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Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Sorry Hitch, You’re Nothing

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is dead. Long live… No, can we please not do that. Let’s tell it like it is. Hitchens, like all men of sense and reason™ was an atheist and a materialist. In other words, there is no God, and all that exists is the physical world we can measure with Hadron colliders, molecular resonance imaging, Hubble telescopes and schoolboy chemistry sets.

But he will be remembered! Briefly. For about ten years, maybe twenty, those who knew him or once read his columns may pause and say, “Ah, Hitchens. Damn fine writer.” Perhaps our children or grandchildren may find a dusty copy of “God Is Not Great” on our shelves and scan it curiously. More than likely, physical books will have gone the way of the cassette tape and be little more than a historical curiosity. Any surviving data of Hitchens’ will no doubt be lost in the tsunami of electronic porn, advertising and fiddle-faddle that passes itself off as “information” these days.

He will mean nothing. It may be small comfort to say that he never did mean anything, on a cosmic scale. Even on an earthly scale, he was little more than a ripple in the puddle of humanity. In 10,000 years Christopher Hitchens will be forgotten, like Madonna, Bill Clinton, Osama bin Laden and so many others who seem so terribly important to us now. If he is lucky he may rate a footnote in some obscure cyber-history of the early 21st century, to be catalogued and filed with the billion other PhD history theses published that year. If we haven’t already eradicated ourselves as a species, of course.

His dust will stick resolutely to the gravity well of a small and once-beautiful planet, perhaps fertilising a meagre plot of weeds. In a billion years a few atoms that once made up part of his spleen may be blown far across the galaxy as the dying sun ejects matter into eternity.

Sorry Hitch, you’re nothing. And the only reason we eulogise you is to help us avoid the knowledge that so too, are we.

Front Line Assembly | Everything Must Perish

Posted in atheism, God, god, Meaning of Life, ontology | Tagged: , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Who Said Gods Have No Need To Dream?

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 9, 2011

I’m downloading the “Batman” (1966) TV series, to further my 12 y/o’s cultural education. I’ve already shown him a few of the original Star Trek series 🙂 Shakespeare schmakesmear! Speaking of high culture…

Gods

Who said Gods have no need to dream?
They dream darkest and most,
their night eyes inflaming a realm
their waking weeps as lost.

Chafing through torture of control
burning mastery, they serve;
sleeping in soul made mortal
embrace their human love.

The lonelier their peaks of cloud
the closer their dreams come
to warm plain and peopled hillside
– Gods most have need to dream.

Janet Frame, from The Pocket Mirror

Respond

? What do you think?

Posted in agnostic, God, god, spirituality | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off on Who Said Gods Have No Need To Dream?

How God Tickles Our Brain (Part Two)

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 17, 2010

Religious experiences, near death experiences, mystical oneness, spiritual feelings: How are they experienced in our brain? What bearing does this have on the question of God’s existence or our escape from Samsara? Bill continues his guest post from part one:

The lobes in the mind become active from some source of input, and your mind reacts to that stimulation.

For example, there are localized spots in two lobes (the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum) which, when activated, give you a deep sense of pleasure. (Aw, come on, there has to be something in the brain that causes the pleasure sensation). An experiment with Rhesus monkeys (who have similar spots) involved giving them a button, which when pressed, stimulated their pleasure centers. If left to their own devices, those monkeys would have starved themselves to death as they became fixated in a non-stop cycle of pressing their button.

When someone tells you that the purpose of human life is to seek pleasure, it is not impossible for that purpose to be fulfilled by a suitably engineered helmet.

The lobes in the human brain fall into two broad groups: the four lobes that make up your conscious mind, and all the others that make up your subconscious.

brain and skull

A large number of activities in the sub-conscious are reflex conditions that have evolved over time, and exist in us because that reflex in ancient times made our specific ancestors survive in primitive settings.

Being subconscious, we are not aware of the mechanism, but we are aware of the resulting emotion. Public speaking today is often difficult because our successful ancestors fled when surrounded by eyes, and survived. We have a built in reflex to want to flee when surrounded by the eyes of an audience.

Our personality is not inherited – it is a mix of life time experiences reacting with the underlying reflexes. And in acquiring our personality, we acquire our belief system.

There is constant feed back from those we trust as infants (infants who have trust in elders tended to live longer in primitive times, so we also have a built in trust during our infancy). This feedback influences our personality, and as a side effect, our belief system.

Some beliefs rapidly become self-evident through proof: pain is unpleasant and avoiding it is worthwhile.

