Category Archives: Religion

CNN Bravely Fires Editor for Making Controversial Tweet

In a display of bold journalistic integrity, CNN has shown Octavia Nasr the door for expressing respect for Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

Fadlallah- who died on Sunday- was a Lebanese cleric widely seen as a spiritual inspiration for Hezbollah.  There was a lot about Fadlallah not to like.  Like most Muslim pedagogues, he held barbaric views on Israel.  He argued justifications for suicide bombings, and accused Israel of exaggerating the effects of the Holocaust for political gains.

On the other hand, Fadlallah wasn’t all a bad guy- and not just in the ‘sure, he was a genocidal maniac, but he loved his kids’ sense.  Like Hezbollah itself, he condemned the 9/11 attacks despite long having been stridently critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East (anti-Islamists love to claim that ‘no one’ in the Islamic world condemned 9/11).  He was a critic of the Iran’s theocratic rule, arguing that Khomeini had gone too far by setting up any single cleric as the arbiter of religious truth, and opposed the spread of theocracy to Lebanon- despite heavy Iranian backing for Hezbollah.

Most importantly, he advocated a relatively progressive view of women’s rights, and justified his position in a way much more likely to resonate with Muslims than the typical Western hectoring.  Fadlallah issued fatwas condemning female circumcision and honor killings.  He advocated the equality of men and women, and their equal role in shaping society.  He also issued a fatwa confirming the rights of women to defend themselves against physical and social violence, and condemning as un-Islamic male violence towards women or attempts to deprive them of their rights.  He also believed that abortion was permissible in situations where the mother’s life was at risk.

Fadlallah was a sharp critic of the U.S., but there is a lot in his views on that topic that is hard to dismiss.  He argued that the U.S. was using ‘terrorism’ as an excuse for imperial exercises in the Middle East- a view that is certainly understandable, given the former U.S. presence in Lebanon and the ongoing presence in Iraq.  He accused the CIA of attempting to stir up trouble in the region, but one might expect such views from someone that the CIA allegedly tried to assassinate.

According to the New York Times:

Since the early 1990s, he adopted a more pragmatic tone, preaching against the division between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. He raised money for a sprawling international network of charities and willingly met with prominent Americans, including critics of his beliefs, and considered dialogue with the enemy an Islamic imperative.

So there was plenty about Fadlallah not to like, but if you’re a fan of the art of the possible and looking for signs of grass-roots progressive views and dialog within the Islamic world, there were certainly some things to respect about the man.

So following his death, CNN senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr tweeted:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.

Twitter doesn’t allow for a lot of nuance, so following the controversy about this tweet, Nasr followed up with a blog post explaining that, as a Middle Eastern woman, she respected an Islamic leader who was willing to meet with people like her- Christian, female, Westernized- and engage in a dialog about the future of Lebanon and the Middle East.  Fadlallah drew criticism from other Muslim clerics for his views on women and religious co-existence, and from Hezbollah for his criticisms of Iran’s growing influence, and its departure from its original goals and values.  She expressed respect for a complex figure who stood out as a relative moderate, and sadness for the death of a human being she had met and spoken with.

CNN announced on Wednesday that they had parted ways with Nasr because “her credibility… has been compromised” by that act.

Unfortunately, she violated the primary commandment of reporting about the Middle East in the U.S.: Thou shall not attempt to introduce nuance.

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Easter and Commercialism

There’s an article up at Slate on why Easter “resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas”. The author, James Martin, argues that Easter’s central theme and message- the death and resurrection of Jesus- are inherently less suited to commercialization. While the Christmas story lends itself to a sort of warm ‘n’ fuzzy non-denominational enthusiasm, the Easter story is rife with gory trappings, and strikes at the central themes of what it means to be a Christian.

I don’t buy Martin’s argument. I’d argue that Easter is no less commercial than Christmas, it’s just the magnitude of the attention given to them that differs. Easter isn’t less commercial, it’s just less popular. For reasons unrelated to the Christmas story, Christmas is able to draw the attention of non-Christians and marginal Christians, while Easter- again, not because of its religious content, but rather because of accidents of the calendar- does not.

