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

Monday, 31 December 2012

If a mosquito can work interfaith, then so can we

I think it's an old African proverb that goes something along the lines that if you think you're too small to make a difference, try spending the night with a mosquito! And then again it was E F Schumacher who helped to get us used to the idea that "small is beautiful" in his wonderful book of the same name, subtitled "A Study of Economics as if People Mattered."
But that's not what really led me to post this blog. It's all about the association of ideas. And it's all about mosquitoes!
My New Year resolution is to stop accumulating "stuff," and in particular the ever increasing piles of paper that seem to grow inexorably while I'm not looking!
And to start that process off, I've spent today plowing through those piles, chucking away loads, and reading the rest!!
And that was when I came across a report on an interfaith initiative in Sierra Leone to combat the serious problem of childhood malaria there - a massive killer, responsible for 29% of all deaths among children under 5 in that country. It was the mosquito headline that caught my eye so I read further into the article.
And what then caught my eye was the comment by Peter Salifu of the Nigerian Inter-faith Action Association (NIFAA), speaking to a crowd of more than 100 Muslim and Christian faith leaders in Sierra Leone, as he tried to build on the success of work going on in Nigeria for interfaith health messaging on Malaria.
Faith leaders can play a vital role in health messaging, because they "have the trust, the community links, the platform, and the recognition" to spread vital preventative healthcare messages to their congregations.
"The same mosquito," Peter Salifu said, "can go to the mosque on Friday and church on Sunday. If a mosquito can work interfaith, then so can we."
You can read much more about this Sierra Leone initiative at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. OK, perhaps you don't like his politics - not everyone will - but please read with an open mind what the Tony Blair Foundation are achieving in countries such as Sierra Leone through the Faiths Act project and see for yourselves why religions have a vital part to play in our world today.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Why do we need religion?

My blogging friend over at Apprentice2Jesus has drawn attention to a terrific article, The Moral Animal by Jonathan Sacks in the New York Times Opinion Pages, where Darwin and Religion are discussed.
"Still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, ... is truly surprising," he writes. "It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters."...and so on...
The fact is that religion is Social Capital WRIT LARGE. And as Sacks concludes, "Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology." 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Lent Courses

I don't know about you but I really get annoyed when shops start stocking Easter Eggs before we've even got over Christmas; when shopping malls get all decorated up for Christmas in October with nearly three months to go!
So why am I talking about Lent, that season of the church calendar leading up to Easter, when I have hardly started my Christmas shopping?!?
Actually it's not so crazy if you consider that the season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, has quite a bit in common with Lent. Both are periods of preparation for momentous events in the Christian Church; one the Nativity of Christ, the other His Resurrection. Both may be used as periods of reflection, fasting, penitence, and an opportunity to explore and go deeper into our faith and what it means for us.
It is quite usual for Christian churches to organize Lent groups in the five weeks leading up to Easter for this very purpose. Sadly this is a less common practice in the Advent weeks running up to Christmas. And when enterprising priests have organized the same in our parish in years past the take-up has been far too low.  
Instead these weeks between now and Christmas so often become quite simply an unseemly scramble as we buy too much, do too much, worry and fret too much, about what we are going to give each other as presents, what we are going to eat, where are we going to spend Christmas, whose parents should we visit this year, and so on. We get caught up in a a material world of unwanted gadgets and presents, a world of overindulgence and so on.
It is good to take time out from all of this and try to concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ the Lord, the Savior of the world. So let's have more Advent courses and let's bring back the real meaning of Christmas. Let's bring Christ back into the equation.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Interfaith Initiatives - Interfaith Weeks - and 9/11

We all know where we were, what we were doing, on 9/11.

Curiously, another 9/11, in another century, marked the beginning of inter-religious dialogue, as we now understand it. On that day in Chicago in 1893 the World Parliament of Religions was founded. “From now on,” declared Charles Bonney, “the great religions of the world will no longer declare war on each other, but on the giant ills that afflict [humankind].”A further conference was convened in 1993 on the centenary of the first, and a series of similar conferences have subsequently come together under the new title ‘Parliament of the World’s Religions’.

There is a faith line described by the American Indian Muslim Eboo Patel that is no less divisive and no less violent than the 20th century color line of racial segregation that existed after the abolition of slavery (1)The faith line does not divide different faiths, or separate the religious from the secular. This line is divisive between the values of religious totalitarians, the exclusivists, and the values of the religious pluralists. (Pluralism is not quite the same as inclusivism, which from a Christian perspective takes the view that Christianity is present in all religions, and they are all moving towards Christianity without knowing it. This is an angle not much more conducive to tolerance than exclusivism or totalitarianism!) The totalitarians believe that their way is the only way and are prepared to convert, condemn or indeed kill those who are different, in the name of God. It is this side of the faith line that gives religions a bad press in the eyes of the secular public. The pluralists on the other hand hold that “people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.” Patel describes pluralism as the belief “that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its own unique contribution.”Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and this serves to promote and support many initiatives between religions, to foster understanding and therefore respect for the long-term. IFYC has trained thousands of people across continents (Australia, India, Qatar, and across Western Europe for example as well as across America) for the skills needed to transform religious diversity or religious tension into active interfaith cooperation. One way it achieves this is by training college students as leaders to engage with and address topical social issues in an interfaith way, within the college, schools and in the community, wherever there is an identified social need.

We need to build more tolerance between us all, to live and let live, but much more than that, to celebrate and build on our diversities, rather than quarrel about them; because the stakes are now too high, given the deadly weaponry that is available across the world in the hands of those from so many different cultures and creeds. “We have inherited a big house,” said Martin Luther King in his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in 1964, “a great world house in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.”

This week is interfaith week in / England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Actually this year it is longer than a week, as it runs from 18th - 27th November this year, extended to celebrate our Diamond Jubilee year. There is also a World Interfaith Harmony Week. This was first proposed at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2010 by H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan. Just under a month later, on October 20, 2010, it was unanimously adopted by the UN and henceforth the first week of February will be observed as a World Interfaith Harmony Week each year. The World Interfaith Harmony Week is based on the pioneering work of The Common Word initiative. This initiative, which started in 2007, called for Muslim and Christian leaders to engage in a dialogue based on two common fundamental religious Commandments; Love of God, and Love of the Neighbor, without nevertheless compromising any of their own religious tenets. The Two commandments are at the heart of the three Monotheistic religions and therefore provide the most solid theological ground possible. I have written about this in more detail in a previous blog.

So let's observe our interfaith weeks and do all we can to promote their causes. Because therein lies the future of us all.

(1) Warning over 100 years ago by the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois

 (2) Eboo Patel (2007) Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Beacon Press, Boston

Expanded and explored further in Why Religions Work

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Are we ignoring the real message of Jesus? The Wisdom Jesus

I've just reviewed a challenging but most enjoyable book, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind - a New Perspective on Christ and His Message,  by Cynthia Bourgeault. 

