
A third use of "spiritual" restricts it to higher states of consciousness or maturity. I'll add a fourth definition of "spiritual"--how a person finds ultimate meaning.
Although it's hard to tell with Tolle, he seems to basically define "spiritual" in line with Wilber's first definition --as a state of mind, as the state of being detached from one's ego.
Now that we've fleshed out the terms, religious and spiritual, let's get down to the big question:which is better? Spiritual or religious?
If you define "religion" as Tolle and Walsch do---as rigidly institutional, fundamentalist and self-righteous --you would have to opt for "spiritual." After all, personal "transformation" seems more authentic than this harsh, top-down religion.
But if you keep in mind the dictionary definition of "religion"--that it's a "system of faith" that may serve to "bind together" humans with each other, the world and a transcendent reality -- the rivalry between the two becomes not so clear cut.
Is it not possible to be "spiritual," to practise inner transformation, at the same time one is "religious," that is, working to bond with a higher power and wider community through shared beliefs?
Sociologist Robert Bellah writes that making a sharp distinction between religion and spirituality creates a false dichotomy. And that's what Tolle does.
Bellah helpfully broadens the definition of religion to, "the many ways humans have sought to find meaning, to make sense of their lives."
I find Bellah's definition compelling since it can include religions that posit no God or gods, such as forms of Buddhism. It's also close to the definition I tend to use most for "spiritual." And, in many ways, the definitions are interchangeable.
The interfaith dialogue initiated by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has developed a great deal since the first meeting in Makkah in June last year. The two-day meeting in Geneva which concluded on Thursday was the fourth so far. Organized by the Muslim World League, it was not of the same order as last year’s Madrid conference or the special session on the subject at the UN in New York. There were no major leaders from any faith group in attendance, or any politicians cheering from the wings. It was largely a gathering of scholars and those already involved in the still very young science of dialogue.
But that was right. If dialogue is to work, it has to cease being the preserve of the religious high and mighty. Indeed it has to move out of gilded halls and conference centers and into the community, into the places where ordinary people are to be found — the workplace, the home, places of worship such as the mosque, the church, the synagogue, the temple — and, perhaps, most important, the school. As several participants at the Geneva conference noted, people learn to mistrust those of other faiths when very young, often at school. But if schools are part of the problem, they can be part of the solution. Teaching children to respect other faiths and people of other faiths would have great effect. Not just teaching: Imagine if children at a school in London were involved in the same project — a project on the environment, say — as children at schools in Riyadh or Islamabad or Delhi; they would begin to see each other as partners, not as possible enemies.
There is a mountain to climb. A great deal of lip service is paid to dialogue by leaders from all faiths who in reality fear it or do not understand its importance in a world that has become a global village. They are afraid of losing control of their faithful. But dialogue is not about conversion. It is about respect — people of differing faiths respecting each other, finding common ground and thereby living with each other in harmony and working for the well-being of humanity. There is also defensiveness, not unnatural given the suspicions of the past; even at Geneva, there were a few who confused dialogue with debate, trying to present points showing the merits of their faith and falling into the trap of comparing the teachings of their faith with the less than perfect practices of others. Dialogue is not easy. But it is vital if the world is not to sink into a destructive clash of civilizations that the bigots and the terrorists hope to bring about, foolishly imagining that they will win. In such a clash, we will all be losers. There will be a place for gatherings of religious leaders championing dialogue for some time to come. It is still in its infancy. It needs constant endorsement from the top. The Geneva meeting, however, was more about discussing where it goes next. That shows progress. The next stage must be to have dialogue meetings in every country, every city and promote dialogue in schools. It may seem a tall order. But the world’s peace depends on it.
Religious illiteracy creates cultural barrier
By Graeme Hamilton, Canwest News Service
October 10, 2009
The Baitun nur Mosque, which opened in July 2008, is just one symbol of religious diversity in Calgary. There is growing recognition among experts that religious illiteracy creates barriers between cultures.
Photograph by: Herald Archive, Reuters, Canwest News ServiceHalf of U. S. high-school seniors surveyed recently thought Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
A McGill University professor's reference to the patience of Job drew blank stares from students in his religion course. An art history teacher in France found children were mystified by the "strange bird" (a dove representing the Holy Ghost) common in Renaissance paintings.
Until recently, such confusion was little more than fodder for faculty-room jokes, evidence of the increasing secularism of western societies. But educators attending a conference at McGill University last week heard there is growing recognition in Europe and North America that religious illiteracy creates serious barriers between cultures.
"There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe," said Diane Moore, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. "The most significant consequence is that it fuels antagonism and hinders respect for pluralism, peaceful coexistence and co-operative endeavours."
Quebec, which last year introduced a mandatory ethics and religious culture course to replace Christian denominational classes, was held up as a leader in an effort to improve children's religious literacy. The Quebec class covers all major world religions and is taught throughout primary and secondary school.
Spencer Boudreau, a professor of education at McGill, said he was struck by how little his students knew about religion. (He was the one who had to explain the biblical story of Job.)
"It became more and more evident to me, the lack of knowledge -- not only of other religions but of their own tradition," he said in an interview.
"I'm saying, how can you understand Canada, how can you understand Quebec, without some of this background knowledge?"
Ignorance of other religions was on display in Quebec in the recent debate over the "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities and the move by the town of Herouxville, Que., to enact a code that amounted to a caricature of non-Christian religious practices. For example, the code informed new arrivals to the village that stoning of women was not allowed and that pork was a common menu item.
"What happened in Herouxville, I was embarrassed as a Quebecer," Boudreau said. "And it's not just Quebec that would think like that."
He said Canadians have to learn to live alongside newcomers for whom religion is central to their identity.
"We're going to survive as a country by bringing in people from different religions, and many times that is how they define themselves," he said. "Whether you think it's a good thing or it's a bad thing, it's there, and you have to be respectful."
Robert Jackson, a professor of religious education at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, said the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a wake-up call for Europe.
"It has propelled the discussion of religion into the public sphere," he said. "We can no longer say that discussion about religion does not belong in the public sphere, and of course part of the public sphere is public education." One result, he said, was a 2007 Council of Europe report containing guiding principles for teaching about religion.
Moore, of Harvard, said religious content should be incorporated throughout the curriculum and not restricted to a single course.
"Religion permeates all dimensions of human life," she said. She identified a wide range of problems caused by a lack of religious understanding, including anti-Semitism and the equation of Islam with violence and terrorism. She said it also leads to the portrayal of religion as "obsolete, irrational and oppressive."
