A Prophecy

I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the Lord.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.”
Jeremiah 2:7, 2:9

In ancient times, when God’s chosen people were making a mess of things, which they did  fairly often, God sent them warnings via the prophets.  This was revealed truth, not to be questioned, but to be obeyed.  However, the people usually did not obey.  After all, these prophets seemed crazy, and they demanded way too much sacrifice.  Consequently, the people suffered what  they would come to understand as God’s wrath.

Today, we no longer need to rely solely on revealed truth.  Using our natural talents and our ability to pass detailed knowledge from generation to generation, we have developed a method for understanding the world around us based on careful, systematic observation.  This understanding has deepened over the years through continually building on what came before, by repeatedly questioning the received wisdom, testing it, verifying some ideas, refining others, and discarding those that did not correspond to the world as it actually is.  Thus, in the place of revealed truth, we have theories that can be verified or disproven by observing the results of reproducible experiments.   In ancient times, people understood the world to be controlled by God: disobey and you will be punished.  Our scientific understanding is founded on cause and effect: touch a hot stove and you will get burnt.

This approach to human understanding has proven extremely effective.  It has enabled us to transform large areas of the planet to suit our needs and build cities that reach to the sky.  Our modern technological civilization stretches around the globe.

Today, scientists observe that the planet, on the whole, is getting warmer.  This was predicted decades ago by people whose ideas used to seem rather far fetched.  Now, these assertions have been verified by careful examination of what has actually happened since the predictions were first made.  The idea is simple and profound.  Our civilization has become so ubiquitous that our collective waste is effecting the climate of the entire planet.  Glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, and storms are becoming more destructive.

There are times when the gentle correction of a modern Quaker simply will not suffice, times that call for the fierce intensity of the prophets.  You don’t have to believe in the wrathful God of the Old Testament for the message revealed through Jeremiah to reverberate in the depths of your soul.   And so I repeat his prophecy:

If we continue to trash the planet, there will be a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, and our children’s children will suffer what the ancient Hebrews understood to be the wrath of God.

Of course, all this is in response to the announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.  However, like those Biblical warnings of old, this is not just about the behavior of far off kings and princes and presidents.  Each of us needs to examine our own actions, because simply by living in this society, we are complicit in the ongoing devastation.

So, let me conclude with a query taken from the Faith and Practice of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends:

Do you endeavor to live in harmony with nature, avoiding pollution and the destruction of our environment? What are you doing about your use of the world‘s irreplaceable resources?



Supporting Muslims in America


Hassan Shibly

We all know this recent Muslim travel ban was just a shot over the bow.  Trump promised much worse during the campaign, and apparently he intends to deliver.  There has even been talk that we might soon have something resembling a Muslim registry. Some say, if it comes to that, they will register as Muslims.  Though I am sympathetic with this impulse, I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  I am not Muslim.  So, where can I sign now, to let my government know where I stand on religious freedom?

To find out, I visited the local mosque to attend a CAIR (Counsil on American-Islamic Relations) sponsored event: “Unapologetically Muslim and American”.   It featured Hassan Shibly,  Chief Executive Director of CAIR Florida, along with Karen Dabdoub, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Chapter.

The message of the presentation was clear.  Islamophobia is rampant throughout the country.  Incidents range from bullying in school through discrimination in the workplace or in housing all the way to hate crimes.   The presenters advised Muslims to stand up for their rights, to refuse to hide or simply hope that the situation would resolve itself, and to involve CAIR as soon as possible before things escalate.  CAIR is there to help.

They also noted the support Muslims have received from the majority community in America. They described incidents of Muslims praying in airports, for example, protected by Jews and Christians standing silently by to prevent any disruption of their prayers.  They mentioned Madeline Albright, who says she is ready to sign up if that Muslim registry comes to exist.  They also reminded us of the history of immigrant groups coming to America, groups which faced bigotry but eventually gained acceptance, at least from most Americans.

Shibly focused on relations with the government, especially US Customs and the FBI (“definitely not the Friendly Brotherhood of Islam”).

They spent quite a bit of time talking about what to expect on returning to this country from abroad.  Everyone is asked where they went and why they traveled.  Some will be pulled aside for secondary screening. Whereas this occurs for a typical American citizen about 1% percent of the time, Muslims were being pulled aside for this extra scrutiny about half the time, according to Shibly. Shibly’s advice was simple: as soon as they ask anything about your personal political or religious views, assert your rights.  As an American citizen, you have the right to ask for a lawyer to present during the questioning.  If you are a non-citizen,  with a green card for example, the prerogatives of the officials are less constrained, but you still have the right to call a lawyer.  Despite what the officials might say, you are likely to be detained just as long whether you call a lawyer or not, and without the protection of someone familiar with the intricacies of the law and normal procedures, you will be vulnerable.  Karen Dabdoub urged people to text the CAIR office when arriving, before getting off the plane, so that if CAIR does not hear from you within an hour or so, they can know to intervene with Customs to find out what has happened to you.  Thus, a Muslim entering the country can expect to be inconvenienced, but, with proper precautions and the help of CAIR, these inconveniences need not grow into anything more severe.  Nonetheless, foreign students are strongly encouraged to stay inside the country until their education is finished.