First, we have to look at a central tenet of Martin’s argument: is Easter less commercially exploitable? A quick trip to the supermarket tends to dispel this notion. Pallets of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies fill most groceries and drug stores this time of year. Stuffed rabbits and ducks festoon shelves. Egg dying kits are ubiquitous, along with plastic eggs and sales of baskets and easter grass. The face of Easter that is shown to the public is, in general, not the face of crucifixion and resurrection that Martin suspects that the public might object to. Another face for Easter- the older pagan trappings of the spring fertility festival- have long-since acted as a commercially viable stand-in for images of the crucifixion. In effect, it doesn’t matter if the image of a crucified Christ is unmarketable- there are other images that can stand in, just as the image of Santa Claus or Frosty can take the religious edge off of Christmas.

So why is Easter not a commercial monsoon on par with Christmas, if there’s nothing about the holiday itself that really discourages consumerism? One argument might be that the calendar can only hold so many commercial blockbusters; fore reasons unrelated to religious content (mostly the tradition of gift-giving, which has only the most tenuous connection with the story of the nativity), Christmas established itself as the primary gift-buying season of the year. That process has fed on itself- once retailers realized that the collective wallet was opening in the November – December window, more and more commercial ventures began to be packed into the same window.

Martin argues that Easter’s position out on its own in the early spring season situates it to be a better commercial magnet than it is: the outdoor season is on its way, and there aren’t the distractions of surrounding holidays. I’d argue that the opposite is true. Part of the commercial drive of Christmas is the intensity of the surrounding holiday season, which is furthered by the winter weather. What is often regarded as a single Christmas binge is really the collected purchases of an entire social season. Large purchases of food and decor purchased for Christmas serves double-duty for New Years. Cold weather and time off from work encourages large-scale buying- you know you’ll be home, and you know that you won’t want to go out. Why not buy an entire ham and have sandwiches for a few days, in case somebody drops by?

The timing of Christmas- being fixed on December 25th- raises its profile as well. Easter always falls on a Sunday, a day when people are already off work, and which has traditionally been a time for family. Christmas creates an unusual interruption in the work schedule encourages both additional attention and travel. The position of Christmas in the middle of a busy holiday schedule for other faiths- such as Hanukkah and Ramadan- encourages employers to permit time off, without creating the impression that they are paying undue attention to any single religious group. The proximity of Christmas to New Years encourages employers to give people multiple days off, encouraging travel. Meanwhile, Easter’s position on an unpredictable Sunday in the spring lowers its profile, particularly among non-Christians, and the absence of a companion holiday or a regularly scheduled day off causes Easter to pass unnoticed for many non-Christians.

The notion that the gruesome spectacle of the crucifixion, or the theological implications of the resurrection, make commercialization impossible seems likewise implausible. What’s commercial about making offerings to the spirits of the dead? And yet Halloween is a successful commercial holidays, marked more by the sales of candy and costumes than by attention to the theological issues that ostensibly give it form. Why should the recollection of the dead of war inspire a picnic or barbecue? Experience seems to indicate that to the average person, a day off is a day off, and no origin- no matter how solemn or macabre- will get in the way of a good party, if there’s one to be had.

Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Good interview at Salon today with Chris Hedges, who has ended up on several occasions debating the current crop of cranky atheists. The best point of Hedges interview goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the specious arguments put forward by Christopher Hitchens and others:

If we’re afraid to privilege Enlightenment values, don’t we run the risk of sanctioning religious rituals that discriminate against women and minorities?

But I would never argue that! I mean, I think genital mutilation is disgusting. I’m not a cultural relativist. I don’t think that if you live in Somalia, it’s fine to mutilate little girls. There is nothing wrong with taking a moral stand, but when we take a moral stand and then use it to elevate ourselves to another moral plane above other human beings, then it becomes, in biblical terms, a form of self-worship. That’s what the New Atheists have, and that’s what the Christian fundamentalists have.

The atheism-only crew makes a fundamental mistake in confusing tolerance with the inability to make moral decisions. Hitchens and others seem to think that because they’re afraid that their own religious frameworks will be questioned, liberal religious thinkers are in capable of critiquing violent or extreme forms of religious expression. The position held by most moderate religious people is not that anything goes, and everyone is right; rather, it is that the ability to be a moral person is not limited to any single philosophical position or affiliation.

Religion in the US: Surveying the Field

Two surveys out this week that cast some light on religious trends in the US: first the National Council of Churches Yearbook provides data reported by large denominations regarding changes in their membership and giving. Second, a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides some data on the rate at which people are moving from one denomination to another, and the retention rates and growth of various non-Christian denominations.

