Lordy Lordy Lordy

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This weekend I attended the bat mitzvah of a long-time family friend who, having never become a bat mitzvah as a child, spent the past year and a half studying to do so now. This put me inside a temple for the first time in many, many years, and I discovered that my opinion about organized religion hasn't changed.

I hate it.

Many of the great evils of history-- the Crusades, the Inquisition, the PAX network-- have been performed in the name of religion. I despise the way children are indoctrinated to the rituals of faith without questioning or fully understanding the tenets behind them. These children grow up to put more importance on the rituals themselves than on their meaning. Rather than being taught to open their minds, embrace multiple points of view, and discover for themselves which beliefs inform their lives, the indoctrinated fall in line and adopt a rigidity of thought that not only holds no room for opposition, but feels threatened by it.

Yes, I'm oversimplifying. The point remains. More importantly, I personally have no use for a God who cares for form over function. No God worth worshipping would care if my head was covered, or my clothes had fringes, or I starved myself for one day a year. In fact, no God worth worshipping would desire that worship. It's something of a catch 22, although God himself would of course be unfazed. "What, you think I'd trip over a paradox, you little pischer? I was bending the rules of space and time before I gave birth to myself."

I don't believe in God. The concept was something created by man to explain the unexplainable. Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. God is the ultimate magician. It's not a matter of lack of proof. We have no proof of extraterrestrial beings, and yet logic compels me to believe that Earth is not the only cradle of life in the infinite universe. Similar logic leads me to believe that God is a fiction, and that organized religion is simply a means for a select few to gain and retain power.

If God does exist, I'd like to imagine he's a lot like the one who talks to Joan of Arcadia. No fire or brimstone. No right or wrong belief. Just a benevolent patriarch hoping his creations find their way, who looks and sounds a lot like Mrs. Landingham.

I have no problem with people who believe in God. OK, that's not entirely honest. I can't really understand how intelligent adults can conclude that there exists an omnipotent being who can hear their thoughts, be everywhere at once, and yet care one iota about whether or not they eat pork. It just makes no sense to me. Now add that such a being allowed the Holocaust and Dude, Where's My Car? to happen, and I no longer care-- he's lost my vote. But you're entitled to your own opinion, and personal faith should be just that-- personal. If belief in God brings you comfort and joy, terrific. It's when your belief starts crimping someone else's style that I call a party foul. "In God We Trust"? What this "we", kimosabe?

The thing is, I recognize why organized religion thrives. It's not because of God. Or fear. Or inertia. It's because of the deep, abiding human need for community. We want to belong. And what organized religion does really well is create an environment where people can feel like they belong. All they have to do is drink the Kool-Aid. Presto, instant community. There are very few secular organizations with such a strong feeling of community. Some, like the Masons, are shrouded in secrecy. Others, like the Elks, are glorified boys' clubs. If you want to plug into a social network for your family, religion is really the only game in town. Sure, the kids hate to dress up on Sunday and sit on hardwood pews for a couple of hours. But they see all the other kids in the neighborhood, and their parents get to know each other, and there's all that Bingo. Non-believers like me-- the ones who aren't willing to just go through the motions-- get squat.

Maybe I should start my own Church of the Dueling Pianos, with Beatles sing-a-longs and collaborative NY Times crossword solving every Sunday.

12 Comments

Peter, for a Nice Jewish Boy being inspired to write by a Bar Mitzvah, the language and examples you draw on are predominantly Christian. I suppose this is not that surprising since the US and US popular culture (of which you are so fully immersed) are dominated by Christianity. Even so, "Judeo-Christain" is a relatively recent coinage meant to erase a difference that I don't think is so easily elided. The Baptists here in GA and I don't have much in common faith-wise. Part of that, I confess, comes from the fact that I share many of your concerns and questions about organized religion and your Groucho Marxian approach to dieties (I wouldn't want to worship a god who would have me worship him/her/it). My fiance has already predicted I will be smote with a fiery sword someday. I am relatively libertarian in my approach to all this. You can believe in what and who you want, just don't force it on me. Thus, I will strike you with aforementioned fiery sword if, when you ask if you can give me your testamonial, you don't respect my right to say no. I'd also like you to stay out of my bedroom, relationships, and marriage. If we are of different religions (and/or sexual orientations) you really shouldn't have a lot to say about what unions I enter into with another consenting adult. Needless to say, I find the current, frantic efforts to make gay marriages unconstitutional ludicrous. What could gays do to hurt marriage that a culture with a 51% divorce rate and Jerry Springer hasn't already done?

I think it is pretty easy to paint a broad negative picture of organized religion, but don't miss the point that there are good parts too. Organized religion in some form was a primary advocate for such positive social change as quality free public education (perhaps our greatest strength until the past two decades), the fight to eliminate slavery, and the promotion of civil rights. Unfortunately, it seems that the past twenty years has seen a shift away from the notion that religion can abide with scientific curiousity and free thought.

