Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Create Your Own Religion"

Quit Playing Prophet by Mark Yuray is certainly worth a read.

I've been following a few atheist and humanist sites over the past year or so. I always find it interesting to try out the head space of people who view the world much differently than I do. I find it fascinating that suddenly, arriving seemingly concurrently with post-apocalyptic visions of the world in pop culture, young people are obsessed with science and rationality - religiously obsessed, as if all of life must be put through these twin lenses or be counted inauthentic. And these are the same people who spend loads of money on steampunk costumes and paraphernalia so they can go to comic book conventions and interact with other people who are also pretending to be fictional characters.

What?

I also have found it amusing to read ranting comments about the harmfulness of religion and how it "poisons minds and hearts" and amounts to child abuse while watching the twin trends of lessening religious observance and increasing rates of suicide, mental illness, obesity, illness, depression, illegitimacy, family breakdown, crime, arrests, imprisonment, and poverty.  Not that these two are in any way connected. Of course not.

Full disclosure: While I am a practicing and observant Catholic, I've experienced my own periods of religious doubt, some lasting for years. From what I've read few people come out of the experience of infertility and miscarriage with the same view of the world and how it works. I was no exception. It took its toll.

I've read the whole Bible, had read it by the time I was 15 (I was raised in an evangelical tradition). There are a lot of things, particularly in the Old Testament - which, I confess, I prefer - that do not rest easily in my mind with my ideas of right and wrong and how to handle conflict.

I've never observed a miracle, have never seen anything that I would classify as even being close to miraculous. I am naturally religious; I'm not at all spiritual. When people - and this happens frequently - tell me that everything happens for a reason, I cringe.

I have come to believe, however, that my personal ideas and beliefs, questions and doubts are unimportant, that focusing on what I need my religion to provide for me is, in fact, hubris and completely inappropriate. Religion was never meant to provide individual satisfaction or happiness, although it does do this frequently enough. I've known so many people who have survived horrible trials only because of their religious faith and the support their religious community gave them.

Religion is the way culture maintains and reproduces itself. It's the way values are transmitted between generations, the way worldviews are shaped, and destructive behavior within a community is minimized. Religion gives us multisensory ways of experiencing the passage of time and heightened spiritual experience. Religious belief inspires; it's creative. Religion ties people to their communities and brings them together to celebrate and mourn everyday happiness and sadness.

While it's true that people could theoretically come up with purely social methods for transmitting culture and bonding themselves together, most people would not feel compelled to participate without some higher meaning or guilt attached, and you need significant buy-in for the prophylactic effects of religion to work. A small percentage of people are capable of creating community and policing their own behavior adequately without this framework. Most people are not.

Human beings are endlessly innovative, and it's quite possible that someone could come up with a successful religious framework that would accomplish the above goals in the West better than Christianity has for the past two millenia. Certainly Christianity has not done a great job of standing up to the kindergartenish ideals of "fairness," "equality," or "tolerance" over the past century. But I have absolutely no interest in a religion created out of whole cloth for practical reasons for the same reasons I wouldn't bother to learn to "speak" Dothraki or an Elven tongue, even though I love languages. The countless iterations of Christian observance tell us nearly everything we know about our ancestors and what they believed, lived, and valued. The rituals they made up to celebrate life and time satisfy me very likely because they satisfied them and we are genetically connected.

The pastor's chair that once sat in the front of my grandfather's church sits in my bedroom today. It's not the most valuable piece of furniture in my house, but it reminds me that my grandfather helped build his church with his own back and his own money and these things were important to him. I still sing his favorite hymn, and it helps me to remember the person he was. I have my grandmother's stained glass nativity set, and I think of her and how we are alike and different every year when I set it up.

I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but I am a mother, and I have chosen to raise my child in a religious community with religious values. He feels he is a part of something and surrounded by like people who care about him. We talk about the saints who came before us, we sing the Agnus Dei as people did for centuries. Religion meets different needs in different people, but I'm not confident I could manufacture anything out of whole cloth that would be as relevant or inspirational as what Christian tradition offers. And it would not be a connection to my ancestors or their lives.

