My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The spirit and hope of compassion - time to take action

The Charter for Compassion is an idea whose time has come. This was the theme of the speaker and co-founder of the Charter, Karen Armstrong, at the Scientific and Medical Network Conference I attended last weekend, The Science of Empathy and the Spirit of Compassion.
Launched globally in 2009, The Charter is the result of Karen’s 2008 TED Prize wish. Supported by the Fetzer Institute, (fostering awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the world), the Charter was drafted by a multi-faith, multi-national council of thinkers and leaders, representing the 6 major world faiths, and based on a principle also embraced by every moral code. The Charter developed out of Karen’s frustration that, in her view, not enough was being done by the world’s religions to promote compassionate action. Because as she says, compassion manifests itself in the world not by thinking but by doing. That was what inspired me to write my book; the frustration I shared with Karen, that I felt looking around me at our behaviour and general lack of responsibility, our lack of knowledge and unthinking actions. That was why I wrote the book about what everyone can do, linking it to compassion and spirit and where we can nurture it in our lives. It complements everything that the Charter stands for. Although actually it is perhaps more about what we must refrain from doing! I am pleased that people are buying it. I pray that they convert ideas into action!

Confucius probably founded the Golden Rule, in a period of the world’s history similar to our own, when societies were being torn apart. And all the great religions share the same rule, expressed variously but always meaning: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.”
500 years later Jesus taught that we should love our enemies. But love in that context meant loyalty, Karen explained, looking out for each other’s interests. The ancient Greeks introduced the tradition of tragedy plays, where the audience participated, encouraged to weep for the suffering played out on stage, because weeping together creates a bond.
We are now profoundly connected as humans across the world, and action is urgent. But we are guilty of group egotism, she warned us, loving only our own kind, and we are addicted to our own pet hates. We need to understand that each individual is a unique spiritual mystery, and we must be prepared to not only make dialogue with others outside our own limited circle but also be prepared to then change at a profound level. To see each other as divine is, she warned, the only way forward. She spoke of positive projects with The Charter; of international businesses applying the 12 steps, of eliminating violence amongst prisoners in a tough Washington jail by training the prison officers in compassion, how Seattle has become the first City for Compassion, and the enormous success story in Pakistan, leading the charter in its work, with modules of compassion introduced in education, including at primary school level and in the independent universities there, where it is mandatory to take a compassion course; Because education is key to the success of the project in many ways.

But here is the crunch. The media must be part of that education process, and they are guilty of bias against religions in so many ways. Karen told us that the minimal media coverage of this year’s floods in Pakistan failed to mention the many businessmen who put their companies on hold, often for many months, whilst they went to help in the afflicted areas. And after 9/11 a Gallop Poll showed that 93% of Muslims worldwide said that the atrocity was not justified, and none said that it was justified on religious grounds. The small number, 7%, who said 9/11 was justified quoted political reasons! Furthermore, most said the biggest obstacle to better relations with the West was the latter’s lack of respect for Islam. How many knew that from media reports?
We have to demand better media, because the media is so invasive into our consciousness, so easy to tap into in film or internet, YouTube and blog, so difficult to avoid and yet so powerful and far reaching in its influence. The creative forces at work in the media that relentlessly bring so many images into our lives, the writers, editors, journalists, photographers and all the myriad of support staff we see listed for example in the credits at the end of any film, bear an awesome responsibility.
As with other creativity, those working in the media can use their talents to help heal the world and nourish our souls, or to assist in the destruction of both. We all have free will and choice. The choice is ours and theirs.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Why is religion seen as an evil force? Ignorance?

“It is true of every so-called holy text in every religion today that no one has the slightest idea of who wrote them or even when they were written.” Really?

This is from the pen of Darrell Williams, writing on Religious Wars and the Fallacies of Fundamentalism, September 2007, in American Chronicle I found this browsing the web and it is fairly typical of the biased or ignorant reporting that abounds where religion is concerned.
Sir you are wrong, as any theologian or student of religions will tell you!
And here are some more:
A C Grayling in What is Good scorns the religious who he says do good only out of self interest for eternal bliss. Really?
It is reported that in an interview with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Sam Harris, the popular non-fiction writer and professed atheist, discussed his new book “The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values.” During this interview Harris explains that the motivating factor for writing this new book is what he describes as the problem of having only “religious demagogues who think the planet is 6,000-years-old” as the source of morality in today’s world.

