Monday, 28 February 2011

MINDFULNESS & MORALITY 7: HUMANIST PERSPECTIVE


Session seven of the Mindfulness and Morality course at Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road, offered by Christians Aware in their Faith Awareness programme.

This evening, Dr Allan Hayes presents a Humanist perspective. Allan (on the left of the photo above, with Ian Grayling) is Humanist Chaplain to the Lord Mayor of Leicester, a Trustee of the British Humanist Assocation and immediate past President of Leicester Secular Society.

Allan defines "Atheist", "Agnostic" and "Secularist" for the beneift of those of us who can't tell the difference. Allan tells us that he prefers to define himself as a Humanist. He shows us some texts that have been influential in helping him form his opinions over the years, starting with a book he says he first read in 1957 (when he was in the third year of his PhD - and three years before I was born). The Family of Man is a collection of photographs of anthropological interest, published by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York to commemorate an exhibition there in 1955 (and it's still in print). He has also brought along DVD boxed sets of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and Carl Sagan's Cosmos for the same reason.

Allan outlines how a Humanist would approach the topic of morality in general and highlights basic differences between that position and those of some of the religious people who have spoken in earlier sessions. While he is happy to admit that we'll all have learned a lot from previous speakers, it can't justify religion(s) being afforded the privileges of organs of state. Allan sides with the Scots philosopher David Hume (1711-76) in seeing that emotions tend to lead the intellect, rather than the other way round. Therefore, we need to understand the emotional foundations of people's behaviour; although the intellect is used to hone one's position or define a public stance on issues. Feelings are supported and refined by intellectual analysis.

Humanism is the opposite of a materialist, intellectualised view of life which disregards what some would describe as the "spiritual" dimension of life. But since Humanists don't believe in an afterlife, all good must be done in this life. Our commitment has to be to this life: there is no other and there is no other chance. Advances in science and technology have made life at one and the same time simpler and more complex. There remain the mysteries of consciousness and (of particular relevance to our discussion this evening) of free will. If we can't use our imagination, understanding will power and intelligence to deal with the bigger problems we all face then we will not continue to be here. Building humanity is the heart of the issue.

Here are a number of principles that we may assume when encountering Humanism and Humanists:
  • that people are essentially good; not totally good, but there is enough goodness in us that we can offer good will, expect and accep good will;
  • that one should promote the Golden Rule (roughly summed up as "that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself") without expecting reciprocity;
  • that morality and values are entirely human constructs and are not laid down by any other entity (e.g. "God") or derived from some extra-human realm (e.g. Plato's forms);
  • that what is right and what is wrong are decisions made by human beings, for themselves and for other human beings;
  • that in personal and interpersonal relationships there is an emphasis on enjoying life together;
  • that there is an emphasis on certain vital collective enterprises, such as the upbringing of children - there's a collective responsibility to tell our children our common human story (what we are, how we came to this point and what we might become - to instil what it is to be human);
  • that there's much to learn from religions and from the religious, but it must always be borne in mind that "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath";
  • that all human beings are of intrinsic worth, not for some other reason (e.g. all being children of the one God);
  • that we have to work to ensure that we obtain, preserve and progress the Good Society (through the arts of learning by disagreeing, testing and being wrong; through engagement and significant dialogue; through welcoming diversity as bringing greater input to the life and thought of the community);
  • that political rights have had to be fought for and - as we see today in many parts of the world - still must be fought for;
  • that we have to treasure what has been achieved already (e.g. Islamic civilisation in Medieval times)
  • that humanity is a part of nature, rather than apart from it.

For the final half hour or so of this session, we occupy ourselves with the moral dilemma Allan gives us, which is described below:

In the coming Census the following question will be asked:


What is your religion? (This question is voluntary)
  • No religion
  • Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
  • Buddhist
  • Hindu
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Sikh
  • Any other religion, write in 
  1. Matthew practises a religion (but is opposed to faith schools)
  2. Mark believes in his religion but does not practise it (and is opposed to faith schools)
  3. Luke no longer believes in the religion he was brought up in but feels culturally attached to it (and is opposed to faith schools)
  4. John is completely non-religious (but is in favour of faith schools)
What should each of them do?

Here are some of the comments from the groups in which we discussed this dilemma:

Completion of this question is a small act and most respondents won't think twice about it. then again, that's where the "mindfulness" in which we're interested is to be found.

Most people won't think about how information gathered in the Census is used and will do it as a civic duty (one fo the few that is incumbent upon us). Even the fact that it's a voluntary question may not register with many respondents.

Question of abiding by the law versus the privacy of the individual. Can one be a conscientious objector to the Census?

Comply now - campaign later!

Concern was raised over the fact that the contract for collecting the Census information has been given to the US firm, Lockheed. It was felt that this might well be a source of anxiety to Muslims.

People feel unhappy about a question like this, with personal implications, so perhaps there could be part of the Census questionnaire that could be detached and separated. This would allow other sensitive questions (e.g. about sexual orientation) to be asked.

If you're not religious, tell the census so

Here's the response of Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association) to The Guardian's question of the week in its "Comment is Free: Belief" online section: "What should we tell the census about our religious affiliation?" There will be other responses later in the week.
If you're not religious, tell the census so

The leading question on the 2001 census led to policies being made on the basis of an over-counting of religious Britons

When the results of the 2001 census were published, we were asked to believe that 72% of people in England and Wales were Christians. But in the same year, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey measured only 51.2% of the population as Christian: a difference of a fifth of the population. Subsequent surveys agree with the BSA, and its 2009 survey indicated that more than 50% of the population are now in fact non-religious.

Those who take the time to investigate the census results see clearly that they are ridiculous. If we believed them, we would believe that there are more Jedis in England and Wales than Jews, Buddhists or Sikhs. We would believe – contrary to government research that showed 65% of 12 to 18-year olds were not religious – that in fact 62% of them (along with 58% of under-4-year-olds) were Christian.

