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Taliban militants in Afghanistan have executed a woman for adultery. The Afghan government has condemned the action as un-Islamic.

Do you hear that, Jihadistan? UN-ISLAMIC.

While you're at it, you might consider renouncing the following parts of your traditional culture, which are not found anywhere in the "أركان الإسلام" and have nothing to do with true Islam:

  • Oppressing women and minorities - you know, people like gays, Christians, Jews, Baha'is, that sort of thing.
  • Fatwas
  • Dhimmitude
  • Persecuting people who leave your faith or who embrace Western culture. (That's called free agency. It's a great thing. You ought to look into it.)1
  • Interpreting Jihad to mean "Convert or Die"
  • Among others

You see, what Jihad means is a personal struggle to become a better person, a lifelong effort to make yourself more like Allah - who is, as the Qur'an says - benevolent and merciful. I'm not even an Islamic scholar, and I know that much; and I'll stand in front of God at the last day and say so, and let the chips fall where they may.

Let Islam as a body, all billion or so of you, rise up and renounce violence and oppression, and then I will believe that Islam is, as you say, the religion of peace. But not until then.

1The topic of abuses and excesses among other faiths is reserved for a future essay, just so no one thinks we're being one-sided here.
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Parody has always been part of the religious scene - I remember memorizing the words to "Vatican Rag" when it first came out, and thinking it terribly funny. Of course, at the time I was Catholic only by association and the good will of my Italian grandmother, who is reported to have baptized me in the sink because my parents had declined to have things done in the normal way. I suspect that many Catholics still feel uncomfortable with it.

Jews, on the other hand, have made an avocation of making fun of themselves and the challenges and foibles of their faith and history. Anti-Semitism, which is totally unacceptable, is not the same as Jewish Humor, of which there are countless volumes - on my shelf sit several compilations of Jewish folklore and humorous tales, including two lovely volumes of Röyte Pomerantsen in Yiddish.

Like unto the oak which is unable to bend with the winds, any religion that is too full of itself to be able to stand up to a bit of social pillorying is probably doomed to failure. That said, there is a fine line between parody for humor's sake and mean-spirited mockery. Everything I have read about this production by the creators of South Park leads me to believe that in look and feel, it's similar to the episode "All about Mormons." The takeaway is that it's not so much what you believe, but what religion leads you to do with your life that is important - and while I don't entirely agree with that viewpoint, it's not a bad message - it could be a lot worse. The South Park episode I mentioned ends with the following monologue by Gary:

"Maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the Church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls."

I think the musical would have been taken up a notch on the respect scale if they hadn't used so much gratuitous vulgarity. The critics are calling it "irreverent, profane and funny" - I think Parker and Stone could have done better by leaving out the profane part, which seems to add little to the overall mix - but that's just my two penn'orth.

As for the Church itself, the official response was short and to the point:

"The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

Of this, Parker and Stone said, "We actually completely agree with [the statement]. The Mormon church's response to this musical is almost like our Q.E.D. at the end of it. That's a cool, American response to a ribbing — a big musical that's done in their name. Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, 'Are you afraid of what the church would say?' And Trey and I were like, 'They're going to be cool.' And they were like, 'No, they're not. There are going to be protests.' And we were like, 'Nope, they're going to be cool.' We weren't that surprised by the church's response. We had faith in them."

Like Gary, I'm grateful for the Church and the Book of Mormon. I've never read a volume that is full of more advice on how to live a good life and experience joy by raising the human condition, based on the example and teachings of Christ. It's made a huge difference in my life, and in the end that's more important than a few folks getting a laugh at our expense. Who knows, they might even learn something along the way.
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Crossposted to WordPress 6-19-2013

150 years ago today, Charles Darwin published his "Origin of Species". And then the fight started.

The man was a genius of observation, analysis and synthesis. He looked at a jigsaw puzzle spread out all over the world, with virtually millions of pieces, and managed to pull together a single, coherent picture, even though it still has many gaps in it where pieces are missing.

I know of no scientist more praised and more maligned at the same time.

I remember when the Macintosh computer was a relatively new phenomenon, there was this great game called "Darwin's Dilemma", which required you to solve puzzles by pushing life forms around on a board and causing them to evolve. The version I had was won when the last two pieces combined to create a tiny image of a nude couple. Sweetly ironic. And, it was a ruddy difficult game to beat, and terribly entertaining to play.

Screen capture from a PC version of Darwin's Dilemma. The Mac version had better graphics. As usual.

Today, intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, and many others are holding up Darwin as a standard to which they hope militant atheists will flock. And militant atheists, just like militant Muslims, or militant Christians, or militant segregationists, or militant anything, are anathema to a society that works for everyone.

I ended my previous post with the following words: "Any ideology which seeks to impose itself on others by the sword, the gun, the bomb or the club must be fought with all the vigor we can muster as a global community, or we are doomed to perpetual servitude."

