Tag Archive | BBC

Two Excellent Resources

Just a quick post to alert you to two excellent resources I have discovered today.

One is the new documentary series from the BBC, entitled The Life of Muhammad. The first episode was just aired this week and it seems to balance informed but accessible scholarship with a respectful but not deferential tone. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who is interested… and indeed those who are not. I just wish everyone could see this sort of programme. Viewers in the UK can click the link and watch it on BBC iPlayer, where it is available until August 1 2011 (duration 60 mins).

The other resource is a website that I have stumbled across and will have to check out in much greater detail over the coming weeks. It is patheos.com, which describes itself as:

the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs. Patheos is the website of choice for the millions of people looking for credible and balanced information or resources about religion. Patheos brings together the public, academia, and the faith leaders in a single environment, and is the place where people turn on a regular basis for insight into questions, issues, and discussions. Patheos is unlike any other online religious and spiritual site and is designed to serve as a resource for those looking to learn more about different belief systems, as well as participate in productive, moderated discussions on some of today’s most talked about and debated topics.

Whilst I haven’t had much of a chance to look around it, and whilst always being slightly irked at seeing religion being treated as distinct entities and institutions to which a specified number of adherents belong etc (the good old ‘world religions’ paradigm raises its head once more), there seem to be a huge number of resources here, with vast amounts information on certainly all the major religions in the world… and resources for teachers, students, academics, religious leaders, interested laypeople and more…

I hope both of these ‘tips’ prove useful :)

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Do people become more religious with age? Or is religion aging with the population?

I have just read the article “Longer life expectancy ‘puts people off religion’” on the BBC Website, and had a few comments to make…

The first point I would make is about is ‘fear of death’ thing. According to Dr Elissaios Papyrakis, of the University of East Anglia:

“We show that higher life expectancy discounts expected benefits in the afterlife and is therefore likely to lead to postponement of religiosity, without necessarily jeopardising benefits in the afterlife.

I would direct readers particularly to the work of Phil Zuckerman in Scandinavia. It is a well documented fact that the ‘religious’ fear death more than the nonreligous (although I suppose for religious here one should read ‘Abrahamic faiths’). I guess it stems from the fact that a definite conception of an afterlife entails the possibility of eternal punishment, or at least some sort of judgement, and no matter how sure one is that one has led a good life (by whatever standard this is being judged) there is going to be a certain amount of fear there. So maybe this correlation is correct… but it might just mean that those who fear death because they already hold to some sort of ‘religious’ conception of an afterlife will be the ones who turn to religion as they become older…

The article continues:

Dr Papyrakis said religious organisations should be prepared to accept and attract a “greying church”, with membership skewed towards the older generation, particularly in countries like the UK where life expectancy is high.

To this I would add that according to Samuel Bagg and David Voas

“religious parents in Britain have an approximately 50 percent chance of transmitting their affiliation, belief, and practice on to their children, giving religion [Christianity] a “half-life” of one generation”

From Samuel Bagg and David Voas, “The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society,” in Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), p. 101.

This is a well-documented fact, and were I to have more sources to hand in the office I would provide them. My point is that although we may be tempted to say that the reason churches appear to be ‘ageing’ is that the population is ageing, and although I do not deny that religion is vibrant amongst some of the ‘young’, the main reason that churches are seeing their congregations getting older is because that is just what they are doing…

The article then closes with the following passage:

However, a spokesman for the Church of England disputed the idea that people became part of an organised religion after assessing potential “benefits”.

“People go to church because they believe in something and wish to join in with a community of people who think they same way.”

He added: “The theory doesn’t fit with the US, which has the highest church-going figures in the world.

