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Are People Who Believe in a “Higher Power” Happier?

Posted by jase on August 23, 2009

Researchers accidentally discovered that people with religious beliefs tend to be more content in life while studying an unrelated topic. While not the original objective, the recent European study found that religious people are better able to cope with shocks such as losing a loved one or getting laid off of a job.

Professor Andrew Clark, from the Paris School of Economics, and co-author Dr Orsolya Lelkes, from the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, analyzed the a variety of factors among Catholic and Protestant Christians and found that life satisfaction seems to be higher among the religious population. The authors concluded that religion in general, might act as a “buffer” that protects people from life’s disappointments.

“We originally started the research to work out why some European countries had more generous unemployment benefits than others, but our analysis suggested that religious people suffered less psychological harm from unemployment than the non-religious,” noted Professor Clark. “They had higher levels of life satisfaction”. Data from thousands of European households revealed higher levels of “life satisfaction” in believers.

Professor Clark suspects that a variety of aspects are at play, and that perhaps a “religious upbringing” could be responsible for the effect, rather than any particular religious beliefs. The researchers say they found that the religious crowd tended to experience more “current day rewards”, rather than storing them up for the future. Previous studies have also found strong correlations between religion and happiness.

The idea that religion may offer substantial psychological benefits in life, is in sharp contrast with another common viewpoint that religion is repressive and has a negative influence on human development. Professor Leslie Francis, from the University of Warwick believes that the benefit might involve the increased “purpose of life” experienced by many believers that may not be as strongly felt among nonbelievers.

“These findings are consistent with other studies which suggest that religion does have a positive effect, although there are other views which say that religion can lead to self-doubt, and failure, and thereby have a negative effect,” said Francis. “The belief that religion damages people is still in the minds of many.” Terry Sanderson, a leading UK secularist, gay rights activist and president of the National Secular Society, said that any study describing a link between happiness and religion is “meaningless”. “Non-believers can’t just turn on a faith in order to be happy. If you find religious claims incredible, then you won’t believe them, whatever the supposed rewards in terms of personal fulfillment,” he said. “Happiness is an elusive concept, anyway – I find listening to classical music blissful and watching football repulsive. Other people feel exactly the opposite. In the end, it comes down to the individual and, to an extent, their genetic predispositions.”

While no one would argue that genetics don’t influence one’s disposition, Justin Thacker, head of Theology for the Evangelical Alliance, says that there are definitely other factors worth considering. He says a belief in God increases one’s feeling that life is meaningful. “There is more than one reason for this – part of it will be the sense of community and the relationships fostered, but that doesn’t account for all of it. A large part of it is due to the meaning, purpose and value which believing in God gives you, whereas not believing in God can leave you without those things.”

Previous studies have concluded that humans are biologically predisposed to believe in God. Historically, most cultures have developed some sort of religious belief that included at least some form of a “higher power”. From an evolutionary and psychological perspective, these questions have intrigued scientists for decades, but the physiological and cognitive study of religion is still relatively young. Both believers and non-believers can agree on the scientific findings, and still interpret it quite differently notes Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford researchers who are currently working on a project to better understand the cognitive science of religion.

“One element of the current project is to develop philosophical and theological treatments of what the findings from cognitive science of religion means for various theological positions,” states the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project outline. “ “One element of the project is scientifically explaining not just belief in gods but why some people become atheists.

If scientists can explain why people tend to believe in gods and also why other people tend to believe there are no gods, then surely the presence of a scientific explanation cannot mean that you should not believe one way or the other just on the presence or possibility of such an explanation. Non-believers might find satisfaction in a sound scientific explanation of why people tend to believe in God because they can now account for why people persist in believing in a fictitious being. The believer might find satisfaction in the scientific documentation of how human nature predisposes people to believe in God because it could reinforce the idea that people were divinely designed to know and believe in God. Both believers and non-believers can agree on the scientific findings.”

Posted by Rebecca Sato.

Source: Daily Galaxy

Posted in Culture, Psychology, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Get to Know: Wicca

Posted by jase on July 18, 2009

Wicca (pronounced [ˈwɪkə]) is a neopagan, nature-based religion. It was popularised in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, who at the time called it a “Witch cult” and “Witchcraft”, and its adherents “the Wica”.

Wiccans, as followers of Wicca are now commonly known, typically worship a God (traditionally the Horned God) and a Goddess (traditionally the Triple Goddess), who are sometimes represented as being a part of a greater pantheistic Godhead, and as manifesting themselves as various polytheistic deities. Other characteristics of Wicca include the ritual use of magic, a basic code of morality, and the celebration of eight seasonal-based festivals.