Shibly then went on to discuss the FBI, which he described as a government agency that is targeting Muslims, through entrapment and through intimidating people into becoming informants.


Karen Dabdoub

Karen Dabdoub followed up with a hypothetical example of an person who thinks they have nothing to hide talking with the FBI.  The agent might ask a question, and then much later in conversation, ask the same question differently.  If there were inconsistencies in your answers, then they could charge you with lying to the FBI, a crime that can be punished with up to five years of jail time.  (Of course, it is perfectly legal for them to lie to you.) Now, they have something to hold over you, to intimidate you into becoming an informant.

Their advice was the same: ask for a lawyer to be present during questioning.  Whatever the motives of the people in power, the American government is constrained by the Constitution.  Muslims, like all Americans, need to assert their rights under this Constitution in order to maintain them.  If the government tries to intrude into your personal life in any way, don’t try to handle it yourself; call CAIR.  CAIR has a lawyer who will contact the FBI on your behalf.  Shibly recalled one incident where he felt the FBI had a legitimate reason to question his client, but in the others, he told the agent that he would advise his client to not answer any of his questions.  Usually, the FBI would then leave the person alone after that.

All this sounded pretty paranoid to me.  After, the event, I did a little research to find out whether the paranoia was justified.  Interestingly, I found a 2005 article where a freshman at the University of Buffalo named Hassan Shibly was detained at the border, apparently for no reason other than he was Muslim.  I suspect that experience had a role in shaping his career.

In a more comprehensive view, Human Rights Watch clearly supports their complaints:

In a lengthy examination of U.S. terrorism prosecutions, Human Rights Watch, working with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said the FBI and the Justice Department have created a climate of fear in some Muslim communities through the use of surveillance and informants.

fbi-newburgh-four-james-c-007I found several accounts of the “Newburgh Four”, a group caught up in an FBI sting operation that Shibly had mentioned.  It appears sordid.  Yes, these guys, all black, all Muslim, all poor, did get caught up in a terrorist plot, but the plot was entirely concocted by the paid FBI informant.  Even the judge who sentenced the defendants was upset by the FBI’s conduct.

 Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.

Unfortunately, one of the men caught up in the scheme was mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic.   Shibly reported visiting him in jail, apparently out of his mind, on suicide watch in solitary confinement, cold, sad and hopeless.

It is hard to see how we are made any safer by such operations.

It doesn’t have to be like this. For example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a sizable Muslim population, the local chief of police runs an outreach and informant program that is considered a model by authorities on counterterrorism.  Informally, it appears to employ the same principles of “community policing” that have proven successful in Cincinnati.  You engage the community, treat people fairly, and they help you succeed because they want to live in safety.  It works.  The police chief in Dearborn can cite examples where Muslims have turned in fellow Muslims.

The FBI might pay lip service to building this kind of trust with the Muslim community, and in fact some within the bureau appear to be making a sincere attempt to do that.  However,  based on what I have learned, from Human Rights Watch, from CAIR, and from reliable news sources, that ship has sailed, and the Trump administration is unlikely to ask it to change course.

Following the presentation by Shibly and Dabdoub, there was a question and answer session.  I got to ask my question.  I referenced Madeline Albright’s willingness to sign up if there is ever a Muslim registry.  “But I will not be able to sign that with integrity.  So where can I sign up now to let my government know where I stand?”

My question got a round of spontaneous applause.  The answer was a little vague.  Go to the alerts on the CAIR website and write your Senators and Congressman about the issues that concern us all.

It looks like we will have lots of opportunities to do that.

Trump has expressed surprise that there was so much furor over his executive order.   After all, “We had 109 people out of hundreds of thousands of travelers and all we did was vet those people very, very carefully.”  Of course, he seems to enjoy the drama of it all.

We should not expect Trump’s assault on the Constitution to begin with a massive charge, but with a limited action such as this one.  Regardless of the number affected, we need to guard against anything that “target[s] individuals for discriminatory treatment based on their country of origin and/or religion, without lawful justification.” (item 64, page 13)  .   If we want to preserve our freedoms, we must preserve them for everybody.


Protesting the Ark Encounter: a Personal View

Ark Protest

A couple of years ago, after the debate between Bill Nye, the science guy, and Ken Ham, the Answers In Genesis CEO, I started blogging, under the perhaps foolish notion that I had something to contribute to the chatter. When I heard about the opening of the Ark Encounter, I looked for a protest to join, and found one organized by the Tri-State Freethinkers.   On Thursday morning, I headed off to the event, armed with my home made sign, a copy of the New Testament, and a few local Ordovician fossils.

I knew I was getting close when the traffic sign warned me to expect delays at next exit.  However, there were no delays.  In fact, for a grand opening, traffic seemed pretty light all day.

As I exited the highway about 15 minutes before the protest was scheduled to begin, I saw the protest gathering on the left of the exit ramp, just before the T intersection with the state route.  I found my way to the small graveled parking area up the hill and walked down to the protest area with a group of about a dozen. We were greeted by a volunteer who gave a safety talk: don’t get too near the road, don’t talk with people in the cars, because that would hold up traffic, don’t engage with the counter protesters over there, because we don’t want any trouble.  They talked about a possible “civil discussion” tent, but I don’t think this was ever set up.

