Intolerance…

May 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm (gender issues, is religion good or bad for you?, moral issues, society)

A gay couple in Malawi were arrested after holding an engagement ceremony, and now sentenced to 14 years in prison. It strikes me that the couple must have known this could happen to them, and it is very brave to live out your values in this way without fearing what people will do. Reminds me of the Sudanese lady who insisted on wearing trousers not fearing the punishment. I have a lot of admiration for that.

Handing down sentence in the commercial capital, Blantyre, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa told the pair: “I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example.”

Interesting to note that “the laws under which the pair were convicted were introduced during British colonial rule.”

Obviously Britain has come a long way in tolerance since then, but it is not only modern, developed, western countries that are open-minded and rational about these things – I read this beautiful post this week, mentioning a remote and traditional part of Mexico that is very accepting of transsexuals. According to the article linked to in the post, “Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchit√°n, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”

Is it just me or is there a correlation between Abrahamic religions and intolerance?

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Progress?

March 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm (Humanism, morality, society)

I read this interesting interview with Terry Eagleton, of whom I am becoming a bit of a fan. Here is an extract which particularly interested me.

“Dawkins,” [Eagleton] contends, “has a Panglossian vision of progress. A view from North Oxford. Indeed for all his self-conscious modernity he turns out to be something of an old-fashioned Hegelian believing in a Zeitgeist (his own word) involving every increasing moral progress with just the occasional ‘reversal’. History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming tambourine-banging evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?”

(When I confronted Dawkins in 2007 with his description of the Holocaust as “a temporary setback”, he at first insisted that it was still appropriate to believe in general moral progress. He thought that the idea of such progress was “plausible” but agreed that my scepticism deserved attention. It was, he finally said, “a fair cop”.)

It is Dawkins’s stated belief in the inevitability of progress that, according to Eagleton, marks him out as a particular kind of humanist.

“Dawkins deeply believes in the flourishing of the free human spirit which makes him a liberal humanist rather than a tragic humanist. He believes that if only those terrible guys out there would stop stifling and shackling us, then our creative capacities would flourish. I don’t believe that. As a Marxist I reject that simple liberationism. I’m not against humanism. I’m for a humanism which recognises the price of liberation. And that’s what I call tragic humanism. The only idea of emancipation worth having is one that starts from looking at the worst, that starts from Swift’s race of odious little vermin. If you’re the kind of humanist who can understand what Socrates meant when he said it would been far better if man had never been born, you’re on. A humanism like Dawkins’s and possibly that held by Hitchens isn’t worth all that much. It’s too easy.”

Any thoughts? Personally I felt like applauding at this.

I can see progress in terms of science, medicine, technology etc. I can see moral progress in the abolition of slavery for example. But I can also see how western progress has come at the expense of other parts of the world; how the wealth distribution across the world is far less equal than it has ever been; how we are most likely destroying our climate as a side effect of our progress and even though we know this is probably the case, we aren’t doing anything much about it.

Hm. ūüėĮ

I do not think salvation of the human race lies in liberty and reason alone, although I am in favour of those things. “Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have” (Harry Emerson Fosdick). I think controlling systems produce general conformity but do not produce any exceptional goodness. Liberty, on the other hand, is a high-risk high-gain strategy. Freedom of conscience and action gives people the opportunity to reach the kind of sincerity which I think leads naturally to empathy and goodness‚Ķ but a bad side effect is that a fair number of people will probably abuse that freedom and use it to do bad things. We can’t bury our heads in the sand about that.

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Radicalism and restricted loyalty

February 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, moral issues, society)

This week there was a TV programme about young British Muslims being radicalised… and a programme about a young white guy being radicalised into the BNP (an extreme, racist political party). The similarity between the two was striking. The pattern seems to be that they are looking for a place to belong, and people welcome them into that radical club and make them feel that sense of validation and belonging that they need.

I think I can understand radicalisation; after all, it is sort of what happened to me as an undergrad. I was seduced by an all-encompassing world view, a belief system that really gave me something to live for. For whatever reason, a lot of the younger generation need that in a way that their parents didn’t.

