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I find myself caring less about what people believe…

18 Dec

…and rather more about who they are and what they do.

To that extent I simply do not get excited about the current round of debates about atheism. I can happily read Richard Dawkins and agree with much that he says; I am an atheist too when it comes to old men with beards sitting on thrones somewhere above the sky. I am an atheist when it comes to those same old men dictating or writing instruction books valid for all humanity for all time. Hasn’t happened. People have written books or dictated them, out of their own historical moments, in their own cultural contexts, with much in them that should carry use-by dates. Those vainly seeking certainty in such books or in the institutions those books may have spawned are often taking humanity to perdition by the shortest possible route. On the other hand I can conceive that God, a concept beyond language — hence my Christmas poem #3, does speak if we will listen, and that voice is in the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Tao Te Ching, and in many other times, texts, and circumstances, as well as in actions such as these:

ALI MOORE: It’s been 13 years since up to a million people were killed during a 100-day killing spree in the African country of Rwanda.
The scale and speed of the slaughter of most ethnic Tutsis by the Hutu people shocked the world. Today, communities there are still trying to rebuild after the devastation.
Three families who survived the genocide and moved to Tasmania as refugees have come up with a unique way to help those back in their homeland. The Rwandan Coffee Club raises money to buy cows for villages, and as Jocelyn Nettlefold reports, this latte set is making a lot of difference to many lives.
AUBERT RUZIGANDEKWE, RWANDAN REFUGEE: Because I know soccer, it helped me to, you know, integrate.
JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: This season, Aubert Ruzigandekwe wants to lead the Hobart United team to premiership glory. Most of the players share more than just fancy footwork, they are refugees from war torn countries.
AUBERT RUZIGANDEKWE: They came through horrible, horrible stuff, so when you play, you forget a little bit about your problems, you forget about your past…

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Aubert Ruzigandekwe, an ethnic Tutsi, was working for the Department of Agriculture when civil unrest erupted in Rwanda 13 years ago. It’s estimated up to a million of his countrymen were killed.
AUBERT RUZIGANDEKWE: It was difficult for us, still, to imagine how your friend can become, just in one second, your enemy and try to kill you, and that’s what happened.
FAINA ILIGOGA, WIFE: And we lost everything, you know.
JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Aubert Ruzigandekwe and his wife, Faina Iligoga, lost their parents, most of their siblings and friends.
AUBERT RUZIGANDEKWE: So we’re so, so lucky, yeah, to be still alive.
AUBERT RUZIGANDEKWE: Yet the family had to endure four years of separation before finally being reunited in Hobart in 2004.
FAINA ILIGOGA: We came here without knowing anyone, without having a family here, or friends. But actually to came here in a safe place, and we got love from people.
JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: One of their new friends, Anglican priest John Middleton, said it was difficult knowing how to help.
JOHN MIDDLETON, RWANDAN COFFEE CLUB: All refugees have experienced the kind of, you know, “why wasn’t I killed?” guilt feeling, as well as that sort of great desire to be able to do something more than send a few dollars home.
JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: A year ago Reverend Middleton came up with the idea of the Rwandan Coffee Club… 7.30 Report 

Visit the Rwandan Coffee Club.

There is an account of this project on the Anglican Church in Tasmania site.

Learning about different cultures has many benefits for everyone. John Middleton tells about a link his church has forged with refugees from the Rwandan genocide.

Hobart has a small community of Rwandan Tutsi genocide survivor refugees. Presently thirteen in number and comprising two families, the Rwandans have a loose relationship with St Mark’s Anglican Church at Cygnet. This had led to the formation of a Rwandan Refugee Support Group, which is drawn from the community at large as well as St Mark’s.

The Support Group recently held the third annual commemoration of the genocide. The first such commemoration in Tasmania attracted about 50 people. This year more than 300 people attended the ceremony at the Wesley Church Hall in Hobart, including Rwandan Tutsi genocide survivors from Brisbane and Sydney, and an Australian UNHCR medic from Adelaide, who was stationed in Rwanda following the genocide.

Life for the survivors in Hobart cannot be isolated from the lives of those in Rwanda who live in a country where the genocide ideology is still alive. Reports in the Rwandan press regularly tell the story. Recently an elderly survivor widow had her cow maliciously killed, removing not only her primary source of sustenance but also her hope, keeping her oppressed and threatened. Only months ago a furore erupted when a Government minister heading a committee dealing with justice issues for survivors stated publicly that ‘it was a pity they didn’t do the job properly’ (in other words: ‘and kill the lot’.) This minister lost her job over the matter; it speaks volumes about the mindset which still exists twelve years after the genocide.

