Financial dogma and faith without religion

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For a few days this week, my son and I had some Muslim Arab kids from the Mideast, ages 8 and 12, up at the cottage. They've been in Canada for two years. Since it was Ramadan, we decided to fast with them. It's not mandatory for children but lots do it.

So we rose in time to have a big breakfast of mostly chocolate chip pancakes before sunrise, according to the almanac, at 6:16. Then nothing to eat till sunset around 8:30. In between they refused to get out of the water till they looked blue, spitting out lake water since drinking is forbidden along with eating, then played a lot of Monopoly or backgammon, which they picked up quickly, or lay on the couch with a DSi and Archie comics. After dinner they prayed, led by the 8-year-old since he's the boy, and were perfectly happy to have us watch or join in. My kid positioned himself ahead of them, to get a full frontal view of the prostrations.

This hyperactivity characterized the first day, then the pace slowed. The action alternated with resting, flopping, napping, reading, quiet chat and game playing -- due to fatigue and fasting for about 14 hours. It induced a kind of -- I don't know the precise word -- quietude, even in young kids. You husband your resources, consciously and/or unconsciously. Almost by default, a sort of meditative mood sets in.

I suppose in some cases the content is explicitly religious but it can be less focused: just a slower, more aware sense of moving through your life. I think this is one of the purposes of setting aside a whole month. It interrupts the frantic, self-involved routine of normal life. Even people who maintain a regular work schedule seem to become more deliberative.

It's the most radical version of this kind of interruption I know and I did study world religions as a grad student. The Jewish Sabbath is similar but it's just one day a week and not observed by many or even most Jews -- though it's common in religions for members not to subscribe fervently to all beliefs and practices.

At any rate, this pietistic/quietistic practice at the heart of Islam hardly conforms to images propagated by the extensive, influential anti-Islam industry. Its dominant slogan would be, "Islam is inherently violent," which you can confirm by a Google search better than any swatch of examples I could supply.

My point isn't that Islam is inherently non-violent, which you can also Google in quantity. It's that major religions are inherently diverse and uncategorizable, despite the internal battles they all fight to declare some particular version as the true one. In many ways, religion is simply an alternate way to describe being human.

This is the source of my problem with militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc., who fault "religion" for many human ills. They miss its normality, along with all its contradictions and variety. So they end up as caricatures of the same fundamentalists they caricature. They and those fundamentalists deserve each other, the way Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush deserved each other.

The point is you can have religion without fanaticism and dogma, and you can have fanaticism and dogma without a religion in sight. The ability to hold a deep, irrational certainty is a basic human -- not a religious -- trait. For instance:

- Consumers are tapped out leaving public spending the main potential source of demand to generate growth and investment, but governments won't do it because they don't believe in it. They believe in austerity.

- In the case of Greek debt, European authorities keep increasing the bailout based on conditions that make growth impossible and which Greeks won't accept, making further, equally futile bailouts inevitable.

- As the Los Angeles Times says, it was failure to regulate the mortgage industry that led to the meltdown, but right-wing U.S. legislators now demand less environmental regulation, of all things, in order to restore prosperity.

These are all cases of faith without religion, verging on blind faith. You keep doing it even though it makes no discernible sense. A dose of Ramadan (under another name) might restore some calm and an ability to think rationally.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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