The big themes are to be expected: old mainline denominations like the Episcopal church continue to decline; Catholics are kept steady only by an influx of new members. Evangelical and charismatic churches, particularly smaller ones, continue to hold their own or grow.

Two interesting quotes:

“The American religious economy is like a marketplace — very dynamic, very competitive,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.

While the large denominations are struggling to retain members, many smaller, more innovative churches are continuing to grow- thus keeping overall attendance quite high among Christians in the US, even if membership and particular denominations are taking a hit. This is a perfect example of how markets are supposed to work. Contrast this situation in Europe, where widespread state churches have tended to hold a monopoly on Christianity, creating large centralized systems that gobble up tax dollars and respond to changes in society slowly if at all. It’s a prime example of free market competition outperforming a centrally planned market. Bad news for folks who think one particular organization has a monopoly religious truth, but an interesting case study in what is, in the US, a near-totally unregulated market.

The self-identified Buddhists — 0.7 percent of those surveyed — illustrate a core challenge to estimating religious affiliation: What does affiliation mean?

It’s unclear whether people who called themselves Buddhists did so because they practice yoga or meditation, for instance, or claim affiliation with a Buddhist institution.

Emphasis mine.

First of all, are we really to expect that someone who is casually performing a Hindu form of worship mostly shorn of its religious significance in the US is going to self-identify as Buddhist? Odder things have happened, but this seems like something of a stretch. But the article does raise a valid point: American notions of religious belonging are ill-equipped to quantify non-exclusive traditions like Buddhism, or people who mix their spiritual practices (which are increasingly likely to be Buddhist, Hindu, or new-age in origin) with a familial identity as a Christian or Jew. It’s similar to the frustration that Western demographers face when trying to come up with religious adherence counts for East Asia- by forcing someone to check a single box, you’re essentially forcing a narrowing of their religious identity. The resulting numbers don’t end up meaning a hill of beans.

Interesting implications as well for the prospect of making lasting religious communities in the West- these results would seem to imply that small, autonomous communities are going to enjoy more success than large groups with national or international organizational structures.

Building Buddhist Communities

This article at Salon is broadly similar to a number of others that have appeared in Tricycle and other publications, discussing the creation of Buddhist-themed study groups and practice groups geared specifically at Gen-Xers and their ilk. Lurking in the background of a number of these pieces is the specter of the dharma groups and practice centers created in the 60’s and 70’s, institutions that have, in most cases, failed to attract and sustain the attention of the next generation.

I wrote a bit about this on Salon’s editorial page, but it’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a while. The Buddhist centers created by the first generation of Western converts have, somehow, failed in many cases to make the transition into complete religious communities- specifically, multi-generational communities that will be able to endure turnover in their membership, and particularly the graying and eventual departure of their senior leaders and organizers. Why did this happen? A few reasons:

  • Pruning Buddhism: Many practice centers, in a quest to keep new members from feeling “uncomfortable”, have shorn Buddhism of any of its ritual or cultural trappings. However, ritual gives familiarity and structure, and helps bind a community together by giving order to important stages of life. There are many Western Buddhist practice centers; there are few Western Buddhist weddings, funerals, or coming-of-age ceremonies.
  • Mono-generaltionalism: A made up word used to describe the way that Western practice centers have tended to crystallize around a relatively small cohort of people of the same general age and background, and then age with them. Groups that started in the 60’s have tended to morph into “Buddhism for Baby Boomers” centers, with few attempts to incorporate older or younger members. The modern “Dharma Punx” groups seem to be simply an updated form of the same phenomenon, creating groups tightly focused on the desires of a particular demographic without building ties to the wider community.
  • Leadership stagnation: Centers that started in the 60’s and 70’s immediately put the young people who started them into leadership roles, despite, in many cases, a relative paucity of experience as teachers, meditators, organizers, etc. Today, those roles are often still filled by the same people, as the group has aged together. 20-somethings in the 1960’s and 70’s were the leaders of their community; today, they’re implicitly being told that it will be 20-30 years before they have a strong voice in guiding their community.
  • Boring as Hell for Kids: An extension of the reduced role for ritual and culture is the tendency for Western Buddhist groups to become either cerebral or therapeutic. Neither discussions about the Abhidharma nor how meditation brings out your issues about your father well-serve the cause of integrating families into a community.
  • No challenge, no change: Buddhist groups in the West often go out of their way to avoid offending or discomforting their membership. It’s an admirable goal, in some ways: the intention is to make Buddhism available to as many people as possible. But in removing some of the thorns from the rose- particularly teachings on morality and right behavior, ritual practices that encourage respect for teachers and the teaching, and teachings that touch upon the supernatural- Western interpretors sometimes remove those aspects of the teaching that challenge the practitioner to live their life in a better way. I’m OK-you’re OK interpretations of Buddhism can encourage a self-satisfied complacency, ultimately doing a disservice to the student.

