Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Peace on Earth? Will the violence never end?

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14 TNIV).

Angels sang this song more than 2000 years ago, but in 2012 peace has once again been in short supply.  Does this angelic song mean anything today? Yes, emphatically, is my reply, but it takes the eyes of faith to see it.

Here is a list of counties around the world that continued to be hot spots in 2012 (without giving any details): in Africa: Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Puntland, Somalia, Somaliland, South Sudan, Sudan; in Asia:  Afghanistan, Burma-Myanmar, Pakistan; in Europe: Chechnya, Dagestan; in the Middle East: Iraq, Israel, Lybia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen; and in the Americas: Colombia, Mexico. A few countries may have been overlooked.

This list is by no means complete, since it includes only countries where there was armed conflict. The total number of countries involved in such conflicts: 60+. Many of these were in regions or provinces struggling for independence. The majority (3/4) of these conflicts were in Africa and Asia; the rest were in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East.

As Amnesty International reports, suffering and hardship invariably follow wars. The vast majority of armed conflicts are internal. Many of them have persisted for decades. Conflicts are the breeding ground for mass violations of human rights including unlawful killings, torture, forced displacement and starvation.

In spite of many international interventions, these conflicts continue without ceasing. Today peace seems as elusive as ever. Yet peace is more than the absence of war.

Just to show that conflict is no stranger in those parts of the world where there is currently no war, look at the violence that takes place daily on the streets of North America. Peace is elusive there as well. The murder of twenty children in Newtown is the most striking because of the number of children involved, but many more children have died in Afghanistan as a result of conflict.

Children leaving the school after the stabbing

Violence occurs in every country, yet the death count is generally lower, as in China where, on the same day that the Newtown massacre occurred, twenty-two children and an adult were injured by stabbing, although no one died. The US has the highest rate of gun-related injuries among the developed nations of the world.

On Christmas Day a madman in Webster, NY, with enough weapons to start a war, killed two firemen and he wanted to kill more. The easy access to guns made this deadly violence possible.

There are approximately 45 murders every day in the US. Canada has less than two per day. In many North American cities there are also numerous rapes, robberies, and other assorted types of violence. 

Although North America is viewed as a place where women have equal rights and status, violence against women is still rampant. Forty to 51% of women experience some type of violence in their lifetime including child abuse, physical violence, rape and domestic violence. 

Violence against children is another pervasive problem in both Canada and the US. Seen in the context of family violence, children are disproportionately the victims of physical and sexual assault, and of homicide. 

These facts should cause people in North America to feel superior to the rest of the world when it comes to violence. Wars are not the only type of conflict, even if they do make the largest headlines. The daily carnage on the streets of North American cities

As I wrote last year already, violence is not something new today; on the contrary, it has been with us since the very beginnings of human history. We have become inured to violence, it seems. 

The media deny any role in violence

Violence sells newspapers and it dominates our TV screens. We witness multiple killings and beatings on news programs on a daily basis, and are fed murders and stabbings as entertainment, with only a brief warning beforehand that this may be offensive to some viewers. 

Many of the computer games that are so popular today involve violence. These games were often blamed by gun enthusiasts for the rash of killings involving guns in the US during the last few years. But that is a spurious claim since these games are played in many countries without the dire consequences seen in the US.

How can we square all this violence with the song of the angels? For one thing, violence is in decline today, whether measured relative to the population of the world, or as a drop in the number of wars and in their intensity.

But there is a more basic, call it theological, reason: God and humanity are now reconciled. God sent his son into the world so that we may be at peace with him once again, a peace that was broken when Adam sinned. The incarnation is the meaning of Christmas: Immanuel, which means "God with us."

Christ is the Prince of Peace, who came to usher in peace on earth, as the angels sang at his birth. Peace with God is what makes every other form of peace possible. The world would be a much more terrible place if Christ had not come. Yet peace still eludes this world today.

One day, however, when Christ returns, perfect peace will reign on earth. In the meantime, while living between the times of his first and second coming, we can already experience intimations of that peace. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9 TNIV). Peace is coming, even if we cannot see it clearly yet. 

