Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Defense of Religion

I'm not going to be so arrogant as to entitle this post "THE Defense of Religion"; there are clearly a number of ways to make the case for a particular religion, or for religion in general.

What prompts this post is a recent public conversation I had with a Secular Humanist. His main premise was that religion - any religion - represents a primitive expression of human longing by clinging to that which is illogical and unprovable. According to this chap's argument, only suspension of belief in the Supernatural - epitomizing notions that 'cannot be proven' - can lead one to the clarity necessary to see the world as if REALLY is and to begin to work towards perfecting our world. The argument against religion (in general) goes on to blame religion for most of the world's ills, for most of the violence committed by man against man, and for all manner of oppression of Human Rights.

It is irrefutable - and quite unfortunate - that much human blood HAS been spilled in the name of religion. But in the century recently completed, the 20th Century of the Common Era, far more violence, suffering, and death was caused by secular, anti-religious systems: specifically, Communism and National Socialism (Nazism). Almost-unimaginable millions of people lost their lives, often only after incredible suffering, and untold millions were displaced, losing the homes and the lives they knew, thanks to the wars waged by governments in the name of these two systems. It boggles the mind, and it really far overshadows the misery caused by all dark events perpetrated (e.g., Crusades, conquest of the Mediterranean by Islam) by all religions in previous centuries. At the same time, it was largely devout religionists (Christians more than any other group) who resisted, for example the Nazi terror by hiding and secreting away Jews and other who were in danger of being rounded up and slaughtered. Does this exonerate religion for its excesses over the centuries? Of course not! But it does point to the truth that religion, in and of itself, is far from the biggest problem facing humanity.

Religion generally, when at its best, is a force for good for the world. One shouldn't judge a religion beased on whether one accepts its dogmas; by definition, if you accepted any particular religion's dogmas, you would become a member of that religion. For example, if I accepted the basic premises of Christianity, I would (if I had integrity) become a Christian; it is therefore a given that I find the tenets of Christianity unbelievable.

Another false premise is that one should judge a religion besed on a selective reading of its holy text(s). It is easy to 'cherry pick' someone else's text for passages that one thinks would, for example, incite to violence. But, absent any proof that the adherents of the religion in question DO, in fact commit violent acts in the name of their faith and with reference to their text, that is a false premise. For example, one can point with disdain to the Torah's recording of G-d's instructions to the People Israel to wipe out the Canaanite Nations in their conquest of the Land of Canaan. But the REAL question is: is there any proof that Israel ever did, in fact commit atrocities against the Canaanites to begin with - or is there any documentation that the Jewish people have, since then, committed similar atrocities against any other people? If the answer is no (as I am asserting it is), then there is no logical reason to think of the TOrah as a bloodthisty book, used by the Jews as a rationale for committing bloodthirsty acts. (I would make the same challenge concerning anybody else's holy text.)

No, one should judge each world religion by the degree of goodness spread in its name by its adherents. My religion is as unbelievable to you as yours is to me, but that doesn't call either religion into question; it's simply the wrong question to ask. Michael Medved suggested this approach back in 2008, during the presidential primary season, when some Evangelical Republicans questioned whether Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could be the Party's standard bearer. I think it's an approach that supremely makes sense; we should not judge another person's religion based on whether we accept its tenets but based on how much goodness its members bring into the world. In that way, I can have a great deal of respect for, say, the Mormon faith (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints), even though I personally find many of its doctrines rather unbelievable...even silly.

The question of which is superior, religion (in general, or one religion in particular) or secularism, would be easy to settle if all religious people could be shown to be good, and all secularists bad (or vice-versa). But of course that is not the case: there are many good people and scoundrels who belong to each world religion, and secularists are both good and bad. My defending religion would undoubtably be easier if all religious people could be shown to be better people than the non-religious, and the opposite would make the secularist's case easier.

But life isn't that neat and orderly. We all know both religious people and secularists who are good, and both kinds of people who are bad. My recommendation, then is for those who are religious or secular to be willing to explain to others how and why their belief system spurs them to goodness.

I can tell you personally that I use daily Jewish rituals as tools to remind myself of G-d's enduring presence when I let Him be in my life. I don't imagine that G-d cares, as it were, whether I pray three times daily or what text I use when I do. But the act of regular prayer helps ME...it keeps me directed toward the Holy. Likewise Jewish dietary discipline (kashrut). It isn't important to me whether G-d minds whether I eat shrimp or cheeseburgers. But when I stop and choose not to eat those things it helps me to keep my mind and heart directed to the Holy One and to think about how I'm supposed to live. Likewise the Sabbath, although keeping the Sabbath uncluttered with obligations (except such as are important to my community) also helps me directly: to unwind and de-stress as I prepare for the coming week.

Some non-orthodox Jews complain that the intricate system of practices only trips them up and makes them feel inadequate if they can't follow EVERYTHING. Some Christians claim that G-d's Law is in fact intended to do exactly that, and to teach us why we need the grace that the Christian faith offers. I personally don't find either mindset to ring true. If I sometimes slip and transgress, it only serves to remind me of my humanity and that Yetzer Hara (the selfish impulse) is always present and the thing to do is ask G-d for the strength to make our selfless and good acts outnumber the others.