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!


Nancy N. said...

Well, I'd wait 3 months for that.
I'm a librarian, and I select adult non-fiction in my library. A while back I came across a title called Losing Your Religion, Finding Your Faith. I haven't read it (so many books!), but I chose it because I loved the idea of realizing that faith is not encased within the parameters of religion. I'm a practicing Catholic, and I truly cherish the traditions and history associated with it, but while I will perhaps naively give Church fathers the benefit of the doubt with regard to the structures and policies they developed, and accept that they--many of them, anyway--truly felt they were carrying out the will of God, your observation that these are man-made, humanly-interpreted words and ideas resonates greatly. I look forward to June!(I'm teasing...really.)

Cris Hernandez said...

Interesting Blog Richard.Although religion is one of those sensitive subjects that people don't speak of publicily,I,for one enjoy talking about it,either on the Net or with my freinds.

I was raised Catholic in all my years at school and Mass.Like you, I was taught on about love,respect,and good will to people,but it wasn't until High School that I wanted to explore other faiths,but still held on to my Christian roots.

Although Catholics had a history with other religions,it didn't stop me from exploring others and knowing things that I wished I was taught of at school.Nowadays,I enjoy religion for the creativity(And somewhat factual)in their stories and I hope to write about all those religious stories soon,or,at least write something as similar to them.

I agree on your statements on how religion is used as an instrument for political advancement(Or degration depending on the senario)and since it is used for topics such as homosexuality,I remembered back on how religion was the political power.Many monarchs,politicians,scholars,even the popes themselves used religion for their own desires and lead to great schism's for almost anyone.Now,living in this century,religion does not have much of a devestating effect as of back then,but it is irritating to see people of relgious status influence politicians(Or politicians of strong religious belief)to hold back on things for the sake of securing Christianity...the irony being that the Bible they are quoting against something is the same Bible where I find several quotes on supporting it.The Bible has many things to say,considering that it is covering up early Jewish and Christian history in one book and I enjoy reading it as any other book,and,unlike most books,I am inspired about how many stories are told about the religion of God,and it will be here to stay.

As for Atheism,I did not grow up around them,but I am aquainted with one and I respect on his choice of not believing in a Divinity.I have my doubts on God's power time and again but I know that God is something we can prove and disprove.I do believe in science,and it coincide with religion;being able to explain things about God and at the same time,gives us an idea that God gives us the ability to find out that we humans are very limited to understanding the whole Universe.

Once again,i enjoy this Blog,and I hope you will continue more.Religion is a really enlightening topic to read/speak about.

Sandrine said...

Dear Richard,

It is with big pleasure that I read your post on the religion.

Your papers printed by clear-sightedness and by sincerity give a proof of your human value.

I am one 50/50 (lol), Catholic by my birth and Protestant by the marriage. I respect faiths and I think that in every being there is of the check.

We live in a world where today the faiths base themselves the religions are in confrontation...

What inheritance shall leave we to our children? My children go to the catechism every month to the Reformed church of Lyon, where we teach them the Bible, the love of fellow man and the respect for the human values.

I give them the earth, free to them, later to make germinate seeds...

I shall like writing it to you more, if you feel like it, It is with pleasure that I shall share with you, our points of view, you the Canadian, me, the Frenchwoman..
a man and a woman, but above all husband, wife and parents of children, to whom we have to open the good doors and show the good road.

Thank you for this beautiful reading.

And I cannot finish without a big kiss to your daughters and an friendly thought of France to Rebecca and to you.


Pamela Marie said...

Those faiths that totally disregard science bug me. I remember hearing a story about an 11 year old girl who died from complications of diabetes because her parents didn't believe in medicine and only relied on prayer. Now I'm open to other people's faiths but come on, common sense has to come into play somewhere.

Joanna said...

Religion is such a touchy subject for a lot of reasons. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it, mainly from all the negativity from it due to politics, but I know that if it isn't for that, well, life would be a little bit easier to manage. I grew up Catholic and went to church every single Sunday pretty much up until high school. I use to love having those one-on-one conversations with God. But then religion gets mixed up with politics and then it all hits the fan. Why are we using the argument of religion into our voting polls? Why are we using it as an excuse as to why homosexuals can't marry. It totally breaks my heart every time I see something like this on the news. I'd like to have a wife one day, but apparently according to our politicans, God doesn't approve, so I can't. I was taught as a little girl that God loves us all unconditionally, and the politicians don't agree.

Well that's my beef with it. You have a peace loving day!

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that, although you stated that you weren't going to talk much about your own beliefs, your post was filled with your own beliefs. It might have been implicit at times, but still your beliefs are there nonetheless. Just an observation. I don't think that it is possible to talk about religion without involving your own personal viewpoint, hence your beliefs.

I also wanted to say that yes, sometimes Christians are bad examples of what Christianity is supposed to be, but if we were perfect and could make it to heaven on our own merit just by being good and perfect people, then we wouldn't need Jesus. And that is what many Christians forget. I believe in a BIG God who is fully capable of changing His creations' hearts and minds, but it is not my job to force what I think that should be down someone's throat. At the same time, it is my job as an evangelical Christian to spread the Gospel, but I also believe that each person is perfectly able to make their own decisions once they know the decision that they need to make. Regardless of what they choose, I will always still love them and respect them because ultimately that is between them and God.