There have been several murders of survivors since 1994 to prevent them from witnessing against perpetrators in court proceedings, and bashings are commonplace. 65% of survivor widows are infected with HIV due to rape during the genocide. These victims usually receive no support from government for treatment. 100,000 households of genocide orphans are headed by children who were aged between 7 – 12 years old in 1994. They have cared for their siblings for the past twelve years and none of the children has been educated. They managed to survive the aftermath – education was a luxury beyond their reach.

The Hobart survivors have begun what they call the ‘Rwandan Coffee Club’

They sell coffee and tea (and other items in due course) through their web site. The objective is to help fund projects in Rwanda to improve the lot of the survivors there.

Church groups and individuals are invited to join the Club, not by subscription, but by being ambassadors for Rwandan survivors by telling the story. The website has information about the catastrophe and encourages people to buy tea and coffee via the site.

And while sharing my enthusiasm for the Rwandan Coffee Club project and for the open spirit towards African migrants it embodies you may well be wondering where the voice of God was when the Hutus and Tutsis were killing one another. So do I, and I can’t answer that. Faith, doubt, uncertainty, questions that scream out for answers but find none — all part of the package, as far as I’m concerned, and much better than either cynicism or glib but spurious certainty.

If you listen you may even find God speaking to/through an atheist as well…

Not that I am accusing Bruce of channeling, but he does say some good things on his post The “cult” of atheism and its detractors; faux-academics and the theologically partisan media, even if it is in places in that Bruce-speak his detractors love to mock. Better though to discern what Bruce really is saying, as is true when reading anyone.

I’ve met moral relativists of a range of religious persuasions (especially in the inter-faith movement). Heck, I’ve come across more than one Catholic who has been of the opinion that if I died as I am, as an atheist, that I’d go to heaven. Even the previous Pope thought that atheists honored the holy spirit in their own way. And utilitarianism. Seriously, if you haven’t met a Christian who either hasn’t used the harm principle to resolve a conflict of absolutes, or who uses the harm principal as a matter of course, then you need to get out more…

This idea of atheism as a belief system doesn’t work. Atheists occupy a range of belief systems not unique to atheists. Heck, there are even pagan atheists…

As an atheist in Australia, I’ve found my perspective to be similar to that of a number Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. Aside from the obvious difference of a belief in a God, and a few cultural practices (few of which actually exclude atheists) we’ve lamented banal mass-manufactured culture together, made use of utilitarian ethics, derided Intelligent Design’s attack on science and been offended by attempts at divisiveness.

There is no atheist world view. There is no “cult of atheism”. Just a lot of atheists interested in atheist writing…

Bruce and Arthur do get upset, however, with some of the product of the ABC’s Religion Department, especially Rachel Kohn’s and Stephen Crittenden’s recent forays into contemporary atheism, which B and A rightly see as biased. I listen to both programs on occasion, and sometimes find them informative and interesting; fundamentalists probably never listen to them, on the other hand, because for all that there are valid objections to some of the presentations B and A refer to, neither program is fundamentalist-friendly. Nor should we stress out over the ABC running them; you can agree or disagree — and you can always listen to Phillip Adams or the Science Show instead. In fact far more people would listen to those shows, I would suggest, than do to Kohn and Crittenden. Sadly, very few people listen to any of them; they are probably watching commercial television instead… 

The points Bruce makes about positions falsely attributed to Richard Dawkins are well made and should be noted by everyone taking part in this discussion.

That said, I am in some respects opting out of the discussion. Too old perhaps. Too set in my ways. I will however vent a few more heresies before Christmas; my friends at South Sydney will forgive them I’m sure, may even agree with some of them…

Damned glad people like John Middleton exist though.



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8 responses to “I find myself caring less about what people believe…

  1. arthurvandelay

    December 18, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Actually, I probably have listened to/downloaded more episodes of The Religion Report, Encounter, The Spirit of Things and The Ark (even if the sound of Kohn’s voice makes me want to rip my teeth out) than the average RN listener, and not just for blog fodder. Most of the time, these programs are very good–and the exception seems to be when the topic is atheism or secularism. The hostility of Crittenden and Kohn towards non-believers surprises me, because while you’d expect commercial outlets (be they television, radio or print) to be more ignorant of non-belief, and thus more apt to resorting to strawmen when they do treat with topics like atheism, I expected the ABC to be more empathetic and informed.

    As I remarked in my post, this appears from my perspective to be a general trend among liberal theists: when it comes to theology, they are paragons of reasoned critique and self-critique; when it comes to atheism, they circle the wagons and sully their arguments with same fallacies employed by fundamentalists. Why is that?

    I find myself caring less about what people believe……and rather more about who they are and what they do.

    The problem is I don’t think you can always separate what people believe from what they do.

