TIME

ISIS is the Antithesis of Hajj, the Holy Pilgrimage

Crowd at Kaaba ahead of upcoming Eid al-Adha
Muslim pilgrims from all around the world circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, ahead of upcoming Eid Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) at Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 30, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

This year, hajj will take place against the ugly backdrop of a group that has come to represent the antithesis of what the pilgrimage signifies

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

Every year during the time of hajj a feeling of nostalgia overcomes me as the media begins covering one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings. Although I performed hajj almost nine years ago, the experience feels like yesterday. It was the journey of a lifetime.

But this year, hajj will take place against the ugly backdrop of a group that has come to represent the antithesis of what the pilgrimage signifies: Unity through diversity, brotherhood and equality, and the sanctity of religion, its symbols and holy places.

As ISIS sends another two hundred thousand Muslim Kurds fleeing into Turkey after terrorizing Christian, Yazidi, and other populations for months, millions of pilgrims in Islam’s two holiest cities are gathered to peacefully commemorate Abraham, the father, not only of Islam, but of Judaism and Christianity.

The entirety of the hajj takes place in and around Mecca and commemorates the life and struggles of Abraham, who is revered as an important prophet in Islam. Many of the themes and rituals of hajj focus on Abraham’s devotion and submission to God and the sacrifices that he and his family made. They include walking in the footsteps of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, whom all Muslims emulate when they perform the required ritual known as Sa’i. During the ritual pilgrims run or walk swiftly in Hagar’s footsteps to commemorate her desperate search for water for her young son — water which eventually gushed up at his feet in what would become known as the well of Zamzam.

Another major theme of hajj is the interconnectedness of humankind, which is demonstrated by the simple white pieces of cloth which all male pilgrims wear during the duration of the hajj, no matter from where in the world they come.

One of the first things that struck me when I landed at the airport in Jeddah was the variety of airlines, each carrying pilgrims who had come for one singular purpose – to perform the fifth pillar of Islam which is required of all adult Muslims at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able to make the journey. While I was unable to communicate in words with most of the pilgrims who hailed from every part of the world, there was little need for words. We all performed the same rituals, speaking an unspoken language of common purpose and objective.

Central for the diverse group of 2-3 million people gathered for communal worship, is the Kaaba, the cubical structure believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael as the first house of worship. One of the highlights of my trip, as it is for most pilgrims, was setting eyes on the Kaaba for the first time as it stood in its simple splendor in the center of a sea of humans circling around it.

At the end of the week 1.5 billion Muslims will celebrate Eid ul-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, a story also recounted in the Hebrew Bible. Muslims across the world mark the holiday by sacrificing a lamb and sharing its meat with those in need. This year, Muslim charities offer dozens of choices for people who want to sponsor a sheep in countries where poverty and war have made meat a rare and expensive luxury. This act of sharing with those in need is at the heart of two other major Islamic pillars, zakat, or poor-due, and fasting in Ramadan.

All of these acts of worship have the dual goals of bringing adherents closer to God and encouraging good character, including the good treatment of other people. Ihsan, or moral excellence, is said to be the highest level of Islam.

Especially at this holy time, the stark contrast between the lofty goals of the religion and the actions of groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and others who make a mockery of Islam with their brutal and merciless behavior is a painful reminder that religion is not about terminology or slogans. Rather, true religion is explained in a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “I was only sent to perfect good character.”

Ameena Jandali is the Content Director for ING. Islamic Networks Group (ING) is a non-profit organization that counters prejudice and discrimination against American Muslims by teaching about their traditions and contributions in the context of America’s history and cultural diversity, while building relations between American Muslims and other groups.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME NFL

NFL Under Fire for Penalizing Muslim Player After End Zone Prayer

He was handed a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct

The NFL sparked yet more outrage Monday after appearing to penalize Kansas City Chiefs player Husain Abdullah, a devout Muslim, for kneeling on the ground in the end zone to praise God after scoring the second touchdown of his career.

This post-TD reaction was deemed unsportsmanlike conduct for excessive celebration and resulted in a 15-yard penalty:

The reaction from Abdullah’s brother and agent indicated this was indeed a moment of prayer:

Which, according to former VP of Officiating at the NFL Mike Pereira in a 2013 tweet, is not the intent of the rule against going to the ground:

In a 2009 interview, Pereira said that he didn’t want to penalize prayer for fear of getting “struck by lightning.”

Fans took to Twitter to denounce the call, which has incited the creation of various memes showing what prayer is deemed acceptable and what is penalized:

But Abdullah himself said it was likely his slide across the end zone that had provoked the penalty call, and not his impromptu prayer. “I got a little too excited,” he told local media. “The slide before it, I’m pretty sure that did it.”

The Chiefs ended up beating the Patriots 41-14.

MONEY Financial Planning

Why Financial Planning Needs More Religion

In God We Trust on a coin
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Acknowledging faith and spirituality helps people better understand their financial goals — and stick to them.

As part of my getting-to-know you interview with new clients, I ask about their faith. Most are caught off guard. “Why do YOU care?” was one client’s response.

Such a reply comes with good reason; my clients hired me to talk about money, not religion. But there are many advantages to discussing spirituality with clients before we address their finances.

Know Thyself

Spiritual thinkers from Socrates to John Calvin advocated the importance of introspective familiarity in the pursuit of wisdom. Certainly, in the financial realm, the client who understands why he behaves the way he does will be more successful in achieving goals. Asking him to articulate the spiritual beliefs that drive him is a great exercise for him as well, even in cases where those beliefs are simply, “I don’t practice any sort of spirituality.”

