Friday, July 17, 2015

Value of Religion

My relationship with religion has always been pretty straightforward: I'm atheist. After living in a Muslim country for a few weeks, I am still atheist, but I feel compelled to lay out some thoughts about the value of religion and religious practices, because it's a topic I've never sought out and on which my default has been disdain. But religion has been around for a lot longer than I have, and even as I hear the echo of Nietzsche--"even mould ennobleth!"--I want to think about what gives it such staying power.

The subject compels me, perhaps especially so because this weekend was Lebaran, or the end of Ramadhan. People described it to me as "the Muslim Christmas," a time to go back to your hometown, to visit graves, to go around to your neighbors and ask forgiveness for your faults of the past year...

First whisper: "take notice!" I'm an American atheist and I've celebrated Christmas, never with the sincerity and indeed profundity with which people carried out the Lebaran traditions.

Tradition and ritual are, I think, the most important aspects of the holiday. Having a set of rules and procedures is comforting, and ensures that people will go around asking forgiveness, will see their families. If you have religion, you have a ready-made reason to do these things. Religion gives structure to social relations (I do not claim that this is an original thesis) and to people's time.

The social cohesion aspect is fairly obvious, but perhaps easy for someone who doesn't have an analogous community to dismiss. The family analogy doesn't work for me since most of my family is on a different continent.

In a (productive, exhausting) conversation about race that I had last quarter with two of my (white, male) friends, the Christian one said that what I described as a safe space to talk about race sounded similar to the sense of safety and belonging he got from church. Maybe the analogy goes both ways.

The need to belong to a group is one that I've been walking around the past year, or maybe my whole life. (I doubt I am unique in this.) Being aggressively introverted, I don't like to admit that frequently I prefer being around people to being alone. The catch is that I actually have to care about the people, enough to outweigh the energy that they require by virtue of being people. That means that whether being around people is going to be a good experience or not depends on the individuals involved.

But special occasions can override that. Celebrations, some sporting events, parades--in this kind of atmosphere, everyone is a friend, and your "community" expands (elastically; once the event is over individual metrics take over again). On Thursday evening I trailed around the edges of the Lebaran parade on the back of a motorcycle and witnessed that magic madness of crowds that makes people you have never seen before into family members. This is also the post where, because Islam is demonized in America, I get put on a government watch list for saying that I looked upon a crowd of people singing "Allahu akbar" and saw something beautiful.

Religious traditions regulate social relations on person-to-person and person-to-community scales. What does religion do for the individual?

The ulamas start to call around 0330 in the morning. Prayer occurs five times a day and on Fridays the men go to the mosque specially. What is the value of prayer?

I don't pray so I can't say with any authority what it does for people. But I can see the value in setting aside time to be alone with yourself and with the thought of a higher power, because just being alone with yourself does not suffice. I imagine your thoughts become deeper. Of course it is probably possible to pray lazily, even thoughtlessly, but most of the time I imagine the call to prayer is a trigger to think more deeply.

What about fasting? What is the point of denying yourself food and drink from sunrise to sunset? A lot of religions have set fasting times, a day or two, or periods where you give up something.

I'm writing this without looking up the official rationales or asking anyone who participates in such practices. My guess is that the Doylian reason is that arbitrary sacrifices set one religion apart from another, and the Watsonian one is that denial of the physical body promotes spiritual (or mental) clarity, empathy with others' suffering, and discipline. Maybe moral superiority plays a part as well; certainly, I felt craven when eating lunch in the presence of a fasting twelve-year-old.

Notice that none of the beneficial practices I have named specifically require you to believe in a deity. Anyone can visit their family, ask for forgiveness, find a parade to walk in, set aside time to think (this may require some higher ideal to set the tone of the thinking), fast, sacrifice something. But do people do this, without religion guiding or forcing them to it? (Similarly, would people go to school if they didn't have to be there?) Religion acts as rationale and accountability mechanism for a given set of priorities and practices. The value in that, I suppose, is still subjective.

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Backdated because I actually did write this on 17 July.

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