The reasons why the data from the 2001 census was so aberrant are simple and well known. They mostly have to do with the fact that the question is a closed and leading one: "What is your religion?" This question is demonstrated to produce a much higher number of "religious" responses than non-presumptuous questions such as: "Do you have a religion?" and much higher than questions that ask about belief or practice. Faced with the closed and leading census question, people who do not believe in God, and who, if asked: "Are you religious?" would say "No", nonetheless tick "Christian" or "Sikh" or whatever.

Perhaps this would be tolerable if the census data on religion was accepted as measuring nothing more than a weak form of cultural affiliation rather than as a proxy for strong religious belief, and only used with this in mind. But the results from the forthcoming census will not just give us an interesting overview of the demographic of England and Wales for academics to critique when the results are released and for our descendants to pick over in future centuries. They will constitute a basis for policymaking over the coming years. Over the past decade the census data has been repeatedly misused. Its figures have been cited in parliament as evidence that faith is on the increase; that greater public resources should be granted to religious organisations; that the state should fund yet more faith schools. Major public policy developments have occurred and resources allocated on the back of these erroneous numbers.

The British Humanist Association worked with the Office for National Statistics for more than two years trying to secure a question in the 2011 census that would give more meaningful data. The ONS refused to change the question (though it did pledge to give guidance after the census on the ways in which data should and should not be used) and so we shifted the focus of our activity.

Now, our census campaign is using local leafleting, advertising and online activity to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the census and encourage people who have thought about the issues and who are not religious to declare that fact. Whether we like it or not, whether we approve of the question or not, how we answer the religion question in this year's census will have profound consequences for our future and we should all answer it with great thought and care.

Read this article on The Guardian's website, along with reader comments:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/feb/28/census-religion-question

Find out more about the British Humanist Association:
http://www.humanism.org.uk/

What should we tell the census about our religious affiliation?

More on the Census - or specifically, on the religion question in the Census. I think this will probably be the biggest single topic of this blog between now and the end of March.

The Guardian runs a question of the week in its "Comment is Free: Belief" online section. This week's question is: "What should we tell the census about our religious affiliation?" There's a response today; others will follow later in the week. You'll find them all here of course, faithful reader.

What should we tell the census about our religious affiliation?

Will the upcoming census give a reliable picture of the state of British religious opinion? Should unbelief become the default answer?

Next month's census will include a question about religious affiliation. How should it be answered? Humanist organisations are hoping that it will reveal that Christianity is crumbling, and that the old argument that "if none, write C of E" will finally be exploded. Christians on the other hand hope that it will show the enduring if unfashionable strength of their conviction. Almost everyone wants to know how many Muslims there are.

So a number of questions arise. The first is whether religious affiliation still matters. Should the government be measuring it? What should happen with the results? It's difficult to imagine a political use for these figures that does not make religious affiliation, or lack of it, something which should be considered when making political choices. "Vote Nick, he's an atheist" is surely no more compatible with secularism that "Vote Dave, he's a Christian", or "Vote Saeeda, she's a Muslim". This may be unavoidable. But is it what we want?
Read this article on The Guardian's website, along with reader comments:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/feb/28/religion-atheism-census

CONCERNS ARE RAISED ON FORCED MARRIAGES

This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Concerns are raised on forced marriages
A council report has called for measures to be introduced to help tackle forced marriages.
A team of councillors from Leicestershire County Council looked at the issue of people being physically or psychologically coerced into marriage.
Their report says: "During the course of the investigation we have reached the conclusion that there is legitimate cause for concern that some young people from Leicestershire might be forced into marriage."
Last year, police reported seeing a huge increase in the number of young women who feared they would be forced into marriage seeking help.
Now councillors have called for increased help and awareness of those at risk.
Meena Kumari, of Safe, a police-backed support group in Leicester, said: "Awareness of the problem is the most important thing.
"There's often only one chance to intervene to stop a forced marriage and if schools, colleges, GPs and others are aware of the warning signs it's much easier to intervene in time.
"Only last week a college contacted us with concerns over a student who had been taken to Heathrow airport and told to get on a flight to Bangladesh for a forced marriage.
"We managed to intervene with police officers and she is in safe accommodation."
The summer is a period when young women are vulnerable to being taken abroad against their will because schools are unable to monitor them. The report urges the council to make sure that school governing bodies are aware of the nature of forced marriage in time for the summer term.
Head teachers should take reasonable measures, it adds, to make all young people aware of the issue and emphasise the difference between arranged marriage and forced marriage.
Schools should also be encouraged to incorporate a Facebook-style panic button on school computers for children to report fears that they are about to be forced to marry, the report says.
The enforcement of the law over the issue of forced marriage needs to be publicised county wide, it says, to avoid stigmatising a community by specifically targeting them. The report says: "It is a concern to all citizens, both young and old."
Councillors also call for a specific programme to get community and faith leaders to discuss and review the issue of forced marriage within their communities.
GPs and NHS health visitors should also be more alert to these issues so they can keep track of potential victims, the report says.
Last year, student Sheetal Bhanot, 22, and two friends from De Montfort University were presented with the runner-up prize at The Prince's Trust Celebrate Success ceremony for their project on forced marriages.
Sheetal, from Knighton, said: "During the project we found that the issue was a common problem which no one came forward to express a concern about – many Asian communities didn't know how to deal with it or talk openly about the matter."
The county council report will be considered by the council's ruling cabinet.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Muslims crave freedom just as Westerners do


Here's the Bishop of Leicester's "First Person" column from the Leicester Mercury today, in which he comments on the political upheavals in North Africa and Middle East. This has been tweeted by the Muslim Council of Britain, which will have brought it to the attention of a wider audience and different constituency.

