Thursday, July 21, 2005

Thoughts On Faith--Or Lack Thereof

I am not a religious person. But there have been times in my life when I wanted to be religious. It’s never worked out, though.

The first time I tried to be religious was shortly after reading Exodus by Leon Uris at the age of 15. Exodus started my lifelong fascination with Israel. I soon began to overcome my infantile rejection of being Jewish, which had previously manifested itself in tantrums of whining to my parents about, “Why do I have to go to Hebrew school? I don’t want a bar-mitzvah. I don’t want to go to Sunday school. I hate it! Wahhh!”

Nevertheless, as I became more and more fascinated by Israel, as my newfound pride in being Jewish grew, I decided that the next logical step was to become more observant. The only problem with that, however, was that I lacked the necessary spark of faith required to be a religious person.

Why did I lack faith? I owe that to my atheist father. He always challenged me about anything I learned in Sunday school. His persuasive and logical arguments prevented me from swallowing the Biblical accounts of miracles that we were taught. The Rabbi, bless his soul (I don’t believe in souls, so I guess it’s just a figure of speech), always patiently answered my incessant questions, but his answers did not satisfy me. My father’s logic, reason, and scientific-based arguments beat out the kind Rabbi’s faith and belief.

You may be wondering why my atheist father insisted on sending my brother and I to Hebrew and Sunday school. That’s a good question. I think this anecdote explains it: I remember my dad dropping us off at Sunday school and saying “Say ‘Hi’ to God for me!” as he sped off to go bowling in his B’nai Brith Jewish bowling league. I think that sort of sums it up. In my family, being Jewish has more to do with culture, habit and tradition—as well as a chip-on-the-shoulder because of anti-Semitism—rather than religious faith.


So, here I was becoming interested in my heritage and trying to figure out where I fit in. I was proud to be Jewish, so proud that I wanted to be religious, but try as I might, I knew deep-down that I still didn’t believe in miracles or the monotheistic idea of God. I didn’t know what an agnostic was back then, but in retrospect that’s what I was (and still am).

I Remember around that time ordering a pizza with a friend—a non-Jew, like most of my friends—and requesting no pepperoni. He couldn’t understand why all of a sudden I didn’t want pepperoni, and gave me an incredulous look that made me feel silly for trying to eschew pork (mmm, bacon, argharghar), which I had always eaten. The whole no-pork-thing didn’t last very long, and of course giving up shrimp and cheeseburgers was never a consideration anyway. Alright, so being religious wasn’t for me, I told myself.


Some years ago I suffered a broken-heart, I was confused about my future, and, well, I was basically depressed. I felt empty. In my pain and desperation I thought that maybe religion could fill the void. I decided that I’d become a more devout Jew. I woke up one day and thought, “Well, religious Jews start the day praying with tefillin.” So I went into my closet and dug out my tellifin, which had been given to me by my Rabbi when I was a bar-mitvah. At the time I was living at my parents’ home, and so I discreetly crept into the empty living room, faced east towards Jerusalem, and tried to pray like a good Jew. All of a sudden my mom walked in. She immediately burst out laughing. That was the end of that. But whether or not my mom would have caught me, or laughed or not, trying to be religious never would have worked for me. Like I said, I’ve always lacked the spark of faith, and I knew it then.


National Public Radio had a program today about religions. Some professor dude at Iowa State University, I think, was arguing that all monotheistic faiths have a penchant within them for violence. Well, no shit. I needed a professor to tell me that?! Anyway, the program, or at least what I heard of it, annoyed me. All of the callers I heard were quite smug in their indictment of religion and its bloody history, but of course nobody mentioned the millions killed in the name of atheist communism or fascism.

All of a sudden I had an epiphany (actually, I’ve had this idea before, but I never really thought hard about it ... and I'm not claiming to have “discovered” this idea, either): Religions are not necessarily what is written in their holy books, et cetera, but rather religions are how their follows act. In other words, religion is what its followers do.

Case in point: In the Torah there’s all sorts of Taliban-like shit about stoning adulterers and the l ike, but everybody knows that Jews are, by and large, some of the most liberal and progressive folks out there. Even among the observant, stoning and death-sentences and the like haven’t been practiced in probably over a thousand years.

I am friends with a Franciscan priest, a former college instructor of mine who teaches Holocaust studies and comparative literature at the local university. On a couple of occasions I’ve had dinner at his home. He’s the nicest, kindest, most thoughtful and gentle person you’ll ever meet—and he’s a priest! Yes, at one time Catholics and other Christians were completely fucking nuts, but by and large not anymore. Yes, there is a passage or two in the New Testament where Jesus sounds kind of militant, but to judge all of Christianity based off of that is, as Mike Tyson would say, completely ludicrousth.

Or, take Islam. We are told time and again that Islam is a religion of peace. It could reasonably be argued that that’s not true; there are certainly a lot of violent passages in the Koran. Nevertheless, if one day the vast majority of Muslims reform their faith and reinterpret so that it really is peaceful, so that they cease following sharia literally, at that time Islam really will be a religion of peace. That’s good enough for me. (Let’s hope that day comes soon, for our sake and theirs.)

