Friday, May 31, 2013

Atheism, Fanaticism and, perhaps, Something In Between

I recently came across a couple of articles which I put in my (ever-growing; rarely shrinking) list of "articles about which I must blog." I kept thinking about them, maybe because I started to realize that these were two very different articles that were, in some way, about the same thing. And, it's one of my favorite (if often most frustrating) topics — non-extremist religion.

First, we had a piece by CNN on famous atheists. It wasn't actually an article — just a slideshow*. But, it featured a long list of famous people who don't believe in God, each with a quote or two about what they do, or don't, believe. Some were silly, such as Javier Bardem:

* This is, after all, You don't come here for serious news anymore. I keep forgetting why I come here at all…
I've always said I don't believe in God; I believe in Al Pacino.
Some were very thoughtful, such as Professor Daniel Dennet:
You don't get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.
But, it was clear that nearly all of them were thinking of religion in a particular sense - as a literal religion. A religion which takes it claims literally. Ricky Gervais saying that religion is like Santa Claus - a lie you keep telling yourself so you can keep getting gifts. Penn Jillette pointing out, in an honestly interesting comment, that, if religion were to be wiped out and recreated, it would never be recreated in the same way, as opposed to science, which would be rediscovered in, more or less, exactly the same way. Because, science, unlike religion, is objectively true - we discover science, while we create religion (my words, not his).

There were some exceptions – Sam Harris argues that liberal religions make it possible for fanatics to continue -- without freedom of religion, the fanatics couldn't survive, so we're better of without any of it. But, not surprisingly, when people talk about religion in public they nearly always, and nearly always implicitly, rather than explicitly, talk about literalist religion. They talk about religion as something which tells us to believe something which isn't true — something about which we have no proof, but for which there is pretty good counter-proof (e.g. "the world was created, as is, in 6 days").

I talk, probably quite a bit, about a different way to engage in religion. About understanding that religion is not (or doesn't have to be) a set of unverifiable fact claims. I've said, probably quite a bit, that I don't think that the Torah has a single accurate historical fact in it (and, it's got some really questionable science in it, to say the least). That doesn't make it useless — it just makes it useless as a science or history textbook. But, there are plenty of other ways to view, and to use, religion.

It's frustrating sometimes. It's frustrating to hear people, some very smart, attacking "religion," all the while thinking to myself, "That isn't religion - that's one type of religion. But, it's not my religion" It's like hearing someone attack music as being terrible - all music - and then finding out that they only listen to Top-40 radio. Well, maybe that music stinks, but have you heard about good Rock, or Jazz, or Hip-Hop? You might like those!

But, no — they haven't heard about those. Because all of the stations that they listen to only play Top-40. They only play the vapid stuff.

And, the same is true of religion, which brings me to article #2 - "The Creeping Fundamentalism In Our Midst."
We’ve read stories recently of Haredim in Israel comparing Israeli politicians to Hitler and throwing stones at women praying at the Kotel; of Haredim in New York fighting to restrict the prosecution of sex abuse claims; of Haredim in Germany threatening the fragile truce on circumcision by defending the practice of adult men sucking blood directly from the penises of infants.
So much religion is deserving of the hatred which is often sent its way. Religion is, far, far too often, self-serving and venal. It is misogynistic and homophobic. It is irrational. It is petty. And more.

So much of it is. But not all of it. And, it doesn't have to be that way. But, those of us who believe, but believe very, very differently haven't been effective in getting noticed. We haven't claimed a place in this conversation. Why is that? I'm not sure - it might be that there just aren't enough of us. That, in reality, we are a blip on the radar, and the real discussion is between extremists. It might be that the media always loves extremes - it makes for great copy, while thoughtful, esoteric, complicated, nuanced theology really, really doesn't.

All I know is that when I read the arguments of atheists, I agree with many of them. But, I'm not one of them. I'm not an atheist. The religion which they reject, I reject, as well. Maybe not as stridently, and maybe not as universally. But, still. The religion which I practice just doesn't look like the religion which they reject. I wish more people knew that.

By the way, starting on Tuesday, June 18th at 1:00 I'm going to be teaching a course (a reading group, really) on Rabbi Art Green's Radical Judaism. It's the best book I've ever read explaining a theology which is quite non-traditional, but 100% rational. And, to me, overwhelmingly powerful. If you're interested, pick up a copy and read the Introduction, and then join us on the 18th. It should be a really interesting class.

Hell, it could even start a movement.

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