America: The Most Religious Country In The World
I often observe — mostly with wonder and astonishment — that the US must be the most religious country in the world. Religion is not as strictly enforced as in, say, the Islamic countries. But it has permeated so many facets of our life, and so many people (according to actual polls) believe in God or a deity, the afterlife or heaven, punishment or hell and such parallel beliefs as angels among us, that we are constantly bombarded by religion or a reaction against religion as we go about our daily business. Speaking of which — while travelling recently, I read the USA Today which I found either at the hotel front desk or on some communal table in front of the breakfast bar.
That is where I found an editorial about religion, purporting to explain why religion was necessary. I mean, the author — Oliver Thomas – thinks religion is as essential to life as oxygen and water. I was raised in the Jewish religion and spent a lot of time in temple, as my father was organist and choir director all of his adult life. The only socializing my family did was at the temple, with breakfasts and holy day observances and things like that. I have always believed in a deity myself, not specifically in the way that the organized religions present it (as if to three-year-olds) and still have my own private rituals of prayer and meditation. That being said, this editorial disturbed me. Instead of ripping up the paper or making any attempt to answer it, I put it somewhere on the floor of the car hoping it would go away, but knowing that I would eventually have to deal with it in some manner. A lot of people seem to think that everything is in the world to support what they already believe. Thomas, the author, is way far out — past the people who, for example, read Ford advertisements after they buy a Ford to prove to themselves that they have made the right decision. Thomas, a member of the USA Today board of contributors (I guess you have to be able to write enough to fill their quota of space) and author of a book titled “10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job)” writes an editorial that asks an intriguing question, but does not answer that question or prove what he contends.
It’s obvious to me that Thomas must have at least perused the writings of Victor Frankl – a deep thinking gentleman,Holocaust survivor and founder of logo-therapy (a form of Existential Analysis) — who wrote about some people being more “decent” than others, and (to his credit) opining that decency is better. But he did state, quite clearly, that this distinction had nothing to do with religion. As Rabbi Rami Shapiro (Murfreesboro, TN) pointed out in a letter of rebuttal to USA Today, printed Thursday, August 12, there is virtually no evidence that religion “makes us want to live.” Anyone who actually knew anything about the history and phenomenon of religion, would notice that one of the serious functions of religion (some would argue its most important evolutionary function) is justifying death. Funerals serve a spiritual as well as social function in the best of times. It is comforting to “feel” that someone who has disappeared from physical existence and proximity is somehow still accessible, and will become more accessible. Many religions (anyone thought about suicide bombers recently?) actually teach that martyrdom is a Good Thing. Of course, some people do perfectly well without this particular set of beliefs. Folks like the pure Ayn Rand Objectivists (as opposed to spin-off groups such as the Libertarian political party), are more in line with “this is it, folks” and do not see or need or want to see a world beyond. My guess is (I like them more and more) they would say that we can like the life we got. We can go for biological immortality and try to keep what we got and there is plenty of science that can encourage people to move in that way. Perhaps building that science, making life as we know it the best it can be, is a really, really good purpose for life. Maybe it is better than religion.
Incidentally, our friends at USA Today also published a response from an atheist who enjoys life just fine (you can read it on the same page as the Rabbi’s rebuttal letter), although he compares the state he has reached, from considering religion “mythology,” to his wife’s cat. Lots of cats are pretty happy. Life does indeed have plenty of purposes. So back to the article. ”Religion makes it easier to be decent.” Gag me with a spoon here. The core values here are “justice, forgiveness, and love of neighbor.” I completely fail to see how religion facilitates this. I’m not the first — agnostics and atheists have long argued that morality does not have to rely upon religion. This is called the principle of enlightened self-interest. Your reason for NOT stealing or murdering might be because it is against God’s commandments — or it could just be that you don’t want to go to prison or get executed. That’s self interest. Religious morality basically rules by fear of punishment by a supreme intelligence. Oh yes – there are promised rewards, also. Heaven sounds pretty good and hell pretty rotten, but our intrepid USA Today author goes out of his way to say behavior should not be governed by fear. It is probably the only thing in that editorial with which I actually agree. If you have been burned out by the concept of “Justice” in the US legal system (which our schools teach us is the very very best in the world and always works perfectly) by the trials of O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson, you shouldn’t expect any cosmic justice in the universe.
