Sunday, August 3, 2008

On Religion: Pros and Cons

I’ve written in this space previously about my spiritual agnosticism. I’m not an atheist. I believe there exists a spiritual plane to which we are intimately connected, and about which we know almost nothing. Our chance encounters with the power of that realm have led us to create our pitiful forms of religion—mankind’s weak attempts to put something infinitely too huge for our comprehension into terms that we can understand. And manipulate…

Religious clashes have led to some of the most heinous human behaviors in recorded history. For whatever reason, once a group of modern homo sapiens has crafted a set of beliefs based on its perception of the Source of All Things, it has felt obligated to use those beliefs as a club with which to beat other groups into submission. We’ve gone so far as to weave the concept of "blood sacrifice" into our religious fabric, as a means of sanctifying our primal and uniquely human drive to kill large numbers of our own species. Oceans of blood have soaked the pages of history in the name of "God." The overriding question that comes to my mind in view of all this is, "What the hell is wrong with us???"

Clearly, I am no fan of organized religion. And I’ve often thought that if we could purge religion from modern society, the world would be immeasurably better off. Which is not to say that we could then live in blissful moral anarchy. There need to be rules, need to be codes of ethics in order for human beings to coexist peacefully. Yes, religion has traditionally bade us slit the throat of the guy who doesn’t believe as we do, but it has also passed down admonitions to feed the hungry, care for the indigent, honor our elders, and "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." If we do away with religion, what delivery system are we going to use to express and pass on those codes?

My own recent experience has led me to wonder about this. In the past two years, I’ve had the chance to work with young people of varying religious and social backgrounds. Some of the girls who work for me have had little or no religious training. Others were raised in strictly religious households. And there are marked differences in the way these two groups function.

The non-churched group has real problems with moral ambiguity. Having never been instilled with the codes of behavior that are part and parcel of our human "faith," they’ve been left to their own devices to create the filters through which they view their own behavior and make decisions. They’ve been forced to rely upon something else which permeates every aspect of their lives to form their moral foundations: the media. The media have assumed the role of moral compass. Bounced upon the knee of modern media, these children absorb such credos as "Does it work for me?" "How do I get mine?" and "What’s in it for me?" The idea that their behavior and their choices might have real consequences for other people is entirely secondary, if it’s considered at all.

In contrast, the young people who have been raised in a strict religious atmosphere have been endowed with a completely different set of filters through which they view the world. They were born into a belief system that set forth specific rules of behavior. They were brought up believing that they answered to a higher authority than themselves—higher yet than their parents, teachers or other earthly authorities. They’ve understood almost from infancy that any decision they made needed to be made in the context of that authority. They understand that their actions have implications that go far beyond themselves.

I see this in my own life. I was born and raised Catholic. By the time I reached high school, I had almost entirely rejected the confines of the faith in which I was raised. The bigoted, unimaginative written-in-stone-ness of the dogma drove me away as I grew old enough to chafe at the restrictions of it. But the moral foundation I received as a child of the church—any church—was mine for a lifetime. Catholicism and Judaism have been half-jokingly called religions of guilt. We joke about the knee-jerk guilt we experience whenever we try to color outside the lines of our upbringing. But I’m beginning to think that guilt is not entirely a bad thing. A little guilt—a twinge of understanding that what I do creates ripples that go far beyond myself—can be a healthy and necessary thing.

Those young people I encounter who were given a religious upbringing are now at the age where they are questioning, and in some cases, rejecting, their parents’ religious views. But they will carry the moral imprint with them for the rest of their lives. It will serve them well. It will make them more compassionate, more generous, more respectful and more aware of their duty to others than their unchurched peers. Viewed simply from my own little corner of the world, it certainly has made them better employees!

There are those of my generation who bear some responsibility for the lack of moral upbringing of the youngsters I’m working with now. Our churchy childhoods clashed head-on with the social changes of the sixties and seventies. We had to reject the conservative confines of the faiths in which we had been raised in order to embrace loftier ideals like civil rights, world peace, women’s rights, gay rights… As a result, many of us made the conscious decision NOT to church our children. Let them go on their own voyage of spiritual discovery, we thought, when they reached the age of reason (whatever that is.) It seemed like a logical and fair line of thinking. But in the end, it backfired.

Evidently a spiritual quest is best performed from the platform of having rules in place to accept, reject or build upon. We will seek to change or improve upon the moral code handed us by previous generations; but if we were never given any kind of ethics, we don’t seem inclined to go looking for them. At least, not in the right places. If parents leave the void, it will be filled with whatever pop culture jams into it. So by the time our children reached "the age of reason," they were perfectly satisfied with the self-absorbed me-first lifestyle with which they had been stuffed since they were old enough to watch their first television commercial. They were not inclined to go out looking for a new set of rules.

I have heard young couples say that, though they don’t go to church now, they will start going as soon as they have kids, because "kids need that." And I have thought, "How hypocritical!" But now, I’m not so sure they aren’t correct. Kids DO need that. Some of it, anyway. So how do we go about rejecting the negatives of organized religion while preserving the benefits? How many centuries will it take mankind to come up with some other way to codify positive moral values and pass them on to succeeding generations, while leaving out the mumbo jumbo of blood sacrifice and the admonishment to beat the snot out of those who don’t view the Almighty in exactly the same way?

