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Making the Internet Moral

stateofformation.orgby Chris Stedman

from the Washington Post

Is the Internet destroying our morals?

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning that the Internet was “numbing” young people and creating an “educational emergency – a challenge that we can and must respond to with creative intelligence.”

Speaking at a Vatican conference on culture, Benedict also expressed concern that “a large number of young people” are “establish[ing] forms of communication that do not increase humaneness but instead risk increasing a sense of solitude and disorientation.”

Benedict’s comments created an uproar, but he has a point. Studies show that Internet addiction is linked to depression; in 2007, the comedy website Cracked offered a surprisingly moving take on this phenomenon titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.”

It’s tempting, knowing this, to suggest that we all take a step away from our keyboards, turn off our computers, and go find a field to frolic in.

As much as I love the instant gratification of being able to download the latest Kanye West album the moment it is released and being able to stay connected to my family back in Minnesota through Facebook, I also know that the Internet has created a new kind of culture in which the rules of engagement have shifted dramatically. The rise of cyberbullying in recent years demonstrates that our more-connected world comes with new moral and ethical questions that we must respond to with creativity and acumen.

As we saw with “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” culture wars are born online. But I also believe that the Internet has created opportunities to open channels of dialogue that were, previous to now, next to impossible. Where culture wars are born, so too can we build bridges.

With this conviction, I am excited by the launch of State of Formation, a new online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders from around the world, founded by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and run in partnership with Hebrew College, Andover Newton and collaboration with Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Click here to read the entire article

When God enters the voting booth

From The Washington Post

Aside from the obvious jokes about how crowded it can get when God joins us in the voting booth, many religious people bring their faith with them when they cast their ballots. In fact, how could it be otherwise? Voting shapes the culture and society in which we live. For people whose religious beliefs are not simply about personal salvation or getting into heaven, but actually have aspirations for how life in the here and now is shaped, turning toward their chosen tradition is a given, as it should be.

Religion is not something we check at the voting booth door and it would be oddly oppressive to ask people of faith to do so. What is not oppressive is insisting that those same religious people not demand that all people follow their chosen faith.

Click here to read the entire article.

November 2nd, 2010 at 4:00 pm

God and Google

From The Washington Post

By Brad Hirschfield

Like pretty much everything else, God can be found on Google. And this week, with the help of Google Street View, you don’t even have to search for images of the Divine to find you.

This image, captured by the Street View feature of ubiquitous searcher (a fact about Google which may hint at the search engine itself is increasingly God-like, if not actually God) has been interpreted by thousands as a glimpse of God captured on camera. Of course others have suggested that it is more likely bird poop on the camera lens. Whatever it is, there is a lesson here in when and why we see/think we see God.

It comes down to admitting that we all find the God or no-God for which we are looking. There is proof of either the existence or the non-existence of God. Their constant debating to the contrary, that is something upon which both deep believers and ardent atheists ought to agree.

When believers in the infinite insist that there are scientific proofs for the existence of the God in whom they believe, they are reducing the object of their faith to something whose existence can also be disproved. Is that really what they want? Is the God in whom they believe really so small as to be disproved? Maybe, but that’s no god worthy of one’s faith.

Click here to read the entire article.

October 25th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

What not to wear: outlawing the face veil

From The Washington Post

Two weeks ago the French Senate passed a piece of legislation 246 votes to one to outlaw the face veil worn by a small number of the country’s Muslim women, with President Nicolas Sarkozy stating, in no uncertain terms, that the face veil is “not welcome” in France.

The law follows at the heels of the Belgian parliament’s ban on the full face veil–known as the burqa or niqab–in public places. “It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual,” said Daniel Bacquelaine, who proposed the bill, adding that he was not targeting the classic headscarf worn by many Muslim women. “Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society,” he declared to the press.

Although the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights can challenge such a ban as a violation of international human rights laws, Italy and the Netherlands have not been dissuaded from considering joining the fray. The hostility towards Muslims, in particular Muslim women and their garb, appears ubiquitous in Europe these days and can only be described as a step backwards for Western society.

Click here to read the entire article.

October 9th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Knowing God vs. Knowing About God

From The Washington Post

Is knowledge of religion important? Why?

The Pew poll of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics scored ever-so-slightly higher than Jews and Mormons demonstrates at least four significant facts about what we know and why we know it. Appreciating these facts would go a long way toward ending the ugly fighting between theists and atheists. Of course they would need to want to stop their mutual mistreatment and disrespect for that to happen, but that is a different matter altogether.

First, Knowing God is different than Knowing about God and knowing about religion should not be confused with following a particular faith. That atheists and agnostics (why they are lumped together is a question for another time) scored highest is actually not that surprising. In fact, one might assume that knowing about religion plays a similar role in the lives of atheists/agnostics as does having religious experience does in the lives of believers – each is a source of personal identity.

Click here to read entire article.

