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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Muslims Not Capable of Secular Government?

Throughout the conflict in Iraq, I've heard it claimed that Muslims aren't capable of a secular government - that their culture and religion would never permit it. Many people seem to forget or be unaware of Turkey. This is a nation that is about 95% Muslim, yet they have a completely secular government. The Turkish government goes even further than the U.S. government in not allowing religious dress in public buildings. This law has apparently been upheld in the European Court of Human Rights as "legitimate"[1]. Given France's recent move to disallow the Muslim head dress in public schools that's not surprising.

This brand of 'enforced secularism' is not something I find proper. In the U.S., anyone can wear the garments and symbols of their faith. The idea that the government could tell them not to would seem absurd and a violation of personal liberty to most Americans. The European system seems to take the perspective that the Government should be telling religious people 'you can't bring your religious stuff in here' and so on. Meanwhile, the approach of the U.S. government is that secular government is a government that is restricting itself - not restricting citizens. For instance, when the U.S. supreme court ruled against school prayer, the ruling was that government employees may not lead the students in prayer or use school property to conduct it. Students, however, are perfectly free to pray when and how they wish. The overall philosophy is a 'hands off' restriction on the government. In Europe, it seems to be more of a 'hands on' active secularizing of the people through intrusive restrictions. I find this harmful to personal liberty.

In any case, this more extreme European secularism is strongly in place in Turkey, and has been since 1923. According to a recent AP article, About two weeks ago, about 300,000 Turks (presumably many of them Muslim) staged a massive protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his pro-Islamic agenda. Today about 100,000 protested. The protesters claimed his faction wanted "to drag Turkey to the dark ages". They also disapprove of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, living in the palace while wearing traditional Muslim dress.

I would conditionally tend to think that both democracy and secular government are fully within the ability (and desire) of all human beings, including Muslims. However, when a nation doesn't have the past tradition of it like Turkey, it can be a long uphill climb. Ideally, not something that can (or should) be imposed from a foreign force, as is the attempted case in Iraq. But regardless of other immense problems with the Iraq war, I must at least say that claims Muslim populations are incapable, in principle, of secular government seem greatly inaccurate.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Humanist Ritual

A reader has asked recently about Humanist rituals:

I'd be interested in hearing your take on creating humanist rituals. There seems to be an innate human need to create ceremonies and do things that have a feeling of "sacred space".
This was actually the topic of the day at the most recent session of my Humanist Contemplatives Club. A complete report of our conclusions on this can be read on our Club's journal (link HERE), but I've repeated the core part of the summary here...

1) We acknowledge that Humanists already engage in many rituals. These include various meetups, weddings, funuerals, baby namings, etc.

2) There seems to be a major distinction between rituals, based on why they are conducted. In one sense, you have the 'superstitious ritual' in which the practitioner believes these acts to be accomplishing something disconnected from the typical natural cause-and-effect we know of empirically. Examples include rain dances and prayer. The second sense of ritual is the 'symbolic ritual' in which the practitioner is conducting an activity in order to symbolize a concept. These rituals are designed to create a sense of solemnity, help us adjust our mindset and focus on the reasons behind the ritual, cement social interactions, and mark special events or notions. It was concluded quite easily that Humanist ritual must be exlusive to this latter form.

3) Future Humanist rituals should take advantage of the rich cultural lineage behind it. This includes elements of art, music, poetry, literature, and other elements by past Humanists or humanistic artists and thinkers. This should bring in a sense of tradition such that the ritual does not feel extraneous or contrived.

4) Rituals should be 'multisensory' experiences. They should tap as many of our senses as possible; having visual, audial, olfactory, and possibly tactile elements. Internally, they should tap both the intellect as well as the emotional, intuitive, and imaginative.

It was also mentioned that science fiction can be an inspiration for creative ideas. At the same time, a Humanist ritual must be something with real functional purpose - even if merely social or emotional - or else it will seem contrived.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Diane Mobley Strain 1950-2007

My mother, Diane Mobley Strain, died on the first day of spring; March 21, 2007. Her lungs were inhibited by pulmonary fibrosis (also called interstitial lung disease) - an illness which gets progressively worse over time, until eventually the victim can't get enough oxygen. It's cause was never clearly established since ILD can have a wide variety of both biological and environmental causes.