For this, look at any number of works on ‘existential security’ – particularly the work of Norris & Inglehart. Scholars of religion have been trying for many years to fir he ‘secularisation thesis’ – which works for the ‘rest’ of the Western world, with the fact that religion seems to be alive and well in the United States. Although Grace Davie would argue that Europe is ‘the exceptional case’, personally I am most convinced by the fact that in the United States the vast majority of the population live with next-to-no existential security. If you cannot afford health insurance, you literally cannot afford to get ill… parents face crippling debts and punishing hours to push their kids through college… and what about state care for the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly? Contrast this with the Scandinavian countries where levels of ‘nonreligiosity’ are amongst the highest in the world, and levels of existential security… government provision of vital services… are incredibly high. People may not join churches through ‘assessing benefits’ – as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke would suggest with their ‘Rational Choice Theory’ – but it certainly seems that the ‘need’ for religion is much greater where our ‘earthly’ needs are not being met…

These are just some thoughts off the top of my head… but I would be very interested in reading the actual text of the study.

Oh-Dearism, Atheistic Thought, Humanitarian First-Class Stamps and the Arab World

I have finally had time to go through a bunch of my emails from the past few weeks, and here are a selection of the best links so far:

Snippets from interviews with youth across the Arab World

An excellent history of the idea of ‘humanitarian interventionism’

Newswipe’s take on ‘Oh Dear-ism

And the more light hearted: Members of the British Public attempt to guess the price of a First-Class Stamp

Finally, a plug for a lecture happening in London tomorrow night: Atheism Explained:  The Evolutionary Origins of Atheistic Thought

Atheism is many things to many people.  Within this diversity, the phenomena of non-theism and strong atheism stand out.  In this lecture, Lanman will describe non-theism and strong atheism as they exist in several countries and, using the theories and methods of the social and cognitive sciences, explain their individual origins and international distributions.

The lecture will be held at St Mary’s College University in London, at 6pm on Tuesday 5 April 2011 (drinks from 6, lecture from 6.30pm); please see attached for further details.

The event is free and open to all, but to attend you do need to register by emailing Leonora Paasche at paaschel@smuc.ac.uk

To whet your appetites, Jon had an article outlining his argument in last week’s New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928055.600-religion-is-irrational-but-so-is-atheism.html It promises to be path-breaking, provocative stuff…

Islam at the Dinner Table: Baroness Warsi, Religious Illiteracy, Dichotomies and Road Safety

Baroness Warsi

Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.

The report continued:

Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]

[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.

[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”

In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.

“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.

“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.

“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”

Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.

“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.

“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””

It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.

Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.

I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.

This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.

I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’

On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.

But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.

Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?

Feel free to send in suggestions :P

The Chilean Miners’ Rescue: Three Less-Conventional Thoughts

This is just a quick post to vent a few grievances which have been mounting during the past few days’ news coverage of the rescue of the 33  miners in Chile. Right from the outset I want to get across that I am as ecstatic about this as everyone else seems to be. I think it is a great thing and I praise the ingenuity of everyone involved in the effort, and the great way in which people all over the globe seem to have come together in an atmosphere of mutual hope and thankfulness.

That being said, I have three niggling gripes…

1. Israel

Obviously I don’t mean to tar the entire country with the same brush as Benjamin Netanyahu, I am simply looking to be controversial :P

However, has everyone seen this news article published on Haaretz on 13th October? Apparently:

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Netanyahu himself had predicted the collapse of the Chilean copper and gold mine, where 33 miners had been trapped for 69 days until their ultimate rescue.

The article continues, stating:

The statement [from the Prime Minister’s Office] goes on to mention that “Netanyahu predicted such an event – a mine disaster – in his book Terrorism: How the West can win from 1987.” Quotes from the book were sent to reporters in addition to a scanned page from the actual volume.

Whilst it should be acknowledged that the article adds that important caveat – “It is not clear whether it was Netanyahu himself who asked his office to publicize the quotes, but it is very likely that he approved their release – the sheer audacity of using such an event for some sort of political one-upmanship is mind-boggling. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that the Chilean President has been using the event to his advantage… and that’s a debate that I do not want to get into at this stage… but that any leader of any country could detract from such an amazing humanistic act by making such outrageous claims just seems to fulfill all my negative expectations of politicians. Grr!

