Monday, January 25, 2010

Pray For Christian Unity

That is what I saw on a sign in front of the United Methodist Church on Old Country Road in Hicksville as I drove past it last Saturday night.

From my atheist perspective, I couldn't help but think "Wouldn't it be better if we worked towards the unity of all humanity?" Of course, by that, I don't mean that we all become part of some Borg collective with identical thoughts and aims. Rather, for me, the best we can aspire to is a unity that embraces pluralism.

As for the idea of Christian unity. Yeah, sure, why not? However, I would miss not reading stories like this one anymore.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Help For Haiti

More reports are coming in now from Haiti, where a 7.0 magnitude earthquake has devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince. A few examples below from this BBC article suggest the level of destruction there:

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told US network CNN he believed more than 100,000 people had died.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the head of the UN mission in Haiti and his deputy were among more than 100 staff missing.

The Brazilian army said 11 of its peacekeepers had been killed and a large number were missing.

A spokesman for medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) said it was able only to offer basic care to the "massive influx" of survivors seeking help because all its buildings had been destroyed.

I cited the examples above because they demonstrate that not only has this earthquake been devastating to the Haitian people, it has also caused tremendous damage to the infrastructure of international organizations already in Haiti who have been providing aid.

Needless to say, this is a terrible tragedy and the Haitian people and the relief services they rely upon are going to need help. For anyone who can and wishes to make a donation, below are links to the donation pages for several organizations for donating specifically to help fund Haitian relief campaigns:

Catholic Relief Services


International Committe for the Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders

Sunday, January 10, 2010

UPDATED: Reason No. 1,148 Why Malaysian Muslim Extremists Suck - ALLAH! ALLAH! ALLAH!

To me, one of the criteria for measuring a nation's decency is in how its religious majority treats its religious minorities. And in recent days, the Muslim majority nation of Malaysia has been failing that test.

It seems that a segment of the Muslim population objects to the use by Malaysian Christians of the word Allah as their name for god. To its credit, a Malaysian court had overturned a government ban on non-Muslim groups using the word Allah in their literature. So how did some passionate members of the Religion of Peace react to the ruling? Why, by throwing petrol bombs at Christian churches and committing other acts of vandalism such as smashing the windshields of cars that had Christian symbols in them.

It is my understanding that the use of Allah by non-Muslims is not unique to Malaysia. For example, Coptic Christians in Egypt also use Allah, given that they live in an Arab country.

Anyway, the people of Malaysia should really be embarrassed that this kind of nonsense goes on in their country. If this keeps up, I might feel obliged to go out and buy a pig and name him Allah and post pictures of him on the web. Then again, it might be cheaper and easier if I just pick out a stock photo of a pig and caption it "My pig Allah."


The above is a perfect example of a kneejerk rant rather than a planned post. That's what I get for clicking on Al Jazeera before going to bed.

For a more thoughtful take on the matter from a Malaysian woman with a Muslim background, I highly recommend this post here.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

He Truly Had A Dizzying Intellect

I have been reading the works of Augustine lately, and when I was reading a passage in his Confessions a couple of months ago where he is going off about the origin of time, I couldn't help but think of that line in The Princess Bride where Wesley, disguised as the Dread Pirate Roberts, tells Vizzini "You truly have a dizzying intellect."

So, why is an atheist reading Augustine? Well, part of it is just to read the case put forth for Christianity by an intelligent and well educated man who lived during the period when paganism was being eclipsed by the Christian faith in the late fourth to early fifth centuries in the Western half of the Roman Empire. But on another level, reading his works, particularly his City of God, which I am in the middle of right now, allows the reader to immerse oneself in the mental universe of an intellectual who lived some 1,600 years ago. To read him is to know what he knew about the world he lived in and how he interpreted and explained it, while knowing the future that he did not.