For a time, she was sleeping with an oxygen tube at home and riding a scooter around since any extended walking would leave her coughing and short of breath. One day, she fell and severely broke her shoulder. She had to have surgery which included taking a piece of bone from her hip to rebuild the shattered shoulder area. However, the hip became infected and she had to then undergo a number of other surgeries to clean out the wound. Over this time, she was bedridden and became weakened. This, plus the anesthesia and general stress of the procedures accelerated her ILD to a critical point.

As she wished, she was asleep under the influence of pain killers once she had to have a ventilator. It was hoped that her body could get enough oxygen and clear out the CO2, but there simply wasn't enough lung tissue left for her to recover. With her family and closest friends around her bed, holding her hands, she passed away without any discomfort or suffering.

But the important thing about my mother is not how she died - rather, how she lived. She was many things to many people, but of course, my comments will focus on what she was to me as a mother. My earliest memory of her is sitting with me at the dining room table, struggling through my homework. As a child I'm told I was difficult because, although I wasn't mean or disrespectful, I had a tendency to daydream. This meant I had trouble in elementary school and it was very frustrating getting me to concentrate on my homework. Of course, I was completely incapable of appreciating her efforts at the time but she sat with me constantly, making sure I learned. In her unending attention (what a child would think of as strictness), she handed over all of her time to teach me about responsibility and give me a sense of living by principles.

But what was really rare about her was her combination of principled responsibility with incredible love, compassion, and sacrifice. She demanded a lot from others, but she always gave more than she got from the world.

She not only sacrificed her time, but she and my father sacrificed their money at a time when money was scarce in the family. This included things like sending me to private school to get me over my school difficulties, but it also included giving my brother and I the best childhood they could. They'd make huge sacrifices to provide special Christmas gifts for us like large high priced toys and computers - things most children from higher income families would be lucky to get.

My mother's compassion extended to those outside our immediate family as well. My parents were always taking extended family and friends into their house when they fell on hard times or needed support. In addition, she worked with my father in their churches to help feed, clothe, and provide companionship to the poor and homeless without making any demands of them.

I wasn't present, but my father told me about a time when he saw her admiring a very nice (and expensive) coat. She was surprised and thrilled when he unexpectedly bought it for her. It was cold that day so she put it on and they went out to run some errands for the church. Arriving at the home of a poor woman to bring her some things, they saw her sitting on the front steps, shivering. She had no money for heating and no coat. My mother instantly took hers and put it around the woman. She could see it looked like a very nice new coat and said, "I can't take this". My mother replied, "This old thing? I was about to throw it out anyway" and left her with it.

We also had a lot of good times. My mother could really appreciate and enjoy special times with the family and going to do fun things. She really glowed when she talked about them and I think enjoying things in life is part of what makes a person able to sacrifice where important and give where needed.

As I look over pictures of her I've found some we took when we were visiting Los Angeles. A relative knew one of the guards at Paramount Studios so we were fortunate to get to tour the studio where they were filming Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have a picture of myself sitting in Captain Picard's chair, with my parents sitting in the chairs on either side. We also got to see the Cheers set and took a picture of all of us standing behind the bar holding up glasses. In all of these photos, including others from Christmas time and so on, I've noticed something. She always had a big smile, but it wasn't the same as mine. I could see in her face that it wasn't merely the event, or the trip, or seeing these things that was making her smile - it was that she was happy for us - and happy that we were having fun together.

From the time I was born (actually before) to the day she died, for 35 years, her commitment to being the best mother she could be was absolutely unwavering. At one point as a teenager, when my brother was having problems, my mother told him that there was nothing he could do that would ever cause her to abandon or give up on him, and he says that knowing this was a point that saved him. Throughout our lives, her priorities were never confused. Her love was like the firmament of stars in our universe - it was as dependable as the sun's rising.

My mother's conscious experience in life has ended, but she has made an impact on her world and left it a better place than she found it. She and my father have made my brother and I what we are today, and her life has given inspiration and example to others, having subtle and far reaching effects beyond what we will ever fully realize. Through our experiences with her, she has passed on a part of who she was so that we may go on consciously experiencing the world through her eyes when we keep her in our thoughts. This is the best way we can honor her. She once carried me inside her, and I'll carry her inside me the rest of my life.

Kurt Vonnegut Dies

On Wednesday, April 11, 2007, American Humanist Association Honorary President and Legendary Writer Kurt Vonnegut died. The story was reported by AP and the Yahoo news article can be read by clicking HERE. If that link has expired, I have reposted the article on my philosophy site HERE.

Update, April 13,2007: The American Humanist Association also has an article, "Humanist President Kurt Vonnegut Mourned": LINK HERE.