There is dispute as to what actually constitutes Wicca. Initially, this spelling may have referred to the lineage of one of Gardner’s rivals, Charles Cardell, although from the 1960s it referred only to lineages stemming from Gardner and operating as initiatory Mystery Priesthoods (such as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca). These are now collectively known in North America as British Traditional Wicca. A third usage, which has grown in popularity in recent years considers Wicca to include other forms of Goddess-oriented neopagan witchcraft that are similar to but independent of that lineage, including Dianic Wicca and the 1734 Tradition; these are sometimes collectively termed Eclectic Wicca.

For most Wiccans, Wicca is a duotheistic religion worshipping both a God and a Goddess, who are seen as complementary polarities (akin to the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang), and “embodiments of a life-force manifest in nature.” The God is sometimes symbolised as the Sun, and the Goddess as the Moon.

Traditionally the God is viewed as a Horned God, associated with nature, wilderness, sexuality and hunting. The Horned God is given various names according to the tradition, and these include Cernunnos, Pan, Atho and Karnayna. At other times the God is viewed as the Green Man, a traditional figure in art and architecture of Europe, or as a Sun God (particularly at the festival of Litha, or the summer solstice). Another depiction of the God is as the Oak King and the Holly King, one who rules over Spring and Summer, the other who rules over Autumn and Winter.

The Goddess is usually portayed as a Triple Goddess with aspects of ‘Maiden’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Crone’, though she is also commonly depicted as a Moon Goddess. Some Wiccans see the Goddess as pre-eminent, since she contains and conceives all; the God is the spark of life and inspiration within her, simultaneously her lover and her child. This is reflected in the traditional structure of the coven. In some traditions, notably feminist Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is seen as complete unto herself, and the God is not worshipped at all, though this has been criticised by members of other traditions. Secondarily, the God is also sometimes viewed in a triple form (possibly in a reflective religious homage to the triple Goddess, referencing their complementary polarity) that being the aspects of ‘Son’, ‘Father’ and ‘Sage’.

According to Gerald Gardner, the gods of Wicca are prehistoric gods of the British Isles: a Horned God and a Great Mother goddess. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on this claim, however various different horned gods and mother goddesses were worshipped in the British Isles in the ancient and early mediaeval period.

Beliefs in the afterlife vary among Wiccans, although reincarnation is a traditional Wiccan teaching. Raymond Buckland said that a soul reincarnates into the same species over many lives in order to learn and advance one’s soul, but this belief is not universal. A popular saying amongst Wiccans is “once a witch, always a witch”, indicating that Wiccans are the reincarnation of earlier witches.

Typically, Wiccans who believe in reincarnation believe that prior to this, the soul rests for a while in the Otherworld or Summerland, known in Gardner’s writings as the “ecstasy of the Goddess”. Many Wiccans believe in the ability to contact the spirits of the dead who reside in the Otherworld through spirit mediums and ouija boards, particularly on the sabbat of Samhain, though some disagree with this practice, such as High Priest Alex Sanders, who stated “they are dead; leave them in peace”. This belief was likely influenced by Spiritualism, which was very popular at the time, and which Gardner had had experience with.

Despite some belief in it, Wicca does not place an emphasis on the afterlife, focusing instead on the current one; as the historian Ronald Hutton remarked, “the instinctual position of most pagan witches, therefore, seems to be that if one makes the most of the present life, in all respects, then the next life is more or less certainly going to benefit from the process, and so one may as well concentrate on the present”.

Magick

Wiccans believe in magic that can be manipulated through the form of witchcraft or sorcery. Some spell it as “magick”, a term coined by occultist Aleister Crowley, though this spelling is more commonly associated with the religion of Thelema than Wicca. Many spell it this way to distinguish it from “false magic” such as a magician’s tricks.  Wiccans cast spells during ritual practices inside a sacred circle, in an attempt to bring about real changes (which are further explained in the “Ritual practices” section). Common Wiccan spells include those used for healing, for love, for fertility, or to banish negative influences.

Many Wiccans agree with the definition of magic offered by ceremonial magicians. Aleister Crowley, for instance, declared that magic was “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”, and MacGregor Mathers stated that it was “the science of the control of the secret forces of nature”. Wiccans believe magic to be a law of nature, as yet misunderstood by contemporary science. Other Wiccans do not claim to know how magic works, merely believing that it does because they have seen it work for them.