I don’t think we have that much time.



mutualaide said...

We don't have much time Lisa.  Once again you hit a number of nails on the head. I do so enjoy your thinking mind.

Children need moral compasses and if parents are not able to do that on their own (somewhat obviously not) organized religion will at the least give a good foundation for that twinge or twitch of guilt.  

We all need that.

frankandmary said...

Any spirituality I've had was based mostly on wanting to believe my Mother is in heaven, since her life was so hard & she wanted that so badly. That isn't real spirituality & I am an Atheist. But I have never had a transitory conscience, & indeed I've gotten into some trouble over the years, personally & professionally, for sticking to my inner moral compass when those around me(in some cases most) believed I was over the top. They felt I needed to understand how real life situational ethics.

Many of the people(though not all)who pointed this helpfully out to me were self-described religious. I often found their ethics & morals related to much more abstract & "higher" theory based tenets of religion, not practical every day right & wrong.  They couldn't work on Good Friday & had to fast too, but change a diagnosis code(fraud) to get a payment that would not otherwise be received? That was just "good business."   Many obscured the truth while speaking to me by reciting rehearsed religious jargon & then would somewhat affectionately call me the office heathen. I don't believe in God. I also do not have a baseline duplicity about me or any notion that I need to DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR MARY before what is right for my neighbor or mankind.

Whether someone is spiritual or not, I look, over time, at their willingness to sacrifice.  I had to do this to a much greater extent as a child than many because of my Mother's illness & our financial situation.  I believe this formed my compassionate & moral leanings more than any religious belief could. I don't see too many parents looking to have their little darlings sacrifice anything of real significance for their grandparents, neighbors or mankind. I find that, not religious background, the issue.

emmapeeldallas said...

Part 2 of my verbose comment:

Perhaps it helped that my ex was a civil rights lawyer, and discussing ethics and moral issues at the dinner table was part and parcel of our life, day in and day out, from the time the kids could hold a fork.  But whatever it was, they are now four young adults who are honest, industrious, and for the most part thoughtful.  None of them attends church or has any interest in religion, insofar as I know; in fact, one of them purports to be an atheist, but somehow in their busy lives, in addition to going to school, working, and making their way in the world they manage to make time to do volunteer work and be helpful to others. By contrast, I have a good friend who is (and has always been) highly religious and raised all of her children in the church.  Nevertheless, 3 of her 4 sons are convicted felons, one of them multiple times.  Maybe she and I are the two exceptions that prove the rule, but I think there's more to it than that, and I'll continue to believe that children can be raised to be ethical, industrious, thoughtful human beings even without being churched.


emmapeeldallas said...

Thought provoking as always, but I must take issue with the idea that organized religion is required to instill ethics in young people.  I am a cheerful agnostic.  When I was 5 or 6, I realized that I viewed most of what I was taught in the name of religion (Lutheran) as having about as much truthfulness and reality as Santa, and although I continued to attend church (I was a little kid and had no choice), it all seemed like so much group fantasy to me.  I agreed to be confirmed on the condition that I be allowed to leave the church after that, if I so desired.  And I did (desire to leave the church, and did leave it, at age 15).  All of which is background to my saying that my four children were part of your non-churched group.  They are now 32, 29, and 22.  I feel confident saying that anyone who's met them would agree that none of them has problems with moral ambiguity.  Although we didn't raise them in any church, my ex and I managed to convey to them that there is right and wrong, good and evil in this world, and that each of us must either choose right and good or live with the consequences, a big part of which includes the simple act of having to look yourself in the eye in the morning as you brush your teeth.  

Shoot - 2000 characters or less, indeed!  OK, I'm making an additional comment to finish up!

oceanmrc said...

First, here's the comment I left in your own journal:

Oh, Lisa:

Trying to figure out where to begin....

The first things that come to mind have to do with:

Faith as encounter with God, not with rules and ethics.  Hammurabi and Confucious instituted the foundations of  ethical codes -- religion is for something else entirely.

Religion as God's gift of companionship to us, not our invention or creation.

The Catholic church as a vast storehouse and living constituency of art, literature, music, imagination.

The Christian church as the foundational impetus for the civil rights movement, and as the place in which many of us found and continue to find support for our convictions about peace and about the rights of women and gays.

Your criticisms are largely and painfully valid.  But a spiritual quest is a gift from God, not a diving platform constructed of rules and dogma.

oceanmrc said...

Second, what you write reminds me of conversations with my adult children and causes me to agree with you on on thing: the influence of the media.  My children tend to see the church as a homophobic, war-mongering, rigid, ossified institution inhabited by the political right.  I look at them in disbelief and say, "But you know ME!  And you know lots of other people  engaged with faith, committed to religious institutions, acting in the public arena out of religious conviction.  They clearly see us as a lunatic fringe and believe that the real religious America is something I would argue is a media caricature.