There seem to be so many militant or angry atheists and humanists today who too often seem to write from an ignorance of matters of theology and religious studies and tar us all with the same brush when it comes to criticism of our beliefs, who tend to trash religion on dogmatic statements of the faith that are barely recognizable to present day believers. We most certainly don’t all believe that the world was created 6000 years ago, and nothing is further from my mind than eternal bliss when I am showing compassion and care to a fellow suffering human being! And so what if we did, or it was?

Why is religion often seen as an evil force, or just simply a “bad thing” when we could celebrate instead its diversity and virtues?

I believe one of the most important reasons behind any attack on religion is ignorance. Ignorance includes a lack of understanding, or a suspicion, of the “other” point of view. And this often fuels fear, and fear fuels general ridicule or worse. Thus Herod ordered the slaying of the Holy Innocents because of his fear that his power was being usurped by the birth of the boy Jesus ‘born to be King’.

The classical Greek Athenian philosopher Socrates is credited with inventing dialectic – rigorous discipline designed to expose false beliefs and elicit truth – in a setting of rational discussion that was not dogmatic but encouraged courtesy, and consideration for the other’s viewpoint. One of the best known sayings of Socrates is "I only know that I know nothing". Too often today, dialogue is aggressive and dogmatic, encouraged, it would seem, by the remote nature of the internet comment forum, where persons are not face to face, in eye contact, and therefore seem to feel they can rant as much as they like.

I belong to the Scientific and Medical Network (SMN), where there is a strong consensus amongst its members that alongside our scientific achievements we have lost sight of the sacred, the spiritual, and our purpose on the planet; that we are in a spiritual crisis as much as a political or ecological one, and that this needs urgently addressing. We are an organization that pushes the boundaries of understanding of all things spiritual, of consciousness, always with a scientific rigour. Amongst the stated aims of the Network, we are called to “encourage a respect for Earth and Community which emphasizes a holistic and spiritual approach,” but whilst we also stand for “critical and open minded discussion of ideas that go beyond reductionist science,” we are meant to be “sensitive to a plurality of viewpoints.” We therefore aim above all else for tolerance and understanding between our many and various ideas and viewpoints, “wacky” as some of them might seem to our colleagues. We stand for open dialogue to further understanding. And this is what is desperately needed in our world today, particularly where our religions and faiths are concerned.

The Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme is committed to offering a distinctive scholarly approach to furthering understanding across the religious traditions, with a focus on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I quote from its excellent website, with regard to media bias and ignorance:

“Mass media in the West and Middle East do not deliver the reporting we need on religious issues. There is a tendency to polarise debates and parties, to over-dramatise conflict and to under-research the complexities of lived religious traditions in the modern world. This can be seen in four high-profile cases in recent years: the Danish cartoons, Pope Benedict's Regensberg address, The Archbishop of Canterbury's Sharia lecture, and the issue of whether Muslim women in Europe should be permitted to wear headscarves.

In each of these cases, with polarisations between blasphemy and freedom of speech, secular enlightenment and religious prejudice, it was almost impossible for Westerners to discover the full range of Islamic (especially Arabic-speaking) views, with the result that there is a repeated widespread perception that Muslims are stuck in the Dark Ages. Likewise it was almost impossible for Arabic speakers to discover the full range of Western views, with the result that there is a repeated widespread perception that Europeans are irremediably decadent and morally corrupt.”

We have to overcome this ignorance and bias. How do we do this? I think that is enough for today - I shall explore this further in a later posting.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Religions cause most of our wars. Do they?

Religions cause most of our wars. Do they? This is one of the most common reasons people give me for not wanting anything to do with religion; but is it true?

