Saturday, January 10, 2009

England's Improbable God

Richard Dawkins is at it again. Support from the prominent British atheist helped an ad hoc group in London led by comedy writer Ariane Sherine to raise funds to pay for advertisements on 800 buses in the United Kingdom. The very British ads gently suggest:
There's Probably No God.
Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.
The group has raised enough money to put up 1,000 advertisements in the London underground featuring quotes from celebrities like this one from actress Katherine Hepburn:

The idea for the campaign came to Sherine when she spotted a London bus ad with the question, "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)." Looking for an answer, she checked the ad's web site and received the following warning to unbelievers: "You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell." Writing in her blog , Sherine wondered: "If I wanted to run a bus ad saying 'Beware – there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!' or 'The 'bits' in orange juice aren't orange but plastic – don't drink them or you'll die!' I think I might be asked to show my work and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists."

Sherine's response to this terror campaign by the evangelical Christian site was to write a blog asking atheists to donate money for a philosophically positive bus ad campaign. She raised five times the amount necessary. With support from Dawkins and the British Humanist Association, the buses began running with the atheist ads last week. The campaign is being spread by the Atheist Bus web site, and is expanding its scope by initiating The Next Stop with the BHA. Non-believers in other countries have been inspired. The American Humanist Association launched a bus campaign in Washington DC in November 2008 with the slogan "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake." Australians attempted to run a bus campaign with the slogan "Atheism - celebrate reason," but were blocked by the country's largest outdoor advertiser which refused to run the ads. Dawkins, by the way, disagreed with the word "probably" and wanted the ads to read: "There is almost certainly no God." But he was over-ruled. I agree with Dawkins that the ontological statement "there is a god" is false, but I believe the label continues to have poetic and metaphorical resonance.

Another famous atheist made the news this week. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, claiming the failing economy has hurt the porn business, is asking the government for a $5 billion bailout. He was joined by Joe Francis, creator of the "Girls Gone Wild" porn franchise. DVD sales are down 22 per cent. Playboy's stock has fallen 81% in the past year and they sold their DVD division. Penthouse magazine failed to find a major bank willing to underwrite a proposed $460 million public share offer. "People are too depressed to be sexually active," Flynt claimed in his statement. "This is very unhealthy as a nation. Americans can do without cars and such but they cannot do without sex." Congress, he said, must "rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America." Flynt, who is paralyzed below the waist after being shot in a 1978 assassination attempt, says he is willing to steer his $80,000 gold-plated wheelchair to the steps of the Capitol building to publicize their campaign. "I'm dead serious about making Congress look stupid," he said. "Politicians have never handled money wisely since I've been in this world." The call for a handout from Flynt and Francis coincided with the opening in Las Vegas of Adult Entertainment Expo, the industry's largest gathering of porn stars, publishers, producers and sex-toy manufacturers. The porn industry is worth an estimated $13 billion to the U.S. economy, with over 5,000 XXX-rated films being shot each year. God may be improbable, but sex is a certainty.

The political scene in Thailand has been quiet since the start of the New Year. The government of newly selected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjativa has focused its efforts on censoring thousands of global web sites (and hundreds of YouTube videos) that appear to insult or defame the monarchy. A leader of the opposition was sentenced to six years in jail under the harsh lese majeste law for a speech allegedly criticizing the royal family (a government supporter who quoted her words in a speech was also arrested but remains free on bail). An Australian author is in prison for self-publishing a novel in which the royalty was supposedly maligned. The red shirt wearing opposition has responded to Abhisit's reign by throwing eggs at members of his administration when they appear in public, a less harmful form of protest than closing the country's international airports. A debate has erupted over the suggestion by the Royal Thai Police to strip exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra of his police rank (why he even has one I cannot say), surely a crucial issue, more important than the collapsing Thai economy.

