Thursday, September 30, 2010

Religiously Illiterate America

Two new interesting Pew Forum studies have recently been released. The first is a really useful interactive graph which illustrates controversial battles over the building of 35 mosques in the U.S. in the past 2 years. Aziz over at City of Brass made an interesting point on the growth of mosque constructions. In 2000, there were 1200 Masjids (or Mosques) in the U.S., now there are roughly 1900 at a growth of 6% a year. If Muslims are taking over America they're pretty lousy at it.

 The second survey is disheartening. Atheists and agnostics are among the most religiously knowledgeable. Click here for the number breakdown. The internets is a buzz with this recent report. I'm a bit late jumping on the bandwagon but I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents. The questions were simple, which is why I found the results so disappointing. Anyone who has taken a World Religions class at a community college could have answered all the questions correctly. Don't believe me? Then take the quiz to see where you stand in comparison with your fellow Americans. I haven't nor do I make it a habit of reading any evangelical blogs but I can guess their response to the survey. A "Who cares?" attitude about other faiths is exactly what caused Christians to score lower on the survey because they already know what they believe is true. What's worse is that roughly half of protestants could not correctly identify Martin Luther and his writings as inspiring the Reformation. I can understand walling yourself off from other religions to protect from "the taint" of their sinfulness, but missing questions about your own faith screams that we are less religiously literate than we actually portray ourselves.

I understand most people don't have the time to study other religions, unless that's what you do for a living or a hobby, but if anything this survey should be very humbling. There is a LOT we don't know about each other, a LOT. To assume that Muslims want to impose Sharia Law (thereby destroying the very religious freedom they have come to love and embrace as Americans) or that Buddhist worship themselves plays to our fears rooted in our lack of knowledge. We don't know anything about "Them" but this is what I've heard... We say we want to love our neighbor, but how can we love them without getting to know them? I am more concerned with removing fear and ignorance about our neighbor than with being religiously literate, BUT I believe this is only possible through educating ourselves. Sadly, most people of faith will only access material deemed acceptable by their religious view. A conservative Christian is more likely to read a book about Islam written by a fellow Christian than actually reading the Qur'an itself. Outsiders, then, are filtered through a water-downed perspective which often times scarcely resembles the original. This is why I avoid apologetic material of any religious cloth, apologetics exist only to defend their own point of view. Frankly, most people don't care to be religiously literate, but seeing that a good chunk of the world follows a certain religious view it's probably not a bad idea to pick up a $10 Intro to World Religions book.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Won't God Smite My Enemies

I've noticed a disturbing rise in visitors arriving on my site searching for "God smite my enemies" including similar variations. I wrote a post last year on imprecatory prayers in the Bible and the fine line between praying for someone's downfall and taking action when God denies our vengeful request. Prayer as a communal act is meant to draw the participants closer to each other and to the divine. The family that prays together stays together. Yet prayers that are meant to bring down some sort of divine justice seems to run contrary to the purpose of prayer: to connect, to bring together. To a lesser degree, prayers directed to change someone else's mind (or sexual orientation like in the previous post) seems to reduces the Infinite to the level of a mere puppet existing only to do our bidding. To me, prayers like these seem to degrade the act of connecting with the divine and only serves to inflate the ego of the participant. I'm not against prayer even though I don't pray myself, I simply have found other ways to connect with man and the universe. We are bursting with creativity, curiosity, and the urge for connection and I truly believe we are hard-wired to bless others. If we feel empathy for our neighbor I can't imagine praying for anything but blessings for them. I suppose that if our empathy is limited to a tribal in-group we can very easily pray for our neighboring tribes downfall. It is fear which drives us into cursing our neighbor and wishing them harm. Fear boils into hatred which pushes us over the edge to commit dreadful acts against humanity. If we are truly praying for our neighbors to be blessed why would we put restrictions on the blessings?

