FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Finding and defining the religious pluralism within

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace and editor of InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook (SkyLight, 2008).

By Matthew Weiner and Rev. Bud Heckman

Mary Rosenblatt grew up Jewish, she married a Catholic and her children are “exposed to both faiths.” In her adult life, she has become particularly drawn to meditation as practiced by a local Buddhist circle. If she participated in a survey about religious identity, how might she be portrayed?  And what about her kids?

pew-logoThe Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released a survey entitled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” that attempts to map changes in religious affiliation in the U.S.  It follows on the coattails of the important “U.S Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007.  If read in cross-tension with the “American Religious Identification Survey 2008″ released by Trinity College in Hartford, one can begin to see a complex and diverse picture of faith affiliation for Americans, as well as some patterns of change.

One key result is that perhaps as many as six in ten American adults have changed their faith tradition. Nationwide surveys are certainly important, and getting statistics about changing religion is also important. But thinking about the problems with this survey is perhaps as important as the information that it provides.

buddhist-in-washingtonThe first important problem with both surveys is that they do not allow for the likes of Mary Rosenblatt. Is she Jewish, Buddhist, Unaffiliated or Other?  The survey questions assume that she is only one of these, and so asks “What is your religion?” in the singular. Of course, Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs and others who think of their “religion” as a faith or those who view themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” might not make it through the early stages of the questions gauntlet either.

Soldier says rabbis pushed “religious war” in Gaza

gazaOur Jerusalem bureau has sent a very interesting report about criticism within the Israeli army of the Gaza offensive in January. What caught my eye was that it brings up the issue of a religious war, a term usually used in relation to Muslims. (Photo: Israeli air strike near Gaza-Egypt border in southern Gaza Strip, 26 Feb 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The story starts off as follows:

Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive that they were fighting a “religious war” against gentiles, according to one army commander’s account published on Friday.

Vatican tangled in the Web

jpii-and-laptopOne passage in Pope Benedict’s letter today about the Williamson affair particularly stood out — the part where he confessed to almost complete ignorance of the Internet. There can’t be many other world leaders who could write  the following lines without blushing: “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.” This made it look as if the world’s largest church was ignorant of the world’s liveliest communications network.

That’s not the case, of course. The Vatican runs a very full website of its own, www.vatican.va, as do Vatican Radio (in 38 languages), Catholic bishops conferences, dioceses and parishes as well as Catholic publications all around the world.

icann-logoIn fact, somebody in the Vatican seems to be following the Internet far more closely that the mainstream media (including ourselves), which missed an interesting little nugget now popping up on tech blogs and some Catholic sites mostly in Europe. The Holy See’s representative to the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently warned against the tensions that could be caused if ICANN created new top-level domain names (so-called gTLDs) for religions.

Is a papal visit to Vietnam on the horizon?

Could the Pope make a historic visit to commmunist Vietnam later this year?  A papal envoy hinted at this on Thursday, as Vietnam and the Vatican are seriously discussing establishing diplomatic ties. “This is my wish,” Vatican Undersecretary of State Monsignor Pietro Parolin told reporters when asked if he thought the Pope could visit the Southeast Asian country this year. He added that the question had not been discussed in meetings with the Foreign Ministry and government’s religious affairs committee. (Photo: Priest outside a Hanoi court trying Catholics for illegal protests, 8 Dec 2008/stringer)

The papal envoy has been attending the first meeting of a joint working group on improving ties this week in Hanoi. He said the talks had made progress, but establishing ties was a process that will take time.

Roman Catholicism in Vietnam dates back centuries, even before French colonial rule. Now some 7 percent of mostly-Buddhist Vietnam’s population of 86 million are Catholic, making it one of the biggest Catholic communities in Asia.

Obama evokes church/state divide at National Prayer Breakfast

Religion’s role in U.S. politics was on full display on Thursday as President Barack Obama spoke and prayed at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.

Obama, an adult convert to Christianity, used the occasion to announce that he will be establishing a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This will replace or be an extension of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives established by former President George W. Bush, who was strongly supported by conservative Christians.

