What are the Limits to Religious Tolerance?

One of the greatest legacies of America’s Founding Fathers is the Bill of Rights which was made a part of our Constitution. Of particular note is the First Amendment which says,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

While those “rights” have over the years been bent and battered by authority, they remain an essential part of the mythos of America as a “free country.” In the first and second clauses, it was the intention of the Founders to prevent the federal government from establishing a “national religion.” This provision is generally described as requiring “the separation of church and state.” What that actually means in practice has long been a subject of debate and a matter for judicial clarification. People generally take it to mean that the government is prevented from favoring one religious institution over the others by prescribing particular religious practices or providing public (material) support to any particular religious institution.

Americans tend to forget that many other countries around the world do not adhere to the ideal of the state as a “secular” entity. Most, but not all of those that have a state religion are Islamic. Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Greece each have as their official religion some form of Christianity, as does Argentina, which happens to be Roman Catholic.

Islam has of late, for a variety of reasons, been the focus of greater scrutiny by both Americans and Europeans. Until recently, there had been little direct contact with Muslims. They were “those people, over there,” in the middle-east or Asia. But now they are coming here in greater numbers and their presence is being felt. Mosques are becoming increasingly common and Islamic practices are ever more noticeable. The city of Dearborn, Michigan, with a 40% Muslim population, is now known as “America’s Muslim Capital.” How has that impacted the lives of non-Muslims in southeastern Michigan? I’ve not done enough research to say, but I did find a video that disturbs me. It is titled, Arab Festival 2009: Sharia in the US, and shows what happened when a video crew sought to get some answers on camera.


Now I consider myself a social liberal. My personal philosophy is “live and let live,” and one of my primary personal goals is to promote human unity. It is an undeniable fact that religion has throughout history been one of the most divisive forces, and all manner of atrocities have been committed in the name of one god or another. The fact is that religion has always exerted political influence in one way or another.

Islam has been particularly assertive in that regard. When speaking of a particular religion, one must be careful not to over-generalize. Islam, like Christianity has its multitudinous sects and schisms, and more than its fair share of crazy clerics. But I have a distinct impression that for Muslims in general, religious tolerance is NOT a two-way street. It seems that most Muslim clerics have as their agenda the imposition of “Sharia law” upon civil society. It would be prudent for Westerners to learn about Islam, its agenda, and its methods. Bill Warner has provided A Short Overview of Sharia Law, which highlights a few items from the Koran that I find very disturbing.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Muslim countries, mostly in Malaysia, and had a chance to see the way things work there. Malaysia is probably the most moderate of Muslim countries. It is a federation of states, Sultanates, and former western colonies that was cobbled together in 1957. The official religion is Islam. Other religions are tolerated and freely practiced but they do not enjoy the same support as Islam. On the surface, there is the appearance of social harmony, but there is an undercurrent of tension that often bubbles to the surface. About two thirds of the population of the Malaysian Federation is Muslim. The remainder is comprised mainly of Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus, but the distribution of the minorities varies widely from one state to another. Some Malaysian states are overwhelmingly Muslim, and Sharia law tends to be more generally applied.

On my first extended visit to Malaysia I spent the first night at a guesthouse close to the beach. It happened to be located directly in front of a mosque and it was during the month of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims. As you may know, it is Muslim practice to call the faithful to prayers five times a day. It would not be so bad if the call was not so strongly amplified electronically, but it was so loud, persistent and prolonged that it had to flee the area to find more peaceful surroundings in the city.

The sign pictured here was taken at a hotel where massage is offered, this in a state that is majority Chinese. Even there, Sharia law is enforced, but only upon Muslims. There are “religious police” that carry out unannounced inspections to assure that the HPIM6178SignCrp-300x208law is being complied with. How do they determine who is Muslim and who is not? In Malaysia, everyone has an identity card that specifies their religious affiliation. “Born a Muslim, always a Muslim,” is the official position asserted by Islamic institutions and culture. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to renounce that religion, and we’ve all seen how touchy and vengeful the Imams can be with their fatwas. One celebrated case of a few years ago was the “contract” that was put out on the life of Salman Rushdie because some Imams found his Satanic Verses to be “offensive to Islam.” They actually offered a cash reward to anyone who would kill him.

My experience with Muslims as individuals has been generally positive. My Muslim friends are warm, generous, and hospitable, but the institutions of Islam bear watching. The general assertion of any particular religious views and practices tends to repress others and create an atmosphere of fear and submission, and leads to widespread hypocrisy. Hence, the regular visits of Muslim men to neighboring Thailand where they can more safely pursue their carnal pleasures.

