A brief discussion of religion for those of you who aren’t in one - and no, I am not encouraging you to join one

My religion is an odd one. My involvement in it has given me some insights into the phenomenon as a whole but mine in particular isn’t as important to understand as some others are, really for two reasons: our population is relatively tiny (the worldwide ratio of Muslims to Jews, for example, is roughly 100/1) and our tribalism is more extreme than that of others because we are defined both by our tribe and by our religion. However, as I said, my own religion has given me some insights into much larger examples of the phenomenon. 

I’ll start with a concept: Orthodoxy. You might think of this as fundamentalism but I think orthodoxy is both a more precise term and a term that has uses in some non-religious belief systems. I’m not looking up the term here; I’ll just define it as I’ve seen it used. Orthodoxy is the belief that the entire central texts of a belief system should be adhered to as closely as possible, both in terms of belief and of conduct. 

As to whether belief or conduct is emphasized more, that depends on the belief system. In Judaism there is a greater emphasis on conduct but in most strands of Christianity that I know about there is a greater emphasis on belief. 

Most belief systems, particularly religious belief systems, have ambiguities, internal contradictions, dilemmas. How these are resolved within any given belief system varies and varying resolutions often divide belief systems. These resolutions are often resolutions of convenience or of personal priorities that do not actually come from the central texts, though you will rarely see that admission. An added difficulty with belief systems is that the dividing line between law and tradition/common practice is often less than clear, making the landscape more difficult to navigate honestly. 

Not everyone who belongs to a given belief system is orthodox. In Judaism, that distinction is pretty clear because it’s actually sectarian - those who are Orthodox call themselves that and act on that as communities. 

A word about orthodoxy: If you are honestly orthodox, you are constrained by your central texts. Maybe you believe that your central texts came from God. In that case, orthodoxy is a matter of obedience. This obedience takes precedence over personal convictions - you might disagree with God - and perhaps write off your disagreement as insufficient understanding - but your conviction is secondary. 

A religion that has been discussed here lately is Catholicism. Catholicism’s hierarchy would like Catholicism to be orthodox, but an awful lot of the membership isn’t. When asking why people don’t leave Catholicism when they disagree with the Pope, it is necessary to understand this. 

So why stay in a religion if not orthodox? What’s the point?

There are a lot of points, actually. I’ll try to come up with an off-the-cuff list which I do not guarantee is complete. 

  • Belief. Just because you don’t believe all of it doesn’t mean you believe none of it, in addition to which some beliefs are held more loosely than others.
  • Identity. I come from a religion where the Venn diagram of belief and ethnicity traditionally overlapped almost entirely. In the case of Catholicism, the circle of ethnicity can be contained almost entirely within the larger circle of religion, to the point where Catholicism is central to a lot of cultures. For Italians, Irish, Poles, Catholicism figures heavily into their traditions. If as someone Irish you convert out of conviction from Catholicism to some sort of Protestantism, that can have a whole lot of cultural ramifications you don’t necessarily want. 
  • Tradition/Continuity. If you grew up in that tradition, you attended and participated in a lot of life cycle events in Church. They’re a part of you, they resonate with you, you expect to keep practicing them and to pass them on to future generations. 

Being as I’m thinking as I write, I may stop there because I’m not sure how much of what I can think of doesn’t fall into one of those categories. 

Abortions are common in Ireland. The Church hates this, the Irish aren’t about to stop just because the Church hates it, and yet no one is thinking in terms of mass conversion. The former President of Ireland might state that a policy of the Vatican is Evil (he’s right) but that’s a fight within the family. 

So far I’ve been talking about Catholicism. Some of these points also apply to Islam, but differently. Like Judaism or, to a certain extent, like Protestantism, Islam is sectarian in ways that Catholicism is not (though Christianity is) though, more like Catholicism than Judaism, there is a lot of variation in orthodoxy outside sectarian boundaries. Unlike in Judaism (though kind of like within Jewish Orthodoxy - capital O here because in Judaism, Orthodoxy has strongly sectarian implications), a lot of the sectarianism is based on something other than level of observance. There are different varieties of orthodox Islam that are roughly equivalent in orthodoxy but different in beliefs. Ignoring all these variations in Islam is how Americans make serious mistakes about Islam, one being the massive mistake in evaluating the Ground Zero Mosque and another being utterly misdiagnosing the implications of Sharia in America, neither of which is remotely threatening to American life in general. 

Regarding Pope Francis, being as he has been a topic of discussion recently: Early on, he built authority with portions of the Catholic population with whom he is now squandering that authority. I can’t tell you if he is squandering it out of personal conviction or out of what he views as internal political necessity - or out of wanting to build credibility with more conservative Catholics - but he is absolutely squandering it.