According to Karen Armstrong, the religions historian, in her book The Case for God, wars are more about greed, envy and ambition, cloaked perhaps in religious rhetoric to give them “respectability.” We are attached to too many possessions, and Aidan Rankin in Many-Sided Wisdom: A New Politics of the Spirit, also claims that it is this attachment, rather than religion per se, that is the cause of so many wars that are too often blamed exclusively on religion.
Most people when questioned on this mention The Crusades. Yes they were bloody; they were great military expeditions undertaken by the Christian nations of Europe for the purpose of rescuing the holy places of Palestine from the hands of the Mohammedans. But here again we are talking about the fight for possession of land and property.
After reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s tour de force, A History of Christianity, it is clear that the reasons for the crusades were enormously complex, but I think I may still be tentatively persuaded by the views of Armstrong and Rankin. In Gustav Niebuhr’s book Beyond Tolerance, he refers to a night in 1993 when there were forty wars going on in the world, but most of them were fuelled rather than caused by religion.
In any event, yesterday’s behaviour should not necessarily colour our actions today. Surely we should be able to learn from the past, be more mature in our thinking and learn to enter dialogue before resorting to violence? Shouldn’t we have grown up? Perhaps we should be receptive to the teachings of Buddhism on the principle of non-attachment.

Now religion or no, today on the News I hear that researchers have linked wars to El Nino! We know that displacement of refugees through climate change may threaten peace in the future, but “Environmental shifts are already causing wars, argues a team of experts in a new paper in Nature published this month.

Of course, the weather shifts weren't the only reason for the conflict. But in a statement the authors of the research point out: "if you have social inequality, people are poor, and there are underlying tensions, it seems possible that climate can deliver the knockout punch."

I think it was Jonathan Sacks who wrote that excuses abound for war and violence without any need for religion at all! And these tensions of social inequality, poverty and hunger are potent fuels for unrest and war.

We have witnessed this year the most extraordinary events that have been collectively called The Arab Spring. Were not these uprisings more about injustice and inequality and tyrannical rule than religion?

Anne Frank, in spite of the terrible experiences she suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War wrote in her famous Diary, ‘Despite everything…people are really good at heart.’

If man is essentially good, why then is there so much violence in the world?
Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit Priest and psychotherapist who lived during the middle years of the twentieth century, wrote many best selling albeit sometimes controversial books on Christianity and spirituality. He writes succinctly on the cause of the violence of war:

"Do you know where wars come from? They come from projecting outside of us the conflict that is inside. Show me an individual in whom there is no inner self-conflict and I'll show you an individual in whom there is no violence. There will be effective, even hard, action in him, but no hatred. When he acts, he acts as a surgeon acts; when he acts, he acts as a loving teacher acts with mentally retarded children. You don't blame them, you understand; but you swing into action. On the other hand, when you swing into action with your own hatred and your own violence un-addressed, you've compounded the error. You've tried to put fire out with more fire. You've tried to deal with a flood by adding water to it." (1)

In an essay entitled “The Root of War is Fear,” with a self-evident title, another Jesuit priest, Thomas Merton, tells us that our hatred of ourselves is more dangerous than our hatred of others, because we project our own evil onto others and we do not see it in ourselves. (2)

And Friedrich Nietzsche blames war and violence on the absence of religion. ‘God is Dead,’ he famously wrote in 1882. (3) We had, he said, lost our religion, our faith and our soul, to rationalism, scientific thought and Darwinism. This loss, he predicted, would be the cause of the awful wars that we did indeed subsequently experience in the twentieth century, ‘wars such as have never happened on earth.’ And this he attributed to our fundamental human need for a God to absolve us of our guilt. Without the comfort of this absolution and still guilt-ridden, we would go on to develop barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods, resulting in the robbery and exploitation of other human beings not of our own fraternity. Does this sound familiar?

1. De Mello, Anthony, Awareness: the Perils and Opportunities of Reality, New York: Image Doubleday, 1992, p.182. Cited by Alastair McIntosh in ‘Cold War Psychohistory in the Scottish Psyche,’ internet version

2. Thomas Merton, 1972 Thomas Merton: New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation 1972, pp. 112, 122 and Chapter 16 ‘The Root of War is Fear.’