The Buddhist institutions created in the West by the converts of the 60’s and 70’s were, in many cases, the work of individuals in rebellion against the religious institutions of their era. The virtues and flaws of that rebellion persist to this day: on the one hand, Western Dharma centers and practice groups are non-judgmental, frequently loosely-structured places that ask little of their members. On the other hand, they are also in many cases guilty of neglecting the wisdom regarding building religious institutions that will persist for multiple generations that the churches and synagogues of the US long since acquired.

So what do these Western centers have to learn, if they intend to outlive the Baby Boomers?

  • Rituals give structure to life and community. Buddhist groups can’t be so afraid of their ritual heritage- which has developed in a variety of loosely related cultures over thousands of years- that they dump the entire lot in order to avoid offending the supposedly fragile sensibilities of their members. Has anyone who went to a Buddhist temple or gathering really been offended or made uncomfortable by statues of the Buddha, bowing, or chanting? If so, is it really reasonable to cater to that demographic exclusively? Would you be offended if you went to a mosque, and someone read from the Koran? An invocation of Jesus at a Catholic church? Of course not. It’s simply ridiculous to claim to be drawing from an ancient tradition, and then bend over backwards to avoid acknowledging it.
  • Make a place for many age groups. But don’t let them stay there. Clearly, the needs of children aren’t the same as those of teenagers, adults, and senior citizens. These groups need their own space- Dharma Sunday schools, youth groups, singles and family groups, etc.- in which to explore how the teachings of the Buddha impact the challenges of their particular stage of life. At the same time, strict segregation by age results in a variety of dissociated semi-communities, instead of a coherent whole. Protestant churches figured this out more than a generation ago. Services can begin with a period of collective worship- simple songs, devotional readings, short meditations, offerings, etc. The group then breaks into individual classes for study at age-appropriate levels: kids get digestible teachings that hold their attention, and their parents and grandparents are free to explore more (or less) intellectual pursuits for a while. The entire body then reconvenes before the end of the service. Additional, not strictly religious activities- pot-luck meals, social gatherings for particular age groups, outings for single people, rotating dinner groups- create a sense that this is a community that extends beyond the walls of the temple or church. Community members are encouraged to look to each other for social supports that extend around the family.
  • Create leadership roles for younger members. No one needs to be running a Dharma center for forty years. There needs to be a structured path in place to encourage young members to take leadership roles- first among their peers, and , ultimately, among the group as a whole. Mentoring and “young leaders” programs can help with this- as can term limits for institutional offices.
  • Teachers can’t back down from challenging their students. Buddhism does have particular things to say about what is and isn’t skillful behavior, and what behaviors lead to good and bad outcomes for people. To neglect these teachings does favors for no one. The sutras teach that ethical behavior is the foundation for everything else- all this business about counting breaths and noticing moments can only do so much to reduce your suffering if you’re constantly adding to the total with unskillful actions. Asking little or nothing of a devotee doesn’t necessarily mean that they will remain engaged. While attitudes of excessive condemnation and guilt-tripping drive people off, we all know what happens to the kids of parents who refuse to set boundaries.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is one of resources and size. The plurality of Buddhist traditions represented in the West, and the confusion that surrounds the differences between them, has resulted in a variety of small autonomous communities, many without sufficient resources to do much more than keep the lights on. On the other hand, in many urban areas there are significant pockets of interest, and communities that could grow beyond their traditional limits if they were willing to make a concerted effort to broaden their own identity. This leaves out, of course, the issue of the so-called “ethic” communities- immigrant Buddhist communities that tend to organize on national lines. They have their own challenges, and it’s likely that both groups- converts and traditional ethnic Buddhists- have things to learn from each other about how to hold a community together, and how to hold the attention of their members in the uniquely American environment. But that’s another post.

Romney’s Mixed Message

Lots of discussion going on right now about Mitt Romney’s speech on his religious faith, and what exactly it says about him and his chances as a candidate. I have real doubts about the effectiveness of Romney’s speech. Most of the comparisons have focused on Kennedy’s speech in Texas about Catholicism, but the speech that Romney delivered presented a much more muddled message.

