Iranian Women Remove the Hijab: Is It the End of the World?

What are we to make of the women in Iran who are taking off their head coverings and waving them on sticks in public? Are they…

  1. dire threats to the very foundation of the Iranian nation
  2. misguided young people acting childishly
  3. noble freedom fighters to be admired for their courage

29 have been arrested that we know about, and it remains to be seen whether the gesture will spread like wildfire as more and more women throw off the symbol of their servitude, or whether it will peter out, relegated to the many failed attempts of reformers through the ages to alter religious customs and strictures.

Their bravery is considerable. We know they are fined at the very least, but are they also harangued, beaten, tortured?   Are they called whores? Molested? Sentenced to lengthy jail terms? And what is their argument when confronted by the men who run the country, the ultra-islamists who point to the verse in the Holy Qur’an that clearly backs up their belief that women must cover their hair? Could they ever convince their jailers that there are good reasons to throw off the head coverings and let each woman dress as she pleases?  The argument might go something like this:

Woman: The covering is uncomfortably hot.

Islamist: It’s in the Qur’an that you have to wear it.

Woman: It makes me feel like a second-class citizen.

Islamist: It’s in the Qur’an, don’t you understand.   The Blessed Prophet wrote that you must wear it.

Woman: That was 1,400 years ago. Times have changed.

Islamist: You are wrong. His words came from Allah, to be respected for all time. Are you saying that Allah came to you with a message that his Prophet was mistaken when he wrote that 1,400 years ago? Have you lost your faith?

If you look more closely at the hijab arguments of an Muslim apologist, the parsing of words, the minutiae, it’s remarkably like the arguments from Catholic holy fathers with regard to the finer points of their rituals and why they must be performed just so and not any other way.   Any change is a hole in the dyke that will weaken the entire structure, built up carefully many centuries ago to hold back the pounding waves of sin and chaos that threaten to overwhelm our race.  Or in short, it’s the Word of God. Believe it.

An interesting way to approach the hijab issue would be a Muslim trying to convince a non-Muslim to get on board with Islam. There are many good arguments for embracing Islam including a sense of peace, a spiritual connection with the universe, a rejection of materialism, wealth, and lewdness.  But how do you convince a heathen that Allah spoke to Mohammed and Mohammed is the one who wrote it all down in the 7th century?  Look into your heart?  Intuition?  Faith, faith, faith…..! A tall order.  The question raised by the women of Iran is, basically, can we edit the Qur’an and agree that much of what is a part of Islam is of tremendous value, but other parts are reflections of an ancient culture, not the mind of God at all, but the desire of men.

So what it comes down to with the hijab is this: If you believe that centuries ago the Creator of the Universe told His Prophet everything we all need to know about how to live our lives, then there is no point in arguing. The head covering stays on, the disgruntled go to jail.

But if you believe that positive change is possible, and the way to gauge whether a change is positive or not is by whether it delivers benefit to individuals, then you have made the transition from a faith-based philosophy to one based on the Greater Good.



What a Good School Should Be: The House of Joy (Baan Unrak) in Thailand

A few years ago Baan Unrak came to my attention. It’s a place in Thailand on the border with Myanmar where mothers and children fleeing war and poverty can find a home.   The founders have built an amazing refuge by all accounts—the name means “The House of Joy”–and its residents are lucky to have found this sanctuary ( link to website.)

But what struck me most recently as I visited their website, was their school, based on something called “neohumanism.” This is a philosophy brought into being by an Indian, Shrii P.R. Sarkar, who espoused a holistic education based on universal love—not just love for all humanity, but really universal love: for animals, plants, and the inanimate world as well.  High-minded ideals indeed! But what got my attention was how similar it was to some other educational movements, like the Waldorf Schools, and the Basic School of Ernest Boyer.   In fact, no matter what the starting point, it would seem that any good system of education would want the kinds of things that neohumanism aspires to:

ecological and social consciousness

practical and personal skills

knowledge of self and world

joyful learning through the arts.

Moreover, it would be accomplished through an integrated curriculum led by teachers with great personal integrity.  The end result would be young people who were able to make their way in the world in a healthy way, with a solid sense of the importance of their connections to the forces of nature we live under, the earth we live on, and the people we live with.