What I understood from the programme about radical Islam is that a lot of the parents of these young guys, who immigrated to Britain and brought a moderate Islam with them, don’t recognise that their offspring are believing quite differently from themselves. They are shocked when someone in their community is charged with supporting terrorism, and when it’s proved that he didn’t do anything, they are all “we knew you weren’t a terrorist, you were always a good lad, you have been badly treated by the police” – not realising that he supports terrorism even if he was never going to do anything. They seem to have their heads in the sand about it. This is worrying.

Militant Islam and the BNP are both finding support because of grievances that people have. People are finding meaning in these ideologies that is drawing them in. The BNP ideology is not based on any religious world view, so we can safely say that it is not religion that is the underlying cause in either case.

But being religious doesn’t help. The notion of the ummah encourages people to get worked up about Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world and to demonise the non-Muslims that are perceived to be to blame. It creates “The Other”. And when that Other is your neighbour, who might be politically liberal and strongly supporting your right to practice your religion in this country, and yet you have no loyalty to that neighbour because they are not part of your ummah… I find that very offensive. It’s the epitome of tribalism and it stinks.

When you can’t even wish your Christian neighbours a Merry Christmas, because it amounts to congratulating the kuffar on their festivals of shirk, then I don’t think you deserve the automatic right to build minarets in the country, or the automatic right to wear your niqab in the street. Pluralism is a game we all have to play with the same commitment to goodwill.

In such a globalised world, I feel we need to move beyond tribalistic or racialistic notions of loyalty. We need to begin to see everyone as our neighbour, our brother, our sister. It may sound overly simplistic, but it’s going down otherwise, isn’t it? I think we need to criticise when wrong is being done. We need to stand up against bullies in the world who are oppressing people. Respect doesn’t mean infinite tolerance. But we need to stop demonising each other and start to try and understand – see beyond our superficial prejudices which are only reinforced and deepened by our radical ideologies. We need to sympathise with the pain inside the radical Muslim and the BNP supporter.

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No God But God ‚Äď Reza Aslan

February 13, 2010 at 11:31 am (God, Islam, moral issues, society, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I read “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. My unusually fast reading of this book tells you how good it was! Thank you to the (several) people that recommended it. I actually haven’t read many books on the history of Islam, but this is one I would recommend to anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims; he does a very good balancing act between the two audiences, remaining ambiguous about his own views! I am curious now to read another book of his, “How To Win A Cosmic War”.

The first point that hit me in chapter 2 was an explanation for why an uncompromising monotheism was so important to Muhammad. The greedy materialism in Mecca was supported by the fact that the Ka’ba housed statues of all the gods, and so the Meccan Quraysh tribe were able to exploit the pilgrims who came from all over. He had to attack the polytheism in order to render the Ka’ba redundant.

“… the Hanif preachers may have attacked the polytheism and greed of their fellow Meccans, but they maintained a deep veneration for the Ka’ba and those in the community who acted as Keepers of the Keys. That would explain why the Hanifs appear to have been tolerated, for the most part, in Mecca, and why they never converted in great numbers to Muhammad’s movement. But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige – the Ka’ba.” (Ch. 2)

It was a surprise to read because obviously at some point the Ka’ba became important to him again. But it makes a lot of sense.

Polytheism by nature is pluralistic and inheres religious freedom because there is always room for one more god. So I definitely think there was a downside to bringing an uncompromising monotheism. But attacking a greedy system, I can understand.

This leads to Muhammad’s persecution and eventual emigration to Yathrib (which became Medina). Then what? It never occurred to me before that the Meccans would just have let them be if they’d minded their own business and lived peacefully, but that’s exactly the picture that Aslan paints.

“By declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city, Muhammad was deliberately challenging Mecca’s religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula. And just to make sure the Quraysh got the message, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding.” (Ch. 4)

Makes it sounds positively harmless, doesn’t it? He goes on to say that it wasn’t considered stealing, and that through it, “Muhammad finally got the attention he was seeking.” This is different from Tariq Ramadan’s justification of it as retribution for the property that was stolen from them.