In less than two months, the largest international interfaith gathering will convene in Melbourne, Australia. "Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the earth," is the theme of the Parliament of World's Religions, taking place December 3-9, 2009. Information about how to participate, including schedules, program, and speaker details, is now available at http://www.parliamentofreligions.org
The Charter for Compassion is the result of Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Prize wish and made possible by the generous support of the Fetzer Institute. It will be unveiled to the world on November 12, 2009.
Why a Charter for Compassion?
The Charter of Compassion is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems. One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace. In our globalized world, everybody has become our neighbor, and the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity.
The Charter, crafted by people all over the world and drafted by a multi-fath, multi-national council of thinkers and leaders, seeks to change the conversation so that compassion becomes a key word in public and private discourse, making it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt ~ be it religious or secular ~ has failed the test of our time. It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.
We invite each of you to adopt the charter as your own, to make a lifelong commitment to live with compassion..
With the launch of the Charter for Compassion, it's the TED Blog's pleasure to unveil Karen Armstrong's responses to the top 10 questions asked and voted on by the TED and Reddit community. (See all the questions users asked.) She covers the nature of compassion, the history of the conflict in the Middle East, and tough questions such as these:
•Religion seems to cause racism, extremism -- why not get rid of it?
•What's the point of a God that doesn't intervene?
•Why not discard religion and just teach the Golden Rule?
A Q&A that rewards deep reading. Enjoy!
Capitol62 asks: It seems that the nexus of modern religious conflict is in the Middle East. If that is correct, for your ideas about bringing faiths together with compassion and understanding to be successful you will need a strong commitment from religious leaders there. I was wondering if you've made any progress getting the Charter for Compassion together and how it has been received by Muslim leaders in the Middle East.
Actually the Middle East conflict is secular in origin. It began as a conventional political dispute about a land. Zionism was originally a rebellion against religious Judaism and the PLO Charter was essentially secularist. But because the conflict was allowed to fester without a resolution, religion got sucked into the escalating cycle of violence and became part of the problem. Violence and warfare affect everything that we do: they affect our dreams, aspirations, fantasies, relationships -- and our religion. Most of the religiously-articulated terrorism that troubles us today arose in regions where an originally secular armed conflict has become chronic. It is patently the case in Afghanistan. The root of the problem is political and unless there is a just, political solution to these problems in the Middle East, no amount of inter-faith understanding will be effective.
But you are right that the Middle East conflict is a "nexus." It has become a symbolic issue which stands for more than itself in the three monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For many Muslims, the plight of the Palestinians has become emblematic of the apparent defeat of their religious, cultural and political aspirations in the modern period; the State of Israel has inspired most Jewish fundamentalist movements -- some passionately for the secular state of Israel and others vehemently either against it or adopting a deliberate and defiant neutrality towards it; and the State of Israel also figures prominently in the End Time scenario of the Christian Right in the United States.
All this has certainly muddied the waters, because once a conflict becomes sacralised, issues become absolute and compromise is far ore difficult.
But by no means all Jews, Christians or Muslims adopt these extreme positions. Many are eager, even desperate to achieve a peaceful solution in the Middle East and these are the voices that we need to amplify. On our Council of Conscience, we have a Palestinian peace activist and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, one of the most senior clerics in the Middle East. As I write this, we are reaching out to political and religious leaders in the Gulf States. But there can be no quick fix. Decades of warfare and destruction have made people on all sides suspicious and wary. The political problems remain; they are formidable and until a solution is found that satisfies all parties, there is no hope of either a secular or a religious settlement. The Golden Rule could certainly be a useful yardstick: if we always treated others as we expect to be treated ourselves, many of the heinous actions that are the cause of such suffering to people on both sides of this conflict would be impossible. If we would not like to suffer dispossession and exile, suicide bombing, oppression and terrorism, we should not inflict these on others. But alas, that is not the way politicians think. And when violence has become endemic, some religious people will, not surprisingly, become fearful, angry and, losing hope in the possibility of a conventional political settlement, some will turn to extremism. Charismatic individuals can work wonders. It is a pity that there is no politician or religious leader on either side of this conflict of the moral and spiritual stature of Gandhi, Mandela and Tutu.
renderedit asks: Why did the Buddha teach that the existence of God (that is, whether God exists or not) is irrelevant?
Before we get to the Buddha, I want to describe a spiritual exercise that developed in India in the 10th century BCE, four hundred years before his lifetime and which is a model of authentic religious discourse. Other traditions have developed their own versions of this sacred contest and the principle it embodies underlies the Buddha's apparent insouciance about the ultimate reality.
It was called the Brahmodya Competition and its aim was to find a verbal formula that defined the Brahman, the ultimate reality that lies beyond the gods and is indefinable because it is the inmost essence of all things, the force that pulls the disparate parts of the universe together. First, the Brahmin priests would go out into the jungle to make a retreat. They fasted and practised breathing exercises that induced a different form of consciousness. This is an important point. You cannot talk about God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao in the same way as you might discuss a business deal or argue an academic point. You have to put yourself into the receptive frame of mind that is similar to the way we listen to music or poetry.
After their retreat, the priests returned to the compound to begin the competition. The challenger issued his own elliptical and paradoxical description of the Brahman, one that embodied all his learning and insight. Then his opponents had to respond, building on the challenger's formula and taking the description a step further. But the winner was the priest who reduced everybody to silence -- and in that silence the Brahman was present. It was not present in the brilliant verbal conundrums but in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.
Other traditions have called this transcendence God, Nirvana, or Dao and have also insisted that it lies beyond the reach of words. It is not easy for us to appreciate this reticence. We are used to getting instant information at the click of a mouse and can feel frustrated by the experience of unknowing. We talk, I think, far too glibly about God, asking "him" (ridiculous pronoun!) to bless our nation, save our queen, and support our side in a war or an election, even though our opponents must also be the objects of God's concern. We have domesticated God's transcendence. We often learn about God at about the same time as we are learning about Santa Claus; but our ideas about Santa Claus change, mature and become more nuanced, whereas our ideas of God can remain at a rather infantile level.
This experience of numinous unknowing seems to be part of the way we human beings experience. It lay at the heart of the Socratic dialogue, which can be seen as a rational version of the Brahmodya: it did not conclude with one of the participants defeating the arguments of the others but in a profound realization of the profundity of human ignorance. When he contemplated the indeterminate universe of modern physics, Einstein said: "To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms -- this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of all true religiousness." This is the kind of knowing that we derive from poetry -- it can take a lifetime for a complex poem to declare its full meaning to us. Music also, a highly rational art intimately related into mathematics, segues naturally into transcendence. Good theology is also an attempt to express the inexpressible. A modern theologian has described theological discourse as speech that segues into silence. At the end of the symphony, when the last notes die away, there is often a pregnant, eloquent beat of silence before the applause begins. Instead of giving us precise information about God, theology -- at its best -- should hold us in that beat of silence -- just as the Brahmodya did.
