Tag Archives: Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha

Concluding reflections on whether God exists, etc.

As you can imagine, discussions about God/gods (and whether it or they exist) have continued since the last post was uploaded, but, as is so often the case when the topic is discussed, very little has been said that is either novel or convincing. However, the two contributions below offer some worthwhile reflection, although, as with the last post devoted to the subject, I am not in agreement with everything written. The first contribution derives from someone who engaged with the debate from quite early on and the second contribution derives from a historian with an unusually perceptive understanding of things to do with religion and belief.

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Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Morning, S. I hope the confusion about atheists and agnostics has been resolved!!!!

Below, I offer comment on your most recent email. You have certainly posed some important questions about what God/the Divine/the Supreme Being is, and what powers/influence God, etc. has (if any). 

S: the quote from the Guru Granth Sahib (“God created Nature and pervades it”) interests/concerns me. If by “Nature” the Guru Granth Sahib means the universe and everything within it, there is no problem with the idea that God created it in so far as the idea is found in most expressions of religion (God the creator of everything, etc.). But if God also “pervades it” (“Nature”. In other words, God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe. By the way: based on the content of the Guru Granth Sahib and chats with Sikhs, this is exactly how I understand the Sikh “vision” of God – God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe), is God passive or active? Deists insist God created the universe, then became indifferent to its future development/evolution. As a general rule, theists subscribe to the idea that God, having created the universe, remains active as it develops/evolves, or as time unfolds. 

One quote in the email (“He/God remains in a stable state and observes Nature with delight”) suggests that God is passive (not only is God “stable”, but God merely “observes Nature with delight”) – which, combined with the idea that humankind has free will, may explain all the problems that confront planet Earth when the problems are the result of human action/inaction (climate change, environmental degradation, famine, crime, religious intolerance, persecution, racism, war, genocide, etc.). But I imagine that Sikhs are encouraged to believe that God is somehow active as the universe develops/evolves, or that God is somehow active as time unfolds (e.g. as when you said to me some time ago that God saved you when you were a younger man in two life-threatening situations) – and, if this is so, God must therefore take responsibility not only for the good things that happen but also for the bad (the idea that God is present in every sentient and insentient thing reinforces the idea that God, if active at all, is at least partly responsible for everything that happens, whether good or bad). Add to this that you make the case for God being responsible for all the “natural laws” that explain so much about existence, then logic dictates that God must ALSO assume responsibility for the natural disasters that befall our planet (floods, earthquakes, volcanic activity, meteors that wipe out hundreds of animal species, etc.) in so far as such things are a direct result of the “natural laws” God is said to have created.

I quite like how you say at one point that the natural phenomena function on their own “without much interference from the Creator”. This implies God remains active as time unfolds, but that God restricts the degree to which God interferes/shapes things. You therefore clearly agree with the idea of a God still active in how time unfolds, but assign to God a role far inferior to that assigned to God in, say, the Abrahamic religions. Fair enough. If God exists at all, we may be dealing with a God who has powers that God choses not to fully exercise (the existence of human free will may be an aspect of God not exercising God’s powers to the full).

In the email I hear a case being made NOT for a fully passive nor fully active God as time unfolds, but a case for a God who acts only occasionally/sometimes/in certain circumstances. If this is the reality, it may explain why bad as well as good things happen all the time – but it also means that we cannot possibly know with any degree of certainty when a good or a bad outcome is due to God’s intervention. 

Many (most?) people agree that God is either all-powerful and therefore responsible for everything that happens in the universe, whether good or bad, or God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe (perhaps/probably because God does not exist). If the latter (God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe), we can no longer turn to God as an explanation for what happens. Instead, explanations for what happens might be that humankind exercises free will either responsibly or irresponsibly; natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic activity are the result of immutable laws of nature; and sentient creatures and insentient things behave in only particular/certain ways, and they behave in only particular/certain ways, not because of God (or, for humans at least, not because of ethical standards subscribed to for intuitive or intellectual reasons), but because of physics, chemistry and/or human and animal DNA. However, the idea suggested in your email, that God has limited powers/God chooses to exercise God’s powers in a limited way, may offer a compromise position that to some extent is supported by the evidence (there is no rhyme nor reason for many of the things that happen in the universe because there is no rhyme nor reason about whether God will be active or passive. Nor is there any rhyme or reason about whether God will act ethically or unethically on those occasions God is – or appears to be – active).

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ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I agree completely with the suggestion that “humans have to assume responsibility for their own actions, actions which might lead to wars, which cause destruction and the loss of human life. To put it bluntly, humans are responsible for persecution, bombs and wars”, because I believe 100% that we have free will and can exercise free will either wisely or unwisely. But this nonetheless throws up a problem with what we have discussed above, the Sikh idea that God exists within everything in the universe and must therefore be present in every human being. If God is present in every human being and, as many people allege, God is capable only of good things, why does God not stop humans doing bad things? Yes, the free will argument might explain bad actions, but this must therefore mean that God lacks the power/influence so often claimed for God. Perhaps God lacks the power/influence for the reason suggested above: God limits the extent to which God interferes. But such an understanding of God leaves wide open the opportunity for people to assert that God therefore acts in inconsistent/arbitrary ways which at times have amoral or immoral consequences. Or, to put it another way, God sometimes acts with mercy and sometimes without mercy. There is no question that thousands of people who say they are inspired by the concept of God act in ways utterly devoid of mercy and/or in ways that most people deem ethically abhorrent (e.g. Muslims belonging to a vast number of extremist groups/organisations, Boko Haram and ISIS included). Some such people even believe that the murder of vast numbers of innocent people is “willed” by God and/or that God derives “pleasure” from such carnage. Of course, God is not responsible for such crimes against humanity. But God is invoked to justify them. 