If you don’t practice your own spirituality, or you simply don’t want to talk about spirituality with clients, a discussion of values can be an effective start to the relationship. Everyone has values, regardless of their stated faith or religion. Even old Ebenezer Scrooge valued wealth, frugality and financial independence. My clients receive a list of 140 common values from which they select the most important. I then have them narrow the list down to 20, then 10 as they look at themselves in a completely new way.

Integrating Faith into Financial Plans

As many advisers have learned by experience, it is the long term that will make or break a client’s financial goals. When our assets serve a larger purpose, we experience a deep inspiration and motivation over the long haul. By incorporating the big picture into our planning, we have better success with helping clients implement behavior changes. Rather than saying, “You need to spend less next month, and every month thereafter,” we can include a client’s faith to motivate a greater level of intentionality: “I know you want to be able to provide XYZ for ABC. That will be much easier if you spend less in the short term.”

Putting money in its place

Maybe money shouldn’t be the key ingredient in our financial decisions. Where strong values are present, ideally our financial life will reflect them. When your money is in service to your values, it becomes a supporting cast member of a show where your values play the leads.

In a fast-paced, credit-loving society, it is easy to let money guide our decisions. We make risky investments in hopes of large payoffs with money we can’t afford to lose. We take jobs that pay well but require such dedication of time that we begin to lose touch with the people we love. We constantly seek “more” without taking the time to be grateful for what we have.

But when values take the lead in our decision-making, our behavior finally changes for good. Investments no longer cause insomnia, jobs support a worker’s lifestyle, and gratitude becomes a regular part of life. Clients will appreciate an adviser who cares for the whole person and advocates that kind of wellness.

I have one client who took a different view of money; she hated it. Despite tremendous earning potential, she considered wealth the cause of greed in this world. In what she deemed acts of faith, she continually put herself in positions to earn very modest amounts. Is she wrong? That’s not my place to determine, but I do have a responsibility to help her understand her default reactions so she can evaluate whether or not they reflect her core beliefs.

I knew she was a Christian, and her upbringing took place in a notoriously upper class town. I suggested she examine her religious teachings for more detail on the topic of wealth. She eventually decided that her attitudes don’t reflect the actual teachings of her faith. She read of biblical figures who used the power of their wealth to serve God and in so doing, mightily improve the lives of others.

My client’s entire financial plan changed once she acknowledged her attitudes toward money were more reflective of her teenage response to her home town than they were an outcropping of her faith. She has accepted a new mantle; while avoiding monetary entrapments, she wants to make more money so she can use it to improve the lives God brings into her path.

It’s About Our Roots

I liken our spirituality to the root system of a tree: It gathers nutrients and supports the weight of the tree. In nature, what we see above ground only partially represents the root structure we can’t see. Everyone has roots, and ignoring those root systems can lead to ineffective attempts to grow.

As much as we hate this fact, we grow in leaps and bounds when we suffer. For those who dedicate their lives to a higher purpose, even life’s pitfalls present growth opportunities; we learn to grapple gracefully and walk out of those pits with our soul intact. I frequently mention to my clients my own financial struggles due to two chronically ill family members. While I wouldn’t want to relive those life setbacks, their spiritual benefit seriously outpaces the dollar signs. Where the prudent financial plan would create such stability that you never find yourself in a financially precarious position, there still is beauty in those down times, and they serve to forward our purposes for being in this world.

Certainly, knowing your client’s faith is not a shortcut; there are as many varieties of beliefs among denominations as there are types of trees and root structures. But it helps you know the right questions to ask. Perhaps you are wondering why there is a disconnect with a longtime client of yours. When you look at her, could there be something underground that will give you a better understanding of the whole person? How much more effective could you be if you brought your advice under the umbrella of her faith and spirituality?

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Candice McGarvey, CFP, is the Chief Story Changer of Her Dollars Financial Coaching. By working with women to increase their financial wellness, she brings clients through financial transitions. Via conversations that feel more like a coffee date than a meeting, her process improves a client’s financial strength and peace.

TIME Religion

Rand Paul: America Is in a Full-Blown Spiritual Crisis

Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit on Sept. 26, 2014 in Washington.
Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit on Sept. 26, 2014 in Washington. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Paul is the junior U.S. Senator for Kentucky.

How did we stray so far from the Constitution? And how do we find our way back to the traditions of our founders?

America is not just experiencing growing pains. America is in a full-blown crisis — a spiritual crisis.

Soothing voices seek to reassure us that everything is OK. Everything is just fine. All is well. All is well until… Until one day all is not well. The problem, as Os Guinness puts it, is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Our foundation is cracking. It’s not that we’ve chosen the wrong politicians. It’s more fundamental than that.

We have arrived at that crossroads. We have arrived at a day of reckoning. Will we falter? Or will we thrive and rediscover our mojo?

America has much greatness left in her. If we believe in ourselves, if we believe in our founding documents, if we believe in the system that made us the richest, freest, and most humanitarian nation ever. But cracks are evident. The sand is shifting. Our moral compass is wavering.

Guinness makes this point. When he states that: “The only proper restraint to freedom is self-restraint.”

What does that mean? It means that those who love freedom must realize that freedom is not a license to do as you please, freedom can only be realized when citizens know self restraint, or put another way — virtue. This parallels George Washington’s belief that democracy requires a virtuous people. Laws don’t really restrain people. Ninety-eight percent of people follow a virtuous course with or without laws. This is not an argument against laws but an argument that laws alone are not enough to civilize a nation.

What America needs is not just another politician or more promises. What America needs is a revival.

Two hundred years ago Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The question is now as important as it was then, will you be “sunshine patriots” shrinking and gone when the going gets tough or will you stand, shoulder to shoulder to defend the Republic!

As your representative, I swore an oath to defend the Republic against enemies foreign and domestic. Now that I’ve been to Washington and seen the belly of the beast, I can tell you that I’ve met the enemy and the enemy is too often right here in this town.

