International Women’s Day: Temple-Song-Hearts music group and more


BETA VERSION
What can one say after such beautiful music? Except that it helps explain why I write in favour of freedom of religion and religious tolerance, because only when these things flourish can we enjoy the fruits. Here, the fruits are beautiful music and a presentation filled with light by women who come from different countries across a borderless Europe. But did you notice what language they are singing in? The language is Bengali, which was Sri Chinmoy’s mother tongue.

When the world is at peace and there is freedom of movement, people are free to gather what they find beautiful and meaningful from the world’s cultures, to create something uniquely their own. What wonderful music with which to celebrate International Women’s Day! Continue reading

Terrorism Has No Religion

I’ve been sadly and silently following developments in Manchester after the tragic suicide bombing. Today I saw an interview with Saima Alvi, Vice-Chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre. She made the point — calmly and eloquently — that terrorism has no religion.

This reminded me of Barack Obama, who knew the power of words and steadfastly refused to connect the words “terrorism” and “Islam.” Terrorists have nothing to do with Islam; they merely appropriate words and symbols from that religion of peace in order to justify their heinous acts. Continue reading

Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z” (1969)

Connecting the cultural and political dots, and revisiting a classic film by Costa-Gavras

There’s an old saying that a poem doesn’t mean, but simply is. The saying’s trotted out when folks in English class rambunctiously insist on extracting a prose meaning from a work of poetry — not unlike getting a furball out of a cat by using a brickbat. What’s implied is that poetry is a process, a way of seeing, and that it differs from prose. Try as one might, one may fail to transplant the life of a poem into some other medium.

Like this, really great films may have their subject matter, but what often makes them great is their way of seeing ordinary interactions between people and how the universe works. Yes, there’s a plot and dialogue, and there may be prosaic meanings; but there’s also a certain poetry to filmic images.

So if I tell you the 1969 film Z is a political thriller, don’t misunderstand or imagine it would bore you if you’re not much into politics. Like most great films, it transcends its subject matter by being about people and how the universe works. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when released nearly fifty years ago. Continue reading

A West Wing Thanksgiving

With the election over and Thanksgiving upon us, now may be a good time to reflect on the immigrant experience and religious freedom: Continue reading

Ketan Tamm Memorial

Remembering the life of a gifted actor-director, restaurateur, but above all spiritual seeker

Introduction

One of the curious things about our present-day world with its emphasis on the secular and the material is that when people make spiritual choices it’s almost as if they’ve fallen off the edge of the earth. They seemingly no longer exist to people who only measure secular activity. They become unpersons, particularly to hardline anti-cultists.

How strange that people whose days are filled with activities and whose lives are filled with meaning are simply written off as “lost” by those who take an extreme worldly view. Yet, when people make spiritual choices, they continue to breathe oxygen, to eat food and drink water, to plan and dream, to care for others and be cared for. That they do these things in a broader context of service to God or pursuit of spiritual enlightenment does not lessen their humanity.

When Ketan Goldman Tamm passed away in March 2014, it marked the end of a life filled with activity and service. He ran the Panorama of My Silence-Heart Café, which offered more than lattes and loving-kindness: it became a hub of community activity. According to reviewer Julia Lofaso:

Events held there have ranged from community board meetings, elementary school class plays and meatless barbecues to demonstrations by local raw food devotees, performances by Brazilian opera singers and a dramatic President’s Day reading of writings by the founding fathers. Local musicians come to play at Panorama’s recurring Edible Jam while listeners partake in a tasting menu of desserts, all of which feature jam. And, of course, there’s always a chance that [Guinness record holder Ashrita Furman] will walk in and start snapping celery stalks in half or cracking eggs against his forehead in rapid succession.

Ketan was first and foremost a spiritual seeker. Before settling down to run the Panorama Café, he traveled the globe, arranging meetings and events for his teacher, Sri Chinmoy, with the goal of inspiring a more harmonious world. Ketan also loved theatre, and enjoyed directing and acting in plays.

