What Does It Mean To Be Religious?

The Religion section of The Huffington Post is a unique site, where people from diverse backgrounds and positions can openly discus issues of religion and faith. In reading many of the comments it is plain to see how these issues arouse heated passions, and while there is much intelligent and respectful interchange, there are also those whose stated goals are the elimination of religion (or, at least, the Abrahamic faiths), and the denigration of any approach to the existence of a Creator. And there are (very few, for some reason) commentators who take the opposite position that their religion contains all truth.

As a writer and Rabbi, this dialogue has helped me to sharpen my communication skills, anticipate misunderstanding, question my own position, and engage respectfully with those who disagree. Often this dialogue feels more like a chess match, or an outright war, than a constructive conversation, though. Yes, people have clearly been damaged by religion, and religion has obviously been the cause of conflict. But, objectively, religion has been at the root of much that is good in society, and it has helped many individuals to live more fully, in service and in love. The dangers we face are not in religion and faith, but in the caricature and demonization of the other, from both sides.

Most of the religion writers that I've read on HuffPost, including me, are moderates -- if not liberals -- in our approach to religion, faith, and God. Yet, based on many, many comments there often seems to be an assumption that we, and by extension, all religious folks, share a common view of religion and faith that is essentially fundamentalist and literal. Below is a list of these assumptions, culled from many comments over two years of blogging:

  • Faith means blindly accepting dogma, even in the face of contrary evidence.

  • Belief in God means imagining that there is a "man in the sky", or some kind of physical superbeing that watches and judges us.
  • Religious followers believe that every word of holy texts is literally true, and that all characters and actions in the Bible are set forth as examples of the right way to live.
  • Each religion, by definition, claims that its way is one Truth and only "path to salvation".
  • Religious folks reject and condemn the tenants of other religions.
  • Anyone who prays is either asking for physical objects or obvious miracles.
  • Religious folks want to convert all others to their religion.
  • Religion, by definition, is antagonistic to science and reason.
  • Religions focus primarily on reward in the afterlife.
  • Religion conveniently ignores the reality that bad things happen to good people.
  • A religious person has stopped struggling with life and claims to have found all the answers needed.
  • All religious folks condemn homosexuality, sex before marriage, interfaith and interracial marriages, and other progressive societal advances.
  • God is a hypothesis to explain natural phenomenon that we do not currently understand; the so-called "God of the Gaps" theory.
  • Different religions worship different gods.
  • All religious folks condemn atheists.
  • As a businessman, architect, liberal Rabbi who has worked in a Reform synagogue, worshipped in an Orthodox environment, is married to a Cantor who served in a Conservative synagogue, and has participated in many interfaith dialogues, I know of very, very few people who fit these assumptions (and, as a matter of fact, in the Jewish world I tend to be the "radical" for professing a relationship with a personal God). My position is wide and encompassing, and I am by no means unique. In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted an extensive study on religion in America, and found that there is a tremedous variety of beliefs -- most non-fundamental and nuanced. The study concluded,

    "The lack of dogmatism in American religion may well reflect the great diversity of religious affiliation, beliefs and practices in the U.S. ... Six in ten adults believe that God is something with whom people can have a relationship; but one in four -- including about half of Jews and Hindus -- see God as an impersonal force. And while roughly seven in ten Americans say they are absolutely certain of God's existence, more than one in five (22%) are less certain in their belief ... A similar pattern is evident in views of the Bible. Those who believe Scripture represents the word of God are roughly evenly divided between those who say it should be interpreted literally, word for word (33%), and those who say it should not be taken literally (27%). And more than a quarter of adults -- including two-thirds of Buddhists (67%) and about half of Jews (53%) -- say their faith's sacred texts are written by men and are not the word of God."

    Now, one may answer that any religious belief is destructive and contrary to reason; one need only look at the Westboro Baptists to see this in action. But this is not in itself a reasonable or accurate view. The fanatics at Westboro are to faith what pedophilia is to sex. One may also claim that the non-literalists are not the "real" believers, and that moderates are a "cover" for the fundamentalists, but this is also not factually accurate (see my blog, "In Defense of Religious Moderates" for a detailed discussion on this). The truth is that religion encompasses billions of people who participate for many reasons: Family allegiance, connection to a community, spiritual longings, intellectual rigor, comfort of a routine, fear of punishment, neurotic guilt, expression of gratitude, need to fit-in or impress, or a deep desire to contribute and to be of service in love.

    It is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ist, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in meaningful relationship with others. It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we need to all do this together.