The most disturbing thing I’ve come across lately was a video so grizzly and repulsive that I even hesitate to mention it. It was sent to me by a friend and it shows the stoning of a young girl that occurred recently in some unspecified Islamic country. I’m still haunted by the image of the final blow, a young man smashing a cement block into the girl’s head. The girl’s alleged crime was her refusal of an arranged marriage to a much older man.

To my Islamic brothers and sisters I offer this bit of wisdom from an article that appeared recently in the Huffington Post. In it, religious scholar and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong quotes “the great thirteenth-century Sufi philosopher” Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi:

“Do not attach yourself in an exclusive manner to any one creed, so that you disbelieve all the rest: if you do this, you will miss much good; nay, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for He says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah” (Quran 2.109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

The looming global economic, social, political and environmental transition is going to be difficult enough; we should not complicate it by too much mixing of divergent cultural and religious traditions. The future of civilization will depend upon those of us who can put aside religious, racial, cultural, and political differences to work together in common cause to create a sustainable, convivial, equitable and peaceful civilization.

I’m no fan of Newt Gingrich but I think he may be right on this point: Speaking at the Value Voters Summit, Gingrich proposed a federal law banning Sharia (Muslim) law in America. He said, “I am opposed to any effort to impose Sharia in the United States, and we should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will Sharia be used, in any court, to apply to any judgment made about American law.”

I think John Lennon had it right when he was inspired to write his song, Imagine. Note the phrase: …and no religion, too.

Here are the complete lyrics:

Imagine – John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope someday you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

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The World Tomorrow

It must have been sometime around 1970 when I first heard The World Tomorrow broadcast with Garner Ted Armstrong. I would subsequently listen to it on the drive home after teaching my night school class. I had never heard about the “divided kingdom” or the 10 Lost Tribes and I was greatly intrigued by the idea that the people of Israel might actually have migrated to Europe, Britain, and America, and that Bible prophecy might pertain to present-day geo-politics.

My longstanding interest in history was further stimulated by these assertions but my energies at that time were preoccupied with my young family and academic career. It was a few years later, after a personal crisis and divorce that I began to look more deeply into all aspects of my life, including the spiritual. I had already a few years earlier put aside my belief in Catholic teachings but had not made the effort to supplant that faith with anything else.

It was with some trepidation that I began to read the Bible, something that the Church did not encourage. I quickly discovered why. There was much in the Bible that contradicted Catholic doctrine and practice, and it became obvious that the institutional objective was to keep “the faithful” in line and dependent upon the clergy. One case in point: Call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven (Matt. 23:9 KJV). And, of course, Catholic priests insist on being called, “father.”

I also, about that time, took a subscription to the Plain Truth magazine, which I looked forward to reading each month. I found most of the articles on geopolitics and current affairs to be well researched and quite insightful, which helped me to gain a more realistic worldview. I also made it a point to listen more regularly to the World Tomorrow broadcasts, which, following Garner Ted’s banishment had been taken over by Herbert Armstrong. I was rather dismayed to see the chaos and disintegration that followed Herbert Armstrong’s death, but there was a lot going on in my life at the time, and I had never involved myself with the Worldwide Church of God organization, so it simply passed out of my life.

A little less than two years ago, while waiting in my doctor’s office, I happened to notice a magazine that bore a peculiar resemblance to the old Plain Truth. I discovered that the Philadelphia Trumpet, under Gerald Flurry, is now being published by an organization that calls itself the “Philadelphia Church of God,” which looks to be a reincarnation of the Herbert Armstrong enterprise. I’ve been subscribing to the new PT for a little more than a year now and I must credit it with being similarly informative and insightful, despite some obvious political biases and blind spots.

It is clear that humanity is currently confronted with a multi-dimensional crisis—it is at once economic, financial, environmental, political, and social. A recent issue of Philadelphia Trumpet highlighted this in a lead article titled, The Upside-Down World (by Joel Hilliker). I can surely agree that the World is “upside-down” but that author’s assessment of underlying causes has the ring of  typical “Christian conservatism.” Like so many of that ilk, it rails against liberal social norms but overlooks the gross inequities inherent in our political economy. I cannot recall ever seeing, either in the old PT or the new PT, any mention of usury or the debt-trap, and very little about social injustice, gross economic inequities, or state-sanctioned corporate privilege that enables the few to dominate the many.