Rather then engaging in a long theological discussion trying explaining all this in detail, which is impossible in this blog, I prefer to let this well-known hymn by Charles Wesley (1707- 1788) speak for itself:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”


Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.


Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.


Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.


As 2012 quickly draws to a close, let us all pray for peace throughout the world for the new year 2013. May each one of you also experience peace in your own life and that of your families!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gun control, mental illness, and fear

The brutal murder of twenty children and their teachers, whose names are listed above, in Newtown, CT, has occupied the media for several days already. Syria, Egypt and other stories were largely ignored by the media. Everyone has been  talking about this event, especially what can be done to prevent further killings.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, three words or phrases were repeated over and over again: gun control, mental illness, and fear. Each of them is important for understanding why this tragedy happened and, most important, how it can be averted in the future.

I want to examine each of them in the light of Newtown. This horrific event has the potential to be a game changer. Guns and mental illness are once more being blamed for this tragedy, whether justifiably or not, but now both are being reexamined, and actions may be taken to deal with them.

In addition, I will discuss very briefly the underlying fear of being attacked, the way these children were at school where were supposed to be safe, is a reality for many Americans who feel a need to arm themselves for self-protection.

First and foremost, gun control has become part of the discussion more than it ever was before. In previous tragedies the NRA came out immediately with their standard response: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." But this time it did not issue such a statement.

After a self-imposed media blackout for four days that left many wondering how it would respond, the NRA finally stated that its members were "shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders."

It added that the NRA would be "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."  Such an offer seemed to indicate a change in tone from the previous responses. 

But this was contradicted in the statement that the NRA made on Friday when it argued that schools should have armed guards. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," explains Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA.

A better sign of change is evident the decision by Cerberus Capital to sell Freedom Group, its collection of gun companies, including Bushmaster, the firm that made one of the weapons used in the massacre.

There is no indication that gun manufacturers will disappear, however; and gun sales surged immediately after the shooting. As long as there are profits to be made, there will always be investors who want to participate in what is a booming, albeit questionable, industry.

Yet today gun control is being discussed everywhere in the US, from water-coolers to the White House. People now expect action, not words, and thus President Obama has called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring background checks before any firearm sales, although he has left out the details.

Whether the President will be able to achieve even that much is a matter of debate. The GOP has already declared its opposition. As well, recent rulings from US courts suggest that the constitutionality of any such proposals will be questioned not only by the NRA but also by the courts themselves.

Whenever such shootings take place, the issue of mental health is immediately brought up. This too is an oft repeated phrase. The shooters, it is claimed, must been mentally ill in order to have perpetrated their heinous deeds. The NRA has made this claim for many years. But is mental illness the only culprit?

The perpetrators typically are young males with varying degrees of mental derangement. Some of them have a long history of involvement with the mental health system, and many have been identified as being "odd" by educators. They also have this in common: an access to guns, including assault-type semi automatic weapons with large ammunition clips.

The deadly blend of guns and alleged mental illness: mass shooters 
(clockwise from top) Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Jared Loughner

Mental health deserves to be made an issue, but not for this reason alone. Mental illness is often stigmatized and thus largely ignored today. Often we only hear about the mentally ill when something catastrophic happens, and then we blame them, although not guns or the sick society that produced them.

Society needs to stop criminalizing the mentally ill, and to learn more about what they are struggling with. The majority of mentally ill patients are not dangerous, according to mental health professionals. What they need is appropriate treatment, medication, and support services. Unfortunately, that is too often lacking.

In the case of Adam Lanza, mental illness may not even have been the problem. Apparently, he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, which is a mild form of autism. Asperger’s and autism are not forms of mental illness but are neurodevelopmental disorders or disabilities.

Autistic kids have problems with communication and social interaction, and those with Asperger’s tend to be kind of quirky and are obsessed with single subjects. They are highly functional, but there is no evidence for them being violent.

Fear is the third word that is heard repeatedly. Immediately after the shootings, gun purchases increased. People were afraid that they might not be able to buy guns and ammunition.