3. Nietzsche, Friedrich, from Die Frohliche Wissenschaft, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) paragraph 125 Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82, sourced on internet. Also The Gay Science (Philosophical Classics) Friedrich Nietzsche with Thomas Common (Translator)(New York: Dover Publications, 2006)

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A Shared Responsibility, a Shared Sense of Belonging

I write today (24th August) on my Ripples of Hope blog about our flawed economy, inspired by an article at Digital Journal, Op-Ed: The West v Islam? This same article led me to the website of the international Quilliam Foundation “challenging extremism, promoting pluralism, inspiring change”)

The foundation is named after Shaikh William Henry Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932) who founded one of the first British mosques, in Liverpool, in 1889.

We are told on Quilliam’s website that Quilliam
“was a native Englishman, a solicitor, from Liverpool, England. He, and many of his contemporaries, embraced Islam voluntarily and established Britain’s first mosque in Liverpool, now a national heritage site. This was the first native Muslim community, dedicated to serving fellow Brits on the English mainland. Shaikh Quilliam was one of the first people to grapple with the challenges posed by inter-cultural exchanges which preceded the age of mass globalisation. As such, we have much to learn from the example set by him and his small Muslim community in Liverpool.”

I also learnt that in that same year, 1889, the Shah Jahan Mosque was built at Woking by Dr Gottleib Wilhelm Leitner, a Jewish convert, and that The Holy Qur’an was first translated into English by the Christian convert Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936).

I suspect few people know – I didn’t – that Islam was first imported into Britain by white converts as long ago as the 19th Century.

For Americans reading this blog, and by way of comparison, Muslims first entered the United States from the Ottoman Empire, and from parts of South Asia from the 1880s to 1914. It is most likely that Albanian Muslims in Biddeford, Maine founded the first American mosque in 1915. A Muslim cemetery still exists there.

But I digress!
Quilliam claims to be “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank set up to address the unique challenges of citizenship, identity and belonging in a globalised world. Quilliam stands for religious freedom, equality, human rights and democracy.

“Challenging extremism is the duty of all responsible members of society,” it writes. “Not least because cultural insularity and extremism are products of the failures of wider society to foster a shared sense of belonging and to advance liberal democratic values. With Islamist extremism in particular… a more self-critical approach must be adopted by Muslims. Westophobic ideological influences and social insularity needs to be challenged within Muslim communities by Muslims themselves whilst simultaneously, an active drive towards creating an inclusive civic identity must be pursued by all members of society.” (my emphases)

So what is this shared sense of belonging?

The Renaissance author and Anglican priest John Donne famously wrote in 1624:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.(1)

The Apostle Paul, writing in his first epistle to the Corinthians, on human worth, likened the worldwide body of Christians with the human body. All parts of the body are essential for the complete welfare of the whole. In the same way we all need each other and the loss of any part weakens us all: there should be no discord between us. He taught his followers that the members of the church should ‘have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’(2) The ‘body’ in this biblical context is translated from the Greek Soma, related to Sozo meaning ‘to heal, preserve, be made whole.’ We are not whole: we are wounded or spiritually impoverished if we are not a part of the greater body of faith in our community. We all need to feel that connectedness, that relationship. We need to find unity within the wide diversity of all our individual gifts. We all need each other and we all are special in the eyes of God.
Followers of the Baha’i faith see Earth as one country of which we are all citizens.(3) One of their guiding principles is that ‘the oneness of humanity is the fundamental spiritual and social truth shaping our age.’

Whatever our faith, or none, we can be guided by these truths.
This – as the Quilliam Foundation reminds us, is our responsibility.

This then had me musing a little more about our personal and corporate responsibilities.

Viktor Frankl once wrote that ‘Being human means being conscious and being responsible.’ He was writing about the very core of our being, our human conscience, and our personal integrity.
The state of being responsible is to be ‘liable to be called to account,’ or to render satisfaction, or to be answerable to someone for something. In his book To Heal a Fractured World The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes at length on the ethics of our responsibilities. His theme is that ‘Life is God’s call to responsibility.’ While written from a Jewish perspective, his message is equally relevant to those of all other faiths or none. The Jewish ethics of responsibility can be summed up very simply. If someone is in any kind of need, help him. And this, he says, is the best answer he knows to the meaning of life, expressed in the Hebrew word simhah meaning the happiness we make by sharing. It is akin to the joy or ‘blessedness’ of the Christian who hungers and thirsts for justice and righteousness.