The opposing point of view would be an educational system built on competition, on control and domination. It’s us vs. the universe, so we’d better learn how to contend with it and wrest some personal benefit out of it as best we can, even at the expense of others.  This would be a very Ayn Rand kind of position and without a doubt it has its upsides.  Some children thrive on competition and can be pushed to do their best in that scenario, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone.  Competition means winners and losers, and what do you do about the losers?  I suppose the answer would be to allow nature to take its course : let them be content with low self-esteem and a low-paying job–it’s survival of the fittest.

The House of Joy offers something different, and lets hope its message spreads around the globe.

Pope Francis and the Lord’s Prayer: The Devil is in the Details

This week Pope Francis made an announcement: the version of the Lord’s Prayer that we all had to learn in our various tongues contained a bad translation of one line: “lead us not into temptation.” It should be don’t let us “fall into” temptation, because God is good, and would not “lead us” into temptation, as if He were engaged in some sting operation for the FBI, just waiting for us to snatch at the bait before leaping out with a big “Ah ha! Just as I suspected!” and consigning us directly to the appropriate level of hell. No, He does not work that way, Francis tells us. Rather it is the Devil who is out there leading us to temptation, working against all that God wants for us, slipping little enticements our way, hoping we will forget the precepts of parent, priest, and parochial school for just one minute of sinful pleasure, whether it be a lurid leer at a coveted co-worker or some private worship of His rival god, Mammon.

For those who suspect that the Devil may be a figment of someone’s imagination rather than an actual intelligent being of some kind, Francis’ textual concerns are somewhat disheartening, playing as they do into the superstitious aspects of religion that get us bogged down in pointless arguments about miracles and other parlor tricks that are reported to have occurred two millennia ago. The reaction to Francis’ pronouncement has already ranged from scorn to puzzlement to thoughtfulness.  Verily, in good sooth, “the devil is in the details” of this prayer, one of the pillars of Christendom.

But if we reframe Francis’ thoughts, it’s not so far out there for someone of a humanist stripe to accept, because what he’s really saying is we can make bad choices and good choices in life, and what we want is to avoid the bad and head toward the good. Whether it’s God helping you to lean in one direction and the Devil prodding you in the other with that infamous pitchfork of his, is something that shouldn’t distract us from the point that we need to exercise some moral judgment in our lives on a daily basis, and the gauge for making those choices has to be the Greater Good, which is rooted inevitably in avoiding hurt to others, and bringing as much joy as possible to those around us.   Old Nick, Beelzebub, and Co. are those selfish genes in us all, the impulse to have it all for ourselves, the bestial instincts that helped us survive the rigors of natural selection as we climbed up through the evolutionary branches.   Once we became self-aware a different ethic arose and God, in the form of the Greater Good, was born, you might say, or we were born again in God, if that is more to your liking.   However you think of it, the result is the same in the end: get out there and spread compassion to make the world a better place.

An interesting side note is that the phrase “The devil is in the details” derives from a much earlier German saying: “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail”—it is not the Devil, but God who lives in the details.  Focussing on getting the little things right can bring us closer to our higher selves.  It’s the zen of washing dishes, of being mindful in all of our daily tasks and interactions.



Pope Francis in Myanmar Gets It Right Again

It can drive you crazy how the media takes a story and focuses on the wrong thing.   Take the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, for example.   The headline from all the news outlets was all about how he did not use the word ‘Rohingya” to refer to the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed in that largely Buddhist nation.   The media needs a storyline and they’ve certainly got an important one in the misery of these poor people, now barely surviving in refugee camps.   A solution to the problem is desperately needed, but by focusing on this terminology issue, they diverted us from the most important thing that the Pope said:

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.”

What an earth-shaking statement!  The leader of the Catholic Church wants to find common ground with other religions to build a better, more peaceful, more tolerant, more united world!  What a difference from the bad old days when Protestants and Catholics went to war over an argument about the communion bread and the Faithful slaughtered whole cities in the name of the All-Merciful Creator.  If only today’s fundamentalists around the world could buy in to Francis’ statement we’d be halfway to heaven on earth.

The Pope is essentially signing on to what the Enlightenment was all about back when Voltaire told us it’s so easy to get distracted by unimportant things like how you should dress to please God, or what foods God told us not to eat.   If only we could all latch onto the big things, like we’re all searching for a meaning and purpose in life, and religion is a road that gets us there, each religion a different path to the same ultimate place, a place where we recognize the common humanity in each other while honoring the differences.