In the past some of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians, such as Maimonides, Aquinas and Ibn Sina, made it clear that it was very difficult to speak about God, because when we confront the ultimate, we are at the end of what words or thoughts can do. They insisted that we really do not know what we mean when we say that God is "good," "wise" or "intelligent;" they devised spiritual exercises, like the Brahmodya, that made us realize the inadequacy of all God-talk. Some pointed out that we could not even say that God "existed," because our concept of existence was too limited. Some even preferred to call God "Nothing" because God was not another being.
So, if we cannot know what God is, what is the point of religion? The traditions have found that, even though God is not a metaphysical fact that we can know in the same way as we know the beings of our experience, we can gain some intimation of the divine by means of disciplined spiritual exercises -- like the Brahmodya Competition -- and a compassionate lifestyle. All the traditions have discovered that the chief obstacle to this insight and enlightenment is egotism -- selfishness, greed, envy, self-preoccupation and our engrained tendency to make ourselves the centre of the universe. Yoga, for example, was a systematic dismantling of ego and an attempt to remove the "I" from our thinking. In compassion, which all the traditions say brings us into relation with the transcendence we seek, we learn to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.
That is why the Buddha always refused to define the ultimate. He had a monk, who was a philosopher manqué. Neglecting his yoga and ethical practice, he kept pestering the Buddha about such questions as the existence of God and the creation of the world. The Buddha told him that he was like a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow but refused to have any medical treatment until he had discovered the name of his assailant and what village he came from: he would die before he received this perfectly useless information. One could, the Buddha said, spend many pleasant hours discussing these fascinating topics but this would distract a monk from his main objective: "Because, my disciples, they will not help you, they are not useful in the quest for holiness; they do not lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of Nirvana."
In the oriental traditions, especially in India and China, the emphasis is not on what we are transcending to (God, Nirvana, Brahman, Dao) but on what we must transcend from, tamping out the "unhelpful states of mind" arising from egotism that hold us back from the perception of this transcendent reality that we can glimpse, but never rationally define.
blackstar9000 asks: What one aspect of religion would you say is least understood by the general population, how can it be addressed, and what do you think would be the result if more people understood it?
I think that the Western world -- and particularly, perhaps, the Western Christian world -- has lost sight of the fact that religion is a practical rather than a notional discipline. It is not a question of thinking or "believing" things but of behaving consistently in a way that changes you at a profound level. This is one of the principal themes of my book The Case for God. Religious knowledge has to be acquired by dedicated practice -- like driving, swimming or cooking. You cannot learn dancing or gymnastics by reading a book. You have to devote hours and years of time to practising this skill; you do not necessarily understand how your body achieves these amazing feats, but if you persevere you may learn to move with an unearthly grace and reveal a physical potential that is impossible for an untrained body.
The myths of religion are essentially programmes for action. Many of the most ancient myths are overtly about the gods but are actually about humanity. These stories about gods descending into the underworld and fighting with monsters were not meant to be factual or historical; they were telling you how to enter into the labyrinthine world of the psyche and fight your own demons. Unless a myth is put into practice, it remains as opaque and abstract as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until it is "incarnated" instrumentally. It is only when you apply it practically to your own life -- either ritually or ethically -- that it reveals its truth, in rather the same way as the instructions of a board game, which seem incomprehensible, complicated and boring until you pick up the dice and begin to play when everything falls into place. Such a myth is not providing us with factual information about the universe but telling you something profoundly true about our humanity, the way our minds and hearts work, and how we can live more richly and intensely, beyond the reach of fear, hatred, and envy.
This is very clear in Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism and Islam, which are all essentially religions of practice and have little or no obligatory dogma. The "five pillars" of Islam, for example, are activities (pilgrimage, almsgiving, fasting) rather than doctrines requiring belief. But it was also true of such Christian doctrines as Trinity (originally a meditative exercise) and Incarnation (a call to lay aside the ego; see Philippians 2:1-11). A myth has been defined as something that -- in some sense -- happened once but which also happens all the time. It is only when you activate a myth, making it a reality in your own life, that you recognize its truth.
We lost this understanding of religion during the early modern period, when our conception of truth, became more notional, mythos was discredited, and practical knowledge downgraded. At this time, the English word belief changed its meaning: beliven used to mean "love, loyalty, commitment, engagement;" it was related to the German liebe ("beloved") and the Latin libido ("desire"). Only in the late 17th century did it come to mean: "an intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition." In the New Testament, when Jesus was asking for "faith" (Greek: pistis, "trust, involvement, commitment") he was not asking for a credulous acceptance of a set of doctrines. He was calling for action, seeking disciples who would give what they had to the poor, live rough, behave compassionately even to social outcasts, and devote their lives to the coming Kingdom when rich and poor, weak and powerful would live together in harmony. When the early Christians recited "creeds" they were not expressing "belief" so much as making this kind of commitment; the Latin credo derives from cor do: "I give my heart."
By making "belief" in the modern sense so essential to religion, we have distorted our understanding of faith and placed far too much emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. Nobody, after all, can have the last word on what we call "God." We now call religious people "believers" as though accepting certain dogmas was the most important thing that they did. People like the rabbis, the fathers of the church, the Buddha, the sages of the Upanishads and Confucius would have found this very strange, because the teachings of religion make no sense until and unless they are translated into action.
Today we often think that before we start living a religious life we have first to accept the creedal doctrines and that before one can have any comprehension of the loyalty and trust of faith, one must first force one's mind to accept a host of incomprehensible doctrines. But this is to put the cart before the horse. First you change your behaviour -- and only then do you begin to understand the truth that lies behind the dogma.
In his famous prayer, St Anselm, the 11th century archbishop of Canterbury, says: credo ut intelligam, which is usually translated: "I believe in order that I may understand." As a child, I always thought this meant that first I had to force my mind to "believe" the articles of the creed and then, as a reward, God would give me understanding. But Anselm's words are more accurately translated: "I involve/commit myself in order that I may understand." It is only when you involve yourself in the ritual and ethical practices of religion that you achieve understanding. That is why Anselm goes on to say: "And unless I so involve myself, I will not understand."