Many early Wiccans, such as Alex Sanders and Doreen Valiente, referred to their own magic as “white magic”, which contrasted with “black magic”, which they associated with evil and Satanism. Some modern Wiccans however have stopped using this terminology, disagreeing that the colour black should have any associations with evil.

The scholars of religion, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, claimed, in 1985, that Wicca had “reacted to secularization by a headlong plunge back into magic” and that it was a reactionary religion which would soon die out. This view was heavily criticised in 1999 by the historian Ronald Hutton, who claimed that the evidence displayed the very opposite, that “a large number [of Wiccans] were in jobs at the cutting edge [of scientific culture], such as computer technology.”

Morality

Wiccan morality is largely based on the Wiccan Rede, which states “an it harm none, do what ye will”. This is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of taking responsibility for what follows from one’s actions and minimising harm to oneself and others. Another common element of Wiccan morality is the Law of Threefold Return which holds that whatever benevolent or malevolent actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force, similar to the eastern idea of karma.

Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess, these being mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power and compassion. In Valiente’s poem, they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy. Some lineaged Wiccans also observe a set of 161 Wiccan Laws, commonly called the Craft Laws or Ardanes. Valiente, one of Gardner’s original high priestesses, argued that these rules were most likely invented by Gerald Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the by-product of inner conflict within his Bricket Wood coven.

Although Gerald Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to homosexuality, claiming that it brought down “the curse of the goddess”, it is now generally accepted in all traditions of Wicca.

Wiccans believe in the five classical elements, although unlike in ancient Greece, they are seen as symbolic as opposed to literal; that is, they are representations of the phases of matter. These five elements are invoked during many magical rituals, notably when consecrating a magic circle. The five elements are: Air, Fire, Water and Earth, plus Aether (or Spirit), which unites the other four.  The five elements are symbolised by the five points of the pentagram, the most prominently used symbol of Wicca.

Symbols

Various different symbols are used by Wiccans, similar to the use of the crucifix by Christians or the Star of David by Jews. The most notable of these is the pentagram, which has five points, each representing one of the five classical elements in Wicca (earth, air, fire, water and spirit) and also the idea that the human, with its five appendages, is a microcosm of the universe. Other symbols that are used include the triquetra and the triple Moon symbol of the Triple Goddess.

Scripture

In Wicca there is no set sacred text such as the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur’an, but there are various texts that were contained in Gerald Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Many of these texts he claimed to have at least partially rewritten, since the rituals of the group into which he was initiated were fragmentary. The most notable among these is the Charge of the Goddess, which contained material from Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) and the works of 19th-20th century occultist Aleister Crowley. Other texts which are important to Wiccan beliefs and rituals include Eko Eko Azarak and the Wiccan laws.

Rituals

When practising magic and casting spells, as well as when celebrating various festivals, Wiccans use a variety of rituals. In typical rites, the coven or solitary assembles inside a ritually cast and purified magic circle. Casting the circle may involve the invocation of the “Guardians” of the cardinal points, alongside their respective classical element; Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Once the circle is cast, a seasonal ritual may be performed, prayers to the God and Goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked.

Common tools in the Wiccan practice include a special set of magical tools. These usually include a knife called an athame, a wand, a pentacle and a chalice, but other tools include a broomstick known as a besom, a cauldron, candles, incense and a curved blade known as a boline. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed and representations of the God and the Goddess may be displayed. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or ritually bathe. After a ritual has finished, the God, Goddess and Guardians are thanked and the circle is closed.

A sensationalised aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia, Charles Leland’s supposed record of Italian witchcraft. Skyclad working is mostly the province of Initiatory Wiccans, who are outnumbered by the less strictly observant Eclectics. When they work clothed, Wiccans may wear robes with cords tied around the waist, “Renaissance-faire”-type clothing or normal street clothes. Each full moon, and in some cases a new moon, is marked with a ritual called an Esbat.

Wheel of the Year

Wiccans also follow the Wheel of the Year and celebrate its eight festivals known as Sabbats. Four of these, the cross-quarter days, are Greater Sabbats, coinciding with Celtic fire festivals, and these were initially the only four sabbats. The other four are known as Lesser Sabbats, and comprise of the solstices and the equinoxes, and were only adopted in 1958 by the Bricket Wood coven. The names of these holidays are often taken from Germanic pagan and Celtic polytheistic holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Ritual observations may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures.