Muslims crave freedom just as Westerners do

The Bishop of Leicester reflects on the dramatic events unfolding in Libya

All of us have been watching events unfold in North Africa and the Middle East. We are living through a key period of history. But the full consequences and significance of what is happening still cannot be properly understood. But meanwhile, observing these events from Western Europe, it seems to me that it is worth asking ourselves a number of significant questions.

First, what do these events tell us about some of our assumptions about Muslim countries? Are we discovering that the citizens of Islamic societies are not so different from ourselves, wanting the freedoms and liberties and rights and opportunities that we are used to enjoying in our own country? And does this begin to shift some of our stereotypes of Islamic countries? Can we see them as much more similar in their desires for fundamental freedoms to our own country?

Secondly, what is all this revealing to us about how politics works in the age of social networking and freedom of communication? The capacity to communicate quickly with citizens across the country is beginning to mobilise people who have been under the heel of dictatorships for generations. Surely this is something that those of us who espouse Western democratic values should warmly applaud. What we are seeing on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi, just as we did in Cairo a few weeks ago, are not fundamentalist Muslims clamouring for Sharia Law, but citizens who seek the freedom to voice their opinions and change their societies in very much the same way as we do.

Thirdly, this may be a moment for us to think again about what we mean by "Western values". We may have become accustomed to thinking that Western liberal democracies are in some ways superior to other countries. Even that we have a responsibility to impose Western democratic values on countries which have, as yet, not discovered them for themselves. These established patterns of thinking are now changing before our eyes. We cannot know what the world will look like when this dramatic "domino effect" has finally reached its conclusion. We are seeing change taking place through the will of the people expressed collectively even at risk to life and limb.

That is an inspiring vision for all of us. As a Christian I believe we should be praying for those who are risking their lives for change at the moment. And perhaps we should be praying too that we will have the wisdom to see and to understand the meaning of the changes that are happening and to support a vision of a more peaceful and just world.

Bishop Tim (photo above) is Patron of Leicester Council of Faiths.

Read this article on the Mercury website, along with reader comments:
http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/news/Muslims-crave-freedom-just-Westerners/article-3270161-detail/article.html

Happy Ayyám-i-Há!


This is the first day of Ayyám-i-Há, the "Intercalary Days" observed by members of the Bahá'í Faith. Here's some information about Ayyám-i-Há: where it comes from, what it means and how it's celebrated (much of it adapted from relevant entries in Wikipedia):

The Báb (first of the three Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith, historically speaking) instituted the Badí' ("wondrous", "unique") Calendar in 1847-8. He divided the year into 19 months of 19 days each, with a number intercalary days (normally four, five in a leap year) to allow the calendar to be a solar one, rather than follow the lunar format of the Islamic calendar. The Báb did not, however, specify where in the year these intercalary days should fall. Bahá'u'lláh confirmed and adopted the Badí' calendar in his Most Holy Book in 1873. He fixed the place of the intercalary days between the 18th (penultimate) and 19th (final) months of the calendar from 26 February (technically, from sunset on 25 February) to (sunset on) 1 March. It was Bahá'u'lláh who gave the intercalary days the name "Ayyám-i-Há" or "Days of Há".

The nineteen months of the Badí' Calendar (now more commonly known as the Bahá'í Calendar) are named after an attribute of God (e.g. Splendour, Glory, Beauty, Grandeur, Light, Mercy, Words, Perfection, Names, Might, Will, Knowledge, Power, Speech, Questions, Honour, Sovereignty, Dominion, Loftiness). Ayyám-i-Há symbolises the transcendence of God over these very attributes. "Há" (the Arabic letter corresponding to the English "H") has been used in Bahá'í scripture to represent the unknowable essence of God. Under the Arabic abjad system, the letter Há has the numerical value of five, equal to the maximum number of days in Ayyám-i-Há.

During Ayyám-i-Há, Bahá'ís are especially encouraged to celebrate the unity of God by showing and sharing fellowship. Bahá'ís often give and receive gifts at this time, although there are no set rules about this. It is also a time of charity and goodwill, when Bahá'ís often participate in various projects of a humanitarian nature. It's not as if Bahá'ís are meant to leave off doing such things the rest of the year, but at this time they are spurred on to make special efforts in doing so.

As is the case with virtually every aspect of the Bahá'í teachings and writings, there are levels of deeper mystical and symbolic significance to Ayyám-i-Há, some of which are described or alluded to here. But you don't have to apprehend all the meanings of Ayyám-i-Há in order to understand it or, more importantly, to join in and enjoy it. In the photo above are some of the Bahá'ís of Leicester and Leicestershire gathered today fro a pot-luck lunch and some family activities at one of the friends' homes in Thurcaston, doing just that.

Find out more about the Badí' Calendar:
http://www.bahai.org/dir/community/calendar

Friday, 25 February 2011

Here's to you faithful reader, wherever you may be

As this week comes to its end, I thought I'd share with you a question that often occupies my mind: who is reading this blog and why?

Since it's my blog of course, I have access to statistics that the readers don't get to see: the most popular posts, referring sites, and the parts of the world where my readers are based. This week, for instance, I've had pageviews from readers in the following countries:

  1. United Kingdom 356
  2. United States 207
  3. Russia 63
  4. Germany 59
  5. Ukraine 26
  6. France 25
  7. Israel 12
  8. Latvia 12
  9. Canada 7
  10. Hungary 6
This week's total: 761 (This is the aggregate of the figures from the top ten countries only. The software doesn't give me access to any other numbers.)

I wonder who you are and what you make of what you read here. I'd love to know a little bit more about you and to read what you have to say about what I've written here. I'd like the blog to grow organically, with more than just my input alone - I'd love to know your reactions and have the chance to respond to what you think and say.

So whether you're a regular visitor or you've stumbled upon the blog for the first time; whether you live just round the corner in Leicester itself and know well the people, places and events described here or you're on the other side of the planet - why not take a moment or two and make your own mark here? What do you like about the blog? What do you look forward to hearing about? What do you expect or hope to find that I'm not covering? What surprises you? What disappoints you? What would you say differently, if you were writing these posts? What would you like me to cover, to tell you more about?