The starting point of the book is the Gospel of Thomas, restored to us when it was found among the Nag Hammadi scrolls in the Egyptian desert in 1945. These scrolls date back to early Christianity, being at least as old as the four canonical gospels, now widely regarded as the authentic teachings of Jesus, and give us a radical new take on Jesus and the metaphysics of his teaching.

In this book the author convincingly argues that the familiar Christian creeds and doctrines put together in the fourth century get in the way of understanding Jesus as a master in ancient spiritual wisdom, who was teaching the meltdown and recasting, the transformation, of human consciousness. This is the Eastern-like wisdom path of Jesus the life giver, a Jesus who is like us, calling us to put on the mind of Christ, telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven is a metaphor for a state of consciousness, a transformed awareness, a nondual or unitive consciousness, of divine abundance. There is then no separation between God and human, between human and human, all dwelling together in mutual loving reciprocity. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us and at hand, here and now, something we awaken into, not die into. This contrasts with the Pauline image of Jesus as Savior, who died for our sins, who is different from us, and has come to atone for mankind's depravity.

Today in Western Christian tradition we rely too much on logic, and doctrine and dogma. The author challenges these Western assumptions about Christianity and Christ, as she reminds us that whilst Christians take the events surrounding the resurrection as basic to their faith, the apostles who chose to follow Jesus knew nothing of what the future held. They had to see something else in this man, and we are long overdue, she writes, for a re-evaluation of how we understand the Jesus events and our religion based thereon, and of us understanding Christianity as a spiritual contemplative tradition. Indeed we see the first hopeful signs of this transformation.

The author examines our familiar Christian stories in this new light, as radical calls for the transformation of our consciousness; indeed shows how some of them become more readily understood within this new context. Jesus came to transform our brain led egoic operating system into a non-dual unitive system that is led by the heart, an organ of spiritual perception. In this light "repent" means to "go beyond the mind", or "into the larger mind", which is somewhat different from our classic understanding of repentance.

The book's thesis is lucidly explained step by step through Parts 1 and 2, respectively the Teachings of Jesus, and the Mysteries (Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and the Great Easter Fast (not a spelling error!). It concludes in Part Three with core Christian wisdom practices available to us all; Centering Prayer Meditation, Lectio Divina, Chanting and Psalmody, and the Welcoming Prayer, the last being a pathway of vibrant spiritual strength and creativity connecting us to our energetic fields. The author takes us through these practices in detail, step by step. If we are diligent with these practices she tells us that we will find, as Jesus promised for ears who could hear, that the spirit lies within each one if us, connecting with reality and with each other.

The core Christian practice of the Eucharist can then be seen as more than a cultic ritual, experienced within the lower mythic or rational ranges of consciousness (as per Ken Wilber). It can instead be recognized as being at heart a wisdom practice originating from a non dual level of consciousness, when the celebration comes into its own.

I loved this book. I have already read it twice! As a Christian who has thought much and written something myself in my latest book, Why Religions Work, about the possible interface between new ideas on consciousness and the spirituality within religion, this book is of some interest to me. Mainstream Christianity is losing ground, losing sight of the real gospel message of Jesus, the Jesus who came first and foremost as a teacher of the path of inner transformation, the deep level of consciousness he was trying to tell us about, a spiritual path that is found through self-emptying kenosis. 

So did Christianity get off on the wrong foot almost from its inception? That is the thesis of this thought provoking and challenging book, a fascinating new take on the Jesus Christ we thought we were familiar with. The conclusion: that Christianity is either destined to change and grow into a proper form to match the consciousness of the twenty first century: or it will disappear as an institution and we shall then be left face to face with the naked presence of Christ.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

How many religions are there?

"There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."

George Bernard Shaw

Monday, 8 October 2012

Where Science and Religion Meet?

'That’s a question for a neurotheologian.'
'Meaning what?' he asked.
'Meaning precisely what it says. Somebody who thinks about people in terms, simultaneously, of the Clear Light of the Void and the Vegetative Nervous System.'

Aldous Huxley, Island, 1962

I have been exploring the interface between science and religion in the last couple of posts here. Let's continue with this theme: Aldous Huxley was credited with first envisaging neurotheology as a philosophical construct, in his novel Island.
This exciting new discipline, sometimes called spiritual neuroscience, is the scientific attempt to correlate neural phenomena in the brain with subjective spiritual experiences. Is there a neurological and evolutionary basis for the spiritual and the religious?
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a pioneer in this research. In his work, which has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and various trance states, he has shown that spiritual experiences do indeed involve a neurological process, which can be traced through brain activity. This of course could lead to a conclusion that God is 'all in the mind.' But Newberg is quite clear from his own rigorously conducted scientific experiments that spiritual experiences are not 'in any way less real to the brain than any other information it receives and processes, including perceptions of the material world and everyday life.' (1) We cannot, he rightly claims, trust one without trusting the other.
But what is all this to do with religious tolerance, you may ask.
Work of doctors such as Dossey and Koenig who are recognizing a further healing dimension in medicine beyond the body and brain, and the ideas of scientists such as Radin and Newberg are, I believe, incredibly important in helping us gain an understanding of a further dimension in religion beyond the dogma and doctrine. There is a massive overlap between the phenomena described by the scientists and the power of prayer, meditation and healing for example in a religious or spiritual setting. But there is still a great deal of prejudice against these views, particularly those where the focus is specifically on religion, rather than on a more generalized concept of spirituality. I believe we need to get over these prejudices, and fast! Ideas such as those I have described in this series of posts have a deeper significance, for building religious tolerance. Why? Because there seems to be the potential for finding so much common ground between the findings of scientists and doctors such as Newberg, Byrd, Dossey and Koenig on the one hand and the spirit and power of prayer, meditation and spirituality in any religious setting, on the other, whatever our faith or religion or creed. Eternal life, the power of prayer and meditation, distance healing; latest science is surely lending support to such beliefs, not destroying them?
It would be extreme to say that religions need reinvention, but they certainly need to change, to adapt to a changing world. They need to return to their spiritual roots, to learn again how to cater for our spiritual needs. But perhaps they also need to bridge the gap with science, be receptive to what latest science is showing us. Perhaps we can begin to understand religions better through the latest consciousness studies; religions should possibly no longer ignore the evidence for many supernatural phenomena, such as out of body experiences, non-local healing, and so on. Maybe they need to tap into what many who call themselves spiritual but non-religious intuitively know already; we are all interconnected at some level of consciousness or spirit or energy level.

Are we on the cusp of recognizing with new eyes the link that has always been there but has been lost in the digital noise of the last few decades? Perhaps it will be such a link that in the end will help to bind all religions, faiths and spiritual philosophies together, help us all understand and respect each other, feel a deep mutual empathy, without in any way destroying the basic tenets of each faith? Newberg is attracted very much to this possibility. So am I.

