Religious Romanticism: rationality need not apply

“One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. …[This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. that they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”
– H.L. Mencken, American Journalist and cultural critic
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

When I was a freshman in high school (around 2005-06), the “New Atheist” movement was beginning to take hold on the internet and in real life. For those who may not know, New Atheism approximately began with Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion and soon snow balled into many more authors with many of their own books and ideas. Along with Dawkins, the other big authors included the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Now, atheists (as we define them today) have existed since organized religion and theology began, and non-religious rationalism really took hold during the Age of Enlightenment; but what differentiated the New Atheists from the non-believers of centuries past was their approach to religious belief. No longer was there to be any respect or mutual understanding between relgiious and non-religious world views. Instead, religion was outdated, barbaric, and those who adhered to it were stuck in the dark ages. Non-belief in religion was a sign of a superior intellect and essentially should be the next stage in human cultural and social evolution.  While these ideas still exist to this day, I’d say that the prevalence of New Atheist ideals, by in large, fizzled out from the mainstream around 2011-12.

I bring this up, because in high school I was the quintessential angry teenage atheist. Angry at God for being cruel. Angry at Christians for being anti-gay, anti-woman, and anti-science. Above all else, I was angry at the irrationality of religion and couldn’t understand how people could still believe in all of that in the then current year of 2006. When Richard Dawkins and New Atheism at large came onto the scene, it was a field day for me. “Yeah, this will show them how stupid their beliefs are!”

Lo and behold, nearly 10 years later and I now know that is not at all true. There is a deep history and study of scholasticism in the western religious traditions (Thomas Aquinas comes into mind) and the great Acharyas of India made debate and logic into an art form in and of themselves. Religion and theology aren’t just something which exist for stupid people to blindly follow. There’s a deep philosophy at their core and profoundly deep reasons as to why some theologies stuck around and others faded away. Does this mean that blind faith doesn’t exist? Of course not, but it certainly flies into the face of the idea that religion is inherently irrational.

sankara-debating

I’d love to see Adi Sankara and Dawkins debate. Pay money, even. 

 

Yet with that said, a question comes to mind: Why is it so bad if religion is potentially irrational?

I don’t mean that scholasticism and scholars of religion shouldn’t exist and do their jobs. In this day and age, experts of religion are still very much needed. But in the actual practice of religion, why is it bad that the beliefs themselves “don’t make sense?”

The average person isn’t a scholar. Regardless if they follow the same religion in which they were raised or converted to another, the majority of people know why they believe, but can’t define it by logic or empirical means. For many atheists, this is a point of contention in which religion becomes mute. Yet you know who would probably agree with me? The great mystics and saints of the past and now. For these great men and women, despite the reality of the world, there was an undeniable essence behind it all. Many of whom went against the norms of their age to transcend the boundaries and reach the Divine in any way they can. They were, at best, highly “irrational” in their beliefs and perspectives. However, they still were challenging the very notions of what faith, God, love, and theology mean. Many of whom are still big influences in this day and age  (Teresa of AvilaIgnatius of LoyolaChaitanya Mahaprabhu, and Ramakrishna). In their irrationality of belief, the world suddenly makes sense.

I’d make the argument that theology has a scholastic postulate, but faith in and of itself is at its core romantic. We can argue ’til we’re blue in the face as to how God can exist or the importance of certain theological points. But in the end, for the average believer, it’s the “why” that trumps the “how.” Emotion and love which trumps the mind and the objective. Besides, there are plenty of irrational things which exist in this world, yet are often lauded and celebrated. Art, love, poetry, and philosophy are what immediately come to mind.

Art and poetry are so subjective and can greatly challenge the norms of a given time. Love has brought great men and even empires to it’s knees, and often the only thing it can promise is a broken heart. Yet, love is something that most people yearn for and crave more than anything else. Philosophy, one of the bedrocks of western civilization, starting all the way back in ancient Greece, asks questions which can never be truly answered, yet people can and will accept them without question. Who the hell knows if there truly are multiple universes or if all matter is only made of one substance?

Does this mean that religion is off limits from criticism? Of course not. There are plenty of things about religion which have been rightly criticized and reformed over the years. However, when keeping that in mind, perhaps it’s those in power who have used religion to harm others that is the problem. Not the mere belief of the average citizen just trying to make it in life.