Friday, September 24, 2010

How Good Do We Have to Be? Part 3- The Cycle of Guilt

"The relationship between a parent and a child is the most complicated one a person will ever have, even more than between wife and husband." -Rabbi Harold Kushner

Chapter 4 entitled, "Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters" was so moving and struck such a tremendous chord with me that I read it twice. Kushner delicately describes our roles as children and parents and what everyone involved needs from each other. Both parents and children yearn for the other to admire and love them unconditionally, yet children need our protection and acceptance. Children can only hurt and embarrass their parents to a limited degree, yet parents can inflict untold damage which may cause a chain reaction affecting all relationships in the child's future.
"We harm them them not only with physical and emotional violence. We harm them with unrealistic expectations. (A colleague of mine says that 'being disappointed' is a uniquely middle-class form of child abuse.) And we harm them by not modeling an adult lifestyle for them, an approach that includes a willingness to make and admit mistakes and learn from them rather than always insisting that we are right. Children need to admire their parents. And one of the things we should teach our children to admire about us is our willingness to say, 'I'm sorry,' 'I was wrong about that,' 'I don't know.'I can remember times I had to tell my children that I had been wrong about something, how fearful I was that they would lose respect for me because of that admission, and how astonished I was to find that they love me all the more for being willing to say that. They needed to hear that from me. They needed to be assured of my integrity more than of my perfection." -Ch. 4, "Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters"
If there is only one chapter you read from this book make it this one (I say that now although I have yet to finish the book. I'm a slow reader.) I used to question why parents in general mistreat their children the way they do as I've witnessed in public settings, to me it would make sense to avoid any action which may hurt the child physically, emotionally, and psychologically. That was of course before I had children of my own. Now that I'm a parent I catch myself treating my children the same way I was treated. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't abused in any way nor do I abuse my children, but I have found myself making the same minor, although crucial, mistakes my parents made. I hold them to higher expectations than I should, being disappointed in them when they fail. I put too much pressure on them to succeed while forgetting that they're children (in fact they're not even in pre-school yet).

So what can we do to stop the generational cycle of guilt? We should begin by acknowledging to our children and to ourselves that we are broken and fallible creatures. Admitting that we, as protector and guide to our children, can and will make mistakes shows our children that even though we are surrounded by imperfection we are capable of learning from our mistakes. We can overcome them and not be defined by and bound to them. We have to allow our children space to grow into the beautiful living creatures they are, to grow into their humanity. Unfortunately this means they can, will, and must make their own mistakes. As a parent we want to stop them from experiencing any pain whatsoever. We want to shield them from the suffering we endured while we were young. But shielding them from pain also shields them from beauty, from truly living out the human experience. We so desperately want to carve out the perfect life for them but doing so we weaken them by building up a false reality, a reality of high expectations and unattainable images of perfection. We must allow them to live their lives and not hijack their dreams with our own. Sure, we may not have been the ball player we always wanted to become but we shouldn't force our children to take up a sport they have no interest in or push them to unrealistic levels of success. They must always know we will love them even if they make mistakes, but this can only be done if we break through the illusionary world of perfection by admitting our own faults and failures. This takes guts, guts that I wish I had at times. I know that my relationship with my children is affected by my history with my parents, and this is the same for most (if not all) of us. I yearn for their continuous love and affection as much as my children yearn for mine. So why not give it to them? Why deny them the love they need to grow and become parents themselves.
"When we liberate ourselves from the myth that God will love us only if we are perfect, then we will no longer feel that we need to be parents of perfect children to be admired, or children of perfect parents to survive and succeed."

Part 1: A Story of Emergence
Part 2: Guilt and Shame
Part 3: The Cycle of Guilt
Part 4: The Wholeness We Seek
Part 5: Is There Enough Love for Everyone
Part 6: Final Thoughts

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Universe Is In Us

I can't think of anyone else who gets me ecstatic about the cosmos as much as astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Every time he's on the Daily Show or on a History Channel documentary he lights up whenever he talks about the majesty and grandeur of the universe.

This clip is taken from a final "sermon" on cosmic perspective he closed with at the Beyond Belief conference in 2006. There is another interesting related video which also uses this clip to help explain what Atheists may celebrate. Darwin's birthday perhaps?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Searching for God

After giving this site a facelift earlier this year I found it difficult to search for and reference my archives without a searchbox. I find it helpful to reference previous related articles when I'm trying to make a point or at the very least to watch my writing and beliefs evolve over time (I had once called myself a Monotheist but have long since abandoned that label).

I mention this because I've been blogging less and would like to provide you, the reader, especially if you're new to the site, a simpler way of reading through my archives. Why should you flip through my archives? I can't give you a valid reason other than you might find something interesting like this little gem on sci-fi books with themes on time-traveling to the Crucifixion, or this little nugget comparing Jesus to a shaman.