As Proust observed, 'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'

(1) Newberg's research is discussed in some detail in John Drane's (2005) book, Do Christians Know How to be Spiritual? The Rise of New Spirituality and the Mission of the Church, Darton, Longman & Todd, London and Norwich

Adapted from Why Religions Work: God's Place in the World Today © Eleanor Stoneham 2012

Monday, 1 October 2012

Prayer and the Paranormal

In my last article I wrote of the science of the paranormal, with a promise to link this with prayer.
For this I need to go 'outside the box' and to 'stick my neck out', in an outrageous mixing of metaphors!
I think it quite plausible that scientific studies on consciousness, near death experiences, out of body experiences etc. are getting very close to discovering what the religious call the soul. Such studies also have obvious similarities with the religious idea of there being life after death. Not only that, I also find them broadly compatible with the thoughts of the great mystics, and with many of my own beliefs within the Christian faith.
So let's take this subject of prayer. The new atheists love to mock anything that they see as pseudo science and a favorite target is intercessory prayer, or praying for other people. Dawkins in his The God Delusion specifically sneers at what he calls The Great Prayer Experiment. This took place in 2005/2006 in various American hospitals, amongst 1802 heart patients, who were either prayed or not prayed for, who knew or didn't know about the experiment, and where the usual blind/double blind controls were set up. Dawkins gloats that this didn't give, as he says, the result the Christians wanted! This he takes as yet more proof that there is no God. Some critics would say that it is hard to see that prayer produced for such an experiment could be genuine, and God is hardly likely to view with favor his people testing His ability to answer prayer. Of course Dawkins would say that we would say that!

In fact prayer experiments go back quite a way. In his book Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing, Larry Dossey relates the story of Byrd, a devout Christian and a cardiologist at the San Francisco General Hospital, who in 1988 was struck by a conversation with a colleague about a terminally ill cancer patient. All medical avenues had been exhausted and the physicians really did not know what else they could do for the patient. We could try prayer, said Byrd. Thus began the prayer study that has inspired so many subsequent experiments into non-local healing phenomena. The scientifically designed and double blind trials produced more positive responses in those groups of patients who were prayed for, when compared with the control groups. Yes the sample was small and the statistical interpretation of the results controversial, but Byrd’s work was a catalyst for physicians such as Larry Dossey who was interested in exploring the spiritual questions of medicine within wider parameters beyond the known interaction of mind and body. And this set a whole train of experiments in motion. So much so that there is now a very considerable body of research that when it is all brought together into what we as scientists call a meta analysis of the data shows overall the considerable positive contribution that Christianity and other religion makes to a positive well being amongst its followers: higher self esteem, happiness, life satisfaction, less anxiety, less substance abuse, more children, and so on. But Dawkins and the new atheists generally would rather not know about that!

As I've said before, the initial knee-jerk reaction of many to advances in scientific knowledge was to abandon religion as being irrelevant to humanity that now thought it knew better. But there is increasing support for the belief that science and religion can no longer be regarded as totally incompatible and these consciousness studies sit somewhere on the interface between the two. There have also been exciting developments in research into the connections between mind and brain and religious or spiritual experiences. Not surprisingly much of the current research in such areas comes from the medical world as here there is easier access to the laboratory facilities, especially the brain scanning technology that is so often a part of the work, and a ready supply of patients to volunteer for the experiments! Empirical and scientifically measurable studies on spiritual tools such as intuition, dreams and stories of coincidence, alongside prayer studies, provide a sound foundation for those who believe that medicine can be imbued in some way with spirit. Of course it is understandable that many may be skeptical about prayer experiments on human beings. Quite apart from objections already raised above, they may point out, quite justifiably, that the results can be affected by the subjects’ own positive thinking, or by them praying for themselves, for example.

So in response to the critics Dossey used mice, yeast cells, barley seeds and human tissue cultures in his experiments, to eliminate such bias. In his book Reinventing Medicine (2000) he relates stories of such experiments, devised to see if prayer or other healing intention had any effect on the subjects chosen. As far as possible he used conditions and analyses as stringent as any employed in traditional drug trials. In one such experiment, for example, mice were measured for their ability to heal from a deliberate wound made on their backs. The subjects were divided into three groups. The group that was exposed to the attentions of a healer showed a statistically significant healing rate above that of the group looked after by inexperienced medical students with no interest in healing, or by the control group. Similarly, it has been shown that yeast cells respond with an increased growth rate to the attentions of spiritual healers when compared with the attention of those disinterested students. It has to be assumed that mice and yeast cells are incapable of imposing their own bias to the experiments! Inspired by his belief in faith's healing power, and by personal experience Harold G. Koenig has spent many years studying the impact of people's religious life on their physical and emotional health. He shows how prayer can very definitely help people come through serious afflictions and improve the outcome of many illnesses. He relates many such stories of hope and inspiration in The Healing Power of Faith, which he later followed up with The Healing Connection: The Story of a Physician's Search for the Link Between Faith and Health. Are all these studies bringing explanations to what humankind has known intuitively throughout his time on earth? That we are spiritual beings first and foremost, with empathic and spiritual interconnectivity at the level of consciousness? But we are allowing these wonderful possibilities to be crowded out by the superficial, the inane and the trivial in our lives. Facebook may be a valuable tool for human connectivity at an exoteric level, but it cannot surely provide any meaningful substitute for the esoteric spiritual experiences, within our 'deeper level of consciousness,' perhaps at the level of the Holy Spirit?

Adapted from Why Religions Work: God's Place in the World Today © Eleanor Stoneham 2012

Monday, 24 September 2012

From ghosties and ghoulies...and things that go bump in the night

"From ghosties and ghoulies and creepies and crawlies and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night ..." Good Lord deliver us.
Is this a Scottish traditional prayer, as some claim? Or Cornish, according to others? Or simply Celtic?
What are those "things that go bump in the night"?
Some have linked the prayer with Romans 8:38 in the Holy Bible: "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