From what I've seen over the past 43 years, attempts to bypass the negatives of "organized religion" while still maintaining its "spiritual" benefits have failed, and the Boomers had the benefit of being raised in a functional society with actual rules and obligations. I'm not foolish enough to think I could do better on my own.






11 comments:

  1. Interesting post and link. Re the worship of "science," I observe that most of the worshippers thereof tend to know very little of actual science, and their intellectual methodology is more like that of certain medievals who "proved" things by looking up what Aristotle said...ie, the focus is not on experiment or deduction, but on authority.

    Re religion and society, I think you might enjoy (if that's the word) Arthur Koestler's neglected 1950 novel The Age of Longing, which I reviewed here:

    http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/11799.html

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  2. Similar disclosure: I'm a young man, raised Roman Catholic (including Catholic school for all save 7th and 8th grades). I find the atheist philosophies of humanism et al. to be useful in the modern era, although I don't claim any affiliation at this time.

    I thought I might try to give you a glimpse into one critic's beef with organized religion.

    The most severe shortcoming of organized religion is that it lacks a mechanism for self-correction, by design. Scripture, claiming to contain universal truth, is well-known to be anything but truthful. Newsweek just published an article on the subject: http://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html. That the Bible could be fallible poses some very serious questions for Christianity, which I will not get into here for the sake of brevity. Knowing that the Bible is in error, how can you justify changing it? How can you claim to know what parts of scripture are right and wrong?

    That said,

    > Religion is the way culture maintains and reproduces itself.

    It may be true, but we should not allow it. Harmful ideas get associated with religion and become difficult to shake out when adherents appeal to faith and cannot be reasoned with. For examples of this, look no further than our nation's most infamous enemies, foreign and domestic.

    If instead we were able to allow culture to reproduce through secular means, harmful ideas can be removed, like weeds from a garden. I see you address this suggestion:

    > While it's true that people could theoretically come up with purely social methods for transmitting culture and bonding themselves together, most people would not feel compelled to participate without some higher meaning or guilt attached, and you need significant buy-in for the prophylactic effects of religion to work. A small percentage of people are capable of creating community and policing their own behavior adequately without this framework.

    There is so much of the social/secular culture you describe surrounding you that you can't see it because it's not labeling itself. Media, as much as you may approve or disapprove of it, is the chief guardian of our culture. You might be concerned that it has no governing body and no rules written in proverbial stone, but this is an asset, not a weakness. It allows our culture to change when needed, with the minimal amount of fuss.

    > I also have found it amusing to read ranting comments about the harmfulness of religion and how it "poisons minds and hearts" and amounts to child abuse while watching the twin trends of lessening religious observance and increasing rates of suicide, mental illness, obesity, illness, depression, illegitimacy, family breakdown, crime, arrests, imprisonment, and poverty.

    I'd like to see some sources that claim a strong correlation between a lack of religious observance and these ills. I can tell you that less than 0.1% of federal prison inmates are atheist [1], suggesting the opposite relationship. The highest divorce rate in the US is among Protestants [2].

    My intent is not to change your beliefs, hitting you with facts and figures until you do. I do think you're mistaken on the cause of those societal ills and the cure being more religion. And I invite you to look deeper into serious secular thinkers rather judging the group by the ranting comments of gibbering masses on the Web.

    That said, I find your writing to be refreshing; a thoughtful reexamination of ideas we've been taking for granted.

    [1]: Federal Bureau of Prisons, Frequency of Religious Affiliation graphic: http://i.imgur.com/uq3hYhp.jpg; retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/07/16/what-percentage-of-prisoners-are-atheists-its-a-lot-smaller-than-we-ever-imagined/
    [2]: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/01/21/study-conservative-protestants-divorce-rates-spread-red-state-neighbors/ I would have liked a more relevant figure, but I could not find one.

