Examining Religions

truthBy Ravi Zacharias

It was years ago when I was speaking at an openly and avowedly atheistic institution that I was fascinated by a questioner who asked what on earth I meant by the term God. The city was Moscow; the setting was the Lenin Military Academy. The atmosphere was tense. Never had I been asked before to define the term in a public gathering. And because I was in a country so historically entrenched in atheism, I suspected the question was both hostile and intentional. I asked the questioner if he was an atheist, to which he replied that he was. I asked him what he was denying. That conversation didn’t go very far. So I tried to explain to him what we meant when we spoke about God.

It is fascinating to talk to a strident atheist and try to get beneath the anger or hostility. God is a trigger word for some that concentrates all his or her stored animosity into a projectile of words. But as the layers of their thinking and experience are unpacked, the meaning of atheism to each one becomes narrower and narrower, each term dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Oftentimes, the description is more visceral and is discussed with pent-up anger rather than in a sensible, respectful discussion. More than once I have been amazed at the anger expressed by members of the atheist groups at one or other of the Ivy League schools in the United States to which I have been invited to speak, anger that I was even invited and that I had the temerity to address them.

In theory, the academy has always been a place where dissent serves a valuable purpose in helping thinking students to weigh out ideas and make intelligent choices. And, dare I say, had I been a Muslim speaker, there would have been no such dissent as I faced. Evidently, being able to instill fear in people has a lot to do with how much freedom of speech you are granted. But alas! For some, at least, civil discourse is impossible. To her credit, at the end of a lecture, one senior officer in one club stood up and thanked me, a veiled apology for the resistance vented before the event. I did appreciate that courtesy.

This unfettered anger on the part of some is quite puzzling to me. I was raised in India where I was not a Hindu and, in fact, never once gave it any serious consideration. For that matter, I’m not sure if I even really believed in God. I was a nominal Christian but never gave that much thought, either. Most of my friends were either Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, with a few others of different faiths. I never recall feeling any anger or hostility toward those who believed differently than me, no matter how ludicrous their beliefs may have seemed to me. Nor do I remember ever being on the receiving end of such anger and hostility because I did not have the same belief.

But the likes of Richard Dawkins are renowned for their bullying and mocking approach toward opposing views, an attitude from an academic that makes one wonder what is really driving such an intense temperament. A questioner at a gathering in Washington, DC, once asked Richard Dawkins how one should respond to a person who believed in God. “Mock them,” he actually replied. “Ridicule them.” When someone at an event asked me what I thought of that response, I reflected that, were Dawkins to practice that same method in Saudi Arabia, chances are he would not need his return ticket. One thing is for sure—he would at least find out that not all beliefs in God are similar and not all imperatives, equal.

Need I add, not all atheists have the same disposition. In fact, many find the hostility of the new atheists an embarrassment. I have met many a cordial conversationalist who is atheistic in his or her belief, and we’ve had the best of conversations. Many have remarked that they have been able to take only so much of Dawkins and his followers and then stopped even reading them. Whatever worldview we espouse, dialogue and debate should take place with civility and courteous listening. But our times make that ideal so elusive. Holding a supposedly noble belief and reducing it to ignoble means of propagation makes the one who holds that belief suspect.

To be sure, many in the so-called “religious” category have provoked strident responses. The pulpit can sadly be a place of bullying people into guilt and remorse and other emotions that make them want to escape from the voice hammering away at them, to say nothing of the anti-intellectualism among Christian ranks that brands even a hint of philosophy or science heretical.

History has taught us to beware of extremists in any camp that sacrifice cordial conversation at the altar of demagogic enforcement. Views and opinions are aplenty in our world of tweeting and Instagram, but civil discourse is rare. And rarer still is the ability to defend one’s beliefs with reason and experience. But we do well to examine the differences among secular belief systems (that are, in fact, also religions). We do well to examine where these differences really lie. I continue to find that the Judeo-Christian worldview has the most coherent answers to the inescapable questions of life that we all have, regardless of our beliefs.

Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

See RZIM.org

A Student’s Freedom to Express Patriotism Cannot be Left to Whims of School Administrators: Lessons from California

On Wednesday, five California high school students were ordered by their vice principal to remove their T-shirts and bandannas displaying the American flag. Apparently, the school’s administration believed that on Cinco de Mayo, a holiday celebrating Mexican heritage and pride, exhibiting the American flag in this way was “incendiary” and offensive to Mexican-American students. Rather than risk suspension or turn their T-shirts inside out, the five students went home.

