FaithWorld

from Afghan Journal:

Afghanistan: the Gods of war

[CROSSPOST blog: 27 post: 4308]

Original Post Text:
peshawar twoIn openDemocracy, Paul Rogers writes that one of the great mistakes of the media is that it tends to assume the only actors in the campaign against Islamist militants are governments, with al Qaeda and the Taliban merely passive players.

"Beyond the details of what the Taliban and its allies decide, it is important to note that most analysis of Barack Obama’s strategy published in the western media is severely constrained by its selective perspective. There is a pervasive assumption - even now, after eight years of war - that the insurgents are mere “recipients” of external policy changes: reactive but not themselves proactive," he writes.  

"This is nonsense - and dangerous nonsense. It would be far wiser to assume that these militias have people who are every bit as intelligent and professional in their thinking and planning as their western counterparts. They have had three months to think through the Obama leadership’s policy-development process; and much of this thinking will be about how the US changes affect their own plans - not how they will respond to the United States. Thus they may have very clear intentions for the next three to five years that are embedded in detailed military planning; and what is now happening on their side will involve adjustment of these plans in the light of the great rethink across the Atlantic."

So how will al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamist groups respond?

As discussed before in openDemocracy, and highlighted on this blog more than a year ago, the Taliban has been pretty good at studying the lessons of history, including taking inspiration from the Vietnamese war commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, who successfully employed guerrilla tactics against the French before crushing them in the battle of Dien Bien Phu  in 1954.

It is reasonable to assume they have also studied the spillover of the U.S. war in Vietnam into Cambodia where the United States, reluctant to send in its ground troops, resorted to special ops and bombing campaigns to choke off the Vietcong's supply routes  - rather as Pakistan now fears the Afghan campaign will spill into its territory as Washington tries to eradicate Afghan Taliban leaders and bases there. The ensuing chaos paved the way for the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.

In Sistine Chapel, pope tells artists beauty can lead to God

sistine

Pope Benedict met artists from around the world in the Sistine Chapel on Saturday and urged them to inject spirituality into their work, saying contemporary beauty was often “illusory and deceitful.”

“Beauty … can become a path toward the transcendent, toward the ultimate Mystery, toward God,” he told the artists meeting beneath the vaulted ceiling of the chapel painted by Michelangelo. “Too often … the beauty thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful … it imprisons man within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.”

The Vatican said it invited some 500 artists to the event, regardless of religious, political or stylistic allegiances. More than 250 accepted, mostly from Italy, including singer Andrea Bocelli and award-winning film composer Ennio Morricone. Amongst the other guests were Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid, whose Maxxi modern art museum has just opened in Rome, and F. Murray Abraham, the American actor who won an Oscar for his role as Salieri in the Mozart film, Amadeus, in 1985.

How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

Beware brain scientists bearing gifts (gee-whiz journalists too…)

boot-camp-shirt1Knowing what not to report is just as important for journalists as knowing what to write. We’re inundated with handouts about some pioneering new scientific research or insightful new book. Should we write about it? It’s refreshing to hear experts who can dazzle you with their work but warn against falling for any hype about it. This “let’s not overdo it” approach has been a recurrent theme in the Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Photo: The “official” boot camp T-shirt, 8 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Andrew Newberg‘s “no God spot” message to boot campers has already been noted here on FaithWorld. Other lecturers added similar reality checks to their presentations. Cognitive science has already begun to influence religion studies (as John Teehan explained here) and we’re bound to hear more in the future about what neuroscientific research has to say about faith, morals, altruism and other issues of interest to readers of this blog. Much of this will be fascinating. But before the next “gee-whiz” report comes out, here’s the advice the neuroscientists are giving us about speculative claims based on brain research.

aguirre-11 (Photo: Geoff Aguirre, 5 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

After two days of explaining fMRI brain scanning, the sexiest procedure in current neurological research, Geoff Aguirre poured cold water on some of the exaggerated conclusions that researchers or journalists draw from it. When shown brain scan images, he said, “people immediately start thinking about trying to catch terrorists and being able to screen people as they pass through metal detectors.” This is “science fiction, science fantasy,” he said, but it comes up regularly. Why? Aguirre, who is an M.D and assistant professor of neurology at Penn, listed several reasons:

Philanthropy outlook upbeat, but not for religious charities

oxfamPhilanthropy does not seem to have been hit by the global economic downturn. Contrary to some initial fears after the stock market plunge last year, giving by the rich to charitable causes seems to be rising as younger donors get more active in the field. But the report by Barclays Wealth, the wealth management arm of the British bank, says faith-based charities face falling donations because they’re not in step with this new generation of philanthropists.
(Photo: donation box in London Oxfam shop, 2 Dec 2008/Simon Newman)