Holding those to account for crimes against humanity is only right and proper, of course, because we cannot blame God for such crimes (but we can blame some/many human interpretations of God for inspiring the crimes). More problematic is the matter of natural disasters such as meteors, floods, earthquakes and volcanic activity. With the exception of some floods, none of these are the responsibility of humans. Therefore, “responsibility” must lie elsewhere. Scientists, mathematicians and atheists are among those who argue that such things can be explained by the laws of nature, many of which (most of which?) have already been discovered (scientists, etc. would also insist that the laws of nature are not a product of God but an integral and inevitable part of physics). The Guru Granth Sahib seems also to say that natural disasters are a product of “natural laws”, but that such laws were devised by God. Therefore, if God devised the laws that make natural disasters at some point inevitable, God must be responsible for them. Natural disasters affect the innocent at least as much as the guilty and often strike without rhyme or reason. Consequently, God has created a universe in which unpredictability, injustice, unfairness and a lack of mercy are as likely to prevail as predictability, justice, fairness and mercy. There are therefore limits to the extent to which God can be deemed ethically responsible/the source of all that is good/unquestionably worthwhile.

People of faith have a tendency to ascribe every good outcome to God and every bad outcome to some other factor. As I’ve tried to indicate above, this is a wholly unreasonable/illogical position to assume, unless God is somehow far less the influence/power that most religious people allege. It makes much more sense to ascribe all good and all bad things to God, or none of the good and none of the bad things to God – but the idea above, that God interferes as little as possible/infrequently in God’s creation, offers a sort of half-way house between the two positions just summarised. However, the half-way house opens the way for people to question the merits of such a God, a God who will inevitably appear inconsistent/arbitrary/amoral/immoral.

You are aware that we have been scrabbling round the edges of one of theology’s most hot topics, that of theodicy (the issue of evil in light of the existence of God. If God is good and just/forgiving/compassionate, how do evil and misery exist?). Perhaps history’s most famous statement on the problem of evil comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing. Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

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Jesus in Malaga, Spain

To conclude these reflections about God and what God is like, if God exists at all, I share some wisdom deriving from Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is the author of “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind”, one of the most interesting history books I have read in recent years. He says things below that make more sense than many theologians and religious studies scholars addressing the same matters:

As far as we know, only homo sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of homo sapiens language…

Most scholars agree that animist beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from “anima”, “soul” or “spirit“ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings and can communicate directly with humans… In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities – the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels… (For animists, gods) are not universal gods… (that are) all-powerful (and) run the world as they wish… (they) are local beings…

Theism (from “theos”, “god” in Greek) is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small group of ethereal entities called gods… (Each theistic group) viewed the others’ beliefs as weird and heretical…

Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry. This is an unjust stereotype…

Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks…

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate and Hindus built no temples to Atman.

The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace every defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus known as Sadhus or Sannyasis devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment…

Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers…

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Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”…

The polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion…         

With time, some followers of polytheistic gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheistic insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war…

Judaism, for example, argued that the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, yet His chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel…

(Judaism is an example) of “local monotheism”…, (Christianity and Islam are examples of monotheist religions that have an impact) throughout the world…

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Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

It worked… Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations.  

Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to dualist ones. Dualist religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous problem of evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought. “Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?” Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world… What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the problem of evil.

For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the problem of evil it is unnerved by the problem of order…

So, monotheism explains order but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

Did Guru Nanak travel to Rome and meet a pope?

Although lots of people are trying without success to make sense of the latest Islamic State truck bomb to claim many innocent lives (on 24th November 2016, at least eighty Iranian and Iraqi Shia Muslims were murdered in Shomali in Iraq when returning from the Arbaeen ceremony in Kerbala), it is right to turn our attention from such Sunni-sourced prejudice and blood-lust, for now at least.

The post that follows is purely for light relief. For about three years, a growing number of Sikhs have got excited because evidence is said to exist to prove that Guru Nanak travelled all the way to Rome where he had a fruitful encounter with a pope. Below is the text of an email I sent to a good Sikh friend whose wishful thinking may be getting the better of him.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

All this speculation about whether Guru Nanak visited Rome and had an encounter with one of the popes is very interesting, but I am not sure how seriously we should take it. Also, based on Sikh sites devoted to the matter, I am getting confused: is it being suggested Guru Nanak actually met with Pope Paul III? Most Sikh sites/articles devoted to the matter suggest the visit to Rome took place in 1520 (or 1518).