Some beliefs become self-evident through repetition: if you are bad you will go to hell.

And some through reflexes giving us internal input-response relations. When I stroke a pet cat, it purrs and that gives me a pleasurable sensation. Therefore it is nice to stroke a pet cat.

Now, there was a relevant experiment that used human volunteers. It involved a helmet that stimulates the subject’s temporal lobe.

The temporal lobe’s prime purpose is to give us feelings of empathy with others – it meant that humans could work in packs a long time ago, and as teams nowadays.

When there is no one present, stimulation of the lobe causes the person to emphasize with no-one, and through a process known as agenticity, create some sort of “being” to account for the presence felt.

The device became to be known as “the God helmet”. It was placed on the subject’s head, the button was pressed, and the subject reported a sensation that was consistent with the subject’s core religious attitude.

It was found that the stimulation of a theist’s temporal lobe produced the presence of the relevant god, of a Buddhist led to a heightened oneness with the universe, and atheists reported a warm and fuzzy feeling that they couldn’t quite pin down.

To understand religious belief mechanisms properly, we need to tie to this phenomena those of the Limbic system and the three lobes that carry religious conviction. Then we shall be able to decide if religion is a by-product of stray neurological activity, or the way a God “tickles” lobes to confirm his presence to the believer.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I was once in the triage ward of a hospital. I was waiting for surgery to deal with an internal burst blood vessel. In the early hours of the morning, my blood pressure caused an alarm to sound, and suddenly my bed was surrounded by several nurses and a doctor, doing all sorts of presumably coordinated activity. One nurse smiled at me, stuck a syringe in my arm and said “You are going to be ok” A few seconds later, I went to sleep, and when I woke up, all had been put good, and I was discharged a couple of days later.

Now – something very strange happened in the period between the needle jab and falling asleep.

I was suddenly aware that I was in the presence of an invisible (to me) entity that had an intellect vastly superior to my own. What is more, I instinctively “knew” that this being was totally aware of every single detail of my entire life.

When I was discharged, you might be curious as to why did I not run to church? Well, there was in my way of thinking a serious fault in what this superior being had done – or rather not done. Why had it arrived at that particular moment, and then simply watched as an idle bystander? Why no communication? And where was he or it all the rest of my life? This did not seem at all rational. And I found no solace in the catch-all “God moves in mysterious ways”.

I later came across a paper published by Dr R. Joseph. His research material showed that activation of the amygdala, hippocampus, and temporal lobe are responsible for religious, spiritual, and mystical trance-like states, dreaming, astral projection, near death and out-of-body experience, and the “hallucination” of ghosts, demons, angels, and gods.

These lobes are not part of the four bits that make up the conscious part of the brain. When stimulus in the subconscious turns on the images visible to the conscious, the conscious part of the brain has no idea where those images are coming from. And the conscious is absolutely certain that the images are not self induced.

More than one F-84 pilot flying at night, through a cone-of-silence, reported on landing safely that during the scariest part of the flight, they had hallucinated that they were sitting on the wing of their jet fighters, watching themselves fly the airplane. This was originally thought to be a consequence of spatial disorientation, but is now seen to be a result of limbic stimulation caused by the extreme anxiety of flying solo at night in life threatening circumstances.

In short, when the limbic system is activated the subject has strong religious experience, when the temporal lobe is activated when no one is present, the subject has a mild religious experience, and when the conscious part of the mind becomes aware of the subconscious part, the subject invariably reports being in the presence of an invisible all knowing being who has total knowledge of the subject’s life.

These three responses has a causal effect in that three other lobes of the brain may then hold a belief in a deity, either for the first time, or to reinforce an existing belief.

A side effect of the three lobes holding the belief, is that whenever input is heard or seen that challenges that belief, the conscious brain looks for any reason whatsoever in order to be able to discount the input.

The same thing happens with non-believers – they are also constantly looking for any reason possible to discount any input that might disprove their non-belief. We all inherit the same systems.

The limbic system, the temporal lobe and mind expansion can be triggered by stress, drug, illness, random internal neural activity, external electro-magnetic activity, input from any of the five senses and, not proven but included for the sake of completeness, a deity activating these components as part of his divine will.

So – you look at a starry night, a newborn child, a perfect rose, a portrait of Christ – whatever – and the sheer majesty of the emotion evoked from what you see or feel causes the temporal lobe to activate. You could become convinced you are in the presence of god, whose presence now explains the mystery of what you are seeing.

The only thing you have to resolve is whether that temporal stimulation is natural or supernatural.