Reflecting on Samsara

For the past few days, a friend of mine and I visited Brooklyn, New York to visit a friend of his; who is currently living there as an intern. We did the usual touristy types of activities, such as visiting Coney Island and Governor’s island, while also checking out local eateries and the Hare Hare Krishna Temple. This wasn’t our first time visiting the Big Apple, as we visited Manhattan this past March. That time around was a lot more in line with what a tourist would do: time square, visiting the UN, the World Trade Center memorial, shopping at stores which catered to tourists (aka, items sold at much higher prices). Both times were greatly enjoyable and I can’t wait to return to the city and explore another borough.

Yet both times, I was reminded of the Dharmic teaching of samsara.

Essentially, Samsara teaches that life is a cycle of death and rebirth; one of pleasure and pain. Often times experienced at the same time.

It’s interesting the emotions and introspection that comes from seeing it first hand. We always logically know that there is suffering in the world, but it usually remains in the bak of the mind; it’s something that can safely be distanced from. One doesn’t have that luxury when seeing it face to face. 

When visiting the city, this was up close and personal. Admist the bright lights, big crowds, and shopping centers, lies a reality that exists alongside. Seeing anger in the eyes and voices of many in the crowds as they tried to make their way through; many homeless trying to sleep on the sidewalk or asking for change form people who clearly had some to give away (me included); and a general feeling of emptiness when I noticed my own hypocrisy of being able to spend money on something completely material, but not give a couple of dollars to someone on the street. Sure, there are rationalizations which I made, but the feelings were still there.

Is there a way to escape this? Outside of attaining Moksha, not really. No matter where we go, there will be pleasure and pain; often times in the same place or experience. We can (and should) do what we can to help others, but Samsara will always be there. Suffering, joy, love, hatred, and the constant cycle therein will always exist. It’s a natural part of the world and cannot be something that we can avoid. No matter how much we wish to do so.

Of course I don’t wish to come across as nihilistic about the nature of existence (far from it actually), but this is just another part of the souls journey. Better get used to it if one doesn’t want to go insane.

 

w_DLP_5629

Hare Krishna Center in Brooklyn, NYC
Photo by David 

Sometimes, I do miss Christianity.

What I just typed as the title might as well be heresy among post-Christian circles.

When one leaves behind their birth religion (in my case, Christianity) for another faith or for non-faith, there seems to be an underlying vibe that one must never have any nostalgic feelings or fondness of it. There is a reason you left it, right? It was a flawed, evil faith that had no place for you and it has a history of oppression and violence. You’re clearly better off without it.

Just go to any video or writing from someone who left the Christian faith and 8 times out of 10 it’s likely to be remembered as something sad or otherwise extremely negative.

While there are a lot of valid criticisms against Christianity (as there is for all religions), a part of me truly does miss it.

I was raised Southern Baptist, and while I think it is not an overall good institution, there were parts about growing up baptist that I loved. The emphasis on community and the great music. Not to mention amazing food during fellowship.

When I denounced the Christian faith, I foolishly thought that all of Christianity was like my experience growing up, and in the south that’s quite likely. However, once I began to seriously study theology, the fullness and richness of Christianity, especially the liturgical churches, came to my attention. The apostolic history, the communion of Saints, Mary as the Theotokos, the mass (or services similar to it), the nuanced and mature theology beyond the “do it because God said so” that I grew up with. Not to mention the fact that, whether we like it or not, Christianity was one of the many bedrocks of western civilization and philosophy. Furthermore, there is a strand of the faith which is fully dedicated to social justice and helping the poor; something I think Jesus would fully approve of. All of this, plus more, truly is attractive to me, and not long ago I seriously began contemplating returning to my roots.

But I didn’t. Despite all of the good I see in Christianity, I just can’t return to it.

I can’t get over the fact that, as a gay man, while there is a lot of affirmation among some churches, most would see me as a second class citizen at best; an evil sodomite at worst.

I can’t get over the teachings of a permanent hell and the fact that, according to some, good people who just so happened to not believe in God would end up there.

I looked into a kind of post-modern, progressive Christianity, but something big felt like it was missing. Something spiritual and transformative just wasn’t there.

Even as a person of faith, the Problem of Evil is a huge hurdle for me, and perhaps because it’s the dominant faith in my culture, Christianity bears the burden of this.

In the end, I think this is mostly nostalgia playing a role. I can certainly appreciate the kind of mature, complex Christianity found in the ancient churches and early Protestants, but ultimately there just isn’t a place for me. I can look upon it with a kind of fondness, and walk along side my Christian brothers and sisters, but I don’t think there would ever be a full acceptance of me.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing when one thinks about it.

Church

 

Photo by Père Igor via Wikimedia Commons