In the White House. In Congress. In both parties.

In bipartisan fashion, Congress defies its own rules on publishing bills online in advance of votes.

The President acts as if he were a king. He ignores the Constitution. He arrogantly says, “If Congress will not act, then I must.” These are not the words of a great leader. These words sound more like the exclamations of an autocrat.

In the face of war, the President is just as arrogant. Instead of coming to Congress, he illegally acts on his own.

We are faced with a crisis in the Middle East that does require action. While I am one who is hesitant to involve us in their civil wars, ISIS is now a threat to our consulate in Erbil and possibly to our embassy in Baghdad.

We must act but we should act within the rule of law. The Constitution states that only Congress may declare war, yet this President has, in Libya, and then again this week in Syria, committed our sons and daughters to a war that is not authorized by Congress.

Had I been President, I would have called for a joint session of Congress, laid out the threat, and requested Congressional authority to respond. By failing to follow the Constitution this President missed a chance to unite the nation. He missed a chance to galvanize the country. He missed the chance to become a great American leader.

How did we stray so far from the Constitution? And how do we find our way back to the traditions of our founders?

Don Devine writes of how Freedom and Tradition are intertwined: “Freedom needs tradition for law, order, and inspiration. Tradition needs freedom to escape stagnation, coercion, and decline. The great achievement of the Constitution’s framers was in providing a means for synthesizing freedom and tradition.”

America needs to revive tradition. America needs to revive virtue. America needs to revive the hope that springs eternal from the transcendent teachings of a humble carpenter who died on a cross. Government can supply bread, but it can’t mend a broken spirit.

Mother Teresa was once praised for her social work in India. She replied, “We are not social workers. We do this for Jesus.” No secular government, no social worker can claim the same motivation. No government, no law, can force a people to be virtuous. Our churches, schools and parents must fill that void.

This is not the norm right now. Speaking of a revival, speaking of our values, is sadly considered nonconformity in this day and age.

In other words, we must do something that our world often tells us not to do: Seek God.

Walker Percy laments in “The Moviegoer” that we’ve left no room for the seeker. Maybe, our country’s revival depends on seeking and re-discovering the synthesis of freedom and tradition.

Some seem to believe you must choose either liberty or virtue — that to be virtuous you can’t have too much liberty. That is exactly wrong. Liberty is absolutely essential to virtue. It is our freedom to make individual choices that allows us to be virtuous. Government cannot impose virtue, we must impose it on ourselves.

This does not mean our government should or cannot reflect our values. In fact, it must. The first Amendment is not about keeping religious people out of government, it is about keeping government out of religion. Some seek to separate the issues of our day. Separate our debt, from the issue of life. Separate our charity from our education policy. Separate our values from our government. This does not work.

Obamacare tries to force us to separate our faith from our business. Fortunately, The Supreme Court thought otherwise.

Reagan understood this unity of message when he wrote: “We do not have a separate social agenda, separate economic agenda, and a separate foreign agenda. We have one agenda, just as surely as we seek to put our financial house in order and rebuild our nation’s defenses, so too, we seek to protect the unborn, to end the manipulation of schoolchildren by utopian planners and permit the acknowledgement of a Supreme Being in our classrooms.”

As Christians, we should always stand with the most defenseless. I believe that no civilization can long endure that does not respect life from those not yet born to life’s last breath.

The debate isn’t really about whether government has a role in protecting life. The debate really hinges on when life begins. I’ve held one and a half pound babies in my hand. I’ve seen them sucking their thumb on ultrasound and I’ve seen surgeons operate on babies still in the womb. So don’t tell me that five and six pound babies have no rights simply because they are not yet born. I am one who will march for Life and will continue to stand up in defense of life as long as I am privileged to be in office.

Another way we as Christians should stand up to the current status quo is in foreign policy. Reagan in his first speech to the UN said: “The record of history is clear: citizens of the US resort to force reluctantly and only when they must.” Reagan believed in strength, but also peace. He said: “As for the enemies of freedom, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people.”

Our foreign policy, though, has too often accepted war instead of peace, and intervention instead of strength, leading to a host of unintended consequences. Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East led time and time again to chaos and ultimately that chaos enabled and abetted the rise of Radical Islam. As secular dictators fell in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and now Syria, radical jihadists exploited the vacuum and Christians have been forced to flee. Where will the Syrian Christians go when the civil war breaks down their door?

Across the Middle East, the story is the same. Christians are either persecuted or on the run. In Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim is on the run. She is a Christian. For her beliefs she was sentenced to death by the Muslim courts of Sudan. Meriam was raised by a Christian mother and married a Christian man. At the time of her arrest, she had a young son and was pregnant. Because Meriam’s father was Muslim, Islamic law considers Meriam and her son to be Muslim. So when she was arrested, Meriam and her young son were taken and kept in prison. Meriam was forced to give birth in prison, shackled to the floor. When Meriam’s Muslim brother was asked about her sentence, he replied: “If she repents and returns to our Islamic faith, then we are her family. But if she refuses she should be executed.”

After her conviction, Meriam was given a chance to recant her Christianity and save her life. She refused, declaring: “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.” Luckily, Meriam was granted asylum and in August she was allowed to come to the United States. But there are more like her.

Across the globe, Christians are under attack as if we lived in the Middle Ages or as if we lived under early pagan Roman rule.

In Libya, once the secular dictator Muammar Gadaffi fell, radical jihadists raided Christian churches rounding up over a hundred Christians accusing them of being missionaries because they possessed Bibles and crosses. Many were tortured and one Christian died while being tortured.