The NRA is responsible, at least in part, for the attitude of fear that pervades the US. It has encouraged that fear by claiming that the government is going to confiscate all guns, even though there is not a single shred of evidence for this. With 300 million guns already in circulation in the US, such a confiscation is impossible.

During the last election, Wayne LaPierre stoked this specific fear when he wrote: "With four more years of Obama, your firearms freedoms are gone. And we'll spend the rest of our lives mourning the freedoms we've lost... Every freedom we cherish as Americans is endangered by Obama. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But there is another greater fear. Americans are so afraid of terrorist attacks in public that they feel the need to arm themselves. I find it sad that the US has become a society where people are afraid of being killed in such situations. People should not have to arm themselves as self-protection.

The more the weapons industry saturates its market, the more dangerous American communities become --driving even those who dislike guns to contemplate owning one as an attempt at self-defense.

I prefer to live in a society where such fears are absent. There is a serious malaise in the American psyche that needs to be cured. How it arose is something I am not qualified to answer, although the NRA has, no doubt, contributed to this collective sickness.

But Canada and other countries that have stricter gun laws, should not feel complacent. What happened in the US can happen everywhere. The fear that led to such shootings can spread to every country.

Today many Americans are wondering whether, if they can’t beat the marketing clout of the gun-makers, they can identify the sickness in their society that produces so many mass murderers. How did it arise?

In response to the latest gun massacre in the United States, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg warned, "we don’t need people carrying guns in public places. It doesn’t add to anybody’s safety. Quite the contrary, it makes us have a much more dangerous society."

I admit that I don't know what the cure for this fear is. However, I do know that I don't want to see the US landscape dotted with tiny fortresses where people can feel safe because they have armed themselves to the teeth. People should not have to carry guns everywhere they go, including church.

As President Obama said when he introduced some of the measures that he intends to take, this is a complex issue, but action is necessary. Such a tragedy must never be allowed to happen again.

One thing that should be done is curtail the influence of the NRA. It cannot be outlawed, since the First Amendment would never allow that; but it can be marginalized if enough people resist giving in to the fear that the NRA has encouraged.

People of faith need to do something other than succumb to this malaise by building their own little fortresses. Ultimately, they must put their trust in God to protect them. The power of prayer is the greatest power they have. They have access to the God who made the universe and sustains it.

That includes each and every person, whether in the US or elsewhere. God alone can protect them. Guns cannot do it, in spite of claims by the NRA to the contrary. Guns are idols, and thus cannot be trusted.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pandora's box and gun control

In classical Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. The gods had endowed her with many gifts, such as beauty and speech. She was also given a beautiful container which she was not to open under any circumstance. Impelled by curiosity, however, she did open it, and all the evil that it contained escaped and spread over the earth.

She hastened to close the container, but the contents had already escaped. Pandora was deeply saddened by what she had done, but Zeus did not punish her, because he knew beforehand that this would happen.

What Pandora did is similar to what Christians call "original sin." That too cannot be undone. And in this case, God did punish Adam and Eve. Moreover, the results of that sin are still with us today, as is evident to everyone, whether or not they read a newspaper or watch TV.

Today, the phrase "to open Pandora's box" means to perform an action that may seem small or innocuous, but that turns out to have severe and far-reaching consequences.

When the Second Amendment to the US Constitution was approved that country opened Pandora's box. The right of people to defend themselves and the state by possessing arms seemed good at the time, but today it has many unfortunate consequences: among other things, it seems impossible today to get rid of the 300 million guns that are currently in circulation in the US.

Effective gun control may possibly be forever beyond the reach of those who advocate it, although I pray that is not the case.

The parents of the twenty children who were brutally murdered in Newtown might wish that Pandora's box could be closed again and they could have their children back, but that will not happen.

Instead of effective gun control, guns are becoming even more prevalent on American streets. In many states of the union people are allowed to carry guns openly. Illinois was recently added to this list.