The person who asked me this question also asked a series of questions about the Golden Rule ("Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you" or "Always treat all others as you would wish to be treated yourself"). Why the emphasis on the Golden Rule? Why is it universal? Does it tell us anything substantial about religion, since it is also fundamental to secular ideologies? Because religion is essentially a practical activity, religious people are very pragmatic. They do not usually adopt an ideology because it sounds good but because it has been found to work. When people have practised the Golden Rule "all day and every day" as Confucius (the first person to formulate it in the sixth century BCE) prescribed, you find that you lay aside the ego, because the Golden Rule requires you to overcome selfishness and put yourself, consistently, kindly, and intelligently, all day and every day, in somebody else's shoes.
People have discovered that if they practice the Golden Rule faithfully, it slowly, incrementally, changes them. They achieve what the Greeks called ekstasis, which is not an exotic trance but a disciplined, habitual "stepping outside" of the prism of selfishness. This practice is fundamental to the enlightenment that we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. As a dancer reveals the full potential of the human body, people find that living beyond the confines of self helps them to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart; they discover a transcendent peace within themselves, which enables them to live serenely and creatively in the midst of the suffering that is an ineradicable part of the human condition. The Golden Rule is the basis of religion and morality because this is the way our humanity works; this tells us something profoundly true about the human condition.
But it is no use either "believing" or "dis-believing" in the efficacy of the Golden Rule. You only discover its truth and effectiveness if you put it into practice "all day and every day."
Read the rest of Karen Armstrong's answers, after the jump >>
rakv1971 asks: What is the role of God in a world where neuroscience is peeling away at the subjective?
I am afraid I am not up at the cutting edge of neuroscience, so I am not sure what you mean by "peeling away at the subjective?" Do you mean that our subjective impressions are unreliable representations of objective reality? If so, the mystics and sages of religion, especially in the eastern traditions, have long been aware of this. They have all insisted that the ultimate (God, Nirvana, Brahman, Dao) lies beyond our normal psycho-mental states. You could not think about Brahman; nor could you experience God emotionally. For the sages of the Upanishads (c. 7th century BCE), In the seventh century BCE, Yajnavalkya, one of the great teachers in the Upanishads, the Brahman is identical with the innermost core (atman) of each human being, but it lay far deeper than our normal thoughts, sensations and experiences:
You can't see the Seer who does the seeing; you can't hear the Hearer who does the hearing; you can't think with the Thinker who does the thinking; you can't perceive the Perceiver who does the Perceiving.
In the same way, the Buddha emphasized the ephemeral nature of our perceptions: to achieve enlightenment one had to go deeper. And until the fourteenth century, when a fervid emotional piety began to surface in Europe, most of the Christian masters of the spiritual life insisted that you could not feel God any more than you could know what God is. "Blessed is he who is without sensations during prayer," said Evagrius of Pontus, one of the monks who lived a contemplative life in the Egyptian desert.
In the past, the most thoughtful spiritual advisers in all the major traditions have distrusted visions, exotic feelings or heavenly voices; they claimed that they were the product of a fevered imagination and a distraction from the transcendence we seek. Buddhists say that this type of experience is like so much electronic "noise," a natural effect of the yogic disciplines, which have little significance in themselves. They certainly have no supernatural origin. Many of the meditative exercises developed in the traditions were designed precisely to wean people away from this type of emotional excess. To cultivate extraordinary feelings and sensations and luxuriate in a warm glow meant that the contemplative or yogin would remain trapped in the ego that s/he was supposed to transcend. Once religious experience is equated with fervid enthusiasm, people are in danger of losing touch with the psychological rhythms and realities of the interior life.
sweetbldnjesus asks: What do you think accounts for today's strong disconnect between logos and mythos?
In most premodern cultures, there were two generally recognized ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world, so it had to correspond accurately to external reality. Logos was essential to the survival of our species, but it had its limitations. It could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. For that people have turned to mythos, which focused on the more elusive, puzzling and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos.
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. We fall very easily into despair if we do not find some significance in our lives. Myth helps us to achieve this. If your child dies or you witness a terrible natural disaster, you want a scientific, rational explanation but you also need help in coping with the turbulence of your grief and despair. Science can diagnose your cancer and can even cure it; but it cannot assuage the disappointment, terror and dismay that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help you to die well. That is the role of myth. But a myth was not just a pretty story that provided you with a facile answer to the problems of mortality, pain, and sorrow. It was, as I said above, a programme for action. It could put you in the correct psychological or spiritual posture, but it was up to you to do the hard spiritual and psychological work with yourself and take the next step, making the "truth" of the myth a reality in your own life.
The modern disjunction between mythos and logos was one of the effects of the 17th century scientific revolution in the West. At this time, logos began to achieve such spectacular results that myth became discredited. So much so that in popular parlance today a "myth" often simply refers to something that is not true. If accused of a peccadillo in his past life, a politician is likely to say "It is a myth"; i.e., it didn't happen. During the modern period in the West, the scientific methodology of logos was widely regarded as the only reliable means of attaining truth and this would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to it. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, so religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. Because we started to read our scriptures as though they were factual logos, we lost the art of interpreting the old stories of gods walking the earth, dead men rising from tombs or seas parting miraculously. We also began to understand such concepts as faith, revelation, myth and mystery in ways that would have been very surprising to our ancestors.
This questioner also asks: If so much evil has been perpetuated in the name of religion, is it not better to avoid organized religion altogether?
There is no denying that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. As a species, we have a genius for fouling things up. Atrocities have also been committed in the name of secular ideologies: one need think only of Stalin. I have had several threatening letters from fervent atheists, who tell me that if they find out where I live they will burn my house down. We are a cruel species. At its best, religion, like the best secular ideologies, was designed to curb our tendency to destroy anything or anyone that appears to threaten us.
I used to think that it would be better if religion had never been invented because religious people have done such harm in the world. But after twenty-five years of studying the major world faiths, I have had to change my mind. When I was researching The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, for example, I was surprised to learn that each one of what we call the great world faiths originally developed in a revulsion from contemporary violence; each one -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Daoism and the three monotheisms -- began at a time when violence had reached an unprecedented crescendo, and in each case, the catalyst for religious change was a principled rejection of aggression and a deliberate cultivation of a compassionate ethic. It is not "religion" that is responsible for evil; it is the greed, selfishness, and violence of humanity. We often call evil acts "inhuman" but this is inaccurate: these acts are all too human. We are capable of heroism and generosity; but aggression is also something that comes naturally to us.