Kennedy delivered a speech where he clearly re-affirmed a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state. He was addressing an audience during a time when evangelicals were not a driving force in politics among Republicans or Democrats, and was running as a progressive candidate. By emphasizing the separation of religious matters and political ones, he was able to sway a wide variety of people: conservative Protestants viewed the separation of church and state as a way to keep Vatican meddling out of the White House, Catholics were reassured that Kennedy had neither abandoned his faith, nor would trigger an anti-Catholic backlash, and progressives were given a vision of an executive who would govern with respect to the Constitution and the mores of the time, rather than the commandments of a medieval authority.

Romney’s speech could only ever hope to appease one group: conservative evangelicals. His repeated references to weakening the separation of church and state gave a collective shudder to liberals and, perhaps more importantly, libertarian leaning voters within the Republican party. His comments on his views on Christianity and Jesus- which some commentators have indicated went astray from Mormon orthodoxy- might have given some thoughtful Mormons pause as to whether Romney is distorting or attempting to leverage his religious beliefs as a political tool.

Meanwhile, by discussing opposition to secularism, Romney has indicated that religious beliefs will be in play as part of the platform of a Romney presidency. He has, in essence, said the exact opposite of Kennedy: his religious beliefs will play a role in policy in his administration. The attempt in this speech was to convince evangelical voters that his beliefs were close enough to theirs that they should embrace his candidacy as a step in pushing their own beliefs back into the center of public life. But realistically, Romney said little or nothing that will really alter the basic beliefs of evangelical Christians, who widely see Mormonism as a distortion of Christian teachings, and possibly as a non-Christian cult.

Romney has rejected calls for him to discuss his religious beliefs more openly on the grounds that doing so would apply a ‘religious test’, of the sort banned by the founding fathers. But with a speech like this, Romney has essentially said that his religious beliefs are an aspect of his political views. The ‘religious test’ envisioned by the founding fathers was an attempt to deny government office to people on the basis of an affiliation with a church or sect, rather than their policy goals. When your policy is dictated by your religious faith, a ‘religious test’ is entirely appropriate; the candidate is already promising, in effect, to turn his own religion into government policy of some sort. If Romney wants people to separate his beliefs from his candidacy, he needs to start with himself. Speech’s like the one he gave this week invite more, not less, scrutiny of the beliefs of a man who has promised that religion will have a place in his administration.

Burma: One Less AIDS Hospice, One Less Monastery

The ruling junta in Burma is focusing its efforts now on the real threat to its rule: victims of the HIV virus. The most recent salvo in their ongoing attempt to silence the Burmese pro-democracy movement is the shuttering of Maggin Monastery in Rangoon, a temple that has long housed HIV patients seeking treatment in the city. Military officials have relocated the HIV patients to a hospital in another township, and have ordered the monks living in the monastery to find new quarters.

Why close this prominent monastery? For one, the abbot is believed by the military government to be a leader of the monastic protests that shook the government in September. Abbot U Indaka has already been arrested, and now authorities want to prevent his monastery for becoming a rallying point for more protests. Doubtless some of the monks in his monastery share his views on the military government, and one of them could step up to become a leader in his absence.

Finally, the junta has been taking steps since September to try and move monks out of contact with the public. The presence and example of monks- a visible reminder of opposition to the military government, and of the government’s abdication of the traditional government role of protectors and supporters of Buddhist institutions- helped galvanize lay dissidents. Direct service projects- like the Maggin HIV/AIDS hospice- provide opportunities for monks to spread pro-democratic ideas among the public in the form of sermons and talks.

The Burmese junta is in a difficult position. Without giving at least the appearance of support for Buddhist institutions, they may be forced into an increasing number of violent confrontations with the public. At the same time, the monastic institution has shown itself to be an unpredictable ally; while certain temples and monks are content to accept alms from the government, conveying legitimacy on the military government, other monks have proved a thorn in the government’s side, threatening to disrupt the junta’s ongoing rule.

The optimal solution for Burma’s military rulers would be to create a visible but remote ‘show sangha‘, one that can grant legitimacy to the military by serving as a recipient for highly publicized gifts without serving as the nucleus of a challenge to the government. Shutting down institutions where there is significant contact between monks and the public- such as having monks at significant public shrines in Pagan, or the Maggin hospice- is a first step in such a process.