No doubt, after the Newtown massacre, there will be renewed cries for gun control. President Obama now that he is in his second term has the political freedom to propose such legislation, but whether he will be able to get it through Congress seems very unlikely, if I gauge the current mood of the American people correctly.
This poster only accounts for handgun killings, not all guns; I am not sure of 
 the year it refers to, but that is not as important as the comparison that is made

Personally, I am in favor of eliminating all guns, but that will never happen, at least not in the US. Many other countries, however, have managed to greatly limit the number of guns. In Britain, for example, guns are very difficult to acquire, as is ammunition.

In Canada, guns are easier to get than in Britain, but people may not carry them openly on the street. Some people do have handguns illegally, and killings using guns happen here too, but they are nevertheless a rarity.

I am very disturbed when I see a policeman carrying a gun. I dislike guns very much. I think the private ownership of guns is a tragic mistake, but a majority of Americans think otherwise.

Some of them very strongly support the right to bear arms, and use the Second Amendment as support. The NRA, which promotes this idea, is probably the most powerful lobby in the US.

The NRA is well financed, of course, by gun manufacturers who sell guns with a total disregard for the consequences, just as big tobacco did with cigarettes.

This poster aptly summarizes a current interpretation of this amendment

I share the gloom of Lexington in the Economist, but I do not despair. I suggest that people of faith, and these in the majority in the US, use their influence to change the attitude that is represented by the NRA.

That will not be easy. Some Christians, for example, are members of the NRA or are at least supporters of gun ownership. But that is where pastors and other church leaders can play an important role.

Christian leaders must try to convince gun supporters to put their trust in God, not guns. The motto of the US is "In God we trust," and they must demonstrate that by not carrying guns.

There are legitimate uses for guns, such as for hunting. But handguns and semi-automatic weapons can serve no other purpose than to kill people; there are already too many guns in the US that are not used for hunting.

After every massacre the NRA invokes the same tiresome slogan, "Guns do not kill, people do!" I want to turn this slogan on its head. Since people are the ones who kill others, we should use whatever means we can to keep guns, particularly handguns and semi-automatic weapons, out of the hands of people that may misuse them. Gun control is necessary because of people who kill and maim others.

The killers, in many instances, may be mentally ill, but how do we prevent people like Adam Lanza from perpetrating their evil deeds before the event? We cannot weed out everyone who might possibly become psychotic. We cannot read their minds and anticipate what they will do.

As I am writing this, the police have not yet revealed Lanza's motives, but it probably would have been very difficult to have stopped him ahead of time.

Christians should not be afraid to label such deeds as sins. Mental illness is a serious, although neglected, issue today. Yet even if mental illness is involved, they should not use that label to explain these killings, so that gun control need no longer be an issue. Mental illness is only one factor among many.

Mental illness is certainly not the only reason. Christians can also become mentally ill, but that does not mean that they are not responsible for what they do.

Pandora's box was opened when the Second Amendment was passed. It would be difficult to repeal this Amendment today. The climate in the US is not ripe for that. Even the US Supreme Court now sides with those who own guns. Not even the deaths of twenty children in Newtown is going to change that climate. 

After learning about the Newtown massacre, someone close to me remarked, not entirely facetiously, that if effective gun control is not implemented in the US, she intends to invite Americans who are dismayed by the lack of movement towards gun control in their country to move to Canada. 

I am not naive when it comes to gun control  in Canada. My country is not nirvana. The government recently destroyed the long-gun registry that the police had endorsed enthusiastically. But the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, explained later that semi-automatic weapons would continue to be restricted.

Canada has its own problems with gun control, yet these pale in comparison with those that the US faces. I am concerned with what is happening in the US not only because of this recent massacre but also because my grandchildren live in a neighboring state. I don't want what happened in Newtown to happen to them. 

No one does. But Pandora's box cannot be closed anymore. That, it seems, has made gun control almost impossible. Yet my trust too is in God. I believe that he is ultimately in control, not the gun lobby.

I pray that gun control may become a reality yet in my lifetime and that I may be able to visit the US without worrying about being shot. I also pray that my grandchildren, and everyone else's children and grandchildren living in the US, will be safe whether in school or elsewhere. Amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

End of the world?