Malaysia’s Cool Imam

From The Washington Post

By Katherine Marshall

When South Africa was emerging from the dark shadows of the apartheid era, Malaysia was one place it looked for successful examples of how to address the difficult legacy of racial inequality. Malaysia’s Malay citizens (about 60 percent of the total) lagged behind other groups and helping them to “catch up” was a deliberate government policy.

Malaysia is justly proud of its record in managing what at one time threatened to be a conflict-ridden transition. It also takes pride in its distinctive Muslim culture and in the way its religious and ethnic diversity works in a fast-changing society. But behind Malaysia’s new prosperity, seen in glittering skyscrapers and tangles of freeways, there are lively debates about what lies ahead.

Malaysia’s challenges involve above all its diverse ethnic, religious and economic identities, and today’s debates turn on how the three are intertwined. By constitution, Malaysia is a Muslim nation and its population is majority Muslim. Malays and Islam are tightly linked. That translates, among other things, into legal tussles over whether one can renounce being a Muslim. Malaysians are trying to identify how the country’s Islamic identity is distinct and how much latitude there is for different strands of Islamic thinking; how much can Malaysian Islam change as the country modernizes? The country’s minorities are largely Chinese and Indian, and they are mostly Buddhists and Christians. How do their rights balance with those of the Malay and Muslim majority, in law and in the society?

An example of the way Malaysian Islam is changing was the recent popular reality TV show that selected a young “cool” imam (Muhammad Asyraf Mohammad Ridzuan) from among 10 finalists; the others were voted off the program one by one, just like “American Idol.” The idea was to make Islam more appealing to young people and to make them associate religion with inspiration rather than caning and morality raids. The finalists were chosen from 1,000 candidates, faced written and practical tests on religion each week, and were quarantined in a mosque dormitory and banned from using phones, the Internet and television. They had to persuasively steer youngsters away from sex and drugs. Imam Muda had almost 94,000 Facebook fans when I last checked.

Click here to read the entire article.

August 18th, 2010 at 6:00 am

A Spiritual Reflection on Hiroshima, 65 Years Later

From The Washington Post

By Jane Smith Bernhardt

On August 7th, the Hiroshima International House in Japan will offer an exhibit of my colorful collage portraits of Atomic Bomb survivors as they mark the 65th anniversary of the first atomic blast over a civilian population. For me, the honor is poignant. It might be argued that I owe my life to the bomb. By August of 1945, my father, a Naval Lieutenant Commander, had already survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a Kamikaze suicide bomber’s nosedive into the smokestack of his destroyer. With the prospect of a US invasion of mainland Japan, what other perils awaited him in the Pacific theatre of war?

When I spoke with my father about my intention to travel to Japan in 2003 to interview and paint portraits of survivors, he was unusually quiet. My artistic callings were ordinarily met with more enthusiasm. Twenty years earlier, my father supported my travel to the Soviet Union to render charcoal portraits of “enemy” faces. Years later – after Glasnost – he confided that he felt we’d had some small part in ending the Cold War. The Second World War was not the same. There he had anxiously scanned the ocean’s horizons for so long, and had seen so much that a man of honor does not tell….

I deeply respect my father’s heroism and his discipline. But today the world is very different. The new superpower that forced the Japanese surrender now possesses an arsenal of over 5,000 nuclear weapons, and children all over the world must grapple with the tragic notion of “mutually assured destruction.” The need for human evolution beyond the barbaric frontier of physical warfare is obvious and vital.

I try to do my small part with the language I’ve been given: Art. As the daughter and grand-daughter of portrait artists I have always been intrigued by the challenge of rendering three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Beyond that is the magic of the human spirit: How can one hope to convey that with brush or pencil? After debating mega-tonnage of overkill with advocates of nuclear weaponry during the Cold War, I was struck by an inspiring notion: Bring home the human spirit of the “enemy.”. Let people gaze at the face and absorb the soul of this “other” who looks like my sister, my son, my mother. My exhibit “Faces of the Faceless” became the model for three subsequent collections, because it worked. Instead of an intellectual debate, these renderings did what art can do: they moved the hearts of viewers. An internal conversion could take place wherein “the other” became intimate and personal.

In a sense, Hiroshima was the ultimate calling for my combination of portraiture and peacemaking. Here were the victims who had journeyed to the land of the unthinkable and lived to tell their story.

Click here to read the entire article.

August 6th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

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Tony Blair On Religion in China

From The Washington Post

My interest in China – her history, her people and her culture – began before I was British Prime Minister. During my time in office, I knew power was shifting East and sought to build strong relations with this fast moving new power.

Since then, I have got to know the country even better still. Today, I am a witness to a new revolution happening here; to the rapid modernization and the opening up of borders, culture and society both internally and externally. And whilst power is still shifting East, there is a fascination about what that means for China and for the rest of the world. I hope the new partnership my Faith Foundation is announcing with Peking University can, in some way, help to explain. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has been looking at the issues of faith and globalization for three years now. We’ve been working with some of the world’s leading universities to define and debate these vital questions academically. We started at Yale University in the United States and now have a network of seven leading research institutes, stretching from Mexico to Australia.

