Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Case Against Organized Religion

Argument One: Catholicism

In Catholicism, Communion is not communal. First, there is a special Catholic name for it: the Eucharist. Second, only Catholics are permitted to participate. If you practice any other religion, from Methodism to Buddhism, regardless of how faithful you may be, you are not permitted to share in the sacrament of Communion with Catholics. Their reasoning is as follows:

"Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). For this reason, it is normally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive Holy Communion, for to do so would be to proclaim a unity to exist that, regrettably, does not.
While Catholics are Christians, then, Christians are not Catholics and, therefore, are subject to exclusion in spite of shared faith. Jesus might have said “do this in memory of me,” but Catholics seem to have taken his words to mean do this to demonstrate your higher status of Christianity.

The issue of Communion is especially irksome to me because, growing up, I spent five years attending two different Catholic grade schools. As a Presbyterian girl with a Jewish last name, I was treated the same at both schools: attending mass with all of my fellow students was obligatory, but when it came time for the most revered part of the service, I had to scrunch up my knees and let all of my classmates file past while I sat in the pew, enduring their questioning, sometimes accusatory looks. Whenever I asked my religion teachers why I couldn’t take Communion, too—after all, I had been taking it in my church since first grade—I was always told it was because I wasn’t Catholic. For some reason, this always sounded like, “Because you’re not good enough.”

(Finally, my fourth grade religion teacher told me that it was because Catholics believed the priest actually turned bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; everyone else—i.e. Protestants like me—believed it was only symbolic. When she told me that, I nearly laughed. There was no way my friends actually thought they were eating flesh and blood every week—they’d be vomiting all over the church!)

Argument Two: Judaism

My last name is Jewish, so every time I am introduced to someone, the very first thing they ask—and always in a presumptive-sounding tone—is, “Oh so you’re Jewish then, right?” I’m never quite sure what to say to that question, because the answer I give really depends upon whom I am talking to.

Some people define Jewish-ness by a person’s practiced religion. Do I go to synagogue? No. Do I celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Purim or Pesach? Well, I celebrated all of these growing up, and Pesach (Passover) is one of my favorite holidays, but unless I am invited by a friend, I do not celebrate any of these holidays on my own. Therefore, by this definition, no, I am not Jewish.

Some people define Jewish-ness history and heritage. My last name is Jewish because father is Jewish, and therefore I have Jewish blood and Jewish relatives. I grew up celebrating the major Jewish holidays with him and still try to celebrate Pesach every year. So, by this definition, I could be considered half-Jewish (but only half, since my mother is Presbyterian, and we still celebrate all of the Christian holidays with her).

However, the official Orthodox definition of a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish. By this definition, I am not at all Jewish. No matter what name I have; who my father or grandfather or great-grandfather were; what I believe or how I live, I will never be Jewish.

I find this kind of exclusion unacceptable. Yes, Jews were/are God’s chosen people.

"For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 14:2,)
However, I don’t think this gives them the right to exclude others from God’s community, especially just because of birthright. Yes, many denominations of Judaism accept converts, but this still doesn’t discount the manner of thinking that a “pure” Jew is born of a Jewish mother and that only Jewish men and Jewish women should be married—not just for spiritual compatibility, but to ensure that the “tribe” remains pure and not sullied by outsiders.

I realize that I have used a lot of provocative language here, but I would like to justify it with one early experience that made me feel the very “dirty outsider-ness” I am describing. My family had gone to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with another Jewish family (my father was friends with the mother), and before we arrived, I was warned that the son of that family, J___, who was my age, had become extremely religious over the last few years. At the time, I think I was in seventh or eighth grade, and we only usually saw their family every two or three years, so I didn't know much about J___ to begin with. I guessed that “very religious” meant looking especially pious during prayer time or murmuring blessings before every bite of food. I was completely unprepared for what actually occurred.

When we arrived, we were heartily greeted by the mother, father, and daughter of the family. Other relatives were there, too—two uncles, an aunt, and a grandfather—and we had hugs and kisses all around. Then J___, their son, came out of the kitchen. He was somberly dressed and stayed hovering in the doorway, well behind his mother, who had snatched up her camera and was trying to get our family to pose together for, “Just a quick photo—you all look so nice!” After eyeing us and nodding his greeting, he disappeared back into the kitchen. His mother got her picture and then bustled after him to finish up the food.

Soon after, we sat down to eat. I don’t know if the adults seated us by age because they assumed we would have more to talk about or just because they all wanted to sit together, but J___, his siter, my sister, and I all sat clustered at one end of the table—ironically enough, with their grandfather seated at the head. We passed the food clockwise, and I was sitting to J’s left, so I had to hand things to him, but every time I tried, he either ignored me or busied himself with something else. Soon I realized that he was doing this intentionally, because as soon as I the dish down on the table, he would pick it up. It became even more obvious once we had started eating, when he explicitly asked his grandfather to pass the butter--which was significantly closer to me than to his grandfather--to him.

Finally, I decided to force him to stop playing the game: I asked him to pass me the salt. Reluctantly, he picked it up and brought it toward me. At the last minute, he lowered his hand to set it on the table by my plate. I darted in and grabbed the shaker. At the moment my hand closed around the glass, he snatched his hand away like I had burned him. The look in his eyes was something between terror, disgust, and . . . tiredness? I wasn’t sure what I saw there. All I knew was that he was going to all this trouble just to avoid touching me, and that made me feel . . . well, untouchable.

Later that night, I saw him hug his mom and shake hands with my father. So what was wrong with me? On the way home my mother explained that because he was living the Orthodox lifestyle, he was prohibited from touching any female he was not closely related to—and that meant me. I suppose, I thought, I should feel special. This probably has to do with temptation and purity. But all I really felt was dirty and female and not Jewish.

So this is my case against organized religion. The arguments are quite personal, so I am sure there are many other logical, spiritual, and personal arguments for organized religion. However, the exclusion religions foster—which I have directly experienced—turns them into something I cannot, at least at this point in my life, support. For now, I’ll just work on what I personally believe and live as morally as I am able. And if that ends up condemning me to hell, then I’m not sure I wanted to spend eternity with that sort of God in the first place.


Joel said...

"The kingdom of God is inside you and all around you, not in buildings made from wood and stone. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me." -The movie Stigmata

I had a woman who thought the world of me until one day she asked if I had ever been 'saved.' I told her that I hadn't been and that I didn't believe in God. She told me that I would go to Hell then, and that was the end of it.

Anonymous said...

Shocking at times . . . comical at times . . . but well said.

Mike S. said...

I love this post - could be your best yet.