December 21, 2012, has been widely proclaimed in the media as the end of the world. Although widely debunked by many people, some still expect the world to end on that day.

The Toronto Star, an otherwise sober newspaper, informed its readers in a headline that one Canadian at least would survive the catastrophe because he would by then have left for the International Space Station.

End of the world predictions have been with with us for a long time. This is just the latest in a long series.

Last year we witnessed Harold Camping making a fool of himself by predicting that the world would end on May 21 or Judgment Day, as he called it, when Christ would return and the world be consumed in a huge fireball.

When that day passed without Christ's return, Camping revised his prediction to October  21, but that date too passed without any truly remarkable event occurring. For more on this prediction, see my series of posts on Camping, starting with the first. The others can be found when you use the search function.

The December 21, 2012, date is part of a New Age phenomenon called Mayanism in which this date marks the beginning of a new era, or-- for some -- the end of the world. The latter, according to them, involves various doomsday scenarios.

These scenarios include a collision with a planet four times the size of the earth or with a comet. However, astronomers, dismiss all of them as bunk, although occasionally asteroids do come close to the Earth, as happened again only a few days ago. But the odds of an asteroid actually hitting the earth are very small.

December 21, 2012, marks the conclusion of a b'ak'tun -- a long time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Mayan writings describe how the gods first created three worlds, although unsuccessfully. This was followed by a fourth world in which they were successful and placed humanity.

In the Long Count calendar, the third world ended after 13 b'ak'tuns, or roughly 5,125 years. The end of that world and the beginning of the current one corresponds with August 11, 3114 BC in the Gregorian calendar. The last b'ak'tun of the current world ends on a date that is equivalent to December 21, 2012.

Mayanist scholars cannot agree, however, on the significance of this date. Some contend that this date marks the annihilation of all creation, but most argue that this would be a cause for celebration, but does not mark the end of the calendar, and certainly not the end of the world.

The 2012 idea about the end of the world is a complete fabrication, and affords some people an opportunity to make a lot of money. There will be another cycle after this one; the ancient Maya thought the world would continue. Most classic Maya inscriptions are strictly historical and do not make any prophetic declarations.

Mayans today say that the end of the calendar has nothing to do with the end of the world or the year 2012.
In spite of such disclaimers, the 2012 phenomenon has spread widely, particularly on the Internet. Hundreds of thousands of websites have been devoted to the subject.

In May 2012, an Ipsos poll of 16,000 adults in 21 countries found that 8 percent had experienced fear or anxiety over the possibility of the world ending in December 2012, while an average of 10 percent agreed with the statement "the Mayan calendar, which some say 'ends' in 2012, marks the end of the world," with responses as high as 20 percent in China, 13 percent in Russia, Turkey, Japan and Korea, and 12 percent in the United States, where the sales of private underground blast shelters have increased noticeably since 2009.

The 2009 disaster film 2012 was inspired by the phenomenon, and advance promotion prior to its release discussed the end of the world. As these promotions did not mention the film itself, many viewers believed them to be real and contacted astronomers in panic. Although the campaign was heavily criticized, the film nevertheless became one of the most successful of its year, grossing nearly $770 million worldwide.

The phenomenon has also inspired several pop music hits. Britney Spears, for example, contributed "Till the World Ends" (2011).

Christians, Jews, and Muslims should not be afraid about what will happen on December 21. They should ignore all the media-induced hype. None of their scriptures mention that date; thus it can safely be ignored.

December 21, 2012, will be a day like all other days. Nothing special for most of us -- perhaps, a day to finish our Christmas shopping, if we have not already done so.

I, for one, will not lose any sleep the night before. The world will not end on December 21. There are things to do -- I have a doctor's appointment that day that I intend to keep.

In addition, baring any personal problem, my wife and I, together with some good friends, hope to take a brief vacation in the Caribbean early in January. I am quite certain that our money will not have been wasted. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Exodus of Christians in the Middle East

The exodus from Egypt in the Bible marks the birth of Israel as a people. The exodus of Christians from the Middle East marks the steady demise of a segment of the population that was once constituted the majority in many of these countries. This is the region where the Christian faith was born.