Some forms of religion are, as the Buddhists say, more "skilful" or "helpful" than others. A great deal of harm has been done when people have cultivated an idolatrous conception of God, thinking of "him" as a powerful being, like ourselves, writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. This imaginary deity is simply an idol, which we have created in our own image; it gives a sacred seal of absolute approval to some of our worst prejudices and impulses. That is why some of the greatest Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians fought against this idolatrous tendency by emphasizing the transcendence of God -- as I explained in my answer to the second question.
And this reminds us that organized religion has its uses. It preserves wisdom like that of such theologians as Hillel, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the great Kabbalists, Isaac Luria, Martin Buber, Ibn Sina, Avicenna, Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, Mulla Sadra, Mir Dimad, the Cappadocian Fathers, Denys, Duns Scotus Erigena, Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Karl Rahner, Paul Tillich, and Bernard Lonergan. Of course organized religion can become idolatrous; many church leaders are simply religious politicians, and politicians, as a breed, are not famous for their lack of ego. Any institution, be it secular or religious, has a tendency to become an end in itself -- or, in religious terms, an idol.
Human beings are chronically predisposed towards idolatry. We constantly give absolute value to purely temporal, limited realities, such as a god, a nation, or an ideology. When something inherently finite is invested with ultimate value, its devotees feel obliged to eliminate any rival claimant because there can only be one absolute. We find this kind of idolatry in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible; but it also characterised some of the worst political and moral disasters of the twentieth century.
enlashok asks: How bad does an idea have to be before the appropriate reaction is to discard it?
This question comes from Enlashok, but he has asked a lot of other questions and makes a lot of other points too, particularly about the harm religion does. I will try to give as comprehensive an argument as possible.
First, I freely admit that a great deal of religion is indeed "unskilful" -- there is bad religion just as there is bad art, bad sex, and bad cooking. I have written books about this type of destructive faith. Far too many people, as Enlashok points out, are uncritical of themselves and their tradition; they have indeed "maintained and propagated immoral, racist, sexist and homophobic policies, promoted tribalism, and shielded extremism." Religion -- like any art or science -- is very difficult to do well. Religion may, for example, teach compassion, but far too many people -- secularists as well as religious -- prefer to be right rather than compassionate.
Enlashok says that he realizes he has asked a lot of questions and that he would be content if I would simply answer his first question, which I have cited above. So let me say again: religion is not an "idea." Its doctrines can only be verified when they are consistently translated into practical action. They are certainly not ideas that can be "factually supported from available evidence," to quote Enlashok again. As I have tried to explain, the notion that religion is an idea that can be empirically proven is a great fallacy that developed in the Christian West during the early modern period, when theologians tried to force theology into a scientific idiom that was alien to it. As soon as they did this, atheism became inevitable. When you mix mythos with logos, you get bad science and unskilful religion. Unfortunately, as globalization proceeds and more and more people adopt the Western ethos, this unviable, "scientific theology" is spreading to other faiths and other regions.
Instead of seeing religion as a science manqué, I think it is more helpful to regard it as an art form. Like art, religion at its best helps us to find meaning in a tragic world; like art, it holds us in an attitude of wonder and introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is not dependent upon logic or empirical truth. Music, for example, is not about anything and you cannot verify the meaning of a late Beethoven quartet, but it has a powerful and enriching effect upon us. Poetry pushes language to the limits and makes us aware of the difficulty of expressing some of our more profound insights in a purely logical way. Religion has always expressed itself most effectively in terms of art: poetry, music, dance, song, architecture, calligraphy, drama, and sculpture.
Religion differs from art in its summons to practical action. It is not sufficient to have an aesthetic or "spiritual" experience. The Buddha explained that, after achieving enlightenment, a person must come down from the mountain top, return to the market place and there practice compassion for all living beings. A spirituality that focuses only on a numinous warm glow is "unskilful" and selfish. All art is transformative; it is meant to change us. Religion -- at its best -- is a form of ethical alchemy that helps us to limit the egotism that causes so much human suffering, both to ourselves and to others.
Like art, religion was not meant to provide us with information and explanations that lie within the remit of scientific logos. It helps us to consider problems for which there are no final solutions -- mortality, the prospect of our inevitable and painful extinction, sickness, injustice, and cruelty. It does not mean that we will suffer less but, if we work hard enough, we might be able to endure our own pain and to assuage the suffering of others.
Science deals with verifiable ideas; scientists struggle with a problem, and when that is solved move on to the next one. There is continuous improvement, progress and development. But the humanities do not function like that. Philosophers are still meditating on the same issues and problems that preoccupied Plato. Harold Pinter is not necessarily a better playwright than Shakespeare, simply because the sum of human knowledge has advanced since Shakespeare's time. There are some aspects of life -- death, sorrow, the nature of happiness, evil and the nature of goodness -- that each generation has to grapple with for itself. And there never seems to be a definitive solution.
SomeKindOfPrimate asks: You often defend religion by arguing that god is a vague numinous force known only through mystical experience. But a god that doesn't answer prayers and intervene in the world is impotent to most believers. If god doesn't throw thunderbolts and intervene in the affairs of mankind, what is the point of believing in god and practising religion?
First of all, I personally would not like to worship a god who throws thunderbolts. The Greeks had one, whom they called Zeus; like the other gods, he continually intervened in human affairs in a highly irresponsible way. The kind of god you describe is, surely, undesirable.
In the ancient world, people believed in the existence of gods in a way that was not irrational at a time when there were so many unseen forces -- wind, infection, disease, emotion -- that had a profound influence on human life. But they were not gods in our sense of the word, because they were not omnipotent or omniscient; they had a fuller share of Being than other creatures because they were immortal, but otherwise they shared the human predicament and had to live according to the natural laws of the cosmos. There was no ontological gulf between the natural world and the gods, no concept of the "supernatural" in our sense: gods, humans, animals, trees, rocks and stars were made up -- in varying degrees -- of the same divine substance. Homer depicts the gods as more powerful than human beings but basically trivial and lacking in seriousness precisely because they did not have to face the horror of death. In the eastern religions, the gods are lower in status than an enlightened teacher such as the Buddha; they too have to work for their own enlightenment and study such disciplines as yoga under a human guru.
In making a mere god the only symbol of the ultimate transcendence, the people of Israel were doing something highly unusual. And because this god, at the very start of the history of Israel, had all the irresponsible, thunderbolt-hurling defects of many of the other gods, they had to develop their theology, reaching out to what theologians call the ineffable God beyond god. A personalised God can help us to recognize the sacredness of human personality, but there carries an inbuilt danger of idolatry because it is all too easy to make the biblical god an idol, the end of the story. Religious language always points beyond itself; it is and can only be symbolic.
