Friday, May 13, 2011

"In The Temple And Marketplace"

Atheism doesn’t bother me, in and of itself. It’s a weird world, and occasionally a cruel one, and I guess I can understand how one can look at it and conclude, coldly and rationally, that there isn’t a God up above. The multitude of gods that we as people are privileged, for the first time, with easy access to must seem a bit like a cosmic buffet to the discerning atheist. The hubbub in heaven and the crowds in Paradise, the wealth of a dozen dozen omnipotent entities stretching across the skies, leaves me feeling rather disillusioned when I think about it. As a culture, we are dealing for the first time with the idea of living in a global community, where everyone’s beliefs are thrust nakedly into the public sphere for all to see and gawk at. I can’t say that I would malign anyone for choosing, in such a crowded marketplace, not to buy into anything at all.

I guess what I have a problem with is militant atheism, the sort of belief that seeks not only to repudiate all forms of faith in a higher power, organized or otherwise, from one’s own heart, but strives towards a larger goal. This sort of atheism, it seems to me, is dedicated to cutting away at and tearing down the sanctity and the holiness that generally goes along with religion, and stripping it of every veneration that it is possible to take away. It is a philosophy of unrelenting cynicism, not just about the present day and the value of religion in it, but about whether the institution of religion might ever have had value. You know these people, just as I do; those who mock Christians for venerating a man two thousand years dead, and those who cackle gleefully whenever a new religious scandal breaks, for whom it has become fashionable to scoff at God and those who pray to Him.

I sometimes wonder what our generation, of which I am indelibly a part, of pampered, disaffected, agnostically inclined middle-class American children will look like when middle age sets in. Will we have come around and reluctantly accepted the religions of our parents? Will we maintain our aggressive atheism, and eventually become the first generation to insist en masse that no crosses be raised over our headstones? Or will we create something entirely new out of this mishmash of beliefs we are confronted with?

It would be rather impolite of me, somewhere in all this polemicizing, to fail to mention my own beliefs. I am a Jew, and I am proud that I was raised as one, and there is very little about the holidays and the culture and the assorted mishegas of the most cantankerous religion of all that I do not hold close to my heart. At the same time, I don’t hold strictly to all of Jewish belief, and feel that it doesn’t violate the spirit of Judaism to accept and consider all other beliefs that I come across. Above all, I don’t believe that you have to accept a particular belief system, nor to conform to ideas that are thousands of years old, to call yourself a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew. Sticking to the basics of kindness and understanding towards the people you meet, I believe, is enough. The religion of today is individualistic, and the role of our spiritual leaders has changed from shepherd to wilderness guide. Instead of herding a passive group of souls to one particular vision of Paradise, I prefer to think of today’s rabbis and priests and imams as giving us the skills to find our way in the wilderness, and trusting that each of us will end up in time at the spot that is best for us.

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