There are many reasons for the demise of Christians in these countries where they and their ancestors have lived for generations, and in some cases since the time the Christian Church was established.

The chief reason is that Christians are no longer welcome in many of the countries where they were born. Religious freedom has become a casualty of political developments that sometimes go back decades. Thus Christians feel they must emigrate if they are to survive.

A declining birth rate is another important reason, when compared to other segments of the population that continue to grow. Christians are thus losing ground, as the statistics for every country show.

I want to examine several countries in the Middle East where the decline has been the greatest in the last few decades in order to determine the situation of Christians there, in particular why so many are emigrating. But I will ignore Iraq because of the tragic war there that uprooted millions from all religions.

I also want to make a few suggestions about what Christians in the West can do about this problem.

I will move from north to south, beginning with Syria and finishing with Egypt. In between, I will look at Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

In Syria Christians make up about 6.3% of the population, but this proportion is declining because of continual emigration, largely due to increasing discrimination. Emigration will increase even more when the Islamists, as expected, come to power there. Before the current uprising began, however, Christians enjoyed an almost unparalleled freedom.

Christians are concentrated in the cities, and many are involved in business. They have tended to support the Assad regime, although they can also found among the rebels. If Assad falls, Christians will be in very great danger and many will be forced to leave Syria.

At the time of the last reliable census in Lebanon in 1932, Christians were 53.7% of the population, while today they are only 32%. Yet they continue to hold important roles in the government.

The greatest challenge that Christians face is large-scale emigration. This will increase when neighboring Syria comes under Islamist control. Syria has interfered in Lebanese affairs for decades, as have Iran and Saudi Arabia. This continuing interference does not bode well for the future of the Christian community there.

In Jordan, lower birth rates and high emigration rates have contributed to the numerical decline of Christians. The influx of refugees, especially from Palestine, adds to the pressure on Christians to emigrate. Christians can found in all walks of life, including parliament, but they losing much of their influence as a result of this exodus.

While the constitution forbids discrimination and promotes freedom of religion, in the period from 1980 to 2010, the Christian population in Jordan dropped from 6.5% to 2.2%. The instability in the entire region no doubt contributes to this massive emigration.
In Israel, Christians make up only 2% of the population. While in principle all religions enjoy freedom of worship, ultra-Orthodox Jews have a disproportionate influence when compared to other religious groups, even other Jews.

The Jewish attitude to Christians is characterized by animosity for both historical reasons (the Holocaust) and, more recently, proselytism.

Unfortunately, Christians in the West, especially evangelicals, have contributed to the situation of Christians in Israel  because of their often uncritical support for Israel. They have not spoken out about the discrimination practiced against their coreligionists.

In Palestine, the Israeli occupation and Islamic persecution have for many decades already squeezed out the dwindling number of Christians, who today constitute less than 2% of the population. They are threatened by the Israelis who perceive them as Arabs as well as by Islamic extremists who regard them as Western collaborators. Hamas has no use for Christians.

Their numbers have declined at an alarming rate. Palestinian Christians are being pushed out by the Israelis and Islamists and pulled by the quality of life available in the West. Yet they feel abandoned by the global Church. Again, Christians in the West have largely remained silent in the face of these threats to their fellow believers.

Christians make up almost 13% of the population of Egypt. The Coptic Church is by far the largest body of Christians in the Middle East. Copts constitute more than 90% of all the Christians in that country.

Although the large Christian minority has enjoyed relative peace for many decades, the rise of Islamism as was evident after the election of the Muslims Brotherhood has created an atmosphere marked by violence and terror.

The events surrounding the formulation of a new constitution have increased the marginalization of Christians. The domination of Islamists in the new Egypt will no doubt accelerate the exodus of Christians from that country as well.

The Christians there have already faced nearly 2000 years of discrimination and persecution. Is more of this necessary? Should the world just ignore what is happening not only in Egypt but throughout the Middle East?

What can Western Christians do in the face of this great exodus? They can begin by praying for their fellow Christians in the Middle East. And together they can pray for peace in this troubled region. Many Jews and Muslims are also praying for peace.