The eight sabbats, beginning with Samhain, which is thought to have been the Celtic new year:

  • Samhain – Greater Sabbat of the dead
  • Yule – Lesser Sabbat, the Winter solstice
  • Imbolc – Greater Sabbat
  • Ostara – Lesser Sabbat, the Spring equinox
  • Beltane or May Eve – Greater Sabbat
  • Midsummer, or Litha – Lesser Sabbat, the Summer solstice
  • Lughnasadh, or Lammas – Greater Sabbat of the Harvest
  • Mabon – Lesser Sabbat, the Autumn equinox

Gardner made use of the English names of these holidays: “The four great Sabbats are Candlemass [sic], May Eve, Lammas, and Halloween; the equinoxes and solstices are celebrated also.”

Book of Shadows

In Wicca a private journal or core religious text known as a Book of Shadows is kept by practitioners, similar to a grimoire used by magicians. In lineaged groups, such as Gardnerian Wicca, the Book’s contents are kept secret from anyone but the members of the lineage concerned (i.e., those initiating and initiated by a particular coven). However, several proposed versions of the Book have been published. Sections of these published versions, such as the “Wiccan Rede” and the “Charge of the Goddess”, as well as other published writings about Wicca, have been adopted by non-initiates, or eclectic Wiccans. For many eclectics, they create their own personal books, whose contents are often only known by themselves.

Covens and Solitary Wiccans

Lineaged Wicca is organised into covens of initiated priests and priestesses. Covens are autonomous, and are generally headed by a High Priest and a High Priestess working in partnership, being a couple who have each been through their first, second and third degrees of initiation. Occasionally the leaders of a coven are only second-degree initiates, in which case they come under the rule of the parent coven. Initiation and training of new priesthood is most often performed within a coven environment, but this is not a necessity, and a few initiated Wiccans are unaffiliated with any coven.

A commonly quoted Wiccan tradition holds that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, many U.S. covens are far smaller, though the membership may be augmented by unaffiliated Wiccans at “open” rituals. When covens grow beyond their ideal number of members, they often split (or “hive”) into multiple covens, yet remain connected as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove in many traditions.

Initiation into a coven is traditionally preceded by a waiting period of at least a year and a day. A course of study may be set during this period. In some covens a “dedication” ceremony may be performed during this period, some time before the initiation proper, allowing the person to attend certain rituals on a probationary basis. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before their self-dedication to the religion.

In contrast, Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these “solitaries” do, however, attend gatherings and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone. Eclectic Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans, and their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.

In the United States, a number of legal decisions have improved and validated the status of Wiccans, especially Dettmer v. Landon in 1985. However, there is still hostility from some politicians and Christian organisations.

According to the history of Wicca given by Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a survival of the European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials (sometimes called the Burning Times). Modern scholarly investigations have revealed, however, that these trials were substantially fewer than claimed by Gardner, and seldom at the behest of religious authorities. Theories of an organised pan-European witch-cult, as well as mass trials thereof, have been largely discredited, but it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials.

There have been assertions made that Wicca is a form of Satanism, despite important differences between these religions, such as the lack of a Satan-like figure in Wiccan theology. Due to negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed “coming out of the broom-closet”.

Some people have accused Wicca of being anti-Christian, a claim disputed by Wiccans such as Doreen Valiente, who stated that whilst she knew many Wiccans who admired Jesus, “witches have little respect for the doctrines of the churches, which they regard as a lot of man-made dogma”.

Some have asserted that Wicca is simply an off-shoot of the New Age movement, a claim which is fiercely denied by Wiccans and also by historians such as Ronald Hutton, who noted that Wicca not only predates the New Age movement but also differs in its general world view.

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Get to Know: Zoroastrianism

Posted by jase on July 11, 2009

Zoroastrianism is the religion and philosophy based on the teachings ascribed to the prophet Zoroaster, after whom the religion is named. The term Zoroastrianism is, in general usage, essentially synonymous with Mazdaism, i.e. the worship of Ahura Mazda, exalted by Zoroaster as the supreme divine authority.

Zoroastrianism is uniquely important in the history of religion because of its possible formative links to both Western and Eastern religious traditions. In the opinion of Mary Boyce, as “the oldest of the revealed credal religions”, Zoroastrianism “probably had more influence on mankind directly or indirectly than any other faith”.

In the English language, an adherent of the faith commonly refers to him- or herself as a Zoroastrian or, less commonly, a Zarathustrian. An older, but still widespread expression is Behdin, meaning “follower of Daena“, for which “Good Religion” is one translation. In the Zoroastrian liturgy, the term Behdin is also used as a title for an individual who has been formally inducted into the religion (see navjote for details).