Some of what he does can be attributed to the constraints of leading an orthodox organization and having to respect that orthodoxy to maintain authority, but within those constraints he has a certain amount of latitude. I’ll illustrate that with his handling of the Kim Davis flap in 2015, in which a high-up conservative American Catholic clergyman attempted to force his hand and he refused to play along. Kim Davis was an official in a Southern state who refused, contrary to State policy, to issue a marriage license to gay applicants and was fired for it. The claim was made that she had an audience with the Pope during his American visit, arranged by the aforementioned clergyman. As it turns out, her “audience” was a place on a group line. She claimed she’d had a private audience. The Vatican replied that she did not, that Pope Francis only granted one private audience on his trip, and it was to a gay former student of his and that student’s partner. Which is pretty much Pope-ese for “If you think you’re going to get me to support persecuting gay people in the civil sphere you can go fuck yourself.” 

That’s not who we’re seeing lately. One can’t legitimately justify sheltering pedophile priests from the consequences of their actions while not doing a damned thing to shelter their victims. That stand is obviously not due to the constraints of orthodoxy, that’s just a failure of character. In all probability, Jesus would be furious. (Or, if you’re Christian, Is furious.) It isn’t necessary to state that the only acceptable family union is between a man and a woman. Advising wives to forgive straying husbands while not advising husbands to forgive straying wives is both straight sexism and, again, protecting the victimizer while not doing a damned thing for the victim. This smacks of the “morality” of complaints about reverse discrimination. It isn’t the dominant population who needs the most protection, a reality which a Jesuit Pope from the Latin American Liberation Theology tradition should understand with utter clarity.

So what do you do with orthodoxy when you live there, when you fully believe in obedience? That issue was approached in Judaism a couple of generations before Jesus in the persons of sages running two competing schools: Hillel and Shammai. Generally speaking, when they disputed, Hillel took the humanistic position and Shammai took the strict obedience position. For example, Jews are supposed to say the Shema, a prayer, upon rising and in daylight. But what of workers who rise before dawn? Hillel’s position was that you say it wherever you are when the sun rises. Shammai’s position, if I remember and understand it correctly, was that you wait for day to go to work. Ultimately, the conclusion was made, ostensibly by God, that the way of God is the way of Hillel. One of my biggest problems with ultra-Orthodox Judaism is that they show signs of demanding a recount for Shammai, ratcheting up requirements in ways that make no sense, like a sudden problem ultra-Orthodox men have developed with being seating next to a strange woman on an airplane. 

For non-Orthodox sects/religions, things are easier: Settle your dilemmas in favor of justice to the best of your ability because justice is inherently a primary religious value.

What’s the best way to deal with religion from the outside? Telling people they shouldn’t have a religion is both pretty much guaranteed to be ineffective and ultimately smacks of advocating the threatening of a fundamental freedom of belief. Also, it depends on what you want to accomplish. Does religion in the case you’re worried about just offend you by existing or is there a prohibition in religion that you feel restricts people’s lives unjustly - assuming that they agree with you and feel restricted? They don’t have to, that’s their call. 

My suggestion is to address issues through dilemmas, dilemmas which the religious often don’t notice. Religious people have serious problems viewing their religions as unjust because that says that their god isn’t perfect. In ancient paganism that was no big deal because moral perfection wasn’t expected of gods but modern Western religions tend to view that issue very differently, particularly in orthodoxy. It also helps to point out when a stand is obviously more based on personal feelings, tradition, and perhaps convenience than actual scripture. For example, even in strict orthodoxy, restrictions on the roles of women are way more indicated by tradition than by law. Or, to choose an example from my own religion, Israeli Orthodox figures are leading their government to crack down on accepting political refugees while the Torah, the central document in Judaism, talks about treatment of strangers more times than any other topic. 

Views: 205

Comment by Ron Powell on September 2, 2018 at 12:09pm

The Pope is ostensibly the incarnation and personification of Catholic orthodoxy...

He has no choice and can exercise no option....


Comment by Maui Surfer on September 2, 2018 at 12:16pm

Wow, never considered it but I am Hawaiian Pantheon Orthodox!

The Pope is a continual quagmire from the beginning ... a false herstory of Apostolic succession , Ha! And the current Big Daddy, while overall a seemingly large improvement over the Nazi Youth predecessor who still lives in the next room over (that is some succession!) is now showing some cracks in his own armor, er, long dress.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 2, 2018 at 1:48pm

The choice he can exercise is rather like that of a Supreme Court Justice.

Comment by Ron Powell on September 2, 2018 at 4:10pm

Supreme Court Justices have a great deal more latitude...

The Constitution is not the probative equivalent of the Bible or the Gospels.

The framers of the Constitution fairly well invited the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution in a manner that would be reflective of the time in which the interpretation would take place...

The Pope has no such mandate and is on much narrower footing when making a determination within the constraints of Church doctrine and the Bible...

