originally published Sept. 17, 2012 on Open Salon
It's being Rosh Hashanah, religion is on my mind today. (Also in ways that aren't in my post, such as that today's Torah portion is about a father who almost sacrifices his son. I would not have passed that test, but I lost him anyway. Sometimes there is no ram in the bushes.)
I’ve read a whole lot on OS about how “religion” is to blame for everything. Here’s what I can tell you about my Temple (Reform Jewish):
We coordinated with a lot of other local houses of worship, including a lot of Black churches, to oppose the state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage.
In order for a child to go through a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at thirteen, that child is required to complete one or more Mitzvah Projects, which consist of several hours of some sort of community service helping other people. There are a few specific kinds of service that have to be included at at least an hour apiece; the rest are the kids’ choices within guidelines. Community service is an expectation.
High school kids are typically brought on certain kinds of trips. One in recent years involves going to New Orleans to help with rebuilding. Another is a social activist lobbying trip to Washington oriented around that age group. They see their Congressman and Senators.
There are all sorts of committees involved in one form or other of social action, including those who maintain a garden on the grounds specifically for the purpose of feeding those without enough to eat.
We of course also take care of our own, as I found out when my son died. I didn’t know that kind of support existed.
That’s in addition to Brotherhood and Sisterhood each working the local equivalent of a soup kitchen monthly, a major food collection drive during the High Holy Days (measured quite literally in tonnage), etc.
Sure it’s tribal. I belong to what may be the most tribal religion on the planet. However, we have a lot of converts (I’m married to one) and, at least in this particular community at this particular congregation, there isn’t an acceptance issue with converts. They’re Jewish. That’s it. Intermarried spouses are accepted, not as Jews in all ceremonial situations, but as members of our community.
Like other Jews, we don’t evangelize. There are no strings attached with any of this.
We don’t tell people what to believe. We tell our own people what our traditional beliefs are and, sometimes, where they come from, whether it be events, commentary, derived logic from scripture (another way of saying Commentary), whatever, along with internal disagreements. We don’t say “believe in God Or Else.” I wouldn’t say that to my own children. (Well, “child” now.)
I’m not saying this because I want to nominate my rabbis for sainthood (or whatever equivalent we might have, which we really don’t), or to talk about some inherent superiority of my own religion. After all, in terms of community service, we are, Thank God, far from alone.
I’m saying this because I don’t see how this is a negative influence in my life. My rabbi said in a sermon on Rosh Hashanah that our version of Organized Religion brought three things to the table: community, continuity (historical connection), and ethics. I had independently reached what are pretty much the same conclusions before we joined this congregation. I don’t have a problem with any of those. What would be the advantage of ditching my religion?
An argument can be made that religion In The Aggregate is more of a negative influence than a positive one. Arguable but, really, So What? There is no New World Order currently proposed that has the following proposition on the table:
Resolved, that all religions be eliminated because of their collective negative influence on humankind.
Well, there was, but it lost out and, more importantly, it behaved just like a religion. It was, in practice, way more dogmatic than Reform Judaism is. I’ll use a better word: It was way more Fundamentalist than Reform Judaism is.
You can argue that even Reform Judaism has its superstitions. True, but again, So What? Superstitions start to matter when they start hurting people. If they happen to annoy you just because they’re superstitions, my advice to you is: Deal with it. That call isn’t yours to make. Go wear your lucky underwear and leave me alone.
Jews aren’t evangelistic. The same cannot always be said for atheists.
There is no reason for religion in the aggregate to even be a relevant category. Why All Or Nothing? What functional purpose does that serve?
It may look like I’m arguing about Judaism here. No, not my point at all. Though there are positive things that are unusual about Judaism (which have a lot to do with why I remain Jewish voluntarily) such as our lack of evangelism and our related belief that Heaven, to the extent that we pay attention to it at all, is not reserved strictly for Us, there are positive things about lots of religions.
Where I live now, slavery was once legal, and this community had a lot of abolitionists who assisted with the Underground Railroad, a phenomenon heavily based on the local population of Quakers.
Habitat For Humanity has built thousands of houses for people who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Habitat For Humanity is a church-based movement. Many Jews have participated (including me) and do participate, but this isn’t a Jewish movement, it’s a Christian one.
You want to see what the humanist side of Islam looks like, in case you’re one of those people who is under the mistaken impression that it doesn’t have one? Go read this guy:
He’s right here on OS.
If you want a way to determine at what point a religion becomes likely to hurt people more than help people, I can help you with that, not that such a distinction will be useful for much other than personal analysis. My tip is NOT based on denomination. It applies to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In my experience, and I’ve said this elsewhere before, religion has two imperatives which often compete with each other: Vigilance and Compassion. Wherever Vigilance has the upper hand, be careful.
But wherever Compassion has the upper hand, stop condemning religion already. You’re not protecting anyone and you’re advocating infringing on our freedoms.