I registered my presence at the main tent.  Appreciative of their efforts organizing the event, I donated some money but did not ask to join. Evidently, the money was considered membership dues anyway, and I am now an accidental member of the Tri-State Freethinkers.

We held up signs for the people on the exit ramp to see.  Some drivers honked approval, some looked the other way, or gave us a thumbs down.  No middle fingers that I saw.

2016-07-07 Ark Encounter Protest Me

A lot of the signs objected to taxpayer funding of the “Genocide and Incest Park”.  One guy had a life size cardboard cutout of the guy in the #ohnoahhedidnt sign.  My own sign, “Don’t Bury the Bible in Ignorance,” was too subtle for some, who were not sure which side I was on until they say my t-shirt from the “The Origins Centre”, a souvenir from South Africa.

Several people wore pink t-shirts saying “Thou shalt not mess with women’s reproductive rights.  Fallopians 4:28.”  For fun, I tried looking the verse up in Philippians; it ends with 4:23.

A guy stood up in a loud voice and said that he had an expert on the Constitution with him, and asked if anyone wanted to talk with him.  Nobody was taking the bait.  After a while, I said that I would start.  He asked me why I was there, starting off on taxpayer support.   I mentioned that I was not happy with the taxpayers of Kentucky supporting the ministry, but that was not why I was there.  He tried to correct me on the taxpayer support, which is murky, indirect, and has passed a test in court.  It was a little while before I got to why I was there: I showed my sign. He said “well I could say the same thing about you, that you were burying the Bible in ignorance.”  Meanwhile people at my side were telling me not to engage him, that he would just edit it to make me look dumb.  I had noted the video cameras, and said “I know that.”  However, it was clear that I didn’t represent what most people wanted, and I allowed myself to be guided by their supposed wisdom.  After I left to rejoin the sign wavers, the guy with the Satanic beard did exactly what he had told me not to do, and engaged in a heated debate.  I don’t know what he said, but he cheers from the on-lookers.  The interviewer, turned out to be Eric Hovind founder of Creation Today.  Here and here are his posts on the counter protest.

After a while, someone passed out a song: “Ark Encounter is a sham, E I E I O” etc.  Group protests like this are not the place for nuance.

As who thinks Young Earth Creationism is ignorant, I had plenty of company.  As a someone who calls himself Christian, I was at odds with pretty much everyone there.

One protester asked me further about what I believed.  Not enamored with dogma, I always preface my answer to such questions with prevarication:  I do not base my life on my notions about that which is beyond my understanding.  After a while, he tried to pin me down, asking whether I was an Old World Creationist.  I said that I was not really a creationist of any kind, but that I did not have a problem with Old World Creationists because they did not have to war with modern science.

I met one person who had a nasty sign about the Bible.  She had read it all the way through (I confessed that I haven’t) and has a visceral hatred of it.

I spoke with another very dogmatic protester: all religion was bad, all the scriptures were bad, I was part of the way there because I didn’t believe every word of the Bible, but the truth was whatever it was that he had figured out (I am sure he would object to me using the word “believed”).  I found in him the same arrogance I see in some evangelical Christians, eager to tell you what they know, not eager to learn anything from your experience or point of view.

2016-07-07 Ark Encounter Protest groupI spoke with one young man who asked me  what I thought was important in the Bible.  I pointed to the teachings of Jesus, particularly “Love thy neighbor as thyself”.  He asked “What does that mean”, and someone else responded with something like “jerk off your neighbor.”  The young man questioned further, “ ‘Honor thy father and mother’ what does that mean, really?”  I was surprised by the question, and without a quick answer. I was taking his question seriously, contemplating  in good Quaker fashion how to respond, but, unaccustomed to such pauses, he wandered away.

Any time I look around and see only one African American, I see it as an obligation to make sure that he of she feels welcome.  In this case, the man happened to be an officer of the state patrol, there to ensure order.  I introduced myself, with the observation that I was a little surprised that he was only black person there.  He said, “There’s plenty of us around.”  I thanked him and his colleagues for being there.  I think we both found it a bit embarrassing.  For me, it is the same embarrassment that I feel in some religious settings, where there are very few blacks.

Toward lunchtime, I encountered Harold, a volunteer about my age from Answers In Genesis.  He was there without cameras, or any group of followers.  He seemed genuinely interested in learning what our point of view was.  We talked for quite a while, finding points of agreement and of contention.  I mentioned one of my favorite Bible verses, which I quoted (not quite word for word, too many translations in my head)  “… what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  “Yes, Micah 6:8” he replied.  We spoke about the age of the universe.  I talked about the expansion that is going on, that light from the most distant stars will never reach us.  He sees that as a key to the thinking of Answers in Genesis.  I didn’t try to contradict him.  In the protest, I was making my voice heard against the ignorance of the ark, but in this conversation, I was there to find out who he was, and how he thought, and help him similarly understand my point of view.