2. CNN

I watch an awful lot of BBC News. Far too much. It is mostly because I don’t like most programmes on the TV and am stuck with the option of washing dishes in silence, or with BBC News 24 in the background. I like it… I know the accuracy of most of the reporting varies enormously [for me, personally, see ANY story on religious issues], but it generally provides a pleasant, informative background noise. However, every so often, they decide that it is a great idea to go “live” to a press conference, or to parliament, or to a street where they “think” an important individual may be just about to arrive. This results in 20 minutes of utterly spurious ramblings from press officers/parliamentarians, or a poor news reporter having to fill in the uncomfortable silence whilst we wait for the rapidly-becoming-less-interesting event to occur. The same thing was happening ALL DAY when the miners were being rescued… “here we are at the mine, where any minute now we are expecting the 14th miner to reach the surface… look there’s his wife… he’s been down there for ages… he must be thrilled… can you imagine what it would have been like?… I wish I had had more for breakfast…” etc. So, faced with this I decided to flip channels and realised that I had CNN… “I haven’t watched CNN in a while” I thought… so on it went.

I constantly read in various books for my research about how America is more “religious” than Europe, but I very rarely see tangible examples. CNN proved to be just such an example! They, too, were reporting on the Chilean mine rescue, but what was noticeably different from the BBC was that they continually referred to the faith of the trapped miners. Mario Gómez has been hailed as the “spiritual leader” of the miners, apparently leading them in prayer and building an altar deep in the mine. I am not getting into whether this is a good thing or not – their personal faith is up to them – and I am not criticizing this appearing in a news report. However, it seemed to me that this collective Christian faith, of seemingly “everyone” in Chile, was one of the main thrusts of the news report. Unfortunately I do not have the report, or any sort of official statistics on “numbers of references to religious faith” or anything like that, but the major subjective impression that I got from seeing the report was that religion was a major theme in the CNN report, and non-existent in the BBC report. I wonder if anyone has done a study comparing the pervasiveness of religion in the media? I know I’d like to read it…

3. Chris de Burgh

It is my secret shame that I actually like Chris de Burgh. There probably is no rational reason. One of his albums was on a couple of old cassettes that my dad handed to me when I was eight (including Pink Floyd – Meddle… leading to a lifelong love of Pink Floyd) and I have ever since thoroughly enjoyed listening to his overly sentimental, cheesily OTT music. So, obviously, CdeB is not the point of this rant. However, he has, of late, joined Facebook… and because he was listed in my favourite music I now receive all sorts of bizarre philosophical observations from the man himself (or from someone pretending to be him).

Whilst this particular one smacks of his trademark soppy sentimentality, it really did sum up a lot of my feelings on this current media phenomenon:

So the Alien looks down from space at the jubilant scenes in Chile, and marvels at the saving of 33 lives…and thinks,”then why do humans devise weapons to kill billions? Very strange…”

Disregarding the almost infinite criticisms one could make of such a statement, this did just bring home to me how bizarre the human race is. Somewhere in the region of 20,000+ people die every day from hunger and poverty (see here and here) and according to this BBC Report, 2 people die every minute on average due to some form of conflict situation happening around the globe.

What is it about the human mind that allows the entire world to be transfixed and jubilant at the amazing rescue of 33 hardworking men from the depths of a mine, yet allows the vast majority of us (including myself) to passively ignore the 27,000+ deaths happening every day due to human action and inaction?

I am very pleased that all the miners were rescued safely, and I am very pleased that the “entire” world seemed so jubilant about it and that it may have served as a small catalyst to take us one step closer to the ultimate goal of worldwide “peace” and “harmony” etc etc. I can only hope, however, that this event will awaken the world, especially the West, to our own entrenched hypocrisy, and that it will truly make a difference to the unknown millions who die every year and never receive any media attention.