FAR from being a unifying force, religion has
been one of the most bitterly divisive forces
over the centuries. This must be so while religion
remains a matter of blind faith and outer observances.
In recent times, serious religious tensions have
surfaced in dozens of countries around the world.
The answer of many governments has been the systematic
persecution of millions of people for their beliefs.
One expert has described this century as the worst
- and bloodiest - in human history for its religious
A Special Report in The World and I for
December 1998 focuses on "The Global Reality
of Religious Persecution." Under the title
"A Worldwide Phenomenon," Nina Shea
of the Center for Religious Freedom describes
religious persecution around the world. The persecution
varies widely from simple house arrest to state-sponsored
David Aikman of the Ethics and Public Policy
Center addresses the importance of religious freedom
in the 20th century. The reality is that developed
as well as developing nations practise persecution.
Consequently, reports Aikman, more and more members
of all faiths are demanding that official action
be taken at the national and international levels
to protect one of the most basic of human rights
- religious freedom.
Other parts of the Special Report dwell in sometimes
horrifying detail on the exact nature of religious
persecution today. Men and women are still being
slaughtered and oppressed on an unprecedented
scale as religious and ethnic hatreds rage around
Freedom of conscience is fundamental, states Aikman:
There can be no serious freedom in any society
without freedom of conscience. The logical corollary
is that freedom of conscience inherently implies
freedom to propagate one's individual faith
- without coercion, manipulation, or deceit
of any kind - but freedom to propagate nonetheless.
As we move into the twenty-first century and
the new millennium, those who truly value freedom
of conscience must extend to others the freedom
to propagate their own faith, however distasteful
the beliefs of that faith may sometimes seem.
Everyone but the hopeless bigot recognizes the
desirability of freedom to follow whatever religion
may commend itself to one, but the privilege carries
with it the obligation to respect the sincere
beliefs of others. The Buddhist injunction "Respect
the religions of other men and remain true to
your own," is quoted by H.P.B. with obvious
approval in The Key to Theosophy. The spirit
in which the second object of the Theosophical
Movement is to be carried out is expressed thus
....it is only by studying the various great
religions and philosophies of humanity, by comparing
them dispassionately and with an unbiased mind,
that men can hope to arrive at the truth. It
is especially by finding out and noting their
various points of agreement that we may achieve
this result. For no sooner do we arrive - either
by study, or by being taught by someone who
knows - at their inner meaning, than we find,
almost in every case, that it expresses some
great truth in Nature.
A feature in Life magazine examines the
reasons behind "the strange allure of disasters."
Is it just empathy or something deeper? One explanation
is that by reliving the events - such as the sinking
of the Titanic - we see how disaster affects
the lives of real people and we thus gain a deeper
understanding of their sorrow, their pain, their
courage. George Howe Colt writes in Life:
We have immortalized disasters in ballads,
folktales, lithographs, songs, paintings, pageants
and plays. After the ruins of Pompeii were discovered
in the late 18th century, Europeans flocked
to the scene, making it one of the first great
tourist attractions. ...
These days there is something of a disaster
boom. To begin with, there are more of them,
according to the Federal Emergency Management
Agency. In the past five years, there have been
nearly twice as many as in the previous five.
There are also more fictional ones, if the proliferation
of disaster-themed books, movies, calendars,
Web sites and CD-ROMs is any indication. ...
"People are attracted to disaster because
it can be an ex-pression of their deepest fears,
but it is also a form of transcendence,"
says psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. "One
can see death before one, and match up against
death and try to survive it - experiences that
are ordinarily denied. This transports us be-yond
the boredom or routine of ordinary life. Disaster
helps us break out of what I call psychic numbing,
a state of diminished capacity to feel, which
many of us experience much of the time."
Disasters also bring us together, uniting us
against a common enemy. "When a disaster
occurs, we abandon the individual goals that
underlie most of our behaviour, and we identify
with the community as a whole," says sociologist
Dennis Mileti. "People give to each other
in disasters. Strangers work for three days
and nights without sleeping, trying to rescue
strangers." That altruism, he says, also
applies to those who watch from afar. "People
who are drawn to their TVs after disasters are
not gore-mongers. Their empathy is kicking in.
What we're observing is the fundamental social
mechanism that has enabled our species to survive:
When the chips are down, we come together."
Replaying disaster scenes may be therapeutic.
"When people witness others going through
disasters, they confront their own vulnerability,
and they themselves have a traumatic experience,"
says Michael Blumenfield of the American Psychiatric
Association's Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions
of Disaster. "Disaster films offer us a
way to work through anxieties. We live through
them and come out O.K."
Disasters form a vast field of study for one
who would begin to understand the mysteries of
Karma. Nothing good or ill ever happens by chance,
or without a corresponding cause; everything that
happens is the result of Law - eternal, immutable,
Astronomers are learning more about the vastness
of the universe as they discover galaxies that
had till lately remained in hiding. A couple of
years ago they trained the Hubble Space Telescope
on a seemingly empty patch of sky and left it
there for 10 days, trying to catch whatever images
it could. The result was the Hubble Deep Field,
a series of images that doubled astronomers' estimate
of the number of galaxies in the universe to at
least 50 billion.
Now researchers in Hawaii have done something
similar. Using a new instrument that can peer
through the dust that obscures many galaxies,
Amy Barger and her colleagues at the University
of Hawaii built up images of small parts of the
sky over the course of two weeks. They have uncovered
evidence of a population of never-before-seen
galaxies - so many, in fact, that taken together
they shine as brightly as all the rest of the
known galaxies in the universe. (Discover,
The vastness of the universe both baffles and
fascinates the human mind. The Earth that the
ancients took to be the centre of the universe
becomes ever more marginal. Nothing could more
profoundly shake man's sense of unique destiny
than the realization that we are not alone.