The twenty-first century philosopher and social commentator Aldous Huxley also recognized the essential role and responsibility of the individual in determining the events of the world. In a shift away from his early preoccupation with the mistakes of institution and state, he came to believe in later life that ‘the most overlooked cure for social problems is actually the improvement of the individual citizen, and that cultures are only expressions of the collective consciousness of their people.’(D. Sawyer, Aldous Huxley: A Biography, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002 p. 95, cited at

Perhaps one of the greatest enemies of responsible behavior is to be found in the remoteness that often exists between cause and effect. It is so much easier not to have a conscience about our behavior where the consequences of our actions are not directly experienced. Someone speaking on the radio the other day about the horrors of child prostitution said we should all be screaming to have something done about it. But we carry on our daily lives as if nothing is wrong in the wider world.

We need to remind ourselves that inaction can be as irresponsible as inappropriate action. It can be important that we should take a stand. It is believed to have been said by Albert Einstein that‘The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.’

But one often has to be courageous to speak up about something that is important to us. It is not always easy to try to paddle against the tide. It is much easier to go with the flow. As Voltaire once remarked, ‘No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.’

Quilliam seeks to challenge what we think, and the way we think. It aims to generate creative, informed and inclusive discussions to counter the ideological underpinnings of terrorism, whilst simultaneously providing evidence-based recommendations to governments for related policy measures. I think it deserves our attention.

I suspect that much religious intolerance is born out of ignorance, with no real justification other than the fear that ignorance nurtures. Part of our responsibility demands that we recognize our prejudices and fears born out of ignorance and that as far as possible we keep ourselves informed of the important issues of the day, so that we are better equipped to play our part in discovering our shared sense of belonging and healing our wounded world.

Further resource:
One of the Web's Leading and Original Resources for Traditional Islam since 1996

Lots of relevant media articles at

1. John Donne seventeenth century English poet died 1631. Famous words of prose taken from the final lines of his 1624 Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
2. Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, 1 Corinthians 12. 25,26.
3. From Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, as he enjoins his followers to develop a sense of world citizenship and a commitment to stewardship of the earth. From Faith in Conservation, 2003, p. 72.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Religious persecution - let's build bridges between faiths

Stories of religious persecution too often seem to take back stage to all the other demands on media time – the economy, health care, political issues of the day. But a short search across the Web soon brings up numerous examples of appalling religious persecution going on here and now across the globe; Muslims persecuting Christians, Christians persecuting Muslims, the persecution of Jews, etc. (Just a few stories and resources are given below). And it seems that whilst many of us have our deeply held prejudices and often inaccurate assumptions about religions, we are too often simply unaware of the individual and very human stories of suffering and tragedy at the hands of persecutors that are being acted out at this moment. Few will then give any further thought in their daily lives as to what they could themselves contribute to alleviating the misery of so many.

This is a hugely important issue. Not only do we diminish ourselves as human beings if we fail to care for the plight of our fellow beings. Religious persecution of course threatens our whole future security on this planet. And is it so very difficult to offer a hand of friendship and hospitality to a fellow human whatever his faith, color or culture?

There is a wonderful story in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Sojourners, of American Christian hospitality to Muslims awaiting completion of their own mosque. In Peace Be Upon Them - A Tennessee church welcomes its Muslim neighbors, author Bob Smietana writes:
“Two years ago, the pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis, learned that a local mosque had bought property right across the street from the church. So he decided some Southern hospitality was in order.
A few days later, a sign appeared in front of the church. "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood," it read.
That small act of kindness was the start of an unlikely friendship between the two congregations, one that made headlines around the world. Members of the mosque and church have shared meals together, worked at a homeless shelter, and become friends over the past two years. When Stone learned that his Muslim friends needed a place to pray for Ramadan because their building wasn't ready, he opened up the doors of the church and let them hold Ramadan prayers there….. and so on – I recommend the whole article to my reader.

I recently finished reading the latest book by Gustav Niebuhr, the great nephew of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s most distinguished theologians.Beyond Tolerance: How People Across America Are Building Bridges Between Faiths is a reprint edition of his book published just a year previously.
I posted my review on Amazon from which I quote below.