Most of all, I'd like to know a little bit more about you: who you are, where you are, what you do and why you're here. Leave a comment, let me know.

Consider this an open invitation, one and all, to leave your comments on this entry or any other entry that takes your fancy throughout the lifetime of this blog - and to do so on this visit or at any time in the future.

Don't be shy and don't be a stranger. I'm sure your contributions will bring a new flavour, a welcome fragrance we'll all appreciate and enjoy. I know I will.

Mixing Faiths on the Big Screen


On the Big Screen in Humberstone Gate this rainy Friday afternoon, a short film called "Mixing Faiths", made by students from Regent College (or "Regents College") as the on-screen credit has it.

Animated cartoon heads of four teenagers (whom I assume to be students at the college) talk about faith issues that affect them personally. It was hard to hear everything that what was being said in the film, but it all looked good to me. I'm sure the students have done a good job on this. More power to them!

The talking heads are surrounded by a border displaying the symbols of many religions, faiths and beliefs, in a stylised hand-drawn manner. I spotted symbols for each of the eight member communities of Leicester Council of Faiths, as well as for Humanism and Shintoism.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

AMPLIFIED LEICESTER: MAKING IS CONNECTING

David Gauntlett
It's the last Wednesday of the month, so I'm at Phoenix Square Film & DigitalMedia Centre, for the regular meeting of Amplified Leicester. I've missed the last two meetings, so I'm glad to be back in the swing of things (especially as I'm convening the panel for the next session, at the end of March). This is the first of Amplified's evening session to be fully subscribed: 70 people have registered on Eventbrite.

The speaker is David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster (and a local Leicester lad). He's the author of several books, including Creative Explorations (2007), which was shortlisted for the Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year Award, and Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 (2011). He produces the popular website about media and creativity in everyday life, theory.org.uk. There's also a great website dedicated to Making is Believing, which will reward repeated visits.


Through making things, people engage with the world and create connections with each other. Both online and offline, we see that people want to make their mark on the world, and to make connections. David Gauntlett discusses the rise of a "making-and-doing" culture, where people are rejecting traditional methods of teaching and learning and more passive forms of engaging with the world, such as television, and developing their own skills ans making their own entertainment.

David's talk is easy-going and professional in equal parts, displaying a level of presentation skills which show someone totally at home with the technology (maybe I'm thinking here about how I'll come over next time *gulp*). He made what, to some, may be an obvious point, but I still think worth making: that creativity didn't start with the world wide web, that the creativity we enjoy and value online is part of a continuum, both historically (he made nice extended references to John Ruskin and William Morris) and socially (regarding the kind of creativity that goes on under the radar and has often been identified with the activity of women).

This is all meat and drink to me, in keeping with the discussion of creativity in which I've been immersed while tutoring the Open University third-level (honours) linguistics course, The Art of English. I love it when the different threads in my life join up like this.

I get a moment at the the end to trail the panel I'm convening for next month's session, on Amplified Communities of Faith or Belief. I leave out copies of the Council of Faiths flyer with all our social media details on it and set a little homework - that those interested in coming to our session check out what we're doing with social media already and think of ways we could improve on it.

As we're leaving the session, Richard Hopper (Secretary of Leicester Secular Society, who'll be on the panel next month) tells me that William Morris gave his first public lecture in the Secular Hall on Humberstone Gate. Nice one.

Near Neighbours comes to Leicester


Here's the text of a press release from the St Philip's Centre for Study and Engagement in a Multi Faith Society that's being circulated today. Rev. Dr Alan Race brought this to the Council of Faiths Board meeting last night, though there wasn't time to do much more than acknowledge it. Clearly it's something to which we should give greater attention.
The Government has today announced a £5 million grant to help bring people who are near neighbours together. Those living in communities that are diverse are encouraged to get to know each other better, build relationships and collaborate together on initiatives that will improve their local community.

To deliver the Near Neighbours programme, the Church Urban Fund and the Church of England are setting up a new charity providing national oversight, called Near Neighbours, who will administer the scheme. Locally, the programme will make use of the parish network of the Diocese of Leicester, and administer the programme through the St Philip’s Centre (other parts of the programme will focus on centres in Bradford, Birmingham and London).

Near Neighbours has two key objectives:
  1. social interaction – to develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas
  2. social action – to encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together to act for the improvement of their local neighbourhood

The programme will see grants from £250-£5,000 being made available to groups from the Christian faith and other faiths, and those from no faith, who meet the programmes objectives in bringing people together to build relationships and strengthen local communities. The first grants will be released towards the end of 2011.

In announcing the programme in a press release today, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, said “religious organisations play an enormous pastoral role in our neighbourhoods and have excellent networks within our communities – no more so than the Church of England … Near Neighbours will build on this and bring folks from different backgrounds together for the good of the community that surrounds them – be it a sports event or working together to improve a local park.2

In welcoming the news that Leicester will be a focus for this new work, the Bishop of Leicester, the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, said, “I am very glad that Leicester has been chosen to be part of the Near Neighbours project. We have a long track record of working together as faith communities to strengthen our community. With partners right across the city and county, we will now be able to continue this work, and ensure we all work together for the common good.”

The project has support from the Inter faith Network for the UK, the Christian Muslim Forum, the Council for Christians and Jews and the Hindu Christian Forum. Dr Musharraf Hussain of the Christian Muslim Forum said, ‘We are hugely grateful to the Department of Communities and Local Government for supporting this work’, and Ramesh Pattni, of the Hindu Christian Forum echoed this message with support of his own, "The Near Neighbours project has a real resonance with the Hindu ethos of the Universal family… We are confident of the positive outcome of greater understanding and local change with the implementation of this project."