Western Christians must also end their silence when it comes to the situation of their coreligionists. Silence means complicity in the the discrimination and persecution that Christians in the Middle East face on a daily basis and that are, in fact, increasing.

This discrimination and persecution will not end until all Westerners speak out forcibly against what some Jews and Muslims are doing to people of other faiths. Not all Jews and Muslims are responsible for this behavior, but enough are to make life uncomfortable, if not impossible, for Christians in the Middle East.

Journalists too must become more outspoken about the religious situation in the Middle East. They are often under pressure to appease those who prefer to deny that situation. That is not good journalism.

Christian journalists especially need to take up the cause of Christians whose only recourse is to leave the country of their birth.

The exodus of Christians in the Middle east must end. Otherwise, there will one day be very few Christians left in the region where their faith was born.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is atheism?

Part of the text of Ephesians 2:12 about "being without God"

A few weeks ago I promised to write more about atheism. That is easier said than done, since atheism is difficult to define. Yet atheism is a dominating force that must be reckoned with in the contemporary world.

This post will be the last in a series on how several religions view their role in the public square. If atheism is a religion, as I have argued previously, then it too belongs in this series. And then we can ask legitimately how it sees its role.

That role is easier to describe than atheism itself. Atheism, since it sees itself as not being a religion, can claim to own the public square. Typically, atheism wants to exclude religion in general, and thus every faith, from that square. Yet today, paradoxically, religion is becoming more accepted in the public square, even while atheism seems to be growing in many countries all over the world.

Part of the problem in discussing atheism and religion is due to the difficulty of defining religion. As I wrote in an earlier post, I consider every person to be religious. In other words, everyone has a faith, even if that faith involves the absence of a belief in a god or gods. It is still a belief.

Religion is thus much broader than it is in the list of characteristic practices that atheists use to define the term (see my earlier post on this topic). One way to define a religion is thus to look for certain characteristics that all religions have in common.
Ninian Smart (1927-2001)

This is what Ninian Smart has done in what are commonly known as the Seven Dimensions of Religion, which is widely what accepted by anthropologists and researchers of religion as broadly covering the various aspects of religion, without focusing on things unique to any specific religion.

The characteristics Smart lists are quite different from the ones that atheists use. What Smart has done is not really provide a definition of religion but rather a method of describing it that avoids the problem of definition entirely.

The seven dimensions proposed by Smart are narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. Not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within an individual religion.

Smart even argues that the "secularization" of western society is actually a shift of focus from the doctrinal and ritual to the experiential.

Theism, in its broadest sense, is the belief in the existence of at least one god. Atheism, considered in the same way, is the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. Some Christians insist that atheism at its heart is a denial of the existence of the God whom they worship, but that is too restrictive a view.

The more common understanding of atheism among atheists is "not believing in any gods." No further claims or denials are made. Someone who has never heard about a god would be an atheist in this sense.Then an atheist is a person who is not a theist. This viewpoint is often called "weak" or "implicit" atheism.

There is also a narrower conception of atheism called "strong" or "explicit" atheism. Here, an atheist explicitly denies the existence of any gods, which is a much stronger claim. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification that obscures some of the distinctions that atheists make. I cannot explain all these types of atheism now.

The following diagram, however, may help to illustrate these different types of atheism.

An Euler diagram showing the relationship between weak/strong atheism and 
implicit/explicit atheism. Strong atheism is always explicit, and implicit atheism
 is always weak. Explicit atheism can be either weak or strong.

Agnosticism, in contrast, is the absence of a knowledge of gods. Although sometimes used metaphorically to denote a lack of commitment to a given issue, agnosticism strictly taken means not claiming to know for sure if any gods exist. As such, agnosticism is compatible at least with some religions, although agnostics, like atheists, deny that they are religious.

Agnosticism is thus not the same as atheism. Nor should agnosticism be confused with the doubts that every believer has at times about God and we experience him in our lives. Such doubts are normal, and should not cause us to doubt God's existence. We can and do know him, even when doubts arise.