The New York Daily News reported one of the students, Daniel Galli, as explaining that the administration “said we could wear [the American flag] on any other day, but today is sensitive to Mexican-Americans because it’s supposed to be their holiday.”

FIRE generally does not take positions on high school cases; our purview is the university setting. Although often wrongfully conflated, the standards governing First Amendment rights at high schools and universities are distinct, reflecting the differences in the purposes of these schools and the maturity levels of the students. However, the events at Live Oak High School provide an appropriate backdrop for considering America’s tradition of protecting citizens’ free speech, including their relationship to the U.S. flag. Several Supreme Court cases involving high schools illustrate why a student’s freedom to express her patriotism—or lack thereof—cannot be left to the whims of school administrators.

My fellowship at FIRE is named after Justice Robert H. Jackson, who authored the famous Supreme Court opinion overturning a school board requirement that students salute the flag. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 641-42 (1943), Justice Jackson explained that the First Amendment shields unpopular views from being silenced by majorities. Patriotism cannot be imposed forcefully upon students, nor can a citizen’s conscience be intruded upon by those in power. Justice Jackson further remarked that involvement of the flag rendered the case emotionally—but not legally—difficult to decide:

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes…. [F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

Almost three decades later, the Supreme Court again ruled that patriotism cannot be imposed upon students. This time, the Court went further. It held that students may express anti-government sentiment at school, as long as they do not create a substantial disruption. In the seminal case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 US. 503 (1969), the Supreme Court declared that students had a First Amendment right to passively wear black armbands symbolizing opposition to the Vietnam War. Tinker articulated a test in which schools may not single out certain symbolic speech for censorship unless the speech materially interferes with classroom activity. The Court found it particularly “relevant that the school authorities did not purport to prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial significance”:

Instead, a particular symbol—black armbands worn to exhibit opposition to this Nation’s involvement in Vietnam—was singled out for prohibition. Clearly, the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible.

Together, Barnette and Tinker demonstrate that students’ feelings toward their country cannot be dictated or silenced. The substantial-disruption test articulated in Tinker sets a high threshold for suppressing speech. Speech that simply offends students must be tolerated in order to live in a society where those in power cannot, as noted in Barnette, “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Twenty years ago, in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), the Supreme Court further held that states cannot criminalize flag burning in order to elevate the flag as a symbol of national unity. Yet, despite this ruling, or perhaps because of it, the American flag serves a symbol of patriotism and national pride. Yesterday, on Cinco de Mayo, a California high school deemed it offensive to students to display that patriotism. This decision, from a First Amendment perspective, resembles the decision of the administrators in Tinker, who found protesting the Vietnam War offensive to their sensibilities. Cultural sensitivity may be an admirable goal, but history has taught us that protecting the right to peacefully express unpopular or offensive views is paramount. Students’ ability to express their feelings about their country cannot depend on the feelings of their fellow classmates.

By Wednesday night, the school district involved had released a statement opposing the actions of Live Oak High School administrators. The school board’s statement reflects an appreciation of Barnette‘s and Tinker‘s precedent regarding a high school’s legal obligations to its students. The American flag is a symbol that has a uniquely powerful ability to evoke an emotional response. This is all the more reason to ensure that the government cannot dictate how and when the flag is displayed.

Courtesy of http://www.thefire.org/torch/#11845

Students want ‘Our Lord’ phrase off diplomas

A group of students at Trinity University is lobbying trustees to drop a reference to “Our Lord” on their diplomas, arguing it does not respect the diversity of religions on campus.

“A diploma is a very personal item, and people want to proudly display it in their offices and homes,” said Sidra Qureshi, president of Trinity Diversity Connection. “By having the phrase ‘In the Year of Our Lord,’ it is directly referencing Jesus Christ, and not everyone believes in Jesus Christ.”

Qureshi, who is Muslim, has led the charge to tweak the wording, winning support from student government and a campus commencement committee. Trustees are expected to consider the students’ request at a May board meeting.

Other students and President Dennis Ahlburg have defended the wording, arguing that references to the school’s Presbyterian roots are appropriate and unobtrusive.

Founded by Presbyterians in 1869, Trinity has been governed by an independent board of trustees since 1969 but maintains a “covenant relationship” with the church.

“Any cultural reference, even if it is religious, our first instinct should not be to remove it, but to accept it and tolerate it,” said Brendan McNamara, president of the College Republicans.

McNamara pointed out that Trinity displays other signs of its Christian heritage, including a chapel on campus, a chaplain, Christmas vespers and a Bible etching on the Trinity seal.

