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Life Meets Faith: Lunatics

Michael Veenema | Interrobang | Opinion | February 14th, 2011

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In his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens writes, "Organized religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

Recently he debated Tony Blair in Toronto on the merits of religion, one of the famous Munk Debates. The topic was stated this way: Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world. According to the NewStatesman website, "Hitchens won the argument against the motion by 68 per cent to 32 per cent. A pre-debate poll showed that 57 per cent were against the motion and 22 per cent were for it — demonstrating ... the impressive debating skills of both men."

Blair began by saying, among other things, that half of the health care available in Africa is delivered by faith-based organizations. I am not sure what other various faiths are represented by the phrase "faithbased" but by far most of them would be Christian groups such as World Vision, the Mennonite Central Committee and various Catholic and Protestant missions.

Which brings me around to some questions about Hitchens' claim that religion "poisons everything." We could ask, which religion? Religions differ on many points, one of them being, for example, their championing of human rights. We could ask whether adherents to a particular religion are in line with the original vision of its founder. This is a perennial issue for Christians for example.

We (since I am a Christian I'll use the first person for this statement) have as our basic guide the teachings of Jesus. He taught many things, and key among them is this: "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." Clearly, a universal acceptance of this truth would be the end to war and every lesser conflict. And, equally clearly, the followers of Jesus frequently fail to live up to the teaching; however, we refuse to give up on it.

Religious people may poison a lot of things, but there are too many examples of them doing the opposite that a statement like "religion poisons everything" can't be taken for granted. One can only imagine how Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu would respond to such a statement while, based on his Christian understandings, he risked his life to put an end to Apartheid in the South Africa of the late 20th century.

The planet is full of Christians who have sacrificed much for the good of their neighbours. Where I live, a local Christian crisis shelter for homeless people is connecting with the community college to help stock the student food bank and to find shelter for students in trouble. The shelter itself has 180 volunteers from local churches who take turns every winter night to offer shelter to homeless adults and at-risk youth.

And consider Joel Salatin. He calls himself a "lunatic farmer." He and his family own the 550 acre Polyface Farm in the U.S. state of Virginia.

In an article in the Register-Guard (Jan. 21, 2009) Salatin says that the farm is almost self-sustaining, having to buy "only toilet paper and Kleenex." He does not distribute his farm products through any chain, but only locally. Pigs are allowed to sun themselves and cows eat by grazing grass.

This is in stark contrast to the farm being built down the road from where I live. It will house 700 cows. Of those around 300 will be milked at any given time. The cows will mount a rotating turntable for about an hour. A computer chip will regulate the milking procedure for each cow and determine the precise amount of feed that will pour into the trough. Truly, to use a Salatin phrase, for government and industry, a cow is a meaningless revenue-producing "pile of inanimate protoplasm."

The motive for Salatin's "lunatic" farming? His Christian faith. Faith is the cornerstone of Salatin's farming philosophy, and he makes no bones about it. "We never make a sales target," he said. "Our benchmarks are based on the New Testament, not profit. Every day I pray to God to help me run the farm as he would."
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