Paul III was on the papal throne from 1534 to 1549. Guru Nanak died in 1539. This means that overlap in their lives when Paul III occupied the highest office in the Roman Catholic (RC) Church was only 5 years’ maximum. It is possible they met, but not probable. I say this partly because of Guru Nanak’s age at the time when the meeting could have taken place (1534 to 1539). He would have been very old and, even if unusually fit and healthy for someone of such advanced age in the early 16th century, unlikely to undertake long, dangerous and expensive journeys far from home. 

Although some Sikhs suggest Guru Nanak may have travelled as far as Italy, is this really likely? If he undertook such a journey, where is the evidence for the visit in Sikh/Indian records? It is unlikely he got even as far as Istanbul/Constantinople (another place some Sikhs believe he may have visited) in Ottoman Turkey (where in all likelihood he would have encountered an extremely hostile reaction. In fact, his religious message would have been thought so bizarre that, if not murdered for his beliefs, he would probably have been imprisoned), but to have travelled so much further to Italy/Rome seems inconceivable. Surely, if travelling so far, Sikh/Indian records will indicate a time when he was absent from Punjabi/Indian soil for a great length of time. Two to three years? Five years? Perhaps even longer? Moreover, in all probability the same records will confirm, or at least speculate about, where he went.

Even if Guru Nanak had travelled to Italy, what common language would he and members of the papacy have shared/spoken so that he could express his thoughts?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Stories about Nanak’s highly improbable visit to Italy have engaged a growing number of Sikhs since 2013 or 2014, when text in an old book was unearthed purporting to confirm Nanak had visited Rome (and other towns in Italy?), but, in most descriptions of the text, this is said to have happened in 1520 (or 1518). On the internet I find no confirmation of the visit from RC sources, whether in 1520 or any other year, which surprises me. If Guru Nanak is described in positive terms by one/more popes, why is there no evidence for this in papal records? The RC Church has in recent years tried to confirm its commitment to interfaith dialogue; a visit to Rome by Guru Nanak would be something to shout about/celebrate.

Note that Paul III was one of the popes whose condemnation of heresy was unequivocal. He set up bodies to suppress people who subscribed to beliefs which did not conform with RC orthodoxy. Would such a person (or any earlier pope, for that matter) have celebrated Guru Nanak in the way being suggested? In all probability he would have regarded Guru Nanak with much the same distrust that Guru Nanak might have encountered in Ottoman Turkey. Pope Paul III established the Inquisition in Italy, imposed censorship, commissioned the infamous Index of forbidden books and approved the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), all of which were designed to suppress heresy, so it is very unlikely he would have looked kindly on Guru Nanak, someone the Church would probably have dismissed as a pagan. Earlier popes would have had very similar attitudes toward manifestations of faith diverging from RC orthodoxy. At the time, the Church was vehemently opposed to Protestants (who emerged on the scene from 1517), Jews and Muslims, all of whom were Abrahamic in common with the RC Church, so why suddenly be so accommodating about/sympathetic toward a strange person from a distant land subscribing to a religion so alien to Roman Catholicism in its beliefs and practices because of its Indian origins? 

I tracked down an interesting document released by the Vatican to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak in November 2014, but totally absent from the text is any suggestion that Guru Nanak visited/may have visited Rome in 1520 or any other year. This would have been the ideal opportunity for the Vatican to offer confirmation about the story, but it fails to do so. 

We must not forget that the founders of a number of religions are said to have engaged in long journeys from home to suggest, among other things, that a particular expression of faith might have universal applications/relevance (note the Buddha, for example). My guess is that many of these stories about long distance travel are fabrications/wishful thinking dating from long after the founder’s death. That Guru Nanak might have got even as far as Ottoman Turkey (and survived) is in itself incredible, but to have got so much further to Rome (whether by sea or overland) almost impossible to envisage. Travel in the early 16th century was slow and very dangerous, especially for those far from home without knowledge of the local language and originating from a land about which people in the West knew very little (such people from distant and largely unknown lands were often regarded as threats by the people said to be their hosts). Also, how would Guru Nanak have funded such an expedition? The cost would have been prohibitively high.

Anyway: one Sikh source about the matter cannot agree whether it is 1520 or 1518 when Guru Nanak visited Rome. And when I typed “The Vatican confirms that Guru Nanak visited Rome” into my search engine, not one RC source came up (as indicated above). All the links listed were to Sikh sources. I also typed the name of the archbishop (Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro) said in some Sikh sources to have confirmed the visit, but, again, nothing of substance came up relating to the story.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

An early inspiration for the story derives from an article dated 23.11.13 in the “Jakarta Times” in Indonesia (of all places). At least the article is written with clarity, but no reference is made to a text or document to support the story (although the name Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro crops up again).

The fact that the actual words of the archbishop said to confirm the visit appear in NONE of the many Sikh, etc. sources for the story, and the fact that such evidence cannot be gleaned on the internet, worries me immensely. But even more worrying is the apparent silence from the Vatican itself. Surely at least one person associated with the Vatican must have spoken about this to confirm that the text/story has some substance.

