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, 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.