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From The Theosophical Movement
Voll 69 No. 4, March 1999

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 persecutions.

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 terrorism.

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 the globe.

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 by H.P.B.: 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, ever active.

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, November 1998)

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.

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