In the text meant to confirm the visit, Nanac’s (as the name is spelled) religion is not identified. Thus, he is described as neither a Hindu nor a Sikh. Nor is he called a guru. There appears to be no indication of the land from which he came, but surely this, at least, would have been recorded, no doubt to considerable wonder. In other words, there is simply nothing in the text to suggest Nanac is Guru Nanak! There is not even the suggestion that he wore a turban or had a long beard, things which one might expect to be mentioned because both would have been deemed oddities in Rome in the early 16th century.

A general point. While claims are made for the Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak (and, to some extent, Abraham and Moses) undertaking journeys of epic proportions (note Muhammad and his “miraculous night journey” to heaven/paradise), it is interesting that, as a general rule at least, no such claims are made on behalf of Jesus (whose wanderings were confined more or less to modern-day Israel, a very small nation state. Yes, I know all about the claims made on his behalf about visits to Glastonbury, but let’s get real, shall we?). But which founder today has the most followers globally? Yes, Jesus. And Hinduism, a religion devoid of a known founder (no doubt because the religion is so old and has evolved/changed so much over time), has the third largest number of followers globally. Founders travelling vast distances do not guarantee a religion’s numerical popularity. Or, to put this another way, does it matter whether a founder has travelled far from home or not?

Another point. The text accompanying the photos in the last email you sent me say Nanac “had more human qualities than any Christian can think of”. This does not necessarily mean Nanac is not a Christian (and it definitely does NOT confirm that Nanac was either a Hindu or a Sikh); it could mean he is a Christian manifesting more human qualities than Christians can identify. And what exactly is the “part of Sikh doctrine” said to be painted on the dome of St. Peter’s? If it is known about/so easy to see, why are we not told what it is? I cannot find evidence for it in any Sikh, etc. source.

Oh yes: as far as I can see, only one Sikh source identifies some documents said to “prove” the story: shabad.co.uk In one such document, reference is made to “Sanctus Nanacus Di Indi”, which, far from being a reference to Guru Nanak, may refer to a highly respected Christian of Indian origin (perhaps even to a Christian saint of Indian origin). Could Sanctus Nanacus be a member of one of the ancient Christian churches in India considering affiliation/unity with the RC Church, perhaps because the ancient Indian church feels vulnerable in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment? Such a situation would justify/explain a visit to Rome so Sanctus Nanacus could discuss the matter with the head of the RC Church.

Anyway, this is all interesting stuff! My conclusion? Possible, but not probable. And the evidence for the visit is so far extremely weak.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. One somewhat confused and confusing Sikh source about the story implies that Guru Nanak told a pope that no person has the right to enslave another person, and that this rather unexceptional bit of advice (even by the standards of the early 16th century when slavery was a common practice in most parts of the globe) was in some way enlightening for the pope who heard it. This got me thinking about all the time Guru Nanak spent, or might have spent, on his travels to distant lands (some Sikhs now make a case for him travelling as far as West Africa). If he had spent extra time in the Punjab/India, perhaps he could have done more to rid his homeland of slavery. I do not know how many slaves existed in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when Guru Nanak was alive (the number of enslaved people will no doubt have been very large), but today in India alone there are 18 million slaves. Needless to say, no other nation state has such a large population of slaves.

How depressing that India, a nation state with one of the highest levels of commitment to religious faith, is also the nation state with the most people living in slavery. Is this further evidence that religion is often a barrier to people securing the basic human rights that everyone ought to enjoy (please examine the previous post for more information about how the basic human right to express your religion and belief is denied to countless millions of people)?       

“Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”, the Report of the Woolf Commission on Religion and Belief, December 2015.

The last few months have seen the publication of three major reports about religion and belief in the UK (two of the reports relate specifically to religion and belief in schools) and a high court judgement that makes it clear that secular worldviews such as Humanism must be treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum in England and Wales (the high court judgement will eventually have a beneficial impact on RE/RS/philosophy and ethics’ syllabuses at GCSE, but its impact on locally agreed RE syllabuses will be almost immediate). Although all the reports and the high court judgement are important (they are largely in agreement about many of the most important matters addressed), I wish to concentrate here on only one of the four ground-shifting developments. Below, I provide the whole of the executive summary in the Woolf Commission’s “Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”:

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The changing landscape

Over the past half century, Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition. There are three striking trends:

  • The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in England and a third in Scotland in 2001.
  • The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten, and at the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
  • The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago, Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Although still comprising less than one in ten of the population, faith traditions other than Christianity have younger age profiles and are therefore growing faster.

Furthermore, intrafaith and interfaith disputes are inextricably linked to today’s geopolitical crises across the Middle East, and in many parts of Africa and Asia. Many of these disputes are reflected back into UK society, creating or exacerbating tensions between different communities.

So, twenty-first century ethno-religious issues and identities here in the UK and globally are reshaping society in ways inconceivable just a few decades ago, and how we respond to such changes will have a profound impact on public life.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Learning to live with difference

The resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions about the negative impact of such changes on society. These, in turn, may feed the very anxieties about immigration and the fear of “the other” that need to be addressed. Certainly the development of public policy related to religion and belief has too often been piecemeal and kneejerk.

The report is intended to be an alternative to such approaches: systematic, consistent and rational, looking at the areas of education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.

Learning to understand and live with differences is the recurring theme throughout the report. It argues that religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation. Religious and belief identities, the report points out, can serve as forces both for good and for ill.