In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian, sits on death row for blasphemy. She says it all began when she drew water from a Muslim villager’s well. As she was filling her bowl of water, a crowd formed chanting, “Death! Death to the Christian!” She pleaded for her life. She was pelted with stones, punched in the face and drug through the streets. The local Imam finally intervened only to say, “If you don’t want to die, you must convert to Islam.” The crowd descended on her again beating her with sticks. Finally, the police stopped the attackers only to arrest her. For several years now, Asia Bibi has been on death row for the alleged crime of blasphemy.

Until Asia Bibi is freed, Pakistan should not receive a penny of U.S. aid! Not one penny should go to any nation that persecutes or kills Christians!

You would think your representatives would get that message but they don’t. This summer I introduced legislation to stop foreign aid to any country that gives the death penalty or life in prison to Christians for religious choices. Both Republicans and Democrats voted overwhelmingly to continue funding countries who persecute Christians. The committee voted 16-2 to continue aid to countries persecuting Christians.

Our foreign policy must also let us Stand with Israel. That’s why this year, I introduced a bill to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas until they laid down their arms, stopped firing their rockets, and publicly recognized Israel’s right to exist. The irony is impossible to escape: Our taxpayer dollars may well end up funding Hamas, allowing them to buy more missiles to attack Israel with. My bill was opposed by Republican and Democrat leaders.

Instead, this past week Congress voted to arm Islamic rebels in Syria. One group of these so-called moderate rebels has stated publicly that when they’re done in Syria, next they will head to Israel. I asked on Senate floor last week: “To those of you who wish to arm these Islamic rebels, tell me who among them will recognize Israel’s right to exist?” No one answered because not one of these Islamic rebels will ever think about recognizing Israel.

In country after country, mobs burn the American flag and chant Death to America. Congress responds by sending more of your money to these haters of Christianity. I say not one penny more to any nation that is burning our flag!

It is time to put a stop to this madness, re-examine our foreign policy, halt all aid to Islamic radicals in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, and take a good hard look at what our foreign policy has done. You and I must and should stand with our fellow Christians in the Middle East and around the world — but that does not necessarily mean war and it certainly does not mean arming both sides in every conflict.

As Christians, we understand that the right to life, and freedom of religion, pre-exist all government. These rights are not granted to man by other men, these rights are granted to us by our Creator.

God, help us in these troubling times to make wise decisions, to make moral decisions, and to listen to the voice of God that lives and breathes and resides in us all. Amen.

Paul is the junior U.S. Senator for Kentucky. These remarks are as prepared for delivery to the Value Voters Summit today in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Malaysia

Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

Protesters raise placards during a prote
Protesters raise placards during a protest outside a mosque in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur, on Nov. 4, 2011. The demonstration was to urge the government to give recognition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community AFP/Getty Images

Harsh interpretations of Quranic law are being used to justify violence against transgender people in particular, activists say

Growing religious conservatism is threatening LGTB rights in Muslim-majority nations across Southeast Asia, say activists, with a new report claiming serious abuses against Malaysia’s transgender community.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published I’m Scared to Be a Woman: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Malaysia. The document makes serious allegations of physical and sexual assault committed against transgender people while in official custody.

Malaysia is a 60% Muslim nation where 13 of 15 states have invoked Shari‘a law to ban transvestism among Muslim men; three states also prohibit women “posing as men.” The statues are loosely defined and leave gaping loopholes for abuse, venality and vindictive prosecution, says HRW.

“Malaysian authorities frequently abuse transgender women at the expense of their dignity and in violation of their basic rights,” Boris Dittrich, LGBT-rights advocacy director at HRW, said in a statement. Malaysia’s Religious Department and other state officials have license to do “whatever they like” with transgender women, he added.

The 73-page report includes testimony from 42 transgender women, three transgender men and 21 other medical professionals, legal representatives, activists and outreach workers.

Victoria, a transwoman from Negeri Sembilan state, told HRW she was “completely humiliated” when Religious Department officials photographed her naked while under arrest in 2011. “They were rough,” she said. “One of them squeezed my breasts. One of them took a police baton and poked at my genitals.”

Gender-reassignment surgery was once available in Malaysia, but rising Islamic conservatism led to a ban issued by the National Fatwa Council in 1982. Thus many transgender people undergo medical transitioning in neighboring Thailand, but this leaves them in legal limbo upon their return.

Such problems are not limited to Malaysia. Brunei recently adopted a Shari‘a penal code, with draconian sanctions such as death by stoning for adulterers and flogging or even death for homosexual acts. The code applies the death penalty to both Muslims and non-Muslims in the case of adultery and sodomy, says the International Council of Jurists, despite official claims that non-Muslims will not be subjected to Shari‘a.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, the semiautonomous state of Aceh is also adopting increasingly harsh interpretations of Shari‘a. A draft bylaw announced this week would punish anal sex between men and “the rubbing of body parts between women for stimulation” with 100 lashes. The law would also apply to non-Muslims.

“We have studied the implementation of Shari‘a in countries like Saudi Arabia, Brunei Darussalam and Jordan to draft this law and we are happy with it,” said Ramli Sulaiman, an Aceh lawmaker who led the drafting commission, reports AFP.

Other states in Indonesia only use Shari‘a for civil matters such as divorce and alimony. But since 2006, an increasing number of districts have issued local ordinances based on Shari‘a to govern social conduct. Although many of these are unconstitutional, the central government often fails to decisively strike them down for political reasons, says Freedom House.

According to Faisal Riza, an activist for the Violet Grey LGBT advocacy group, who hails from Aceh but is now based in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Shari‘a law makes “society feel free to take action or use violence against LGBT people, especially transgender people.”