Harold believes in a infinite God, whom he places first, above anything that man has devised.  He wants to have a firm foundation, and God’s word revealed in scripture gives him that.  I think that when Martin Luther used the Bible to free us from a corrupt and apostate church, he did a wonderful thing, but he did it without contradicting the scientific understanding of his day.  However, science has progressed, and his scientific assertions are no longer viable.  Harold thinks that since God’s word is eternal and unchanging, he should be able to rely on the same basic conclusions as his forefathers.   I also suspect that, to Harold, if the theology his forefathers relied on was flawed, their eternal salvation was in question as well.

Harold questioned me about my foundation.  I replied that my goals were a little more humble than that: I want to know what God would have me do.  We agreed that Micah 6:8 was a good place to start.

I told him that I know that he might not consider me a real Christian, but that wouldn’t bother me a bit.  However, that I fall short of following Jesus’s commandments, therein lies a judgement that I care about.  “But we all fall short of that” he replied.

Harold headed off to get some lunch.  The counter protesters had brought some food from Chick fil A which they offered for free, but since that chain has made a stance the LGBT finds abhorrent, the free thinkers would not accept the offer of free food.  Harold, however, was hungry.  I told him to enjoy his lunch.  I saw him still at the protest hours later when it was breaking up.  He was still smiling, and he had apparently enjoyed himself.

Toward the end of the protest, I had a similar encounter with Sarah, a young AIG volunteer who I think might be Harold’s daughter.  She had stopped by the Ark Encounter on her way home to Iowa from the National Education Association convention in Washington where she had manned the Answers in Genesis booth.  I joined a conversation already in progress that included an archeologist.  Again, it was a respectful exchange among people trying to understand each other.  Sarah did not pretend to have pat answers for everything.   When the archeologist asked about carbon dating, Sarah  deferred to experts and the web site.

Later I asked her about her experience of Jesus.  She retreated a bit and relied on the teachings of the Bible.  After talking for a while, including my reservations about dogma, I found myself called to make some dogmatic assertions: the view of the Bible expressed by Answer In Genesis is idolatrous, the Bible was never intended to be the kind of book they made it out to be, and their assertions about the age of the earth are absolutely false.  I then apologized for my inconsistency in making such a pronouncement within the context of our conversation.

Both Harold and Sarah require a firm foundation for their life.  They are grateful for the sacrifice that Jesus made for their sins.  My sense of the Bible as an inspirational text, but one that you have to pick and choose from, is fully unsatisfactory to them.  They see it as a whole, the inerrant word of God.  Their experience of the divine seems to be second hand, though they might object to me describing it that way.  They have accepted a teaching, and want to share that teaching with the world.  Both of them showed a humility and an openness that was completely lacking in many others who were there, both among the protesters and the counter protesters.

As the protest was breaking up, I asked about the rally being held at UC. It was really for members, and I (mistakenly) thought that I was not one. I talked with one person, who asked someone, and came back with a statement that I wouldn’t really be welcome. As I got the car, I happened to speak with someone in the parking area, who asked me whether I was coming to the rally. I told him that I thought I was not welcome. He called someone, and said something about “someone in the middle”. The upshot was that they did not want the event to be disrupted. Knowing that I was a theist, he thought I would hear a bunch that I wouldn’t like; I responded that I was not trying to live in an echo chamber. I said that if there was an opportunity to ask questions, I might make my position known, but I had no desire to make a nuisance of myself.

Later in the evening, I went to the rally which was broadcast live by Dogma Debate.  I learned about the background of the Tri-State Freethinkers, and later about the Young Skeptics.  This information I found helpful and interesting.

Jim Helton, President of the Tri-State Freethinkers, told us I the full story of the port-a-potties.  During the protest, there was someone who periodically would gather together a carful of people for a bathroom run.  It turns out that the Freethinkers had contracted with someone to provide a port-a-potty at the site of the protest, but on that morning, when the company realized that it was going to be at this protest, they declined to fulfill the contract, not wanting to have their brand associated with these atheist weirdos.  So, the freethinkers improvised, and found a location not too far away that had a port-a-potty available.  The port-a-potty turned out to be from the same company, so people took selfies of themselves with at the port-a-potty with the company logo to post on the web.

Aron Ra and Jim Helton

Aron Ra, Jim Helton and Family at the Ark Encounter

Typical of the other speakers was Aron Ra, of American Atheists.  He began his talk with an interesting exposition of the Mesopotamian sources for the flood myth.  However, it soon devolved into long catalog of what was ridiculous about the Answers in Genesis position on the Noah myth.  Another speaker went through the sources of the races, according to AIG, from the children of Noah.  People seemed to like it, but I found it boring.

One person suggested a web site devoted to refutations of everything that Answers In Genesis asserts.  Although that seems to be an interesting project in the abstract, it runs into two problems: the overwhelming size of the mountain of manure that these people produce, and the colossal boredom of actually shoveling out from in under it.

I was surprised in a gathering of freethinkers that there was no time for questions.  It was packed full of one presentation after another.  As it entered the third hour, I left.

There are a few conclusions that I draw from the experience.  First, both the Freethinkers and the fundamentalist Christians are most concerned about being able to pass their values on to their children.  For example, David Smalley, the host of the radio show, went on a free tour of the Ark, with Eric Hovind serving as docent.   He enjoyed much of it, until he encountered the children’s section, which he found almost frightening.  Another instance is the Young Skeptics, founded explicitly to provide an alternative to the after school programs offered by Good News Clubs.  Because we have a public education system, this struggle of ideas has a political dimension.  Both sides want to control the curriculum.  The creationists want to teach the controversy; the  overwhelming majority of scientists think the controversy was resolved over a century ago and don’t want any part of the Bible presented in science class.