I am not anti-religion. I don’t see how any fair-minded person could be. There are so many different types of religious people, it is impossible to put them all into one group. Further, when you consider the bloody history of secular political ideologies, such as fascism and communism, we should remember that, as stated above, religious people are NOT the sole instigators and perpetrators of violence and mass slaughters in history. This doesn’t mean that a shit-load of religious people aren’t dangerous, or at least annoying as hell. The types of religious people that annoy me the most—apart from the murderous ones, and “annoying” doesn't really capture how I feel about them—are the proselytizers and those who try to convince me to believe as they do.

First of all, why can’t they accept that some people simply don’t have faith like they do? So they happen to believe in something that cannot in anyway way be empirically proved, good for them, but why do so many insist that I agree with them? It’s an insult to my intelligence. I respect the religious people who have their faith and don’t try to convince others, but for the ones that won’t accept my belief in science and empiricism over their faith and superstition, well … I wont say it. The most idiotic thing they do is when they try to prove faith with … faith!

Me: “Well, I’m a little dubious about why I should believe [fill in the blank].”
Annoying Religious Person: “I’ll tell you why you should believe that and do this.”
Me: “Okay, tell me why.”
ARP: “Because it says so in the Bible.”
Me: “That doesn’t prove anything.”
ARP: “But that’s what God commands in the bible.”

Talk about a tautological argument.

About two years ago “Old man Shapiro,” as I called him—a gruff old Jew for Jesus that I knew from the gym—would regularly try to save my soul. Finally I told him, “I don’t believe in souls.”

Shapiro: “What do you mean you don’t believe in souls. I’ll prove to you you have a soul.”
Me: “Okay, go for it.”
Shapiro: “You know when you dream, when you’re sleeping?”
Me: “Yeah.”
Shapiro: “Okay.”
Me: “What?!”
Shapiro: “Yeah.”
Me: “Dreams prove I have a soul? I don’t think so, sorry.”
Shapiro: “Well, if it isn’t your soul, what is it when you are dreaming.”
Me: “Uh, well, how about a physiological process in your brain, neurons firing off.”
Shapiro: “What about amputees, when they claim they can still feel their missing limb—what about that, huh?”
Me: “What about it, sheesh. None of this proves to me that souls exist.”

Shapiro, by the way, is a lawyer, ostensibly not a dumb person … I guess.

This brings me to abortion. Pro-choicers and pro-lifers simply have to realize that we are never going to convince the other of the righteousness of our points of view.

A pro-life person, from what I understand, is pro-life because he or she believes that the millisecond a sperm touches an egg, some sort of metaphysical “miracle” occurs and that a human life—or at least a complete human “soul”—has been created. Herein lies the point where their non-empirical religious faith comes into play. They believe it is murder to “kill” this “soul,” even though it cannot be rationally argued that a microscopic glop of amorphous cells are remotely human, or that a non-measurable thing called a “soul” has been created.

The pro-choicer, on the other hand, recognizes that this mush of cells is hardly a fully developed, sentient human being, and so they do not have a moral problem terminating it. Most pro-choice people feel this way about potential human life until around the second trimester, or at least that’s my view (I am opposed to abortion after the first trimester).

The point: neither side will ever see eye-to-eye. The battle over abortion will be with us for our entire lifetimes.

Finally, I remember when I was about 7 and a neighborhood kid told me I was going to go to hell because I was Jewish and didn’t believe in Jesus, or because the Jews killed Jesus, or something. I got freaked out and went home crying. My dad inquired what was wrong, and I told him. He replied, “Well, at least you’ll be with the family.”

If you are a person of faith, that is good for you. In a sense, I am envious; I wish I could be confident that I knew all the answers to life's mysteries. But you should also know, person of faith, that you can’t convince me to have faith by using faith as an example.

To anybody reading this essay, the key is that we all have to learn to live in peace with each other and have respect for our differences. I hope I don’t sound like I’m moralizing, but sometimes these simple truths must be repeated.


Blogger papijoe said...

Great post semite.

Faith however isn't the opposite of reason. It's a faculty that's use has to be taught and "perfected".

Don't stop searching...

9:38 AM  
Blogger semite1973 said...

I'll never stop searching or thinking about the mysteries of life, papijoe. Thanks for reading.


10:02 AM  
Blogger airforcewife said...

I think part of the reason that some people are obnoxious about pushing their faiths onto others is that it just feels so good to have that behind you. At least it does for me.

Kind of like taking a friend to eat at a restaurant that you dearly love going to - you want them to experience the same joy and satisfaction you get when you eat that delicious prime rib... But maybe your friend is a vegetarian and a steakhouse is gross to them...

Well, I'm not making sense, so I'll stop. But it was a great essay.


12:39 PM  
Anonymous AG in Houston said...


2:00 PM  
Anonymous annie said...

Interesting post Semite. But remember, you don't need to have faith to be a "good" Jew. Do you know the saying "mitoch she'lo lishma ba lishma": "From doing something not for reason of faith, the faith will come" (very rough translation). So if you want to be a more devout Jew, put on your tefillin, keep kosher, even if you feel silly - the faith will follow one day.

Good point about extremists in religion too.

4:52 PM  

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