Discrimination is “getting worse,” he tells TIME, and is exacerbated by “lack of formal education and job access, so some [transgender people] become sex workers.” Possession of condoms is often deemed evidence of prostitution, leaving another window open for abuse and corruption, as well as hampering efforts to tackle the spread of communicable disease, including HIV/AIDS.

In Malaysia, LGBT activists hope an upcoming court case may give them some legal protection. Following the arrest of 16 transgender women at a wedding party in the western coast state of Negeri Sembilan in June, four applicants are claiming that local Shari‘a law is incompatible with national and constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, freedom of movement and equality. The Putrajaya Court of Appeal is slated to rule on the issue on Nov. 7.

“Malaysia urgently needs to scrap laws that discriminate against transgender people, adhere to international rights standards, and put in place comprehensive non-discrimination legislation that protects them,” said HRW’s Dittrich.

TIME faith

Pope Francis Keeps Silent on Syria Strikes

Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014.
Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014. Filippo Monteforte—AFP/Getty Images

The pontiff's decision not to comment on latest airstrikes may be as close as he comes to an endorsement — but it has its risks

One voice has so far remained quiet since the United States and five allied Arab nations launched airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) late Monday: That of Pope Francis.

The Holy Father’s silence is a complete contrast to his all-out effort a year ago this month—almost to the week—to prevent U.S. military strikes against the Syrian regime. Then, Pope Francis dominated the news cycle with his message opposing U.S. intervention. He wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 summit that President Barack Obama was attending, urging leaders to oppose military intervention in Syria: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” he argued.

The Pope singled out a Syrian refugee family during a private visit to the Astalli refugee center in Rome so he could hear their story. He flooded his Twitter feed with messages like, “War never again! Never again war!” and “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake” and “With all my strength, I ask each party in the conflict not to close themselves in solely on their own interests. #prayforpeace.”

He declared a day of prayer and fasting for Syria and held a five-hour prayer service in St. Peter’s Square as the U.S. and France contemplated military strikes. “How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history?” he asked the tens of thousands of faithful gathered. “Even today we raise our hand against our brother. … We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent letters to all members of Congress urging them to vote against military intervention in Syria. The USCCB also wrote to President Obama to make clear that for the Pope and Middle Eastern Bishops “a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences.”

The Pope’s messaging this past week could not be more different. As the U.S. has considered its next steps in combating the ISIS threat, @Pontifex’s tweets have been about spiritual poverty and God’s love that does not cease. In his visit to Albania, he briefly rebuked (unnamed) religious militants who act in the name of God—“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity,” he told diplomats at the presidential palace on Sunday—but that’s about it.

Why the change? Certainly the political landscape has shifted over the past year. The ISIS threat has risen to the global scene, and these latest airstrikes are targeting militant groups rather than Assad’s regime. Russia may now seem like less of an obvious partner for peace after its actions in Ukraine. Pope Francis himself has a panoply of issues on his agenda, from migration crises to Vatican financial reform to the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the family. Plus, there is the risk that the appearance of Vatican support for military intervention against ISIS could flame a “Christian v. Muslim” narrative that could further endanger religious minorities in the region.

The Pope is not usually a figure world leaders look to for foreign policy advice when considering military action—his role is more one of a moral symbol, and so his voice is relevant chiefly for its perceived influence in shaping public opinion. The Catholic Church traditionally holds to the theory of just war, historically accepting military intervention as a sometimes necessary step toward peace. But no one expects a symbol of peace to ever be an advocate for war — and so the Pope’s silence may be as close as the Holy See gets to giving an endorsement.

Francis did hint at his approval of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq last month, when it began targeting ISIS positions there. So long as the international community was involved, and not just a sole actor, he told a reporter on his return flight from South Korea, “I can say only it’s licit to stop an unjust aggressor.”

He also sent special envoy Cardinal Fernando Filoni to Iraq to visit displaced and threatened minorities—Christian, Yezidi, and other—in August. “The Church as Church is and will always be against war,” Filoni, who was the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, said upon returning. “But these poor people have the right to be defended. They have no weapons, they have been driven out from their homes in a cowardly way, they have not engaged the enemy.”

But silence about human rights more broadly however has its risks, especially in pivotal political moments like we are seeing this week. Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen Jr. put what’s at stake in the Pope’s diplomatic career best. “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes [last year],” Allen wrote for the Boston Globe’s new Catholic site Crux. “Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

TIME Religion

The Air Force Scandal Shows Secular Americans Still Need Equal Rights

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Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and internationally best-selling author. Robyn Blumner is the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Too many religious Americans are convinced they can't trust people who don't subscribe to a faith—it's time for the secular to make themselves known

It took the threat of a lawsuit before the Air Force agreed on Wednesday to allow airmen to omit the phrase “So help me God” as part of a required oath. Until then, they claimed an airman stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was ineligible to re-enlist after he crossed out the phrase on his re-enlistment form.

This controversy will rile up many people of good will—not against the military, but against the airman. Why make a big deal out of words that the majority of Americans believe in? Just cross your fingers if you must and say the words. Why rock the boat?

Here’s why: the incident betrays a subtext of intolerance and hostility toward secular people that is embedded in American culture and public institutions. The Air Force was ready to end a man’s military career because he would not submit to its religious demands.

To secular Americans, requiring an oath to God is like asking a Jewish airman to swear, “So help me Jesus,” or asking a Christian to say, “So help me Allah.”

The objection to forcing the oath on nonbelievers should be obvious. It’s not.

But a new campaign is hoping to change all that. Openly Secular, launching today, is a new coalition of more than two dozen secular groups—one of the largest of its kind—coming together with the goal of raising awareness of the numbers of nonreligious people in the country. We include not only atheists and agnostics, but our allied organizations include religious people of many denominations who cherish the Founding Fathers’ ideal of church-state separation.