Over the past several years, I’ve made a careful study of the structures of the money and banking system and discovered that there are serious flaws inherent in the way money is created and allocated. This has profound implications for all of us. As Thomas H. Greco puts it:

Money is a topic that few people understand. Sure, we use it every day and it seems familiar; but like water to the fish, we take it for granted and seldom give its role any notice. Yet the quality of the water that the fish inhabit is crucial in determining the quality of their existence. If the water happens to be polluted, the fish sicken and die. Likewise, money is a primary element of the modern economy that we inhabit. The quality of the money we use determines, to a great extent, the quality of our lives. (Money: Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender. Chelsea Green, 2001)

Did you ever wonder why both the Bible (Old Testament and New) and the Koran make such a big issue about the practice of usury, or why it was so severely punished under Canon law for hundreds of years? Well, it turns out that the compounding of interest (usury) demands exponential growth, in this case the exponential growth of debt. All questions of equity aside, it is clear that in a finite world nothing can grow exponentially forever. Growth must at some point either level off, or there will be a catastrophic collapse. This is often seen with insect and animal populations. When they grow at an accelerating rate they inevitably overrun their habitats and exhaust their food supplies. So too, the amount of debt in the world must soon exceed the ability of the real economy to bear it.

This is not just theoretical; we can see it playing out right now. As the chart shows, even TotalUSDebt-300x256as late as 1965, total debt for all sectors in the United States was a relatively small one trillion dollars, or 1.5 time total economic output (GDP). By 2007 that had grown to more than $50 trillion or 3.5 times GDP, and George Soros, the billionaire financier and speculator is predicting that debt will soon reach 5 times GDP.

If you want to understand how the money system operates and the root causes of economic depressions, inflation, and so much of the violent conflict in the world, you should study Greco’s websites, http://beyondmoney.net/ and http://reinventingmoney.com/. You should also view Paul Grignon’s animated video Money as Debt (http://paulgrignon.netfirms.com/MoneyasDebt/index2.htm) which is available on DVD or on YouTube , (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVkFb26u9g8).

More about this in the next installment–Santos

What do I know, and how do I know it?

A couple weeks ago I noticed an announcement in the local weekly newspaper about an upcoming lecture that had the provocative title, God on Trial, which was scheduled for the following Sunday morning, a time when the majority of Americans would be attending services at one church or another. I was intrigued and made a note to attend.

When I arrived at the lobby of the auditorium, I found myself amongst a throng of people who were engaged in lively conversation. It turned out they were members of the sponsoring organization that calls itself the Center for Inquiry (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/ ), which I had not heard of before. Rather than try to butt into the conversations, I proceeded on into the auditorium and found myself an aisle seat with a good view of the lectern.

What followed was a thoroughly fascinating presentation by a man named Richard W. Morris, who went on at length about his experiences as a lawyer, prosecutor, professor, aviator, skeptic, and, as he eventually revealed, novelist. His lecture was largely based on his latest novel by the same title. As I told him during the Q&A session, what he had said was quite enough to convince me to buy his book.

I left with an autographed copy of God on Trial, (http://www.godontrial.ws/) which I found to be thoroughly engaging, and finished reading within a few days. Like most popular novels these days, it is filled with plenty of juicy sex, intrigue, deception and murder, but a great deal of history, philosophy, and logic besides. That’s the kind of story I like, one that is not only suspenseful and entertaining, but one that I can learn something from. The novel recounts many of the atrocities that have been perpetrated down through the ages in the name of one religion or another, particularly those of Christianity, like the “Holy Inquisition” and the various “witch trials,” and it highlights many of the discrepancies and contradictions that exist within the Bible.

The plot line centers on a blasphemy trial in which “the State must first prove the existence of God in court, using the standard Rules of Evidence.” A major sub-plot describes the corruption, debauchery and financial shenanigans that go on within a major religious organization that bears a striking resemblance to several well-know groups.

Throughout the book, David, the protagonist and the defendant in the trial, who also happens to be a Ph.D. candidate and teacher of philosophy at the local university, keeps repeating the question to his students: “What do I know, and how do I know it?” Quite a legitimate question, I think, and one that I have given much consideration over the years. In my youth I was taught that we can come to knowledge either (1) through our senses and rational processes, or (2) through “Divine revelation.”

Philosophers get into some pretty deep debates about the nature of “reality” and “consciousness,” but I won’t even try to go there. It seems quite evident that what we experience through our senses leads us to learn, to know, and to understand as we process information through our rational mind. It’s this “Divine revelation” that causes so much controversy and strife. Is it truly a way of knowing? If so, where does it come from? Is that what we call “God?”

At a practical level, I concluded long ago that most (if not ALL) religion is a racket. There has never been any shortage of people—priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, etc.—who claim to have had a Divine revelation, and/or who claim to speak for God – “Thus saith the LORD….,” etc. Some of these, no doubt, believe what they preach, but what is the foundation for their beliefs? What we “think” we know about these things is largely determined by an accident of birth. If I had been born into a Muslim or Jewish family I would have been instilled with a different set of beliefs. As it happened, it’s been my Roman Catholic indoctrination I’ve had to overcome. Having been the product of 17 years of Catholic schools, it’s something close to “miraculous” that I ever succeeded. Maybe it was my personal “Divine revelation” that did it. — Santos

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