Friday, June 13, 2014

Another Look at Religion

Note:  I shared this post on a popular blog site recently and to my surprise, was immediately accused of "attacking atheists."  That certainly was not my intent.  If anything, I thought I was "attacking fundies" and reassuring the atheists that despite what they may have heard, liberal/progressive Christians are on their side!  I apologize that the point did not get across.

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Once again I have found myself involved in discussion around an issue that keeps coming up, the same thing back and forth endlessly, so that I think it is worth addressing in my blog for future reference when and as needed.  The issue this time is religion.  My atheist friends and acquaintances often try to engage me in arguments about my alleged “Christian beliefs” which they aggressively repudiate – not realizing that, in fact, I’m on their side. 

For example, they will point out that fossil evidence proves living creatures have been around a lot longer than 6000 years, and radiometric dating shows the earth is 4.5 billion years old; that it would have been physically impossible to fit 2 of every species of animal and all the supplies needed for them on Noah’s ark; and that Jonah could not have survived in the belly of a whale.  They scoff at the story of the first woman, whom God had created from a rib of the man He made out of dirt, being deceived by a talking snake, resulting in the damnation of the entire human race, not to mention, as they were the only people, whom did their kids marry?  Therefore, science proves that the Bible is not true!  Umkay…  but I never said it was.  Having attended college, I do know the difference between science and mythology.  Doesn’t everybody?  Apparently not, based on the furious and ongoing debate.

It’s almost a “straw man” argument, except as I understand it, that would imply conscious and purposeful misrepresentation of your opponent’s position, whereas it appears the atheists sincerely believe that this is what we (religious people) think.  And we can blame the fundies for that!  Because, as incredible as it may seem to any modern educated person, there really are people who believe that the Bible is a magic book literally dictated word for word by God, every word inerrant (never mind internal contradictions), a complete and perfect guide to life, a moral handbook, and a science textbook.  Even more disturbing is the fact that some of the people who hold this belief are elected officials whose job is to govern our nation!  But, while the fundies claim to represent all Christians, they most certainly do not; they just happen to be the loudest and most obnoxious among us.  Unfortunately, they have managed to convince nearly everyone that their particular brand of “Christianity” is believed by all of us.

Which, of course, it is not.  So when my atheist friends rant on and on about the profound stupidity of fundamentalist dogma, all I can say is, you’re preaching to the choir.  And if anything, it probably pisses off us liberal and/or progressive Christians even more than it bothers you!  They make the rest of us look bad, as evidenced by the fact that you have bought into the fundie dogma and believe that we are the same as them.  So as a yogini and an Episcopalian, I would like to share a fresh perspective, another way of looking at religion.

Note, I consider myself a yogini first and a Christian second.  This may shock a lot of Christians and qualify me for burning at the stake.  Be that as it may, my rationale is that yoga is one’s personal relationship with the Divine, whereas Christianity is a religion.  The former is direct subjective experience of That, whatever you want to call it, while the latter is merely the sociocultural context which frames our experience, the religious mythology which provides a colorful backdrop for the rituals we share as a community.

One might argue that “relationship with the Divine” presupposes a belief in the existence of God, presumably the God described in the Bible, but this presumption is incorrect.  For me personally, and I think I can speak for other yogis as well, it’s really not about “belief” at all.  “Belief” is an intellectual construct.  I don't so much "believe" in God, as I experience God.  “God” for me is not a doctrine, but rather a label I put on my inner mystical experience which, while completely subjective, is at the same time shared by others in my community. 

Now, some atheists have stated that mystical experience and/or any kind of religious feeling constitutes mental illness, and that religion is a form of mass psychosis which ought to be “cured” by forcible medication.  We will put aside for the moment that this view is reminiscent of the treatment of religion in a totalitarian regime such as the Soviet Union, with dubious political implications for its enforcement in a free society.  From a purely psychobiological standpoint, though, it could equally be argued that people who are incapable of religious feeling have a deficiency in the part of the brain where such experiences originate and which probably serves some evolutionary purpose.  What I call “God” you might call “the part of the brain that lights up on MRI during meditation.”  The latter description, while scientifically accurate, is less poetic.