Of course you can always mix things up by hitting the random post button (the orange one below the search bar to the right) which will generate a random post. Most important of all tell me what you think: if an article sucks then leave a comment saying so or better yet if you're a blogger than write a response post on your site. I encourage and thoroughly enjoy online conversations which is why I started this site in the first place.

Monday, September 13, 2010

God Is

Anything past the title of this posting will severely reduce God to a word, an idea, an image. Even the title God Is claims that God Is, eliminating the possibility that maybe God isn't. Even talking about God as if It were a separate being constricts God to being nearly infinite. God is everywhere EXCEPT in the space in which I inhabit, right? But if that were true then would that mean God is cut off from the physical universe? If God is not the whirlwind and not IN the whirlwind, then where and what is God?

So if God is not here nor there, where is God? God is also commonly spoken as a Spirit dwelling among the individuals of a community (wherever two or three are gathered...) or as the message itself delivered by the community, the Word Incarnate. In Islam and Christianity, God is portrayed as Creator, something entirely different and separate from its creation which has a drive or calling to reach out to the divine. As a highly curious species, we're always reaching out to discover, examine, and honor that which is bigger than ourselves. What I constantly find myself returning to is God as a verb, primarily, Love. In Hebrew, YHVW isn't a noun but a form of the Hebrew verb "to be". To me, when I see Love and Compassion in action I see God Is-ing into infinite forms of creative expressions and manifestations. The most creative and loving thing two people can do together is bring in a new creation, a new being into existence. And then that being brings forth another and another while simultaneously interacting and interconnecting with beings already present. Our existence is not solely for the purpose of procreating but to enjoy our brief blip, our cosmic hiccup, while we are here. I'm not talking about hedonism but enjoying the borrowed breath the Tao has granted us and then passing it on to someone else to enjoy.

So when I speak of God (which I commonly refer to as the Divine) I don't speak of the vengeful Judge of the Sky ready to damn or save based on minor infractions; I speak of the transcendent and all-encompassing Source of all, God as Love. But of course mankind has been struggling to define love as long as they have tried to define God. Sometimes words are unnecessary and muddles that which simply Is. I find it best to simply Be.

Monday, September 6, 2010

How Good Do We Have to Be? Part 2- Guilt and Shame

Does God really expect perfection from a fallible creation? And if God doesn't expect perfection why do we collectively strive for it? Even though it's irrational we all feel as if we're expected to achieve perfection and as a result we expect it from others. In chapter 3 of How Good Do We Have to Be? Kushner tackles the issue of guilt and shame, two words which is commonly used interchangeably for feeling bad about ourselves. But why do we place so much pressure on ourselves? Why is perfection necessary in an imperfect world? And what can we do to relieve the immense pressure of perfection?

Rabbi Kushner on guilt and shame.
"Psychologist and anthropologists see them as different emotions. Basically they see guilt as feeling bad for what you have done or not done, while shame is feeling bad for who you are, measured against some standard of perfection or acceptability. The distinction is crucial, because we can atone for the things we have done more easily than we can change who we are."
Taken to the extreme, guilt and shame sucks the marrow out of life, they are not completely useless emotions but are necessary in our evolutionary growth as complex social creatures. So how do we cure shame and guilt which is commonplace in our daily lives? Kushner suggests that religion should have been the cure and not the cause as it has been steered by religious spokesman. Religion was meant to connect one to the other and all to the Divine. From my personal experience as a churchgoer, I've heard 10 sermons guilting the congregation to repent for every 1 sermon on the immense unconditional love of God. It seems to me that if the Church, or any other religious community, is to be a place of healing and mending of broken hearts it should contain less damnation and more acceptance. Kushner shares his accounts of everyday people approaching him after public talks and interviews who pull him aside to tell him of their religious experiences which often happen outside the sanctuary and within support groups like AA, which offer shared weakness instead of shared strength. These support groups are made of equally broken and suffering people who support and trust one another because they understand and recognized our shared fallibility, our shared brokenness which is intrinsic to being human. To embrace our humanity is to embrace our brokenness, our inevitability to make mistakes. One of my favorite lines which summarizes God's transcendent love for mankind reads, "God condemns the sin but loves the person who did it too much to brand him a sinner".