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  3. Great post grerp. A recent book you might like is Something Other Than God.

    I've always found the whole science vs religion meme to be pretty stupid, since science cannot, by definition, address things that are not provable (God, being infinite, could never be completely proven). At least 99.9% of all human knowledge is not provable. So science has no place in most of human knowledge. Therefore, science has such great limitations it's going to be worthless for theology or other deep thinking. Heck, Godel mathematically proved that logic itself will always be incomplete within any provable system, yet people seriously think science can address philosophy?

    From what I've seen over the past 43 years, attempts to bypass the negatives of "organized religion" while still maintaining its "spiritual" benefits have failed

    It's actually kind of sad to watch people who are clearly genetically predisposed to religion flail around trying to find something other than God that has meaning. Usually, it's just an IQ issue. I've never seen this problem with intelligent people who might be uncertain but never dismissive about human behavior that has lasted thousands of years.

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  4. The US and the world are becoming more secular. This is a good thing.
    The least religious nations in the world are both the happiest http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201211/are-religious-people-happier and the most charitable http://warofwordsforum.wordpress.com/tag/least-religious-countries/
    Atheism is also quite rare in prisons http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/why-atheists-make-85-percent-americas-scientists-and-07-percent-its-prison
    The idea that people need religion to pass on cultural values or be moral is incorrect.
    I generally enjoy your posts but I believe you should rethink your position here.

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  5. Twain,

    If you read your Psychology Today article, it's clear the secular cultures referenced are dying out. They are not having enough children to maintain their populations, and are being replaced by religious people (Muslims, in most cases). So your "happy" "secular" nations are not fit for survival. I personally can't consider a people who are dying off and being replaced by other people to be, well, a model for "happy". Methinks as they age, die without grandchildren, and watch everything they've worked for be enveloped by other people...they will not be so happy.

    I believe you should rethink your position here.

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  6. Grerp, the Catholic Church preaches the gospel. Every week. In the Liturgy. You proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ: it is written into the weft and weave of the Eucharist, and it is that completed work of Christ that saves us.

    I'm reformed, and we concentrate on that: perhaps overmuch. But to say that the Roman church does not proclaim Christ's death and resurrection is to speak ill of the church that kicked us out as heretics during the reformation.

    Religion is comfort and tradition and community, but religion is everywhere. Christ is not, and Christ is what makes the difference. It we do not preach him -- think liberal protestants or liberation theology depending which side of the Tiber you are on -- you die.

    Now, Mr Twain thinketh this is nonsense. But, as david says, the church that attempted to be rational is now dated and dead. The progressive era is dying as we write.

    But Christ will keep his church. We need not worry to much about the clerical class: they will always err. Our faith is in Christ.

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  7. Candid and enlightening, ma'm.

    Professor Twain's rather ludicrous assertion is effectively swatted by mdavid, and I also think its rather laughable to assume 'happiness' is some great goal in life. This is integral to the bankrupt ideology of utilitarianism, and would have us all in stasis chambers with our brains being bombarded by serotonin all day.

    Added to blogroll.

    Be well, sister. God bless.

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  8. TheCitadel, ...its rather laughable to assume 'happiness' is some great goal in life.

    This. Liberals define the game. Sometimes I wonder if it makes more sense to just not engage. Arguing with liberalism is a lot like putting water on a grease fire...

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    1. Precisely. If Tradition makes anyone unhappy, liberals will scorn it and seek to overthrow it. The only people permitted to be unhappy in the liberal utopian mindset are the Traditionalist.

      One of these rubes just commented over at Social Matter demanding some reason why the proles would choose Reaction as a political force when the Enlightenment is so much happier. Imbecilic!

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  9. Great post!
    "I'm not foolish enough to think I could do better on my own. "
    This is called both wisdom, learning from the mistakes of others, as well as humility.
    Humility, in particular, seems to be missing in the neo-religious affection so many Democrats have for some idealized gov't.

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