Monthly Archives: May 2011

Read Before Rapture

This is going to have to be a quick blog since I only have another day before the rapture.  There is too much being said about the latest Doomsday Theology fad, but I am compelled to add a few thoughts that are not prominent in the stories I’ve read.  I will not, however, summarize the rapture fantasy.  You’ll have to Google that yourself, or read CNN or MSNBC.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43082513/ns/us_news-life/

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/18/tick-tock-goes-the-doomsday-clock/

I have been doing research on how the secular press covers religion for my University of Pennsylvania master’s work.  Not surprisingly there isn’t much news about religion and it’s not usually covered well.  Since I started my studies at Penn in 2005, however, religion coverage has increased and CNN’s “belief.blog” is one example.  Still, both reporters and media consumers make assumptions about religion and the coverage of religion.  If I can do one thing with this blog, it is identify what is really religion, what is cultural, and what is just sensationalism.

When every single generation has had predictors of the world’s end, what is newsworthy about this latest claim?  Yesterday (5/18/2011) doomsday predictions were on CNN’s home page, but bumped to the third story on their “belief.bog” by 10:00 p.m.  This morning the story was back on the home page and the blog had over 5,000 comments.  The MSNBC story moved from a liner with a link on the home page to three pages into their Web site.  There have been billboards from the Doomsdayers and responses from the atheists.  I did check out “Post Rapture Looting” on Facebook, but it has fewer “friends” than this blog.

“This is how religion hurts people, one of the many ways religion hurts people,” American Atheists President David Silverman told CNN Oakland, California, affiliate KGO.  Now I am a fan of atheists because they have given religion some thought and taken a position.  I would disagree with Silverman about his assumption.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, crazy is as crazy does.  The view of the “Family Radio” people is not embraced by the vast majority of Christians just like the vast majority of Muslims didn’t agree with Osama bin Laden.  In fact, I would say those rapture predictors are to Christianity what “Girls Gone Wild” is to a college education.  Probably the most appealing aspect of this story for the press and those Facebook links going viral, is hoping we get to laugh at them being wrong on May 21st.  Admit it – you do enjoy the chance to say ‘I told you so.’

The Oakland, California based “Family Radio” has been leading the cry on this one.  I do admire anyone willing to be viewed as a fool while honoring their convictions.  It is so sad that these convictions pertain to picturing the rest of us going to hell.  To understand this kind of misguided theology means considering the psychology of religion.  Some people just need a religion with a deadline.  And some people can’t imagine a religion without fear.  Perhaps this is what John Lennon was singing about.  Do not confuse the need of these individuals for drama and attention with divine inspiration.  These people need a scary primitive religion with a judgmental, angry God.  That doesn’t make them inspired.  Their god perception is just a reflection of what they are capable of imagining.

Still, just in case there is a rapture, I’m sure many of you will join me in hoping the rapturees provide for their pets during their eternal absence.  (Yes, I am expecting to be left behind with all the interesting people.)  I’m joining the rest of you in enjoying the Web site of New Hampshire atheist Bart Centre who is offering post-rapture pet care for those best friends that are left behind – of course for a fee.

http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/

I really do hope he makes some good money on this one. But Bart, you better donate that money to a local shelter or we will all know why you’ve been left behind.

See you on the 21st! –J.B.

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The War Monk: Yes, there is one

The death of Osama bin Laden is an opportunity for reflection.  He was a religious wanna-be.  He did not have religious training and his interpretation of Islam was neither Orthodox nor representative of the majority of Muslims (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/04/bin-ladens-theology/).  Every religion is vulnerable to the theft or distortion of ideology for political gain.  Buddhism is not immune either.  Yes, there is a “War Monk,” and he is Buddhist.

I was introduced to the War Monk in an article in Foreign Policy (FP) magazine.  He was quoted saying, “We musn’t talk to them; we can crush the LTTE [Tamil Tigers].  It is like surgery.”  He was not alone – he made the list: “The List: The World’s Worst Religious Leaders,” (4/7/2009).  FP was quoting Athuraliye Rathana, a Theravadan Buddhist Monk and member of the Sri Lankan parliament.  FP did not coin his nickname, and their list included representatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Most Americans are not looking for the latest news about Sri Lanka.  Searches of CNN and MSNBC produced very few stories.  There is one MSNBC/AP story today (5/6/2011) and one story on CNN posted 5/2/2011.  BBC News Online posted a story on April 13, “Sri Lanka rejects secret UN war report as ‘flawed.’”  The United Nations was looking into war crimes associated with the civil war between the victorious government and the Tamil Tiger challengers.  The top leaders of the Tamil Tigers are dead and the UN wanted to investigate both sides in regard to the civilian deaths which human rights groups say are in the thousands.

One would think that a UN report on war crimes would be sensational enough to grab headlines, but apparently not when it’s Sri Lanka.  What really grabbed the UK media was that the War Monk, Rathana, was wielding his rhetorical sword their direction.  On May 21, 2009 the London Times Online posted the story “Victorious war monk Athuyaliye Rathana turns on Britain.”  Well now, that’s a little closer to home than the Indian Ocean.

The history of this exotic Indian Ocean island should be required reading in all seminaries, kibbutzim, ashrams, and madrasahs.  The story of Sri Lanka is one of years of tragedy and violence that in proportion to its population, compares to the U.S.’s Civil War, World War II, Darfur, and al Qaeda all in one little slice of hell that is slightly larger than West Virginia.

The New Yorker had a comprehensive article (01/17/2011) by Jon Lee Anderson who had been to Sri Lanka before and since the current government crushed the Tiger rebellion.  His 15-page story is worth every word.  It should be read as a shocking example of what people around the globe have in common with Sri Lanka.  The Tamil Tigers were using suicide bombers back before most Americans gave that phrase a thought.  Sri Lanka’s 26-year conflict has followed ethnic and cultural lines in which the majority is Buddhist and the minority is Hindu.  The Tigers were “guerilla fighters” (p.41) who were eventually crushed by the government in shocking brutality which caught up thousands of civilians – one report said 40,000 (p.42).

When Anderson was in Sri Lanka in 1986 he said, “The Army had developed a pattern of mass arrests, torture, and, with growing frequency, murder.  He met with a Tamil Catholic priest about whom he said, “The conflict had grown so terrible that he had come to question the very existence of God,” (p. 45).

Remember, Hinduism was the religion of Mahatma Gandhi.  One of the five precepts of Buddhism is do not kill.  But in the end, the Sri Lanka story is not about Buddhism or Hinduism.  It’s about power and exploitation.  The exploitation is more potent when a religious imperative can be contrived, like using the Bible to justify slavery.  Sadly, Sri Lanka has shown us that any religion can be hijacked.

It seems disturbingly easy for humans to desensitize themselves to violence, and even grisly oppression, when all that matters is that you are not the one who is being oppressed.  When tracing the roots of atrocities (in which most religions have had some role over time), there is also some relationship to the local economy.  The poor were bin Laden’s target audience and the lack of egalitarian economic opportunity set the stage in Sri Lanka.

Bin Laden was one of the most notorious opportunists in recent history, but there are many like him and the War Monk, who take advantage of poverty, exploit religious rhetoric, and justify their own political agenda.  We should be more frightened of poverty than terrorism.  If people are not hungry and have jobs, it becomes easier to learn to separate the religious practices of the faithful from the propaganda of the unscrupulous.

I’m not sleeping better because bin Laden is dead.  When there are enough jobs in Sri Lanka and no more hungry children in Afghanistan, then I’ll sleep better.  That goes for things at home, too.  The original terrorist is poverty.

– J.B.