The Rohingya crisis is a version of the same problem that the United States is facing on its southern border, where over a period of decades or even centuries, poor families have sought a better life in a neighboring country where they can find work.   Are they citizens or not?  We haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet and neither have they.   How much of what is driving this comes from the difference in religions, and how much from simply being different?   Whatever the answer, as the international community works to try to help the situation, let’s hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to our higher selves will not get lost.

The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

Wonder Woman, Is All You Need Love?

Just saw Wonder Woman where the writers pose some interesting questions.   For example, the bad guy (Ares, the god of war) claims that he was given a bum rap when he led a failed rebellion against Zeus in the good old days. All he was trying to do was to get things back the way they were before Zeus stupidly created the human race. Humans, he argues, are such horrible, selfish creatures that the only thing to do with them is destroy them, or have them destroy themselves in war. Once the last human has been exterminated, then the gods can go back to living in a paradise. Humans are so debased that they will inevitably sink to the vilest, most despicable behaviors. This calls to mind  Hobbes’ state of nature where we are all at each others’ throats in the blink of an eye, out only for ourselves, and what we can gain.

The picture Ares describes has a lot of similarities with Trumpworld, where our main concern is being “great,” whether as an individual or as a nation. You can’t be great unless someone else is not great, right? So it’s all about competition, getting ahead, out-maneuvering someone else. It’s a tough-guy, belligerent, pushy kind of world, where if you don’t give me what I want, I’d just as soon knock you over the head to get it.   Nice guys finish last, you losers.

But Wonder Woman learns that love can triumph over anger, greed, and war. In the final battle, she snatches victory from the jaws of defeat by drawing on the power of love that her friend Steve has shown her. The message is that we must accept the fact that human beings are flawed, but redeemable.   Wonder Woman’s mission is now to help us find our higher selves and keep that Ares-side in check. Not a bad moral. I could hear John Lennon’s voice ringing in my ears:  “All you need is love!”

But unfortunately, that’s wrong, that’s not all we need.   All we need is justice.   No one should know this better than Gal Gadot who plays Wonder Woman and comes from Israel where justice is in short supply.   You can flood the Middle East with as much love as you want, but until you solve the land issue—who owns what parcels, who can build where, who will be empowered to make decisions—you’re never going to have peace. Maybe Gal Gadot could use her newfound status as a superhero to smack some sense into the extremists on both sides who are holding that whole blighted region hostage and doing so much to make the world a more dangerous place.   Ares has been hard at work there for decades, but in disguise as Jehovah and Allah, in whose name the extremists claim the right to the land they’re killing each other for.  Time to unmask him and get serious about some practical solutions, not built on the impossible notion of what land God gave to whom, but rather on what would be fairest to everyone.  Love would help of course, and friendships need to be built, but any kind of peace has to be a just peace if it’s going to stick.

Next film up with Wonder Woman is the Justice League—how timely.

More on Jimmy Carter’s Relationship to the Bible

I began to worry that my post about Jimmy Carter leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may have been some of that fake news we’ve been hearing so much about, but no, some investigation revealed that it was real (see “Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible”). However, to my surprise, I found out that it was a recycled story from 2009.   Carter had written it back then as an open letter to the SBC and an Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald and an online periodical The Age republished it as if it were brand new in April of this year. It was picked up and put on Facebook where I found it, and my commentary was in turn picked up by a Christian website Daily News Update –but to my surprise they titled the lead-in headline “More Apostasy — Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible.”  The thrust of my post was that this was welcome apostasy, that Carter was right to reject the belief that women should be subservient to men even though St. Paul tells us that’s the way it should be. My point was that everyone should be in the business of editing the Bible, and every other holy book we have latched onto here on Middle Earth.

There are two kinds of people in the world:

  1. Those who believe that God has delivered sacred words to holy men who wrote out lessons for posterity

2. Those who do not.

But even if you are in the first group and believe God has spoken to us through prophets, wouldn’t you agree to at least one of two propositions?

A) That the holy men or, later on, the  scribes who wrote things down, may have been in error at times or have been reflecting their culture as it existed at the time they wrote

B) That we still have to live together peacefully with those in the other group, or with those in groups who have a different holy book

If you agree with the first proposition, the task then becomes to comb through the sacred texts and figure out what might be words to live by and what might be myth or cultural bias or let’s just say something that doesn’t make sense. That’s what Carter did. He believes that God did not proclaim that a woman should submit to her husband’s will. He believes that women have equal rights in a marriage.

