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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Forgive Them, For They Know Not What They Talk About

As if Tennessee couldn’t appear more bigoted or ignorant than with the issues with racist emails surrounding Obama and his wife, Ron Ramsey, candidate for governor (supported by the same friend who blogs for In Defense of the Constitution) has opened his mouth and pushed the state down the ladder even more. Both he and Lou Ann Zelenik, a candidate for Congress, insist that Islam is not a religion, but a political movement according to Zelenik, or in Ramsey’s words, a cult. Not to get into academic analysis of how problematic his claim is, I hardly see evidence of Islam as a whole being a cult in the sense of a counter cultural fringe movement, except in the context of America’s relationship with Islam’s Shia and Sunni sects. The evidence would be there, except the imams are not considered unquestionably true as opposed to Mohammed, who is technically not considered dead. Then again, there are aspects of a cult’s fixation upon a founder’s persistence and authority in either Shia or Sunni Islam (I forget which exactly) about the imminent return of the 12th imam, who is apparently in a well. But Islam in the form of Ahmadiyya (which boasts around ten million adherents) is not only moderate, but accessible to American minds in the sense of adherence to religious ethics without becoming resistant to change or dangerously authoritarian. The difficulty with understanding Islam is that the initial public exposure to any unfamiliar religions or philosophical idea is commonly regarded as more authoritative and credible than actual academic research from accredited individuals in those fields of study. Even well read political figures like Ramsey and Zelenik apparently don’t want to read further than how they feel their constituents would want them to about Islam. Since the vast majority of Republicans seem to be at least opposed to more Islamic presence in the West, particularly in the form of mosques or even cultural centers like the one in New York, Ramsey and Zelenik are just going along with the bandwagon and spouting the talking points. “Oh, we respect freedom of religion for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and others, but Islam has to be a cult because authoritative conservative voices like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin say it’s so, therefore it must be true,”

The double standard is pretty evident even to a pot smoking high school student: you don’t say you respect freedom of religious practice and worship and then say you don’t want to respect one religion because you have concluded it must be wrong because of the actions of even a large part of the group. Even if many Christians I speak to through forums or in real life occasionally are excessively devout and even insulting towards non Christians, that doesn’t mean I must conclude Christianity is a cult or shouldn’t be respected and tolerated, allowed to practice its faith in churches and witness to belief in the salvation through Jesus Christ through privately funded missions, etc. And neither should we inevitably conclude that every person raised in Islam in any form is automatically a fundamentalist that insists that Islam should dominate every society in the world under sharia law. With a mosque’s building being fought against in Murfreesboro, not unlike the even bigger situation in New York, this doesn’t make me proud or even want to say I’m a native born of Tennessee. With people like Ron Ramsey spouting out this borderline hate speech laced with magnanimous bigoted ideals like protecting the Christian values of America and protecting us from infiltrating terrorists (as if every person from the Middle East automatically hates the U.S.) this situation can best be solved by education and a spirit of receptiveness. No one’s asking Republicans to accept Islam or other religions as equally valid paths to salvation, but they should at least give the same respect that many American non Christians give them to worship and believe as they will without infringing on their rights to free practice; though this goes back to my thoughts on minority religions in America, which is a demographically Christian society, and the difficulties inherent in accepting your position as a minority but not letting the majority trample over you.