 

Basic beliefs

  • There is one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, the one uncreated Creator to whom all worship is ultimately directed.
  • Ahura Mazda’s creation—evident as asha, truth and order—is the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict.
  • Active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism.
  • Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over evil Angra Mainyu / Ahriman (see below), at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end (cf: Zoroastrian eschatology). In the final renovation, all of creation—even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to “darkness”—will be reunited in Ahura Mazda returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time a savior-figure [a Saoshyant] will bring about a final renovation of the world, and in which the dead will be revived.
  • There will then be a final purgation of evil from the Earth (through a tidal wave of molten metal) and a purgation of evil from the heavens (through a cosmic battle of spiritual forces). In the end good will triumph, and each person will find himself or herself transformed into a spiritualized body and soul. Those who died as adults will be transformed into healthy adults of forty years of age, and those who died young will find themselves permanently youthful, about age fifteen. In these new spiritual bodies, humans will live without food, without hunger or thirst, and without weapons (or possibility of bodily injury). The material substance of the bodies will be so light as to cast no shadow. All humanity will speak a single language and belong to a single nation without borders. All will experience immortality (Ameretat) and will share a single purpose and goal, joining with the divine for a perpetual exaltation of God’s glory.
  • In Zoroastrian tradition the malevolent is represented by Angra Mainyu (also referred to as “Ahriman”), the “Destructive Principle”, while the benevolent is represented through Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu, the instrument or “Bounteous Principle” of the act of creation. It is through Spenta Mainyu that transcendental Ahura Mazda is immanent in humankind, and through which the Creator interacts with the world. According to Zoroastrian cosmology, in articulating the Ahuna Vairya formula Ahura Mazda made His ultimate triumph evident to Angra Mainyu.
  • As expressions and aspects of Creation, Ahura Mazda emanated the Amesha Spentas (“Bounteous Immortals”), that are each the hypostasis and representative of one aspect of that Creation. These Amesha Spenta are in turn assisted by a league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each “Worthy of Worship” and each again a hypostasis of a moral or physical aspect of creation.

Other characteristics

  • Water and fire: In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, adar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principal act of worship constitutes a “strengthening of the waters” (see Ab-Zohr). Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.
  • Proselytizing and conversion: Zoroastrians do not proselytize and living Zoroastrianism has no missionaries. There may be historical reasons for this (amongst those in India proselytizing was/is a crime and the culprit faces expulsion), but in recent years, and with the exception of the Iranian priesthood, Zoroastrian communities are generally not supportive of conversion.
  • Inter-faith marriages: As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith, but this is not a requirement of the religion itself. Rather it is a creation of those in India. Some members of the Indian Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality, and may be a remnant of an old Indian legal definition (since overruled) of ‘Parsi’. This issue is a matter of great debate within the Parsi community, but with the increasingly global nature of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, such opinions are less vociferous than they were previously.
  • Life, death and reincarnation: In Zoroastrian tradition, life is a temporary state in which a mortal is expected to actively participate in the continuing battle between truth and falsehood. Prior to being born, the soul (urvan) of an individual is still united with its fravashi, of which there are as very many, and which have existed since Mazda created the universe. During life, the fravashi acts as a guardian and protector. On the fourth day after death, the soul is reunited with its fravashi, and in which the experiences of life in the material world are collected for the continuing battle in the spiritual world. In general, Zoroastrianism does not have a notion of reincarnation, at least not until the final renovation of the world.
  • Disposal of the dead: In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay, i.e. of druj. Consequently, scripture enjoins the “safe” disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the “good” creation. These injunctions are the doctrinal basis of the fast-fading traditional practice of ritual exposure, most commonly identified with the so-called “Towers of Silence” for which there is no standard technical term in either scripture or tradition. The practice of ritual exposure is only practised by Zoroastrian communities of the Indian subcontinent, where it is not illegal, but where alternative disposal methods are desperately sought after diclofenac poisoning has led to the virtual extinction of scavenger birds. Other Zoroastrian communities either cremate their dead, or bury them in graves that are cased with lime mortar.

It is believed that key concepts of Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology have had influence on the Abrahamic religions. On the other hand, Zoroastrianism itself inherited ideas from other belief systems and, like other practiced religions, accommodates some degree of syncretism

Many aspects of Zoroastrianism are present in the culture and mythologies of the peoples of the Greater Iran, not least because Zoroastrianism, was a dominant influence on the people of the cultural continent for a thousand years. Even after the rise of Islam and the loss of direct influence, Zoroastrianism remained part of the cultural heritage of the Iranian language-speaking world, in part as festivals and customs, but also because Ferdowsi incorporated a number of the figures and stories from the Avesta in his epic Shāhnāme, which in turn is pivotal to Iranian identity.