The Greeks have an interesting saying: "Η γλωσσα κοκκαλα δεν εχει και κοκαλα τσακιζει" (the tongue has no bones, but it breaks bones). An ideology can also be imposed without physical weapons; money, lawsuits, media, spin doctors, mockery, academic intimidation and peer pressure can often succeed where violence and terror would not. And today's militant atheists seek to mainstream two main ideas:

1) Religion can be proven false, and
2) Religion is usually or always harmful

The irony in using the Darwin flag as a vexillum for the armies of the unchurched is that Charles Darwin himself professed only to be an agnostic. In Francis Darwin's biography, (among others), he is quoted as saying, "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God."1

Whether religion can be proven false is irrelevant - since the dawn of consciousness, there have been those who have looked outside themselves for a source of strength, and those who have not. Whether religion is a force for good or evil is irrelevant, because religion is like a weapon: only the person who wields it can decide how it will be used.

On this pale blue dot, there's room for everyone's personal beliefs about our place in the universe. If you believe in a power greater than yourself, and it moves you to improve yourself and raise the human condition, that's a good thing. If you believe in the notion of the greater good because it's logical and reasonable, and this moves you to improve yourself and raise the human condition, that's good. And, our great freedoms of thought and speech guarantee you the right to share with others what makes you happy. But to impose your beliefs by the sword in ungood. And to impose your unbelief by social activism is equally ungood. Either way, if you're a jerk, your personal philosophy isn't working.

So whatever you happen to believe, let's lift a glass to Darwin today. His life's work has gone a long way towards explaining the miraculous diversity of earth's biosphere. And if I were God, I'd pin a medal on his chest.

1Darwin, Francis, The Life of Charles Darwin. London: Tiger Books,1995, 55.
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In a recent discussion on Facebook, one of my colleagues raised an interesting question which, although certainly not new, prompted me to craft a more detailed answer - for her, and for myself - than the size-limited FB comments permit.

The background: One of my friends sent me this picture to post:

and you can imagine that this prompted a bit of a discussion. Somewhere in the thread, I responded,

"Hey, I didn't write the sign, I just posted it for my friend who wasn't sure how. I have my own philosophy around theism and its antithesis, and it boils down to "Don't be a dick." In the end analysis,thinks I, God cares less about which Church you belong to, or don't, than how you're treating your fellow man."

To this my colleague wrote (hope you don't mind my quoting you here, Sonia):

"That would be the only worthy god, i think. Who could get behind the guy who demands one sing his glory every minute of the day, but who can still go and make Claire die giving birth to her 3rd little baby? if god exists, he better be powerless against the laws of nature, otherwise, he's gonna have a lot of angry people to answer to."

A fair question, and one that is asked by many people in a world where so much seems capricious and unfair.

In the mid 70's, I lived and worked in Austria for two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Amid the standard rebuffs of "Nix, nix, ka' Zeit und kein Interesse" and "Wir sind alle Katolisch hier, wieso gehen Sie nicht zu den Heiden?" I had many discussions about faith in general with a populace who was only one generation away from the depredations of World War II, and who had been, by choice or by chance, on the losing side. For all their traditional adherence to the Catholic faith of their fathers, many Austrians put no stock in religion - I can't count the number of times people vehemently protested the existence of a God who would allow such horrors as they had witnessed in their own lifetimes.

And the wars and the horrors go on...

For myself, I have to be able to be at peace with the world I see around me. I have chosen to do this with a strange mixture of faith and secular practicality.

In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

As for reconciling myself with the existence of God in a world of unexplainable tragedies, my mind turns to Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place. When she was 10 years old, she once asked her father a piercing adult-themed question. She went on to relate,

"He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor. “Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said. “It's too heavy,” I said. “Yes,” he said. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.” And I was satisfied. More than satisfied – wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions. For now I was content to leave them in my father's keeping.

I do not believe in a God who causes or allows terrible things to happen and approaches his human family with the attitude, "Haha, life's a bitch, ain't it? Now kneel, suckers!" This kind of God is less believable than the pure secular causality of "hydrogen atoms evolved to consciousness."

My heart tells me that neither scenario is the case, that we're playing a on a far bigger stage than any one of us can possibly see. I see mortality is a school to which we are sent by a loving parent; the classes are harsh - life gives us the tests first, and the lessons afterwards - but when we graduate to the next phase of our existence, whatever that looks like, we will all see that life, with all its seeming vicious unfairness, had purpose, and that it was all for our good, growth and development.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter to me whether the humanists are right, and it's all a huge cosmic crapshoot, or whether what I belive about Divinity is spot-on or way off. Either way, my responsibility is to live life in such a way that I can go down to my grave content in having done all that I could do to raise the human condition.

That is how I find peace.


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April 2017



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