Secular Americans make up a huge and growing stratum of society. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and the nonreligious make up 20% of Americans overall and fully a third of millennials under 30 years old. But until secular people come forward and introduce themselves, the misconceptions marginalizing them will persist.

The polls are pretty startling. A Pew poll this year found that nearly half of Americans say it’s necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Another recent poll found Americans would rather vote for an adulterous or pot-smoking candidate for President than one who is an atheist.

Many religious Americans would be startled to discover how many nonbelievers they already know and like. Too many religious Americans are convinced they can’t trust people who don’t subscribe to a faith. The truth is, they are constantly trusting nonbelievers; they just don’t realize it.

Secular people are not just academics and scientists—although most academics and 93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences are nonbelievers. Secular people are in police departments protecting streets from crime. They are taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers. They are doctors and nurses treating the sick. And they are serving in the military, putting their lives on the line to protect the country.

Watch the videos on OpenlySecular.org to see average, hardworking Americans come forward and talk about their lives as nonbelievers.

The Openly Secular coalition hopes to eliminate the social costs of coming forward. It is lamentable that people fear they are risking their jobs, businesses and personal relationships, simply through being true to who they are.

One day soon, the stigma and disdain will be so diminished that allowing an airman to re-enlist in the Air Force without swearing to a deity he doesn’t believe in won’t have to become a federal case.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and internationally best-selling author. He has published eleven books, all still in print, including The Selfish Gene, the blockbuster The God Delusion, and his magnum opus The Ancestor’s Tale. Dawkins is a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He was the inaugural holder of the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and is the Prize of Japan.

Robyn Blumner is the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in Washington, D.C. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer at the Tampa Bay Times newspaper (formerly the St. Petersburg Times), where she was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize with colleagues. Blumner was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and of the ACLU of Utah.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Defeating ISIS Will Take More Than Military Action

In order to truly defeat ISIS, we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels

It’s time to make the obvious connections. To keep focusing on consequences for national security, but ignoring the causes will create one terrorist group and war after another. Wars can only ever attack symptoms; peace requires that we deal with fundamental reasons for conflict. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, not the peace-lovers who keep hoping their government’s latest military strategy will work. And to hope for any lasting peace in the Middle East will mean challenging and changing the unjust oil economy we have helped to create—that not only threatens the planet through climate change, but threatens our lives and our children through constant terrorism and war.

Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” is the Chaplain of St. George’s Anglican Church in the capital of Iraq, which is now threatened by ISIS. He was in Washington this week to seek humanitarian aid and protection for the Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq who are suffering at the hands of ISIS. Over breakfast with him, I heard incredibly horrible stories of Christians being slaughtered, with most now fleeing for their lives.

White and Dr. Sarah AK Ahmed, who directs their foundation which administers aid to Iraqis, both described how Christians, Sunni, and Shia Muslims lived together in relative peace until the American invasion of Iraq. Before the war, many in the global faith community, including Pope Saint John Paul II and Christian leaders in the U.S. and the UK, warned that the bombing and invasion of Iraq could destroy and radically destabilize the country, taking many innocent lives and creating more extreme terrorism and hatred toward America across the region. ISIS is a clear result of the American war in Iraq and an occupation which failed to understand and tragically inflamed the 1,400-year sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis.

Now, the warhawks still want to bring another full out war back to Iraq.

But let’s give the hawks credit for some honesty. If we fail to deal with the underlying causes of extreme terrorism, their solution of serial American invasions and long-term occupations in many Middle Eastern countries is one credible response to continuing terrorism—Rome vs. the barbarians. Let’s be clear: ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups are indeed barbarians. Yet it is the injustices of Rome and subsequent super-powers that create the grievances that help create barbarians. The early Christians certainly didn’t side with the barbarians, but neither did they side with Rome: the Christians offered another way, and other alternatives.

The modern injustices that lead to our modern barbarians lead right back to our oil economy and the repressive regimes that produce nothing, but instead just sell the fossil fuels under their sands. It’s time to be honest: the West is guilty of creating those states, of actually defining new countries and shaping the unnatural and oppressive geography of today’s Middle East. Many of these regimes are utterly corrupt, run by elites that serve their own wealth instead of their people and systematically oppress women.

As of 2010, about 55% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa is under the age of 25. Massive numbers of unemployed, uneducated, and angry young men are very vulnerable to hateful extremists who speak the rhetoric of revenge, the savage myth of redemptive violence, and the ugly distortions of religion into their ears. Injustice results in barbarians.

To ultimately “defeat” terrorism will take more than one military action after another. It will take the end of our energy dependence on the unjust oil regimes and their fossil fuels. It will take a conversion to a clean energy future and a commitment to the stewardship of God’s earth which would benefit all of God’s children.

This weekend, many of us from the faith community will gather in New York City as heads of state convene at the United Nations for a summit on climate change. We will make the faith argument for energy conservation, for ending our dependence on dirty energy for investing in clean and renewable energy, and for protecting God’s creation from the alarming and growing dangers of climate change—brought on by our use of fossil fuels.

We must also start to make it clear that overcoming our economic, political, and spiritual addiction to fossil fuels is the only way to overcome and defeat the terrorism that is such a threat to our lives, our children, and our religious freedom in the days ahead.

This will be a long term commitment that will take time. But any short and middle term strategies aimed at protecting vulnerable people and pushing back terrorist forces will only work if they go hand in hand with our long-term conversion to a new energy economy.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

The Theology Behind Obama’s Speech on ISIS

Obama drew from prominent Protestant minister Reinhold Niebuhr

Religion is creating havoc in the world. Authoritarian governments are collapsing in the Middle East, and in the absence of credible alternatives, Sunni and Shi’ite religious groupings, fueled by ancient hatreds, are fighting each other to fill the void.

