To be or not to be religious?

By Eli Glasman
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When asked why I would consider myself an atheist, I answer: because I know what it felt like to believe in God and now I know that I don’t.

I was raised as an orthodox Jew. And although I found the religious life wasn’t for me, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t elements of religion that I miss. I believe the social and emotional needs that religion can fulfil may explain why orthodox communities of all religions can still be active in secular societies.

What I found most surprising when I started socialising outside of the Jewish community is how few atheists I met outside of it. Even when they didn’t associating with a religion, there still seemed to be a belief in something more. Or, at least, a lot of people who simply don’t think about God enough to have identified as an atheist.

The 2016 Australian census found that 30% of Australian’s didn’t associate with a religion. However, ‘declaring “no religion” does not mean that someone is anti-religious, lacking is spirituality, or an atheist. It means they don’t identify with a particular organised form of religion.’

Religious affiliation might be a vague notion, too. When asked if I would identify with a religion, I would say yes – Judaism. As crazy as it sounds, I see atheism falling under the banner of theology. It’s in the name after all.

Just by association, I would have more religious engagement than a lot of secular Jews who believe in God. On special occasions, I attend meals for High Holidays, say the prayers, understand the rituals. And just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I can’t be Jewish. Truthfully, I can be openly irreligious, even atheist, and still attend synagogue.

There are sects within sects; personal interpretations and customs. Different synagogues of differing values – a rabbi for everyone. You can find what you love and leave out the rest.

It’s important to note, I can do that in Australia. Unlike other communities around the world, Australia is small enough for the many different sects to integrate. I would hope that this would be the same for other religions in Australia as well.

The orthodox will still talk to the – still hang out, go to events, see each other in the stores and in the streets. In the same way that there is no universal secular society, there is no universal religious culture. There are sects within sects; personal interpretations and customs. Different synagogues of differing values – a rabbi for everyone. You can find what you love and leave out the rest.

The economic pressures of adulthood mean that we grow up, some of us go to university, others go abroad, and almost all of us end up with a job. This means we interact with the larger culture of Australia, and the world in some, if not many, ways. Even if a person wanted to, it’s impossible to create a fully insular environment. Not only because of the need to get a job, but because of the influence of our everyday encounters, including our online engagement. In Kiryas Joel, a village within the Town of Palm Tree in Orange County, New York, many of the residents only speak Yiddish. This isn’t possible in a country like Australia. You need to engage to get by.

Regardless, most don’t want to cut themselves off entirely. Even in a religious environment, football was as important as anything. We couldn’t watch the games on Saturday, so we’d go to the non-Jewish neighbours to get updates on the scores. Then the rabbi would tell everyone the scores in synagogue, so we’d stop thinking about it and focus on the prayers.

Even with differing views and customs, families want to stay together. To exclude someone because of a differing religious view is not as common as one might think. It certainly does happen, but just as often a family will put aside any differences to make sure that they can remain together. Even if a person changes their religious beliefs over time, a family can still remain together. As I grew up, I remember being told, ‘Keep the round table conversation interesting’. Religious belief can be the foundation of a family, but the family is the point.

Why would a person remain strictly orthodox in a country like Australia? I can tell you that it has its challenges. Kosher is hard. You’d be surprised by how much you can’t eat. The logistics of keeping kosher while travelling, which also includes dishes and cooking utensils, is a nightmare. Shabbat is equally tough. You aren’t allowed to use electricity on Friday evening and Saturday. I remember when I was in my teens, the phone rang just after Shabbat came in. I was waiting to hear back about an internship I had applied for, but I wasn’t able to check the answering machine. This was before I had a mobile phone. The whole of Saturday I was freaking out about whether I was successful or not. I could barely sleep. In the end, it was the wrong number, but still – it can be frustrating.

You are undeniably making a sacrifice by choosing to be religious. But by doing so, you aren’t necessarily left with a feeling of wanting or as if you are being deprived.

There is an unfair assumption that a person is forced to remain religious through fear of repercussions and social isolation. It’s easy to be reductive when seeing people choosing to dress, act and supposedly think the same. It’s easy to think that a person simply doesn’t know what ‘freedoms’ they are missing out on. Would you give up driving on Saturday and refuse to eat out at 99% of restaurants?

So, why would a person choose to remain religious? At the core of it is the obvious – they believe in God and want to express that belief through longstanding rituals and teachings, which have been passed on through generations. In particular, it is a connection with parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. When so much changes from year to year, decade to decade, to be able to carry something over from your family can be enriching.

When approaching the subject from this angle, there is the obvious counter point: well, how do you know God exists? And if so, how do you know this specific version of God exists?

It goes without saying that the question of God’s existence simply isn’t that relevant in everyday culture. I honestly don’t know if I’d be an atheist if I wasn’t raised religious. Deciding whether I believed in God had immediate effects on my life choices. For a lot of people who may not have had anything to do with religion, the question of whether God exists may not be that relevant. To draw a conclusion like that may not be on the agenda. And that’s fair enough.