Ketan doing his roadwork with the World Harmony Run, on the island of Jamaica, 2005

Ketan doing his roadwork with the World Harmony Run, on the island of Jamaica, 2005

A poster for the play "Siddhartha Becomes The Buddha" which Ketan directed at the Bleeker Street Theater in 2010

A poster for the play “Siddhartha Becomes The Buddha” which Ketan directed at the Bleeker Street Theater in 2010

The Buddha character from Ketan's play

The Buddha character from Ketan’s play

Because Ketan was very devoted to the spiritual life, his closest friends and family were those who shared his spiritual interest and remained true. This is how his friends and family at Sri Chinmoy Centre remembered him.
—– Continue reading

False Salon Story: What was said at the time

Collecting good rebuttals to bad journalism

I previously blew the whistle on blogger Edwin Lyngar and his agent Elizabeth Kracht for planting a false story in Salon libeling the late meditation teacher and humanitarian Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). I analyzed the false Salon story in relation to a false story (on a different subject) appearing in Rolling Stone. (See “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)

I’ve recently been beating the bushes, making a nuisance of myself, trying to track down what people said at the time in rebuttal to Salon. I remembered people wrote some good things, but realized they were scattered in different places and somewhat difficult to access. So I hope no one minds that I’ve collated what different people said and presented it in a single blog post, where the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. The purpose is to resolve a matter of public concern. Continue reading

Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a rebuttal to anti-cult activist Jayanti Tamm which I wrote in 2011 but never published. Part 1 is located here.

Just Say No To Cult Checklists — Part 2

In Part 1, I noted Jayanti Tamm’s efforts to revive a “cult checklist” to be used as a witching wand for separating good religion from bad, and began cataloguing the problems associated with her approach. According to Ontario-based ReligiousTolerance.org:

The term “cult” is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow. It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life. The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America. The word “cult,” particularly as used by the media, carries a heavy emotional content. The term suggests that this is a group that you should detest, avoid, and fear. In reality, the only “crime” of most “cults” is that they hold different religious beliefs from whomever is doing the attacking.

The power to define is the power to control. Anti-cult groups typically use cult checklists as part of a larger effort to subject minority religions to restrictive laws. They’ve met with relatively little success getting such laws passed in the U.S., but greater success in Europe, where religious intolerance is on the rise. See this transcript of a hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee On International Operations and Human Rights, concerning “Religious Discrimination In Western Europe.” It contains many quotable quotes from a stellar panel, including this opening comment from Rep. Cynthia McKinney:

[W]ho has the right to determine for others what is a “cult,” and what is an “acceptable” religion? When the government presumes to do so, it seems that a Pandora’s Box of state interference in religious life has been opened. And furthermore, when the government becomes the arbiter of religious authenticity, which religions are likely to be targeted? Certainly not the established religions that enjoy the support of the majority in a population. Instead, the victims are going to be minority religions, the least well known and most misunderstood faiths, in short, the very groups that agreements like the Helsinki Accords were designed to protect.

Within this larger framework, it’s trivial to see how cult checklists operate: One takes a database of all known religions, applies the checklist in subjective fashion, and is left with a database of religions purported to be cults. The list is then pitched to lawmakers as accurate and unbiased, when it is in fact a species of pseudoscience. Such cult checklists are part of a conveyor belt system leading to widespread religious discrimination. As the old joke among Jews in Nazi Germany goes: “If you don’t want to end up in Dachau, avoid train travel!” The train itself may appear innocuous; the destination is anything but. Whether cult checklists are wielded by government or by private anti-cult groups, they tend to produce a chilling effect on individual freedom of conscience. When the media endorses them, it sullies its hands.

While opinions on religion abound, constructive criticism will often come from the faithful. It’s difficult for secular groups who eschew religion to understand the requirements of faith. Our nation was founded under a theory of dual spheres of influence in which religions are presumed to be competent in their own sphere to determine what practices are beneficial. When people like Ms. Tamm try to usurp that right — brandishing cult checklists which are a thinly veiled form of social control — we should not take them with perfect seriousness, except to the extent they seek to undermine Constitutional liberties. That effort we should seriously oppose, rejecting the mindset which would make “meditating while Indian” a crime on a par with “driving while Black.” Continue reading

Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 1

Introduction

This is a two-part rebuttal to anti-cult activist Jayanti Tamm which I wrote in 2011 but never published. In coming across it, I realized it says much of what I would say generally about anti-cult groups and individuals who circulate propaganda which demeans and “otherizes” spiritual minorities. We live in a populist society where the majority is increasingly running toward secularism and materialism. That is their right. It’s also why we need strong laws protecting the rights of spiritual minorities — because without such protections democracy becomes just another form of tyranny. Continue reading

Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence

How the TV show Northern Exposure can teach us why some therapists aren’t good sources of spiritual wisdom.

