So why on earth would I spend my Friday nights in a synagogue, my Saturdays in a Hillel, my Wednesday evenings first at Brent House, then in a Beit Midrash and all manner of other free time reading the books I mentioned, or JOFA, or discussing the intricacies of religion on facebook and gchat if, you know, none of it is true? It seems pretty stupid, doesn’t it?
Well, let’s see if I can explain. Remember, this is my personal response to my religious practice. It isn’t normative, and it isn’t judgmental. It’s just how I feel.
I want the atheists in the crowd to relinquish all thoughts you have of rationality, of what you already think of god, of your preheld vision of religion, and start from the beginning. Imagine, for me, the human spirit. The powerful, imaginative, creative, mind of the human, which delights in setting for itself magnificent goals and attaining them, which at its more glorious has invented science and mathematics, built towering structures, made art and gone to the moon. Think of the human mind in pursuit of something larger, of the good, of knowledge, of truth. Think of the awe with which we regard those people who commit their entire lives, this only life they have, to something incredible. Now think of what it would be, to take a free human, who longs to expand and to create, to direct their every action and thought towards a singular goal. Understand what an immense sacrifice it is to give your only life to something that you don’t quite understand, to something mystical and mysterious and magical. Now imagine that that goal is Ultimate. Use those minds shaped by years of reading science fiction to think of the most Ultimate being. Think what staggering humility, and also overwhelming arrogance, it is to choose a path, a way, and commit yourself fully to it and to the Ultimate beyond it. To grapple with the insanity of that commitment and of that belief. To give yourself over to the “sweetest foolishness you’ve ever heard.” It’s ridiculous. It’s unbelievable. And yet, there is something totally captivating about it, for me, about the idea of God, and also of the idea of religious practice. The paradox of living a spiritually fulfilled life and also following and understanding legalistic formalities of practice. The mind-boggling contradiction of needing to have a connection with God (because how could you not?) and yet the sheer idiocy of thinking humans could have such a connection. What would it be like, to talk to God?
That is why I pray, and practice, and count myself as part of the community. Because to do anything is to connect yourself to all of it, and that’s a pretty heady drug.
Yes. And also, I love the music. I love the sensation of singing and acting together. I like feeling like part of a community that is intensely, powerfully, committed to something none of us quite understand. I like the idea that I’m doing what my ancestors did, what thousands of people have done for thousands of years. I get to be a living fossil. Isn’t that cool?
If you don’t have the response I have, that’s fine. I’m not trying to convince you; I’m trying to explain. If you don’t like religion, don’t practice it.
No, I don’t think faith is a virtue. No, I don’t think religion is true. Yes, I think there are ways to get this kind of thing out of humanism (there’s a reason my blog is called The Merely Real. I am wholly satisfied with reality). But as an atheist, I get a thrill out of religious practice. Because I believe there is no afterlife, I think a life committed to one practice is remarkable. Because I don’t believe in God, I’m enthralled by the idea of one. I am also captivated by the idea of colonizing space, of psychohistory, and of ansibles. Fiction and fact alike serve to delightfully challenge and uplift my mind, and admitting that doesn’t mean I have any trouble telling them apart. See you at shul.