Monday, 31 March 2008

the good, the bad and the ugly

Religion can bring out the best, and unfortunately the worst, in people ....

the good

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on Catherine Hamlin and her late husband Reg, both doctors, who have given the entire working lives helping women in Ethiopia who suffer from terrible birth injuries.

Often giving birth at a very young age, and in unhealthy conditions without medical help, these girls suffer from incontinence caused by the injuries (fistulas), which makes them socially ostracised. The Hamlins performed thousands of operation to restore good health since they went to Africa in the 1960s.

Several Fistula hospitals have been built, and Catherine, now 84, is leading a campaign to train and send out Ethiopian midwives to villages all over the country. The couple's motivation came from the words of Jesus: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Catherine says: "I do believe this is a God-given job".

the bad

The same issue of the SMH reported on a christian school in Australia which has been accused of defrauding the Government of $2M by falsifying enrolments to attract greater subsidies.

I won't give any further details because I don't want to be a gossip, and because the matter has not been resolved legally, but reportedly the principal has been sacked and the school closed.

These things just shouldn't happen. We christians need to learn that the ends never justify bad means, and that if we trust God, we should never need to cut corners.

the ugly

Christians face persecution from other religions in many places over the world:

  • In Sri Lanka, a Christian pastor was shot dead in February, and since then a "wave" of attacks, including burning a church down, attacks by armed mobs, stony and threats, have been made against Christians.
  • Violence against Christians in India is increasing, according to a UN representative; in many cases police are complicit or turning a blind eye. Hindu extremists have reacted in recent years to the conversion of former Hindus to Christianity - efforts to free the low Dalit caste from oppression have been particularly effective and resented.
  • In Palestine, itself suffering in the ongoing "war" between Islamic militants and Israel, Christians have been murdered abused and intimidated, leading to an exodus of Christians from the country.
  • Christians in Iran face imprisonment, harassment and discrimination in Iran, despite being guaranteed religious freedom in law.
  • A recent court ruling in Malaysia that a woman did not have the right to convert from Islam to another religion has alarmed religious minorities in that country.

We in the west need to be careful about being too judgmental about these problems - after all similar acts are in our heritage. Humility and tolerance all round would be a start!

Sources for information include Christian Solidarity Worldwide, International Christian Concern, United Nations and Amnesty International.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

earth hour, 2008

Last year, Sydney switched off many its lights as people joined in the first Earth Hour.

This year, cities and smaller settlements from scores of countries joined in. By all accounts it has been a great success. It's only a symbolic event, but awareness and willingness to change are the first steps.

Sydney city centre during Earth Hour. (Photo: Sydney Morning Herald)

Power generation represents one major source of carbon emissions (I've seen figures like 30%, but it would surely vary a lot), so cutting electricity usage by 5%, as was estimated in Sydney, is only token, but still symbolic.

Earth Hour at the local Anglican church - learning how to make simple changes
- when will someone invent a candle-powered data projector? : )

Of course the challenge is to turn this growing public goodwill into effective action, something our politicians often seem to struggle with. There are so many who say how large the problem is, but the economic costs of not acting will be even greater - the Stern report and other sources quoted by the European Union estimate that the cost of not acting now on climate change will be about 5-20% of global GDP, whereas the cost of acting will be less than 1% of GDP.

"All" it will take is for all of us to be willing to vote for, and continue to support, politicians who will make the painful decisions that will cost us now, to save our children and grandchildren far more. Surely we can do that much?

Monday, 24 March 2008

new generations and religious belief

Some recent studies have given interesting insights into the impact of religious belief on younger Australians.

One study by the Australian Catholic and Monash universities found the following beliefs among Aussie teenagers (aged 13 to 17):

  • 47% said they were Christians, although only 17% were active in their faith,
  • 31% had no religious belief,
  • 15% had new age beliefs, and
  • 7% had other beliefs.

The same study also found that "those with serious spiritual and religious beliefs were likely to donate more money, participate more in their communities and be more concerned about their society than their non-religious counterparts."

The press release for the study says: "Noting that strong engagement with a belief system is related to good citizenship, the authors pose the question: where will young people of the future learn civic values and a commitment to the common good? Who, apart from parents, is going to pass these values on to them and lead them to participate in community service?"

A University of Queensland study has found that only 8% of young adults attend church weekly. Among young adults, "Moving away from traditional religious beliefs to trendy, self-focused religions and spirituality is not making young adults happier."

Causes of lower happiness include greater risk of poor mental health and anti-social behaviour, and higher levels of anxiety and depression. "Their focus on self-fulfillment and self-improvement and the lack of emphasis on others' wellbeing appears to have the potential to undermine a person's mental health and social relationships.”

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

one Flew out of the cuckoo's nest?

Whatever famous people do is news. And if a famous person makes a spectacular change of direction, others take notice. So when longtime atheist and philosopher, Antony Flew, said a few years ago that he was re-considering whether there is a God, people reacted.

Flew, the son of a British clergyman, had studied at Oxford and participated in the Socratic Society, a philosophical discussion group founded by famous christian, CS Lewis. Flew embraced atheism, and had a long and distinguished career as a philosopher in several British universities, and as an author. While never as strongly anti-religion as some well known atheists today, Flew had represented atheism in debates and discussions, and was possibly the premier philosophical atheist of the English speaking world.

So when Flew spoke of his doubts about atheism, Christian friends who had been discussing these matters with him for years continued the discussion. Atheist, Richard Carrier, wrote him several letters urging him to hold the atheist line. Prominent christians and atheists (perhaps foolishly) made claims and counter claims about Flew's "real" views, and Flew himself gave somewhat enigmatic replies.

Nevertheless, for a while, it seemed that Flew had heeded Carrier's pleas, and ceased to question his disbelief, but late last year, Flew dropped a bombshell. His latest book was released (he is co-author) and it is titled "There is a God".

Christians welcomed it and atheists were shocked. Amazingly (perhaps) most of the discussion since then has not been on the merits of the case Flew presents for his change of mind, but whether he was of sound mind. Based mostly on an interview Flew gave to a New York Times reporter, atheists argued that their former spokesperson was confused, misled by christians, failing in memory and possibly senile. Accusations that the book was not Flew's writing, but someone else's released under Flew's name, were made, only to be rebutted by Flew - most of the thoughts were his, he said, and most of the words were his co-author's.

It does seem that Flew's memory and strength are failing - he admits it himself (he is now in his 80s) - but it also seems certain that he has changed his views. He has always said that he was not a dogmatic atheist, he would follow wherever the evidence led him, and that he regularly reviewed his beliefs. Many say this, but it seems he actually believes it! Whatever the merits or otherwise of his reasons, it seems arrogant and insensitive of atheists to attack his integrity rather than address his arguments.

So what are the arguments that convinced him? I haven't read the book yet, but reviews indicate the main reasons were the fact that nature (our universe) exists, that nature obeys such rational and well-ordered laws, and that human beings are so rational and purpose driven. He concludes that “the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence”.

Currently he is unwilling to believe in any established religion (he describes himself as a deist - someone who believes in a God who is not active in the world), but he says that christianity is the best candidate and is currently reviewing the evidence for it. He has included in an appendix a discussion of the resurrection of Jesus (a subject he has many times debated with christians), written by New Testament scholar NT Wright.

Cuckoos are birds which lay their eggs in other birds' nests, so they don't actually have nests of their own. Has Antony Flew finally found his true home?

Read about the book There is a God, a review of the book by a christian, the interview in the New York Times, comments by Richard Carrier and comments by another christian..