This is a follow-up to “The ACLU and Religious Freedom Part 2,” where I began discussing the problems which ensue when spiritual seekers are exposed to bad therapy. Such problems include Guru Alienation Syndrome — a condition similar to Parental Alienation Syndrome, but often caused by a therapist or ex-cult support group.

I grew up watching movies like Ordinary People, and thinking of therapists as being like the Judd Hirsch character: sympathetic, caring, always reaching out a helping hand to people in crisis, and never doing any harm. I still want to believe that’s true of many or even most therapists. It came as a shock to me to learn that some therapists are motivated by politics, ideology, and an inflated sense of their own infallibility. They claim to be experts in things they’ve never actually studied, and practice fringe therapies which may actually harm their clients. What I’m saying might be described as a “contrarian narrative;” but to recognize some truth in it is to gain insight into many phenomena which undergird our modern world and modern conflicts. Continue reading

Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1

The Rolling Stone/UVA debacle was preventable but not unique. Salon had a similar breakdown in early 2014, likewise due to somnolent editors and fabulist sources, plus a hidden element of corruption.

Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

What is freedom of heart, and how does it differ from freedom of mind? Are the two compatible? Should we follow our hearts?

In Part 4 we talked about various methods used by oppositional groups to abridge the civil rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, and by laws guaranteeing freedom of choice in spiritual matters. Some of those tactics include spreading alarmist misinformation, or attempting to portray minority choices as unethical, irrational, or even criminal. Yet, the many spiritual groups which dot our land are part of America. They do not lie outside her borders, and participating in them can be an ethical, sensible, and (dare I say?) joyful choice for someone who feels a genuine spiritual calling. Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4

What is the ideal balance between faith and reason? Do people have a right to choose faith over reason, at least in matters of faith? The U.S. Constitution says yes.

the-first-amendmentWe’ve been exploring the problem of vilification of spiritual minorities by anti-cult groups. In Part 3 we discussed how hate material poisons the public information space, making people afraid to follow their conscience in spiritual matters for fear of what may be done to them by aggressive majoritarians.

Our consistent theme has been that even as anti-cult tactics have shifted from physical coercion to psychological coercion, the ACLU should still be concerned about the manner in which some anti-cult activities abridge the civil rights of minority adherents. Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3

People should be able to choose a minority faith without expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

RECAP: In Part 1 we talked about the deprogramming era and how the ACLU helped to end it. In Part 2 we explored the transition from deprogramming to exit counseling, from physical coercion to psychological coercion. Our persistent theme is that the ACLU should still be concerned about the plight of minority adherents, since the manner in which the latter continue to be harassed by anti-cultists remains violative of their religious freedom and core civil rights.

Part 2 ended with a discussion of techniques and jargon associated with exit counseling and “cult recovery” groups. We talked about the way that former spiritual seekers are resocialized to view themselves as “cult victims,” and encouraged to generate atrocity stories in order to justify and reinforce this new identity based on victimhood.

It’s helpful to be able to decode anti-cult jargon, since it contains a plethora of stereotypes and bigoted assumptions built right into the language itself. A person who has a spiritual experience has fallen victim to a “dissociative disorder,” while a person who comes to feel closer to God through prayer, meditation, and reflection suffers from “delusions of grandeur” brought on by “cult mind control.” Devotion to a spiritual figure is “an unnatural fixation caused by lack of a strong father figure during adolescence,” while self-giving is “an ego disorder,” and community involvement constitutes “a life wasted in the cult.”

