Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 2010

Last week saw a pitiful demonstration of the power of the Internet, coupled with the way global media corporations love to promote religious extremists. Why did the media seize on the words of an obscure, sectarian pastor of an unknown Florida church with less than 50 members and broadcast it to the whole world, knowing that it would inflame Muslim passions? The same media are largely silent when scores of churches are burned down and hundreds of Christians killed in places like India, Nigeria or Indonesia. There is an obvious bias to the media’s religious reporting. Who holds CNN or the BBC morally responsibility for fomenting violence? If one gives whiskey to an alcoholic, knowing he is an alcoholic, isn’t one morally culpable if he gets drunk and kills someone?

I recall the words of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK:

“In January 2001 the then Archbishop of Canterbury convened a gathering in Alexandria, Egypt, of the leading Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders in the Middle East.  They signed an agreement, the Alexandria Declaration, committing themselves to non-violent conflict resolution. It was potentially one of the most important steps towards peace in decades. The coverage in the Western press was almost non-existent. This helped to confirm the suspicion in the minds of politicians in the region that there is no role for interfaith dialogue in any peace process- as Track 2 diplomacy, for example. This is a terrible mistake. What it means is that the image of religion in the media is one of conflict, hate, violence and terror. We should not then be surprised if that is what religion becomes. Perception shapes reality.” (The Home We Build Together, Continuum, 2007, p.70)

On a related matter, many of us struggle to make sense of the angry backlash in some parts of the US following President Obama’s spirited defence of the right of Muslims to build a mosque close to Ground Zero in New York City. Those of us who work with thoughtful non-Christians, and especially in academic settings, have to constantly battle the jibes at “evangelicals” in the US. They are automatically identified with the right-wing of Republican politics, as well as with anti-evolution, anti-secularism, pro-Zionism and “Islamophobia”. These perceptions are constantly fed by a cynical international media, including prestigious American and European newspapers, who enjoy parading the most outlandish and extremist “evangelical” voices on the world stage.

We who are familiar with the complexity of American church life and the best American theological scholarship know that those who are presented in the media in this way are far from being typical of American “evangelicals”. But, given the paucity of mainstream evangelicals who interact with the secular media and the way that global Tele-evangelism, the mass-market evangelical publishing world, and many US-based mission organizations do indeed propagate a Christian mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism, it is understandable that so many non-Christians in the academy have little patience with “evangelical” Christianity.

I wonder: who among the well-known authors and mission agencies in the US have issued public statements expressing agreement with President Obama? Surely it would be hypocritical for any Christians to advocate religious tolerance and liberty around the world and not practice such tolerance and liberty in their own backyard. There were many Muslims who also died in the WTC attacks on 9/11. And one could also generously interpret the building of the mosque as an attempt on the part of American Muslims to distance themselves from such violence. Public support for this project by churches and Christian organizations would go a long way, not only in healing the terrible state of Christian-Muslim relations in the US, but also in being a great encouragement to those of us who are in the ministry of building bridges between peoples and nations.

Surely, this is what global partnership in mission entails. Sadly, partnership language has become reduced, in many church circles, to sending money and people overseas. Looking at oneself through the eyes of others in the Body of Christ is not. Exercising a prophetic voice in one’s own city and country, especially in a global superpower like the US, has worldwide ramifications. Remember Martin Luther King and the growth of Civil Rights Movements all over the world? That was evangelical mission, so powerful in its global impact because of its local authenticity, long before the days of the Internet and the mobile phone.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of climate scientists representing almost all of the world’s nations, was set up by the United Nations in 1988 to study the changing planetary climate and to advise the UN and its member nations on how to prevent human-induced, life-threatening changes to the climate system. The IPCC has observed that the rate of temperature rise of the earth’s surface witnessed in the past 50 years is unprecedented in the last 650,000 years of planetary history.

The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, published in Bangkok in May 2007, argued that once the temperature increase rises above 2°C, up to 4 billion people could be experiencing severe water shortages, agriculture will become non-viable in many parts of the tropics, and millions will be at risk from hunger. If the earth system is not to be driven into an irreversible warming trend, radical action must be taken now so that by 2050 the level of greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced to 70% of the levels at 2000. Keeping temperature rises below 2°C requires “developed” countries to reduce their present emission levels by 80%.

Climate-change sceptics- those who deny either that climate change is happening or that human use of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change- have challenged the credibility of the IPCC Reports. Their strident charges of a “climate conspiracy” by the UN body were given a fillip in November last year when e-mails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, UK, were posted on the Internet. Critics said the e-mail exchanges between CRU scientists and their colleagues around the world showed that data unfavourable to the IPCC assessments was being suppressed. On top of that, the IPCC admitted it made a mistake in its 2007 report in asserting that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.

In February, the UN set up an independent review of the IPCC overseen by the Inter-Academy Council (IAC), an international umbrella body for science academies. Its terms of reference included analysing the IPCC’s links with other UN agencies, its use of controversial data and handling of the full range of scientific opinion, and how the body communicates with the general public and the media.

Last Monday the IAC announced the results of its review of the IPCC’s workings at a news conference in New York. It identified several shortcomings in the governance of the IPCC,  criticised it slowness to respond to revelation of errors, and recommended far-reaching changes in the way it issues reports and communicates with the general public. The “glacier error” was due to reliance on so-called “gray literature” – that which has not been peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals.

However, while the IAC urged IPCC authors to make future projections only when there is sufficient support for them, it praised the “remarkable international conversation” among scientists and policymakers that the IPCC has initiated and represents. It stressed-along with other independent reviews- that the mistakes made should not be used to question the overall climate science assessments of IPCC Reports.

Why does Climate Change generate so much heat (forgive the pun)? Climate Change (upper case) has become a global metanarrative, more significant than the underlying physical phenomena associated with climate change (lower case). It thus raises questions about human life and destiny, about our relationship to the planet and to each other, about how we do economics, about our personal lifestyles and the common good, about the dangers of a technological mind-set in our attitude to the world, about our values, hopes and goals, and about our obligations for the present and the future. These are mostly moral and philosophical/religious questions. The science is only one part of the story; and how we regard the science is itself shaped by our world-views.

Interestingly, many atheists seem to care more about global warming than many so-called “Biblical Christians”. I suggest that the latter need to re-read their Bibles and the former need to re-think their worldview. If Nature is all that is, and human beings are as significant as slime moulds where nature is concerned, why care about what happens to future human beings? If Homo Sapiens ends up destroying itself, the earth will simply throw up new life forms that will survive at higher temperatures. In other words, the question I am posing is whether either “deep ecology” or the militant atheism that insists on telling us that humans are nothing more than accidental products of an evolutionary process – can these worldviews coherently sustain our fundamental moral intuitions in the face of global warming and climate change?



September 2010