Religion: What is it good for?

A great deal of violence has been done in the name of God and religion. I can appreciate why atheists feel as they do. Religion is often used to justify anti-social behavior. As my husband is fond of saying, “The worst thing about religion is religious people.” And yet, to my mind, the notion that there is a creative force reponsible for the creation of the universe has merit. We don’t know. Fortunately, in pure Judaism we don’t have to know – in fact, we can’t know – who or what God is.

Some believe the spiritually advanced are blessed with wealth, if not also fame and beauty. They worship money, and tend to preach “survival of the fittest.” People like this frighten me because they think they are entitled to decide who is the fittest, and then apply that notion to human interactions. Others, who may have suffered significant personal loss, rail against the universe and demand to know why “God” would allow such things. They say they will not believe in a God who causes pain, misery, disaster, starvation, disease, mayhem, etc. Apologists for God will say that human beings are the source of evil in the world. “God” is a loaded term for many people.

I’ve found ways to re-frame religious ideas to make them relevant and meaningful in my life. Yes, we live in world we did not create and cannot control. Yes, bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. Yes, natural disasters are powerful and cause great harm. While we don’t get to decide what happens, we do get to decide how we will respond to it. I equate that choice with belief in God. We have the ability to create, as God does in Genesis. We have the ability to envision the kind of world we want to live in, and work to make it a reality. Religion is a set of tools. Ideally it should help us to become our best selves, teach life-enhancing, pro-social values, and make the world a better place. The concepts, theology, beliefs, and practices determine a methodology which is hopefully designed to help people pay attention to the right things. “Spirituality” is the extent to which we do pay attention to and act on what we profess to value. When people confuse the technology with the destination, I think they are missing the point.

Some questions you might ask:

1.) How do we develop an attitude or approach that works for us individually and collectively?

2.) What’s the most constructive use of our time?

What would it look like to envision God as an abstract representation of ethical standards and values, such as the ideals of kindness, compassion, love, mercy, service, honesty, altruism, and respect for life? What would it look like if we agreed every life has meaning and value, and is worthy of respect? What would it look like if we resisted the reptilian urges toward greed, deceit, selfishness, and materialism? What would it look like if this set of beliefs and attitudes are, themselves, our “God”? Imagine holding them in your mind and heart at all times, like a compass, or a light.

What matters is what people do, not why they say they do it, or who told them to do it. Would it be fair to define spirituality as loving people and using things, instead of the reverse?Whether an omniscient, benevolent Intelligence chose to create the universe and gave each one of us (hopefully) a conscience or the ability to make choices about how we conduct ourselves may be, on a practical level, somewhat irrelevant. If it is useful to believe in such a Being, because doing so provides a more solid foundation for continuing to do the right thing when faced with other not-so-nice choices, why not? I made a decision to believe in a Creator who is loving and wants the best for us, because for me, that’s helpful. No matter what we do, we are limited by human perception. Maybe science will have something definitive to say about it eventually, and that’s fine. I wish I could remember who said, but some famous rabbi or other said, “If I knew God, I would be God.” Judaism says God is essentially unknowable, so we don’t concern ourselves with the nature of God. We concern ourselves with conducting our lives in a way that makes a positive difference.

You do not have to be repressed to be spiritual. Faith doesn’t mean walking around with glazed eyes and a fake smile trying to act happy. The opposite it true. We don’t have to be perfect or enlightened. Faith means being honest with ourselves, realistic about our limitations and those of others, keeping things in perspective, and trusting that we can make good decisions about what is right. In his book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal, of whom I am a big fan, offers this test: Is the choice you are about to make based in love, altruism, honesty, and purity? If it is, go for it. If not, stop and reconsider.

How can religion move us forward? Often we are lost, off-center, caught up in the grind and flurry of holding down a job, getting through school, raising our kids, maintaining our relationships, maybe trying to build a list of achievements, or struggling to establish a higher standard of living. We want the house, the car, the clothes, the credentials, the accolades. Some people who get these things end up feeling empty inside. Some people may have more than we do, and we envy them. Others may have less, and we feel guilty. The relationship, job, or stuff we thought would make us happy didn’t provide a sense of meaning or purpose. Maybe we want to be part of a community, where we can offer something of value to others and gain their support as well. Maybe we want to feel a connection to something larger than ourselves. From what I’ve observed in my own life, the people who make a difference do so in one of two ways:

1.) They demonstrate, by being who they are, what love means.
2.) They create or discover something that transforms the lives of others.

What are the ingredients of an effective religious practice? For me, they are anything that makes life possible, worth living, helps me recognize my potential, and supports me in bringing my best qualities forward. When I pray, I imagine the stars, galaxies, solar systems, and the motion of the planets around the sun. I think of our planet as “alive” because it has life on it – so far, known to precious for its singularity. We are part of the network of living things, connected to the health of the planet. In a very real sense, we ARE “one with the universe.” That is not an abstract notion, it is a concrete reality.

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6 responses to “Religion: What is it good for?

  1. Human beings have passion and emotion. It is the result of the fact that our brains are more advanced than those of other animals. So ”we” will find things to get emotional over (and yes … kill as a result), and if it is not religion it will be something else. People kill for reasons other than God and religion.

    Religon might stir up violence and passion but it also brings comfort, stability and paths of thinking to a lot of peoples. So to blame religion (or even God) for war and violence is pretty lame. We have only ourselves to blame. We are in charge of our lives and destiny.

    More later. Thanks for starting this topic!

    robin

  2. Marha Steinberg

    Sara,
    I agree with all that you have written and as one with a rather existentialist life view, understand the need to make our own meaning. I just don’t see how god add anything to the understanding. but then I see making sense of the world my life’s work.

  3. Robin: I agree – no reason to blame human violence on God. I started reading about Kabbalah, which says there is no such thing as evil, we only see things that way because we’re programmed with a will to receive (the ego), in opposition to the force of the Creator, which is the will to bestow. Basically they seem to be falling back on the explanation that it’s beyond our understanding, but it’s all good. Or something.

  4. Marsha: For me, it isn’t that God adds anything to my understanding, intellectually (besides which, what can anyone know of God with the limitations of the human senses, not to mention the human mind?) If I were to rely on my intellect, I’d probably rather be dead than alive, you know? My thought process is not necessarily that reliable.

    Someone said living is like being trapped in quicksand – the more you struggle, the deeper you sink. Belief in God in a practical sense means choosing not to engage in a struggle with what’s beyond my control. Such a surrender makes me feel better on an experiential level. I can’t make my own meaning alone – I am not that strong or powerful, so I choose to believe a positive organizing force governs the universe, is omniscient, that has a reason – because it works for me. I don’t care if it makes sense or not. It is something I feel, that is sustaining, nourishing, inspiring, warm, fuzzy, comforting, peaceful, restorative, etc. My most burning question has always been what is the meaning or purpose of life and/or my individual life, so I can relate to a lifetime of trying to make sense of things. Whether I improve my outlook and attitude because God is “real” or because I’m simply rebuilding my conceptual framework, either way, the results are what matters. That’s what works for me – your mileage, as they say, may vary.

    🙂

  5. this is an interesting article relating to god definitions vs. atheism; recently in the Washington Post. I though the moderator here might be interest. I hope the site can be opened.

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2010/07/harris_hitchens_dawkins_dennett_evangelical_atheists.html

  6. Hi Robin:

    Thanks for the link – I read about half the first page and my computer crashed, so I will try again later. I liked what the author said, “In some ways the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.” I don’t care about Truth; I care about what works. That’s why my business card describes me as a “Functional Reality Engineer.” Just kidding, but it IS what I want to be when I grow up.

    🙂

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