On a somewhat related note, a church in Florida (home state of my last roommate) has apparently planned a Quran burning on September 11th for protesting what they think is an innately oppressive and violent religion. I’m all for freedom of speech, even such things as flag burnings or Neo-Nazi and KKK rallies, but it seems counterproductive to try to protest something by going back to Middle Ages tactics. Burning or destroying something that represents what you disagree with isn’t the way to argue against it. Showing that you have the power to destroy something seems to reflect insecurity of the efficacy of the thing you hold sacred or valuable, such as the Bible for the Florida preacher and his flock. Showing you have the power to generate new borders and ideas seems to reflect a more Christian spirit, since Jesus crossed borders people weren’t willing to in his time, like associating with tax collectors, lepers and other people of ill repute. Even some of his parables and stories associated with his preaching note his acceptance of truth’s spirit being discovered through people that were regarded as blasphemous or heretical in those times, like the Samaritan and the Syro Phoenician woman respectively. In this way, it’s important to reflect that Islam doesn’t have any disrespect for Jesus, in fact regarding him as a near equal to Mohammed in terms of his value to presenting the message of Allah/God/YHWH. The fact that Muslims don’t believe Jesus is the “Son of God” only suggests they disagree theologically, it doesn’t mean they think Jesus is less important or not to be respected as a messenger of God/prophet (there is a distinction there by Islamic philosophy/theology, I believe).

All in all, these problems can be solved by a combination of things like my blogging, but more ideally, activism to try to bridge these barriers that have been generated by American conservatives to try to turn people against each other for personal belief and faith, when they share values in common that transcend their race or culture or faith. Why can’t American Christians and Muslims (for the topic at hand anyway) seek out common ground? They can accept that there are things they will disagree about, but more importantly can join to confront more pressing and universal problems, like abuse of military power, human rights abuses and poverty and famine that still exist in the 21st century? Whether one believes Jesus is God incarnate or a prophet of God in a line that has concluded with a guy flying up to heaven on a horse shouldn’t be the primary concern. That is, unless you are so focused on religious differences that you feel you have to reinforce the Christian demographic by saying Islam is a cult or an evil religion, as opposed to letting the Christian majority just exist as it does. Not to mention that the limited government these Republicans spout so much hot air about seem to care a bit too much about what God one believes in or whether one believes in God at all, as if that is a requirement to be American or even a human being. Why should the government care at all about how one worships or doesn’t worship any god or gods (like myself for example) except as it infringes on others’ rights to freely practice as well in the privacy of their places of worship? It seems like the Republican’s ideal government is only limited in regards to fiscal concerns. But religious belief or lack thereof is still somehow fair game for a society whose government is built on a document whose first amendment specifically says that there is a right both to religious freedom and to freedom from state alliances with religion. And this is one reason out of many that I choose to be anarchist as opposed to purely “Democrat” or “Republican”. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Minority Advantages and Majority Advances

As something of a self identified Buddhist in the Bible Belt (of all places), I have felt (potentially unrealistically) a sense of isolation and separation from a genuine sangha or even a community of lay Buddhists. With only a single professor in the religion department at my college significantly trained in Buddhist thought, it was equally difficult to find education in the religion. Although on a separate note, one would observe that any beliefs in Buddhist tenets that I have are incidental to what is a more modern synthesis of other philosophical/religious systems, such as Discordianism (parody religion that it is) as well as Satanism (the Laveyan variety), so my claims of being in a minority religious group are problematic. If I was more of a full-fledged Buddhist, then my claims would have a stronger backing. But even without a significant personal connection to the issues spoken about in the article above, I feel I can relate to them with the education I’ve gotten through the religious studies department.

With Jews and Muslims being the two larger groups that possess difficulties, the issue that appears the most important is education on Abrahamic religions and correcting misinformation about them. If this is done, then the problem will still exist, but on the level of the individual and community confronting the difficulties of a more Christian biased culture and rolling with the punches so to speak. There are, if you will, two conflicting positions with a middle ground that has been posited. The first extreme is an isolation approach, where one views one’s culture and religious community as possessing of a particular solidarity that enables one to become separate and unique from the culture. This is especially problematic because it lines up with a more fringe element that is apparent with psychological cults, such as those in Texas that were in the news less than a year ago. The other extreme is an assimilation approach, where one suggests that one should submit to the dominant culture and let the truly unique parts of one’s faith and culture stand out as they will. This is troubling in that it doesn’t allow for individualization in the form of clear distinctions that exist between what are still common worldviews, such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Even with such Eastern faiths as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and others, the common ground can be discovered with time.