I have recently come back from a conference, the third in the highly successful Body and Beyond series, organized by the Scientific and Medical Network to explore aspects of the subtle body; that is, that part of us beyond the physical body, our consciousness, or our soul, as indicated by different spiritual traditions and our own personal experiences.
Talking about psychic phenomena, about near death and out of body experiences, about ghosties and ghoulies, for example, seems to be a turnoff for many people. And of course for much the same reasoning, religion gets a tough time in this scientific era from those many who dismiss such notions as fairy tales, fabrics of the imagination which do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. But the fact is that science itself is quietly having a makeover, beyond the gaze of the general public. What do I mean?
Let's go back a bit to the story of Dean Radin, as related by Larry Dossey in an interview on premonitions some while back. Dean was brought up within an artistic family and wanted to be a concert violinist; so as a youngster he clocked up something like 10,000 hours of violin practice. And he is convinced that this early background encouraged his sense of the supernatural. Some will know what I mean when I say that great art, in this case the sublime sound of the violin skillfully played, puts us in touch, as very few things can, with the spirit within us, perhaps even with our soul. So it was with Radin, who changed his career path and became a highly trained scientist, in the fields of mathematics, physics and engineering. Radin has since become known for his pioneering work into the study of consciousness and in particular its ability to extend beyond the individual brain and body to envelop people at a distance, even outside the present moment. Of course the conventional view is that consciousness, whatever we understand by it, is confined to the individual, and dies with us, and Radin’s ideas seem crazy to many, but there is plenty of scientific evidence to the contrary, and this is just the kind of stuff that the Scientific and Medical Network discuss in depth and with scientific rigor at their meetings and conferences.
The fact is that experts in Near Death Experiences such as psychologist and medical doctor Raymond Moody (who coined the phrase) and neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, believe on evidence that consciousness does survive death. Larry Dossey, in Recovering the Soul: A Scientific and Spiritual Search, calls this consciousness ‘non-local’ and demonstrates it in non-local healing phenomena that 'appear almost always to involve consciousness: the empathic, loving intent of one individual to help another.’ The Institute of Noetic Sciences has conducted its own studies on distance healing and the relationship between consciousness and healing. 
We call these happenings psychic or psi phenomena. And these ideas are all coming from highly educated, highly intelligent and highly trained scientists. There are clearly links between us at some deep level in our consciousness otherwise psychic phenomena such as Near Death Experiences and distance healing would not be possible. But they are real; they do exist.
If there is so much scientific evidence for this idea of extended consciousness why are so many people so skeptical and why are so few scientists engaged in research in this field? Put bluntly, it is because this would be a bad career move! Science has its own ideas about what is publicly acceptable, and highly controversial topics attract the least funding. It’s really that simple. (Scientist Rupert Sheldrake did nothing for his own academic career at the time when he propounded his own theories of morphic resonance, although he's certainly made up for it since!) For much the same reason, unexpected or supposedly 'inexplicable' experimental results can be suppressed and never published. Few scientists can afford to put their livelihood on the line by going 'outside the box' in their research. Of course, as Radin himself admits, there is ample scope for scholarly debate about these topics, and not every informed scientist is going to reach the same conclusions. But, he writes, 'I've also learned that those who assert with great confidence that there isn't any scientifically valid evidence for psychic abilities just don't know what they're talking about. In addition, the rants one finds in various online 'skeptical' forums appear to be motivated by fundamentalist beliefs of the scientistic or religious kind, and not by a rational assessment of the relevant literature.'
So what does this have to do with prayer and religious mysticism?

I shall come back to that in my next post.

Article adapted from Why Religions Work: God's Place in the World Today © Eleanor Stoneham 2012

Monday, 3 September 2012

Founder of the Moonies dies

So The Revd Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, has died age 92, and his church mulls over its future direction. There has been lots of controversy surrounding The Revd Moon, his church and his Moony followers; charges that it is a dangerous cult, criticism of his mass wedding ceremonies, his own vast wealth and tax affairs that put him in prison for a spell. But in all the negative hype let's not forget that he also stood for tolerance between religions, something I wrote about in a blog a few months ago. This seems to have been forgotten amongst all the somewhat negative media reporting of his death.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Pussy Riot Uproar

Am I missing something? The world has gone into overdrive in protest about the sentences imposed on the members of Pussy Riot, turning the whole episode into an issue of free speech and Russian tyranny. But isn't the main point that they were sacrilegious and blasphemous - their act extremely offensive to the religious amongst us? They did after all stage this "punk prayer" against President Putin in front of the altar in Christ the Savior, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow? Is no one outraged about that?
They have said that their protest was against the endorsement of Putin by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who has since seemingly "forgiven" the group, and asked the authorities to show clemency to them. And they did apparently realise that their act would be deeply offensive to millions of Russian Orthodox worshippers. But did they realise how much further the shock waves would travel.
The subsequent world-wide media hype seems to have largely ignored, brushed aside, this religious aspect of what is admittedly a complex issue. 
This whole incident does though beg the question: What would have happened if, for whatever reason, the protests had been within a mosque?    

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Hooray - what a sense of relief as I touch the Enter key and my final manuscript has winged its way to the publisher. All those months of slog and research and writing. What a sense of satisfaction. I hope to now have time for my regular blogs again, that have been somewhat neglected of late. To my readers, Mea Culpa. But the garden is also beckoning me. It too has felt neglected! 
And of course the book work is not finished. Copy editing, cover design, text design, marketing, etc, in the months ahead, before the book hits the shelves.

Meanwhile...I say to all my readers - "let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to [one] another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill."

From A Common Word Between Us and You, an open letter to all leaders of the Christian churches and denominations worldwide, signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals, October 2007.

Monday, 16 April 2012

All Religions are True

"After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that (1) all religions are true; (2) all religions have some error in them; (3) all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, in as much as all human beings should be as dear to one as one's own close relatives. My own veneration for other faiths is the same as that for my own faith; therefore no thought of conversion is possible."

M. K. Gandhi

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Healing the Split 3

It is hard to disagree with the aims of any mysticism that calls for love and compassion in all we do, for unconditional forgiveness, and that understands our innate need to live in joy and peace, with total respect and love for all sentient beings. 

But this is the message of Jesus Christ. We don’t need another religion based on His teachings!

I've recently written of the philosophies of both Stuart Kauffman and Henryk Skolimowski. Now I come to modern mystic and visionary Andrew Harvey - who arrives from a different direction altogether with his ideas on psychic free radicals of collective unconscious, which he claims are penetrating our individual psychic fields. This clearly has some common features with what certain scientific studies now tell us about consciousness and psi. Harvey's book Sacred Activism is a call to bring consciousness of the sacred into everything we do, to be agents of profound change. Harvey lectures on his idea and has founded his Institute of Sacred Activism, from which he is setting up Networks of Grace and a Global Curriculum, extolling the virtues of his own particular brand of Divine Transformative Power and evolutionary mysticism.
Harvey shows a respect for the faiths and religious beliefs held by others, for the wisdom of elders and his love for Jesus Christ, the greatest love of his heart throughout his life, he claims. But this is the Jesus Christ of the Gospel of Thomas, and many may be unable to reconcile the Gnostic teachings of Christ with their own faith.
Nonetheless 'hope for our survival lies in massive spiritual transformation and radical action,' he writes, and I cannot disagree with that, although the reader will by now understand that I think this should be the domain of the established religions. After many years of study and immersing himself in different mystical traditions and their sacred texts, which he uses generously throughout his book, Harvey forms a vision of a new mystic spirituality.
The problem I have with Harvey and his Institute of Sacred Activism is that his ideas are already put into practice in churches everywhere;
the prayer, bible study Lent and other church based groups I attend seem very similar to his Networks of Grace by another name. In fact I am not sure that the world needs another spirituality or mysticism when most of his ideas can be found, albeit perhaps expressed differently, across all the great faiths, in the teachings of the mystics and in ancient wisdom, as he will know from his own spiritual explorations.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Healing the Split 2