This is such an interesting, well- researched and important book on such a vital topic; it always saddens me that gems such as this seem to command relatively little interest as compared with the mass of best selling trivia so widely available. We should all care more about the serious issues that are going to affect the future of our families and our world.
Here we have a serious call for us to use our religious differences to forge peace rather than inspire hatred. Gustav Niebuhr calls for an end to what he calls the “rough trade in raw insults” between religions, for example as seen so often on the internet, and says that we need more than mere tolerance; we need a more committed effort to really get to know and respect our religious differences, to recognize that we can all learn from others, to understand that whatever those differences we are all of equal worth and value across class, race, ethnicity and religion. Respect, a warm acceptance, a mindfulness of everyone’s role in society, is called for, akin to the teachings of Gandhi on tolerance, respect and ahimsa.
Despite what much of the media would have us believe, we are seeing an increase in those who want to use our religious diversities constructively, to work towards a better future for us all. Indeed in 2004 there were apparently more than 1000 such organisations in the US building co-operative inter-religious bridges, and this number continues to grow rapidly. Neibuhr charts the history of some of the most significant of these initiatives to illustrate what has been and still can be done.
He tackles some tricky areas often seen as blocks to any real inter faith co-operation and explains why and how these may be overcome: for example the truth claims of the different religions; the history of the Christian view of salvation and the perceived need to evangelise and convert those of other faiths; the historically difficult relationship between Jews and Christians. We are told that in the US and elsewhere, and contrary to popular perception, those who think that only their religion is the ultimate truth are now in the minority. We are all made in God’s image and God must therefore surely want us all to work together and respect each other – and most if not all beliefs call for the love of neighbour regardless of tribe, race or nation; the so called Golden Rule.
Niebuhr cautions us to look beyond the media bias against inter-religious dialogues. He shows us that so much good work is going on at local level but that the media prefer to report on the bad and negative aspects of faith. In particular he gives evidence of US media bias against Muslims. He provides plenty of illustrative stories of cross religion initiatives, of religions coming together to serve others, of co-operating on social projects, sharing places of worship, assisting with rebuilding programmes of mosques, churches, synagogues, etc., as well as promoting dialogue. And he writes in some detail of the overlaps between our faiths seen for example in our teachings on compassion and hospitality.

We have to choose dialogue not violence. We have to believe, and have hope, the author writes, that human communication can matter. After all, denouncing religion is futile, and anyway our different traditions provide life -giving possibilities if we allow them to. Those who died on 9/11 deserve a monument dedicated to life and hope, not a war on terror. We have our basic humanity in common, we are all created by the same God in His image, and as per Isaiah 56:7, “mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
This important book goes a long way to help us understand just how much is going on in our communities towards inter-religious tolerance and understanding and how much more we can still do, with the potential for the force of ideas to counter the force of arms. The message throughout the book is that a bottom up approach is needed, driven by individuals. Our policies and laws can only do so much towards holding our societies together.
This is, as the strap line of the title makes clear, primarily about religion in America, where it is a source of public identity for many. But the interest in this book should not be so confined – the issues are, after all, global.
I like the way the final bibliography is sorted between the different categories of source material, a recent trend reflecting the range of such material that is now so readily available. There are some duplications of information within the text, and I found disconcerting the way the text sometimes jumped around in some chronological confusion – evidence of some late cutting and pasting of the manuscript perhaps! But this is a small point when measured against the importance of this interesting and well- researched book.
This should be compulsory reading and on the book- shelf of all those who have an interest in furthering peaceful relationship between faiths, for the building of a healed and better world for us all.

Other resources/stories - although of course beware any media bias! weblog on Christian persecution

The Iranian government continues its persecution of Iran's Baha'i community  
from which I quote:
“State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland recently voiced concern over the persecution of religious minorities in Iran: "While Iran's leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing," said Ms. Nuland. "We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them."”
gives many stories of church persecution across globe
for example:

and from Wikipedia on the persecution of Muslims “In January 2010, a report from the University of Exeter's European Muslim research centre noted that the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes has increased, ranging from "death threats and murder to persistent low-level assaults, such as spitting and name-calling," for which the media and politicians have been blamed with fueling anti-Muslim hatred.” From 
on The Persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Golden Rule