In my case, I became convinced it was natural.

Respond

Is there anything missing here? Does this change your ideas about spirituality?
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Masif Djs | Reaching Into My Brain (Edison Factor Mix)

Posted in agnostic, Biology, God, god, Science | Tagged: , , , , , | 13 Comments »

The Multiverse Returns, or “Daddy, Is There A God”?

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 8, 2010

Some of you may know I’m a fan of webcomics. That’s why I have the link to Dr McNinja down there along with the more “serious” ones. Via Twitter, Iain introduced me to Scenes from a Multiverse:

Dad is there a god? Comic

If you’re wondering what a “multiverse” is, see my preview of The Grand Design.

And while we’re on the topic, I’ll quote one of “The Thirteen Missing Explanatory Links in the Atheist v. Theist Debate” by one of my favorite agnostic bloggers, Prometheus Unbound:

Universe/multiverse. If you are an atheist, the multiverse hypothesis is a godsend. As cosmologist Bernard Carr told Discover magazine, “If there is only one universe you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” Like the God hypothesis (or Linus’s Great Pumpkin hypothesis), the multiverse hypothesis is a tidy catch-all for getting out of every thorny dilemma of probability: Life’s beginning? “With God the multiverse all things are possible.” Consciousness? ”Ditto.” If you adopt belief in The Great Pumpkin the multiverse, it makes every implausibility inevitable. But how the multiverse multiplies itself, or ever arrived at its spectacular powers of creation, who knows? If atheists have a god in the closet, it’s Fortuna, their Great Pumpkin.

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? What do you think?
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Posted in agnostic, god, humor, humour, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

On the Making of All Things New

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 20, 2010

Some foresee a re-making of the universe at the endpoint of the future. The Physics of Immortality and The Grand Design led to fantastical speculations in my head. Perhaps the g0d of a cosmos where time is only one of multiple dimensions can go back and change history. All tears must be wiped away. Perhaps a re-making of time might somehow heal all wounds, while leaving creatures free to choose, because they’ve already chosen.

On making old things new,

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

~ T.S. Eliot, the opening lines from Four Quartets.

Sun rays in the woods

The real g0d is far beyond the merely human-like God, while still encompassing him/her. A shape, who is yet a person, the breath of the multiverse, a Someone dazzling, blazing, beautiful. In whatever form we find ourselves, our desire will be to journey “Further up, and farther in”. Perhaps eternity really is more like the great gig in the sky?

Pink Floyd | Time

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Posted in agnostic, cosmology, God, god | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 25 Comments »

God And Alien Life

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 13, 2010

A new, possibly Earth-like planet has recently been discovered. This seems to have slipped by the major news media. I can remember in the early 90s (?) when the first extra-solar planets were discovered. Now, we seem to have discovered tens if not hundreds. This is awesome!

Gliese 581 g, the planet discovered, is 20 light years from Earth with basic and essential conditions needed to support extraterrestrial life.

Earth-like exoplanets have been predicted for years by scientists in what is called the “habitable zone” around a star, but the identification and measurement of one has been called the beginning of a new era in the search for life beyond our galaxy.

Perhaps I should stress the words possibly Earth-like. Wikipedia notes Gliese 581 g has over 3 times our gravity, which I presume is still within the bounds of possibly allowing life. No giraffes, ‘though— I’m guessing any life there would be short and flat. Squashed elephants, anyone?

[Edit: See my update here.]

On Agnostic Forums this news was claimed by some to be a nail in the coffin for the “Fine Tuning argument” for the existence of God. I’ve been trying to get clear in my head exactly what a fine tuning argument claims. I think it’s something like this?

1. The existence of the universe is extremely unlikely
2. The best explanation for highly unlikely things is that a mind was responsible.
3. Therefore a mind was responsible for the universe.

The first premise is supported by most experts, for example Hawking and Mlodinow in their recent The Grand Design, where they spend almost a chapter on this question. It’s the second premise that I am mulling over. Is it always the case that we credit highly unlikely happenings to a mind? It seems intuitively right.

Eta Carinae Nebula

Eta Carinae Nebula

There is also an argument against fine tuning, which goes something like, “The universe is very unlikely, but we know it happened because we are here, therefore unlikely things do happen sometimes”. This latter kind of argument doesn’t satisfy me, it seems to be almost question-begging.