Rev. Canon Dr John Hall, Director of the St Philip’s Centre, said, "After several months of careful planning and conversations behind the scenes, it is excellent news that from today we can go public and begin further strengthening the bridges already in place between different faiths and neighbours in Leicester. To be able to have funds to facilitate this will mean a great deal to local people who want to strengthen the association and relationships locally, and of course give practical expression to this through social action. This will enable the Good Samaritan story to live time and time again!"

Read an article on the Near Neighbours project from The Guardian's website:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/feb/20/church-of-england-community-cohesion

Find out more about St Philip's Centre for Study & Engagement in a Multi Faith Society:
http://stphilipscentre.dioceseofleicester.com/

Let's Celebrate 365


This is a tremendous exhibition of photographs by Jeremy Hunter, running in the DMU Cube and Screen Lounge Matrix at Phoenix Square Film and Digital Media Centre, Mon 21 February - Tue 5 April. Here's an extract from the notes that go with the show, written by Jeremy Hunter himself:
 "Let's Celebrate 365" is a photographic exhibition that both celebrates the world's diversity and also explores the issues of cultural traditions, rituals, festivals, diversity of beliefs and th4e astounding variety of human society. It also addresses the issues of international community cohesion and principal beliefs and faiths practised within Leicester by drawing upon the panoply of traditions and celebrations of our world through the power of impactful photographs.

One of the strengths of this country is its diversity. So this exhibition illustrates the DNA of our communities and provides the opportunity for us not to respect the difference of our ethnic minorities but also to better understand the extraordinarily different cultures and beliefs practised here.

To understand the great beliefs and faiths of the world you need a window into the soul. Festivals and celebrations have always been just that: an opportunity for entering into a world of myth and legend, drama and music, colour and sound. In our increasingly complex planet, the significance of tolerance as one of our motivating forces in contemporary life has become only too apparent since the start of this millennium

However, this exhibition of Let's Celebrate 365 has much greater importance. It not only helps us enter into a world of different cultures and beliefs. It also makes us realise e inhabit diverse worlds of faith and culture - where the linking commonality is the incredible power of belief.

Let's Celebrate 365 therefore is an exploration of the amazing variety of our multicultural landscape. In thirty-five years of travel to over sixty countries across five continents, I have been able to witness and photograph cultures where people look at the world very differently. Many of the ceremonies and rituals exhibited here have remained unchanged for centuries, in some cases thousands of years. What remains unchanged today and the reason for the continuation of these festivals through the centuries is the belief that participating in them can liberate the celebrant from the miseries and sufferings of life. the atonement of sins, the elements of self punishment and the opportunity to come back changed all remain key elements.

Watch a video of Jeremy Hunter speaking at the launch of his exhibition, Let's Celebrate 365, at Phoenix Square: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C14WCB_dV0w&feature=youtu.be

This page on Phoenix Square's website has a slideshow of images from the exhibition: http://phoenix.org.uk/index.php?cms_id=422

Follow this link to the Phoenix Square blog, where Jeremy Hunter discusses this exhibition: http://phoenixsquare.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/lets-celebrate-365-jeremy-hunter-discusses-his-exhibition/

For more information about Jeremy Hunter, visit: http://www.jeremyhunter.com/

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

COUNCIL OF FAITHS BOARD MEETING

Our Board of Directors meets in the Welcome Centre this evening. Seven out of our eight member faith communities are represented. Despite the same sort of uncertainty related to funding overshadowing our future, as it does with all Voluntary and Community bodies - or Organisations of Civil Society or however such groups are supposed to be known these days - our work continues unabated. Particularly in this, our silver jubilee year.

DISCOVER ISLAM WEEK AT DE MONTFORT UNIVERSITY


Strolling down Bonners Lane through De Montfort University campus this afternoon (just on my way to a routine appointment at my GP in the West End), I spy a table loaded with boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts. Now, that's likely to get my interest for a start. As my innmer Homer Simpson slows down to pay a bit more attention, one of the students running the stall asks if I want to buy a box. When I ask him what they're selling them for, he tells me that they're in aid of "Discover Islam Week" - partly to cvover the costs of the week, partly to raise money for good causes. I'm not aware of this event at azll. I don't know if it's something confined to colleges and universities, or if it's related to Islam Awareness Week, that normally takes place in November. Nevertheless, I'm happy to stop and chat with the students. While I'm rummaging around in my bag for one of my new business cards, I'm greeted by Zubair Sidat, President of the University's Islamic Student Society (ISOC), whom I remember visiting our exhibition in Highcross during National Inter Faith Week last November. I'm chuffed to see that he has one of the social media flyers that we were giving out at that event, well-creased and a bit distressed, but he has it in his pocket. Zubair is in the centre of the group photo above.

I enjoy the chat but resist the Krispy Kremes. Well, they offer me a free one and who could say no to that? Mind you, it's the only time I've ever uttered the words, "I love Islam and I love doughnuts" in the same breath!

I ask Zubair's permission to take some photos and record ask if I can record a few video interviews with the students taking part. He's fine about it, but some of the others are a little apprehensive to start with. Can't blame them for that, although I soon win them over. As well as the two pavement stalls, one on either side of the road, they've set up a marquee outside the university library. I spend a quarter of an hour in there, where I also do a little filming, with their consent and participation.

There are some interesting talks scheduled for each evening of the week. Sadly, coincidence of short notice and Half Term mean I won't be able to get along to any of them.

I offer a loan of the Council of Faiths "Muslims" banner, if someone can phone me Wednesday morning and pick it up from Pilgrim House.

Watch the videos I recorded on the Council of Faiths YouTube channel.

I shared the link to the YouTube channel (and to this blog entry) on the DMU Discover Islam Facebook page.

