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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not Clinging to Religion

I've always had a hard time with a literal intepretation of the many claims of the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is fraught with such difficulties that I'll set it aside for now. But believing the claims made in the Gospels is hardly an epistemic picnic either. "Jesus is God", that central tenet of Christianity, is just hard for me to believe. I'm no skeptic of the historical Jesus, but God? Really? And then there are the miracles (not just really rare events, but supernatural interventions in the physical world). The list goes on.

In addition to the basic problem of accepting these fantastical claims made in religious texts dating back thousands of years, there's a kind of convoluted quality to attempts by the early Church to makes sense of it all (and yet, it's now accepted doctrine, not amenable any more to re-interpretation). For instance, the Trinity. Do we really take seriously the three-in-one divinity idea? It just all seems so fishy.

For an insightful critique of organized religion try Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Even if you disagree, it's a fresh angle on the place of ancient religion in modern society, and it avoids the acerbic condescension of nit-wits like Bill Maher.

Finally, so I'm not misunderstood, and contra Harris, I'm not an atheist. Also, I'm not against the Church, whatever that would mean. I'd be horrified if religious faith ever "ended" in Harris' sense. I like the insights in his critique, but just not his conclusion. For one, organized religion provides much non-government public benefit; it's a strong "mediating institution" that stands between the State and individuals. Two, it's community-based, in the "Bowling Alone" sense that it discourages the slide toward selfish individualism. It brings people together. Three, the concept of the Divine, whatever the doctrinal details, is I think right-headed and, for lack of a better word, inspirational. I've never understood how Carl Sagan types find such beauty and purpose in matter and energy. I'm no materialist.

Okay, I think that's enough for now. I'll leave things with a few anecdotes from our political past. One, our own Benjamin Franklin, who was a lifelong supporter of church, was friendly to and friends with clergy and all things ecclesiastical, but nonetheless would spend Sunday "catching up on work" rather than in the pew. Two, the great Winston Churchill, who helped save the free world from the tyranny of fascism, once famously remarked that he was not so much a pillar of the church but a buttress, supporting it from the outside. Now that makes good sense to me.

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