Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?

World Team Table Tennis Championships in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 2 March 2008/Bobby YipRemember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.

But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.

Pope Benedict at a recent concert in his honor in the Vatian audience hallAs one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Something seemed afoot in the last few months. In November, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, undersecretary for relations with states, was reported to have made a secret visit to China. The Vatican never denied the reports. In March, a Chinese delegation secretly had talks in the Vatican, sources confirmed.

One precedent for baton diplomacy that comes to mind is a similar event that happened in the Vatican on February 20, 1988 when the now mostly-forgotten Cold War still existed.

Germany opts not to ban children’s “anti-religious” book

Are German authorities right to have decided against banning a children’s book about religion which critics say is subversive and promotes atheism? The book “How do I get to God? asks the little pig” follows a little pink pig and a hedgehog in their quest to find God. In the end, the two creatures decide God would not like any of the religions.

Cover of the book “How do I get to God? asks the little pig”But what has angered some readers, including Germany’s Family Ministry, is that the priest, rabbi and mufti are all depicted as being crazy. That, argues the ministry, ridicules relgion and should not be allowed.

The ministry, which also argued the book was anti-Semitic, had tried to get it added to Germany’s list of literature which is dangerous for children. The book cover looks harmless enough, with its picture of a cute little pink pig in blue and white chequered dungarees and his hedgehog companion in Wellington boots, gazing quizzically upwards.

German family ministry slams “atheism for kids” book

Cover of the book “How do I get to God? asks the little pig”Is this book too subversive for children to read? How do I get to God? asks the little pig looks like a typical children’s book, with a cover drawing showing a cute little pig gazing skywards. But the subtitle hints there may be something different inside. It reads: A book for all those who don’t want to be fooled. This is a book about atheism for children, a “Dawkins for kids” as one reviewer dubbed it.

The book tells the story of a little pig and a hedgehog that go looking for God. They meet a priest, a rabbi and a mufti, all of whom are portrayed as crazy. More on that below.

Germany’s Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth wants the book placed on a list of literature deemed dangerous for children. Not just because it is atheist but, the ministry said, because it mocks religion. “In the book, the three great world religions Christianity, Islam and Judaism are scorned,” it said in its application for putting the book on the danger list. “The distinctive characteristics of each religion are ridiculed. Especially the Jewish faith is slurred by the portrayal and characterisation of the rabbi.” Further on, it clearly says that the portrayal of the “mad rabbi” and the details mentioned about Jews make the book anti-Semitic.

Interesting quote on “new atheists” in the U.S., Britain

the_god_delusion_2.jpgHere’s an interesting quote on the “new atheists” and their popularity in Britain and the United States from Andrew Brown’s review of religion reporting in 2007 for the London Anglican weekly Church Times:

The backlash against Richard Dawkins and his chums, already detectable last Christmas, is coming along more strongly in this country now, even though the New Atheist movement seems to be doing very well in the United States, and will, I predict, continue to do so. Dawkins-type atheism has a distinct social role over there. It is fundamentalism for the college- educated, offering the same kind of certainties, and a similar range of enemies, in a world that has grown threatening, impersonal, and insecure for everyone.

Do you think the “new atheist” wave has peaked? Or will it keep on going?

Science helps religion in stem cell debates

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.Science and religion are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, especially by the “new atheists“, but the real picture has always been more complex. The latest breakthrough in stem cell research shows how quickly opposing sides can become allies. On Nov. 20, two research teams announced they had transformed ordinary skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos in the process. That meant that scientists could solve an ethical dilemma they had effectively created when they began using human embryos to produce stem cells.

Religious groups critical of embryonic stem cell research immediately hailed the breakthrough as an advance that opened the door to ethnical use of these potential wonder cells. They have now begun to use it as a welcome argument to bolster their positions in disputes on the issue. This must be happening in quite a few places, but here are two examples that show how science is helping religion in this case.

In Germany, the Roman Catholic Church has severely criticised the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for agreeing to loosen tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research there. The law bars German scientists from working on stem cell lines developed after January 1, 2002. Researchers say this is hampering their work and want the cut-off date to be moved up to 2007.

Burnout on the God beat – second top religion writer calls it quits

Covering religion may be harmful to your faith. Two leading religion journalists — one in Britain, one in the United States — have quit the beat in recent months, saying they had acquired such a close look at such scandalous behaviour by Christians that they lost their faith and had to leave.

Bates article in New HumanistStephen Bates, who recently stepped down as religious affairs writer for the London Guardian, has just published an account of his seven years on the beat in an article entitled “Demob Happy” for the New Humanist magazine. Bates followed the crisis in the Anglican Communion for several years and even wrote a book on it, A Church At War: Anglicans and Homosexuality.

“Now I am moving on,” his article concludes. “It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do.”

Tone evolves in science and religion debates

Amid the hullabaloo in the “science vs. religion” debate, one conference produces more thought-provoking arguments than the usual fare. It’s called “Beyond Belief” and it’s been held these past two years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The first reports of this year’s session (Oct 31-Nov 2) are just coming out — the latest edition of New Scientist has a full-page story and an editorial (registration required) — and there was an interesting new tone to the debate.

Churchgoers at prayerScientists at workThe 2006 session was called Beyond Belief – Science, Religion, Reason and Survival and New Scientist’s report read: “It had all the fervour of a revivalist meeting. True, there were no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but there was plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts was God. Yet this was no religious gathering – quite the opposite. Some of the leading practitioners of modern science, many of them vocal atheists, were gathered last week …” For a fuller account, see George Johnson’s very readable report in the New York Times.

This time around, the meeting was entitled Beyond Belief – Enlightenment 2.0 . The New Scientist report observed: “Last year’s meeting resounded with rallying calls from atheists determined to replace faith wherever they found it with a scientific world view. This year things were more conciliatory, with speakers recognising that we need many tools to make sense of the world besides the strictly rational…”

Ex-atheist takes on religion bashers with new book on God

book coverThe “neo-atheists” in the best-seller lists over the past year or so are getting serious competition from the other side. The new book There Is A God is all the more challenging because it comes from a former atheist who is far better versed in the complex arguments at the core of this debate. And he has a major U.S. publisher to promote this story of how a leading atheist philosopher eventually changed his mind. Anthony Flew doesn’t like to call his story a conversion, but a lot of people will probably see in it a modern Saul-to-Paul experience.

Anthony Flew is a British philosopher, now 84, who provided modern atheists with some powerful arguments during his career. His approach was to take atheism as the default position until sufficient evidence for God appeared — he called it “the presumption of atheism” and compared it to the presumption of innocence in the law. In numerous books with titles such as God and Philosophy or Does God Exist?: A Believer and an Atheist Debate, he rejected the usual arguments for God’s existence with logic and style. His approach was a far cry from the “neo-atheists” who rail against caricatures and excesses of religion (and there are certainly enough around to take aim at!) but avoid asking the tough questions that science cannot answer.

When the news came in 2004 that he had come to doubt full-blown atheism and had shifted towards deism, many atheists wrote this off as nothing more than the sign that his mental faculties were fading. Flew insisted in a long interview that he had not started believing in the God presented in the main monotheisms and did not accept the idea of an afterlife. He believed, instead, in what he called Aristotle’s God, the First Cause that created the universe but played no further role in it. He said he had come to the conviction that some form of superior intelligence must have ignited the Big Bang and set up the laws of nature.