REDP Core Reference Group

It's the bi-monthly meeting of the Core Reference Group of the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership (REDP). Gathered here this afternoon at Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living are representatives from groups working in the protected characteristics and equality strands of disability, faith or belief, LGBT, mental health, older people, race, younger people. Attendees today are drawn from Derbyshire, Leicester, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire.

Naturally, the cuts to the Voluntary and Community Sector dominate our discussion, although we're just as focused on opportunities for us to extend our services as we are on threats to them.

One important item on our agenda is a periodic review of the seats still vacant on this Core Reference Group. We still have to find organisations to take up seats for Age (one for younger people, one for older people); faith or belief (one seat); Gender (two for women, one for men); Transgender (one). As well as covering the various protected characteristics, we're looking to cover as much of the East Midlands as possible - so we're hoping to find some of the groups to fill these vacant seats from Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire. We've not been in a rush to fill these spaces as we want to get the best people from the right places. We're making progress on this all the time.

Monday, 21 February 2011

MINDFULNESS & MORALITY 6: BAHÁ'Í PERSPECTIVE


At Christchurch, Clarendon Park, for the sixth session in the course on Mindfulness & Morality, offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme. This 12-week course has been devised by Ian Grayling and Kevin Commons from the Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.

It’s a Bahá'í perspective this evening, led by erm ... me!

Since it's Half Term this week, the attendance drops to just over a dozen, as some of the regulars are on additional parental (or grandparental) duties. Neither Ian nor Kevin are able to attend this evening, so I'm flying solo. That's fine though - it's not as if it's my first time out!

Rather than have me chunter on all evening, I pass round the handout reproduced below, which says some interesting things about the Bahá'í understanding of morality and helps set the scene for the dilemma exercise later in this session. What you can read below is a slightly expanded version of the handout, which I'd cut down to fit on two pages.
The ultimate aim in life of every human soul, the Bahá'í writings state, should be to attain moral and spiritual excellence – to align one's inner being and outward behaviour with the will of an all-loving Creator. That each individual has been bestowed with a unique destiny by God – a destiny which unfolds in accordance with the free exercise of the choices and opportunities presented in life – lies at the centre of Bahá'í belief. In particular, it is through the moral exercise of our divinely conferred free will that opportunities are provided for spiritual advancement. "All that which ye potentially possess," Bahá'u'lláh confirms, "can ... be manifested only as a result of your own volition."

In a poetic passage, Bahá'u'lláh described the actions of the moral individual and urged His followers to live accordingly:

Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbour, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility.

Bahá'u'lláh, like Abraham, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad and the other Divine Messengers who preceded Him, sought to awaken the moral and creative capacities latent in human nature. "Noble have I created thee," is the Divine assurance, "Rise then unto that for which thou wast created." He states that "the purpose for which mortal men have ... stepped into the realm of being, is that they may work for the betterment of the world and live together in concord and harmony." "Let each morn," He urges, "be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man's merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavours be spent in promoting your personal interest... Guard against idleness and sloth, and cling unto that which profiteth mankind, whether young or old, whether high or low."

From the Bahá'í perspective, religion has been the chief civilizing force in human history. Moral maturity thus comes from spiritual awareness. As stressed throughout the Bahá'í writings, the primary purpose of God in revealing His will through His Messengers is to effect a transformation in the moral and material conditions of human existence. The transformation called for by Bahá'u'lláh is directed to the inner character of every human being and to the organization of society – a transformation that engenders cooperation, compassion, rectitude of conduct, and justice. In what is arguably Bahá'u'lláh’s best known work, The Hidden Words (dating from 1853 CE) we find this verse:

The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

In linking spiritual development to personal behaviour, Bahá'u'lláh wrote "that the citadels of men's hearts should be subdued through the hosts of a noble character and praiseworthy deeds." He exhorts the world's peoples to "illumine their beings with the light of trustworthiness," "the ornament of honesty," and the "emblems" of "generosity." Service to humankind is the purpose of both individual life and all social arrangements: "Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men."
Bahá'u'lláh sets before us the highest standard of morality and urges us to strive to attain it. To do so is the only path to true happiness and fulfilment. Our moral and spiritual advancement is therefore crucial to our well-being in both this life and the next. As Bahá'u'lláh counsels: "Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting."

Rather than invent a situation, I found online a genuine, real-life moral dilemma that was vexing an individual Bahá'í in the USA. This woman sought the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, the centre of authority for the worldwide Bahá'í community (its Seat, on the slopes of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, is shown in the photo above). Her enquiry is reproduced below, followed by the response from the Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat. I should point out that material of this kind, in which guidance is given an individual, is generally made available to the worldwide Bahá'í community (and by extension, to whoever might want to look at it) online.  This shows the degree of transparency in this process - although anonymity and confidentiality is still assured, of course.

The crux of this person's dilemma is her awareness that “the Bahá'í Writings affirm that the human soul comes into being at the time of conception. However, they do not clearly define the exact biological moment and nature of the event described as conception and this may, indeed, be a question that is insoluble by human thought or investigation, since it relates to mysteries of the spiritual world and the nature of the soul itself.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 6 Feb 1997, to a National Spiritual Assembly).

To the Universal House of Justice
11 August 2001 CE

Here in the United States, President Bush has just allowed funding for limited research on stem cell therapies. I now know what the secular laws in the US say about this, but I am concerned about what Baha'i Law says about using this type of therapy. As a Baha'i who could potentially benefit greatly from this type of therapy, I am reluctant to even inquire from my physician about its possibilities for curing my brain damage, either as a possible research subject or using this therapy once it is fully developed by the scientific community, until I know whether or not Baha'i Law allows for this.

[…] I would much appreciate your consultation and guidance on this issue. Thank you. Please also understand that, regardless of how this may impact on me personally, I am ready to abide fully by whatever guidance and decisions Baha'u'llah chooses to give through the Supreme Body, out of my great love for the Blessed Beauty and for the Institutions He has set up for our guidance. I am confident that, even if a cure for my condition is not within the scope of His Will, that He will continue to provide me with what I need and with opportunities to be of service to His Cause.