     
  2. ninglun

    December 18, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    The hostility of Crittenden and Kohn towards non-believers surprises me, because while you’d expect commercial outlets (be they television, radio or print) to be more ignorant of non-belief, and thus more apt to resorting to strawmen when they do treat with topics like atheism, I expected the ABC to be more empathetic and informed. I don’t see them as representing, or even having to represent, some official ABC position; it’s quite clear their views are their own, and they have a pretty free hand to take their programs where they will. On Radio National at large there are many balancing voices. You could write to the ABC Religion Department about your dissatisfaction with their presentation of these issues.

    I don’t think you can always separate what people believe from what they do. Yes, true, except that there is such a spectrum even there… If we are not always constantly aware of that we end up in versions of the “all Muslims are terrorists” school.

     
  3. AV

    December 18, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    I don’t see them as representing, or even having to represent, some official ABC position; it’s quite clear their views are their own, and they have a pretty free hand to take their programs where they will.

    I wasn’t suggesting that they should reflect some official ABC position, or that they shouldn’t run their programs as they see fit. (I should have said “I expected those at the ABC to be more empathetic and informed.”) Editorial independence, as tenuous as it has become in the wake of Howard, has always been one of the ABC’s strengths. Another strength has been the generally higher quality of output it produces relative to commercial outlets. For these reasons I naturally have higher expectations of the ABC, and therefore am disappointed by Crittenden’s and Kohn’s treatment of non-belief and non-believers. That’s all I’m saying.

    You could write to the ABC Religion Department about your dissatisfaction with their presentation of these issues.

    Why? I have a blog where I can do that. I’m not trying to silence Crittenden and Kohn, but that doesn’t mean that their treatment of atheism shouldn’t be open to critique.

    Yes, true, except that there is such a spectrum even there… If we are not always constantly aware of that we end up in versions of the “all Muslims are terrorists” school.

    “All Muslims are terrorists” is a byproduct of the strawman that there is only one true way to interpret/practice Islam, those who call themselves Muslims must by definition interpret/practice their faith in said way, and those who don’t interpret/practice Islam in said fashion are by definition not really Muslims. It’s a strawman, but it has little to do with the belief/practice distinction.

     
  4. ninglun

    December 18, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    …therefore am disappointed by Crittenden’s and Kohn’s treatment of non-belief and non-believers. That’s all I’m saying. — That could be a good reason to write to the Religion Department with your feedback; I am not saying you are trying to silence them. They might even appreciate the feedback, or even knowing someone in Japan is listening to them!

    there is only one true way to interpret/practice Islam (or Christianity, or Buddhism, or…) is in fact what fundamentalists tend to believe; it isn’t just a straw man — it’s one position that religious believers can take, and probably too many do take. You might see it as a “my invisible friend is better than your invisible friend” scenario. I am just saying that the belief/practice distinction is a continuum of positions rather than a distinction. (At least I think that’s what I am saying… 😉 ) For example, US evangelicals in fact occupy a whole range of positions vis-a-vis creationism, social justice, gay rights, environmental issues, being Republican or Democrat, and so on — though there may well be a majority true to what we expect (or to the stereotype) — but they would have in common taking the Bible seriously and taking orthodox faith on issues like the Trinity or the Resurrection seriously. They would vary on whether “seriously” necessarily = “literally”.

    Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd probably have — seem to have — very different religious beliefs, and to that extent different motivations or sources of inspiration; but in practice they may still be very close.

     
  5. arthurvandelay

    December 18, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    there is only one true way to interpret/practice Islam (or Christianity, or Buddhism, or…) is in fact what fundamentalists tend to believe; it isn’t just a straw man — it’s one position that religious believers can take, and probably too many do take.

    Yes, but the strawman I’m referring to, one often encountered in anti-Muslim rhetoric, is precisely the notion that all Muslims adopt the fundamentalist line.

    I am just saying that the belief/practice distinction is a continuum of positions rather than a distinction.

    Agreed. But (just to be pedantic) your US evangelicals example refers to people holding X religious belief and Y belief regarding policy, rather than holding X belief and doing Y.

     
  6. ninglun

    December 18, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    …people holding X religious belief and Y belief regarding policy, rather than holding X belief and doing Y. Take one example, Sojourners and Jim Wallis: they are quite clear that X (their understanding of evangelical Christianity) is best expressed in Y — their activism on issues like social justice and the environment, and their criticism of the Christian Right and the Bush government — beliefs and practice.

    anti-Muslim rhetoric: Islam is even more strongly a religion tied to a book revelation than is Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity which has always tended to put a fence around the Bible as far as the laity is concerned. There is a powerful creationist/intelligent design school in Islam, and it could be as much a part of the world-view of as many Muslims as it is of many US fundamentalists. Adam, Eve, Noah and company are taken quite literally in the Qu’ran and thus by many who believe the Qu’ran is an unfiltered revelation from Allah. Textual and historical criticism of the Qu’ran of the kind now commonplace in Biblical studies is still very dangerous territory in most Muslim countries. I think this is a real shame, personally. Studies like this don’t go down well, though they really are needed. It can be very hard for Muslim scholars wanting to engage in such studies, as the case of Egyptian scholar Dr Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, found guilty of apostasy, shows.

