qatarperegrine: (buddha)
I was recently asked why I stopped considering myself Buddhist. My response:

The first answer that popped into my mind was the last few lines of a poem by the iconoclastic Zen monk Ikkyu:
To harden into a Buddha is wrong;
All the more I think so
When I look at a stone Buddha.

To answer the question more completely, I think I have to recount my whole progression from where I was four years ago (which was, to recap, a panentheist progressive Christian who practiced Buddhist meditation) to where I am now (an atheist), because I think being a Buddhist was just a brief way station along that path.

One of the main things I learned about myself by living in a Muslim country is that my worldview is fundamentally a naturalistic one. My Muslim friends' belief in jinn and witchcraft seemed painfully off-base to me, not because I thought they believed in the wrong set of supernatural forces while Christians believe in the correct supernatural forces, but because I really don't believe in supernatural forces at all. I've never believed in angels or miracles, for example; I haven't believed in an afterlife since I was 12; and I don't know how many years it's been since I believed in a personal God in the sense of a discrete, anthropomorphic being "out there" who influences the goings-on of our universe. I nonetheless believed in some sort of ineffable divinity, and in a Western, mostly secular country, it's fairly easy to overlay some vague belief in the Ground of Being on top of an otherwise naturalist metaphysic and call that Christianity.

Encountering religious people (both Muslim and otherwise) who really fundamentally believe in the existence and power of supernatural forces, though, made me come to terms with the fact that I'm not one of those people. And, to be honest with myself, I had to admit that the kind of worldview espoused by the Scriptures and church tradition was also a supernatural one, despite the efforts of Tillich, Robinson, Spong, et al. to update the Christian understanding of God in the light of a modern worldview that rejects supernaturalism. It began to bother me that I spent half my time in church affixing mental footnotes to every creed I recited or hymn I sang -- for example, mentally noting that by "Christ" I meant "the spirit of compassion and self-sacrifice" rather than "that dude named Jesus who lived a long time ago." I got tired of the mental gymnastics necessary for me to affirm the things Christians affirm.

One day I sat down in the library to read Tillich's "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions" and read the sentence: "It is natural and unavoidable that Christians affirm the fundamental assertion of Christianity that Jesus is the Christ and reject what denies this assertion." Even though I've certainly read more thoughtful and well-reasoned expositions of the relationship between Christianity and other religions (most notably Diana Eck's in Encountering God), somehow that sentence was my proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Even Tillich claimed that "Jesus is the Christ" is the "fundamental assertion of Christianity," and that's just not something I could assert without all those aforementioned mental footnotes. I realized that if I was finding Paul "The god of theism is dead" Tillich impossibly conservative, I should really stop pretending the wide umbrella of Christianity could (or should) extend as far as where I now stood. In that instant, sitting in the religion section of the CMU library, I realized I wasn't going to call myself a Christian anymore. The thought felt like vertigo, but I also felt the weight of all those mental footnotes lift.

I didn't leave Buddhism in the same instant because reconciling Buddhism with my otherwise secular worldview didn't require the same mental gymnastics. I always appreciated that Buddhism focuses pragmatically on how to alleviate suffering rather than on metaphysics, that the Buddha doesn't seem to have cared about whether there was a god or not, that the Buddha taught that we should test his teachings against our own experience and reason instead of blindly following set doctrine. Because of these things, practicing Buddhism as a secular person didn't feel dishonest or disingenuous.

But as I started to practice meditation more often and listen to weekly dharma talks, it dawned on me that Buddhism is hardly free of dogma. Its teachings on the afterlife are both as central to its teachings and as implausible as Christianity's, for example. And, in practice, the vast majority of Buddhists in the world practice a supernatural religion, whether they are superstitiously chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha or undergoing body mutilation in order to channel the emperor-gods -- or offering food to the hungry ghosts, as I myself did at a Zen retreat 3 years ago. It's possible to practice Buddhism without these things, just like it was possible for me to practice Christianity without believing in an afterlife, but then we're back to mental gymnastics.