Principle Beliefs

Ahura Mazda is the beginning and the end, the creator of everything which can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth. In the Gathas, the most sacred texts of Zoroastrianism thought to have been composed by Zoroaster himself, the prophet acknowledged devotion to no other divinity besides Ahura Mazda.

Daena (din in modern Persian) is the eternal Law, whose order was revealed to humanity through the Mathra-Spenta (“Holy Words”). Daena has been used to mean religion, faith, law, even as a translation for the Hindu and Buddhist term Dharma, often interpreted as “duty” but can also mean social order, right conduct, or virtue. The metaphor of the ‘path’ of Daena is represented in Zoroastrianism by the muslin undershirt Sudra, the ‘Good/Holy Path’, and the 72-thread Kushti girdle, the “Pathfinder”.

Daena should not be confused with the fundamental principle asha (Vedic rta), the equitable law of the universe, which governed the life of the ancient Indo-Iranians. For these, asha was the course of everything observable, the motion of the planets and astral bodies, the progression of the seasons, the pattern of daily nomadic herdsman life, governed by regular metronomic events such as sunrise and sunset. All physical creation (geti) was thus determined to run according to a master plan — inherent to Ahura Mazda — and violations of the order (druj) were violations against creation, and thus violations against Ahura Mazda. This concept of asha versus the druj should not be confused with the good-versus-evil battle evident in western religions, for although both forms of opposition express moral conflict, the asha versus druj concept is more systemic and less personal, representing, for instance, chaos (that opposes order); or “uncreation”, evident as natural decay (that opposes creation); or more simply “the lie” (that opposes truth, righteousness). Moreover, in his role as the one uncreated creator of all, Ahura Mazda is not the creator of druj which is “nothing”, anti-creation, and thus (likewise) uncreated. Thus, in Zoroaster’s revelation, Ahura Mazda was perceived to be the creator of only the good (Yasna 31.4), the “supreme benevolent providence” (Yasna 43.11), that will ultimately triumph (Yasna 48.1).

Further reading

Introduction to Zoroastrianism

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Is the Shroud of Turn Really a Self-Portrait of Da Vinci?

Posted by jase on July 5, 2009

He was the ultimate Renaissance man – studying anatomy, designing a rudimentary helicopter and creating some of the most admired paintings of the age. But could Leonardo da Vinci also have perpetrated history’s greatest art forgery? That’s the suggestion of one expert, who claims that Leonardo was responsible for faking the Turin Shroud.

The relic has inspired generations of pilgrims who have flocked to see what they believe is the face of the crucified Jesus.

But it has also provoked bitter controversy after scientists carbon-dated it to the Middle Ages.

Now an American artist has entered the fray, putting forward her own theory about its origin.

Lillian Schwartz, a graphic consultant at the School of Visual Arts in New York, claims that the image is a self-portrait of Leonardo, which was made using a crude photographic technique.

Using computer scans she found that the face on the Turin Shroud and a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci share the same dimensions.

Leonardo Da Vinci Turin Shroud
Miss Schwartz came to prominence in the 1980s when she made detailed measurements of the Mona Lisa and a Leonardo self-portrait.
To her amazement, the two faces lined up perfectly, leading her to suggest that he used a self portrait as a model for the painting.

Earlier this year she used the same technique to compare another Leonardo self-portrait with the Turin Shroud.

‘It matched. I’m excited about this,’ she said. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that the proportions that Leonardo wrote about were used in creating this Shroud’s face.’

According to a Channel Five documentary to be shown tonight, Leonardo scorched his facial features on to the linen of the Shroud using a sculpture of his face and a photographic device called a ‘camera obscura’.

He would have hung the shroud’s fabric over a frame in a blacked- out room and coated it with a substance to make it light-sensitive, just like photographic film.

When the sun’s rays passed through a lens in one of the walls, Leonardo’s 3D model would have been projected on to the material, creating a permanent image.

Shroud researcher Lynn Picknett said: ‘It is spooky, it is jaw-dropping.

‘The faker of the shroud had to be a heretic. He had to have a grasp of anatomy and he had to have at his fingertips a technology which would completely fool everyone until the 20th century.’

The programme points out that Leonardo was fascinated with optical equipment and his notebooks contain one of the earliest drawings of a camera obscura.

