The Common Good

Today's News Round-up

RMS_Titanic_sea_trials_April_2,_1912Aide: Obama faces 'titanic struggle' in 2012

President Obama and aides are bracing for a tough re-election bid in 2012, thanks to a tough economy.David Axelrod, a top adviser to Obama, told a group of New Hampshire politicians and business people yesterday, "We have the wind in our face because the American people have the wind in their faces."

"So this is going to be a titanic struggle," Axelrod said. "But I firmly believe we're on the right side of the struggle."

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U.N.: Clashes, bombings on rise in Afghanistan

In its quarterly report on Afghanistan released Wednesday, the U.N. says that as of the end of August, the average monthly number of incidents was 2,108. That's up 39% compared with the same period last year.

The U.N. report also says that while the number of suicide attacks remained steady, insurgents are conducting more complex suicide operations, involving multiple bombers and gunmen.

It says that on average, three complex attacks have been carried out each month this year - a 50% increase compared with the same period last year.

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500px-Smiley_head_happy.svgThe Reason Some Of Us Are Happier: Genetics

A new study by UCLA life scientists found that the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is a strong predictor of optimism and self-esteem. Apparently, if you're missing certain nucleotides at a specific location on that gene, you're much more likely to see the glass as half full. If you have 'em, the researchers say, you're likely to have "substantially lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery, and significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms" than your more fortunate brethren.

This survey has been hailed as a breakthrough, but its basic message -- that humans are born with a tendency toward a "happiness quotient" -- comes as no great surprise. Google the phrase "happy gene" and you'll get various older citations pointing to the conclusion that about half of our sense of well-being is inherited. Other scientists claim that a different gene (5-HTTLPR) regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin, aka the "happy hormone."

And then there's the "happy hour gene," which may explain why some of your friends can drink you under the table and still wake up on the right side of the bed the next morning.

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Rosh Hashanah: Shofar Blast As A Call To Conscience About People With Disabilities

As the executive director of an organization that works with families of children with special needs, I am only too aware that the excitement and hubbub created by the Jewish holidays are often overwhelming for children with special needs... unless they are prepared ahead of time.

With its evocative, ancient sound, the Shofar can terrify such a child unless an adult -- a parent or educator -- first introduces the concept. This year, for the first time, our organization, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, prepared a set of specialized downloadable High Holiday Resources to maximize the experience of the holiday and all of its rituals, One of these resources is designed specifically to help children "make friends" with the Shofar.

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Kenya: Nun Recommends Human Rights Lessons for Children

A Catholic nun has recommended that human rights issues be taught in schools. By this way, she says, children will grow knowing their rights and how defend them.

Sister Mary Francis Wangari, Programme Officer for Good Governance programme of the Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) of the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya (AOSK) was addressing this year's International Peace Day (September 24) at St Teresa's Girls' High School, Nairobi said it was unfortunate that we have left this in the hands of the media.

"Our children are learning lot on the human rights issue through the media. It is time the issue was introduced and taught in schools," she said.

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Wangari Maathai with Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, 2006.

Reporting Wangari Maathai's death: Missing religion for the trees

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway at GetReligion.org writes:

I remembered reading about Maathai on religion blogs back when she won the Peace Prize. A significant portion of her work was dedicated to the relationship between religion and environmentalism. So I waited for the portion of the obituary that explained the role that her Catholicism played in her work. It never came. The obituary did mention she studied at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. That school is run by the Benedictine Sisters and you can read some great articles about their relationship to Maathai here....

Usually New York Times obituaries are quite good at incorporating the role that religion played in someone's life. Maathai was quite clear about her religious views and it would be nice to have those included in the article about her life.

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Wangari Maathai and Education of Girls in Africa

Michael Mungai at the Huffington Post writes:

In an overwhelmingly patriarchal society as my home country Kenya, it is very hard to imagine that a woman can rise to the stature of being mentioned in the same breath as humanitarian luminaries like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. From a society that has been very adamant to invest in the education of girls, forcing the little women into marriages with men old enough to be their grandfathers, how could one of them become an icon of global leadership in a continent riddled with corrupt despots?

The late professor Wangari Maathai, the daughter of a farm-hand working under a British settler in colonial Kenya, did it and won a Nobel Peace Prize while at it. In September 2005, I had the privilege of briefly meeting Professor Maathai in New York. It was during my first week in the United States and I was delighted to meet such a warm, lively person who everyone back home fondly referred to as "Mother Nature." Looking at her, I saw what could be the future of Africa if the world invested in the education and empowerment of African girls.

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Next Execution in U.S.: This afternoon in Florida

the next execution in the USA is set for today, at 4 p.m., with a state-ordered killing in Raiford, Florida, of Manuel Valle, age 61. Valle was convicted of killing one highway patrol officer and wounding another -- 33 years ago. So he has spent more than half his life on death row.

It would be the first execution in the state since February 2010. A long-shot appeal has been filed at the U.S. Supreme Court. The daughter of the murder victim responded to news of the final date for the execution by saying: "Woo Hoo!"

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A quarter of Britons have 'no religion at all'

A U.K. survey of more than 400,000 people by the Office for National Statistics found the proportion who said they were not religious rose from 20.5% in 2010 to 23.2% this year.

In particular, the study found that there had been a significant fall in the numbers describing themselves as Christian, from 71.3% last year to 68.5% by March 2011, when asked the question, "What is your religion, even if you are not currently practising?"

Across the country, the figures would suggest that an estimated 14 million people in Great Britain, out of a population of more than 60 million, have no religious beliefs at all.

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Legal cases involving minister's naked ritual reopens cult debate

In a small house overlooking a lake in Wauconda, Ill., a minister directed his female followers to go into a back room and take off their clothes.

In one-on-one sessions, he got naked, touched their bodies and told them to touch his.

He called them prayer sessions.

What allegedly happened in that room over a series of months would spur a criminal probe in one county, spark civil litigation in two others, and reopen the age-old debate on what's a cult.

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