Ethics is a good example of this. I think the Five Precepts are a better guide to ethical behavior than the Ten Commandments. But why do I think that? I am measuring both sets of rules against my internal sense of what kinds of behaviors do and don't cause harm to others, and the Precepts seem like a better approximation of what secular ethical reasoning suggests. But then, if my fundamental yardstick is the utilitarian one, then I don't need the Five Precepts any more than I need the Ten Commandments; I just need to employ ethical reasoning. So why not cut out the middleman, as Sam Harris puts it, and do what I think is right instead of trying to find a religion whose moral code approximates what I already think is right.

On a deeper level, though, I think I stopped practicing Buddhism because I stopped craving the things that I had looked to it to provide. I was initially drawn to Buddhist practice because it seemed to hold out the promise of inner peace and the power to still your own chattering monkey mind. To a naturally anxious kind of person like me those sound heavenly. Another way of saying this is that I wanted to use Buddhism as a tool to help me become the person I felt I ought to be. (I think now that this is a very un-Buddhist reason to practice Buddhism -- although I'd still like to hear an answer to the question I asked of that Zen monk three years ago: isn't the desire to extinguish our cravings itself a craving?) Somehow, perhaps as I've gotten older and a little less insecure, I feel less need to fight the way my mind works on its own. I no longer feel like I *ought* to have one-pointed mind; I have monkey mind because I am descended from monkey ancestors, and on the whole a distractable psyche has served our lineage well. One day I realized that cravings and attachments bring me most of the joys I experience as well as most of the suffering, and that I'm actually not all that interested in extinguishing them after all. So I took off my dharmachakra necklace and prayer beads and stopped calling myself a Buddhist. I still have warm feelings towards Buddhism: my dharmachakra and fo zhu are still at the top of my jewelry box; I'm reading Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist right now; just yesterday I idly looked up the closest zendo to my new house. But I don't want to harden into a stone Buddha; I just want to be a flesh-and-blood Marjorie.

Which somehow reminds me of another poem I love, Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which I think comes closest to summarizing my current perspective on spirituality:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
A Saudi family is suing a jinni that has been harassing them. Jinn, according to the Quran, are a species of creature much like ourselves, with free will and the ability to be good or bad. However, we can't see them because they're made of fire and we're made of earth.

When I moved to Qatar, the universal belief in the existence of jinn was one of the things that started me questioning my belief in God. I wanted to say, "But how can a rational person believe in invisible beings of which they have, and CAN have, no proof, and whose supposed interactions with the world can be explained in other, more scientific ways?" But that's a rather odd thing to say if you believe in God.

If you believe in God but not jinn, how would you argue against the existence of jinn?
qatarperegrine: (Default)
"Every religion has its share of extremists," said the speaker at a lecture I attended today, arguing against the idea that Islam is particularly supportive of extremism or terrorism. It's a common platitude, especially around here. The audience nodded along.

I can understand the desire to defend Islam from such accusations, but this particular defense always seems a little feeble to me. Every religion? Really? Where are the Shinto extremists, then? Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Baha'i jihadis?

It seems to me that proponents of Islam have to come up with a better story of why 90% of organizations involved in suicide bombings self-identify as Muslim. There are a number of explanations out there (including the one in that article) that don't hinge on Islam itself being responsible. Some of those explanations might be interesting to hear about and discuss. But "every religion has its share of extremists"? -- that's just a cop-out.

So what do you think: are there circumstances in which it's fair to hold a religion responsible for the misbehavior of its adherents? If so, what are those circumstances?
qatarperegrine: (disturbed)
From today's Gulf Times (courtesy of Jon):

Jail for blasphemy
By Nour Abuzant
A Doha court has handed down a Lebanese man three-year imprisonment and subsequent deportation for uttering blasphemous words.
During the trial, the court heard how the accused, a foreman, made the offending comment to one of his workers at a worksite, on May 1, 2007.
The prosecution said the man uttered the blasphemous words after a worker failed to carry out his instruction. He also fired the worker.
Two other workers who were present at the site at the time of the incident testified against their boss.
The accused denied the charge and said he sacked the worker because he did not follow the orders.
Delivering the judgement, the court said that based on the witnesses’ testimony it was convinced that the accused uttered the “blasphemous remark.”
The crime was particularly serious as the accused was a Muslim, the court said.
The convict has appealed against the ruling.