Secondly, I found people on both sides that I could have conversations with, and engage with on a personal level.  However, with the leaders, those with a public face, conversation was difficult.  They had their agenda, their conclusions, and their debate points all lined up, and nuanced engagement was pretty much impossible.

Finally, both sides see the argument as binary: either you are for God and this inerrant Bible, or you are for science and reason.  In this, I was on an island, attached to neither continent.

Jim Helton pointed to a number of things that he thought the protest accomplished.  Of these, the most cogent was that they changed the story: the media no longer talked just about the Ark, but also of the the protest against this simplistic rejection of modern science.

I was also there to change the story.  I wanted people to see that the choice was not limited to  godless rationalism on the one hand or mindless dogma on the other, and that the Bible, though not a good science text, is a wonderful book.  In this, I largely failed, but I was energized by the attempt.


Open Letter to Protesters at the Ark Encounter

FreeThinkers ArkFree Thinkers:

To begin, let us pause for a moment to bask in the superiority of our own understanding.


Wasn’t that fun?

Now, can we put aside the ridicule?  Young Earth Creationists have been enduring such mockery since the Scopes Monkey Trial almost a century ago.  If you have paid attention, you might have noticed that it accomplishes nothing.  It just makes them feel persecuted, and they love that.

And this noise about genocide and incest in the Noah story is also pointless.  Yes there are plenty of horrible things in the Bible.  Try taking a look at the book of Judges for example. But I don’t believe you care about that.

Another question: what is the harm?  People have the right to believe whatever they want.  Here, however, you have a point. In a democracy, people have power, and if a large number of us are misguided, it effects the whole society.  In a world as dependent on technology as ours, where our collective actions impact the environment of the entire planet, we absolutely need for the public to have a certain basic scientific literacy.  Instead, we put in power congressmen who think large chunks of the current scientific consensus are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”  Because of the success of groups like Answers In Genesis in this country, both our politics and our science education are a mess.

Their dogma also poisons religion.   They take this beautiful gift, the Bible, full of the wisdom of the ancients, especially the teachings of Jesus, and bury it in a mountain of idolatry and ignorance.  They hide the insights and beauty in the  scriptures with this elaborate pseudo science.  They  present God as deceitful: using our God given gifts of observation, we can see the world appears to be billions of year old, but the Young Earth crowd  insists that this is illusion.  They make it appear that Christ is opposed to Truth.  Just what kind of God are they serving?

There is in this an  emotional whirlpool that Answers in Genesis and its predecessors have long relied on, and one that the free thinkers are easily caught up in.   Creationists see their literal reading of the Bible as essential to true Christianity, and everything else falls into a tarpit of secular humanism or, worse, outright atheism.  Many have felt what they consider to be God’s presence in their lives.  They have witnessed people transform from selfishness to service, from disorder to discipline, and from despair to hope.  They are not about to give that up.  They will grasp at any straw to maintain a hold, no matter how tenuous, on the beliefs of their forefathers. What you might see as a choice between logic and faith, they see as choice between heaven and hell.  Answers in Genesis wants this to be the choice that its followers face, so they are happy to have free thinkers protesting their new theme park.

It is this mindset among Creationists that needs to change.  I believe that this can be accomplished by acknowledging the authenticity of their experience, perhaps even approaching them with enough humility that we admit the possibility of learning something from that experience.  However, validating their experience does not require adhering to obviously false doctrine.  Getting them to this point is the key to helping them separate from what is false and make peace with modern science.

I believe (there’s that word again) that no matter how far science progresses, we will still be faced with the reality of living in society as semi-rational beings.  In this, the teachings of Jesus and the message of redemption at the heart of Christianity and are a good place to start.

So, there is great harm in Young Earth Creationism, and this theme park means that the harm will continue for some time.  It is important that we register our opposition to it.  Eventually, we need to put Answers In Genesis where it belongs, along side the Flat Earth Society, a small, and mostly harmless anachronism.

I plan to join you in protest.  I will bring a Bible, a few local Ordovician fossils, and my sign:

Don’t Bury

the Bible in


See you there.

in peace,

jp lund







Sources of Guidance for Muslims

Interfaith LogoThe essay below is written by Freda Shamma, a member of the Clifton Mosque, whom I met in the most recent series of Interfaith Dialogues.   As Freda describes it, she was raised as a typical American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant).   She was educated, ultimately attaining a PhD in education, and spent her career as an educator.  She converted to Islam almost 50 years ago.  She says, “My values haven’t changed but my understanding of religion has, and I love the real diversity in the Muslim community.”

She brought copies of this essay to the dialogues, and I found it helpful in understanding the point of view of a devout Muslim.  Having been raised Christian, she knows how to explain her faith to Christians.  In the wake of all the banter going around about the nature of Islam, I am pleased to post the words of an actual Muslim.

What are the sources of guidance for Muslims?

