Is there any religion that appeals to you, with rituals and politics and practices that strongly resonate with you? Do you ever have moments, listening to a church choir or attending a peace march, when you wished you had whatever it is believers have — and if so, which believers made you feel that way? Is there any religion that you’d kind of like to join, if it weren’t for that pesky business of believing in God?
To put it another way: Let’s pretend God exists. Let’s say He/She/It appeared to you, in a way that completely convinced you that He/She/It was real and not a figment of your imagination. Let’s say He/She/It asked for your worship… but said you could do it any way you wanted to. What would it be?
Quick guideline here: “I’d worship God by sitting on the sofa eating chocolate chips and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is not an acceptable answer. As Russell’s Teapot said, it has to be a real religion, “not just made-up by someone.”
Myself, I usually lean towards Quaker. I like the leaderlessness of it: the idea that a worship service involves anyone speaking who feels moved to do so, instead of one person who supposedly knows more about God than anyone else standing in front of the room telling everyone else about it. I like the peacefulness of it, the spareness, the quiet. I like the idea of a worship service where you sit together in a quiet, unadorned place, each person looking inside themselves but everyone doing it together.
Plus I like the idea of a religion that has, as one of its central tenets, the notion that they don’t know everything; that truth is available to everyone, not just Quakers; and that believers need to be flexible and adaptive about their beliefs.
And of course, I like the whole social justice aspect of it. I like the Quaker history of involvement in the Underground Railroad; their history of anti-war activism; their history of supporting racial and gender equality.
If it weren’t for that pesky business of believing in God and Christ, I’d be all over it.
But Christ is a deal-breaker for me. There are way too many things about the Christ myth that give me the willies. And besides, Christianity has been in my face my entire life. It’s by far the religion I’m most intimately familiar with… and as a result, it’s the religion that angers and upsets me the most. Christianity in America is, overwhelmingly, a ghastly example of political and cultural hegemony at its worst, and I want no part of it — even a radical, progressive, alternative-y part.
So paradoxically, the very thing that makes the Quaker religion feel familiar and resonant — the fact that it’s part of the Christian tradition, where my own cultural roots lie — is the very thing that makes me flinch away from it.
There are other contenders. Judaism, for one. I like that Jewish culture values intellect and art. I like that it values sensual pleasure; that it doesn’t have the whole fucked-up Original Sin crap that makes so many Christians feel bad every time they enjoy their bodies. Even in the strictest Orthodox traditions, where sensual and sexual pleasure are hemmed in by a thousand rigid and sexist rules, that pleasure is approved of and even celebrated when it’s experienced in the “right” way.
What’s more, I grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood, and went to a largely Jewish school. So while I didn’t grow up Jewish, the rituals and cultural traditions have a lot of resonance and familiarity, and I find many of them joyful and beautiful.
And for obvious reasons, I like the fact that so many Jews have found a way to honor and preserve the history and tradition and ritual of Judaism, without taking the actual religion part too seriously. The phrase “secular Jew” makes sense, in a way that, say, “secular Baptist” really doesn’t.
But converting because you like the ritual and the weddings and the music and the food seems kind of lame. It’s like that Seinfeld episode, where Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism and immediately starts telling Jewish jokes… on the grounds that he’s Jewish now, so itâs okay. It just seems weird. Cultural appropriation, or something. Especially when you’re talking about a religion that’s so steeped in family lineage and a history of oppression. Converting to secular Judaism seems like a logical contradiction.
And the actual religious belief itself… I don’t know. All that “chosen people” stuff. And all that brutal Old Testament stuff. That’s exactly the stuff I argue with Christians about all the time. The Old Testament creeps me out, regardless of whether it’s coming from Christians or Jews. Like most religions, there’s good stuff in there as well… but the bad stuff is seriously troubling. And if I were going to pick a religion, I’d want to feel happy with the actual religion part of it — not just the secular cultural part.
So Judaism’s out.