  1. WTF!
  2. I wonder what, specifically, he said?
  3. W. T. F!
qatarperegrine: (ramadan)
Today is the first day of Ramadan. I wish fortitude to all my fasting friends!

My favorite Ramadan moment was the first day of Ramadan two years ago; it's one of my quintessential Doha memories.

On the morning of the first day of Ramadan I made myself tea in the faculty kitchen and then ducked into my friend Paul's office to drink it in secret. A few moments later Doug walked in, looking nonchalant, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his fleece jacket. After kicking the door closed behind him, he carefully pulled a large mug of coffee out of his pocket.

We were laughing at the lengths we were going to to hide our haram consumption of liquids when there was a knock at the door. John Barr, a CS professor, poked his head in. His trademark hat was in his hands, with the brim held together like it was a purse. Cautiously looking left and right, he opened it with a flourish. It was full of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Ramadan, at least as practiced by an almost-entirely Muslim society, is all about building a sense of fellow-feeling among those who are enduring the same hardships together. That morning, sharing furtive cookies and tea with my friends behind closed doors, I got a little of that Ramadan community spirit too.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
I found myself staring at the bookshelf in a hospital waiting room this morning, while waiting for a routine appointment. The bookshelf said something along the lines of:
Missionary Materials
Missionary and Guidance Department
For Reading Only

After I finished congratulating myself on reading the Arabic, I started wondering more about the books on that shelf. It held one copy of the Qur'an and a handful of pamphlets and booklets on the amazingness of Islam -- I recognized them, because I have the English versions. But the ones in the state hospital here are all in Arabic.

This leaves, as I see it, two options:

  1. In a stunning market research blunder, the Missionary and Guidance Department failed to notice that the Qataris are already Muslim, OR

  2. All these missionary materials exist for the sole benefit of Doha's Lebanese Christian population, at a rate of approximately one missionary book per Lebanese Christian.
I daresay they need to rethink their target audience a little. Perhaps they could learn from the Al Qaeda missionaries....
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
A friend asked me for a recommended reading list on religion. That's a daunting task, and I'm sure there are a lot of great books I've forgotten to include -- not to mention all the great ones I've never even read. Some of the religions are woefully underrepresented, too. However, of the books I've read on religious studies and theology, here are my favorites.

(Ones I don't have with me in Doha are grayed out. I also can't find Faith and Belief or Remedial Christianity -- did I lend them to one of you?)

Cut for extreme length )

So what about you guys -- if you had to recommend a handful of books on religion, what would you recommend?
qatarperegrine: (Default)
An article in today's Peninsula about renewed Danish boycotts ended with the following paragraph:
"Meanwhile, Al Sharq [The Peninsula's Arabic-language sister paper] has called upon its readers to take part in its campaign. The daily urged the readers to visit the Wikipedia website and sign a petition for the removal of the blasphemous cartoons immediately.

According to Wikipedia's terms and conditions, 10,000 signatures are enough to remove them from its website."
Things that are wrong with this picture:
a) The petition is to remove medieval Muslim pictures of Mohammed from Wikipedia, not the cartoons.
b) Wikipedia does not remove content as a result of petitions; someone just totally made that up. Way to fact-check, Peninsula.
c) They suggest two different ways of finding the petition (going to Wikipedia; going to, neither of which is the correct location of the petition. Ah well, at least this means the disinformation is self-limiting.
qatarperegrine: (quran)
Over 200,000 people have recently signed an online petition asking for pictures of the Prophet Mohammad to be removed from Wikipedia.

The petition says:
"In Islam picture of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other Humans are not allowed. But Wikipedia editors are showing illustrations with face illustrated and face is veiled or white washed. But still they are offensive to Muslims. I request all brothers and sisters to sign this petitions so we can tell Wikipedia to respect the religion and remove the illustrations."