The other day I looked at the ideas of Stuart Kauffman, American theoretical biologist and bio-complexity expert, calling for a new scientific worldview of God in his book Reinventing the Sacred.
The Polish Philosopher Henryk Skolimowski seeks different answers to the increasingly urgent call for a new worldview, for a revival of spirituality and transcendence, in another inspiring book Let there be Light.
Skolimowski’s philosophy is of cosmic creativity and evolution and light that unite us all as the source of all life. To understand the cosmos and its evolution and the part we play we must understand the nature of light, and its evolutionary role along the path to enlightenment. Skolimowski thinks of traditional religions and science as both having filters. In religion these prevent us experiencing the full spiritual transcendence needed for this world. Science also has its filters, becoming totally reductionist, and its rationality has become limiting and crippling. It has used Darwinian evolution as a hatchet against religion, but has never tried to understand religion and finds it hard to accept that there can be any theories of evolution beyond Darwin. And physics, he argues, makes preposterously arrogant assumptions about the laws of life. And he sees profanity in modern science and technology. He calls this 'mistletoe technology,' which he says is strangling the whole tree of life.
We are in the midst of a gigantic struggle between the old mechanistic consciousness and a new spiritually inclined consciousness, and the latter needs to assert itself. We have come to the point where we must choose madness or sanctity, and we have only been saved so far from madness by the great and beautiful art and music and literature, sacred and otherwise that is available to us. But much of our art is now ugly; perpetuating the ugliness we have created around us. And ugliness is carcinogenic. Without beauty we wither. Artists therefore have a responsibility in this. 'We can and must re-articulate human nature,' Skolimowski writes, 'away from the ugly and destructive; and towards beautiful, transcendent and noble.' Furthermore, 'the violence done to beauty has been violence done to our souls and lives…the loss of spirituality is one of the consequences.'
We need wisdom and an essential task before us is to nurture the seed of the spirit and the divine. Skolimowski therefore includes meditational practices of mind and body and light, to nurture our spiritual being. It is clear there is much wrong with our present social contract, and the need to design a new one is urgent. But this needs a leap of transcendence, which must be spiritual. Religions, he says, need a renewal at source. And unless we rise to that challenge to change ourselves, politicians and political scientists will continue in their old ways and the world will not heal. Because they will not change by themselves, conditioned as they are by the past and possessed by the 'collective un-wisdom of our time…The institutions only reflect who you are, including your indolence and lack of responsibility.'
This sets an important challenge for us all.

Friday, 23 March 2012

How to Heal the Split - New Philosophies for a New World

How do we heal the split, heal the schisms, between faith and reason, between science and arts, between reason and other sensibilities?
Philosophers will always want to challenge the status quo with new and sometimes exciting ideas, and creative thinking is going to be at its most astute and best when we seem under threat from forces that stretch our understanding, that are beyond our comfort zones.
And if the threat is serious, that is when humanity is steered most towards co-operative behavior and away from competition.
I hope that sooner rather than later enough people on this earth will truly take on board the enormity of the task ahead of us, that a sufficient critical mass will be achieved, to make a real difference to the way we live; so that all humanity, 7 billion now and rising, will have access to adequate food, water, healthcare, education, and justice for all. Could that happy state of affairs be in sight, with the help of the enormous strength of the world’s religions and with the genuine spirituality that they nurture, that could connect all people? Remember the awesome scale of religion across the world, which no amount of atheist campaigning is going to dent.
Let’s start with Stuart Kauffman, American theoretical biologist and bio-complexity expert, calling for a new scientific worldview of God in Reinventing the Sacred.
He proposes that we are all members of a natural universe of 'ceaseless creativity, in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness and the full richness of human action have emerged.' He describes this concept as awesome, stunning and worthy of reverence, something we can all view as sacred. He believes, from the evidence of the origins of life in the universe, that we do not need a creator God. (But what about the origin of the universe itself?) Instead he calls for one global view of a common God as being the natural creativity itself in the universe. Kauffman’s vision is that by harnessing our personal and collective responsibilities we have the wisdom, ability and knowledge to develop a new global ethics, and steer our evolution forwards through his proposed 'reinvention' of the sacred.
Kauffman describes four injuries of the modern world; the artificial division between the sciences and humanities, the need for more value and meaning in our lives, the need for spirituality for all, atheists, humanists, agnostics as well as those of faith, and finally the need for a global ethic. He believes that his ideas, based as they are on a broader scientific world-view than current conventional science, may provide a shared religious and spiritual space for us all, within which he hopes we can heal those injuries.
Kaufman offers ideas for a future evolution steered by us for a safer and better global place to live, aiming to address the schisms set out above. It is time, he writes, to 'heal the split,' for the sake of our world. He is absolutely right. But he can also be controversial and provocative, and as a Christian who believes in an Abrahamic Creator God I cannot agree with all he writes But it’s a jolly good idea nonetheless! And I have a respect for his beliefs and ideas.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Where the Blazes does Dawkins' love of the universe come from?

Have found a lovely clip on You Tube - Archbishop Rowan Williams was asked: If you could ask Dawkins one question what would it be?

The response:
In one of his books, Dawkins describes, as he is so good at doing,  the excitement of seeing the complexity and loveliness and interaction of the universe. "Richard, you're not just describing the wonders of the universe, you're in love with it.
Where the blazes does that come from?"

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Whose Grand Design is it?

Stephen Hawking at the beginning of his latest runaway bestseller The Grand Design begins by asking the big questions:-
How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Does the universe need a creator?
These traditionally have been questions for philosophy, he writes, but in the next breath he totally dismisses that philosophy. Philosophy is dead, he claims! "It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." But as John Lennox points out in his wonderful little book God and Stephen Hawking, recently mentioned elsewhere on this blog, "Hawking …has not even kept up with philosophy sufficiently to realize that he himself is engaging in it throughout his book." As Lennox points out, Hawking has thus made a philosophical statement himself. Here is a metaphysical statement about science; it is, as Lennox points out, "a classic example of logical incoherence."

I wonder if Hawking has read Lennox yet and will reply to him?
But here we go again; book after book after book making claims as to whether or not God exists. We simply don't have time on our side to argue the point, fascinating as this is intellectually. The New Atheists are getting more strident in their claims as they feel their position increasingly threatened. And for what purpose? Religions are here to stay whether we like it or not. We should be using our energy to work out how we can get religions to work together for peaceful causes, not arguing to abolish them, as if that were at all possible.

We have just lost a great philosopher of religion; again see my earlier blog this week. The Reverend Professor John Hick, who died in February, did much to formulate a pluralistic approach to religions, provocative indeed, but nonetheless a powerful antidote to the religious fundamentalists of all persuasion.