There were various comments on Agnostic Forums, a couple of which I’ll repeat here:

I would be very skeptical of any ‘scientific’ claims about ecosystems on extrasolar planets. So far we are nowhere near being able to determine an extrasolar planet’s ecosystem. Simply detecting those planets is a relatively new science. The only observational evidence we have that extrasolar planets even exist is the effect they have on the stars they orbit.

And,

If we are not alone in the universe, man made religions need to find a way to reconcile that fact with their core doctrines.

What do you think? If we found alien life, would that be a problem for world religions?

Respond

?
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The Firm | Star Trekkin’

Posted in agnostic, cosmology, god, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments »

Will You Take The Pain I Give To You?

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 4, 2010

Yesterday we looked at pain in Genesis, and discussed the Christian idea of the distortion of the world, the breaking-down which theologians call “the Fall”. Remember, I’m agnostic, but I’m wearing my Christian hat today.

Matthew Fox is one modern heretic who focuses on Original Blessing rather than original sin, as do Jewish theologies, but I see this as the other side of the paradox. Humanity, and all of nature are full of good, as well as broken-ness. We can hold this alongside the belief that pain came into the world very early on.

“Fall” has a nice Autumnal feel about it don’t you think? The leaves are no longer green, they retain their structure but are beginning to die.

Literalists claim there was no death before the fall. Conceptually, it’s rather hard to see how Eden could have been anything like the forests of today without leaves dying and rotting to provide mulch and minerals, to give one small example.

leaves

Can theistic evolution cope with the pain inherent in an evolutionary view?

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

~ Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” published in Scientific American (November, 1995) p. 85, via Iain at Phrenic Philosophy)

Does Dawkins paint his story rather too thickly? My suggestion at this point is to hope that perhaps less “conscious” beings than humans don’t truly “suffer”, in the way that we do? A purely materialist universe, as Dawkins says, is pitiless, indifferent and cruel.

The problem of pain and evil is not an easy one for theists either. It’s something I’ve pondered for many years, even as an agnostic. Philosophy is not a static field and I understand, contrary to popular belief, that the weight of argument is in theists’ favour at present. Check out contributions by Swinburne, Plantinga, contributors to God and the Philosophers and others. Ergo the problem of evil is not a proof against God, it’s at best a probability. More on this another time.

However, when considering the horrors of suffering, the recent floods in Pakistan for example, I always keep in mind two approaches: One can cope with suffering via the intellectual path or the emotional path. (Most likely a mixture of the two.) Even if I present a watertight case defeating the argument from evil, this won’t satisfy someone whose friends have recently died of disease, or remain permanently disabled. Knowing the arguments didn’t satisfy me, after all, when I merely experienced betrayal and a broken heart some years ago. It was this which caused me to walk away from God.

If we know the intellectual reasons I believe this may help, in the big picture. However, when in pain, we don’t want sophistry, we want comfort and strength. On that note I recommend Philip Yancey’s modern classic Where Is God When It Hurts?. It’s a profound book and I rate it highly.

Buddhism takes the reality of suffering as one of its foundational starting points. Alternately, I believe if there is some kind of pure Being there, who knows us intimately, then this g0d somehow shares in our suffering, and the suffering in nature.

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What Do You Think?

How do you think about suffering and spirituality? Does a higher power disgust you, or help you when you think about these things? This is part three of a series, starting with part one.

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Pleasure constricts us
That is the way
Empty perversion
Crippled by fate
(I believe in pain! In disease, cruelty and infidelity.)
Front Line Assembly | Final Impact, Bio-Mechanic

Posted in agnostic, atheism, Biology, Christianity, Emergent, ethics, god, Judaism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

There Is No Pain, You Are Receding

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 1, 2010

This is not a post about going bald. It’s part two of a short series on suffering and spirituality. Here I mention a common Christian “literalist” objection to theistic evolution:

Doesn’t Genesis teach there was no pain and suffering until the fall, and therefore evolution cannot have been the mechanism?

Christians, Jews and to a lesser extent Muslims, all take their origin story from Genesis. At a particular point in the tale the human race is flourishing and then everything goes wrong. Humans make Promethean choices that separate them from God, and like all choices there are consequences, much like choosing to jump from a cliff. Christians call this “the fall”.

If you’re not familiar, here’s the whole passage. Among other things, in verse 16,

To the woman God said,
I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.

~ Gen 3:16

woman, man, pain

In a literal interpretation— the approach anti-evolutionists normally favour— this clearly implies pain before the fall. Note the phrase “greatly increase”. In other words, there was pain before the human representatives made their choice, it just wasn’t so bad. On a literal interpretation, pain was around even in Eden.