Leaving aside the ridiculousness of petitioning a wiki to remove content, and of asking non-Muslims to abide by the Sunnah, let's focus on the ridiculousness of the petitioners' choice of targets. The picture specifically mentioned in the petition, reprinted above, is from an 11th century book by al-Biruni, an 11th century Muslim scientist. Apparently the petitioners are unaware that Shi'a Islam has a long and vibrant history of depicting the Prophet. (And al-Biruni wasn't himself even Shia.)

Of even more interest are the bogeymen implicated by the outraged Muslims. In his blog, the originator of the petition blames this portrayal of the Prophet on "west European and Atheist" Wikipedia admins. In the associated Facebook group someone commented, "THIS IS DEFINATELY THE ACT OF JEWS FUCK U MOTHER FUCKER ASSHOLES."

Apparently Jews and/or atheists are traveling back in time to eleventh century Persia to produce Muslim devotional artwork. Funny old world, isn't it?
qatarperegrine: (jesus)
I just came across a rather telling article on

The article recounts the Pope's recent decision to temper the language of a prayer used by the small number of Catholics still using the Latin Mass. The prayer, said only on Good Fridays, formerly called Jews "blind" and asked God to "lift the veil from their hearts." The new version of the prayer still calls for the conversion of Jews to Christianity, but does so a little more politically correctly.

Most newspapers reporting on this story have a lead graf like the AP's:
"The Vatican on Tuesday issued a new version of a Roman Catholic prayer that had long offended Jews, but some said the changes don't go far enough."
IslamOnline's, in contrast, reads like this:
"Even though Pope Benedict XVI has agreed to change a traditional Roman Catholic prayer just to please them, Jewish leaders remained unsatisfied."
Oh, those pesky Jewish leaders, never satisfied.

The kicker, though, is the ending of the IslamOnline piece:
"Pope Benedict is no stranger to controversy.
He had angered Muslims worldwide with a speech in which he hinted that Islam was violent and irrational.
Benedict expressed regret for the reaction to his speech, but stopped short of a clear apology sought by Muslims.
The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) has since been boycotting the Vatican."

The message is pretty clear. If Jews feel disrespected by the Vatican, it's their fault for being unreasonably demanding. If Muslims feel disrespected, it's the Pope's fault for being insensitive.

Now, I could see an argument being made that members of one religion should resign themselves to the fact members of another religion may indeed believe that religion B is truer and better, and thus that adherents of religion A would be better off converting. But if that's true, and Jews are silly to be offended that the Pope thinks Christianity is better than Judaism, then shouldn't Muslims also accept that the Pope thinks Christianity is better than Islam?
qatarperegrine: (quran)
A cache of photos of very early Qur'ans manuscripts containing the Qur'an [see comments], thought to have been destroyed in World War II, has just come to light, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Apparently, in the 1920s and 30s, European scholars of Arabic traveled around the Muslim world, painstakingly photographing the oldest Qur'ans they could find. The oldest of these apparently dates from 700, which is pretty dang old for a Qur'an, given that the form of the book was standardized under Caliph Uthman in 650. German scholars are now undertaking a several-decade-long research project to compare these texts and see what they find out.

The Christian world has a longstanding tradition of textual criticism -- comparing ancient manuscripts against each another and coming up with heuristics about which variant is more likely to be original. Some of these heuristics include: early manuscripts are more reliable than late ones; readings that appear in geographically diverse manuscripts are more reliable than readings that appear only in one region; passages are more likely to be simplified than obfuscated; explanatory passages are more likely to be added than removed. To see textual criticism in action, check your nearest Bible for John 5:4. Unless you've got a King James Version, you're not going to find it: since that verse only appears in relatively late, Byzantine manuscripts, translations more recent than the KJV have decided it isn't an authentic Bible verse at all.

Such textual criticism doesn't exist in the Muslim tradition. It's an article of faith in Islam that the Qur'an is uncreated and unchanging, and thus that a Qur'an from 700 AD would be absolutely identical to the Qur'an sitting on my bookshelf, except that it would lack the dots that disambiguate many letters, e.g. ب from ت from ث, and also of course all the short vowels. I suspect the average Muslim would see the very existence of textual criticism in the West as evidence that the Bible is a corrupted scripture (silly Christians can't even agree on what their scripture says!). The application of these methods to the Qur'an is generally rather unwelcome.