I am delighted to be announcing in Beijing that Peking University is the newest member of this group. China’s great wealth of academic, and other, talent is engaging and shaping our world as never before and Peking University holds an esteemed place in the international academic world. I believe the launch of this partnership signifies China’s openness on many levels and willingness to reach out to other universities in a spirit of co-learning and enterprise and to contribute the best of its talent to an international consortium of academics and future leaders. The new course will focus on Western and Chinese doctrinal traditions – looking at different faith traditions in different parts of the world, not just within the Chinese context. This is proof positive of China’s outward-looking perspective. In the future the Peking University and Tony Blair Faith Foundation will co-sponsor a discussion event at the Beijing Forum 2010, under the general theme of “The Harmony of Civilisations and Prosperity for all – commitments and responsibilities for a better world.”

One of the crucial questions for people of faith – and for those who are not – is how does interfaith dialogue impact on international policy-making? How does faith and dialogue motivate and influence decisions on a global scale?

Some in the West may find the idea of debating religion in China strange. They will cite, for example, that proselytising in public places in China remains forbidden. But few are aware that Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism are all officially recognized and almost one third of Chinese describing themselves as religious – an astonishing figure for an officially atheist country where religion was banned until three decades ago.

According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 31% of the Chinese public considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, compared with only 11% who say religion is not at all important. When asked a somewhat different question in a 2005 Pew poll, an even greater percentage of the Chinese public (56%) considered religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives.

Click here to read the entire article.

August 1st, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Interfaith Marriages Seek Sacred Ground

Chelsea Clinton & Marc MezvinskyFrom The Washington Post

Traditionally the various faiths of the world have been suspicious of each other, so it’s not really a surprise that interfaith marriages have high divorce rates. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you don’t harbor distrust at some level, in a secret compartment of the heart. If your family has conditioned you to believe that yours is the only true faith, a second element is added. Who wants to sacrifice part of themselves to please another person? When parents advise their children not to marry outside the faith, they aren’t passing on wisdom; more likely they are reminding their children not to stray from us-versus-them thinking.

The more productive topic is how to avoid such divorces. To do that, a young couple must find common ground in spiritual matters. This is happening already to some extent. The ties of dogma and orthodoxy have been weakening for decades. Yet there is something deep that needs to be solved: the paradox of faith. I would venture that faith itself can put strains on a marriage (I’m not working from pure instinct here: statistics show that the Bible Belt, where church attendance is highest, also enjoys the country’s highest divorce rate whereas the Northeast, which is much less religious — and also more educated, an important factor — enjoys the lowest). Faith becomes negative when it binds the mind into set, inflexible beliefs.

Sadly, this is the only type of faith that most religious people know, the type that prevents them from thinking about God or the soul on their own. The paradox, in simplest terms, is that having been told the right answers, people of faith feel less motivated to undertake their own spiritual journey. They aren’t troubled enough by doubt or be spurred by curiosity. Their chief dilemma is lapsed faith; they feel guilty for being less strict than generations which came before. (This is a generalization, of course; some spiritual journeys do begin on a strong basis of faith.) A faith composed of right answers sounds appealing, but marriages are about negotiation. That’s the bottom line, and when your spouse asks you to negotiate about religion, a small voice in the back of your mind is likely to guilt trip you. Religious practice feels literally like sacred ground.

Yet one person’s sacred ground is another person’s high horse. Couples must mutually decide to abandon the secret sureness of being right. This can’t be a tug of war. Nor can it be the sort of passive giving in that years later turns into active resentment. Faith is about conscience, so every step needs to be taken with a clear conscience. As love matures in a marriage, a shared spirituality becomes easier, because in your spouse you see aspects of the divine: love, trust, hope, and comfort. These serve as the basis for a practical kind of faith; God has acquired a human face. I suspect that when couples split on religious grounds — or at least cite religion in a long list of complaints — the real problem is that love didn’t mature. The issues brought into the union have continued to fester, generally out of sight.

Click here to read the entire article.

August 1st, 2010 at 6:06 am

Building at Ground Zero: Robert Thurman’s Suggestion

Robert ThurmanFrom The Washington Post

It is a wonderful idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero! A number of innocent Muslim people also lost their lives, as they were at work in those buildings. And since religious bigotry – intolerance, fanaticism, whatever you call it – was one of the causal factors underlying the despicable 9/11 suicide attack, religious intolerance or bigotry should not be mobilized to prevent a positive gesture from our Muslim brothers and sisters. In fact, not only should there be a mosque built there (the Trinity Church has an important Christian church there already), there should be a special institution dedicated to all World Religions, a sort of permanent Parliament of World Religions building dedicated to promoting inter-religious understanding and mutual tolerance and positive affirmation, in the spirit of “Never Again!” The New York based, long-standing, highly respected institution known as the “Temple of Understanding” would be delighted and capable of founding and operating such an institution. The City of New York and the developers of the Ground Zero memorials should take note of this.

Click here to read the entire article.

July 22nd, 2010 at 6:00 am