By Freda Shamma

It may be helpful to understand the Qur’an by comparing it to the Bible. Much of the Bible is a chronological history of the Jewish people written at various times and by a variety of people. The New Testament is basically a biography of Jesus, in the four gospels, and then a collection of letters and writings by later Christians, attempting to explain their faith. The Qur’an is none of these.

The Qur’an is, first and most important of all, the words of God, and only His words. It is the collection of revelations that God sent to the prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessing be upon him, via the angel Gabriel. Angels were created to serve God but have no free will so are incapable of doing anything other than what God says.

The first surah, or chapter is a prayer which God wants people to use, and is given later in this article.

The next chapter begins with “This is the Book: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God.” (The word translated as ‘fear’ does not mean ‘afraid’ but more ‘in awe of’ or those who hate to displease God).

The Qur’an was revealed in stages over a 23 year period (610-632). The majority of the revelations sent to Prophet Muhammad when he was first teaching in Mecca are generally short chapters found in the last part of the Qur’an. At this time the Muslims were few in number and new to the religion. God’s guidance was mainly in the area of belief, the contrast between those who believe and those who do not, and their respective destinies in the hereafter. God describes the believers as those who believe in Him and choose right from wrong, and do good to others, including sharing their wealth. Other revelations give descriptions of heaven and hell, and the Day of Judgment. The mercy and forgiveness of God as well as other of His attributes is also included.

The longer chapters (surahs) were revealed to Prophet Muhammad after the Muslim community was established in the city of Madinah. Much of the revelation in these chapters gives practical details of life between people, i.e. the nature of male and female, the relationship in marriage, dealing with parents, children, neighbors, orphans, non-Muslims, dealing with honesty and justice, even against one’s own family. It also deals with economics, governing, and life in general.

Even the worst enemies of the Muslims among the early Arabs, who were noted for their beautiful language and love of poetry, acknowledged that the Qur’an was the most beautifully written book they could imagine. Any translation is going to fall short of the original. The Qur’an is always in Arabic, the language it was revealed in. For those who cannot understand Arabic, an approximate translation is also included. It is impossible to make an exact translation of something which God has said, since His revelation is on many levels at the same time.

There are two aspects of the Qur’an which often cause a problem for non-Muslims trying to read it. The first is that it is not chronological. The story of Adam and Eve is mentioned quite a number of times throughout the Qur’an, for example. Each time, God asks us to consider a different aspect of the event, in order to be guided in a certain way.

The second problem for many is the repetition. I don’t know the figure, but I jokingly say to my Muslim friends whenever patience is hard to come by, ‘It’s no wonder the Qur’an mentions patience so many times!’ It is a fact that most of what is second nature to us, has come about by repetition. How many of you wash your hands after digging in the dirt? How many times did your mother have to repeat “go wash your hands” until finally it became part of you, and you don’t even think about it? When you are in a stressful situation, what pops into your mind to help you – perhaps the 23rd psalm? Didn’t you have to repeat it many times before it became a part of you? And so God repeats His guidance in many ways, sometimes with a story, sometimes as a simile, sometimes a direct command, sometimes with reference to some historical event or some scientific truth. Look at the way Allah made the bees and their way of getting food and their social organization, and then look at mankind and consider that God will not let us suffer or fail, without giving us the right guidance to be able to change our situation. As the Qur’an says in Surah 14:1: The Qur’an is “a book which We have revealed unto thee in order that thou might lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of thy Lord – to the way of Him the exalted in power, worthy of all praise.” In this verse God is addressing Prophet Muhammad directly, but reminding us that Muhammad is only able to lead mankind because God has given him the ability to do so.

Muslims depend on two sources of guidance. Foremost is the Qur’an which is the direct words of God, delivered by angel to Prophet Muhammad. As the verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet, he had them written down. There are still pieces of the original, which were written on leather, existing in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The copies of the Qur’an today are letter by letter exactly the same as the first Qur’an.

The second source of guidance is the example of the Prophet Muhammad, a man who was guided by God to live a godly life. We look to him because God in the Qur’an tells us to follow his example. Sunnah (what he did) and hadith (what he said) show us what Muhammed did, and what he said in the twenty three years of his prophethood. These were also written down during the life of the Prophet, and have been exhaustively researched and verified to make sure no falsehoods or mistakes are in the authenticated sunnah and hadiths.

There is no pope, or priest, or minister to come between a Muslim and God. Everyone is supposed to study these sources of guidance for him/her self. When there are disagreements, or something unusual comes up that requires a thorough knowledge of the scriptures, then Islamic scholars are consulted. During the required Friday noon prayer, any knowledgeable Muslim can give the sermon. Where an Islamic scholar is available, he is usually asked to deliver it.

End of Maghrid Prayer

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Charleston Wang, photographer. http://www.wangnews.net. Used with permission.

This is the opening chapter or the Qur’an.  It is the prayer that Muslims say at least 17 times every day in the five required prayers.  Notice the similarities to the Lord’s Prayer.