There was more disturbing stuff to come. By the time of Muhammad’s death, “In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama (or Musaylama), had so successfully imitated Muhammad’s formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamama, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city.” (Ch. 5) Isn’t that fascinating? But of course, such movements had to be extinguished by the Muslims. “[Abu Bakr’s] principal achievement as Caliph was his miliatary campaigns against the “false prophets” and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” (Ch. 5) Oh well.

Here is a really important point that I think all traditionalist Muslims should realise:

“There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad’s life. But … it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 C.E. as being in any way a unified systems of beliefs and practices; far from it.” (Ch. 5)

Any honest look – or even glance – at the hadith literature will tell you that nothing is clear-cut!

Authority within Islam was an interesting topic. He says:

“… the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community. The ancient Kharijite ideal of the Ummah as a charismatic and divinely inspired community through which salvation is achieved has become the standard (orthodox) doctrine of the vast majority of Muslims in the world…” (Ch. 6)

That was interesting in itself, but he goes on to say this is because there is no central authority in the religion. I’m not sure I follow, because the same could be said of Protestantism, and yet salvation there is not through membership in a Protestant community. However. For Sunnis, the Caliph held political authority while the ulama – scholars – held religious authority. For Shi’as, the Imams are both of these and more, as far as I understood – kind of like Popes, but even closer to prophets than that. I didn’t know that.

I learnt a lot I didn’t know about Shi’ism.

“The Shi’ah… regard Husayn’s martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.” (Ch. 7)

Almost like the way Jesus’s sacrifice completed the law of Moses. Atonement through sacrifice. Husayn died fighting and Jesus died not fighting, but both knew they faced death and didn’t run away from it. Hard acts to follow!

There were a lot more interesting things in the book but these were the standout things for me, things I wanted to record and/or see what your reactions are.

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The unbelievers are the enemy

December 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm (Islam, moral issues, society, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I don’t know what I think about fighting to establish justice or eradicate oppression. I think that it could be OK to overthrow an evil dictator, but maybe only if it’s what the people of the country want. If they don’t want it, then I feel uncomfortable about the whole concept of establishing anything good through force.

I think the early Muslims did some good in uniting tribal Arabia under tawheed, and in later spreading what was at that time probably the most equitable, just civilisation that had existed, across a third of the world. But I think that in doing that, at some point they must have voided the Quranic injunction not to commit aggression. Perhaps the instructions can legitimately change over time and with circumstances; as I have said before, the Quran does not have to be viewed as a universal life manual. Maybe at some point it became appropriate to conquer. What do you think?

I think the reason I feel uncomfortable boils down to the stark categorisation of people into believers and unbelievers. I think professed belief is an inadequate and overly simplistic way of judging and defining people. It is just one more way of dividing humans and breeding prejudice and de-humanisation of the “other”. I find it hard to imagine that God views us that way.

I was actually quite impressed that Muhammad signed the treaty of Hudaybiyya and didn’t charge into Mecca, and then eventually conquered it without much bloodshed, along with mass conversion to Islam and amnesty granted. I thought this demonstrated wisdom, as per Tariq Ramadan “The Messenger”. They had held back from fighting the unbelievers, and in doing so, turned many of them into believers – which is better.

But then I read the Quran verses about the Hudaybiyya incident and I changed my mind. God apparently said that if it weren’t for the presence of believers in Mecca, He would have had the Muslims fight their way in. It sounds like it was God’s concern for the plight of believers that caused the restraint, rather than God’s desire to cause more hearts to believe and His foreknowledge that this would happen. If there hadn’t been believers in Mecca He would have had the Meccans killed at the hands of the Muslims rather than give them that chance to come to faith. This upset me quite a lot.

48:25 [It was not for your enemies sake that He stayed your hands from them: for] it was they who were bent on denying the truth, and who debarred you from the Inviolable House of Worship and prevented your offering from reaching its destina­tion. And had it not been for the believing men and believing women [in Mecca], whom you might have unwittingly trampled underfoot, and on whose account you might have become guilty, without knowing it, of a grievous wrong: [had it not been for this, you would have been allowed to fight your way into the city: but you were forbidden to fight] so that [in time] God might admit to His grace whomever He wills. Had they [who deserve Our mercy and they whom We have condemned] been clearly discernible [to you], We would indeed have imposed grievous suffering [at your hands] on such of them as were bent on denying the truth.