Because of their exclusion of religion from the public square, both atheists and agnostics continue to claim that they are not religious. Yet, if one studies Smart's dimensions closely, atheists already have six of them and, strange as it may seem, are even beginning to develop the seventh, which is ritual.

The new atheism is the name given to the ideas promoted by sevral 21st-century writers who  advocate the view that religion should not be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed through rational arguments. 

The new atheism is associated especially with people such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Some have argued that it is not new, but was propagated by big-name publishers. However, that overlooks the emphasis these writers lay on science. 

In this regard, I can heartily recommend the comments that the scholar and churchman N.T. Wright makes on this type of atheism.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a recent global poll (2012) reports that 59% of the world's population considers themselves religious, while 23% are non-religious, and 13% are atheists. Non-religious and atheists overlap, no doubt. The report also remarks that religiosity has declined 9% worldwide since 2005.

World's nonreligious population by percentage, Dentsu Institute (2006) and Zuckerman (2005)

The data can be broken down more precisely for individual counties: the percentage of population in each country that consider themselves non-religious (2006) are given in the chart below. It should be noted that predominantly Muslim countries are hardly represented here, and those that are are at the bottom of the list.

Estonia 75.7 Azerbaijan 74 Sweden 46-85 (average of 65.5) Czech Republic 64.3 Vietnam 46.1-81 (average of 63.55) Denmark 43-80 (average of 61.5) Albania 60 United Kingdom 39-65 (average of 52) Japan 51.8 China 8-93 (average of 50.5) France 43-54 (average of 48.5) Russia 48.1 Belarus 47.8 Hungary 42.6 Ukraine 42.4 Netherlands 39-44 (average of 41.5) Latvia 40.6 South Korea 36.4 Belgium 35.4 New Zealand 34.7 Germany 34.6 Chile 33.8 Luxembourg 29.9 Slovenia 29.9 Venezuela 27.0 Spain 23.3 Slovakia 23.1 Australia 22.3 Mexico 20.5 Lithuania 19.4 Italy 17.8 Canada 16.2 United States 16.1 Argentina 16.0 South Africa 15.1 Croatia 13.2 Austria 12.2 Finland 11.7 Portugal 11.4 Puerto Rico 11.1 Bulgaria 11.1 Philippines 10.9 Ireland 7.0 India 6.6 Serbia 5.8 Peru 4.7 Poland 4.6 Iceland 4.3 Greece 4.0 Turkey 2.5 Romania 2.4 Tanzania 1.7 Malta 1.3 Iran 1.1 Uganda 1.1 Nigeria 0.7 Bangladesh 0.1

Yet, as the Economist points out in an article on atheism in the Islamic world, atheists are becoming more outspoken in many Muslim countries, but they are not tolerated, which is hardly surprising. Apostasy is a major crime against God, and is punishable by death (at least for men), according to all four schools of Sunni Islamic law.

As the article notes, there are only a handful of majority-Muslim countries where atheists can live safely, as long as they do so quietly. Turkey is one example, Lebanon another. None of these countries makes atheism a specific crime, and none provides atheists with legal protection or recognition. 

Indonesia, according to the article, demands that people declare themselves as one of six religions; atheism and agnosticism do not count. And Egypt’s draft constitution makes room for only three faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Atheism again does not count.

Atheism may not be the fastest growing religion in the world, but it is on the increase. In this post I can hardly begin to do justice to the topic of atheism. This is only a very brief introduction, yet I felt it was necessary if only to complete this series on the role of religion in the public square.

As I have noted in a previous post, atheists love to blame religion for much of the violence in the world, but they are equally guilty. No one is totally innocent when it comes to violence; thus we can disregard this claim, as well as many other claims made by atheists about religion and its public role.

Should we be worried about the growth of atheism? Not necessarily. But we must be aware of how vicious atheists can be when the topic of religion arises. In response, we must first of all inform ourselves of their arguments in order to be properly prepared to counter these arguments when the opportunity presents itself. 

But our response must always be motivated by love for our adversaries, even when we disagree strongly with their stance. Let us keep that in mind in our dealings with atheists.