Surah 1: Al Fatiha (The Opening)        The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6: 9-13

In the name of Allah,                               Our father, who art in heaven,
the Lord of Mercy,
the Giver of Mercy

Praise belongs to God,                             Hallowed be thy name.
Lord of the Worlds,                                   Thy kingdom come,

The Lord of Mercy,
the Giver of Mercy,

Master of the Day of Judgement.              Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

It is You we worship;                                 Give us this day our daily bread, and
it is You we ask for help.                            forgive us our trespasses as we
.                                                                forgive those who trespass
.                                                                against us.

Guide us to the straight way                      Lead us not into temptation
The way of those on whom
Thou has bestowed thy Grace,

Not of those who have gained wrath         but deliver us from evil.
nor of those who have gone astray.

Some topics discussed in the Qur’an

Nature of Mankind              Surah 20:120-124

120:    But Satan whispered evil: “Adam! shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays?”

121:    In the result they both (Adam and Eve) ate of the tree and so their nakedness appeared to them. They began to sew for their covering, leaves from the Garden: thus did Adam disobey His Lord and allow himself to be seduced.

122:    But the Lord chose him (for His Grace): He turned to him and gave him guidance.

123:    He said: “Get ye down all together from the Garden with enmity one to another (Adam and Eve vs. Satan); but if as is sure there comes to you guidance from Me, whosoever follows My guidance will not lose his way nor fall into misery.

124     “But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down and we shall raise him up blind on the Day of Resurrection.”


49:13     O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other.) Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.


2:277     Those who believe and do deeds of righteousness and establish regular prayers and regular charity will have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.

No compulsion in Religion  

2:256     Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks, And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.

Business dealings                

2:282.   O ye who believe! When ye deal with each other in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time reduce them to writing…

Fostering, not adoption    

33:5       Call them by the names of their fathers; that is more just, in the sight of Allah, but if ye know not their father’s names, call them your brothers in faith. (One of the rights that Islam gives to the child is the right to know who his parents are.)

Gender Equity

4:1      O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord Who created you from a single person, created of like nature his mate…

9:71    The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another; they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His apostle.


4.135    O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves or your parents or your kin and whether it be rich or poor; for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts of your hearts lest ye swerve, and if ye distort justice, or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.

22:39    To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they are wronged, and verily God is Most powerful for their aid.

42:40    The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree), but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah; for Allah loveth not those who do wrong.


25:63     The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk on the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them say (words of) peace.

God is unknowable in His entirety, but He gives us 99 attributes (or names) in the Qur’an, including:

 The Most Merciful, The Most Beneficent, The Creator, The Most Loving, The Most Just, The Most Powerful, The Everlasting Sustainer of All, The Greatest, The One above all, The Most Wise, The All-knowing.


Praying with Muslims

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Charleston Wang, photographer. www.wangnews.net. Used with permission.

Worshippers finishing the ṣalāt al-maġrib at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. Credit: Charleston Wang, http://www.wangnews.net.

What do you do when a mass of gun toting citizens, self-anointed guardians of some misbegotten fantasy about the way things should be, gathers outside your place of worship with the explicit intent of being as obnoxious and offensive as our constitution allows?  Invite them in.

When this happened at a mosque in Phoenix recently, the president of the congregation, Usama Shami, did just that, inviting people to join them in prayer.  Two, both wearing t-shirts bearing profane insults to Islam, accepted the offer.  They found the experience of observing devout Muslims in prayer transforming.  Removed from the vitriol of the demonstration outside, they were almost surprised to realize that Muslims were people.  One reported, “It was something I’ve never seen before,” the other left saying “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt.  I won’t wear it again.”

Recently, I had a similar experience observing Muslims in prayer, though, since I entered with less prejudice, it was not as transforming.  I had been involved in an interfaith dialog entitled “Rooted in Abraham”, a set of weekly get togethers among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  It was hosted alternately at the (Catholic) Centennial Barn, the Valley Temple, and the Clifton Mosque.

The so-called protest in Phoenix (it might have been just a money making scheme on the part of the organizer) points to the value of having open paths of communication between the faith communities, so that a mutual, coordinated response can be easily organized if it is needed.  However, for now, this was just a group of interested people getting together, sharing their experiences, learning from each other.

Of course, this is a self selected group: we who attended were willing to share our experience without insisting that others agree with a particular theological tenet, and were, for the most part, willing to listen and perhaps learn from people with a different point of view.  Some were thoroughly grounded in one of the traditions; others were more loosely affiliated with a faith community or frankly seeking guidance for their own spiritual journey.  Those more concerned with orthodoxy, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, did not choose to participate.  For example, Christian evangelists might have thought it a waste of time, because there would not be much opportunity to turn anyone to Christ, and they typically do not think that other religions have much to teach them.

Interfaith LogoThe format of the dialogs is one that has been honed over the years.  A topic, such as “Extremism” or “The Role of Women”, was chosen for each session.  The evening began with a representative of each faith speaking for about 10 minutes.  Then there was a short intermission, with snacks, before we reconvened in groups of six to twelve people.  These small discussion groups worked well, except when one person was inspired to speak at length, showing little interest in what anyone else had to say.

The emphasis was on our shared humanity.  In such a setting, we tend to see our differences as superficial, less important than perhaps they actually are.  The tone was reasoned and cordial rather than passionate or fervent.