That is why the later prophets and the rabbis of the Talmudic Age had to refine the god depicted in the earliest parts of the Bible, making it clear that God was not yet another being. I have described this long and complex process in A History of God. Jews do not even speak God's name, a discipline that reminds them that any human expression of the divine is so inadequate that it is potentially blasphemous. In the Talmud, the rabbis make it clear that there is a vast gulf between the human experience of the divine and the divine reality itself (which Jewish mystics called Ein Sof, "Without End"), which would always remain beyond our ken. One rabbi went so far as to say that Ein Sof was not even mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud.
Christians and Muslims made exactly the same distinction. The distinction between the God we somehow experience and the ineffable reality itself lies behind the doctrine of the Trinity, which was meant to remind Christians that it was impossible to think about God as a simple personality. When he was devising the doctrine of the incarnation of God in the man Jesus in the 4th century, St Athanasius explained that we could only make this claim because we did not know what God was. If God were simply a big, almighty Something, like an immense thing in our experience, it would be impossible for God to be present in a human being; it would be like trying to cram a whale into a can of sardines. But in the man Jesus, Christians could glimpse an incomprehensible transcendence that was entirely distinct from anything in our normal experience.
But during the modern period, influenced by scientific logos of modernity, people began to lose the older symbolic habits of thought, started to read their scriptures with a literalism that is without parallel in religious history, and began to envisage God as a fact. They saw their idea of God as identical with the transcendent reality, instead of simply being a symbol. Unlike the theologians of the past, they had no problem thinking that he existed like any other being. As Paul Tillich explained:
We can no longer speak of God easily to anybody, because he will immediately question: "Does God exist?" now the very asking of that question signifies that the symbols of God have become meaningless. For God, in the question, has become one of the innumerable objects in time and space which may or may not exist. And this is not the meaning of God at all.
This kind of literal thinking produces a very primitive notion of deity. A God who interferes with human freedom is simply a tyrant; a God who hurls thunderbolts is a liability; a God conceived as living in a world of his own was simply a being; even the Supreme Being was just another Being, the final item in the series. Tillich argued that to deny the reality of the idolatrous, interventionist god was a religious act.
It is just no good thinking that God will answer our prayers, cure our sickness, ensure the success of our nation or give us a fine day for the picnic, because "he" simply doesn't do it. And if you are convinced that God has cured your cancer and saved your life, then you really do have a problem: why did God not save the lives of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah? Elie Weisel said that this interventionist God died in Auschwitz. But there is an Auschwitz story that I think wonderfully expresses the true purpose of religion. Even in the camps, some inmates continued to study Torah and observe the festivals, not in the hope of placating an angry deity, but because they found that these rituals helped them to endure the horror. One night the Jews put God on trial. In the face of such inconceivable suffering, they found the conventional arguments for his existence utterly unconvincing. If God was omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust; if he could not stop it, he was impotent; and if he could stop it but chose not to, he was a monster. They condemned God to death. The presiding rabbi pronounced the verdict, and then went on calmly to announce that it was time for the evening prayer. Ideas about God come and go, but prayer, the struggle to find meaning even in the darkest circumstances, must continue.
The "God beyond god" is only vague, abstract and difficult to understand if you are not living the mythos of religion. If one just considers God as an abstract idea, without putting into practice the teachings of religion, as I have described above, God becomes as abstract as the rules of a board game.
maxmax asks: John Doe calls himself an atheist. He never goes to a house of worship. He doesn't look to religious texts for guidance. He doesn't believe that there is such a thing as a god, at least not in any literal way. Nonetheless, he believes in the Golden Rule (Do unto others…). While logically he realizes that it leads to more happiness for more people, he also personally finds satisfaction in caring for others and treating them with respect. This sense of satisfaction (perhaps even transcendence), in fact, is really where he finds the willpower to keep doing the caring and thoughtful things he does. Would you consider John Doe to be a religious person? If not, what is he lacking?
If John Doe puts the Golden Rule into practice "all day and every day" as Confucius prescribed, not simply doing his "good deed for the day" and then returning to a life of self interest; if he does not confine his benevolence to his own group, tribe or nation or to people he finds congenial, but extends it to all members of the human race -- and, indeed, to all species; if every time he is tempted to speak unkindly of an annoying sibling, an ex-wife or a people with whom his country is at war, he refrains; if he never speaks an unkind word, never makes an irritable gesture, but behaves with friendly courtesy to all; if he does not look down, even in his most intimate thoughts, on those who do not share his beliefs; if he does not inveigh impatiently at what he regards as the credulity of the religious; if he works energetically and in practical ways to assuage the suffering and injustice of life, even if this goes against his own interests; if he is open-hearted, generous and kind at every moment of his life, I would not only call him "religious" but I would bow before him as a Sage, a perfected human being.
Such a commitment to the Golden Rule produces what the Chinese called a Sage; what the Greek Orthodox called a deified human being; what others have called a Buddha, an enlightened human being, so identified with Nirvana that s/he has become inseparable from it. Such a person has gone beyond ego, because at each moment of the day, s/he has laid selfishness to one side and is living in a state of ekstasis, "standing outside" the prism of selfhood; such a person has broken down the barricades that most of us erect around ourselves to protect the frightened, defensive ego. Such a person is indeed, as you suggest, living in relation to transcendence, because s/he is not focused on what s/he is transcending to, but concentrating on what s/he is transcending from.
I would like to close this question with two quotations. The first is from Confucius's Analects. These words were spoken by Yan Hui, Confucius's most talented pupil, and describe a life of constant ren. Later Confucians would define ren as "benevolence, compassion", but Confucius always refused to define it because he said it a state that was incomprehensible to a person who had not achieved it. It was itself the transcendence one seeks -- hence the Chinese often speak of the ultimate reality as the "Way" (dao) and prefer to remain silent about the Terminus of the religious journey. For Yan Hui the practice of ren was an end in itself, but it demanded a lifelong effort which, once undertaken seriously, has its own dynamic, which he described, "with a deep sigh":
The more I strain towards it, the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front, but suddenly it is behind. Step by step, the Master [Confucius] skilfully lures one on. He has broadened me with culture, restrained me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just when I feel that I have exhausted every resource, something seems to rise up, standing over me sharp and clear. Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all. (Analects 9:10)
Ren was not something you "got" but something you gave. It is not something that you could nail down and define. Living a compassionate, empathic life took Yan Hui beyond himself, giving him momentary glimpses of a sacred reality that is not unlike the "God" pursued by monotheists. It was both immanent and transcendent: it welled up from within but was also experienced as an external presence "standing over me sharp and clear."