So it will be interesting to see how this new find plays out. It's obviously going to be plenty controversial; you can tell that simply from the fact that more recent attempts by non-Muslim scholars to undertake a similar photo project resulted in the Yemeni government confiscating all the photos. The WSJ article quotes a Moroccan scholar as saying that this research investigating the Qur'an "is like telling a Christian that Jesus was gay." I think that's probably an underestimate.
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
A lawyer avers, in today's Peninsula, that "women are physiologically not geared to be in a judge's role since their performance can be affected during menstrual cycle, pregnancy and delivery," and more generally that "they are emotionally disposed which can be disadvantageous for a judge's job."

While troublesome, this sentiment is less disturbing than that of a Yemen Times article entitled There Must Be Violence Against Women, which accuses human rights organizations of failing to recognize the necessity of violence against women to maintaining family life. ("Personally, I don’t think fathers or brothers would undertake such behavior unless there was a reason for it," the author says. In related news, a Qatari resident just bashed his wife's skull in for not being at her office during the day, which he took to mean she was having an affair.)

Al-Kholidy's article is slightly confusing; for example, it argues that the Qur'anic injunction to beat your wife is a mistranslation, but then says that failing to beat women would lead to the downfall of Islamic values. But it does bring up an interesting conundrum. If you accept that God says husbands should (in some cases) beat their wives, then any movement to eliminate violence against women is irreligious. More broadly, if God has handed down a set of guidelines for how to run a society, any attempt to run society differently is problematic.

Both the Bible and the Qur'an have all kinds of unsavory verses that recommend beating one's children, stoning adulterers, killing heretics, and so on. It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between Christianity and Islam as practiced in the world today is that most Christians are perfectly happy to explain away those verses, whereas Muslims seem to have a harder time ignoring God's more troublesome edicts. Progressive Christians say that these archaic laws don't represent the will of God for our time. Outside of American academic discourse, I've never heard a Muslim suggest that.

I've often wondered what the difference is between Christianity and Islam that the unsavory laws are, on the whole, interpreted so differently. Is it inherent in the differences between the Qur'an, which outlines a comprehensive system of organizing society, and the New Testament, which focuses more on the individual? Is it a result of Christianity's ambivalence towards the Law? Or is it just that biblical interpretation has been shaped by centuries of Western humanism? After all, Christianity as practiced outside the U.S. and Europe is much more likely to side with Mr. Al-Kholidy on this issue.

Lest I come across as sounding biased against Islam and towards Christianity here, I will say that this is one of the issues that disenchanted me with Christianity. If American Christians are unlikely to agree with Al-Kholidy that women need to be beaten, or with Abu Nida that women lack the "balanced disposition" to become a judge, it is not because the Bible is imbued with feminist values; as far as I can tell, Western feminism developed despite Christianity, not because of it. The same is arguably true of all values I care most about -- equality, self-determination, tolerance, rationalism. It's hardly a celebration of Christianity if we manage to be civilized by ignoring scriptural injunctions to be otherwise.
qatarperegrine: (fsm)
A Peninsula article gives more info on the building of churches in Qatar than I had previously read. Various Christian churches exist in Qatar, but thus far they have been meeting in private homes and schools. A couple years ago the emir provided land for the construction of church buildings, and it sounds like they will soon be done. Within a year or so, Qatar should boast physical Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Coptic, and Indian churches.

More interestingly, the article puts the number of Christians in Qatar at a little over 140,000. That's around 15% of the population of Qatar. Official statistics always say that Qatar is over 95% Muslim, but those stats must only take Qatari citizens into account. I often wonder what percentage are Hindu and Buddhist, given the large Asian communities living here.

In other news, a panel discussion at the American Academy of Religion's annual conference this weekend will focus on the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I heartily approve.
qatarperegrine: (buddha)
Yesterday, as part of International Week at school, there was a poster session of the religions represented at CMU-Q. I had seriously considered volunteering to make a poster on secularism, since I think it's little understood by many of our students. Before I got around to volunteering, though, I was asked to represent Buddhism; as a somewhat lackadaisical practitioner of Vipassana meditation I'm the closest thing CMU-Q has to a Buddhist.