I will disagree with you that the biggest stumbling block to interpreting Scripture is language translation. Yes, you will find a bit of loss in the translation from the original language to another language, but I would argue that bigger roadblocks get in the way of interpreting Scripture. One major roadblock to interpreting Scripture is trying to understand the point of this literature that was written in a culture and time period completely unfamiliar to our paradigm. We may have the words right, but we might not understand the context of those words. For instance, it is easy for a woman living in 2009 to say that the Bible is sexist, but once you understand this ancient culture, then you will see that this story of God and Jesus' ministry is very counter-cultural when it comes to women in that culture and time period. This is also applicable to your example with the words kill vs. murder. People can argue which word is correct until they are blue in the face, but the most important questions is: What did these ancient Jewish people believe that commandment meant? We have to understand their culture then and what the words meant to that culture, BEFORE we can take what it has to say and incorporate it into our lives. The second major roadblack to interpreting Scripture is not understanding the ancient genre that it was written in. Is it Hebrew poetry? A narrative? A parable? A genealogy? Apocalyptic literature? Wisdom literature? A letter? A homily? Each of these genres have slightly different interpretation guidelines. For instance, apocalyptic literature (ie. Daniel, Revelation) was written in that time period as a way to give hope to the oppressed for a better future and much of it was not meant to be take literally, but metaphorically. Finally, the third major roadblock is personal bias (you touched on this in your examples). I firmly believe that you can make the Bible say anything that you want to by reading it out of its original context. Also, connected to this idea of context, is that it is important to note the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament. God set up many different laws in the Old Testament in order set the Israelites apart from their pagan neighbours and keep His people from worshipping false gods, but with the death of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit many of those laws fell away. Hence, why it is no longer unclean to eat pork or shellfish. Again, it is all about context.

I just want to close by saying that I very much loved what you had to say. I just wanted to add my own two cents. :)

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add one more thing. Although there might be some roadblocks in interpreting Scripture, an integral part of understanding the Bible as the Word of God is the Holy Spirit. Someone can read the Bible as just as a book with some great anthropological insights, but where the transformative power of the Bible comes into play and it shows itself to be the Word of God is when the reader allows him or herself to open up to the power and gentle nudges of the Holy Spirit as they are reading it, leaving all personal agendas and biases at the door. That is when the Holy Spirit can transform the human heart. Like I said, I believe in a BIG God, a God who has the power to bring people to Him, but we must let our guard down and be willing to hear Him. It is not about us becoming more perfect so that God will love us, it is about knowing that God loves us as we are even though we might not be perfect and allowing Him to change our hearts as an acknowledgement of His love and His lordship over our lives. :)

Inuneko said...

I loved your blog entry, Richard. You're a really smart guy. Indeed, religion is a very touchy subject to many people, which is why I never talk about it because someone will get offended, especially if they pull your words out of context of what you were originally trying to say.

I agree with the translation roadblock, things do get lost in translation and many times the context of the passage will change with translation due to words being changed (usually due to not having a word in the translated language that's in the original language) or words being changed around. We have to realize too that with English, the sentence structure is essentially backwards from that of all other languages, so translated sentences will be scrambled around to make sense in English. And with this scrambling of the translation in order for it to make sense in English, the context will be lost too.

The times are different as well, certain words might have had different meanings back then, the culture is different as well, for all we know, they could have even included their version of pop-culture references.

We also don't know how the books were written, if they were a collection of poems, letters, or stories of morality akin to Aesop's Fables (albeit with a darker tone). Hell, it could even be a collection of all of these things, but we don't know if the scriptures are/were meant to be taken literally or metaphorically since we don't know how they were written or meant to be read.

Like with the first book of the Bible. The people who are really anti-science claim the first book is meant to be taken literally word for word, although only up until a certain point that only supports that part of their argument.

I love science, it's fascinating and it saves lives. It helps us better understand the world around us, and if applied correctly, can help us actually use renewable resources for energy.

And Pamela, I also read about the young girl who died from diabetes because her parents wouldn't seek medical attention for something that was so easily treatable. It's sad and stupid that they claimed their faith must not have been strong enough because God didn't heal their daughter even though they prayed. If they look at it from a different point of view, other than the view of the inside of their own ass, God could have saved their daughter had they brought her to the doctor. I thought one of the beliefs is supposed to be that God works through people, and if they actually, truly believed that, then they would have realized that doctors and medicine is there for a reason.

Nathanaƫlle said...

I cannot not agree with what you are saying. If only more people could think just like you do...the world would be more peacefull.
Well, I do have big issues with religion, espacially catholic religion. Pretty much the same as yours : women's rights, gay's rights...etc. And I cannot stand to hear people saying they are right ans that their god is the only true one.
My father had been raised as a catholic and my mother began a protestant from the french liberal evangelic church a few years ago (she had been raised as a catholic too).
I...I've beensearching for a long, long, long (!!!) time an answer to my questions.
Finaly, I kind of gave up. I can say I tried pretty much all the religions but none of them suited me well enough.
So I guess I don't really fit in anything although I try to stay open to everything as much as I can.
I do have a lot of different frends, with different nationality, origins, sexual orientations et beliefs...and I find that pretty cool.
Yeah, I'm a lucky girl !
It was VERY nice to read you by the way.
Keep going. You rock !!!