Comment by alsoknownas on September 2, 2018 at 4:12pm

"Telling people they shouldn’t have a religion is both pretty much guaranteed to be ineffective and ultimately smacks of advocating the threatening of a fundamental freedom of belief. "

Yet that is exactly what happens on this site all the time, which is why I don't want to participate. The loud boorish bigoted people can have at it.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 2, 2018 at 6:14pm
You think I haven’t noticed? I’ve replied to that more than anyone here.
Comment by The Songbird on September 2, 2018 at 10:48pm

I find this all incredibly thoughty, and should maybe assume that knowing the tenants of each individual religious-system would be a good springboard to knowing, and/or understanding, or at least tolerating one the other.  Your depiction of Orthodoxy, just as the term is, Kosh, is amazingly broad, at least to me.  And, yes, it seems that within each religious-system, there is that connotation of 'strict adherence,' no matter the fact, food, or medicine, the Do's and Don't's that seem to rank, within its own ranks.  Fractured factions, human err (perhaps mortality itself being some lynchpin/loophole within every system), are the offshoots that sub-cultures, and ub-bubs, and other descents -- FROM orthodoxy, itself, addresses.  To each his own?  But - the main aim,  I think at least - is the ole' morality play, the teaching of right and wrong, the idea of action/choice, but to try to pre-aware our children to not be wild.  That consequences will come, and to think ahead.

I myself have no idea what each individual sect has as their tenants.  I was raised Catholic, and find it was a very vehement, restrictive, and punishing system.  

What you've presented to me is the leeway to be in a communual belief system, hopefully for a community good, but belief is invisible.  The wall it creates is becoming - not so much.   

Thank you, as always, for your thoughty.  

Comment by alsoknownas on September 3, 2018 at 6:29am

Of course I know.

You have the patience I do not.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 3, 2018 at 8:20am

You’d be surprised at how much leeway there can be. In Judaism, that’s what Talmud is. I’m likely to be more comfortable with that than most because I come from a tradition that questions precisely that. That’s what “Israel” means: “wrestles with God.” Torah says that violation of Sabbath is a capital crime, but Jewish law states that on Sabbath, saving a life is obligatory. That’s in direct contrast to the letter of the law, and yet this precedent in Jewish law is well over two thousand years old. To use a more recent example from an entirely different religion: the Mormons originally had scriptural objections to integration, but that was reversed. 

Yes, belief is invisible, which gives you a choice: you can stay within your own tradition and not adhere to everything or you can find a religion that meshes better with your views and surround yourself with more religiously like-minded people. Different choices work for different people for different reasons. And I agree with you that it is ultimately all about defining right and wrong. When whatever form of orthodoxy embraces that which you find morally wrong, even if you stay put, your faith in clergy is not the same. There’s a further issue of evolving morality. Orthodox Judaism was morally ahead of the curve for a very long time but once the population started waking up to gender equality, secular morality passed it in some respects. That happened again when homosexuality came out of the closet and became defined as not pathological. The religion’s (or sect’s, this phenomenon is often not religion-wide) choice is to deal with the moral question head-on or to circle the wagons and not question the law. My own particular religious movement, Reform Judaism, which is utterly not orthodox, deals with those questions ASAP, so I’m comfortable where I am. 

I have been told that often enough that I think many of my on-line friends think that my patience has gone beyond virtue and into liability. 

Comment by The Songbird on September 3, 2018 at 8:42am

Patience as a liability!!  Pssssheeew .. now THERE'S a concept I could toy with!  But, no kidding, I think "wrestles with God" a high honor.  What good, what furtherance comes from blind faith, or - doctrine?  I think I had some glimmer of Question quite early, and because I actually ASKED, I was admonished.  I learned right then to keep my mouth shut, and ask my questions of God himself.  I think that to question, not answer, is the highest gratitude, awe, and respect for the Creator, name him what you will.  Doctrine, - orthodoxy? - is the command, demand to all be alike, align, sheep.  I am not a sheepish person, and perhaps my core belief is the reason why.  

I am ill-schooled on the subject of Judaism, only know that the first person I met of that faith said things to me that were like the embodiment, or action of, existentialism!  I was fascinated, and something in me shifted.  Openness?  Question?  Ease, I think is the word, more.  But I also always thought that Jew Peoples were actually more a race of people, not particularly just a people of a certain belief.  I may be wrong, but I like finding out.  I always thought that underneath the great persecution, it was to a race of people, not a belief of people.  I've never figured out what the terrible fear of that could be, other than the idea of control.  Nothin' like that lowest-common-denominator to get someone riled up!!  But - it is the base of all this wacko strife that the world of people roil around in.  Dizzying.  


You need to be a member of Our Salon to add comments!

Join Our Salon


A Commitment to Excellence

Posted by Robert B. James on April 24, 2019 at 8:19am 2 Comments

10 More Great TV Series

Posted by John Manchester on April 23, 2019 at 10:08am 4 Comments

Notes From Earth Day

Posted by Robert B. James on April 23, 2019 at 7:36am 2 Comments

Earth Day

Posted by Anna Herrington on April 22, 2019 at 10:30am 8 Comments

The Big One

Posted by Robert B. James on April 22, 2019 at 7:26am 0 Comments

© 2019   Created by lorianne.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service