We all know that bad things happen to good people, and a lot of bad people end up with wonderful lives. The purpose of Religion surely isn’t to make sure Justice prevails and Chaos is thwarted. Human Laws aren’t perfect but we got enough — most of which are common to many cultures — anybody can find their way without a few hours in church this week. “Forgiveness” is not a theological concept. Say, for example, I establish a super relationship with a patient I am really helping deal with some major traumas of life. Then I actually accidentally step on her toe. She is likely to forgive me, because the larger aspect of our relationship has bountiful merit, so my transgression seems small
in comparison. If I step on her toe the moment I meet her, I may have trouble building trust and she may not be able to forgive the klutzy shrink lady. The outcome of our session may not be favorable af all. NOTE: I want to assure you that I am a highly-trained and experienced professional and I seldom step on toes. If I do, I’m usually able to recover the lost trust that such toe-trodding has cost. Don’t worry. “Love Thy Neighbor?” You have to take this in the context of the time it was written. It doesn’t mean you have to extend your friendship or charity to those obnoxious frat boys next door whose week-night parties are still going strong (and loud) at 2 am — no matter how nicely you ask them to cool it. My definition of neighbors in this sense is “Fellow Traveler” who is part of my life — whether work or social — and with whom I have enough empathy to rely upon them and to help them when they need a hand. Organized Religion is a hierarchy — usually a bureaucracy — that devotes a lot of energy to perpetuating, maintaining and legitimizing itself. Over the years my attitude has changed. When I was brought up in a culture of fairly traditional Judaism, I had no choice, as a child, but to soak it up. I remember the joyous discovery — in public school — that children my age of other belief systems were more like me than different.
My family generally tolerated me less as I questioned more. The cultural heritage of my ancestors, I hold in reverence. The intertwined history and mythology, I put in context. I read some near Eastern philosophy in college, like most of my peers did at that time (late 60s and early 70s). My family felt I had somehow culturally degenerated. I felt I had widened my thoughts, sharpened my intellect, expanded my mind. Knowledge was my drug, and I was an addict from an early age. When I first came into a context where folks asked me about child rearing, I basically told them there was nothing wrong with teaching religion to children, but to expect all they were doing was giving their children a structure that might be rejected as they matured For me, a turning point was the reformed Jewish congregation in Minneapolis that determined what my cost of participation would be and basically presented me with a bill. They must have thought I was already a successful neurosurgeon, when I was simply a poor resident physician. On my meager salary, I couldn’t afford to be devout (with them). They wouldn’t budge from their assessment, and I decided to make my religious observances my own private business. Later, I saw a crystal clear difference between public profession of faith — which is more a social and political expression — and private belief. I still think it is a “cheap shot” when a president of the United States– any president regardless of party, as they all profess to be born-again Christians — prays for the camera. At the time of this writing, Pres. Obama is under fire from those who believe he is a Muslim (about 1 in 5 people) and not Christian. As such, his staff is occupied with getting the news out about how often the President prays each day, and how frequently he goes to church. It’s important, they think, to establish his Christian “bonafides” since most of those same Americans believe we are at war with Islam and religion and politics are joined at the hip. Remember how I started out by saying that this is the most religious country in the world? Now, after thirty years of practicing medicine, I have never once heard a patient say that their faith was their exultation, their joy, their well-being. I have heard that it is help with some issues such as abstinence from addictive substances, but only with relapse, which is a frequent problem with or without religion. Brief comfort, dreadful relapse.
The religious community often becomes a “surrogate family” but one with the same problems as a biological family.
I hear about guilt, manipulation, everything that is bad about human institutions.
I have had patients sign releases for me to speak with religious institutions. Perhaps the most serious situation I can think of, was that of an anorectic in her early forties who had been pushed into manic exhaustion by volunteer demands for a church bulletin. Not once but twice I called the minister from the church she would not leave and told him to lay off for the sake of her heart health. He gave me a lecture about how important her contribution to the church mission was.
Ultimately she got a better job, better insurance, and left me.
If the “mythology” of religion that science has not replaced has value, it gets harder for me to find, the longer I practice, the more woes I hear. The key is in this notion of “interpretation.” Just yesterday, at a restaurant,my husband and I (accidentally) sat in a booth next to and overheard an obviously senior religious education professional telling a younger student type that a good religious education is needed so that the Bible can be taught in a non-ambiguous way, and so one can lead the flock well. After all the many years I spent in education, I have never heard such concern over such trivial knowledge — The Misguider leading the Misguided. Unless someone understands ancient Hebrew and Greek, they have no right telling anybody what the Bible says, for translation errors abound.
Greek may be little more than a distant memory, and if I told you what I know about Hebrew translation, maybe the world would explode. This was the perfect example of the hierarchies spending most of their energy preserving themselves. Back to the author of the USA Today piece — Rev. Thomas seems to be comfortable with his hierarchy.
No matter what else you believe in, all religious institutions are run by humans, who mess up these hierarchies at least as much as they do hierarchies of other sorts, like the military and government. But with its easy-to-assimilate mantle of a questionable “divine,” I have started to wonder if organized religion is not the easiest and most secure refuge for those who simply do not apply reason. Or — to paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson — “the last refuge of scoundrels.”