Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Politics of God

There is an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine, "The Politics of God" which mentions a letter Iranian President Ahmadinejad sent to George W. Bush. The NYT article quotes it as saying:

“I have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) and believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth,” Ahmadinejad continued, reminding his fellow believer that “according to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine Prophets.” There follows a kind of altar call, in which the American president is invited to bring his actions into line with these verses. And then comes a threatening prophecy: “Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. . . . Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.”
The Politics of God essay is adapted from the upcoming book by Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, which will be published next month. It's quite an interesting article. It relates to something that will be in my book, which is also in the previous blog post, about the parallels between the earlier violent era of Christianity and the current violence within Islam. He discusses the beliefs of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who "changed the question" that people of the day debated from "God and his commands" to "man and his beliefs" and talked about how humankind's fear led to assigning divine powers to all manner of things - animals, women, leeks... and then they feared those things that could control the whims of the universe. Ultimately it was fear of God, and he argues that because their souls were at stake they fought, and that led to wars, and that led to fear and led to people being more religious.

I'm not convinced that "because their souls were at stake they fought." I think that if people had serious concern about their souls, they wouldn't fight! I think most religious people engaged in bloodshed have deluded themselves. However immature religious people do fight to convince others of their beliefs, and to force others to think like they do. I think that is what led to wars. And what does today. I can't wait to get my book out there.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Islam vs. Islamists

I watched an absolutely fascinating documentary on Houston PBS last night, Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center. It talks about attempts to silence moderate Muslims by more extreme fundamentalist Muslims, often by death threats. It talked about the Wahhabi Muslims, who are the very extreme Muslims that want sharia law instituted which means Muslim law for all people, even in non-Muslim countries. This law includes stoning women and men to death for adultery --the documentary showed secretly captured footage (which was horrid). Yet many moderate Muslims believe in democracy, and in separation of church and state, and were interviewed and highlighted in the piece. This includes Phoenix physician Zuhdi Jasser, who leads the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

Here's the documentary trailer on YouTube.

Apparently there was a big controversy several months back because the documentary was supposed to air as part of a Crossroads in America series on PBS, but got pulled. The reason? PBS wanted the producer to somehow say that the moderate Muslims portrayed within (who believe in democracy and live in a Westernized society) are actually not "true Muslims" but the extreme fundamentalism represents a truer form of Islam.

The irony here, and the beauty, is how parallel this is to Christianity, and to some extent Judaism. In these three religions (which I know best) there are gradations from fundamentalism and literal interpretations of Scripture, to more moderate and even liberal interpretations. Fundamentalists inevitably claim they are the only "true" believers. Ultra-Orthodox Jews take a literal interpretation of Genesis, as I understand it, and believe things like the devil planted dinosaur bones like Christian creationists.

Interestingly, the literal interpretations also seem to be more tied to political activism (at least within Islam and Christianity), probably because the leaders can control those with fear. Christians in past eras engaged in Crusades because they applied Old Testament laws to the new evangelism. Spreading the "good news" became killing others who didn't convert. It's quite similar to the current flaring of Islamic fundamentalism. They want to force everyone to follow their way, which will never happen, because once you've tasted freedom there's no going back.

The fundamentalist Islamists want to institute sharia law which came not from the Kuran but, as I understand it, from oral tradition (hadith). Christian denominations vary on whether the Bible is the sole source of authority, as do Jewish sects on the use of the Torah (Old Testament) versus the Talmud (rabbinic discussions and interpretations of the Torah and its Law).

These three religions share many similar teachings, and so it comes down to whether we interpret Scripture and religious teachings literally, or rather take the spiritual lessons meant within. You can believe the Bible, for example, to be literally true without believing that every word is literal. What about poetry? In Islam, should one interpret things like the 72 virgins one will receive in heaven as a literal truth or as a description of the ecstasy of heaven since perhaps sex is the closest ecstasy we will feel to heaven on earth? (It's no accident that Jesus called the Church his bride).

It's also ironic that there are fundamentalist Christians who tend to agree with the fundamentalist Muslims that "the only good Muslim" is one who is an extremist, and wants to force their faith on others. It furthers their own cause which is often to condemn those outside their religion, and paint Christianity as somehow different. All religions suffer the same problems. That does not make the religion itself wrong, it just shows the ways humans in their selfishness and greed and power-hunger can hijack what is truly meant by faith.

Here is an interesting interview with the documentary producer, Martyn Burke.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

the flying spaghetti monster comes to texas

Margaret Downing of the Houston Press blogs in Creationism and the Dumbing Down of Texas:

"Listen, if you want to believe in creationism, go ahead. If you can’t find any way to reconcile your religious beliefs with science other than to reject evolution, a-ok. But that is a religious preference. You might as well reject the theory of gravity while you’re at it. And all those old bones and fossils they’ve dug up? Fakes, just like the moon landing. It’s a pretty slippery, greasy slope of ignorance."

Agreed. As I blogged before, I witnessed firsthand McLeory in action and was astonished and dumbfounded that such tomfoolery could take place in the 21st century in a government entity (maybe such nonsense happens all the time in politics in other subjects, but his words and childish behavior were the height of absurdity). A teacher friend wrote a letter to Governor Perry on theissue, and the reply from Perry was that he didn't have any problem with intelligent design being taught alongside evolution, and that he should address any further concerns to the State Board of Education. The same Board that he'd just appointed a creationist the Chairperson of.

The Houston Press blog refers to the nonsense being akin to believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I had to laugh out loud at this hilarious satire on religious ridiculous anti-reason folks. I think I'd heard of it years back, but this is fantastic! What a great way to parody something that is truly absurd. Check out Wikipedia's Entry. The concept was started by Bobby Henderson as a satire, of course, and he encourages teaching of the Pastafarian theory of Creation in science classrooms. For one thing, you conclude prayers be declaring Ramen instead of Amen. Henderson has written a book in which he outlined the Gospel of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. This is a riot. I have to get a FSM Ichthus for my car! Also see Henderson's FSM website. He blogged that we should contact Don McLeroy and encourage inclusion of the Pastafarian/Flying Spaghetti Monster Theory of Creation alongside evolution - "i.e. that the Flying Spaghetti Monster changes our observations to make it appear that the world conforms to Natural scientific theory." Send your letters to:

Don McLeroy
9277 Brookwater Circle
College Station, TX 77845
979 255-2538
979 846-1174 (FAX)

And one of the most hilarious things is that someone emailed him asking him if this is "for real" and then laying into him about how stupid the FSM religion was, and giving him logical arguments (with lots of typos). Honey, if you can't figure out that this is a parody... well what can I say.