Friday, February 27, 2009

Let's Talk Religion!

I believe last time I posted I made some comment about trying not to leave it so long between posts. Well, here it is folks, only three months later. I really do intend on writing more frequently, it's just that family and life happily get in the way! I also have the feeling that if I'm going to leave it for so long, the anticipation among my dozens of regular accidental readers must be so overwhelming that I want to give them something worth waiting for. I can't promise that this will have been worth the wait, only that there was indeed a wait.

As you can see by the title of this entry, I've decided to take on a less than frequently discussed and rarely debated topic: Religion. It's a subject I enjoy learning about, and one I love to debate. I'm not going to discuss my own beliefs too much, but rather the concept of religion and what it has come to mean in our Western world, as well as its presently politicized nature.

Let me begin by saying that I was raised going to church nearly every weekend, where my parents attended services while my sister and I went to Sunday school. My mother was fairly active in the church and a good deal of their social life revolved around friends they met in church. We attended the United Church of Canada, although this was a church my parents settled on after emigrating with a baby version of me from the UK. Back in Britain my mother was raised as a Methodist (as most Welsh are) and my father attended the C of E (Anglican) services through his school. I think the main reason my parents decided on the United Church when they came to Canada was because of what was widely viewed as its relaxed and casual nature. Growing up, I didn't learn the fire and brimstone stories of the Bible, but rather a theology more based on the peace, love, and happiness angle which certainly suited me fine. Eventually my parents stopped going to church after becoming disillusioned with the internal politics of the church they were attending at the time. By then my sister and I were pretty much grown and we factored less in their decision making process than when we were young and they saw the church and its moral component as a good foundation to complement the standards they were imbuing us with. Not getting up early on Sundays appealed to me then and I no longer continued the weekly pilgrimage either. As I got older however, I found myself drawn to the church of my father's youth and started attending Anglican services sporadically and found a place that was a natural fit - a mix between the Masses I went to in Catholic school, and the Protestantism I grew up with. I give you this brief background of my own religious experience to allow you to better understand the position I am about to expound on, as obvious or obtuse as they may seem.

I think the biggest thing that annoys me today about religion and what it has come to be and stand for in our world is the smugness with which people hold their views and beliefs. I dislike smugness from every side of the religious spectrum, and for that matter any social debate. In the popular media of North America today, and particularly among my own friends, the two main sides of the religious argument seem to be coming from Evangelicals and Atheists. Both groups offer their own ideas of what life should be based on their moral conviction and belief systems, or lack thereof. Both groups are populated with nice normal people, good people, honest people who love their kids and all things good and pure. Unfortunately either group seems to have vitriolic and self appointed mouthpieces speaking for the larger whole. More often than not, these "true believers" seem to be more interested in telling others how stupid everyone else is for not believing what they believe instead of quietly focusing on their own spiritual soul. It's this smugness, this "I've got this all figured out" attitude that bugs me so much. I'm not saying that you can't have a confidence in what you believe, but please, please don't position yourself as moral arbiter of the Universe because you heard a really great quote from your celebrity of choice that leads you to believe you have a fool proof argument for your stance.

On the pro religion side of things, the smugness most apparent to me comes from those people who lead by word and not deed. Those people who are quick to tell you what God wants, or better yet, what God means by the words in the Good Book. People who purport to follow the absolute word of God and are adamant about not "picking and choosing" what to believe but are completely unconcerned about the things they themselves pick and choose to follow and believe. The favorite target of many of the faithful today is homosexuality. They claim that it is written that it is evil and abhorrent. There are only two passages in the Bible that concern homosexuality, and yet "thou shalt not bear false witness" is a freaking commandment. How honestly can you say that you never lie? By the way, the Bible also says you can't cut the hair at the sides of your head or eat shellfish. Talk about smorgasbord! Another favorite commandment of mine is "thou shalt not kill". Of course it's hard to wage war with that one looming over your head, so in years past it has been reviewed and reinterpreted as "thou shalt not murder". A more justifiably loose interpretation is made available when you change one little word. While we're on the subject of interpretation, I'd like to address another pet peeve of mine, and that is the creation of the Bible and translation of same said oeuvre. The Bible itself is comprised of many books written in three languages that span millenia. It was painstakingly compiled, which is to say some works were included just as others were excluded. Numerous translations have been offered up, and each of these translations is interpreted every day by clergy and lay persons alike. Millions of people view the Bible as the word of God. The word of God transcribed by man, fallible, mortal man. Personally I don't think this takes away from the overall message of this epic collection of books and letters: God is love, interpret that as you will (ergo Love may well be God). The problem for me however is that in many circles, this kind of talk is seen as sacrilege, in fact I'm sure that more than a few people reading this will find these words difficult to accept at best, and downright heretical at worse. It's just that for me, to believe is to question. Unless you read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, you've never read the original words, only a translation that you have to take on great faith is a perfect representation of one language in another. As a man who speaks both English and French fluently, I can tell you it is next to impossible not to lose something in the translation. On top of that you have to take it on faith that the mortal man who wrote down the original words was an infallible vessel of the Almighty. The Torah is seen by most in the Talmudic tradition as being allegorical and open to endless interpretation. In fact there is an old joke that says, "Ten Rabbis, eleven opinions." Given that the Torah is bedrock on which the Christian Bible is based, and the book that Jesus would have studied, I would argue that this point is worthy of note. Finally, at the end of the day, most people go to church on Sunday and listen to the Pastor, Minister, or Priest hold forth on the word of God without ever cracking their own book of scripture. Their entire faith is then based on someone else telling them what and how to believe. And then from this place they judge others. They say that man reinvents God in his own image. If so, then I must be a pretty happy guy, because the God I know loves me, loves my gay friends, and has a sense of humor and isn't frightened by the questions I challenge Him with.