Some may argue that God is irrelevant in modern society and there is no reason to even keep thinking about religion or any sort of higher power. This seems counterproductive. Believing in God is as much an emotional response as it is an intellectual one. Saying you believe in God, to me, is the equivalent of saying that you love a specific person. When an argument against God is taken, it is often stated that the burden of proof sits with the believer, as there is no immediate evidence of God’s existence. In other words, a believer needs to prove God’s existence, rather than the non-believer proving God doesn’t exist. Because, when we look around, we don’t see God.

However, the counter argument to this is often – how can you not see God with so much beauty and life around you? The position that God exists is one that is so intertwined with the experience of being alive. I remember a religious friend telling me that he sees God as an extension of love. We don’t need to prove that love exists. We can experience it. So, why can’t we experience God? In order to argue against God, you need to invalidate a person’s feelings in a way.

That’s why I avoid arguments about the existence of God. It will only cause conflict. And to what end?

Although many won’t be able to agree whether God exists, everyone can acknowledge that a belief in God exists. And this is the far more relevant point, as this belief influences our behaviour and thus our culture and society. So, whether we consider ourselves a religious culture or not, we can’t ignore the influence of religion on our culture. It’s not going anywhere, nor should it.

Religion has a positive influence in Australia. The excellent work done by churches who have opened their doors to refugees is testament to this. When I needed to spend a short time in hospital, there was always the option to ask for a visitor representing a religion, people who give up their time to visit the sick and elderly.

Putting too much emphasis on careers feels like an extension of a school environment where you are asked to compete against each other for praise.

For a lot of people, they may choose to believe in God, or an equivalent, and not ascribe to an organised religion. However, for those who follow a religion, I couldn’t make assumptions about why they choose the religious lifestyle, beyond – as mentioned before – having a belief and love of God and choosing to express that love through the specific teachings of that religion.

What I have often thought about, though, is what I notice is missing in my life since I stopped being religious. It feels to me that religion still fills a role that ‘secular’ society does not. Where religion offers a sense of identity, purpose and a narrative around death; a non-religious lifestyle offers an over emphasis on careers and, really, nothing for death.

You can always find a way to replicate rituals. Rather than have a Shabbat meal, for instance, you can have a regular dinner with friends. Buta sense of purpose and identity is the hardest thing to replicate with an atheist mindset. Putting too much emphasis on careers feels like an extension of a school environment where you are asked to compete against each other for praise.  It makes me anxious to try living life to the fullest, following my dreams and never giving up. I don’t like to take advice from motivational quotes.

Having something to define you outside of work, or your role in a social circle, is a comfort. Having a rich history to that definition only deepens your connection to it.

But it is the rituals around death that I find to be the most beneficial. In Judaism, unlike Christianity, there is no heaven. However, there is an afterlife. The definition of the afterlife was left vague in early texts, however believing that it doesn’t all just end is comforting. But there is a practical side to coping with death as well. After a person passes away there is a mandatory period of mourning for seven days, called ‘Shiva’. You remain at home, while others come to visit you for prayers. Some of the rituals may seem strange from the outside: you have to cover all the mirrors in the house, sit on low chairs, wear a torn piece of clothing. But having something to do, rules to live by, a direction and – most importantly – customs which bring loved ones together makes grieving that little bit easier.

It makes me anxious to try living life to the fullest, following my dreams and never giving up. I don’t like to take advice from motivational quotes.

Of course those without religion can develop their own rituals. And, it goes without saying, their own moral guidance. Even without religion, or God, you can decide that you need to act in the way you want to see the world. You want to leave the world better than you received it, not because of any fear or hope for an afterlife, but because you care for future generations even if you won’t be around to experience it.

On the flip side, you may decide nothing matters and why even bother. This idea of nothingness and chaos is grim. It’s nicer, maybe even fundamental, to have something more to life.

A religious lifestyle seems to fill a lot of these needs. As one of my friends put it: what I give up in little freedoms, like only eating kosher, I gain in comforts that a belief in God awards me. I’m paraphrasing. He doesn’t speak that pretentiously.

When you make the blessing on the wine, you are meant to cover the bread so it doesn’t feel embarrassed. Obviously, nobody believes the bread can be embarrassed. But, you can look at this ritual, something so common, something you don’t think about when you’re a kid and finally learn the lesson of it: if you go through so much effort not to embarrass a loaf of bread, think about how much more important it is not to embarrass another person.

Yes, Kosher is hard. But it’s not that much harder than being vegetarian. Many people have restrictions on what they eat for many different reasons. And, it can be nice on Shabbat and High Holidays to not use electricity. What you realise is that it’s not the convenience of technology, but the entertainment of it. Being able to check your phone, check the net, stay connected. As long as you have others with you all doing the same thing, having time together is nice.

Some may find the idea being set up a matchmaker archaic. But now 15% of us get online dating to do it for us.

It may seem restrictive at first to have a professional matchmaker make recommendations on who to date. But, in Australia at least, you aren’t being forced into marriage. You tell them you’re ready to meet someone, another person tells them the same, and they consult with family and friends about whether you will be well suited. Then you date and decide for yourself. It’s really like having a friend recommend someone that’s good for you.