The second quotation is a very early Buddhist prayer -- attributed to the Buddha himself -- which expresses the compassionate attitude. John Doe could certainly use this prayer, because it can be prayed by anybody, whatever her beliefs or lack of them:
Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate,
Small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away,
Alive or still to be born -- may they all be perfectly happy!
Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere.
May nobody wish harm to any single creature, out of anger or hatred!
Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child!
May our compassionate thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across, --
Without limit; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world,
Unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity! (Sutta Nipata 118)
Selph asks: If the Golden Rule is the best and most important part of religion, why should we not discard religion and just teach the Golden Rule?
This overlaps with the last question. And here is probably the place to answer its last query: "What is John Doe missing?"
To practice the Golden Rule in the way that I have described above is very difficult; every day one tends to fail, time and time again, with an impatient word, an angry gesture, a contemptuous glance. So the traditions have devised aids to help us. Classical yoga, for example, of the kind practised by the Buddha, was not an aerobic exercise; nor was it a way of feeling peaceful and happy with our lot. It was a systematic and highly technical way of combating ego. It also rooted the compassionate ethos deeply in the subconscious. Religious art and ritual brought a sense of beauty, joy, wonder and transcendence to the compassionate lifestyle. If, for example, you contemplate Andrey Rublev's 15th century icon (and in the Orthodox Christian traditions icons have the same kind of authority as scripture) you see, beautifully depicted, what has become an archetypal image of the divine and of the compassionate personality: it is an icon of selflessness and eternal, personal dispossession (I have described it in more detail in The Case for God).
A supportive community can also prevent discouragement; and each tradition has amassed a treasury of wisdom on the "Do's and Don't's" of the compassionate life, pointing out the ever-present danger of segueing into self-congratulation and egotism (it is all too easy to be lethally charitable to others!), so that you don't have to go it alone. The ideal of community is crucial to all faith traditions and it is an education in compassion. In every community, there are bound to be people we find uncongenial (the same can also be said of family), and by learning to relate empathically to them, we prepare ourselves for the encounter with the more challenging Other outside.
But the faith traditions are not monolithic, unified systems. They are immensely complex and have also amassed a lot of inessential practices, doctrines and rituals over the centuries that are either "unskilful" or outdated. We have seen that institutional religion has a tendency to become egotistic and idolatrous -- the same is also true, surely, of secular institutions. What worked beautifully for medievals will not necessarily work for people in the 21st century. So a good deal of weeding out has to be done. The practice of religion is always highly selective. We have a choice: we can either emphasize those aspects of a tradition, secular or religious, that speak of superiority, exclusion or even hatred and disdain; or we can choose those that speak of compassion and learn to look for the compassionate core of what seems, at first glance, an unpromising doctrine or ritual. Religion is hard work; each tradition represents a constant dialogue between transcendence and current conditions; it demands a constant creative effort to speak to the peculiar conditions of the modernity in which we find ourselves. I personally think that we can lay to one side many aspects of a religious tradition if they do not help us to implement the Golden Rule in the way our world needs.
deadlytoque asks: How do you respond to Richard Dawkins' assertion that religion is corrosive to science, and that it encourages people to be satisfied with "trivial, supernatural non-explanations"?
I would agree that religion can indeed encourage this kind of sloppy, facile thinking. But it need not and should not, as I have tried to show in The Case for God.
First, the distinction between mythos and logos meant that until the 17th century, there was no conflict between science and religion:
•Until that time, nobody read their scriptures in a wholly literal way. Every single statement of the Qur'an, for example, is called an ayah, a "parable, sign, or symbol." In their creative midrash ("interpretation, investigation") of scripture, the Rabbis were highly inventive and felt no qualms about adding to the original revelation or interpreting the sacred texts in a way that the biblical authors would have surprising in order to make them address the current needs of the community. And in the Christian world, until the 16th century, pastors, preachers and monks all interpreted each verse of the Bible in four senses: literal, moral, allegorical and mystical. Nobody stuck with the plain sense. And, as a Catholic child, I was taught to read the Bible in this way: the word "evolution" never cropped up in a religious context during my time at school.
•So nobody, for example, understood the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life. That was not the purpose of cosmology in the ancient world. Until the 16th century, people felt at liberty to make up entirely new creation myths or to interpret each word of these early chapters of Genesis as an esoteric allegory.
•In the early fifth century, St Augustine, who can be called the founder of the Western Christian tradition and is revered as a major authority by Catholics and Protestants alike, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted science, that text had to be interpreted differently and given an allegorical significance. The revealed words reflected the world of the biblical authors and were, therefore, "accommodated" to their understanding. The ancients, for example, had thought that a body of water existed above the clouds and was the source of rain. But science, Augustine argued, had moved on and nobody believed that any longer. So when the Bible spoke of the "waters above the earth", we could not take this literally. Augustine's "principle of accommodation" was the bedrock of biblical exegesis until the 16th century. (Incidentally, Augustine also insisted that if a biblical text seemed to preach hatred, violence or exclusion, it must also be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity).
•Many of the people who oppose the teaching of evolution in the public schools would call themselves Calvinists. But Calvin himself would not have approved of their campaign. Writing during the dawn of the scientific revolution, he adhered to Augustine's "principle of accommodation." He was not surprised to hear that the biblical description of the cosmos differed from the latest discoveries of the learned philosophers. The Bible, for example, says that the sun and moon were the largest of the heavenly bodies, but now modern astronomers claimed that Saturn was bigger. "Here lies the difference: Moses wrote in a popular style things, which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense are able to understand. But astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend." The Bible had nothing to say about astronomy. "He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere," Calvin instructed emphatically. Science was "very useful" and must not be impeded "because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them."
•At the time of the disgraceful Galileo crisis, a witty Cardinal in the Vatican made this bon mot: "In scripture, the Holy Spirit is telling us how to go to heaven -- not how the heavens go."
•The pioneering scientists of the early modern period were all devoutly religious: Newton, Kepler, Mersenne, and Descartes; as were most of the Enlightenment philosophers. In England, the Protestant and Puritan ethos were felt to be congenial to early modern science and helped its advance and acceptance. The Jesuits encouraged the young Descartes to read Galileo and were fascinated by modern science; indeed, it has been argued that the first scientific collective was not the Royal Society but the Society of Jesus.
