Misconceptions of religion hinder tolerance
IN A WORD
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 15, 2012 20:10
When the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which today includes most of New England, was founded in 1628, its Puritan governor John Winthrop said of the new colony: “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
This famous quote was making a reference to Jerusalem, which is indeed a “city upon a hill,” and John Winthrop’s mandate was to found a religiously pure society that would set an example for the entire world to follow.
Although not all of the 13 colonies got off to such a radically religious start, religion was a contentious issue that had a lot to do with the origins of our country.
Today, the legacy of those origins still resonates deeply: much of the country still shuts down on Sundays; the religious activity of our politicians, and especially the president, are paraded before the public; and some of our most polarizing political issues stem from questions of religion.
Given how deeply rooted our country is in religion, I found it rather surprising to see a statistic showing that significantly fewer Americans than I expected actually affiliate with one. A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows that one in five Americans do not identify with an established religion and reported instead that their religious beliefs are “nothing in particular,” agnostic or atheist.
How can it be that such a religiously oriented country is actually experiencing a decline in the religiosity of its citizens?
But then I remember my friends’ reactions to my own religious persuasions and I’m not so surprised anymore. After years of believing in G-d and identifying as Jewish but not practicing at all outside of a handful of Friday night dinners per semester, I found that something was really lacking in my life. I felt absorbed in materialistic pursuits that had no real purpose or benefit, and this depressed me.
Since I had always been spiritually oriented, I turned to Judaism to try and bring a little more meaning into my daily existence. I began to keep kosher (following Jewish dietary laws), observe the Jewish Sabbath and go to synagogue more regularly. I quickly discovered that religious observance brought a whole slew of positive things to the table. I became a generally happier person and I felt like I had more of a purpose.
Yet, despite the happiness I found in Judaism, the reactions I received from my secular friends to my newfound religious observance were overwhelmingly negative. One friend asked me how I got to be such a “super Jew” and then proceeded to lambast Orthodox Jews for being crazy and for unquestioningly doing everything scripture says. Other friends would often forget about my Shabbat observance and invite me out to parties on Friday nights. When I would politely decline, I would receive eye rolls and snickers because I was off doing the “Jew thing.”
The kind of intolerance I encountered toward my increased religious observance is unusual at Brandeis, and I thus found it particularly alarming. Many of my more religious friends wrote these reactions to my increased religious observance off as anti-Semitism, but I believe these reactions are representative of a different kind of problem. It’s not that my friends have anything against Jews. It’s rather that as someone who was once secular and is known to my friends as smart and rational, my increased religious observance may have disrupted their view of what it means to be smart and rational.
The reason why is that our liberal, and thus often secular society, has taught us that anyone who believes in any kind of god, force, energy, spirit, ghost or any other supernatural being that can’t be directly observed must be irrational, at least to some extent.
This view is enforced by the constant barrage of religious extremists that we see in the media every day and modern science, the traditional dogma of which is that if you can’t directly observe something or the results of it, then it doesn’t exist. It was in fact these attitudes that kept me away from religious observance for so long in the first place.
So then perhaps it does makes sense that one in five Americans don’t identify with any established religion. If society tells you that having belief makes you irrational, why would you ever want to turn to religion?
I am not, of course, arguing that religion is for everyone. There are plenty of people who legitimately can’t find rhyme nor reason in religious observance, and that is completely fine.
In fact, that’s how it should be. We always need people who don’t agree with us to question our beliefs and actions so that we stay rational.
But we should also remember that religion cannot necessarily be equated with extremism and irrationality. For me, religion is sanctity and peace. For others, it is community. And for still others it is solace.
This is not a call for Americans to “come back” to religion.
Just as my secular friends have no right to dictate to me whether or not I practice Judaism, I have no right to dictate to them, or any one else, whether or not they choose to be secular. However, those of us who have chosen to turn from religion, they must remember to continue to respect those of us who have not