In a recent dialogue between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins in Oxford, when Williams raised the question of consciousness, Dawkins said yes, here is a deeply mysterious problem for science to solve in future - neuro and computer science will solve this, he claims, given time. Meanwhile if we are honest we must remain agnostic, he says, and not jump to a God for the answer.

In response to this I refer to Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar, cited by Lennox in his own book mentioned above, the quote taken from Medawar's 1979 book "Advice to a Young Scientist":

"There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare - particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for - that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking…" Has Richard Dawkins read Medawar? It seems not.

This hour- long debate between Williams and Dawkins is well worth listening to. In it Dawkins admits to being agnostic rather than atheist. A 'U Turn' perhaps Mr Dawkins? He also admits "Well I'm not a philosopher and that will be obvious…" That's simply not good enough Mr Dawkins in a debate where philosophy is so important and where conventional science as we know it today does not really look as if it is going to provide all the answers.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Why many religions can claim one God

I believe there is great potential for finding common ground between all spiritualities, all religions, all people, in the quest for something beyond definition, perhaps what we mean by the Holy Spirit, or the Transcendent, a true spiritual oneness of humanity, a global spiritual interdependence available to everyone, whether or not we believe in God the Creator of all things visible and invisible.
Will this help us address our religious intolerances and divides? I think it could. If we can truly promote a global spiritual awakening this gives us great hope for human flourishing. How do we do this?
Yesterday I wrote of Lennox and Hawking and whether God exists.
Again by happy perchance, on the same day as I bought The God Issue of The New Scientist I picked up a copy of The Times. Now this was a Friday, and I only ever buy a paper on Saturday - mainly for the radio and TV listings for the week ahead!
But here in the Friday Times for March 16th 2012 was the obituary for The Rev Professor John Hick.
This February, with the death of John Hick at the age of 90, we lost one of our greatest and most influential philosophers of religion. His pluralist approach proved provocative, particularly amongst Christian fundamentalists in the States, where over the years he held several teaching posts. He believed in an ultimate ineffable Real, (his generic term for Transcendent Reality) whose universal presence could be felt in a variety of ways, making sense of the variety of forms of religion that have developed around the world. He held that Truth claims about God are really Truth claims about perceptions of God, affected by specific cultures and histories, leading to the claims made by different religions, none of which can therefore claim to know the Absolute Truth. This hits at the heart of the exclusivity of Christianity.
But I think I agree with Hick's point.
It seems to be such a blindingly obvious idea, but isn’t it just possible that when we have our spiritual experiences we are all tapping into the same spirit, higher level of consciousness, transcendence, whatever we may choose to call it? Why then can we not use this spirituality as the common thread that binds and unites all religions? Because, after all, this indefinable global consciousness, soul, spirit, empathy is presumably of the same character whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jains, atheists, agnostics, black, white, Scottish or Zulu or whatever our faith, color or culture?
John Hick clearly thought as much.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Religions wither under rational scrutiny?

How can people be so certain? 
We simply do not know what we do not know.

The latest edition of New Scientist looked interesting. So I picked up a copy. The God Issue, it loudly proclaimed on its cover. Sounded promising. But right there in the Editorial came the totally biased statement: "Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. (Here) is a call for those who aspire to a secular society…(to make more)… effort to understand what they are dealing with…(that)…religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle."
Here we go again - a totally biased diatribe against religion, even going so far as trying to provide the secularist with ammunition for more effective attack! At least the editor goes a stage further than Richard Dawkins, whose favourite line of attack seems to be the "ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity" angle.
By happy circumstance I was reading at the same time a wonderful little book I had picked up the day before at Burrswood * by mathematician, philosopher and proud to be Christian John Lennox, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design is it Anyway? This is a simply brilliant response to Hawking's latest contribution to the New Atheist debate The Grand Design, and frankly by using latest science and philosophy it shoots Hawking's ideas down relentlessly and extremely convincingly. Slim, inexpensive and totally accessible to the layman, this is Lennox at his best and I thoroughly recommend it.

*A Christian hospital and place of healing - where the photos were taken.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

"Everything now depends on man…Immense power of destruction is given into his hands, and the question is whether he can resist the will to use it, and can temper his will with the spirit of love and wisdom. He will hardly be able to do so on his own resources. He needs the help of an ‘advocate’ in heaven."

The Collected Works of C G Jung, vol. 11 1969, p. 459

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The need to foster wisdom above knowledge

In Plato’s Phaedrus, the 'father of letters' Thoth comes to tell the Egyptian King Thutmose about his new invention, the art of writing. This will help the Egyptians remember things, and will make them wise, he said. But Thutmose was not impressed. 'This will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,' he said, 'because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing.'

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Religions share a common spirituality?

Does spirituality have its roots in religion? Or is religion a subsection of a vaster overarching spirituality? Some claim the human phenomenon of spirituality to be more basic, to have preceded religion. But religion itself is very old. How are they linked? It seems like a chicken and egg situation. But it does seem probable that religion developed to meet man’s earliest spiritual need. This makes sense if we think of religion as being there first and foremost to nourish spiritual growth. (And I use the male term deliberately; since it was relatively recently in humanity’s history that woman was generally deemed to be capable of spiritual experience. Indeed even now her religious and spiritual needs and expressions are marginalized in some cultures). Thus spirituality may be seen as the more general term, including religion, and being a core aspect of religion. Although this does not deny that there are 'spiritual but not religious' individuals or that extrinsically religious people may not be especially 'spiritual.'
So we see that the relationship between religion and spirituality is far from cut and dried and to some extent it is controversial. Spirituality is a rapidly developing subject for academic study in many universities and there is a vast growth in literature, and conferences to explore the issues and to encourage dialogue about spirituality with different faiths. (One useful resource here is the international Journal for the Study of Spirituality, first published in 2011.)
I have thought a great deal about this and am persuaded that true spirituality and religion are so closely associated that they cannot be truly separated. Whatever we think we mean by both phenomena, it is probably unhelpful to separate them too sharply, at least at this stage in our level of understanding. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin, in some kind of symbiosis? Someone has said that spirituality is 'the way we hold the what of our faith' and that spiritual care is best coming from within religious tradition and cannot be generic. Indeed, generic spirituality has been dubbed a kind of 'spiritual Esperanto' in an essay called Dumbing Down the Spirit, by the pastoral theologian Stephen Pattison. Pattison warns that the ability of the religious traditions to contribute to the current search for spirituality is being weakened by this more generalized spiritual quest. This is good enough reason for the religions to change, and fast!
How do we address our spiritual crisis and recover our souls? Ursula King writes that the solution is to be found in our rich heritage of the world’s spiritualities. If we link spirituality in any way with religion, (and how can we not?) then this quest also has to be extended to our rich heritage of the world’s religions. They can help, they must help, and they are helping in this journey of rediscovery!! Therefore don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, the religion with the dogma! We need religions! This is unlikely to please those who proudly proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. I believe there is an urgent need for religions to redefine their role, to embrace the spiritual more obviously and more openly: for religion to return more fully to its spiritual roots.
I also believe there is great potential for finding common ground between all spiritualities, all religions, all people, in the quest for something beyond definition, perhaps what we mean by the Holy Spirit, or the Transcendent, a true spiritual oneness of humanity, a global spiritual interdependence available to everyone, whether or not we believe in God the Creator of all things visible and invisible.
Will this help us address our religious intolerances and divides? I think it could do. If we can truly promote a global spiritual awakening this gives us greater hope for human flourishing. How do we do this?