And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Vision

The commission’s vision is of a society at ease with itself in which all individuals, groups and communities feel at home, and in whose flourishing all wish to take part. In such a society all:

  • feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future
  • are treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities
  • know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment, and that their contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued
  • are free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others
  • are confident in helping to shape public policy
  • feel challenged to respond to the many manifest ills in wider society.
London

London

Recommendations

The implications of such a vision for public policy are of many kinds, and are highlighted throughout this report. Prominent amongst them are those which are briefly summarised below. Each is discussed and explained in much fuller detail in the main body of the report.

A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might be a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.

Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge. The commission therefore calls on educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognise and celebrate best practice in the media.

The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.

All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.

Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (“faith schools”) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.

The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example, by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship “Thought for the Day” to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.

London

London

A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.

Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and interworldview encounter and dialogue. Such dialogue should involve Dharmic as well as Abrahamic traditions, young people as well as older, women as well as men, and local groups as well as national and regional ones. Clergy and other opinion leaders should have a sound understanding of the traditions of religion and belief in modern society.

Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.

The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals such as ecclesiastical courts, Beit Din and Sharia councils.

The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.

In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the Government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.

London

London

The above is so important and insightful that some comments are essential. First, note the realities (“The changing landscape”) on which the report itself are founded and, in particular, that commitment to Christianity has declined a lot in recent years while the percentage of people devoid of any religion has risen rapidly. Second, note that ignorance about religion and belief is widespread in UK society (even among those who are, or project themselves as, religious authority figures). Third, note how there is an urgent need to engage with people of all religions and beliefs to agree the “fundamental values underlying public life”. Fourth, note that all pupils and students should have a nationally agreed statutory entitlement to a syllabus about religion, philosophy and ethics, and that the current daily act of collective worship should be replaced with a more inclusive time for reflection. Fifth, note the emphasis placed on gender equality, freedom of expression, freedom of enquiry, creating level playing fields for all religions and beliefs, and ensuring that religious courts and councils do not discriminate against individuals within their communities. Last, and in some ways perhaps the most important point of all, everyone in society should be “free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others”.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religious people still behaving badly (and far, far worse), four.

One.

A halal abattoir at the centre of horrific animal cruelty allegations has gone into administration, six months after covert footage of practices in the slaughterhouse were revealed. The move came as the UK’s Food Standards Agency announced it was close to concluding an enquiry into how animals were treated, an enquiry which will be handed to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider launching criminal charges.

An international furore erupted and protests were held outside the abattoir in Thirsk after film obtained by Animal Aid was released showing a worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. It took workers up to five attempts to sever blood vessels. Other film included sheep being kicked in the face; lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs; thrown into solid structures; and a worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and jumping up and down. Also, staff are shown laughing while a sheep was bleeding to death with green spectacles painted around its eyes.

The film drew widespread condemnation because the law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, although there are exemptions for meat producers supplying the Jewish and the Muslim markets. Under the halal code of practice, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically sharp knife.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Two.

The Sikh Federation UK, said by some to be the leading Sikh lobbying organisation in Britain, has so far failed to condemn the actions of a group of Sikhs who disrupted a wedding between a Sikh and a non-Sikh in a gurdwara in Southall, west London.

A group of about twenty Sikhs arrived at the gurdwara on Friday 9th August while final preparations were taking place for the wedding of a Sikh woman and a white, non-Sikh man. The couple were forced to cancel their wedding after the gang stormed into the gurdwara.

Sohan Singh Sumra, vice-president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, told a leading UK newspaper that the men “were all thugs” who objected to the ceremony simply because it was a “mixed marriage”. Mr. Sumra said the group wanted to “intimidate” the bride and groom and that the police had to be called.

The journalist Sunny Hundal later confronted the Sikh Federation UK on Twitter about the incident and asked it to condemn the actions of the gang, but representatives of the federation refused, stating only that what happened at the gurdwara “should be avoided”. A representative of the federation said that those who “understand” and “respect” the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) will “realise it is more important” than the couples’ “‘big day'”.

Mr. Hundal warned that “gang-mentality puritanism” would lead to a “Sikh version of the Taliban”. He also posted comments made against him by “fundamentalist Sikhs” who objected to his criticism of the Sikh Federation UK. He went on to allege that instances of “hypocritical and fanatical thugs” arriving to disrupt “interfaith weddings” are becoming more common.

When asked by Sunny Hundal if they “support or condemn these thugs going around disrupting interfaith marriages at Gurdwaras?”, a representative of the Sikh Federation UK replied obliquely that they “stand by and defend” the tenets of the “Sikh faith”.

A letter published in “The Times” newspaper on 21 July warned of a “recently placed” ban on gurdwaras “solemnising marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh”. Moreover, advice from 2007 stipulates that the Anand Karaj should only be between two Sikhs.

Guidelines published by the Sikh Council UK in October 2014 state that “Any person wishing to exercise the choice to marry in a Gurdwara Sahib through the Anand Karaj ceremony must sign a declaration” that “he or she is a Sikh, believes in the tenets of the Sikh faith and owes no allegiance to another faith”. Such people must also pledge to “endeavour to bring up any children from his or her marriage as Sikhs”.