A lot of people may not realise that being a rabbi is as much about following your dream, as being an artist.

In many ways religious communities can be more accepting, as you accept a person despite faults, simply because they are part of your community. Having elements of your life that hold a higher significance than the everyday can offer an ongoing feeling of elation. There are metaphors and reasons to every ritual in Judaism. For instance, on Shabbat and High Holidays you make a blessing on wine and bread. When you make the blessing on the wine, you are meant to cover the bread so it doesn’t feel embarrassed. Obviously, nobody believes the bread can be embarrassed. But, you can look at this ritual, something so common, something you don’t think about when you’re a kid and finally learn the lesson of it: if you go through so much effort not to embarrass a loaf of bread, think about how much more important it is not to embarrass another person. Soon, you find yourself thinking about it and by extension living it.

Of course, all of this is easy to romanticise. The point is: as long as the fundamentals of friends and family is there, the environment that is built around that doesn’t matter that much. Whatever sacrifices there may seem to be, pale in comparison to the rewards.

Religion offers some pretty vital foundations to being alive.  And contrary to what some may think, people enjoy living the religious life. A lot of people may not realise that being a rabbi is as much about following your dream, as being an artist.

For me, being an atheist doesn’t feel like a choice. I like to dissect things. The idea that I can’t dissect this one thing – the existence of God – doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t not question it and when I do, I conclude that God doesn’t exist. From there, I can’t pretend with my lifestyle, particularly if I will be looking to bring other people into my life. A counterpoint to this is: how can you say God doesn’t exist because, after mulling it over, you decided he doesn’t and refuse to change your mind? That’s a fair argument.

For the religions that have ‘survived’, despite the ever changing face of society, it is important to acknowledge the length at which they have adapted and the practical way in which these religions have engaged with the community generation after generation.

I know there’s the stereotype of the ex-religious Jew being bitter about their religious upbringing. But, the truth is, if anyone were to ask me if I would recommend giving up on religion, I’d say no. There are more important things.

Religion isn’t going anywhere. Its presence offers a lot of good. It is still around for a reason. Many of the religions we have today are the ones that have survived over 2,000 years, and more. There are many religions that were prominent at the same time as the emergence of religions like Christianity, but that are no longer practiced – such as neoplatonism. For the religions that have ‘survived’, despite the ever changing face of society, it is important to acknowledge the length at which they have adapted and the practical way in which these religions have engaged with the community generation after generation. You just have to look at the number of synagogues in the world, such as Beit Simchat Torah in New York – ‘a vibrant spiritual community and a progressive voice within Judaism. Founded in 1973, CBST attracts and welcomes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer and straight individuals and families who share common values.’ Fifty years ago, a synagogue like this would have been unheard of.

Nowadays, more than ever, it shouldn’t be a surprise that religion is still alive and well. It goes without saying that modern day life can be isolating. Our obsessive use of social media is obviously takes its toll, but not in the way that you’d first think. Using social media sites like Facebook actually makes us feel really good. Of course it does – otherwise we wouldn’t use it.

But it makes us feel good because we use it to compare ourselves to other people. And if a person is doing worse off, we feel good about our own achievements. The flip side of this, is if we see someone doing better, we feel worse.

Doing this, of course, isn’t unique to social media. We do this in everyday life as well. But just like every day life we know that it only leads to jealousy, competitiveness and anxiety. We’re always going to come across someone who has achieved more, or at least – someone whom we perceive to have achieved more.

Life is hard enough without having to compete all the time. But we can’t really escape it. A lot of what we achieve stems from competing with each other. But a lot of what makes us happy sits apart from that.

It’s nice to have a ‘leveller’. Something that speaks to the core of what we are. For some people that’s nature, others the self and for the morbid, like me, death. But for most people in the world, it’s an engagement with the metaphysical. The idea that there’s something more to what we can experience. And that can take shape in a number of ways – with ever-evolving ideas of a creator or an entity that watches over us.

And it’s nice to have the strong sense of community and family religion can offer in a society that is becoming more fragmented and divided. Tribalism is becoming entrenched in public discussion. You’re either on one extreme or the other. Whatever you believe or hold true, must then be justified through anger of the ‘other’. A lot of the time that anger is understandable. At the same time, it only makes us feel more isolated. As Sarah Silverman put it on her comedy album We are Miracles: ‘It’s not even about ideals anymore. It’s just teams…it’s just hatred.’

Not only is the acceptance that religion can offer an important contribution in such times, but for those who aren’t religious, extending that acceptance to religious communities is equally as important. Yes, there are members acting on behalf of religions who have done awful things. However, to then paint everyone with the same brush and dismiss religion entirely only deepens the divide.

A beneficial religious community isn’t one that is pressured to disappear, but one that reaches out, engages and offers support. The far more productive approach is to see the regular good done by those within the religion, living the values in the real world, and celebrate it.

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