Monday, 27 February 2012

Green Pilgrimages

The ancient settlement of Luss sits on the beautiful banks of Loch Lomond within Scotland' s first national park, the Trossachs. Luss has been a place of Christian pilgrimage for one thousand five hundred years. St Kessog preached here and died at the hands of Druids in the year 510. Luss has become part of the Green Pilgrimage Network, a major new global initiative launched in Assisi in November 2011 that will address the huge environmental impact of the many pilgrimages to various sacred sites and holy cities across the world, involving millions of pilgrim journeys each year. As part of the same project a Green Hajj Guide has been produced, aimed at the two million Muslim pilgrims who visit Mecca (Makkah) in Saudi Arabia each year for the Hajj, the biggest annual pilgrimage in the world.

These are just two stories taken from one of many positive religious projects that have been launched and are supported by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). This is a secular organization, founded in 1995 by The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh. The ARC has a vision ‘of people, through their beliefs, treading more gently upon the earth,’ and a twofold strategy ‘to help faiths realize their potential to be proactive on environmental issues and to help secular groups recognize this and become active partners.' The real catalyst for change came when each religion or faith involved in the initial discussions was asked to prepare a statement explaining their place in the context of creation and ecology. An initial meeting developed into a worldwide network of faith groups working on ecological and development issues and by the time the ARC was formally launched at Windsor Castle in 1995 there were nine religions involved and thousands of environmental projects in hand, initiating much extremely valuable and far reaching conservation work. Now it is a well established organisation.
All our great religions are doing tremendous work, often in collaboration or cooperation with others, towards ensuring the earth’s future protection, through the work of umbrella organizations such as the ARC and The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology that I wrote about in my last post.

What wonderful opportunities such organizations provide for building bridges of understanding, co-operation and respect between religions of many different faiths and creeds.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Spirit in Nature Interfaith Paths

At the end of a rutted dirt road near the small town of Ripton in Addison County, Vermont, on the western slopes of the Green Mountains, a labyrinth of footpaths weaves between the trees and alongside the streams within peaceful and unspoiled woodland. Each path is dedicated to one of the world's religions or spiritualities, and has texts along the way to help the walker connect between the sacred and the natural world. The mission of these Spirit in Nature Interfaith Paths is to provide 'a place of interconnecting paths where people of diverse spiritual traditions may walk, worship, meet, meditate, and promote education and action toward better stewardship of this sacred earth.' There is a sacred circle where the paths all meet, emphasizing the interconnections between the different religions, and between man and his environment.

I think that is such a lovely idea. It is such a lovely metaphor for the common ground that can be found in all the great religions and philosophies - and perhaps even the same Truth that we all seek? There are other similar pathways at a few other sites in the USA but it's a wonderful idea that could be copied across the world.

I found the details of this project amongst many other interfaith initiatives on the website of The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, a brilliant place for browsing for environmental stories linked with faith. The Forum is one of the largest international multireligious projects of its kind and serves to broaden the understanding of the many complex issues involved in today's environmental concerns within a religious and multidisciplinary context that Yale can most effectively provide.

The photos by the way are of the very lovely Dartington Hall gardens near Totnes in Devon

Sunday, 19 February 2012

In the matter of religion,
people eagerly fasten their eyes
on the difference between their own creed and yours;
whilst the charm of the study is in finding the agreements
and identities in all the religions of humanity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, 17 February 2012

“I believe in the fundamental Truth of all great religions of the world. I believe they are all God given and I believe they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at the bottom all one and were all helpful to one another."

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Faith Schools

The world’s religions have an enormous influence in education, involved in the running and support of more than 50% of the world’s schools. Through such schools and also via various relief and aid organizations they play an essential role in tackling female illiteracy and population issues, and providing health education and services.
In America such parochial schools, as they are usually known, are mostly Catholic, and have faced dwindling numbers and threats of closure. Why is this, because in the UK the situation is quite different? The UK 'faith schools' tend to be very popular amongst parents, not necessarily for the implied teaching of a particular faith, but for the values that they teach. Indeed our own local Anglican Church school has been turning children away for lack of space and is now busy finding that extra space to accommodate two further classes. Soon there will not be enough room in church to accommodate all the children and their parents and guardians at the regular services held for them.
As far as I can tell the value of American parochial schools is also recognized beyond simply the teaching of faith. So why do such schools struggle when in the UK their future seems so secure?
And are we dangerously brainwashing impressionable young children?
That rather depends on how the children are taught. It is vitally important to teach them from an early age about the world’s different religions, but emphasis should be placed on the many features common to them all, so that these can be appreciated and celebrated whilst helping the children to understand and respect the smaller number of differences.
I would add that most important of all is the need to nurture the spirituality within these children so that they grow in spiritual as well as religious literacy.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Doing God - Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science part 1

Well well the latest Mori poll commissioned by Richard Dawkins for his Foundation for Reason and Science has created quite a stir. Of course the whole purpose behind what he is doing is to trash religion in all its guises - his militant fundamentalist mission- not just in his native UK but across the world - but here he is specifically attacking the idea that Britain is a Christian country because he doesn't like the idea of faith schools, bishops in the House of Lords, and presumably prayers at public meetings, etc etc. These latest polls (there are two actually) prove, he says, that we are not a Christian country, so we should just stop pretending that we are - and he is visibly crowing from the rooftops.
In typical Dawkins' style he accentuates the bits he wants to, and in places as usual demonstrates a complete lack of understanding where religion and faith are concerned.

For today I just want to take one of the poll results:

Out of the 1136 people interviewed - (not a huge sample - I wonder how they were selected) - who say they were listed as Christian in the 2011 Census (or who would have been if they had answered the question for themselves), the poll found that more Christians oppose (38%) than support (31%) the teaching of 6-day creationism in state-funded school science lessons. (What's the problem anyway if it is just taught as one possible idea with all the pros and cons set out?) What is Dawkins trying to prove here? That we don't know our own faith?
Now one of the refreshing things about Christians and Christianity is that we are humble enough to admit that very often we simply do not know, we do not have all the answers.
Why is Christianity threatened by this particular item in the poll? Goodness knows. Why include the question? Because this is one of Dawkins' favourite themes for ridiculing all matters religious, as if each and everyone of us, if we believe in God at all, has to accept Creationism.
Actually, something like 6 out of every 10 people in America do not believe in the literal translation of the Genesis creation in the Old Testament either but that doesn't make them all atheists. The scientific evidence for evolution by natural selection is overwhelming, and now genetic science and molecular biology strengthen the case, but that doesn't prevent us believing in God, and it is not a reason for Dawkins gloating.
Although I might share his alarm that in spite of the now incontestable evidence otherwise, the other 4 out of every 10 Americans do presumably believe in Creationism.