*** 

23 August 2001

Dear Baha'i Friend,

[…] You ask whether stem cell therapy is acceptable in Baha'i law. As you are no doubt aware, this new area of scientific inquiry involves a distinction between embryonic and other aspects of stem cell research. Reports appearing in the press and in scientific literature indicate that such exploration is at an early stage. Many fundamental questions about the biological and genetic features of the processes involved, and the physiological implications, remain unresolved, and will become clear only with the passage of time.

Nothing specific has been found in the Baha'i Writings regarding stem cell research and the types of therapy to which it may apply. The House of Justice regards it as premature for it to give consideration to these matters and their spiritual consequences. For the present, believers faced with questions about them are free to come to their own conclusions based on their knowledge of the Baha' i teachings on the nature and purpose of life. However, they should be careful not to make dogmatic statements or to offer their own understanding as a teaching of the Faith.

We have been asked to assure you of the prayers of the House of Justice in the Holy Shrines that the therapy you seek for your own well-being may be found.


We break into three groups to discuss the enquirer's dilemma and the Universal House of Justice's response. Here are some of the comments from the group discussions:

  • The enquirer is being asked to be adult, in conformity with possessing God-given free will (though we could question how "free" that can actually be, if it is, in the end, "God-given").
  • The Universal House of Justice distinguishes between "embryonic and other aspects of stem cell research", a distinction not in the original enquiry. Is this a way of gently encouraging the enquirer to ensure that they are as well-informed as they can be about the facts of the situation before trying to come to a conclusion? If the treatment that the enquirer needs doesn't involved embryonic stem cells, then she'll surely breathe a sigh of relief.
  • The enquirer is being advised not to just sit there and wait for God to provide.
  • This kind of guidance shows that Bahá'ís are allowed to make mistakes and are not expected to get everything right all the time.
  • The penultimate paragraph of the Universal House of Justice's response may leave the enquirer perplexed that she may be doing the wrong thing. Can't decide whether this sort of response is humane or permissive.
  • The Universal House of Justice is ducking out of its responsibility and hasn't really addressed the enquirer's dilemma. Perhaps it would be better to say, even at this stage, whether embryonic stem cell research is likely to contravene Bahá'í standards.
  • The Universal House of Justice uses reason as well as scripture in its theological resources (this is in keeping with the Bahá'í principle of the harmony of science and religion).

In researching this presentation, I found an interesting paper comparing the position of various religions on embryonic stem cell research.

"To see oursels as ithers see us"

My friend Catriona Robertson, tweeting as "multifaith", refers to my "fab non-stop blog". When I thank her for that, she came back with this tweet in reply:
multifaith
@counciloffaiths you have a thatcher-like contempt for sleep - & a day job too, I believe ;)

First time the term "Thatcher-like" has been applied to me! Shall I take it as a compliment, faithful reader?

Read Catriona Robertson's own blog:
http://mulitfaith.wordpress.com/

Role of Religion in Society Project (inspired by One Day, No Religion)

Message in my inbox this morning from Dr Lucy Peel, documentary film maker. I'd really urege you to have a look at the video interviews.

Dear Interviewees,

Thank you for participating in the recent "Role of Religion in Society" project, as inspired by the "One Day, No Religion" event. The link below will take you to the article which is now live on my website -

http://lucypeel.com/2011/02/21/the-role-of-religion-in-society/

Again, many thanks for your help - it is very much appreciated. It was a pleasure to work with you all.

Best Wishes,
Lucy Peel

Sunday, 20 February 2011

AMPLIFIED COMMUNITIES OF FAITH OR BELIEF (3)


Picked up the March brochure from Phoenix Square this evening and there on p. 15 is the box trailing the March meeting of Amplified Leicester. I have to confess that it's a thrill to see my own name in the programme, in close proximity to those of Woody Allen, Colin Firth, Ken Loach and ... uhm ... Yogi Bear.

NEVER LET ME GO


I set some homework for those attending my session tomorrow (Monday 21) in the Mindfulness and Morality course run by Christians Aware at Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road. I've asked them to try and see the film version of Never Let Me Go, which has gone on general release this week. I've listened to the audio book of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and found it very moving. My session tomorrow is going to focus on bioethics and this story addresses that theme head on.

Here are some extracts from the Internet Movie Database about the film. directed by Mark Romanek, from a screenplay by Alex Garland (warning: contains spoilers!)
As children, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, spend their childhood at a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. As they grow into young adults, they find that they have to come to terms with the strength of the love they feel for each other, while preparing themselves for the haunting reality that awaits them.

The film begins with onscreen captions explaining that a medical breakthrough in 1952 has permitted the human lifespan to be extended beyond 100 years. Subsequently, the film is narrated by 28-year-old Kathy H. as she reminisces about her childhood at Hailsham, as well as her adult life after leaving the school.

The first section of the film depicts the young Kathy, along with her friends Tommy and Ruth, spending their childhood at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. Gradually, it is revealed that the children are imprisoned on the school grounds and that the film is set in an alternate twentieth century different from our own. At one point, one of the teachers is fired after telling the pupils of their fate: they are destined to provide donor organs for transplants, and will die before they can fulfill their potential. Tommy is emotionally fragile, and Kathy falls in love with him, but Ruth then steals him from her.

In the second section of the film, the three friends, now teenagers, are rehoused in cottages on a rural farm. They are permitted to leave the grounds if they wish, but are resigned to their eventual fate, apparently seeing it as inevitable. At the farm, they meet former pupils of similar schools to theirs. It is revealed that Kathy and the others are all clones, and are fascinated by the idea of finding the original people that they were "modelled on". From the others at the cottages, Kathy and her friends hear rumours of the possibility of "deferral" - a temporary reprieve from organ donation for clones who are in love and can prove it. Tommy becomes convinced that the art gallery at Hailsham was intended to identify clones who have a soul. The relationship between Tommy and Ruth becomes sexual, and jealousy causes Kathy and Ruth to break their friendship. The lonely Kathy applies to become a "carer" - a clone who is given a temporary reprieve from donation as a reward for supporting and comforting donors as they are made to give up their organs. She has become a carer by the time she hears that Tommy and Ruth have split up.