If you can’t bring yourself to the point of doubting that the holy book could be wrong about anything, it is to be hoped that at least you would subscribe to the second proposition, and could find common ground with those of other faiths or of no faith through the Seven Universal Sacraments.  Think about it.




Birth and Rebirth: A True Story

Ginny, my former student,  had an amazing story to tell at the recent high school reunion. Ginny is one of the best and the brightest–everyone likes to be around her. She’s funny, a great storyteller, and on the whole, as cheery an individual as you could every hope to meet. But that hasn’t always been the case.   A few years back in the very month she graduated there was a terrible car accident and her best friend, Amy, was killed. Amy and Ginny had been inseparable all senior year.  They had just said goodbye for the summer, and were looking forward to being close to each other in neighboring colleges in the fall.  Then two weeks later, in the blink of an eye, Amy was gone forever.

Ginny told me she was devastated to the point of despair.   How could this be?   What does it mean, when life is so cruel that someone is snatched away in the prime of life? How can we begin to make sense of this?

Then Ginny got some more shocking news. Her mother was going to have a baby. She had been quite young when Ginny was born, and now wanted to start a family with her new husband.   Ginny was really upset. All she could think was, “How can you do this? How can you bring another child into this horrible world of pain and suffering, where you’re doomed to death the minute you are born?” She was so angry she could barely speak to her mother.

She started college but it didn’t work out.  Grief had taken over. Thoughts of Amy haunted her day and night.   She dropped out after a semester and didn’t know what to do with herself.   She was about as deep into the Slough of Despond as a person can get.

Then something happened.   Her baby sister was born. Ginny took one look at her and fell in love. “As soon as I saw this tiny little life, everything changed. My little sister is the joy of my life.   I love her so much, I can’t even find the words. And as she’s gotten older, it just gets better and better.” Here Ginny began to choke up. “ She drew me out of this dark place—I can’t even describe it.”

This is the Sacrament of Birth, that transcendent joy so deeply felt, so beyond words that you don’t even feel like you’re on Planet Earth any more. You’ve found a special connection with another human being and that makes life worth living.   The joy of those first moments can lift you out of the deepest depression, and as the child grows and begins to walk, talk, and laugh, the bonds only grow stronger.

Ginny says the birth of her sister was her salvation…

Is it too much to say that Ginny herself was born again?


Christianity and Islam in the Pursuit of Pain

The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit.   To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.

Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain.   Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible.   Homo sapiens is programmed to  pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.

Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power.    We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.

Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God.   Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain.   Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?

Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes.  But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery.    How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?

What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.

Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible

An astonishing bit of news from former President Jimmy Carter on behalf of a group called the Elders:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

In short: don’t believe everything you read in the Bible.   What’s more, because the Southern Baptist Convention does in fact find the discrimination of women “acceptable” (i.e., biblical, so just do it) Carter has ended his association with that influential group. Let me remind you that the Southern Baptists are  15 million strong—second in size only to Catholics in the USA.

The astonishing part is the reason Carter gives for deeming this practice of discrimination unacceptable:

“The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

Wow.   President Carter rejects certain verses because they can’t be direct orders from a divine Being despite the fact that they are in a holy book. Why can’t they? Because there is a higher authority than what some guy thousands of years ago wrote down on a piece of papyrus, a higher authority that lies within each of us: Reason. If a practice like slavery causes suffering to a whole class of people, it cannot be just or what God wants us to do. If half the population is reduced to a kind of sexual slavery because of a certain verse on an old parchment passed down from father to son for a couple of millennia, then toss that verse in the trash can of oblivion and let’s live according to a different standard: the Greater Good based on the rights of all human beings.

Carter’s welcome apostasy opens up the door to a room we so badly need right now in the world: the editing room, a place where so-called holy writ is analyzed and large sections consigned to the dustbin, from Balaam’s ass to the virgin birth. People have been busily at work in this room since Epicurus first wrote that the gods have no interest in us mortals, so lets get on with finding the best way to enjoy our lives together. It’s a room where Socrates, Hus, Bruno and a host of others have labored until overwhelmed by the forces of the dark side.

President Carter’s declaration means we should think about each and every verse in the Bible and every other holy book, asking ourselves “is this a keeper?”  and the gauge can be found in the precepts of Humanism.

For more on this subject try “Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit Your Sacred Texts!”