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The Problem I Have With Religion: Going Beyond Bill Maher

10/10/2014 08:53pm ET | Updated December 9, 2014
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Up here in the clouds, on a plane from Denver (well, Fort Collins) to New York, there is no change in political atmosphere as of yet, although I did purchase The New York Times, and my husband handed me the Nicholas Kristof op-ed entitled "The Diversity of Islam," a welcome response to the raucous, somewhat hysterical debate that took place just days ago on Real Time With Bill Maher. Maher, who, for me, has been a welcome antidote to the overwhelming presence of churches in Fort Collins, satisfies my intellectual appetite with his irreverent objections to popular trends and their own hysteria. But this time he may have gone too far, fusing his own anger with an all-too-popular stereotype of Islam as violent.

For me, Maher missed the point. I know he has concentrated on religion and its contradictions big and small, in and out of his own film Religulous, but I hoped he could at least stick to criticizing the more general absurdities. But, then again, I don't want to belabor his prejudices, since, at the very least, he may have brought to the fore a set of opinions that, to my knowledge, many people hold, so that we can talk about them amongst ourselves -- if we can listen to each other, that is. Kristof, in his thoughtful piece, underlines the fact that there are many good, virtuous and reasonable Muslims, while there is a great deal of violence in Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism as well.

For a while now, I've wondered about the violence we don't tend to talk about -- for example, what I see as a futuristic kind of genocide embraced in the fundamentalist Christian belief that anyone who does not accept Jesus as their savior will go to Hell. There is no democracy in that, no freedom of choice, just a prison sentence that lasts for, well, eternity. Few religions in this world are free of serious violence and condemnation, in some form or another.

My worry here, in a world of so much information on how to deal with conflict resolution, climate change, poverty and more, is that there is really no religion that prepares us to integrate the good and the bad within us so that we don't have to demonize at all. Once we are helped to see how weak, vulnerable, rageful, impulsive, compulsive, etc., we can be, the temptation, and certainly the conviction, to scapegoat others become highly questionable. Joseph Campbell, the brilliant mythologist who enjoyed even greater fame through his PBS series with Bill Moyers, spoke of our needing a new mythology that would be relevant for our times. He saw religions as too narrow and too divisive, promising future superiority for some though heaven, and present superiority for others through belief or the right blood line.

Campbell was eminently wise and knew that it is in the nature of human beings to need both stories and rituals. He didn't want to condemn the imagery he felt we still need to accompany us on our journeys in life, but he felt we need more unifying symbols, like the moon, rather than symbols that are doomed to represent glory for either victor or martyr. And yes, we can say that some psychologies talk about the connection between all things and feelings, and Buddhism comes close to this as well. But I'm speaking of a visceral experience and a practice that helps people express, know and integrate their emotions. To my mind, this is not mindfulness per se, because, as I understand it, mindfulness, while tending to focus on noticing and thus shifting behavior and attitudes, does not include cultivating the ability to safely accommodate, come to know and tame our many mixed feelings, which can be extremely intense and at times chaotic.

I am a psychotherapist, but this issue is not only for therapists who see alienated people with nobody to trust or share with, or people entrapped in violence from within or acted out in the larger world. The problem goes beyond religion per se, and it is, in part, a dilemma that occurs whenever what we believe cancels out information and factual evidence. Once that happens, we are no longer listening. The Bill Maher show is something I don't watch that often, and it's precisely for this reason: many panelists' aggressive, impatient vying to be right. It is set up that way, like a reality show that titillates and upsets and preaches to its own choir. But to be "real" about this, there are also too few places where there are discussions accessible to a broad audience where people actually listen and discuss and want to learn rather than be right.

There has to be a place to question religion from the point of view that much of it is very divisive, and that it is often used to close people off from openness about personal and political problems. Of course I know that religions have their good, comforting, communal aspects. I, for one, miss the hauntingly beautiful melodies of Jewish prayers; perhaps they can be part of a newer personal path of feeling deeply without insisting on believing all the religious texts they are part of.

I'm hoping people will start to build on new ideas, based in part on the beauty of the ages, and in part on what we might begin to invent. It will ultimately be our human climate -- our capacity to deal with the diversities within us and between one another -- that will facilitate (or not) our capacity and motivation to face issues of climate change and other serious crises in our world.