    Abu Zeid stressed the importance of a free and open dialogue between all social, political and intellectual forces. Constructive social dialogue is shut down once the accusation of “apostate” or “traitor” is raised. Abu Zeid explained to me that he was influenced as a child by the ideology of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Though never committed ideologically, he was imprisoned at the age of 12, for allegedly sympathising with the group. “I was influenced by Sayed Qutb’s ideas on social justice, I always identify with the oppressed,” he said.

    Abu Zeid rejects the accusation that he is anti-Islamic in any way. “I’m sure that I’m a Muslim. My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I’m not. I’m not a new Salman Rushdie, and don’t want to be welcomed and treated as such. I’m a researcher. I’m critical of old and modern Islamic thought. I treat the Qur’an as a nass (text) given by God to the Prophet Mohamed. That text is put in a human language, which is the Arabic language. When I said so, I was accused of saying that the Prophet Mohamed wrote the Qur’an. This is not a crisis of thought, but a crisis of conscience.”

    Abu Zeid goes on, “I criticised the religious discourse and its social, political and economic manifestations, and this threatened the interests of some institutions.”

    He concluded, “I would like to tell the Muslim nation that I was born, raised and lived as a Muslim and, God willing, I will die as a Muslim.”

    If he were operating in a mainstream Christian environment he would seem quite “normal” in having those aims and attitudes; probably less “liberal” than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    None of which indicates that even firm Qu’ranic believers with a very strong doctrine of the book’s plenary inspiration and possibly equally strong opposition to both evolution and atheism are necessarily violent.

    It’s a worry though. Being an atheist in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, and so on, must be rather like being one in Tudor England. Not a good idea.

    Finally, there are those who argue the word “fundamentalist” is not quite appropriate when extended beyond Christian discourse. Part, perhaps even the defining part, of the Islamic revival that has been going on for over eighty years now — though we have only noticed it recently — is in fact an assertion of the authority of the Qu’ran and other traditions and philosophical outgrowths from that — many of them subtle and of high intellectual quality — over against the West and its Enlightenment, which may from that point of view seem to be mired in colonialism, imperialism, and the shaming or oppression of Islam. That is today almost certainly a majority view in the Islamic world among those who take the religion and culture seriously; the philosophy of Al Qaeda is a variant — and many Muslims would say an illegitimate variant — of that general revivalist movement. When you come down to it the whole point of Islam is that all humanity should submit to the revelation of Allah. That’s what the word “Islam” means: submission. What that means of course is wide open to interpretation.

    Then ironically one of the (some would say) most reasonable (or pro-western) voices on the subject of the Islamic revival, a voice calling for secularisation, has been Professor of International Relations, University of Göttingen, Bassam Tibi. The irony is:

    It now seems that the Professor has had enough of the country that has been his home for the last 44 years:

    “One of Germany’s best-known experts on Islam says he is leaving after 44 years because he can no longer put up with being treated as a foreigner. ”

    “I’m fed up with being classed as a Syrian with a German passport,”

    “I still feel like a foreigner in this country and am treated accordingly,”

    “He said he could no longer put up with the idea of having to feel grateful to his “host nation for allowing him to experience the German bourgeois existence.”

    — source The Kashmiri Nomad Monday, October 09, 2006.

    Yes, I know that’s all been at a tangent, but I hope you found it interesting; I guess I am rehearsing some later post a bit too. But then maybe not; it’s such a minefield.

    On another matter: are you enjoying WordPress?

     
  7. AV

    December 18, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    There is a powerful creationist/intelligent design school in Islam, and it could be as much a part of the world-view of as many Muslims as it is of many US fundamentalists. Adam, Eve, Noah and company are taken quite literally in the Qu’ran and thus by many who believe the Qu’ran is an unfiltered revelation from Allah.

    Reminds me of when an Afghan refugee family I used to tutor in English invited me to dinner. One guest raised the topic of evolution, and actually said: “If humans are descended from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?”

    On another matter: are you enjoying WordPress?

    I’m still getting used to it. I don’t think much of my theme, and I’d love to know how to get the Sitemeter counter to appear on my blog.

     
  8. ninglun

    December 18, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    I don’t think much of my theme, and I’d love to know how to get the Sitemeter counter to appear on my blog. Emailed about Sitemeter; as for themes, try another one then. (I do!) This one is the one I keep returning to, but there are a few other ones worth using, like the one Bruce has. New ones appear from time to time as well.

     
 
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