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Religion

 

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In Malaysia it is taken as a given that there is a god and that everyone believes in Him, or them, in some form or another.  This assumption is evident even in the English print media.  I do not read Malaysian or Chinese but it is my impression that the media in these languages takes a similar line.  In Kuala Lumpur there are several large English language bookshops and I was drawn to the shelves on religion; there were none on philosophy.  These were far more numerous than would be found in an Australian bookshop of a similar size and to my surprise they covered mainly Christianity; with books by all manner of the born-again American demagogues.  Where was Richard Dawkins?  Where was Islam?

Then of course I realized that Islam has its own section that is vastly larger again.

There is clearly censorship in place; real or complicit.  But at the Airport I was able to buy a copy of Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God'.  The flyleaf has critical endorsements from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and from Rabbi Julia Neuberger.  Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun.  So I presume the buyer had not delved any further into the book.  It explores in great detail the human authorship of the monotheistic tradition in the context of the cultures and political context in which these beliefs arose.  While not advocating atheism like Richard Dawkins, within a few pages Karen Armstrong makes it clear that she is no longer a believer in the conventional sense.

The Armstrong book illustrates, as many others have noted, that one of the principal reasons for the evolution of the more sophisticated forms of religion, such as monotheism, as societies grew larger and more differentiated, has been to better underwrite the legitimacy of ruling elites: the anointment of hereditary rulers; the wisdom and authority of the priesthood.

Across the Middle East the younger generation is now questioning the validity of their leaders' divine right to rule.  But we know that the complaints that lie behind the unrest: lack of opportunity; rising food and energy prices; will be no more soluble by new, possibly more democratic, governments than by the old, more dictatorial, ones.  Indeed the present unrest is injuring already weak economies and potentially making conditions worse. 

The present economic weakness is fundamentally due to the accumulation of many years during which young people, of both sexes, have been deprived of appropriate education, exacerbated by out-of-control population growth.  In Egypt the education system has long been unable to keep up and illiteracy is endemic.  One illiterate cab driver there (but he could speak a little English) told us that he was driving the cab all day, everyday, to support a family of eight children; obviously also illiterate.  He depends on sympathetic tourists for that little bit extra.  Things are unlikely to improve for his family any time soon.

Reading the paper at breakfast I noted that there is an extensive public debate about the degree to which Malaysia should be governed by sharia law; and how secular society ought to be.  Malaysia is by constitution a Muslim rather than a secular state.  Much of this discussion took place in the context of the unrest in the Middle East and in particular in Egypt. 

Some 11,000 Malaysian students were studying in Egypt when the troubles broke out.  These had to be airlifted to Saudi Arabia and then home.  What could they possibly be learning in Egypt? I could imagine 11,000 Egyptians fruitfully learning something from Malaysia; in particular the skills involved in engineering, infrastructure development and maintenance; as well as public efficiency and population control.  But the other way around seems bizarre. 

I can imagine one or two flaky American housewives abandoning their empty marriage and immature lover to live on Indian ashram for a few months or to shack-up in Bali à la the book and movie: 'Eat, Pray, Love'. But 11,000 of them?

As far as I could divine from the newspapers they were a mixture of religious scholars and medical students.  Apparently Egypt has better medical schools, difficult as this is to believe; given the comparative states, including literacy, wealth and life expectancy, of each country. 

According to the United Nations 'human development index' Malaysia ranks 57th, well above Russia, whereas Egypt ranks 101st, well below China.  But according to our Chinese breakfast companion at least they learn a more moderate version of Islam in Egypt than they would in Pakistan; which is according to her, the source of all Islamic evil. 

One of the best things in Kuala Lumpur is the Islamic Arts Museum.  Representations of humans and animals have generally been precluded in the Islamic religious art, for reasons discussed elsewhere on this website.  So the Islamic Arts Museum cannot compete with the great galleries of Europe that display Christian inspired figurative, passionate and otherwise emotionally charged art.  But it does very adequately display the artistic riches and decorative objects that have been inspired by Islam; not just in Malaysia but in India and Spain as well as the Middle East.

 

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Part of the display shows the great mosques of the world.  Because of its preoccupation with geometry Islamic architecture is the jewel in the crown.  I was surprised at how many of the best examples shown we have visited and enjoyed; including those in Turkey, Syria, Spain and India. 

One interesting display provided simultaneous English translations of selected prayers and I was very impressed by how beautifully poetic Islamic prayers can be.

It's difficult to think that Islam is any better or worse than any other religion when practiced privately and without imposition on others.  Much of the press comment in Malaysia was to oppose fundamentalism of all kinds.  And if this is how Islam is practiced I have no more argument with it than I do with Christianity; Judaism; the many eastern religions; or with religion in general. 

Like the many other successful religions of mankind, Islam arose at a time when it made sense to a great number of intelligent people to convert to it in preference to earlier religions that no longer seemed believable, adequate or politic.  It arose in the Middle East in the context of Judaism and Christianity and the monotheistic tradition; when people could still believe that this planet was at the centre of the universe and the culmination of God's creation; when everyone could still believe the creator of the universe had made mankind in his image; when everyone could still believe that mankind has a central place in this creation; and that the Creator communicated with them through the prophets or angles or visions or dreams or the priesthood; and in turn listened to their personal prayers; when everyone could still believe that the mind and soul were separate and inhabited the body, rather than being ephemeral processes and memories that are a consequence of the peculiar arrangement and interactions of the cells in their brain and nervous system. 

Like the other great religions, Islam provided important steps on the way to a new perception of the universe.  It provided us with algebra and new mathematical, geometric and important scientific discoveries, particularly in medicine and astronomy.  It was the inspiration for poetry, music and art.  One can't visit the Alhambra in Granada in Spain or read about the activities of the Spanish Inquisition without realising who the barbarians were; not the Moors.  It provided several important steps on the way to the Renaissance; and ultimately to the Enlightenment and modern scientific understanding.

But, together with the other religions,  it is based in beliefs that we now know to be untrue or that are extremely improbable.  My argument is that set out so succinctly by Bertrand Russell over half a century ago in the short video clip linked here: 'one should not believe things that are not true; and if there is uncertainty one should suspend belief'.

It seems to me that in Malaysia the average person has no way of discovering that religion, as defined by the many superstitious traditional practices and unsubstantiated or actually refuted beliefs of mankind, has no support in contemporary, verifiable knowledge.  This contemporary knowledge is easily verifiable in that it allows us to fly between continents; to carry out advanced medicine (drugs and surgery affecting the brain, swapping hearts and so on); or to make a mobile phone work.  If these understandings are true then the ancient beliefs are not.

Malaysians have no way of discovering that many intelligent, informed people no longer have any time for traditional religious concepts; that are disproven or no longer viable like: 'life after death'; the central role of humanity in God's creation; a divine plan for them or their country; or the efficacy of prayer.  They are not exposed to contemporary religious scholarship that explores the evolution of religious thought in the context of the social conditions that spawned it; and consequently the palpably man-made origins of the often bizarre and imaginative subtleties that differentiate Mankind's various religions.


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