What’s obscured by such anti-cult jargon is the ineffable quality of joy often experienced by minority adherents, and the meaningfulness of their lives. Continue reading

I Am Not Charlie: Further Thoughts

Simpsons-Hebdo-I-Am-Joe-Camel_v24b_525x379Weighing in on Maggie Simpson’s flag-waving for Charlie Hebdo. Do Maggs and Charlie really go together like vanilla ice cream & apple pie? Can Richard Engel, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Hanna-Barbera offer any insights?

This post was originally titled “Using Children To Market Toxic Products Is Wrong,” which seemed to confuse people. I was making the rhetorical point that Charlie Hebdo (the magazine) can be rather carcinogenic.

I sometimes feel like I lose people in a long post which ties together many themes. Understanding a thing by means of another thing is what thinking people do, but it does take time. To encourage readers to take that time, let me provide a brief map of where we’re headed:

  • Populism has its limitations; the majority is often wrong.
  • Combining the Maggie Simpson and I Am Charlie icons is something we should examine for signs of propaganda.
  • Juxtaposing Maggie Simpson with an actual Charlie Hebdo cover may reveal a mismatch.
  • To build a more civil society, we need to respect each other’s sensitivities and not intentionally desecrate each other’s images.
  • We can enjoy robust freedom of speech without giving license to hate speech.
  • Richard Engel made a useful comment about how the I Am Charlie phenom was perceived in the Middle East.
  • I portray Charlie Brown & Snoopy as serene I-Am-Charlie refuseniks who’ve put together the “puzzle pieces” and arrived at religious tolerance.
  • The Charlie Hebdo controversy occurs against the backdrop of a French law banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves (hijab) in some places.
  • The French are trying to create social cohesion by suppressing religion and imposing drab, secular sameness. I tie this in with The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
  • Religious freedom means the freedom to live life integrally, with all its colours and complexities on display. Suppression can lead to an anti-assimilation backlash.
  • France is still wavering between a number of polar opposites such as colonialism vs. multiculturalism.
  • What would it look like if Maggie Simpson waved a flag demanding the right to wear hijab?
  • French policemen wear uniforms, and so do Catholic nuns like Thérèse of Lisieux.
  • True égalité means not discriminating against a component of the uniform as a proxy for discriminating against the faith.
  • Joe Camel and the Flintstones are cartoon characters previously used to market toxic products (cigarettes).

So after the map comes the languid prose version… Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2

A tolerant society gives people the space to freely choose their faith or non-faith without fear of reprisals. It doesn’t punish minority choices.

There’s a sense in which I hate writing about the struggle to vouchsafe spiritual freedom. I would much rather write about art, music, or the joys to be discovered by exploring spiritual pathways. But there are people intent on closing off those pathways, so discussions of religious freedom (and how the ACLU has helped safeguard it) are sometimes needed.

In Part 1, much of our focus was on John E. LeMoult’s seminal study “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” and on the ACLU’s parallel study of deprogramming which likewise led them to condemn the practice. We examined the case of Donna Seidenberg Bavis, a Hare Krishna devotee who was abducted by deprogrammers, but was later helped by the ACLU in getting compensation, with the ACLU acting to curb civil rights abuses by rogue attorneys. BRAVO ACLU!

Currently in the U.S., anti-cult tactics favour psychological coercion over physical coercion, but the principle is the same: If you can make it sufficiently painful for someone to remain involved with a minority faith group, they may recant simply to avoid further pain. If you can make them feel like a “member of a hated class,” they may recant in order to avoid being hated and discriminated against. This is the context in which we should understand the contemporary use of hate material vilifying religious minorities and their spiritual leaders. Continue reading

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1

The ACLU has often fought for the rights of minority adherents, including Eastern spiritual seekers. BRAVO ACLU!

I might not be able to avoid criticising some attorneys for harassing minority faith groups. But my purpose here today is to praise the American Civil Liberties Union for often coming to the rescue of minority adherents.

aclu_logoThe backdrop for understanding these issues is this: America was built on noble ideals of religious freedom which are part of its very soul. Yet, religious freedom is not a given; it must often be won and re-won by successive generations of immigrant groups or new faith groups which spring up indigenously. Counterbalancing the ideals of religious freedom, we sometimes find that conformism, populism, and authoritarianism lead America in a quite different, less flattering direction. Continue reading