For me, the most memorable evening was the one held at the mosque.  The topic for the evening was “extremism”.  The small group session that I was in was particularly lively.  Some in our group were disappointed that it ended so soon, but it was time for evening prayer, the ṣalāt al-maġrib.

We visitors were allowed into the sanctuary behind the men who were gathering for the evening prayer.  The women prayed in the balcony upstairs.  The men stood in a row, shoulder to shoulder.  The prayers were led by an Imam with obvious skill and devotion.  At the appropriate times, all bowed together, putting their heads to the floor, in total submission to God.  I attempted to follow along in the back, but the movements were too unfamiliar and too distracting for me to achieve any sense of reverence while doing them.  However, I did come to an appreciation for the formal daily prayers of Islam.

When they pray in this formal way, they orient themselves to their place in the universe: where they are on the surface of the earth in relation the sun and to Mecca, their point of reference. The time of the prayer is determined not by the clock but by  the natural cycle of the day, different at each time of the year and each place on the globe.  They pray with their entire body, indeed, with their entire being.  Five times each day, they reestablish their connection with the universe and with the greatest good that they know.  It is easy to understand the continuing appeal of this tradition in our modern world that so often seems rootless, disorienting, and distracted from those things that we profess to be most important to our lives.

ovymehMy local meeting, Eastern Hills, has been hosting a monthly interfaith prayer service, jointly sponsored by Greater Anderson Promotes Peace.  Our suburban location, far from any mosque or synagog, led to limited participation from some faiths, but a couple of Muslims occasionally attended.

The format of these gatherings is based on the unprogrammed worship in the manner of Friends.  For one thing, this is what we know how to do, and for another, we imagined that this is free from dogmatic content.  Our idea is to bring people together and ask them to pray for peace, in whatever way they found most meaningful.

Having witnessed Muslims praying formally in their home sanctuary, I think we were right that praying together is a key to a deeper connection with others, but that we were naive in thinking our format was flexible enough to really accommodate people from such a different tradition. We are coordinated by the clock, not the position of the sun in the sky.  We are oriented to the center of the room, not to our place on the globe.  The arrangements of our chairs interfere with praying with our whole body. One Muslim woman adapted, and offered a prayer, but it was not the same experience that I later saw in the mosque.

James’s Answer: Variety of Religious Experience #4

William_James  What is it that I want to tell skeptics to about religion?  It is something essential to the human condition, such as what William James offers at the end of his Study in Human Nature.

He asks what for many are the critical questions concerning religion [pg. 507-8]:

First, is there, under all the discrepancies of the creeds, a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously?

And second, ought we to consider the testimony true?

His answer to the first is succinct:

I … answer it immediately in the affirmative.  The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: —

1. An uneasiness; and 

2. Its solution.

The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.

The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.

His answer to the second question is more involved, in part, because this philosopher has already stated: [pg. 455] “In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless”.

Thus, although he thinks religious experience is “absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come [pg. 422], those of us who have not had such experiences, must come to conclusions based on our inclinations, our passions, or, as he puts in an earlier essay, our Will To Believe.  However, he does come to one striking conclusion about the truth of religious testimony [pg. 515]:

Disregarding the over-beliefs, and confining ourselves to what is common and generic, we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes.

(Sometimes, William James sounds like he is imitating his brother Henry, the novelist renown for his elaborate and occasionally impenetrable prose.   Without the background of the previous discussion, the above sentence might seem fairly opaque, so I offer some explication, of course, colored by my own understanding.)

James is laying out what he thinks is objectively true.  He is putting aside, for the moment, the unique mystical or religious experiences that have been the subject of the entire book.  He is also laying aside “over-beliefs”, by which he means propositions for which there is insufficient evidence, but which can be accepted anyway through leaps of faith. James is speaking to the skeptic examining the human condition.  Based on those common experiences that all humans share, James asserts a simple fact: the consciousness of a person is part of something larger.  Further, it is by developing awareness of this larger self, this higher power, that we are relieved from that uneasiness, that sense of wrongness, that is part of the human condition.

James goes further, describing his own religious stance [pg. 516-7]:

If I now proceed to state my own hypothesis about the farther limits of this extension of our personality, I shall be offering my own over-belief — though I know it will appear a sorry under-belief to some of you — for which I can only bespeak the same indulgence which in a converse case I should accord to yours.

… [pg 517]

God is the natural appellation, for us Christians at least, for the supreme reality so I will call this higher part of the universe by the name of God. We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe, at those parts of it which our personal being constitutes, takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each one of us fulfills or evades God’s demands.  As far as this goes, I probably have you with me, for I only translate into schematic language what I may call the instinctive belief of mankind: God is real since he produces real effects.

…[pg 519]

I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith state and the prayer state, I know not.  But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist….By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which WK Clifford once wrote, whispering the word bosh. Humbug is humbug even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it, objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow scientific bounds.  Assuredly the real world is of a different temperament, — more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks.

Thus, William James, the rational pragmatist, finds pure reason insufficient.  He does not attempt to refute atheism or agnosticism, he rejects them.  Human experience is too rich, too multi-faceted, to be fully guided by rational skepticism.  For his own life, he chooses to embrace an over-belief, to make a leap of faith,  because it enables him to live more abundantly.

To use an old Quaker phrase, this speaks to my condition.