•Newton and Descartes both claimed to have proved the existence of God. This claim would have horrified previous theologians, like Thomas Aquinas but the physics of Newton and Descartes would not work without God. But this reduced God to a scientific explanation and to a mere fact; God was assigned a function -- and even a location in the universe. This conflation of mythos and logos broke with centuries of tradition and it also made the doctrine of divine creation important in the way it had never been before (it is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament and when theologians first formulated the doctrine of creation "out of nothing", they concluded that the universe could give us no information at all about the nature of God.)
•But of course within a few generations, scientists such as Laplace found that they could dispense with the God-hypothesis. But by this time theologians, churchmen and, finally, evangelical Christians had made the scientifically proven God of Newton central to the Western Christian tradition. They had become addicted to the idea of absolute certainty and so lost the older habits of thought that when Darwin came along many seemed without other resource.
The real enmity between science and religion is, therefore, of fairly recent origin. Despite occasional skirmishes, such as the Galileo fiasco, the problem was the religion and science fell in love with one another in a way that proved finally detrimental to religion.
November 26, 2009
The Religious Wars
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Just a few years ago, it seemed curious that an omniscient, omnipotent God wouldn’t smite tormentors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. They all published best-selling books excoriating religion and practically inviting lightning bolts.
Traditionally, religious wars were fought with swords and sieges; today, they often are fought with books. And in literary circles, these battles have usually been fought at the extremes.
Fundamentalists fired volleys of Left Behind novels, in which Jesus returns to Earth to battle the Anti-Christ (whose day job was secretary general of the United Nations). Meanwhile, devout atheists built mocking Web sites like www.whydoesGodhateamputees.com. That site notes that although believers periodically credit prayer with curing cancer, God never seems to regrow lost limbs. It demands an end to divine discrimination against amputees.
This year is different, with a crop of books that are less combative and more thoughtful. One of these is “The Evolution of God,” by Robert Wright, who explores how religions have changed — improved — over the millennia. He notes that God, as perceived by humans, has mellowed from the capricious warlord sometimes depicted in the Old Testament who periodically orders genocides.
(In 1 Samuel 15:3, the Lord orders a mass slaughter of the Amalekite tribe: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child.” These days, that would earn God an indictment before the International Criminal Court.)
Mr. Wright also argues that monotheism emerged only gradually among Israelites, and that the God familiar to us may have resulted from a merger of a creator god, El, and a warrior god, Yahweh. Mr. Wright also argues that monotheism wasn’t firmly established until after the Babylonian exile, and he says that Moses’s point was that other gods shouldn’t be worshiped, not that they didn’t exist. For example, he notes the troubling references to a “divine council” and “gods” — plural — in Psalm 82.
In another revelation not usually found in Sunday School classes, Mr. Wright cites Biblical evidence that God (both El and Yahweh) had a sex life, rather like the Greek gods, and notes archaeological discoveries indicating that Yahweh may have had a wife, Asherah.
As for Christianity, Mr. Wright argues that it was Saint Paul — more than Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet — who emphasized love and universalism and built Christian faith as it is known today. Saint Paul focused on these elements, he says, partly as a way to broaden the appeal of the church and convert Gentiles.
Mr. Wright detects an evolution toward an image of God as a more beneficient and universal deity, one whose moral compass favors compassion for humans of whatever race or tribe, one who is now firmly in the antigenocide camp. Mr. Wright’s focus is not on whether God exists, but he does suggest that changing perceptions of God reflect a moral direction to history — and that this in turn perhaps reflects some kind of spiritual force.
“To the extent that ‘god’ grows, that is evidence — maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence — of higher purpose,” Mr. Wright says.
Another best-seller this year, Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God,” likewise doesn’t posit a Grandpa-in-the-Sky; rather, she sees God in terms of an ineffable presence that can be neither proven nor disproven in any rational sense. To Ms. Armstrong, faith belongs to the realm of life’s mysteries, beyond the world of reason, and people on both sides of the “God gap” make the mistake of interpreting religious traditions too literally.
“Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage,” Ms. Armstrong writes. Her book suggests that religion is not meant to regrow lost limbs, but that it may help some amputees come to terms with their losses.
Whatever one’s take on God, there’s no doubt that religion remains one of the most powerful forces in the world. Today, millions of people will be giving thanks to Him — or Her or It.
Another new book, “The Faith Instinct,” by my Times colleague Nicholas Wade, suggests a reason for the durability of faith: humans may be programmed for religious belief, because faith conferred evolutionary advantages in primitive times. That doesn’t go to the question of whether God exists, but it suggests that religion in some form may be with us for eons to come.
I’m hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance. That would be a sign that perhaps we, along with God, are evolving toward a higher moral order.
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December 12, 2009
By CHARLES M. BLOW
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on Wednesday that is bound to stir conversation about the increasingly complicated cacophony of spirituality in America — a mash-up of traditional faiths, fantasy and mythology.
Entitled “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” the report points out that many Americans are now choosing to “blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs” and that “sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups” said that they have had supernatural experiences, like encountering ghosts.
For the first time in 47 years of polling, the number of Americans who said that they have had a religious or mystical experience, which the question defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” was greater than those who said that they had not.
(Question: Does the first time I saw Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video count?)
Twenty percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics said they believe in reincarnation, which flies in the face of Christianity’s rapture scenario. Furthermore, about the same percentages said they believe in astrology, yoga as a spiritual practice and the idea that there is “spiritual energy” pulsing from things like “mountains, trees or crystals.” Uh-oh. Someone’s God is going to be jealous.
Surprisingly, in some cases, those who identified themselves as Christian were more likely to believe these things than those who were unaffiliated. (It should be noted that unaffiliated is not the same as nonbeliever. Many are spiritual people who simply haven’t found the right church, synagogue, mosque, coven, Ouija board club, or whatever.)
Furthermore, 16 percent of Protestants and 17 percent of Catholics said that they believe that some people can use the “evil eye” to “cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen.” I have to say that based on the looks my mother used to shoot me when I was misbehaving, that evil eye thing might have legs.
Since 1996, the percentage of Americans who said that they have been in the presence of a ghost has doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent, and the percentage who said that they were in touch with someone who was dead has increased by nearly two thirds, rising from 18 percent to 29 percent.
For those keeping political score, Democrats were almost twice as likely to believe in ghosts and to consult fortune-tellers than were Republicans, and the Democrats were 71 percent more likely to believe that they were in touch with the dead. Please hold the Barack-Obama-as-the-ghost-of-Jimmy-Carter jokes. Heard them all.
The report is further evidence that Americans continue to cobble together Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities from a hodgepodge of beliefs — bending dogmas to suit them instead of bending themselves to fit a dogma. And this appears to be leading to more spirituality, not less. Cue the harps, and the sitars, and the tablas, and the whale music.
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