Some of Obama’s remarks about the new office are sure to raise eyebrows in those conservative Christian circles. For example:

Policy adrift over Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim boat people

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted people on earth. But they have seldom hit the headlines — until recently, that is. More than 500 Rohingyas are feared to have drowned since early December after being towed out to sea by the Thai military and abandoned in rickety boats. The army has admitted cutting them loose, but said they had food and water and denied sabotaging the engines of the boats. (Photo: Rohingyas in immigration area in soutwestern Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up. Indonesian authorities this week rescued 198 Rohingya boat people off the coast of Aceh, after three weeks at sea. Buddhist Thailand and mostly Muslim Indonesia call them economic migrants looking for work at a time when countries in the region, like everywhere else, are in an economic downturn. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International are calling on governments in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingyas and let the UNHCR  have access to them.

Myanmar’s generals have a shabby enough record with their Buddhist majority. The brutal suppression of monk-led protests that killed at least 31 people in September 2007 and the continued detention of opposition icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi bear witness to that. But their treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Chin people in the mountainous Northwest — where insurgents have been fighting for autonomy — have been especially brutal. They are not oppressed because of their faith alone, but their faith and ethnicity make them targets. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities. They are forbidden from marrying or traveling without permission and have no legal right to own land.

A religion board game – satire or scandal?

How much fun — really — can you make of religion?  A U.S. marketer of board games may find out with ”Playing Gods” which it calls “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.” It had its European premier this week at the London Toy Fair and will make a U.S. debut at the New York Toy Fair in February.

Ben Radford, head of the company that put the game together, said in a news release it is designed for two to five players who act as “gods” and …

“Try try to take over the world and make everyone on Earth worship him or her. As a god, you can try to convert other gods’ followers, promising them things like Afterlife, Prosperity, and Miracles. Or you can kill them off with plagues, locusts, earthquakes, floods, and other Acts of Gods.

GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

By Matthew Weiner

The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama’s latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master. (Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback Church,17 Aug 2008/Mark Avery)

But Obama would be more in keeping with his own sense of diversity if he had the first ever interfaith invocation. Instead of a single speaker from a single religion, why not have many from a diversity of faiths and political positions? Instead of a liberal Christian or an evangelical Christian, he could have a conservative Christian, a liberal Jew, and a Muslim, a Buddhist  and a Hindu (or any such combination).

A Catholic Google? Are Muslim, Jewish or other Googles coming?

So now there’s Catholic Google*, a search engine that calls itself  “the best way for good Catholics to surf the web”, It claims that “it produces results from all over the internet with more weighting  given to Catholic websites and eliminates the vast majority of unsavoury content, such as pornography”.

When I heard this today, my first question was whether Google was getting into the religion business. Were there Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or other versions of the search engine out there as well? If not, would Google come up with them soon? Would it design filters that screen out cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, pro-Palestinian websites or other items that followers of certain faiths might not want to see?

It turns out the answer is “No” to all above. Catholic Google has no connection to Google itself (here’s its disclaimer).  Somebody has reserved a URL for a Muslim Google but it has no content. There’s a Jewgle out there, but it’s more about jokes than real searches.

Strains grow in Malaysia as Muslims reassert majority status

(Photo: A Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur, 7 Feb 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

Malaysia prides itself on its multicultural heritage, and rightly so. The Southeast Asian nation of around 27 million people is one of the few countries in the world where so many races and religions live together in peace and stability.

Having arrived in July from Hungary, an ex-communist country that has one of the least diverse ethnic makeups in the world, I can attest it is a truly amazing cultural experience and one of which the country should be proud.

After four years of seeing nothing but look-alike Hungarian baroque churches, I now find Hindu and Buddhist temples nestled side-by-side in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A whitewashed Protestant church sits on a square where the country’s independence from Britain was proclaimed. There is a mosque near where I live and the evening call to prayer is still a sound that thrills and intrigues. When you see and hear all that, it is easy to believe the public face of the country.