Augustine wrote City of God as a response to pagans who alleged that the sack of Rome by the Goths in the year 410 was a consequence of the Christianization of the empire and the abandonment of the pagan gods. While I agree with Augustine that Christianity was not to blame for the decline and fall of the empire in the West (after all, why did the Christian Empire in the East continue to endure for centuries longer?), could Augustine have anticipated that his dying days would witness barbarian tribes laying siege to his home city of Hippo in North Africa? Even more, while confidently asserting the inevitable spread and triumph of Christianity, I doubt Augustine could ever have imagined that little more than two centuries after his death, a new religion would burst forth from the deserts of Arabia to spread to his homeland, where it retains its grip to this very day.

I hope to write some more posts in the coming days on City of God as I continue to read it (and assuming I can get another extension from my local library!) as Augustine covers a range of topics and even addresses a lot of questions I have had about Biblical interpretation. I am about halfway through the 550 page paperback copy I have on loan from the library. And to think that at 550 pages, this is just an abridged version! While Augustine is an accessible and readable writer, he is not the sort whose works one can just breeze through. I often find myself reading about 5 or 10 pages at a time, usually while on the train ride to and from work, before I pause to contemplate and digest what I have read. Knowing me, I will probably just end up buying my own copy from the book store to add to my personal library.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Saving Tiger Woods

Hat tip to Crooks and Liars for bringing attention to remarks recently made by Brit Hume of Fox "News" about the Tiger Woods scandal.

The extent to which [Woods] can recover seems to me depends on his faith," said Hume. "He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of redemption and forgiveness offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger is, 'Tiger turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

Hume is not alone in offering such advice to the disgraced golfer. I ended up on the e-mail address list of some right-wing Christian whack job from Washington state named Ron Boehme, and one of his recent missives was in the form of an open letter to Tiger Woods. Among the choice quotes from Boehme's appeal:

"Tiger, the only person who has the power to forgive and transform your life is Jesus Christ. Not Mohammed, Confucius, Buddha or Mother Earth."

"Tiger, Jesus died on a cross in your place to save you from the many sins you've committed. He did that for us all. Believe in God's love and forgiveness through Jesus and you will be saved, forgiven, and become a new person. It's happened to millions of us, It can happen to you."

"Want to change your present circumstances? Want to silence the tabloids and paparazzi? "If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Give them nothing to write about except a forgiven, changed, godly life."

Time will tell if Tiger Woods will take the advice offered to him by Hume and Boehme. It wouldn't surprise me all that much if he did. It has become a form of kabuki theater here in America in recent years. A politician, celebrity or other public figure commits a transgression in the eyes of the public and inevitably they try to restore their good standing by claiming to have found or rediscovered Jesus. Whether or not the conversion is sincere we rarely ever know. What does matter is that in a nation that is majority Christian, such a show is ultimately put on because it is a performance that is calculated to win the acceptance of the public.

So, for the Hume, Boehme and their ilk, Tiger Woods ultimately has to make a public show of becoming a Christian because that is the only way they can bring themselves to accept him as a person of good standing.

I find it interesting that Hume and Boehme claim that Buddhism, for example, cannot offer redemption and forgiveness. As someone who once considered embracing Buddhism years ago and who did absorb some of its teachings, I have to disagree vehemently. One of the core messages of Buddhism is that it is our attachment to material things that causes us unhappiness. Tiger Woods damaged his life because he thought sleeping with lots of women while married would bring him happiness and excitement. Buddhism teaches that he, as well as all of us, should shun such things because such activities ultimately cause us misery.

As for forgiveness, one of the most important persons we can obtain forgiveness from is not some invisible sky daddy, but rather ourselves. Forgiveness of self comes from understanding what we did wrong, why it was wrong, recognizing the mental state that drove us to commit the act, and learning that we must change our mental state to ensure that it does not happen again. Then there is the seeking of forgiveness from the person or persons that we wronged.

Being an atheist, I think I can say truthfully that I am a much more inclusive person than the likes of Hume and Boehme. Tiger Woods does not need my forgiveness. But I recognize that he does need to make some public act of contrition and to make amends to his wife and her family for the tremendous embarrasment he caused them. It doesn't matter to me whether he does it as a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or secular humanist. Then let him get back to the business of playing golf again, hopefully as a humbler and wiser man.