So, while I'll agree that organized religion can be dangerous, I disagree that it always is evil. People need ceremony in their lives, whether it revolves around a morning pot of coffee, or a trip to a church on Sunday. Neither is an excuse to shut of your brain, nor a permission slip to co-opt another's life for your cause.

As to the broader religious faith issues you raise, it is worth noting that many people need help in determining right and wrong. Every stable society has found a way to establish some ground rules and pass them on from generation to generation. For most of human history this has been driven by religion, or philosophy that is followed with what could be called 'religious' devotion. I do believe, in part because the evidence I've seen indicates that when we do follow the basic ideas of charity and love on a broad scale, the world indeed becomes a better place to live. Whether that cause and effect is seen as divine or mundane is somewhat irrelevant to me, it doesn't change what is the right thing to do.

I just want to comment on one part of what I think is a well written take on a tired subject. I have often heard that religion gives people comfort: that they get "answers" to some of life's mysteries. In some ways, I can see that. While I have to wonder what will happen to my concious mind when they throw me in a hole, the truly religious can rest easy knowing that they will be banging away at seventy two southern chicks in the afterlife. That's the idea, anyway. But what of hell? I don't have to worry about that idea either. One slip up on a mysterious and unknown checklist and you could be one of the illustrious seventy two for the next fellow, or worse - you could end up sitting on hard little benches and be forced to listen to self-righteous asses spew out their version of the truth for all eternity. My point is I feel very comforted by the fact that there is no hell in the afterlife.

Amen.

I don't belong to an organized religion. I'm a Unitarian Universalist. (apologies to Will Rogers and the Democrats)

Seriously though, your anti-religion screed completely ignores 'organized' religions that don't proselytize, indoctrinate or even have dogma. UUs, for example, are organized around general principles that include the inherent rights and dignity of all people, the interdependency of living things on earth, and each individual's search for his/her own spiritual path. Not only do we not force our views on others; UUs are preaching and organizing to stop others from doing so.

(I'm only mentioning the UUs because it's what I know. Other religions have similar beliefs about religious tolerance, though I don't know how many are non-dogmatic. For example, it's unlikely you've had many Buddhists knocking on your door trying to tell you about the wonders of meditation. Heck, there are even Christian churches which actively organize for gay marriage and the separation of church and state.)

Religion is about community, of course, but it's also about spirituality; and it's not always about doctrine. If you want to blow off all religions as fitting under a monotheistic, Judeo-Christian umbrella that you've assembled out of the American cultural understanding of "church" and sit home on Sunday morning (or Saturday evening), that's cool. But don't make it out like you don't get squat. You just haven't looked for squat.

Peter, have you heard of Humanistic Judaism? (www.shj.org) According to their website, "Humanistic Judaism offers a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life.

SHJ Philosophy

Humanistic Jews Affirm That...

...A Jew is someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people.

...Jewish identity is best preserved in a free, pluralistic environment

...Jewish history is a human saga, a testament to the significance of human power and human responsibility.

..Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people.

...We possess the power and responsibility to shape our own lives independent of supernatural authority.

...Ethics and morality should serve human needs.

...The freedom and dignity of the Jewish people must go hand in hand with the freedom and dignity of every human being."

That's what I like about Judaism. You can be Jewish and an atheist.

Hey, Peter. Similarly, Reconstructionist Judaism takes notice of the substance of your critiques -- see http://www.jrf.org/recon/rjis.html and linked resources.

This is the problem with the Internet. Here I am venting my spleen, and you all retort with reasoned discourse.

Yes, much of what I'm railing against is represented under the Judeo-Christian framework (although let's not forget our Islamic friends). In this little corner of the world, it's the poster child for religion. And it's kinda ugly.

There may be other choices out there that more closely align with me, but no matter how humanist they are, by definition they all have something in common-- faith in a divine power. Spirituality. An affirmation of the existance and importance of God. I do not believe, and I will not be a hypocrite. There is no place for me in any organization in which the commonality among the members is spiritual.

Jacqui: Humanistic Judaism is an interesting concept, but I just don't see how you can separate God from the Jewish identity. I notice they still observe the major Jewish holidays. You can deemphasize the religious context all you want, but that doesn't change the real reason the holidays exist. As we discussed a few months ago, I don't care how many Christians tell me that Christmas isn't religious-- it's the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and swapping presents and sucking on candy canes doesn't change that. Passover might be a great excuse to get the family together for a big meal, but it's kinda hard to overlook the whole ten plagues thing, especially with the lamb shank right there on the seder plate.