And that’s really the only point I want to make today.

By the way, according to Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion from my public library, the church did NOT oppose anesthesia in childbirth based on passages like these. I also noticed that male domination (the husband ruling over the woman) only came in AFTER the fall. Take that, “women must submit to men” theology. Gee, maybe literalist interpretations of the Torah aren’t so bad after all? (Noting my post suggesting this whole section, like much of early Genesis, appears to be poetic in form, and reading those sections ‘literally’ is probably a mistake.)

There are some people who rather enjoy a bit of pain (see below).
More on the problem of pain tomorrow 🙂
Why not subscribe to my blog? (Top Left)

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What Do You Think?

Depeche Mode sing Strange Love:
I give in, to sin…
Will you take the pain… I give to you?
Pain, will you return it?

Also check out the great
Pain and Suffering remix (Replicant tribute)

Anyone like to guess the where the title of today’s post comes from? 😉
How do you think about physical pain and the meaning of life?

Please share this article:

Posted in agnostic, Christianity, god, hardship, Judaism, Meaning of Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Blessed Are The Sick (Your Voice)

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2010

Welcome to the first in an occasional series where I specifically seek your feedback. I want to learn, you can guide my thoughts in ways I haven’t considered. Please respond in the comments and tell me what you think, even if it’s “I don’t know”.

[Edit: A good friend told me she wants to comment, but is “not a philosopher or theologian”. That tells me I’ve pitched this too high- I’m sorry. As with all comments here, I don’t expect you to be profound. I’m just happy to hear from you, even if it’s “Hi, what a crappy post. You suck, but I can’t think of anything to say.”

So if you like, just read the first bit and skip the rest.]

Today, I’m sick. Nothing serious, but our topic will lead into a short series about pain, suffering and spirituality; surely a challenge for any path. (Here’s number two in the series.) Atheists have it easy of course, they can just say, “The world sucks, it proves there’s no benevolence in the universe, and that’s all there is to it”. Or do you atheists have something more to offer when we suffer?

What does sickness tell you– if anything– about the transcendent world? How does it affect you: Your meditation, your prayer life, your practice? What is the meaning of life for those who cannot function at the same level as others?

To get your thoughts going, read on. Or just ignore, and go straight to the comments.

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hospital

Ideas

Consider Mental illness,

What we call schizophrenic is, as Joseph Campbell has discussed, called (positively) visionary or mystical in shamanic cultures, hence is valued, not feared or sedated with chemicals.

Shamanic illnesses are no different or ‘special’ than the illnesses of ‘normal’ people. Disease all comes from the same source, shamanic or not. Shamanic healers don’t piece by piece heal, they heal as a whole.

~from mental illness and spirituality

I’m mentally disabled myself, I’ve struggled with depression at times for most of my adult life. Or consider the last time you were laid under by a severe cold:

Psalm 41:3-4
The LORD will sustain him on his sick-bed and restore him from his bed of illness.
I said, O LORD, have mercy on me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.

What can we learn about the meaning of life from permanent disability?

The criteria of transcendence and transfiguration also apply to the spiritual development of disabled people, in each case relative to the characteristics of the body which is disabled, transcended, and transfigured. This enables us to conceive of a multiplicity of known and lived human worlds.

This has two advantages. First, the plurality of the human worlds enables us to construct a spirituality of disability which is not based upon a theory of deficiency. As long as disabilities are mainly understood as lacking something, their intrinsic character will be overlooked, and they will be understood as mere exclusions from the big world.

~ from A Spirituality of Disability


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Please Respond

What is the meaning of life for those who cannot function at the same level as others? Do you know someone who’s suffered from chronic illness? Where is g0d in all of this?

Please leave your feedback in the comments. This is YOUR chance to share 🙂

Morbid Angel | Blessed Are The Sick

Posted in agnostic, Emergent, god, hardship, spirituality, Your Voice | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

My Meal with a Muslim

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 27, 2010

As per my recent posts, last Thursday I met Sarah and Fariha for coffee after work. (Names changed as New Zealand is a very small place). I hadn’t thought I could find someone to meet in such a short space of time, but an internet acquaintance set it up, thankyou Sarah. Sarah is an atheist, with Muslim and Hindu parents who decided not to push either faith on her. Her mother is a “liberal” Muslim, so Sarah also has a lot of knowledge about Islam. When she told me her friend is Bangladeshi, I expected someone with a foreign accent. I was surprised to meet a second-generation Kiwi, intelligent, articulate and funny, working in a respected profession in the city.