In the third and final section of the film, Kathy is working as a carer some years later. She has watched many clones gradually die as their organs are donated; their deaths are referred to as "completion". She meets Ruth, who is frail after two donations. They find Tommy, who is also weakened by his donations, and drive to the sea. There, Ruth admits that she did not love Tommy, and only seduced him because she was afraid to be alone. She is consumed with guilt, and has been searching for a way to help Tommy and Kathy. She believes that the rumours of "deferral" for couples are true, and has found the address of their old French teacher from Hailsham, whom she thinks may help. Ruth dies on the operating table shortly afterward. Tommy explains to Kathy that he has been creating art in the hope that it will aid deferral. He and Kathy drive to visit the French teacher, who, it transpires, lives with the headmistress of Hailsham. The two teachers tell them that there is no such thing as deferral, and that Tommy's artworks will not help him.

The film ends with Tommy dying on the operating table, and Kathy left alone, knowing that her donations will begin in two weeks. Contemplating the ruins of her childhood, she asks in voice-over whether her fate is really any different from the people who will receive her organs: after all, "we all complete".

We go to see the film at Phoenix Square this evening. I'm beyond that cliché now, that the film is never as good as the book, let's just take that as given from now on. It's not a long book, but neither is it a long film. It could easily have been 20 or 30 minutes longer, without feeling like it had gone on too long. In the book, there's much more about life in the school, but of course, there's no on-screen time for the bankable, box office stars in that part of the story. Subtle as the film is in many ways, still it takes things that are only hinted at in the book and has to hold them in front of the viewer's face. But Carey Mulligan is the most wonderful actor, Keira Knightley draws on some darker and uglier threads than we're used to seeing her do and Andrew Garfield wins our sympathy as a boy who never grows up (he's the new Spider-Man. Either he's got some very different tools in his box or we're going to be presented with a very diffident, introverted interpretation of the webslinger).

I found Never Let Me Go more bleak and downbeat than The Road (which I also listened to on audio book and saw on film at the Phoenix). The kind of society depicted in Never Let Me Go seems only a shade darker than our own, but one from which compassion and humanity has bled out.

The book itself is a perfect example of a first-person narrative, in that we never see or know anything that is not seen or known by our narrator, Kathy H. The film adaptation doesn't stick to this; some important incidents that happen "off stage" in the book (such as Ruth completing) are presented overtly to us. This moment in particular provides one of the most chilling sequences in the film as we see the equipment in the operating theatre being switched off - Ruth being just part of the machinery. In Kathy's worldview (which seems to be held in common with the other children as they grow up), there's simply no possibility of escape, of hiding, of fighting back, of pretending to be someone else, of rising up in revolt. She, Tommy, Ruth and all the other clones whom she knows (and we encounter) at school, at the cottages or in the recovery centres, have their cramped lives charted out for them. The only chance of any deviation is to bargain for a little more time, which can only be granted, like a stay of execution, by those above them. The thought never even enters Kathy's head that they can do anything else. Tommy's angry outburst are the only kind of resistance that we see - and he's considered a freak for doing even that.

The story foregrounds many moral, religious and spiritual issues: free will versus predestination, the value of individual lives, the relative importance of the personal and the social good, and more. It's a beautiful story, if also sad beyond words.

Gordon Brown "abandoned Council of Faiths" (not ours, of course!)


I couldn't resist bringing this to your attention, faithful reader, for obvious reasons. It's published today on "Articles of Faith", the blog of Ruth Gledhill, Chief Religion Correspondent for The Times. The complete story is behind the Times online paywall sadly, but you can read a summary by clicking on the link below.

http://ruthgledhill.blogspot.com/2011/02/gordon-brown-abandoned-council-of.html

One Day, No Religion (4)

Over the past few weeks, I've mentioned "One Day, No Religion" in this blog several times. Today, Sunday 20 February, is that One Day.

Follow One Day, No Religion on Twitter: @20february

Visit the One Day, No Religion website: http://february20.org/

Saturday, 19 February 2011

LEICESTER'S HINDUS ASKED TO HELP FAMILY STAY IN BRITAIN

This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Leicester's Hindus asked to help family stay in Britain
Members of Leicester’s Hindu community are supporting an Afghan family’s battle to stay in this country.
Arti Kumar and her two sons, Akash and Ravi, fled the war-ravaged country in September, 2007 after being targeted by the Taliban.
The Hindu family claimed asylum in Britain but have now been told they face being deported back to Afghanistan.
A meeting is being held in Leicester tonight to raise awareness of the family’s plight.
Mukesh Naker, spokesman for the Leicester-based British Hindu Voice, said: “We are very surprised at how the Government has treated this family because all religions – Sikh, Hindu and Christian – face persecution in Afghanistan.
“We want people in Leicester to sign a national petition opposing the family’s deportation, and we also need to raise money to help pay the family’s legal challenge.”
The Kumars say their lives in Afghanistan were torn apart when 16-year-old daughter Rekha was abducted by Islamic extremists and her kidnappers brutally assaulted eldest son Ravi, who was left with brain damage and behavioural difficulties.
Arti, 42, had to leave her husband Ram behind. She has not heard from him since.
Arti, Akash, 18, and Ravi, 21, who are living in Middlesbrough, had their asylum status withdrawn following a review by the authorities.
The British Hindu Voice’s meeting takes place at the Shree Wanza Community Hall, Pasture Lane, Leicester, tonight at 7.30pm. It will be attended by the Baroness Sandip Verma, of Leicester.