“Once you remove that phrase, where do you draw the line?” McNamara asked.

The debate started last year when Isaac Medina, a Muslim convert from Guadalajara, Mexico, noticed the wording while looking at pre-made diploma frames in the Trinity bookstore. When Medina applied to Trinity, university staff told him it wasn’t a religious institution and that it maintained only a historical bond to the Presbyterian Church.

So the godly reference “came as a big surprise,” said Medina, who graduated in December. “I felt I was a victim of a bait and switch.”

At first, Qureshi and Medina sought a change only for students who desired it. But university staff told them the school would not print custom diplomas, so they requested dropping the words “Our Lord” from all diplomas issued.

In January, the student government and the Muslim Student Association co-sponsored a forum to debate the issue. And in February, the Association of Student Representatives and the university’s commencement and convocation committee both voted to support the change, Qureshi said.

“I honestly feel like nobody actually noticed it before,” Medina said. “Now that it has been brought up, the institution is trying to find its own identity. Are we or are we not a religious institution?”

Though Trinity has historically enrolled mostly Anglo Christians, the university has taken pains to increase diversity in recent years. Since 1999, the share of international students has increased from 1 percent to 9 percent.

Medina, a former international student, said he always has felt welcome at Trinity. The chaplain on campus caters to students of all religions, and the university recently dedicated a Muslim prayer space in Parker Chapel.

“I never had the experience that Trinity was a closeted Christian institution,” Medina said.

Ahlburg, who took the helm in January, said Trinity should continue to foster a diverse environment but should not ignore its cultural and religious roots.

“The fundamental issue is not so much what is on the diploma. The fundamental question is, ‘Is Trinity a place that is accepting and supportive of all faiths?’” Ahlburg said.

Current students are not Trinity’s only stakeholders, Ahlburg said. The university also has thousands of alumni and donors to appease, many of whom have called Ahlburg to tell him they oppose the change.

“Democracy is not letting a small number of people have their way,” Ahlburg said. “Democracy is listening to the different voices and making an informed decision.”

Courtesy of http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/religion/new/6934689.html

South Carolina School Reinstates Student Prayer Sessions

Controversy over a morning prayer meeting at a high school in Georgetown, S.C., was settled this week as district officials offered a compromise.

Students at Georgetown High School will be allowed to form their own prayer club as long as it is open to any student and is sponsored by a faculty member.

“We want to continue to provide this kind of service for all students at Georgetown High because it is the right thing to do as well as the fact that it meets the district’s and the school’s goals of providing a well-rounded education for our students,” Chris Miller, the school’s band director who volunteered to supervise the prayer group, said to media on Wednesday.

The Georgetown County School District had recently stopped a local resident from leading the prayer meetings, which were attended by a handful of students before school started, after receiving a complaint from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The complaint targeted Violet Infinger, who had been leading brief prayer sessions with Georgetown High students for more than 10 years and distributing religious literature.

“This is not appropriate,” said Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Some parents may disagree with Infinger’s religious perspective and may not want their children exposed to religious proselytism and coercion in school.”

To clarify, the group said the complaint was not against students praying on campus but against Infinger, who is part of First Assembly of God church, handing out tracts.

“Individual students remain free to pray on their own at the beginning of the day, before lunch, when they take tests and so on. As long as the student prayers are personal, non-disruptive and don’t coerce others, they present no problem,” the group stated.

School officials were not aware of the regular prayer meetings led by Infinger until an attorney with Americans United brought it to their attention. Once informed, they announced that the informal prayer sessions would not be allowed until they came to a decision on how to deal with the matter.

Soon after, Superintendent Dr. Randy Dozier issued a statement, announcing that students who want to pray can meet on campus as long as they follow established guidelines.

The district has permitted the students to form an official club. The club has permission to meet on school grounds from 7:25 – 7:38 a.m. each morning and all club activities will be student initiated and student led, Dozier said.

Meanwhile, the distribution of any unapproved materials is not permitted. Students may invite ministers or church lay people as long as those volunteers meet certain requirements regarding school volunteers.

“We certainly respect students’ rights to pray and assemble,” Dozier stated. “I think there were some legitimate concerns expressed with the distribution of literature by an individual. I believe that clearly we have processes and procedures in place to address these concerns, and to be in compliance with constitutional law and federal mandates.”

Despite the controversy and confusion over Infinger and the morning prayer, Principal Mike Cafaro on Wednesday publicly thanked her for what she’s done.

Infinger said the students are happy with the school’s decision.

Courtesy of Christian Post