Putting the poster together was more difficult than I expected. It was easy to decide what topics I should cover ("Who was the Buddha?", "What are the Four Noble Truths?", etc.) but much more difficult to come up with answers to these questions that nearly all Buddhists would agree with. The creators of the other religion posters agreed that this was difficult for their religions, too. (For the record, these were Hinduism, Judaism, Christanity, Bahai and Unitarianism.)

It was also an interesting task to attempt to convey what I find appealing about Buddhism. I love its practicality and emphasis on self-development. I love its agnosticism about the supernatural. I love that the Buddha said that we shouldn't believe things because he said them, but instead should judge based on personal experience. I love that Buddhist ethics are at heart utilitarian -- avoid harming sentient beings! -- and not full of lots of weird rules that have to be somehow reconciled with our modern sensibilities. I don't think I succeeded in communicating these things to the students, but at least working on the poster got me started thinking about these things.

I still don't call myself a Buddhist, mostly because I still have some serious reservations about the Four Noble Truths. (Namely: OK, so I could reduce my suffering by being less attached, but wouldn't I also reduce joy?). I voice this skepticism over and over when I talk to my Buddhist friends; maybe someday I'll be thoroughly convinced by their replies, but that hasn't happened yet. For now, I remain cheerfully secular. Or at least a cheerfully secular person who wears a dharmachakra necklace every day and has Buddhas all over her home and office.

No, I don't really meditate in this silly pose.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
Visiting the States always provides an interesting opportunity to think about the many ways that living in Qatar has changed me. For example, I'm a lot more gregarious than I was when I lived in Pittsburgh, and generally a lot less fearful -- or at least a lot better at ignoring my fear.

A more obvious example is that I didn't drink before I moved to Doha, and indeed viewed drinking as immoral, whereas now I don't mind drinking. This is actually indicative of a larger shift in my thinking about ethics. Islam is willing to condemn a lot of behaviors which may or may not be inherently harmful, simply because it is believed that God disapproves of them. Of course, plenty of Christians do the same, but my increased familiarity with another religion's list of disapproved behaviors has thrown into sharp relief the problems with divine command theory. It no longer seems reasonable to argue that an action may be unethical simply because one culture's version of God has taken a disliking to it. If an action is unethical, it seems to me, it must be so because it causes harm (is likely to cause harm, has a tendency to cause harm; let's not get too utilitarian here). On a more personal level, seeing Muslims avoiding actions that seem morally neutral to me (like falling asleep on one's stomach) for fear of offending God has made me realize the extent to which my own "moral" stances were motivated by the same desire to be "good enough." I wasn't avoiding alcohol because it has deleterious effects on society; I was avoiding it because doing so allowed me to think of myself as A Good Person. That no longer seems like a good motivation, and thus, I no longer avoid alcohol.

Rethinking the role of religion in ethics made me rethink religion generally, and about six months ago I came to the conclusion that I am no longer Christian. My allegiance is fundamentally not to a Christian worldview but to a secular one. (Thought experiment: if I could choose between a universe in which the Muslim world universally accepted Jesus' messiahship, or one in which it universally accepted the principles of tolerance, free inquiry and rationalism, which would I pick?)

I'm not sure what else to say on this subject, so I'll end here.

I will, however, note that I wrote a long post on secularism a year ago, but never polished it enough to post it publicly. Since I'm unlikely to make any further changes to it now, it is now publicly viewable here.
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
Yesterday I linked to some articles about the interfaith dialogue in progress in Doha. The conference is now over, and here are the remaining news items:

Unsurprisingly, the furor over Israel continued. An Iranian delegate yelled at a rabbi when the rabbi claimed that Iran's government wants to eliminate all Jews in Israel. (Read about the wipe-off-the-map controversy here if you haven't already.) Another rabbi denied allegations that rabbis are "moot [sic] spectators of the atrocities being committed on Palestinians by Israel."

At its final session, the conference announced the establishment of the Doha International Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue and issued a declaration calling for ending stereotyping. This may or may not have been the draft declaration available on the conference webpage.