President Obama gave a speech last week on what to do about it. It was a sane and sensible speech, and one that may have drawn some inspiration from a Protestant minister who was a profound political thinker and one of America’s great public intellectuals of the mid-20th century.

In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama told columnist David Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his “favorite philosophers.” “I love him,” Obama said, and despite the fact that Niebuhr was not a philosopher but a theologian, the President-to-be proceeded to give a very respectable capsule summary of his thinking.

Niebuhr is mentioned less frequently these days, but I heard a distinct Niebuhrian strain in the President’s speech. And that is a good thing. There is no foreign policy consensus today; in fact, there is barely any foreign policy coherence. The Republicans veer wildly from the interventionism of John McCain to the isolationism of Rand Paul. On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is dismissive of the President’s foreign policy positions but seems to have none of her own. Yet amidst this confusion, the President spoke wisely and well, and I heard in his words some of the clarity, depth, and moral power that characterize the writings of his “favorite philosopher.”

A liberal clergyman, Niebuhr wrote forcefully about original sin and the existence of evil in the world. Setting aside the pacifism of his youth, he came to believe that liberal reformers too often exaggerate human goodness. And since nations are even more flawed than individuals, he saw power politics as inevitable. This meant that if justice were to be achieved in this world, America would have to be prepared to exercise the power that she possesses. For great nations in a messy world, there is no opting out; great powers must take chances and get their hands dirty in order to do right.

In this vein, the President was specific about the evil that is ISIS; he spoke of the attempted genocide, the mass executions, the abuse of women, and the killing of children. He mentioned the gruesome beheadings of American journalists. And he spoke as well of America’s obligation to lead in the world and to promote both justice and freedom, and did so with more passion than has been his custom of late.

But there is another side to Niebuhr, and there was another side to the President’s speech. Niebuhr affirmed power but also feared it. While individuals are sometimes humble, he believed that nations—and especially great powers—never are. They assume that they can change the world in ways they cannot. They act for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they are supposedly helping. They deify their own states and their own intentions. They fail to ask if what they are undertaking will help or hurt. And they do all of this, often, with the very best of intentions, certain of their own virtue. And the result? Tragedies such as Vietnam, where American pretensions led not to the justice that Americans aspired to but to suffering and disaster.

The President, it seemed to me, was clearly aware of the dangers of overreach, and he did a reasonably good job, to use David Brooks’ phrase, of “thread(ing) the Niebuhrian needle.” He talked about things that America can reasonably expect to accomplish, such as air strikes on ISIS targets and delivering humanitarian aid. He avoided the temptation to inflate the threat of terrorism, even as he pledged to keep America safe. And he refrained from the language of jingoism and belligerence to which such occasions lend themselves. And above all, he made a firm commitment that American troops would not fight a battle that, if it is to be won, must be fought by Arab armies. In short, the President more or less succeeded in balancing American assertiveness with the humility that Niebuhr prized as the essential—and usually the missing—ingredient of American foreign policy.

And this too: Niebuhr was an enthusiastic champion of the checks and balances of the Constitution. He was reassured by the idea that each branch of government would ride herd on the others and thereby prevent abuses of power in pursuing foreign adventures. Here too the President got it right in calling for the full and robust engagement of the Congress in authorizing and shaping the campaign against ISIS.

I have no doubt that the President will be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the warmongering elements of the opposition, but I find his performance impressive. The American people needed to hear a plan, and they did; they needed to be reassured, and they were. And they needed to know, as they now do, that their government will not rush off and engage us in a battle that will exacerbate rather than calm the deeply troubled waters of the Middle East, taking many American lives in the process.

What would Reinhold Niebuhr say? I can only speculate. He died in 1971, and we will never know what he would say or do. But my guess is that the President was paying attention to his teachings, and the great theologian would be pleased.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

 

 

TIME Religion

What I Gained When I Lost My Religion

A former evangelical Christian reflects on the benefits of losing his faith

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

People often ask me if my life is better now that I’ve left my religion. My honest answer is that it’s a mixed bag. On the negative side, I have to say that the reactions of people who liked me better when I still had faith have been at times very strong. I usually become a target for re-evangelism for a while, but they eventually learn to quit pushing me after they realize that I’ve heard everything they have to say about this a thousand times. Most people probably just decide I’m being stubborn and/or that the Devil’s got me under a spell; but while the pushing may stop, the disappointment lingers on. Some do their best to keep a lid on that, which I appreciate, but you can still hear it in their voices and that can hurt. If you crave the approval of people, and if you live where I live, I wouldn’t recommend atheism for you.

But once you rule out how some have behaved toward me because of my unbelief, I have to say that (when I am not working too much) I am enjoying life in a way that I haven’t enjoyed it in a long time. It’s not always about what I’m doing at the time, either. Often it’s just about feeling more at home in my own skin than I ever felt when I still believed that Earth is not my home and that I’m supposed to be longing for some other place. To explain what I mean, here is a list of the things which leaving my religion has brought me. Not everyone will necessarily experience the same things I did, but these are the benefits that I see I personally have derived from this development:

1. Peace of mind. As a person who likes to try to understand the world around me, I have found that this perspective fits so much better with the world I see than the religious perspective ever did, and that brings a tangible sense of satisfaction for me. Every week, every month, I find things seem to get clearer and clearer to me. Things just make a whole lot more sense to me now. Julia Sweeney said it perfectly when she said, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.” I don’t mean that I understand everything, and I’ve still got plenty of unanswered questions. But you don’t have to be ruled by your need to have answers to all your questions. I think our religions feed that problem in order to perpetuate our need for them. Leaving your religion can free you up to find better answers to some questions while enabling you to let go of the ones that don’t really have good answers.