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said, “This kind of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It may amount only to bullying at the moment, but as fanaticism increases it can escalate to frightening levels of violence. The government should stamp down on this now before it gets out of control. They must learn from the experience with Islamism that ignoring the problem on grounds of political correctness will only allow it to fester and get worse.”

P.S. This is not a new problem. The BBC website has an article dated 11th March 2013 about the disruption of “interfaith” marriages at gurdwaras. The article concludes by mentioning that a documentary called “The Sikh Wedding Crashers” could be heard on the BBC Asian Network on Monday 11th March 2013 at 5.00pm, or listened to thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Three.

Despite the growing popularity of secularism and Protestantism in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church is still a major social influence in Latin America, so much so that the Vatican’s hostility to abortion is enshrined in the legislation of most Latin American nation states. Chile is said to have the legislation that is most hostile to abortion in that it is presently illegal without exception. The Chilean abortion law is therefore considered one of the most restrictive in the world.

However, this dire situation for women may at last be about to change, and it may be about to change because of what follows, a case of sexual abuse that came to light in 2013:

The case of a pregnant girl aged eleven who was raped in Chile by her mother’s partner set off a national debate about abortion in one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Chileans were outraged after state TV reported that the child is fourteen  weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother’s partner, who reportedly confessed to abusing the girl. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child’s maternal grandmother.

Doctors say the girl’s life and that of the foetus are at high risk. But in Chile ending the pregnancy is not an option.

Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.

Many Chileans vented their outrage on social media. Some started an online campaign to demand legalisation of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother. “When I heard about this little girl my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it’s the best option in this case,” said Eduardo Hernandez, a web designer aged thirty. “It’s the first online petition I’ve signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We should have a change of law. I hope this case serves as a precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion.” The Chilean Senate rejected three bills in 2012 that would have eased the absolute ban on abortions.

“Chile is a country that has modernised when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue,” said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. “It’s a country that is opposed to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat,” Lagos said. “The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have an indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world.”

The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010 when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile’s most revered priests when they were between fourteen and seventeen years-old.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the November 2013 presidential election, favours legalising abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She has spent the past two years heading the UN agency for women.

Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes the legalisation of abortion and the morning-after pill.

The following is part of a recent article in “The Guardian” newspaper:

The debate about abortion comes as Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. This year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country’s first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 in the wake of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of Church doctrine.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago’s Diego Portales University drew a packed audience with many students forced to sit on the floor.

“As a country we are behind,” said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. “We need to evolve and think more about women.”

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, eighteen years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances. Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles Group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

And this suggests that change for the better is not far off:

Chileans online are engaging in heated debate over abortion, twenty-six years after the procedure was completely banned in the country. In August 2015, the Chamber of Deputies’ health commission is set to vote on a new bill that will decriminalise abortion under three circumstances: in a case of rape, when a mother’s life is at risk, or when a foetus will not survive the pregnancy. The proposed law is backed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Four.

Evidence grows suggesting that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons (mustard gas, in all likelihood) against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Chemical weapons have already been used by the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad that clings to power in parts of Syria. Inevitably, the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds reminds those of us with long memories about how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime used such weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 killing about 5,000 men, women and children.

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

A Kurdish family, Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Five.

In August 2015, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Scotland, Philip Tartaglia, said to the victims of historic child sexual abuse, “The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found Church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”

Published in August 2015, the report by the McLellan Commission makes for harrowing reading, this despite the fact that It is merely the latest such report to confirm how widespread child sexual abuse has been within the Roman Catholic Church and how inadequate the response of the Church has been when such abuse is confirmed.

Dr. Andrew McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. 2013 had been a difficult year for Scottish Roman Catholics. Early in 2013, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct toward his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historic child sexual abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey School, an exclusive Roman Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.

Catherine Deveney is one of the many people who provided evidence to the McLellan Commission. In late August 2015 she wrote in the following manner in a national UK newspaper:

What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the Church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”

 In the same article Deveney refers to:

Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost twenty years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the Church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

 Six.

Palmyra in Syria is one of the Middle East’s most remarkable ruined ancient cities, partly for the magnificent ruins that survive, and partly for the magnificent artefacts kept in the nearby museum. However, the Islamic State now (mid-2015) controls the region around Palmyra. In August 2015, Islamic State militants beheaded a renowned antiquities scholar and hung his mutilated body on a column in one of Palmyra’s main squares because the scholar refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad – he was aged eighty-two – is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, which has captured a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a caliphate on the territory it controls. The atrocity has also highlighted the Islamic State’s habit of looting and selling antiquities to fund its activities or destroying them.