We should feel guilty for some things, but only for things we have control over anything else would be needless self-punishment. Our irrational guilt really comes from the feeling that we have more influence than we really do over people and events. We can no more control the weather than we can stop someone from committing suicide. Oh, we can try, but someone bent on committing suicide will find a way to do it regardless of whatever we say or do. The best we can do is let them know they are truly loved for who they are, and if their suicidal thoughts are based on feelings of being unloved hopefully our words may do some good.

The chapter wrapped up rather oddly, or at least I failed to understand his closing statements (I am human, you know). Kushner ends chapter 3 with a remedy for irrational guilt: counterbalance it with an random act of compassion and kindness. Maybe I'm thinking too hard or maybe I don't understand it because it's an irrational act, it's not suppose to make sense! Maybe an intentional random act of thoughtfulness and charity is suppose to help us realize our irrational emotions. Of course religion may not be for everyone, but Kushner states that religion done right should alleviate guilt not increase it. The irrational rituals of religion should reacquaint us with our better nature, helping us to realize that sometimes we can do bad things (and own up to them) but we are also capable of much good. We should walk away with feelings of forgiveness not just from our fellow man and God, but from ourselves.

Part 1: A Story of Emergence
Part 2: Guilt and Shame
Part 3: The Cycle of Guilt
Part 4: The Wholeness We Seek
Part 5: Is There Enough Love for Everyone
Part 6: Final Thoughts

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Sacredness of Ground Zero: Part 4- Not in My Backyard!

The Park 51 controversy has sparked a wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and has empowered local residents to march and protest against the growing radical Muslim horde. As a former resident of Murfreesboro I've been closely following the protests to halt the construction of the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Just over the weekend there's been a suspected arson attack on construction equipment as well as shots fired near the site (I've read one article stating 9 shots and another which stated only 5 were fired). No one in Murfreesboro has been hurt yet but fear has a powerful grip over the ill informed.

See if you can spot the "evidence" produced by Laurie Cardoza-Moore, spokesperson of the Murfreesboro Mosque Opposition, as she states the danger in building this house of worship.

The fear seems to be of radical Muslims taking over America by infiltrating the "capital of the Crusaders", Nashville. First of all, What?! How long has Nashville been the Crusader capital of the world? Pat Robertson also uses alarming words like mega and massive to scare his audience into believing that these growing communities constitutes a national security threat in this August 19 episode of the 700 Club (the same one mentioned on Anderson Cooper). Ms Moore gives two pieces of evidence why we should protest this site:
  • Mosaad Rawash, a board member of the Islamic Community of Murfreesboro, had posted pro- Hamas material on his Myspace page. Yes, his Myspace page.
  • The Imam, Sheikh Ossama Mohamed Bahloul, taught at a mosque in Irving, Texas under investigation for terrorist related activities.
Although Anderson Cooper states in the video that the first allegation has been thoroughly investigated and Rawash has been cleared of all charges, and the second allegation was found to be complete bunk, Ms. Moore still believes this is enough evidence to keep the Islamic community of Murfreesboro from building a house of worship for their growing community. Using Myspace as evidence, really? Her evidence is no more than an exaggerated reach to tie a quiet moderate community which has been present in the area for 30 years with Muslim extremists. I doubt she, or anyone heavily opposing the construction of this mosque, has attempted to visit with the Muslim community in person. Moore tolerates the community staying at their present cramped location because this keeps them out of view. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

The issue is not that terrorist may be secretly planting training camps and education centers in the Nashville area, the issue is that many Americans don't know anything about Islam and this scares them to the point of denying their fellow citizens their freedom of worship. Vandalizing the Islamic center's sign with the words Not Welcome is one thing, arson and gunshots are on a whole other level (although the gunshots might be possibly unrelated the ATF and FBI are still investigating). There are thousands of churches throughout Tennessee and I highly doubt that a handful of new mosques and Islamic centers constitutes such a legitimate threat to the thriving Christian community as Ms. Moore argues. Of course it's much easier to love your neighbor as long as they're Christian (well unless you're not). So the moral of the story is if your neighbor is not Christian (in some circles read Un-American traitor) run them out of town. Toleration is so next century!