The world is truly a rich tapestry of many different faiths, religions and spiritual ideas. The rules and customs of ancestral religions still give meaning, purpose and spiritual nourishment to most of the seven billion people on the Earth today. Something like 84% of the world’s population have a faith or religion, often with deeply held convictions, and of the remaining 16% one half claim to be theistic even if not religious. And surely spiritual nourishment is necessary for human flourishing, as recognised by the many who do not feel the need to join any organised religion on a regular basis but still pursue spiritual practices of one sort or another.
But the secular materialism of the West seems to hold the moral high ground, has the cultural initiative. And religion sometimes, indeed often, comes in for disdain. Worse still, there is a huge amount of intolerance or even persecution for religious beliefs in some countries, even in this 21st Century. For just one example read what is really going on in Zimbabwe to Christians at the moment, (courtesy of Nick Baines' blog) a subject picked up so fleetingly in the News media lately that you would have missed it in a blink.
But why is this? Why can we not all respect each others' beliefs and ideas? Why can we not live and let live? Why do some atheists so passionately argue for the abolition of religion, as if that were possible? It is certainly not desirable. Yes it is true that religions have not always been forces for good in the world. But I think it was the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who pointed out once that humans have always been able to find excuses for violence and war without religion. And the religions historian Karen Armstrong has also reminded us that wars are mostly about greed, envy, ambition, land ownership, even if they are often cloaked in religious rhetoric to give them “respectability.
Why throw out religion? Religions are a huge force for good in the world. They are behind much of the humanitarian aid made available to those suffering across the globe from disasters however caused, and they have between them some amazing and enviable global networks, both interfaith and intra-faith, all working for the good of humanity.
And religion also provides spiritual nourishment and support at the all important individual and local level. UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has been derided in some quarters for his ideas of a Big Society. Some profess to be unable to understand what he means. But we have a Big Society writ large in our own church and community, everyone looking out for each other, extending hands of friendship and support to those in need, enjoying fun together in community events, and generally feeling a strong sense of belonging in what can otherwise seem a confusing and harsh world out there.
There is also so much in common between many of the world’s faiths. For a start they share what is called “The Golden Rule,” expressed in its positive format as “do to others as you would wish others to do to you.” For Jews this is expressed as: “What is hurtful to yourself, do not to your fellow man.” One of the Ten Commandments is after all “Love your neighbour as yourself,” and Jesus reminds his followers that this is the second great commandment (Matthew ch 22. v. 39). In Jainism they say: “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Hinduism expresses it thus: “Do not to others, which if done to thee, would cause thee pain.” And so on. Just imagine if everyone, religious or not, actually lived out that maxim. Surely at an individual level we do not want others to hate us, to hurt us, be rude to us, kill us, treat us with disdain, etc., etc? A good video to watch on this is Karen Armstrong’s TED talk, Let's Revive the Golden Rule.

But we should also celebrate our differences, and learn from them. We can learn and enjoy so much about other faiths and cultures if we open our minds. And here let’s extend this beyond religious differences, to differences of culture, sexuality, politics. We all need each other, whatever our beliefs, and we should use our multiple resources for good, not for violation and destruction.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Wisdom of Tolerance?

Religious differences too often provoke aggression and intolerance.
As more people turn to faith in some parts of the world, others call passionately for the abolition of religion and God.
Is that possible, or wise, given the sheer scale and strength of strongly held religious beliefs globally, which still give meaning, purpose and spiritual nourishment to most of the seven billion people on the Earth today?
What obstacles prevent us all living peaceably together with our contrasting beliefs? Can we find common ground? Why is religion often seen as an evil force, when we could celebrate instead its diversity and virtues? And what new wisdoms, spiritualities and philosophies are emerging that may bridge the gaps to help our quest?
How can we replace prejudice, hatred and discrimination with humility, understanding and respect? How can we value and celebrate our differences and open dialogues for a better, happier and safer future for us all, globally?
Is tolerance the answer? If not, then what is?
I have started this new blog to consider these issues in more depth in the weeks and months to come. Do sign up and join the discussion - I welcome courteous and thoughtful dialogue and a respect for all views - I am not interested in rant and prejudice!