The middle ground position is how this begins. One accepts that demographically, Christians will be the majority in America, but also notes that America possesses a value of tolerance and acceptance of diversity with no disrespect meant to the majority but no favoritism granted either. As one that was raised Christian but has basically become an apostate (going for purely social reasons, conformity being still valued as a way to keep relationships between more traditional family members at least tolerable), it’s not as if I can’t understand how one feels with non Christians who don’t celebrate the majority holidays. Though honestly, with Jews in particular, the Christian community rarely seems to care. With the Muslim Ramadan, there is less familiarity, so Christians are more potentially hostile towards the faith that has been presented in a less than flattering light since 9/11. With this in mind, a Muslim in America possesses an ideal state to educate people about Islam and try to be a good example for how Islam can be in agreement with American ideals and values, however exotic and foreign it may appear to be, not unlike when one is Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, or Taoist for other “Eastern” faith examples. The overall goal is not complete assimilation to the exclusion of any standing out as someone who is indeed not Christian, but is not opposed to the values of religious tolerance and freedom, nor is it complete isolationism, leading to dangerous ideologies such as Zionism or Islamic Dominionism among others. Instead, there is an attempt to meet in the middle and both accept differences and embrace commonalities that exist between the varying faiths we hold. That is certainly my hope for the future where my children and my friends and family’s children will inherit. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sympathy For the Devil's Advocate

This is about the latest I’ve posted a blog and with my keyboard slowly deteriorating, the spacebar especially troublesome now, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless. It will be a bit shorter I hope with the lateness as a factor. I wasn’t aware Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with throat cancer about 2+ weeks ago, but now that he has, certain Christians, Catholics in particular I’ve noticed, have made an effort to actually practice the virtue of love and compassion for one’s enemies and the like by praying for Hitchens’ recovery. There is a certain irony to this in that there are Catholics that find him especially troubling, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League. Maybe even he’s praying for him, but his attitude is hardly like the writer of the first of the two articles on Christians praying for the Brit turned American’s cancer treatment he started. There are atheists that find it offensive that Christians would pray for someone who doesn’t believe in God and in Hitchens’ case, finds the God thesis reprehensible and downright evil. I could sympathize if I didn’t have a more apatheistic perspective. God’s existence to me is very low on my religious and metaphysical priorities. My ethical behavior as well is not so strongly affected by whether God exists or doesn’t exist, but whether people are suffering and my own responsibility to aid them in whatever way I can.

There is, as usual, the opposite of the group of Christians who want to pray and be willing to forgive Hitchens, that being the group that thinks that God punishes people in such purely natural or accidental fashions, striking them with diseases or plagues or natural disasters, for whatever sins they may have committed. Not unlike the late Jerry Falwell who thought 9/11 was a punishment from God for, among other things, feminism and abortion. The Catholic community apparently seems more likely to take that teaching of Jesus seriously, though it may be similarly so for a variety of Protestant denominations as well. In any case, the point which Christians seem the most divided on with Mr. Hitchens is regarding him as a “child of God”. Now I’m not certain as to the amount of detail a Christian wants to get into with the use of the term, since some argue that unless you are saved by Jesus then you aren’t a “Child of God”. But I’d prefer the Catholic’s use of the term, even if it’s a bit of a lazy attempt to say what is a bit more of a mouthful, a creation of God and loved by it by association.

In that sense, I could sympathize and agree with that aspect of Christian teaching, regarding all humans as equally deserving of love and compassion, regardless of how they treat the one who gives it to them. Hitchens is more known for his drinking and smoking habits, and I’m not sure of how he’d behave in relation to the Christians and Muslims he has been debating as of recently. With Christians at least (not sure about Muslims), it seems more likely a friendly drink between fellow humans could be had afterwards with no hard feelings, like the relationship that allegedly existed between George Bernard Shaw, agnostic, and G.K. Chesterton, Christian, after their debates. The primary point of agreement that could be found between everyone involved here would probably be a simple principle of fairness and conscientious disagreement where there is little negotiation to be found. All in all, a live and let live position, without the solidarity and isolation that can alienate and disrupt the exchange and debating of worldviews that enhances our considerations of how we approach the world we experience and live in every day. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

