Saturday, November 7, 2009

Religion and Me

I liked some things about being a fundamentalist Christian.  I liked, probably most of all, the camaraderie that you get when you are a member of a close-knit group of fellow travelers, like how you might feel toward other Americans when you're in some remote location abroad.  "You're from the States?  Where?"  "Texas."  "Texas!  I'm from Wyoming!"  "Wyoming!  Alright!"  Like that makes you practically cousins.  That's how it is, sometimes, when you are among fellow believers, in a world hostile to the Gospel.  And then, being a Bible-believing Christian as the end of the world nears, and thinking about what's going to happen when all the believers are raptured.  That was pretty exciting stuff.  And the hymns at Christmas, and the feeling that I had a Friend, and the special meanings in everything.  There were a lot of things to like.

On the other hand, I disliked some things about being a fundamentalist Christian.  I disliked the feeling of obligation to save souls - to harass people about Jesus, in effect, when I knew they had absolutely no interest in hearing it.  I disliked the confusion that I experienced, and that I certainly saw in the lives of others around me, as we tried to reconcile our hope that God was on our side with the reality that, too often, things were just not working out as advertised.  After all the allowances for God's superior wisdom and so forth, the uncomfortable fact remained that we were forever inventing ad hoc justifications on his behalf, as if he were an abusive father for whom we needed to make excuses, lest the outside world find out what a cluster our family life actually was.

I especially disliked the dishonesty of trying to portray the Bible as being consistent when it was weaving around like a drunk sailor, and as being a source of guidance when it was obviously wrong and even dangerous.  I disliked that my religion seemed, historically, to have been on the negative side of everything, as if God wanted us to be dragging our feet and giving people a hard time whenever they wanted to dance, drink, and play bingo.  It was as if God did not want us to acknowledge equal rights for women, or to reject slavery even if St. Paul did condone it, or to understand dinosaur bones, or to inform kids about sex - and so on, ad nauseum.  I disliked the fact that Christians of the sixth century cut off the ears of Christians who disagreed with them, and that Christians of the twelfth century found it important to take Jerusalem from the people who lived there, and that Christian faith seemed to provide an important fault line underlying innumerable other wars and atrocities - dividing Byzantine from Roman Christendom, and Roman Catholics from Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants from Lutheran Protestants, and Missouri Synod Lutheran Protestants from Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Protestants, and so forth.  I definitely disliked seeing how Christians avoided taking responsibility for the assumption of superiority that keeps being used to justify such behavior, century after century.

Lots of Christians would tell me, right off, that their religious practices and beliefs are not like that.  And that's the nature of religion:  keep moving.  Keep 'em guessing.  If something has been publicly rejected as one of the worst aspects of your faith, make sure that you join everyone else in condemning it, and redefine your religion as something that would never behave in such a way.  It's just commonsense marketing.

Liberal Christianity was my case in point:  it freed me from much of the heavy baggage of my fundamentalism.  As a liberal Christian, I could have a much more educated sense of superiority, there in my nice clean clothes on Sunday morning, surrounded by all those other nice-smelling middle-class suburban white people.  It wasn't about the Bible anymore, per se; it was about the undeniable importance of compassion and giving.  These, I think, were the kinds of Christians to whom Bertrand Russell would have been referring, in Britain in 1927, when he wrote these words:

There is another point which I consider excellent.  You will remember that Christ said, "Judge not lest ye be judged."  That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I have known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians and none of them felt that they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did.
Liberal Christian belief and Unitarianism, with which I flirted after some years away from religion altogether, gave me company in my mild, patronizing scorn for the fundamentalists among whom I had counted myself previously.  Actually, it gave me company, period, as I socialized with other religiously indifferent but socially concerned individuals.  But then, alas, the socializing gave way to subgrouping, gossip, and misunderstanding, and I understood that his would probably always be one of the defining features of the Body of Christ.

I couldn't have said for sure what I was supposed to be believing during this phase.  I do remember that, during a visit to a Unity church, I was struck by the many references to "the Christ in you."  Those references reminded me of the advertisement I was hearing on the radio at about the same time:  "I like the Sprite in you."  Neither, I surmise, was intended on a literal level; but in what figurative sense I should construe such sentiments, I cannot say.  In any event, I sensed that my days as a liberal Christian were numbered when I found myself thinking, during a visit to a new church, that it was a pretty cool place, except for all the talk about Jesus and such.

I never got around to becoming Jewish, except to the extent of being married to a Jewish person whose religion consisted of lighting the candles and singing the prayer, and then dissolving into laughter halfway through because that was all she remembered.  But I picked up a fair amount during my dozen years in New York, half of which I spent at a school where, it was said, the three major religions were equally represented:  Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed.

As far as I can tell, Judaism is more or less like Christianity, on a smaller scale.  You have your extreme fundamentalist conservatives, who make things miserable for themselves and everyone else.  You have your totally assimilated liberals, who don't much know or care what their putative religion is about.  In the middle, you have people who occasionally become overbearingly self-righteous about some particular issue, or who otherwise have a somewhat identifiable culture of their own, but who generally seem like they get along better and are happier to the extent that they can control their religion, rather than having it control them.

Other religions seem, to me, to follow relatively similar lines of thinking.  There are the Brahmins at the top in India, and the upper-class Muslims in various nations, and I imagine I would find, if I looked into it, that there were social classes among the Incas as well; and in all cases, no doubt, the lower-income people are expected to fight and die to defend the upper-income people of their religion - even if they actually have more in common with the lower-income infidels they're shooting at.

Nowadays, I've begun to think that may be the nature of the difference between religion and spirituality.  If you're religious, you'll pick up that gun and shoot that person - your former neighbor, perhaps - because of the religion s/he belongs to.  Or, to put it differently, you probably wouldn't be shooting him/her if s/he were of your own religion.  You may think you would never do that, but then the social pressure and the law and the fear kick in, and after a couple of months of military training, you become like all the others, before you, who said and then did exactly the same things.

It's somewhat different with atheists, who never seem to have armies of their own.  For them, the righteous zeal tends to come out in other ways - in, for instance, the racist e-mails I get from some atheist intellectuals, educating me about the stupidity of Bible-belt rednecks.  This literature is ironically reminiscent of the sacred spam I get from my few remaining Bible-thumper friends.

Spirituality, I think, is not a matter of imagining that your elevated feelings of a "higher" reality are anything more than funky chemicals in your skull.  It's also not a question of whether God exists.  His existence or nonexistence does not make anyone spiritual.  I think, much to the contrary, that it may be more spiritual to simply admit that you don't have privileged knowledge about Truth.  Spirituality, in my working hypothesis, begins with daily renunciation of transcendentalist hubris - with, if you will, the recognition that, if the gods had wanted us to know more, they would not have played games with us; they would have told us plainly.



I could have a much more educated sense of superiority"

And now? I always find it somewhat sad when they as you did, describe human nature and then blame religion for those traits and behaviours.