Al-Asaad, who had worked at Palmyra for fifty years, had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Islamic State militants about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

The Islamic State captured Palmyra from government forces in May, but is not known to have damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite a reputation for destroying artefacts it views as idolatrous. This said, it is very likely that damage will now be done to the ruins.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO world heritage sites, but five of them have been severely damaged by the war because of airstrikes, mortar attacks and extensive looting. The old city of Aleppo (once, along with the old city in Cairo, the most beautiful and intriguing old city anywhere in the Middle East) is largely in ruins. Only the old city of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far beyond its walls and mortar shells occasionally fall within them. Government airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short minibus ride from the old city’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, news broke that Islamic State militants have destroyed part or all of the magnificent Baal Shamin Temple at Palmyra, which dates from 17 CE. The reason for destroying the temple? One or more of the following would seem to provide an explanation. Baal Shamin Temple is pre- or non-Islamic. It is a product of Pagan piety. It is where people once engaged in practices that mainstream Muslims define as idolatrous. It provides humankind with a view of the divine that conflicts with the view of the divine thought by mainstream Muslims to be true. Its destruction enrages public opinion globally. But if any or all of these are reasons for the temple’s destruction they are pathetic and contemptible reasons. Recent events at Palmyra confirm that the Islamic State must be resisted wherever it seeks to gain a foothold.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Seven. 

Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, had his August 2015 plan to murder passengers on an Amsterdam to Paris high speed train thwarted by the intervention of two American servicemen, their American civilian friend and a UK businessman. El-Khazzani, known to the authorities for links with jihadi groups, is believed to have travelled through Europe to Turkey between May and July 2015, from where he may have crossed the border to spend time with Islamic State militants. He may also have links with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student who was arrested in April 2015. Sid Ahmed Ghlam is charged with planning to attack churches and other targets in Paris.

But…

The nuclear deal framework with Iran dating from April 2015 has resulted in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic on the one hand and nation states such as the US and the UK on the other. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. How sad, therefore, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to the deal are Israel, Saudi Arabia and a majority of Republicans in the US. As unholy alliances go, the one that (sort of) exists between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans takes some beating. I wonder to what degree religion has influenced Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans to oppose and/or regret the deal with Iran?

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

A Sikh engages in critical evaluation to enhance the well-being of his religion outside its homeland.

Here, from a Sikh in Canada, are some reflections on ways the Sikh religion can be enhanced in the contemporary era. Note how patriarchal attitudes have, to some degree, eroded women’s opportunities within the religion, and how young Sikhs appear to lack a commitment to the faith that older Sikhs seem have (note in these two instances similarities with other religions).

As a general rule, in the West we don’t have school systems allowing students to study Sikhism to a high level. If someone wants to learn about Sikhism in depth, he/she has to go to India. In the West, therefore, we don’t have places such as universities or training colleges for young Sikhs to learn about the religion, to receive training in the religion, and/or to become leaders in the religion. Also, we don’t have any female kathavachaks (people who can deliver religious lectures). During the third guru’s time there were about fifty female parcharaks (teachers). Even though our population is now so much larger, do we even have that many female parcharaks? We have gone backwards, not forwards, since Guru Amar Das’s time. As time and technology progress we don’t see Sikhism progressing. We don’t see young Sikhs proud to say that the gurdwara is their beacon of light.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

We need to look again at our gurdwaras. For example, some Sikhs have started asking the sangat (the holy congregation) not to bow or donate during the lecture. They ask the sangat to wait until the end of the lecture to bow and donate. This is so as not to distract anyone and to bring more focus to the lecture. When you go to a lecture hall you are not allowed to come to the front if you are late. You sit at the back so no one is distracted by your entrance. This is how it works in an institution of learning. But are gurdwaras institutions of learning? Perhaps they should be more like institutions of learning.

Businesspeople evaluate their businesses to ensure they are a success. Gurdwaras usually don’t have a system to check if they have been successful. So, when Sikh children have been coming to the gurdwara for a while but don’t know anything about Sikhism, this reflects badly on the way the gurdwara is run. Schools take children, give them a learning plan, challenge them and test their knowledge and understanding. Schools with better teachers where the children learn more are the parents’ most desired schools.

A Sikh friend of mine tells the story of how he had been coming to the gurdwara for years before he knew anything substantive about Sikhism, but no one ever checked with him to see what he knew. All he knew was that he should give a donation, take kara parshad (food sanctified by prayer and distributed to everyone to emphasise equality) and then go home. If someone had asked him what he knew about Sikhism in those early days he would have said, “Nothing.” The thing to do with someone who knows nothing is not to have them sit and nod their head about something they don’t understand. That someone needs a class or a course to fill his/her knowledge gap. A gurdwara’s responsibility to the sangat is like a teacher’s responsibility to his/her students.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