Maybe it’s my Christian background, but I like to think God sees the potential in every person and isn’t quick to write them off.

When I see people posting scholarly articles banning Muslims from congratulating the kuffar on their festivals, and other things like that that are extremely separatist and have an undercurrent of hatred, I get upset and tie myself in knots trying to convince myself this attitude is not authentically Islamic. And maybe it isn’t. This is a weird period of time that we’re in. However, as much as I’ve tried, I can’t find much support for being loving and merciful towards unbelievers in the Quran. Polite, yes, and respectful; but all your most loving qualities seem to be for the believers only. Perhaps I am missing something here?

48:29 MUHAMMAD is God’s Apostle; and those who are [truly] with him are firm and unyielding towards all deniers of the truth, [yet] full of mercy towards one another...

5:54 …God will in time bring forth [in your stead] people whom He loves and who love Him – humble towards the believers, proud towards all who deny the truth…

58:14 ART THOU NOT aware of those who would be friends with people whom God has condemned? They are neither of you [O believers] nor of those [who utterly reject the truth]: and so they swear to a falsehood the while they know [it to be false]. God has readied for them suffering severe [in the life to come]…

58:22 Thou canst not find people who [truly] believe in God and the Last Day and [at the same time] love anyone who contends against God and His Apostle – even though they be their fathers, or their sons, or their brothers, or [others of] their kindred…

A related question is why belief is so important in the first place. I’ve always understood the Quran to be saying that wrong beliefs are the basis of all badness. In other words, the pagans were wicked and unjust precisely because they didn’t have correct beliefs about God.¬† But there are many people who have wrong beliefs according to the Quran and yet are very good people.

Any thoughts?

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Evangelism: mosque and church

August 16, 2009 at 6:28 pm (Christianity, Islam, society)

It has been interesting to observe the differences between the evangelism activities of the mosque and those of the church.

Firstly, both concentrate on presenting information, but only the church includes an invitation to participate.

The church’s structured evangelism campaigns always include open services, maybe to encourage non-believers to join in and hopefully find meaning in it, but also I think to “show off” what it’s like. The mosque exhibition includes a demonstration of prayer so I suppose that is a similar thing, but without the invitation to join in. I think inviting people to participate in both situations could make some people pretty uncomfortable, but more so for the mosque.

Which brings me on to the second point. The expected attitude of non-believers seems to be quite different between the two, and accurately so. In church, the emphasis was on combating the idea that Christianity is boring, irrelevant, and old-fashioned. Hence all the technicolour, modern music, and testimonies of joy. In the mosque, on the other hand, they seem to be keenly aware of the possibility of hostility.

In a talk I attended on women’s issues, I expected a defiant celebration of women’s rights and roles in Islam, but I found the presentation much more apologetic towards modern “equality” culture. It was almost reluctantly that the speaker mentioned, for example, that women can actually value the protection of men in some situations. The poor lady got some quite aggressive questions from non-Muslim men, the anticipation of which had clearly motivated the apologetic stance in the first place. I found myself longing for someone to stand up and sing the praises of hijab or something, but no-one took up the speaker’s invitation to chime in. I was so disconcerted I actually stuck my own hand up and asked her to comment on the fact that the majority of converts to Islam in the west are female. She then asked for input from any of the converts in the room: one woman said that she was not comfortable to comment in front of the audience but would be happy to talk one-to-one; no-one else had anything to say besides the speaker, who spoke of the appeal of Islam in general rather than anything specific to women.

In the talk on Jesus which I mentioned in my last post, the speaker took the first 15 minutes or so just to regale us with anecdotes from meetings he’d had with religious leaders of different faiths throughout the world, which were entertaining and set a relaxed tone, but more importantly, strongly underlined his initial statement that he had no axe to grind about the Church or any other religion and had a friendly attitude to all. When he finished the talk and the floor was opened for questions, he mentioned that he was not feeling well and requested that we “be nice to him”. Once again, this proved an apt expectation of hostility.

From all this I am realising that it is very difficult to speak boldly and positively about Islam here, because there are people that come along just to criticise and condemn, and I see that this mosque is actually doing quite a remarkable thing opening its doors in the face of that.

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Perspectives on marriage, politics, and war

June 26, 2009 at 5:42 pm (Christianity, Islam, moral issues, society)

The documented lives of Muhammad and Jesus exemplify some of the major ideological differences between Islam and Christianity.

Number one, marriage. Jesus is not recorded to have married; Muhammad had several wives. The fixation with celibacy throughout the history of Christianity is probably influenced to a large part by Paul’s letters, contained in the New Testament. Paul was celibate, and wrote that it is good not to marry, but not wrong to do so; that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. In other words, marriage is for weak people who can’t control their desires.

While protestants – including fundamentalists – do not require celibacy of their ministers, and nor do they necessarily see celibacy as the ideal for everyone, there is still an effect on their approach to marriage which I don’t think I really noticed until I learnt about the Islamic perspective. I know many Christians that are afraid to be proactive in looking for a spouse incase they are going against God’s will. They have in mind that God may not wish them to marry, and so they expect that if God wants it to be, then the right person will come into their life and there will be some sign.

Having a Christian background makes all of Muhammad’s marriages a little hard to understand. I used to have a problem with why he was allowed more than four, but then I heard that he married them all before that verse came. Not sure if it’s true. I do find it impressive though that all of them except Aishah were widows or divorcees. It does make it seem like it could have been some sort of mercy rather than hedonistic womanising. Anyway, it’s interesting that there’s such a stark difference between the two faiths in terms of the importance of sexual fulfilment.

Number two, politics. Jesus lived in a stable, civilised Jewish society which was part of the Roman empire. He focused on moral teachings rather than politics. Muhammad lived in Arabia which was tribal and there was frequent conflict between tribes. When the Muslims escaped persecution in Mecca by fleeing to Medina, they essentially became a self-governing community not unlike a traditional tribe. There were no overarching rules or laws so they had to make their own. To this day, Islam is seen as a nation or society whereas Christianity has never been that.

Number three, war. This really follows on from the politics. Fighting between tribes was just normal in 7th century Arabia, it was a harsh environment and they wouldn’t have survived otherwise. On the other hand there are a number of pacifist movements in Christianity and these are inspired by Jesus’s message about turning the other cheek – a message of non-retaliation and surrender. Persecution was just accepted in early Christianity, there was this sense of following Jesus and carrying one’s cross, surrendering unto death as he had.

I am at this point pretty uncomfortable with both. I think forgiveness and non-retaliation is good, and I know this is encouraged in Islam too. But I know from experience that turning the other cheek and loving people unconditionally can sometimes hurt you, and I would prefer an interpretation that allows you to maintain your diginity and protect yourself from harm. Jesus said “love your neighbour as yourself” – he didn’t say “more than yourself”, and I think it’s this loving yourself part that I’ve had trouble with. Maybe being uncomfortable with self-defense is a consequence of taking some of Jesus’s teachings too literally, and not considering the context of who he was speaking to.

As for conquering lands and bringing them under Muslim rule, I am uncomfortable with this even although Muslim rule might have been generally good (there has been no better example of coexistence throughout history than Moorish Andalucia) and even although it might have overthrown tyrannous rulers. This is how the USA and allies have justified imposing democracy (like that’s not a contradiction in terms) in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I haven’t agreed with that. Nor have very many Muslims. I can see a case for overthrowing oppressive dictators when I look at places like Zimbabwe, but the trouble with it as a general principle is that what one group thinks is a better regime, another group doesn’t.

It’s been interesting trying to step outside of the pre-conditioned mentality that we all inherit from religion and culture combined, and think about these matters objectively. This is why I love the diverse influences on my life, however much of a headache it can be sometimes. ūüôā

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Religion and family life

June 20, 2009 at 4:35 pm (Islam, religious practices, society)

“And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind…” Qur’an 2:142

Muhammad Asad’s footnote explains that what is meant by this is “a community that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of man’s nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and exaggerated asceticism”.

I have written before about how I feel a keen absence of a middle way in western Christianity. Traditional church demands little of its adherents besides standing up to sing hymns and bowing one’s head in prayer. Fundamentalist church, on the other hand, holds as its ideal a world in which everyone is consumed by passion for Jesus 24 hours a day. I no longer saw beauty in the world when I held this ideal.

While I know that Muslims can certainly veer off to these two extremes too despite the above verse, what I saw of family life in my husband’s country bore a definite resemblance to Asad’s footnote description. The first time I went in 2004, I was stunned to see one of himself’s family members praying right in front of me and others, rather than going into another room. My sister-in-law was fasting, and again this was accepted as perfectly normal. In my own traditional (well, now mostly secular) family, these things don’t happen! I loved the way religious practice was woven into family life, but in such a way that I, as an outsider, didn’t have to feel remotely uncomfortable. It was routine; unremarkable. It was also individual. This surprised me. Hardcore Christian families pray and worship and attend church together and so an outsider would probably feel awkward.

The second time I went, later in 2004, we went to a funfair in the evening. It was fun. Just like any other funfair. And yet somehow it surprised me to see all these women in hijab enjoying themselves on funfair rides, laughing with their kids. As if like nuns they should be sober and sedate, with their minds on the spiritual at all times. In a quiet corner of the funfair there was a prayer area, with a handful of people doing their prayers; right there in amongst all the family fun, God was being remembered, and it really touched me.

It’s little things like this that have really softened me towards Islam over the years. I am so impressed at both the efforts people make with prayers and fasting, and the calm, mature sense of normalcy with which they go about it. It does not seem “weird” or pie-in-the-sky, and yet sincere devotion is apparent. I can’t help but feel that it’s a brilliant thing.

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A middle way?

March 10, 2009 at 10:24 pm (Christianity, religious practices, society)

My home town church’s services were of a traditional format. Hymns, a Bible reading, and a sermon, all in a carefully crafted order. But the youth group regularly took trips, to other churches and events. These were memorable because I was exposed through them to a style of worship that was a bit more… radical. I encountered people for whom religion didn’t just appear to be a hobby or a social activity but a way of life.

In about 4th year of high school we started going to a monthly evening service in a church in Glasgow. This was called “Power Point” (before Microsoft coined the term I think!) and was aimed at young people. It drew in huge crowds. One of the youth group leaders took us in a minibus; we would go to the service, go to McDonalds afterwards for a late meal, and then go home. It was always a fun night out with friends, really. It was on the first one of these trips that I had quite a profound experience.

The service featured a lot of singing, in a modern style with a rock band. The words were projected onto a big screen and we would bop away with the upbeat tune and sing our lungs out. My friends and I always headed for the upstairs balcony section, right at the back, and stood on the pew during the singing (as long as the usher didn’t notice). It was during one of these songs that I found myself overcome with emotion. I don’t know if it was the music, the crowd, the words, the big wooden cross on the wall, or what, but I was electrified. At the time I considered it to be an encounter with the Holy Spirit.

I always looked forward to that one Sunday in the month when we would go to this event. Looking back, I feel gratitude towards the man who gave up his evenings to take us there. He also opened his house to us on many occasions for us to all hang out together and have fun. I think there was a sadness about him, but he put his energy into doing good and didn’t wallow. There were just the occasional glimpses of sadness. While my friends and I always made for the back of the balcony, he would sit in one of the side sections, and more than once I saw him looking over at us during the singing, as if for inspiration, for hope. I once heard him saying that seeing all these kids worshipping made it undeniable that there was something in it. I wonder if as much as anything, going to these events was about him searching for faith.

I think that there were people in the church back then, particularly those involved in the youth group, that had that more radical, practical theology and would have preferred a less stiff-upper-lipped worship style. But they coexisted harmoniously alongside the more traditional setup. As for the youths, I think that for some, seeds were sown and radical trajectories were embarked upon. For others, there was ultimately no interest in religion. But quite possibly none were set to become “traditional” churchgoers. It just seems that the days of being religious by default are over.

I was talking with my mum at the weekend about this and it’s kind of interesting really. Since I left home, the fundamentalist/evangelical influence in the church has grown, probably through more of such people moving into the town. They have rocked the boat, and a lot of my parents’ generation have left the church. In their case, coming face to face with stark views has triggered an unprecedented questioning. Many of the older traditional believers will continue to attend church until they die; they are the mainstay of the church and form the bulk of the elders, and, well, they tend to resist change. But the younger ones cannot. They are polarised. They either don’t find religion of significant relevance to their busy lives, or they make it their lives. There’s no middle way any more.

As a kid there was no middle way either. These monthly Power Point events and other similar trips were the only religious influence that stood a chance of holding my attention over the noise of teenage life. When the frequency of this spiritual input lessened in the last couple of years of high school because of weekend jobs and so on, my commitment waned. I never actively changed my mind, I just got swept along with whatever was going. And whatever was going usually wasn’t very conducive to maintaining a religion. So maybe it’s culture that doesn’t allow people to be religious by default any more.

It took a radical, vibrant, optimistic church to make me decide to be religious at university. And this is where it inevitably went to the next level. The carrots that were dangled before me may not have been about rewards in the afterlife but they were things I definitely wanted. Peace, hope, answered prayer, dramatic miracles. The church went through a period of obsessing over what they call “revival”, which is where outreach goes crazy, people start flocking to church in droves, and miracles happen left right and centre. It was around this time that I started to realise the church was adrift with no-one at the helm, as I watched people searching for the voice of God and hoping it would be saying that a revival was on its way. The worst part is, normal life had started to seem unsatisfactory. With such a clear picture of how life should be, the regular old world with all its messed-up beauty felt hollow, boring, even a little depressing.

Ultimately of course I have preferred to resist the naive lure of the dangling carrots and appreciate life in all its confusion, pain and beauty. I see goodness where I once might have dismissively seen only bad. I am still an extreme, all-or-nothing person, but stuck on nothing. Part of me still relishes the thought of making radical changes in my life. There is a tension between my head and my heart, and at the moment my head is winning out. But I hope that there is a middle way. Whatever paths I may walk in future, I hope I don’t try to live austerely in some sort of sterile utopia. I hope I find a way to be hopeful and gracious without needing empty promises. I hope I will be strong enough to live in the world with a radically big heart.

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Morality and religion

March 2, 2009 at 12:15 am (morality, society)

I find it interesting that when apparently sensible moral codes are applied in an extreme way across society, it simply does not make people “better” even by the standards of that moral code (let alone in an absolute sense). There have been comments on Lisa’s blog about how prevalent homosexuality is in the Arab world, linking this to the strict gender segregation that is enforced in these societies. You might think you could make people chaste by separating the genders, but it seems not. Another example is how much more dangerous it is for a woman to travel around North Africa alone compared to sub-Saharan Africa, even though the religious mentality is supposed to promote respect and dignity for women. I’ve travelled alone in the latter part of the world, even across national borders, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that in the former. In Cairo, women are sexually harrassed in the street, which is puzzling when you consider that wearing of hijab has become widespread there in the last few decades – the intended effect being the exact opposite.

I seriously doubt whether any society or culture is really more moral than another. The majority of people are probably pretty self-serving, even in a culture with a strong religious component. Different cultures have different emphases. My own – western Europe – emphasises fairness and equality and tolerance, and it falls down on this too of course, but this emphasis has shaped our cultural mentality. I think it’s possible for different cultures to equally view each other as being less moral than themselves.

Do our own efforts – for example, religion – make any difference? I think there’s room for free will, in the same way that there’s room for individual earthquakes’ sizes to be dynamically determined despite their following a well-defined distribution overall. I think that religion can be a tool to lead someone towards being a better person. At the very least it can inspire you to think about acting selflessly. But does being religious automatically lead to this? – no. Religions do not have a monopoly on morality either.

It’s usually taken for granted, but actually quite interesting if you think about it, that religion takes morality and spirituality and yokes them together. Why should that be? Why should it be that God (or gods) is about goodness? Why is that so universal a concept?

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