The report, entitled Tomorrow’s Philanthropist, is upbeat about charitable giving based on the bank’s survey of 500 “high net worth investors in the UK and US.” As it said in a summary of the report: “Despite the global downturn, three quarters (75 per cent) have not decreased their contributions, whilst more than one in four (26 per cent) have increased their giving in the last 18 months.”Buried in the report is a sobering angle for churches and religious charities: “The future is less certain for the traditional recipients of charitable donations, such as the arts and religious organisations. On balance, high net worth donors stated that these causes had become less important to them over the past ten years, and that this trend would accelerate over the next decade if the causes in question failed to engage in a meaningful way with the next generation of givers.”In a report graphic, religious charity seems set for the biggest reduction in donations, -16%, while health and medical charities should see a +58% rise in gifts. The other losers are the arts (-14%) and animal causes (-6%) while the number two and three growth leaders are children (+41%) and environment (+35%).These results could be skewed by the sample group that Barclays Wealth used. The report did not analyse the expected drop in faith-linked donations any further, so it’s not clear whether a wider survey of donors below the report’s rarified donor group might show better support for religious charities.Do any readers have recent information about how religious charities are doing in the downturn? (UPDATE: please read the first comment below for more information on this)Here is the PDF file of the report and Barclay Wealth’s summary of it. Below is a short video on it by Hayley Platt of Reuters Television. Since video clips are short and reports like this long, the report’s main points are copied below the video.The report’s main points are:• We are at the beginning of a new age of philanthropy – A new breed of wealthy philanthropists is emerging who are more socially aware and more motivated to give back to the communities they came from, as well as global causes.• The wealthy are still giving despite the downturn – The recession has failed to dampen philanthropic spirit; the commitment of those who already give will remain resolute, and some wealthy individuals are actually increasing the levels of their funding in order to ensure that their charitable goals are met.• The wealthy will play an increasingly important role, compared to governments, in funding welfare projects – The recession will potentially increase the role of the wealthy philanthropist on a broad basis, as governments around the world become more constrained in the causes they can fund. High net worth givers will become an invaluable source of innovation and investment for charities.• The wealthy prefer to fund projects directly – Respondents increasingly feel that they can make a bigger impact and drive change more effectively by giving directly to charities, rather than supporting causes indirectly through taxation.• High net worth donors are becoming increasingly active philanthropists and now seek to solve rather than simply to support – Historically, high net worth individuals have donated money and time to charities to support their endeavours. Now, however, the wealthy are far more ambitious in their philanthropic aims and are wanting to see visible or measurable change.• The worlds of charity and business are converging – Smaller, nimbler and more accountable charities are becoming increasingly attractive to donors compared to the large, traditional charities. This will have a knock-on effect and in the future, we will see the emergence of more commercial ventures which have a philanthropic aim at their core.

Muslim Americans encouraged, hopeful with Obama at the helm

alqaisiIraqi Americans Wasan Alqaisi and Sumer Majid made a Fourth of July family picnic of kebab — served on hamburger buns with slices of American cheese.

Celebrating Independence Day in Washington D.C., the two Muslim women were doing what generations of Americans have done before them: blending their faith and lifestyle with a U.S. national identity.

Eight years after Middle East militants carried out the September 11 attacks, Muslim Americans are raising their profile, encouraged by the election of Barack Obama, a U.S. president proud of his Kenyan father’s Muslim heritage.

Turkish TV gameshow looks to convert atheists

game-showGiven the popularity of glitzy television gameshows of all sorts, it was probably inevitable that some secular channel somewhere one would come up with one about religion. Turkey’s Kanal T television station now has.

Its show, entitled “Penitents Compete,” will bring together spiritual guides from Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism who try to convert a group of non-believers. Those who get religion win a pilgrimage to a holy site of the faith they’ve chosen — Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.

But the show, due to debut in September, has run into some unexpected trouble. The religious authorities in Muslim but secular Turkey have refused to provide an imam for the show, which they say will cheapen religion. Read the whole story here.

Recession-hit Asians pray for jobs, luck, recovery

ASIA-RELIGION/ As companies shed jobs and governments inject funds to stimulate economies, recession-hit believers in once-booming Southeast Asia are flocking to temples, churches and mosques to seek solace in religion — and pray for a quick economic recovery.

Meditation centres have also seen an upswing in attendance and people seek peace and calm amid the economic downturn. (Photo: Hindus pray in a Singapore temple, 24 May 2009/Vivek Prakash)

Reuters correspondent Nopporn Wong-Anan has a feature here looking at how people seek spiritual solace at a time of material loss in Asia, home to all the major religions and any number of minor ones.

Flu fears impact worship services

Flu fears are already changing the face of some religious services, from Mexico where church gatherings are discouraged to the United States where wine shared from a common cup has been suspended in some parishes. We’ve already blogged about this but offer more detail from other places here.

FLU/

U.S. Catholic bishops have issued general guidelines saying clergy and lay ministers who distribute communion wafers “should be encouraged to wash their hands before Mass begins,  or even to use an alcohol based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion.”

“They should instruct people who feel ill not to receive from the cup,” containing wine which Catholics believe becomes the blood of Jesus Christ during Mass.

Pew Forum report details changing U.S. religious affilations

The folks at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have come up with a new bit of intriguing number crunching. This time round they have taken a more detailed look at how Americans change religious affiliations in a new report entitled “Faith in Flux.” You can see the report here. It is a follow-up to Pew’s huge U.S. Religious Landscape Survey which was conducted in 2007.

archbp-dolanAmong the highlights which underscore the fluid nature of American faith:

* It finds that 44 percent of the U.S. adults do not belong to their childhood faith.

* Among the 56 percent who belong to their childhood faith, one in six say there was a point in their life when their religion differed.