I am also pleased that someone has pointed out that Hinduism and Buddhism should be represented at interfaith dialogues. What a concept.
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
The Fifth Doha Conference of Interfaith Dialogue is going on right now. It's mostly during work hours, so I haven't been able to go, but there are lots of news reports coming out of it.

Judaism has apparently been a hot topic so far, with "angry outbursts being witnessed at the conference against the Jews." A rabbi felt the need to remind the Peninsula that not all Jews are Zionists. This is only the second year that Jews have been invited to the interfaith dialogue, and once again Qaradawi boycotted as a result.

Western misconceptions about Muslim women have been discussed, with a Swiss Muslimah noting that Westerners believe that "Islam does not give women equality with men; woman is considered as half of man; Islam has given the right to man to buy a woman giving her a dowry (Mahr); Muslim women are confined in their houses and not allowed to go out and mingle with the larger society; Islam does not give woman the right to divorce" and that "Muslim women who wear Hijab (head cover) are doing so under compulsion from their husbands or other members of the family."

Muslim-Christian relations are also discussion, with Lebanon and Jerusalem being upheld as examples of interfaith unity. (The Peninsula can't quite resist discussing "Israel's sinister plans" in the latter article, though.) A Syrian Orthodox archbishop and a Kuwaiti Catholic bishop also commented on the value of interfaith dialogue.

For reference, these are the nine recommendations agreed upon by the previous interfaith dialogue: Recommendations )
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
Two interesting articles on two very different approaches to religious tolerance, forwarded to me last week by [ profile] materjibrail:
  • How to manage religious diversity: Muslim students now outnumber Jewish ones at a Jewish school in Birmingham. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that devout Muslims see a religious school of a different religion as preferable to a secular one, but it's still pretty amazing. My favorite quote, from a Muslim mother: "the kids often sing Hebrew songs in the bath, which is a bit confusing because we speak Gujarati at home, but I think it's great."

  • How NOT to manage religious diversity: violence against one of Iraq's religious minorities has been skyrocketing, and one of the five remaining bishops of the faith says their religion will be wiped out if they're not accepted as refugees by the West. The religion is called Mandaeism; it's a very small but ancient Gnostic religion whose followers see John the Baptist as a major prophet and Jesus as a false messiah.
qatarperegrine: (shiva)
Last week, the issue of hell came up at an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians at Education City. One of the participants explained hell by saying that God loves people so much that God punishes us when we hurt another one of God's beloved servants. And, in fact, God loves us so much, God even punishes us for hurting ourselves. As happens every time the subject of hell and divine retribution comes up, I was struck by how little sense this concept makes to me.

I've never formally studied theories of justice, but when I worked in corrections, it seemed like there are a couple of different justifications given for punishing wrongdoers, for example:
  • incapacitation: wrongdoers should be prevented from being able to commit further crimes against the community.
  • specific deterrence: wrongdoers should be punished in order to discourage them from committing further crimes.
  • general deterrence: wrongdoers should be punished in order to discourage other people from committing similar crimes.
  • rehabilitation: wrongdoers should be helped to become more productive members of society in future.
All these justifications are essentially utilitarian: they say that punishment is justifiable only when it serves a purpose. As a pet owner, I can relate to this. If I smack my cat for biting me in the (vain) hopes that this will dissuade her from biting me in the future, this is punishment. If I smack my cat simply because I am angry, knowing that it won't change her behavior, then IMHO I am not punishing her; I am abusing her.

But hell can't possibly serve any of the functions we accept as possible justification for punishment. It can't incapacitate or even deter people from committing further sins, since, well, they're dead. It can't rehabilitate them (this may be debated if, like Muslims, you believe hell may be temporary). I suppose you could argue that hell provides a general deterrent, since people might abstain from sins for fear of going to hell. But if that's the real justification for hell, then God is effectively sacrificing some people's eternal happiness in order to make an example of them for others, and it's hard to imagine God being so... well, un-Kantian.