Mrs Picknett added: ‘If Leonardo could have known that 500 years after he died generations of pilgrims are still crossing themselves over the image, I think he would have laughed quite a lot.’

Although the Turin Shroud remains a popular attraction, most people now concede it is a fake.

Radiocarbon dating in 1988 showed the cloth was made between 1260 and 1390. However, the image itself has not been carbon dated.

But Professor John Jackson, director of the Turin Shroud Centre of Colorado, who believes the item dates from the time of Jesus’s crucifixion, dismissed the Leonardo hypothesis. ‘It is based on some very poor scientific and historical scholarship,’ he said.

The earliest known record of the shroud appears on a commemorative medallion struck in the mid-14th century and on display at the Cluny Museum Paris, he added.

‘It clearly shows clerics holding up the shroud and is dated to around 100 years before Leonardo was born. ‘There is no evidence whatsoever that Leonardo was involved in the shroud.’ The professor believes the radiocarbon dating of the shroud was wrong because the sample was contaminated.

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Profile: Omar Khayyam

Posted by jase on July 5, 2009

Omar Khayyam (Persian: عمر خیام), (born 1048 AD, Neyshapur, Iran—1123 AD, Neyshapur, Iran), was a Persian polymath, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and poet.

He has also become established as one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period. Recognized as the author of the most important treatise on algebra before modern times as reflected in his Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra giving a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. He also contributed to calendar reform and may have proposed a heliocentric theory well before Copernicus.

His significance as a philosopher and teacher, and his few remaining philosophical works, have not received the same attention as his scientific and poetic writings. Zamakhshari referred to him as “the philosopher of the world”. Many sources have also testified that he taught for decades the philosophy of Ibn Sina in Nishapur where Khayyam lived most of his life, breathed his last, and was buried and where his mausoleum remains today a masterpiece of Iranian architecture visited by many people every year.

Outside Iran and Persian speaking countries, Khayyam has had impact on literature and societies through translation and works of scholars. The greatest such impact was in English-speaking countries; the English scholar Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) was the first non-Persian to study him. However the most influential of all was Edward FitzGerald (1809–83)[4] who made Khayyam the most famous poet of the East in the West through his celebrated translation and adaptations of Khayyam’s rather small number of quatrains (rubaiyaas) in Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Omar Khayyam was famous during his times as a mathematician. He wrote the influential Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (1070), which laid down the principles of algebra, part of the body of Persian Mathematics that was eventually transmitted to Europe.

Like most Persian mathematicians of the period, Omar Khayyám was also famous as an astronomer.  Omar Khayyam was part of a panel that introduced several reforms to the Persian calendar, largely based on ideas from the Hindu calendar. On March 15, 1079, Sultan Malik Shah I accepted this corrected calendar as the official Persian calendar.  Omar Khayyám also built a star map (now lost), which was famous in the Persian and Islamic world.

It is said that Omar Khayyam also estimated and proved to an audience that included the then-prestigious and most respected scholar Imam Ghazali, that the universe is not moving around earth as was believed by all at that time. By constructing a revolving platform and simple arrangement of the star charts lit by candles around the circular walls of the room, he demonstrated that earth revolves on its axis, bringing into view different constellations throughout the night and day (completing a one-day cycle). He also elaborated that stars are stationary objects in space which, if moving around earth, would have been burnt to cinders due to their large mass. Some of these ideas may have been transmitted to Western science after the Renaissance.

Omar Khayyám’s poetic work has eclipsed his fame as a mathematician and scientist.

He is believed to have written about a thousand four-line verses or quatrains (rubaai’s). In the English-speaking world, he was introduced through the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám which are rather free-wheeling English translations by Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883).

Other translations of parts of the rubáiyát (rubáiyát meaning “quatrains”) exist, but FitzGerald’s are the most well known. Translations also exist in languages other than English.

Ironically, FitzGerald’s translations reintroduced Khayyam to Iranians “who had long ignored the Neishapouri poet.” A 1934 book by one of Iran’s most prominent writers, Sadeq Hedayat, Songs of Khayyam, (Taranehha-ye Khayyam) is said have “shaped the way a generation of Iranians viewed” the poet.

Omar Khayyam’s personal beliefs are not known with certainty, but much is discernible from his poetic oeuvre.