As I write, the Israeli free-for-all in the shooting gallery of Gaza continues. A diplomatically crafted cease fire resolution by the U.N. Security Council (from which the U.S. -- no surprise -- abstained) has been ignored, as expected, by the Zionist giant. Former president Jimmy Carter, writing in the Washington Post, says that the previous "fragile truce was partially broken on Nov. 4, when Israel launched an attack in Gaza to destroy a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas inside the wall that encloses Gaza." So much for putting all of the blame on Hamas. We get to hear from a remarkably reasonable Hamas in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed column by Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy of the political bureau of the radical Islamic movement that was elected by Gaza citizens. Steve Niva provides more details in his CommonDreams.Org article, "War of Choice: How Israel Manufactured the Gaza Escalation." And Naomi Klein, the respected critic of globalization, writes in The Nation about boycotting, divesting and sanctions, the "best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation by Israel," the kind of "global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa." The web site for this protest campaign can be found here. Former California legislator and 60's radical activist (and Jane Fonda's ex-husband) Tom Hayden writes about Obama's silence. "As the bombs fall on Gaza children and civilians, his credibility comes under greater question. The bright promise of moral leadership is sullied and squandered, along with the potential of America's ability to be an even-handed diplomatic mediator." In his LA Times piece, Hamas spokesman Marzook writes that "no American leader has ever visited a Palestinian refugee camp anywhere, much less in Gaza -- a startling fact, considering the central role America has played in our people's narrative. None has dared to look our refugees in their faces and experience their suffering directly." Hopefully, Obama will do that (but don't hold your breath).

Bee and I visited The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) yesterday to view "Krungthep 226: The Art from Early Days Bangkok to the Imagined Future." Krungthep is the abbreviated Thai name for the capital of Thailand, and this is the third art exhibit I've seen in the beautiful new building at the Pathumwan interection in the downtown Siam district. The large 11-storey BACC still remains mostly empty and the exhibit is spread over the top three floors, with art, film and sculpture representing creative views of the city since its founding in the late 18th century, 226 years ago. Over 50 Thai and foreign artists are represented. There were maps and etchings done by early European visitors, and a ecological visioning of Bangkok by Tatiya Udomsawat, including the large MBK shopping mall across the street from the BACC, in an imagined future when the jungle has reclaimed most of the city. The variety of the different artist media used was impressive. A significant portion of the works referenced Buddhism which was no surprise, and some acknowledged both poverty and prostitution, Thailand's twin Achilles heels. All exhibits at the BACC are free, even to farang (who are often charged at museums when Thais can enter free).

After two hours of art, Bee and I headed to Kinokuniya, the largest book store in Bangkok, located in Siam Paragon, and browsed for books. My Buddha buddy David has suggested that I go straight to the source and recommended Bhikkhu Bodhi's English translation of the Suttas. They come in three expensive hardback volumes, and I chose one, at Pandit's suggestion, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, a translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, published by Wisdom Publications in Massachusetts. At 1,420 pages (about $75), it should keep me busy for awhile. Then we headed over the Mahamakut Buddhist University, the other Buddhist school (I teach for Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya). It's located adjacent to Wat Bowornniwet Vihara Rajaworavihara (Wat Boworn) in Banglamphu. We stopped by the temple to light candles and incense and offer flowers to the Buddha before Bee showed me the campus where she worked briefly for a Master's degree last year (I'm encouraging her to return). Afterward, we dodged traffic to cross the street where we browsed for more books in the campus bookstore. I found a few more volumes by Buddhadasa Bhikku, my current craze, as well as Buddhist Economics by P.A. Payutto, a classic, and a calendar with the dates in Thai.

My day also included a visit to the Apple Service Center at Siam Discovery where I took my pregnant laptop battery. A few weeks ago I noticed that the battery in my MacBook was getting bigger. But since it continue to take and hold a charge I thought everything was OK. Then I checked the problem on the web and was warned to disconnect it quickly before something bad happened (I was told it wouldn't explode, but that it could damage the computer). I quickly discovered that the battery is not included in my three-year AppleCare contract, but was told that my claim would be reviewed "in Australia." There is a chance that they might repair it for free, and I should get a call with the news early next week (a replacement could cost around $175 here).

Today is Children's Day in Thailand. Kids are eagerly looking forward to presents and a tableau of amusements. How come we didn't get this in America when I was growing up?


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

"So much for putting all of the blame on Hamas."

Well, here's Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan. Read what he says and then ask how much blame he deserves:

"The only reason to have a hudna (cease-fire) is to prepare yourself for the final battle. We don't need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel.... Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God."


Dr. Will said...

Chris Hedges, who is my moral compass, wrote a very balanced portrait of his friend, Nizar Rayan, in Truthdig: "Rayan supported tactics, including suicide bombings, which are morally repugnant. His hatred of Israel ran deep. His fundamentalist brand of Islam was distasteful. But as he and I were students of theology our discussions frequently veered off into the nature of belief, Islam, the Koran, the Bible and the religious life. He was a serious, thoughtful man who had suffered deeply under the occupation and dedicated his life to resistance. He could have fled his home and gone underground with other Hamas leaders. Knowing him, I suspect he could not leave his children. Like him or not, he had tremendous courage."