When you've ruled out the utilitarian justifications for punishment, it seems like the only one left (to my knowledge) is retribution. The retribution theory of justice says that it is moral to punish someone for wrongdoing even if the punishment won't improve the situation, simply because wrongdoing merits punishment. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me, for the reason discussed above in the kitten example. There may be circumstances in which it is ethical to harm someone, because that harm is necessary for a greater good. But if no greater good is served, then harming someone is wrong, even if they've previously harmed someone else. Two wrongs don't make a right.

So, readers, what do you think? Is there any utilitarian justification for the existence of hell? Is retribution an adequate justification? Or is there some other justification entirely? (Of course, if things are virtuous because they are godly and not vice versa, there is no reason to justify God's actions whatsoever -- but, then we also shouldn't advance arguments like the one that came up at the interfaith dialogue.)
qatarperegrine: (buddha)
* Meryn Cadell lyric

Maybe it's hackneyed, but the end of the year seems like a good occasion to reflect on 2006 and look forward to 2007.

What can I say for myself in 2006? It was a very strange year, and eventful in private, interior ways I have not much discussed here.

I was not exceedingly happy for the first half of the year, and then around about June or July something shifted in my life, although I don't yet fully understand what or how or why. Perhaps it was the inevitable culmination of reading a lot of Buddhist and existentialist writings. Or perhaps the proto-stirrings of this thing are the reason I was drawn to those writings to begin with.

I began to see, I think, that much of who I was had become ossified, fossilized. My identity was the sum of decisions long past, decisions I remained with more out of habit and routine than because I still believed in them. Or, to switch analogies, I felt that my identity was a series of accretions and encrustrations that had built up on me over time, like barnacles so crowding the surface of a rock that you can no longer tell what kind of rock it is.

I thought of an exercise in one of my cross-cultural training classes in college, in which we'd been asked to write down five things that described us. Good student, I wrote. A Christian. Justin's fiance. An ethical person. I forget what was fifth; shy, maybe, or timid. There's nothing wrong with any of those things (aren't barnacles pretty?) but I began to feel that I was experiencing myself, experiencing MARJORIE, as simply a container that held all these labels. Who would I be without those labels? Would I recognize myself if those things weren't true anymore?

So I started meditating more. And reading Sartre.

I always feel like a bad Buddhist for saying this, because of the strange and paradoxical Buddhist teachings on no-self, but the first time I ever did Buddhist meditation, the immediate result was a very powerful experience of my self-ness, of my astonishing existence. I guess that's a realization I needed to nurture this summer. In some powerful sense, those labels and identities are unreal, unsubstantive. The only reality that exists for me is my self, in this moment, interacting with the world around me. Perhaps this is not so un-Buddhist then. Perhaps I experienced suchness.

I feel I have begun to submit to some indescribable cleansing process by which these encrustrations can be eroded. The barnacles are being scrubbed, sanded off of me -- all those identities that had remained with me only because they were familiar and I hadn't thought to change them. Nondrinker. Churchgoer. Christian, even. They are labels that meant something to me years ago, things I felt passionately about. Now they are... barnacles. And I'd like, once in my life, to see what this rock of a self looks like with no barnacles at all.

I am terrified. Who am I if the pieces that assembled my sense of self are gone? Who am I underneath those labels? Tell me what your face looked like before your parents were born.

I don't know where to end this post, because I don't know where it all ends. That sander buffeting me is coming close to the quick, and I don't know how I'll know when the tired old labels, the unuseful, hindering labels are gone and everything left is what I want to keep. What if I go too far, let go of too much? What if I let this sandstorm keep buffeting me until everything erodes away and there is nothing left?

What if barnacles are all there is?

2006. A year ago I knew who I was. I wasn't always happy, and I was struggling mightily with a big lump of dissatisfaction in my life, but I at least felt like I had a basic grasp on who I was. Today, not so much. Whether this is progress or regress remains to be seen.

Ros: I remember when there were no questions.
Guil: There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.
Ros: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.
Guil: You've forgotten.
Ros (flaring): I haven't forgotten -- how I used to remember my own name! And yours, Oh, yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it -- people knew who I was and if they didn't they asked and I told them.
Guil: You did, the trouble is, each of them is... plausible, without being instinctive. All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque.


qatarperegrine: (Default)

August 2011

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