2. A rediscovery of a love of learning. For me personally, I found that the loss of my religious beliefs opened me up to a really big universe of fascinating and intriguing realities. I realize that faith and learning coexist in some people’s minds better than others, but more often than not they are in great tension with one another, and at times they are diametrically opposed to one another. My change of mind energized my dormant scientific side, and as a consequence I find that almost daily I learn something new which amazes me and further stimulates my love of learning about the world around me.

3. The ability to accept people I formerly judged. Religious belief taught me, for example, to judge the LGBT community for being attracted to anything other than “the appropriate sex.” It taught me that something is wrong with these people, and while it also taught me I’m supposed to love them and somehow accept them and reach out to them, I’m also supposed to condemn something that lies at the core of their identity. That’s no longer an issue for me. The main reason most people I know condemn same-sex relationships is because of their religion. Leaving your religion can free you from that burden. I now count several of them as my most supportive friends. In fact, I have found that losing my religion has opened me up to a much wider range of people because I do not have a 2,000 year old book telling me how I should see the world. I think I’m a better person for this change of mind.

4. Less judgement toward myself…for some things. Just as a loss of religion has made me more accepting of others, I am getting better at accepting myself, with certain caveats. I do not let myself off the hook for things I consider unhealthy, or unkind, or inconsiderate of others. There are good, non-religious reasons to work to eliminate those kinds of behaviors in life. I will not, for example let myself off the hook for being dishonest toward people, nor will I excuse substandard work in my professional life. But there are quite a few things which my religion taught me I should feel guilty about, and I don’t have to shoulder that anymore. This brings an improved quality of life. I will not consider it wicked, for example, to have “thought crimes” such as wanting something I don’t have or savoring the attractiveness of another person. Religion puts many layers of guilt on us for things which are perfectly natural, and the resulting manipulation is powerful. But I’m done with that now. The self-loathing and guilt my religion taught me was in retrospect incredibly unhealthy. It takes time to unlearn the negative self-talk. But once you’ve made some progress in letting that go, you can become a much happier person.

5. I give credit where credit is due, both to others and to myself. Like the preceding two, I think this makes me a healthier person than before. If someone does something good, I do not thank God for it. I thank the person who actually did it. They deserve credit for the things that they do. Doctors, for example, must get really tired of hearing people give God credit when their surgical/medical skills and learning are what saved a person’s life. My daily life isn’t so dramatic as that, mind you, but it’s analogous. The other side of this is that when I do something right, I allow myself to take credit for it. This, thanks to my evangelical upbringing, is much harder to do. I found that the Christian faith discouraged me from acknowledging positive things about myself so that I ended up with a terrible self image. I still suffer from that because I learned self-loathing so very well. But it’s getting better, little by little. I had to leave the Christian faith for that to happen.

6. Getting Sunday mornings back. Of course, it extends beyond that once you consider how much of a person’s life can be spent investing in things like prayer, worship, Bible study, witnessing/growing membership, or attending conferences which teach you how to do all these things more effectively. After you give those things up, you realize just how much of your life you get back. I never resented my religion for the amount of my time and effort it took up. I enjoyed it at the time because I believed all of it was pleasing to God and that’s all I wanted in life. But now that I’ve “given up the ghost” so to speak, I see that there are so many other valuable things toward which I could be devoting my time and energy.

7. Better health. I realize good health and spiritual commitment don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for me personally a shift in beliefs brought a shift in priorities such that my physical health became more important to me. Now I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life, and this significantly affects the quality of my life. Just yesterday I ran another one of those mud runs with some friends in another state and I had a blast. I hope to write a few thoughts and observations about that soon.

8. Better sex. You wouldn’t believe how much more you can enjoy sex once you let go of the subtle (or often not-so-subtle) body shame that accompanies religious devotion. I know a number of couples who once were devout Christians and now are both non-believers, and almost without exception they have reported an improvement in their sex lives. It’s not that religion always directly shames people for their desires and their pleasures. But the Christian faith in particular teaches you never to be totally at home in your own body. It talks as if you belong somewhere else, and this just isn’t compatible with fully embracing your own physical existence the way that really good sex requires.

9. Friends who are more fun. And the parties are way better. Even simple conversation is more entertaining, honestly. I know this may sound petty, but I’m just telling you what my experience is. When group A is dominated by a long list of things you’re not supposed to say, think, or feel, and group B doesn’t have that list, you can guess which group is gonna be more fun to be with. And again, I find it easier now to be friends with a wider range of people.

10. More realistic expectations about life. I no longer believe that I am special or that a ubiquitous, all-powerful paternal figure is orchestrating events around me for my benefit (or for the benefit of anything or anyone, really). So I act accordingly. And I find that I don’t get let down by things not going “the way they were supposed to.” I take responsibility for those things I can control, and I don’t look for a savior to come and rescue me. Again, I think I am a better person for it.

11. A greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Once you realize this life is the only one you’re gonna get, you learn to appreciate each day in a way you never could when you believed there would be trillions more in your future. I found that a belief in eternity only lowered my evaluation of daily life and it cheapened life, in a way. But once you realize this one short life is all you’re going to get, you will find it easier to throw yourself into what you do, knowing that you need to make the most of it that you can. You won’t minimize the suffering of others (or of yourself) by saying that life will get better after you die. You might even be more motivated to be an agent of change in the world once you realize someone’s not going to come in and magically reboot the whole thing one day. It’s up to us to make the most of our one life that we can, and I find that a disbelief in the supernatural has helped me to do that.

What things could you add to this list? How has leaving your religion benefited your life? I’d like to know.

Neil Carter is a blogger, teacher, father of five, and former evangelical Christian who now writes on skepticism and life in the Deep South.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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