Funny— we don’t think of Muslims with a sense of humour, do we?

We three got along well socially and could have talked about general topics the whole time, but I decided to ask what it’s like growing up as a Muslim in New Zealand. I felt the purpose was to share about Islam and non-Islam and didn’t want to miss the opportunity. Fariha talked about her grandparents being some of the first Muslim immigrants in New Zealand, and helping start the first mosque in Daniel Street (now still owned by the community, but not a mosque). I mentioned my view that all New Zealanders are decended from immigrants and that should inform our thinking. It’s something I think us whiteys need to think about more.

I’m reasonably educated about Islam for a Westerner but I learned new things. I understood from what was said that both women are part of a smaller Shi’ite sect. For me, I associate Shiite with Iran, it’s weird to find people from the Asian subcontinent who identify as Shiite, which we discussed. Fariha referred to “the fundamentalists”, indicating that she felt some distance between her faith and the extremists.

I found out I can go to the mosque, as a non muslim. If I do go I want to have a friend there so that I know how to behave. I can’t go to Mecca, even as a tourist, although Sarah was unsure about that. “How would they know?” Both women love the fact that in Mecca everyone is dressed in white and racial and ethnic barriers are dropped. They love the idea of the one-ness of so many different peoples. Fariha hasn’t been on Haj and Sarah said she couldn’t, as a non-Muslim. Sarah said she’s been told there’s no such thing as a non-practicing Muslim, so you either are or aren’t. Hence, she is not a Muslim. However Fariha disagreed, saying there’s a bit of leeway, for example Fariha does not always pray five times a day.

Muslim women

Not Sarah and Fariha

I offered Fariha the opportunity to ask me questions, but it didn’t happen. Being a second generation New Zealander, no doubt she already knows a lot. She said she’d attended a Christian school growing up and had participated in chapel services. She was quite ok with that as Islam “developed from Christianity and Judaism”.

We didn’t talk much about difficult topics. They did agree with my suggestion that “a good outcome of the absolute horror of 9/11 is that it opened up the existence of Islam to many people in the West who had ignored it”. I mentioned I’d read a book by a woman of Pakistani descent which says Arab Muslims tend to look down on non-Arab Muslims. Fariha said she thought that was “probably the case”. She also could understand it “to some degree” as “the Quran was first given to Arabs”, and socio-politically most servants and menial workers in Saudi are foreigners.

We talked about head-coverings, and she said it “isn’t in the Quran”, but in the Hadith. She doesn’t wear a head-covering. She also said such head coverings are a sign of status, these women are copying the Prophet’s wives, something I didn’t know. (My older post on head-coverings here).

They agreed there is a lot of discussion and disagreement within Islam on some topics. Fariha said she was “speaking for herself, personally, not for the whole of Islam”. She said Imams (Mullahs) are “not like priests”, there is much more ability to disagree, it’s much more equal, which I didn’t know. This struck me like the “congregational” Christian way of running their churches; in theory there is no priest-equivalent as they view all believers are priests. We briefly discussed Sufism, and Fariha said she thinks Islam is a bit more about the group experience, than about “personal spirituality”, although that is there too.

Conclusions

Overall, the meeting was worthwhile in my view. I don’t know if Fariha thought so, but I think she did. She expressed at the start that it was nice of me to make the offer, and afterwards emailed Sarah that she enjoyed it.

Santi, who initiated Meal with a Muslim day, is thinking about hard issues, he’s raised some areas to think about. I think a real challenge is to meet with those Muslims who are “fundamentalist” and despise the West. On our side, it also requires the Western “fundamentalist” Islam-haters to be willing to meet. I don’t know how this could happen. Perhaps each side’s “moderates” can work on their more extreme bretheren? I also think that Muslim to non-Muslim dialogue needs to be an ongoing discussion, there are other questions I want to ask. At this point, Sarah, Fariha and myself have no further plans, and I do think “Meal with a Muslim Day” should be proposed as a one-off occasion each time with no further expectations.

One thing that has stayed with me is that when I think about Islam, I am thinking about a person— an intelligent, attractive neighbour whose humanity I want to support. I think this alone makes the experience worthwhile, to personalise beliefs into people rather than “other”. Though I doubt it is an issue for Fariha, I hope and believe the same is true from the other direction.

Can Muslims accept, flourish in and support Western-style “live and let live”? I think so, and I hope so. There is work to be done by both sides, but by such small actions maybe we can improve one part of this confused world.

What Are Your Thoughts?

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Music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

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