Then there’s Baha’i. For years, back in my woo days when I believed in some sort of world-soul and was half-assedly searching for a religious or spiritual group to belong to, I seriously considered Baha’i. I especially liked that one of the religion’s central tenets is that all religious history is an evolution towards a greater understanding of God, that all religions have at least some kernel of truth about God, and that no religion has the entire truth about God… including the Baha’i. It’s like that Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” a song that I’ve always loved: “When true simplicity is gained/To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed/To turn and to turn it will be our delight/’Til by turning, turning we come ’round right.” Damn straight.
Baha’i has some other cool shit going on as well. Another central tenet of the faith is equality between women and men — and it has been since the religion was founded, way before it was cool. Plus they endorse universal education, racial equality, economic justice, and scientific exploration.
And their temples are really pretty.
But I did a little research, and decided I just couldn’t do it. For one thing, another tenet of the Baha’i faith is monogamous marriage, and I’m a pretty ardent non-monogamist; not as a doctrine for everyone, but as a valid option for myself and others. Even if I weren’t, I’m an extremely ardent believer that religion should stay the hell out of people’s sex lives.
And the Baha’i faith has a focus on religious leaders — prophets, who are special Manifestations of God substantially different from ordinary people — that I find just a little too culty. A lot too culty, actually. I’m not saying it’s an actual cult, any more than any other religion. But there’s something very disconcerting about a religion that has, as one of its central tenets, the idea that each individual is equally suited to explore God in their own way… and yet that also has, as a central tenet, the idea that some individuals are more equal than others. (Especially since those more-than-equal individuals include the founder of the religion himself.)
So that’s not gonna work.
Ingrid keeps asking me, “What about paganism and Wicca?” And I can see her point. The worship of the physical Earth — of plants and animals, weather and seasons — has an obvious appeal to the part of me that’s always gassing on about the wonders of galaxies and stuff.
But you know how I said earlier that, as an American, Christianity is up in my face in a way that makes it impossible to ignore its profound flaws? As a Northern Californian, I feel much the same way about paganism and Wicca and other forms of woo. I’m way too familiar with its irrational and annoying aspects to be at all comfortable participating in it… and its irrational and annoying aspects permeate my culture. And the whole “pretending this is an ancient religious practice when it was pretty much made up in the last few decades” thing totally gets up my nose.
But it’s also interesting because of the clues it’s giving me about what I’d like to see in the atheist movement — about what’s missing in my life that religion traditionally offers and that I’d like to find elsewhere.
A place to sit quietly with other people, where I can try to reach my private inner truth but also feel connected to the people around me.
A place to join with other people to celebrate both our minds and our bodies.
A place to join with other people in a passionate, inspired pursuit of social justice.
A place to celebrate nature and the Earth, and to acknowledge our connection with it and our debt to it.
A sense of being a link in a chain, part of a historical tradition that goes back for centuries and will hopefully go on for centuries more…
…and at the same time a recognition of the necessity of change; the humble awareness that our understanding of the world is limited at best, and almost certainly in error in major ways.
But maybe I’m being too needy, too demanding. After all, I can and do get all those things elsewhere, from different areas of my life.
A place to sit quietly with other people, feeling both private and connected? I can get that at a library. Or even a good cafe. A place to ecstatically celebrate mind and body and the places where they connect? I get that from dancing — not to mention sex. A sense of being a link in the chain of human history? Dancing again… and writing, and reading, and cooking, and singing, and almost every other basic human activity that’s been done for hundreds or thousands of years. A place to celebrate nature and feel connected with it? I can go to the woods, or the mountains, or even just go outside and look at trees. A way of recognizing and reminding myself of how limited my understanding is, and how much I still have to learn? Reading about science is a great way to do that.
And a place to join with others in a passionate, inspired pursuit of social justice?
I get that from the atheist blogosphere.
So maybe this vague yearning for some atheist equivalent of church doesn’t make sense. In the same way that I stopped trying to get all my emotional needs from one Capital R Relationship, maybe I should stop looking for one place to meet all my needs for shared epiphany and transcendence.
Maybe that one place is just my life as a whole.
So I return to my nosy question. What about the rest of you? If you’re a non-believer, what religion would you pick if you had to? Is there any religion that has any appeal to you? If so, whyâŠ and what made you reject it despite its appeal? Nosy minds want to know.