"There may be other choices out there that more closely align with me, but no matter how humanist they are, by definition they all have something in common-- faith in a divine power. Spirituality. An affirmation of the existance and importance of God. I do not believe, and I will not be a hypocrite."

Not true. Keep in mind that spirituality does not equate with "An affirmation of the existence and importance of God". (Witness: my wife Sara's involvement in a church.) As the links in these comments attest, you do not need to forgo critical thought, be a true believer or be a hypocrite in order to join a community of people who are themselves grappling with issues of religion and spirituality.

The only reason I keep repeating this is because I really do think you (and many others who believe as you do in this matter) would find value in such a community. And I think it's too bad that it's dismissed out of hand.

"There is no place for me in any organization
in which the commonality among the members is spiritual."

I don't agree, but hey, the point's been made. I'll stop belaboring it.

"The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secure; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethics of scientific cooperation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion."

While I agree with what you're saying on some points, keep in mind that all the things you disagree with about organized religion are products of how Man envisions religion. And I agree with most of what you�ve said. (I'm non-denominational Christian now, but I used to be an atheist.) However, I think that since humans are inherently flawed, we just naturally screw up what God gives us by molding it into what WE think it should be and what serves US best, instead of taking how God gave it to us and running with it. To quote from one of my favorite movies, "Dogma", when Rufus is talking about what Jesus is like: "He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it."

Which is one of the reasons I find organized religion to be unreliable. There are so many traditions and holidays (and I only speak for Christianity here, because that's all I've experienced) that are completely bogus and have nothing to do with the idea of the religion. They were created or adapted by Man to fit a certain belief structure. Some examples are decorating trees at Christmas and hiding Easter eggs. These were traditions completely unrelated to the Christian faith as it was first envisioned, but in order to convert people to Christianity, as a faith it had to adopt the traditions native to the surrounding people's religions, to "soften the blow" of converting, so to speak. The hierarchy in the Catholic church is another big one. The order of Pope to Cardinal and on down is completely a product of Man's need for structure, and it creates a hunger for power and prestige among the (supposedly) most devout men of the Church, something completely contradictory to the doctrine of the Christian faith. Jesus himself would most likely call them hypocrits.

Even the Bible, considered in organized religion to be the �Divine Word of God,� can�t logically be seen as untainted by Man�s own desires and personality. The Bible has gone through a bunch of filters, and each one has incrementally changed the Bible. If we start with the assumption that God did originally inspire the writers of the Bible through his own words, (which takes away the HUGE filter of oral tradition), you�ve still got the filter of the writer that the words have passed through. He may have put his own spin to the story, or maybe added parts he felt needed further explanation, or left out parts he forgot, or even just switched the wording around a bit. The next filter is scribes who may have miscopied the wording in the Bible, and another filter is the language itself, which loses or changes meaning when it gets translated over and over again. One of my favorite examples of this is on the Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail DVD. They take several scenes, dub them in Japanese, and then retranslate it back into English subtitles, and the meaning of the scene totally changes! Another filter was the Canonizing of the Bible, in which some books were left out while others were included. Again, this was the work of the Catholic hierarchy of Men. And what about all the different versions of the Bible? And the last filter is the interpretation of the Bible: should it be literal or allegorical? After all these filters and changes, people still want to adhere strictly to what the Bible says word for word? If you take anything from the Bible, it should be the ideas that it contains, not the wording.

How can anyone take part in organized religion when it distorts its own teachings in the name of a comforting structure? Because it's easier to just perform the rituals, say your Hail Marys, and go through the motions. As long as people perform the rituals and traditions that Man has created, they don't have to worry about all that belief stuff. It's an easy out. People convince themselves that if they go to Church every Sunday, it means that they're a good Christian and are going to Heaven. They don't realize that having faith, real faith, is something that can't fit into a comfortable pattern of mindless traditions. It comes from within, and it has to be felt, not simply performed.

This is why I�ve chosen to steer clear of organized religion and a strictly locked belief structure, but not faith. When I decided to become an atheist, my rational, scientific mind was satisfied, but I still felt lost when it came to questions that science couldn�t answer. A big one was the 9/11 attacks. I was so angry, and I figured that if there was a God, He wouldn�t have let something so terrible and destructive take place in �His� name. But in my struggle to come to terms with my anger at God, I found my faith.

But that�s another long topic, and I�ve already talked WAY too much for one night.

When someone tells me "I don't believe in God," I often ask "What kind of God don't you believe in?". It usually turns out that I don't believe in that kind of God either.

I think the "real reason the holidays exist" is precisely to get people together. Why are holidays such a universal concept, even in religions that developed independently? It's because the periodic (but not too frequent) observation of special events serves a social purpose, and also because they help maintain the authority of the religion's leaders within the community.

If you don't believe in organized religion or in deities, how can you believe that the "real reason" for the holiday is that God decreed it should be one?

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