Despite strong Islamic training, it is clear that Omar Khayyam himself was undevout and had no sympathy with popular religion, but the verse: “Enjoy wine and women and don’t be afraid, God has compassion,” suggests that he wasn’t an atheist. Some religious Iranians have argued that Khayyam’s references to intoxication in the Rubaiyat were actually the intoxication of the religious worshiper with his Divine Beloved – a Sufi conceit. This however, is reportedly a minority opinion dismissed as wishful pious thinking by most Iranians.

It is almost certain that Khayyám objected to the notion that every particular event and phenomenon was the result of divine intervention. Nor did he believe in an afterlife with a Judgment Day or rewards and punishments. Instead, he supported the view that laws of nature explained all phenomena of observed life. One hostile orthodox account of him shows him as “versed in all the wisdom of the Greeks” and as insistent that studying science on Greek lines is necessary. He came into conflict with religious officials several times, and had to explain his views on Islam on multiple occasions; there is even one story about a treacherous pupil who tried to bring him into public odium. The contemporary Ibn al Kifti wrote that Omar Khayyam “performed pilgrimages not from piety but from fear” of his contemporaries who divined his unbelief.

Khayyám’s disdain of Islam in general and its various aspects such as eschatology, Islamic taboos and divine revelation are clearly visible in his writings, particularly the quatrains, which as a rule reflect his intrinsic conclusions describing those who claim to receive God’s word as maggot-minded fanatics.

Khayyam himself rejects to be associated with the title falsafi- (lit. philosopher) in the sense of Aristotelian one and stressed he wishes “to know who I am”. In the context of philosophers he was labeled by some of his contemporaries as “detached from divine blessings”.

Khayyam the philosopher could be understood from two rather distinct sources. One is through his Rubaiyat and the other through his own works in light of the intellectual and social conditions of his time.  The latter could be informed by the evaluations of Khayyam’s works by scholars and philosophers such as Bayhaqi, Nezami Aruzi, and Zamakhshari and also Sufi poets and writers Attar Nishapuri and Najmeddin Razi.

As a mathematician, Khayam has made fundamental contributions to the Philosophy of mathematics especially in the context of Persian Mathematics and Persian philosophy with which most of the other Persian scientists and philosophers such as Avicenna, Biruni, and Tusi are associated. There are at least three basic mathematical ideas of strong philosophical dimensions that can be associated with Khayyam.

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The Coming Evangelical Collapse

Posted by jase on June 22, 2009

I received this interesting article from a friend.  The article appears on the website of The Christian Science Monitor.  Have a look…

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

Why is this going to happen?

1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.

5. The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to “do good” is rapidly approaching. We will soon see that the good Evangelicals want to do will be viewed as bad by so many, and much of that work will not be done. Look for ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive.

6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.

7. The money will dry up.

What will be left?

•Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success – resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.

•Two of the beneficiaries will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue, with more efforts aimed at the “conversion” of Evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

•A small band will work hard to rescue the movement from its demise through theological renewal. This is an attractive, innovative, and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing, and leadership development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches.

•The emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision.

•Aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches will begin to disappear.

•Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Can this community withstand heresy, relativism, and confusion? To do so, it must make a priority of biblical authority, responsible leadership, and a reemergence of orthodoxy.

•Evangelicalism needs a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. Will they come? Will they be able to bring to our culture a more vital form of Christianity?

•Expect a fragmented response to the culture war. Some Evangelicals will work to create their own countercultures, rather than try to change the culture at large. Some will continue to see conservatism and Christianity through one lens and will engage the culture war much as before – a status quo the media will be all too happy to perpetuate. A significant number, however, may give up political engagement for a discipleship of deeper impact.

Is all of this a bad thing?

Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral. But what about what remains?

Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become largely irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshal resources, training, and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches.

Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership. We must change the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate ones.

The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal-influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if reformation can reach those churches and if it is joined with the calling, training, and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Holy Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing.

Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to “evangelize” Protestantism in the name of unity.

Will the coming collapse get Evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about the loss of substance and power? Probably not. The purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time.

Will it shake lose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? Evidence from similar periods is not encouraging. American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success.

The loss of their political clout may impel many Evangelicals to reconsider the wisdom of trying to create a “godly society.” That doesn’t mean they’ll focus solely on saving souls, but the increasing concern will be how to keep secularism out of church, not stop it altogether. The integrity of the church as a countercultural movement with a message of “empire subversion” will increasingly replace a message of cultural and political entitlement.

Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.”

We can rejoice that in the ruins, new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century.

We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.

I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential?

Michael Spencer is a writer and communicator living and working in a Christian community in Kentucky. He describes himself as “a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality.” This essay is adapted from a series on his blog, InternetMonk.com .

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