On the other side of the smugness scale sit the Atheists. I have many friends who count themselves as Atheists and I love them, and have no interest in trying to make them believe anything else - particularly since my beliefs are uniquely my own, I'd have no place to take them. The favorite argument against religion among Atheists without question is the old "Religion has caused nothing but war and oppression." This to me has always been a stupid statement. Religion is a concept, a belief system, nothing more. It can be used as an instrument to be certain, and how people wield it determines what will be wrought. However as a concept alone it can do nothing. I suppose what I'm saying is religion doesn't kill people, people kill people. Certainly many terrible things have been done in the name of religion, but it was the Machiavellian machinations of the individuals behind it that caused the misery. Blaming religion merely takes the onus off the abusers and puts it on the abstract that is neither evil nor pure. It is also quite chic these days to sluff off religion in favor of the church of science. I am a big believer in science. Science has kept me alive every day of my life for the past twenty years through my medications. Without science I'd be an ethereal spirit typing this from the great beyond, where admittedly I'd likely have more insight, but far less mass and I like my mass. For all of science's pluses however, I remember my fifth grade science teacher telling us that science doesn't actually prove anything, it just disproves everything else until only one apparent possibility remains. Is it possible that in a world where technology advances everyday, where cellphones keep getting smaller and more powerful, where new diseases are constantly being discovered, and where the vast majority of the Earth's oceans are yet to be explored and her lifeforms discovered, that we may not know everything about all things physical and metaphysical? I find it so very annoying to be forever faced with know-it-alls (on both sides of this equation) telling me what there is and isn't in other potential Earthly and unearthly dimensions. The simple fact is this: you know what is in front of your face and in your hands and nothing more, all else is taken on faith whether it involves a belief in something or nothing. To this end I am at a loss to understand people like Richard Dawkins and their quests to destroy people's faith. How can it possibly impact you what others believe or don't believe? I think in their misguided way what they are trying to change are the potential negative tenets and behaviors that can be associated with people of militant faith, and to that end I commend them, but they will never achieve a dialogue with those they want to affect by talking down to them.

Militancy is never a positive thing, and never has a good resolution. It's very difficult for opposing viewpoints to hear each other when no-one wants to listen. In taking these disparate positions, groups alienate people who want a faith tempered by common sense and an acceptance of the modern world in which they live. To me it is very important to allow one's faith to be private and introspective not something that you undermine by politicizing it. It is not only antithetical to legislate belief, and what are now called "faith based initiatives", but I feel it debases religion in general by dragging it into the realm of political jerry-mandering. Religion is meant to stand apart from government and the state precisely because it exists in the realm of the soul and should ideally be untouched by the passages of time and party administrations. As church and State should remain separate to protect the state, so too should individuals of faith remember that they should remain separate to also protect the religion itself.

In summary, I suppose I'm saying is I don't want anyone to ram anything down my throat. I don't talk publicly about what I believe not because I'm embarrassed by it, but because I want to keep it safe in my heart. Nothing you say will change what I hold dear and I have no interest in selling you anything so why pull my faith out in public? It's enough that I'm a good person and do good things. It enough that I love my neighbor and want to protect their right to love whom they want to love. It's enough that I believe that I believe what I do. Don't talk down to me either, no matter what you believe, there's a good chance that I'm just as smart as you! In short, live and let live, and understand that no matter how old you are, you're still too young to know everything!