On Secularism and Censorship

Less than a week after I blogged on the billboard in North Carolina, that same sign has been vandalized. The perpetrators, still at large (not that their punishment would stop future attempts to interfere in this protest against atheist discrimination), spray painted an arrow with the words “Under God” being guided to the point in the sign between “One Nation” and “Indivisible”. The sign will be repaired, if only to persist in countering what this incident demonstrates about the pledge in its current state. Contrary to the popular insistence that the pledge unites the country, it actually has divided it with the insertion of “Under God” in the pledge in the 50s, the so called McCarthy era, where Communism was the enemy of freedom and we were afraid the Soviet Union was trying to infiltrate the country from within, among other things that fostered a sense of paranoia and nationalism. And this American exclusivism has reared its vicious fangs again in this vandalism of a sign that had no intent of insulting believers in God by displaying the pledge as it has existed for over half a century. In fact, it would be the reverse, since the original pledge formed in 1892 had existed unaltered for over 60 years before the insistence that America had to be understood as a Christian nation, which thankfully our present president has countered since his election in 2008.

The secularist group that funded the sign seems to be the more patriotic of the two groups in this underrepresented conflict in present issues. We can try to classify the two groups as traditionalists and revisionists; the traditionalists representing the secularists and other citizens (believers in God or otherwise) that don’t agree with the addition of “Under God” in the pledge, preferring it to be in its original form and the revisionists representing the theocratic and “Christian nation” fanatics that insist that if you don’t believe in God, you’re not a real American, though the latter is dangerously close to the vein that would suggest that only Caucasian Europeans who are explicitly Protestant Christian and Republican are the purest form of American citizens. I’m not insisting that every believer in God is the second group, since there are those that believe that religion and politics have distinct spheres and are only overlapping within very particular parameters (like Jon Meacham for example). A church doesn’t need the government’s approval to exist for example, nor does the government need the church to persist in its management. If people in the government start believing less and less in God, it does not necessarily have a negative effect on how the government is run as long as they still persist in following principles that are agreed upon on a more fundamental level, such as the importance of a governing document like the constitution and protecting the rights of citizens as elaborated in that document. Whether one is atheist, theist or anywhere in between, it’s not as if you can’t be a patriotic American and have pride in what the nation’s ideals are, such as inclusivism without hard relativism, tolerance without blind acceptance and freedom of expression to the extent that you don’t push that freedom into “might makes right”. If we began to think that perhaps not all the traditions we were raised in are always the right one or the end standard for how we should behave in every situation, then we might begin to work towards returning the pledge back to its original form. The problem here is our attachment to familiarity.

Even my parents are in a generation that didn’t really know a pledge without under God even existed. Their parents would’ve been raised in a time when the pledge was probably just said “One Nation Indivisible”, but with their age affecting their survival into the next generation as well as the more general attitude of raw progress that affects even my own generation to the exclusion of archaic or outdated modes of thought from the early 20th century, it’s a wonder any of them have tried to protest and revise the pledge from how it was when they were in school. I’m thinking the next time I have a chance to talk with my grandparents and even the surviving great grandparent I have, I would ask them about this event and what they think of it, what they remember and what should be done about this. I’ve never really gotten the feeling that my elders have been especially intolerant of people that differ from them in such ways as not believing in God at all (as opposed to just being Jewish, Muslim or Catholic for example) or not being white or particularly democratic (such as in the Middle East or China with recent events), but if it does happen to be the case, I would want to at least try to understand why they would believe that way in a time when, however sheltered they may have been from many cultures outside of North America, there were ideals that at least took the phrase “live and let live” seriously. America seemed to follow the original motto more to the letter, e pluribus unum, from many, one. People were different, but they were all American. There are always clarifications, since racism was almost a tradition back then as well, but evidently the relationship is mutual: the old can learn from the young, but the youths can learn from the elders as well. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.