In 2011 there was dissent and fury amongst American Creationist Christians. Professor John Schneider was forced to retire from Calvin College in Michigan, a Christian university, because he suggested that it was becoming ever harder to believe literally in Adam and Eve, and the concept of Original Sin and the Garden of Eden.
The atheists and the media, anxious to illustrate the continuing stupidity of so many Christians who won’t allow men such as Schneider to honestly develop their thoughts and speak their minds without sacrificing their careers, pounce upon stories such as this.
But we would do well to remember that the original 1920’s Creationism was simply anti-Darwin and ran out of steam with the death of William Bryan, the movement’s passionate campaigner. Then in the 1960’s a new variant was born, within the Young Earth Creationists, who teach that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that all things were made by God in six literal 24-hour days.  
That is sad, because it is this movement that gives so much fuel to the angry atheists, who then tar all Christians with the same brush. The atheists cannot believe the supposed ignorance of the followers of a faith based as they see it on fairy tales and myths. Which in itself ignores the provenance of many of the sacred texts. 

What is interesting is that Darwin himself, always thoughtful about the possible problems with his theory of evolution by natural selection, was nonetheless clear that it did not make atheism inevitable. “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist,” he wrote towards the end of his life.(1) He was never an atheist himself, going from Christianity to theism to agnosticism during his lifetime. But he was always courteous and respectful to anyone who disagreed with his views, willing always to listen openly to other ideas. Now we could do with much more of that kind of dialogue, sadly missing in many of our debates and conversations today. 

(1) see Spencer, Nick and Alexander, Denis, Rescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain Today, Theos, London, 2009), an excellent little book that explains clearly and succinctly why evolution is wholly compatible with a religious understanding of the universe.

The beautiful cathedral is at Exeter

Thursday, 2 February 2012

World Interfaith Harmony Week

It doesn't seem possible that a whole year has gone by but here we are again in the first week in February which every year is World Interfaith Harmony Week. This is based on the pioneering work of the Common Word Initiative, which all began in 2007 and which
I wrote about at some length on 3rd and 5th December last year.
Relationships between the Muslim and Christian worlds are undoubtedly of the greatest importance in forging a more peaceable future for us all, given the sheer numbers involved, and the grievances, differences, prejudices, and caricatures forged out of misunderstandings, that both religions can claim. 
That is why this initiative is so important. We must all hope that the momentum of A Common Word is maintained and that the movement continues to fulfil its promise of ever more understanding and respect between these two great religions. 
So let's all recognise and support World Interfaith Harmony Week and A Common Word. 
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation  is celebrating the week by " showcasing personal stories of interfaith encounter – of people from diverse faiths living and working together, and learning from one another...These stories of "My Friend of a Different Faith" can come from anyone & anywhere in the world. We want to provide the world with powerful real-life snapshots of what religion, faith and belief systems really look like - behind the headlines."
Now that's a great idea - let's all put our thinking caps on and contribute using the link to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation site.  It doesn't matter where we are in the world, I'm sure we all have stories to share.

Friday, 27 January 2012

What do we mean by tolerance?

Here's a story:
If someone is making what I consider to be a huge din next door, playing loud pop “music” that I find disturbing, I may put up with it or I may bang on the wall between us, ask him to turn it down. I am tolerating his noise, or perhaps not. And that is what tolerance is; putting up with something. But supposing he wasn’t really playing his music that loud; just that I prefer Mozart and find that his type of music doesn’t speak to me in the same way. How is he to know that? So I go next door and speak with him. Suppose I tried to understand why he enjoys what to me is anathema. Suppose he comes to understand that I am writing, and there are times when I need quiet for concentration and for thinking. And let’s suppose that through dialogue we can come to a mutual accommodation. He’ll try to turn his music down on the days and times when he knows I am working at my laptop, perhaps close his window. I may never appreciate his musical taste, but I can respect it. I now know that this is his type of release when he gets home from work, an essential part of him “winding-down.” Of course none of us should have to tolerate antisocial behaviour within the norms of society, and neither of us intended to be anti-social! But I’ve discovered through dialogue that he’s not too keen on my bonfires either, because they don’t help his asthma. And we have built up a mutual respect through the dialogue we had, because actually now I know him better he’s a pleasant guy – I’d been a little nervous about him before we talked - and I’ve found we do share a passion for growing our own vegetables and for reading books on spirituality! Respect and understanding achieved through dialogue is much more powerful than mere tolerance.

The Dalai Lama once suggested to a multifaith audience that they should go on pilgrimages with each other, to each other’s holy sites, where they should pray together or at least meditate together. “This is a very effective way to understand the value and power of other religious traditions,” he said.

Gustav Niebuhr, great nephew of Reinhold 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 agrees that we need more than mere tolerance; we need a more committed effort to really get to know and respect our religious differences, he writes, 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.

So isn’t it just a little demeaning to talk of religious tolerance? Tolerance will never be the full answer. We should be talking in terms of respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation. Mere tolerance is simply not enough.

And that respect and understanding is only going to come from dialogue between faiths.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

“Why may we not suppose that the great Father of all is pleased with a variety of devotion?” 
Thomas Paine

Thursday, 19 January 2012

One should not injure, subjugate, enslave, torture, or kill any animal, living being, organism, or sentient being. This doctrine of nonviolence is immaculate, immutable, and eternal. Just as suffering is painful to you, in the same way it is painful, disquieting, and terrifying to all animals, living beings, organisms, and sentient beings

Jainism. Acarangasutra 4.25-26
One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should try it on himself first to feel how it hurts

Yoruba proverb, Nigeria

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Those who praise their own doctrines and disparage the doctrines of others do not solve any problem

Jainism Sutrakritanga 1. 1.50

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent


Friday, 13 January 2012

After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination

Sir Anthony John Patrick Kenny
Fellow of the British Academy


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

I only know that I know nothing


Sunday, 8 January 2012

Few things are likely to be more important...

“...for the twenty-first century than wise faith among the world's religious communities. That calls for fuller understanding, better education, and a commitment to the flourishing of our whole planet.”

Professor David F. Ford

Friday, 6 January 2012

The most beautiful thing...

“...we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

When I worship or pray...

“...let me do so to God, never to “my” God…”
P. D. Mehta, The Heart of Religion, Element Books Ltd., (Shaftesbury Dorset, 1987), p. 261.