And that is what we are talking about here:  Poetry, mythology, ritual, drama!  The point that both atheists and fundies seem to have missed is that religion is not supposed to be literally true in the scientific sense.  The atheist argument against the factual veracity of the Bible strikes me as rather silly and pointless, akin to stating that Harry Potter violates the laws of physics, or that the history and geography of the earth depicted in the Lord of The Rings is inaccurate.  However, atheists understandably feel compelled to make the argument because the fundies insist on imposing their religious mythology as literal fact on everybody else via the political process.  It has also been argued that we don’t need religion anymore because science can explain everything, but the purpose of religion is not to “explain” the natural world.  The argument would go away if only both sides could simply understand that religion is not science, period.

So what is the purpose of religion, then?  It is like art, literature, music, dance or theater, intended to enrich the imagination and nourish the soul.  It is supposed to provide a deeply personal, yet at the same time, shared communal experience of the Sacred by means of music, chanting, incense, candles and ritual – “bells and smells” as we Episcopalians say.  The sensory input and mythological imagery stimulates the part of the brain which allows for what Jungian psychology calls a “transpersonal” experience of the archetypes in the collective unconscious.  These figures populate all religions and include such themes as The Mother of all life, and the Dying and Reborn God who feeds us with His own flesh.  Whether or not these “archetypes” exist in a literal sense outside of human consciousness is irrelevant to our enjoyment of the ritual.

I like to use the example of the Nutcracker ballet.  Watching this ballet – in person, if possible! – is a time-honored ritual of the winter holiday season.  We become absorbed in the music, the magic, the drama, the incredible athletic and artistic talent of the dancers.  Especially those of us who have danced feel as if we, too, could put on pointe shoes, to join the dancers leaping and spinning across the stage, or even take flight!  We delight in the costumes and characters as we watch the familiar plot unfold, although we already know quite well what is going to happen.  I have never heard anybody complain of the ballet, “This is completely unrealistic!  Toy soldiers do not come to life to battle rats in your kitchen in the middle of the night!”  Everybody understands, except perhaps very small children, that it is not supposed to be real.  

The other issue which provokes non-argument on my part is “biblical morality.”  Critics correctly point out that the Bible contains some really horrible morality, especially regarding the treatment of women and children, e.g., God advised the Israelites on several occasions to slay every last one of their enemies including little babies, except to keep the virgin girls as booty; you can sell your daughter as a slave; and a girl who is raped in the city should be put to death for adultery, as she didn’t scream loudly enough, whereas one who is raped in the country should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to remain alive – and married to the rapist.  The New Testament is also full of misogyny on the part of Jesus’ disciples, although he himself was shockingly feminist in that he publicly spoke to women and treated them like human beings where women had the same social status as cattle or broodmares.  On more than one occasion I’ve been challenged, “How can you support a doctrine which oppresses women?!”  I don't.

We can enjoy the Nutcracker without basing the laws of our society on the ballet, legislating that women ought to starve themselves and dress in tutus, or that men should don soldier uniforms and devote their lives to battling rats.  Likewise, it is neither necessary nor desirable to adopt a 2000+ year-old Middle Eastern “moral code” in order to celebrate our Christian ritual, and it is not appropriate to impose the barbaric customs of that time and place on our modern society.  When I mentioned in a Facebook discussion the other day that contrary to popular belief, not all Christians are misogynistic, somebody looking for an argument challenged me, “What about, ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’  Don’t Episcopalians follow the Bible?!”  Thank God, we do not.  That is why we have female priests, and why our church has been on the forefront of promoting women’s reproductive rights and voting rights. 

Like liberal and/or progressive Christians of various denominations including Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist, we’ve read the book thoroughly, critically, and gleaned the wheat from the chaff.  The message that we choose to take away is:  God is Love, and we are to love our neighbor, which entails promoting human rights, social justice and taking care of the poor among us, not using the ancient book to deny science, bludgeon women into submission or prevent gays from marrying.

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