A problem with the gurdwara is that the “teachers” aren’t in a position to teach. The person who knows about the gurbani (the content of the Guru Granth Sahib) best is the granthi (a knowledgeable Sikh who performs the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib), but the granthi is not in charge of the gurdwara. This situation is like having a businessperson running a school when schools should be run by educators, not businesspeople. As a general rule, in Christianity the religious experts – the priests, ministers, bishops, archbishops, etc. – are in charge of their houses of worship. Gurdwaras are typically run by a committee of “lay” Sikhs with limited knowledge about the religion. There is no test or apprenticeship that establishes whether someone deserves to be on a gurdwara committee. No one checks their knowledge and/or commitment to Sikhism. The committee members are chosen in elections, but the elections are not always representative of the sangat because of vote-stacking strategies. One of my Jewish friends attends a synagogue that has an interesting system for deciding who should have authority roles alongside the rabbi. Every member of the community has an electronic ID card which they swipe whenever they come to the synagogue. At the time when decisions are reached about who will have authority alongside the rabbi, the votes of those who have participated most in the life of the synagogue carry more “weight”. This is a good example of people who participate the most within a community having more power/influence/authority.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara committees are usually populated by successful businesspeople (invariably males) and not gianis (people with spiritual knowledge), granthis or parcharaks. This system has a negative impact on the the way Sikhism is taught and transmitted to the next generation. For example, the committee might want to expand existing buildings, hire more employees and/or have more akhand paaths (uninterrupted, continuous readings of the Guru Granth Sahib from the beginning to the end) for which they can charge the sangat. This might make sense to an ambitious businessperson, but not to an educator or a religious expert. While these things are, in some respects, very good, focusing on them might be misguided. During paid-for akhand paaths , the average Sikh cannot understand what is said and is therefore not learning from them. Most of the young people aren’t engaged in the all-Punjabi katha (explanations, reflections) and can therefore be found playing on their phones instead. Most Sikhs don’t know what they are doing when they undertake the lavan (wedding ceremony) or what it signifies. Consequently, most people aren’t helped by having a big gurdwara in which more akhand paaths take place. Such things might seem impressive to a businessperson who can then boast about them. However, what about the spirit of the sangat? What about young people’s understanding  about the gurbani?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Many older Sikhs point out that the average Sikh today can’t tell you what the Mool Mantra (the opening section of the Guru Granth Sahib, which describes/summarises the nature/character of God) means or explain the fundamentals of the religion. Consequently, the Sikh community is not using the gurdwara as a learning institution. Moreover, there are usually no resources at a gurdwara for people who want to learn about the religion. There is rarely a library or a bookshop to get books if you want to read more.

What is needed most is engaging katha in English to get the younger people inspired by Sikhism. This is the recommendation of a grassroots parcharak.

We need a dramatic shift in focus. We should focus more on educating and inspiring the young. We should invest in libraries and learning resources, train kathavachaks and start educational programmes. Gurdwara committees have a big responsibility to make this happen because, at the present time, they have the most power.

Come on, Phil: put us out of our misery! What does the US Institute of Peace “Special Report on Evaluating Interfaith Dialogue” say?

Actually, the report says a vast amount and, although dating from 2004, is as relevant today as when it was first published. Below is the report’s summary, which is more than enough to give a flavour of what the document as a whole has to offer in terms of wisdom and common sense.

  • Religion has been, and will continue to be, a powerful contributing factor in violent conflict. It is therefore essential to include religion and religious actors in diplomatic efforts.
  • Interfaith dialogue brings people of different religious faiths together for conversations. These conversations can take an array of forms and possess a variety of goals and formats. They can also take place at various social levels and target different types of participants, including elites, mid-level professionals and grassroots activists.
  • In some ways, interfaith dialogue programmes may resemble secular peacebuilding programmes. In other ways, religious content and spiritual culture are infused throughout the programmes, distinguishing them from their secular counterparts.
  • Evaluation requires that a programme develop a clear statement of its goals, methods and outcomes. Making these explicit at the outset helps sharpen thinking by providing an explicit yardstick by which to measure a programme’s success.
  • Over time, the knowledge accumulated through these types of evaluation will expand our understanding of the actual and potential roles of religious dialogue in international peacemaking.
  • At the individual programme level, evaluation is concerned with three components: context, the factors in the general environment that may influence programme implementation and outcome; implementation, the core of the programme’s activities; and outcome, the effect of the programme on the participants, the local community and the broader community.
  • Proposing a relationship between a particular intervention or programme and a desired outcome assumes a theory of change. A logic model, which links outcomes (both short- and long-term) with programme activities and processes, is one way to clarify the theoretical assumptions behind a particular programme design so that it can be shared with all stakeholders as well as with the evaluator.
  • Evaluation must be an integral part of programme planning from the beginning and should be an ongoing process throughout the life of the project, providing feedback to programme managers and staff that enable them to improve their ongoing work. Because change happens over time, it is important to evaluate the programme beyond the completion of the project.
  • Evaluation must include, but not be limited to, personal, face-to-face interviews with programme participants. Other outcome measures might include the number and type of participants, programme spin-offs and post-programme meetings, as well as the amount of media activity and ultimately, of course, a demonstrable reduction in violence.

Here, here! Even if only the final point in the summary is acted on whenever interfaith dialogue is undertaken, the benefits will be considerable. Also, action in relation to the last point will quickly establish if the initiative was worth undertaking in the first place! I fear that many interfaith initiatives currently have no lasting influence, and part of the reason for this is that no structured evaluation of such initiatives is ever undertaken.

From the above, it seems to me that interfaith dialogue is of ultimate value only in so far as it leads to change (and for such change to be truly worthwhile, it must be in terms of violence reduction). What do you think? Moreover, when did interfaith dialogue last change YOU rather than merely reinforce your pre-existing opinions, beliefs, perceptions and/or prejudices? Tough one, eh? But so important, don’t you agree? Comments are welcomed.

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire