Posts Tagged 'religion'

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Judaism (and Other Thoughts on Religion and Vampires) Part II

(The first part of this blog post, written a mere 11 months ago, discussed why I no longer feel connected to my childhood religion of Judaism. Now I wish to explain why it’s unlikely my spirit will be swayed by any other organized religion).

People say faith is hard.

I think it’s easy, at least compared to the alternative.

In a world filled with senseless tragedies, in a life filled with incredible emotional and physical challenges, in which nothing is guaranteed except its end, how comforting would it be to believe in a higher power, to align myself with a community of like-minded individuals, to accept the teachings of a holy document, a genuine life instruction book.

How I envy the faithful. It’d be so nice to believe.

How could anyone, really, not want to believe??

A true, abiding faith is a security blanket, and those that hold tight to it have little need to question why the innocent suffer, to fear what lies beyond, or to agonize over the devastating possibility that all is nothing.

Faith provides meaning, protection, comfort, love, immortality.

But the one thing I believe faith – at least a faith in any particular doctrine – does not provide, is the truth. It’s the missing ingredient, and without it, I must remain faithless.

That’s not to say I’m an atheist. Not in the least. Atheism requires a faith as well, and one that truly is hard as it provides few of the benefits of a religious faith. If it’s a security blanket, it’s made of cold steel (or perhaps, more appropriately, a titanium-tungsten alloy).

And worshiping at the altar of science to the point where one cannot fathom that after all the questions we can ask have been answered, that on the other side of that, something mystical and grand and forever unknowable might yet remain, strikes me at least as foolhardy as having faith in the foolhardiest of religions.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been keenly aware of the ‘splendour in the grass, and glory in the flower’, and felt that a larger purpose could be out there, waiting to be found – and if not found then at least waiting to be sought out –  and now that I have watched my two daughters be born, I can’t help but hope even more that this is so. I’m afraid I could buy into the story of Xenu before I could ever wholly embrace we are nothing but cosmic accidents.

No, it is not the leap into the realm of the mysterious and illogical that faith requires which bothers me; it is the specificity of the endeavor. To believe that the mysterious and illogical things you believe, about matters of almost immeasurable importance and complexity, are, in fact, the correct ones, seems so utterly presumptuous and outlandish to me.

Most people, after all, just end up having faith in whatever it was their parents believed (and presumably taught during those most impressionable years). We’re not just talking here about adopting your folks’ political leanings or taste in literature; these are the Big Questions, and I think the fact that our search for spiritual truth begins with such ingrained biases makes success rather unlikely.

I know that personally, even though I have questioned or rejected much of the Jewish laws and tradition I was taught and surrounded by as a young person, it would be nearly impossible for me to completely overcome my childhood indoctrination. Even if Jesus Christ himself knocked on my door one night and told me he was indeed the Messiah, offered up some proof of the fact (say, the water into wine trick), and implored me to get my ass in gear in order to avoid damnation, I would still have a very tough time actually becoming a Christian. A conversion would devastate my parents. It would isolate me from my community. In some ways, I’d have to learn a whole new way of life. Such costs may seem small compared to the gifts implicit in finding eternal salvation, but it just serves to illustrate how difficult stumbling upon the truth can be with all the obstacles placed in our way.

That said, at least I know something about Christianity. Not enough to rock a New Testament category in Jeopardy, perhaps, but a decent amount. But what if Allah or Shiva or Biame knocked on my door? Heck, I wouldn’t even recognize them if I looked through the peephole (I’d probably just not answer and pretend I wasn’t home).*

The religions I’m familiar with are far eclipsed by those I have little knowledge of, and likely surpassed by those religions I haven’t heard of or know absolutely nothing about. I can’t imagine I’m alone in my ignorance, either; I would think that even those that dedicate their lives to the study of religion have yawning gaps in their knowledge base.

Yet the faithful dare to presume that somehow they have found The Answer. It’s like how my 2-year-old daughter Macy thinks I’m the funniest person in the universe (her vocabulary hasn’t quite allowed her to express that sentiment exactly, but you should see the way she laughs when I bounce balls on my head). Still, she hasn’t even seen a Louis C.K. stand-up special or one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, so, really, what the heck does she know??

Now, I could go on and on about what I perceive are the deficiencies of religion and the problems with faith, but sometimes, I wonder if all of my hand-wringing is beside the point, even counter-productive.

After all, the search for meaning in life is one of the key attributes that separates us as a species.

For many years, I was devastated I didn’t know my purpose on this Earth. On more than one night in my youth and young adulthood, I would look out the window in my bedroom at the magnificent, awesome world I was trying to navigate to the best of my ability, and beg for some sort of insight to hit me, so that all would be illuminated, and that I, too, could feel the comfort and peace of a strongly held faith. The yearning was so intense that tears were not uncommon.

Lately, though, I’ve grown so skeptical, and so burdened by the pressures and minutiae of day-to-day living that I’ve just resigned myself to the idea of a faithless life … and death.

When I realize I’ve reached this point, I feel even more devastated, for one thing I do believe is this:

To lack The Faith is understandable; to stop The Search is unforgivable.

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*Interesting side note: My best bud from college once thought the gods of all religions were like the players on the same team in an NBA All-Star Game. And that each god has his strengths – Jesus can nail the trey, Buddha’s a beast in the post, Yahweh dribbles and drives like nobody’s business, etc. – but the goal was the same for them all: Getting the ball in the basket. And that the only real problems occur when fans demand their guy get voted Most Valuable Player.

I’m not an NBA fan, but I like that stupid analogy. It makes about as much sense as anything I’ve heard.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Judaism (And Other Thoughts On Religion and Vampires) – Part I

I was once engaged to a vampire.

Well, at a minimum, I was once engaged to a Catholic woman heavily involved in the New York City underground vampire community (which to her credit, took place before the most recent pop culture vampire explosion – ie Twilight, True Blood, Being Human, etc. etc.).

Chuckle/snicker/mock/scoff all you want – I certainly did a little bit of all of that when I first learned of my ex’s intention to get involved with this particular coven.

But then I met some of her vampire friends and started to read the ‘Intro to Vampirism’ literature which her sponsor/priest had given her, and here’s the kicker: Modern vampirism is certainly no sillier, and maybe less silly, than most of the dozens of other religions I’ve stumbled across during my life, including the one I was raised in (and still consider a part of my identity), Judaism.

Now this realization struck me as particularly relevant because it just so happened that at the same time my ex-fiancee was immersing herself in all things vampire, she was also taking Judaism conversion classes with me, as it was my hope that she would convert to my tribe before our wedding.

I had plenty of reasons why I wanted her to convert, or at least take the class – some OK, most awful: to please my parents, to make sure any kids we had were considered Jewish, to make things easier (at least for me), to have her prove her commitment to me, etc, etc.

But what I instead soon realized was how little Judaism mattered to me anymore. After being raised in a fairly observant Conservative Jewish household, I had many years ago begun to extract myself from the religion, slowly but surely to the point where I was mostly a Jew in name only. And while the conversion class was actually a quite pleasant experience, offering up reminders of some of Judaism’s positive attributes, it also served to reassert how irrational and irrelevant many of the laws and rituals seemed to me. 

The breaking point came during one particular conversion class, when the rabbi was teaching us how to put on tefillin. Tefillin are these black boxes, filled with Hebrew prayer scrolls, attached to leather bindings that a Jewish person ties around his arms and head before he prays. You won’t find them in many reform synagogues but for the observant, they are absolutely critical accoutrements. They also look unbelievably silly and quite primeval, frankly (see pic – and this soldier is actually pulling the look off quite nicely).

At this class, I couldn’t help but think of some of the things I had seen at my ex’s vampire parties and wonder how I could possibly mock her or her new friends. I mean, which is sillier – some old guy with a beanie on his head, a prayer shawl draped around his shoulders and bindings with boxes tied around his head and arms, or a woman wearing custom-made fangs and an ankh around her neck, dressed in some long, revealing black dress. I’m not sure which way I’d vote on the ‘sillier’ question, but I sure as hell know which is more fun (Note: That’s not a pic of my ex).

And then I began to think about the rationale/philosophy behind both respective movements. Sure, some of what I was reading in my ex’s vampire book was fairly loony, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the lunacy in the Old Testament, with its parting seas, and burning bushes, and animal arks, and fertile nonagenarians, and a long, long, laundry list of other tawdry, violent, unbelievable happenings.

To be sure, the Torah imparts some important and valuable lessons as well, and it’s also true that most modern-day Jews don’t apply the worst parts of the Bible in a literal sense (Few, for instance, are in favor of stoning cursers, as it is called for in Leviticus). Like vegans at a Vegas buffet, Reform Jews in particular use only a soupcon of Torah within their daily lives. But still, this nutty document is studied, pored over and mined constantly by observant Jews, forming the primary basis for how they are supposed to live, eat, pray, love, mourn and work.

Look, if you’re willing and able to accept even some of the crazy things that happen in the Torah and the lessons that follow, is it really so difficult to believe in the vampire archetype, a select group of powerful individuals who prefer the night and ‘feed’ off the energy of other people? (Actual blood drinking, either from willing donors or between vampires, is discouraged in most, but not all, houses)**.

And if you start going down that route, then why not believe in the New Testament as well? I’ve heard plenty of my Jewish friends dismiss Christianity because they find the whole story of the virgin birth/resurrection outrageous … as if the story of Adam and Eve just rings so true.

And then what about Mormonism? There’s a ton of really wacky stuff there, but can you really just dismiss it out of hand? Heck, even Scientology may make some… no, that shit is still way too crazy.

I want to discuss my thoughts on religion in more detail, so I’ve decided to write another part to this blog, but it’s that dissonance that I can’t accept. I am proud to be Jewish – it is a culture as much as it a religion, and I appreciate the history of the people too much to dismiss it completely as part of my identity. But for me the source material rings not much truer than Greek mythology, and sadly, less so than modern-day vampirism, so how can I ever fully embrace it?

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**I apologize for simplifying the essence of vampirism, as the community, perhaps not unlike that of Judaism and Christianity, is fairly well splintered, with wildly divergent preachings and practices, at least some of which are kept secret from non-members.

What’s funny is that from researching this piece I’ve found that vampires and Judaism actually share some common bonds – in fact, some 12th century Jewish folk writings may be among the first mentions of vampires (the bloodsucking demons were called ‘estries’); and there are some people who believe that the revival of the 19th-century vampire, most notably Dracula, was intended to be a metaphor for the insidious, other Jew, to this day still on occasion falsely accused by anti-Semites of sucking the blood from non-Jewish children during Passover rituals.

If aliens don’t exist, does God?

In the past couple of days, I’ve come across a couple of articles** about space and space exploration that got me asking the following, kinda random questions …

Why haven’t we found other forms life in space yet? More importantly, why haven’t other forms of life found us? And could the fact that we haven’t had any extraterrestrial encounters be at least somewhat supportive of the theory that humans are indeed a unique species, and that maybe there is a god or divine presence that approximates the concept as detailed by many of Earth’s practiced religions?

Now I kind of understand why we haven’t found life yet (by the way, this entire post presumes that Area 51 conspiracies and the like have no bearing in fact, that we have neither seen nor been seen by extraterrestrials, which admittedly is an awfully big presumption). Our space exploration attempts are still too immature, and we’ve barely begun to penetrate the infinite universe beyond our own galaxy, so our lack of success on the contact front shouldn’t be a surprise.

But given that the universe is infinite, wouldn’t one have to assume that there are also an infinite number of planets that DO harbor life and that at least on a few of those planets (if not an infinite number of them), that those life forms are so advanced that they’ve developed much better means of exploring the universe, including the means to contact us.

I know I’ve always thought that it seems almost incomprehensible to think that we’re alone in this universe, but doesn’t the fact that we haven’t been contacted yet by ETs mean that life may in fact not exist anywhere else? Ok, this is a bit of a stretch of an analogy, and a bit silly to boot, but this line of thought is kind of like how I have to assume that our species never develops the ability to time travel because if we ever did wouldn’t we somehow know about it (or perhaps the second we do develop it and test it out, we rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe just like Doc Brown always feared).

And if we are alone, what does that say if anything about the god question? I don’t think the answer to the question of whether life exists outside this planet would by itself prove or disprove god’s existence. However, I have always felt it would be very tough for most organized religions to square their beliefs and their written source materials with the existence of ETs. But isn’t the reverse also true – as long as we are unable to find life outside our little planet, doesn’t that support the mostly religious theory that Earth is a singularly unique place, and humans a special species whose purpose for being here is a divine mystery to be solved?

Or am I missing something very basic here?

** One article was actually a fascinating photo journal of some amazing pictures a NASA spacecraft recently took of Saturn. The other story talked about the fact that researchers have found a couple of planets outside our solar system that appear to be same size of Earth (but likely too hot to harbor life).

USAir Flight 1549: Do you believe?

So I was watching next-day coverage of the Hudson River airplane crash on CNN today and at some point one of the anchors brings up God and says something to the effect, “And if you’re not already religious, something like this may make you believe.”

And it made me wonder,

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IS THIS PROOF OF GOD??

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Well, of course not.

Look, what happened in New York yesterday was amazing. I’ll go even so far as to call it a miracle, in the sense that the very happy outcome was also a very unlikely one (although this fascinating and potentially useful Time article says a surprisingly high 76% of passengers in serious plane accidents survive).

But it’s another thing entirely to believe that God was responsible for what transpired, that He or She or It was the reason why the 155 people aboard USAir Flight 1549 survived yesterday’s crash.

First of all, that kind of blind faith minimizes the heroics of the people involved in yesterday’s events – the pilot who steered an engine-less plane safely into the middle of a river in one of the country’s most populous metropolitan areas, the passengers and crew who took charge of the plane’s evacuation, the ferry boat operators and other good Samaritans who helped in the rescue effort.

Secondly, if we are to give credit to God for yesterday’s good news, mustn’t that mean we also hold him responsible for all the crappy things that happen in this world. If we are to say that for some reason God thought those 155 people yesterday were worthy of being saved, then we must also admit that God thought all 230 people on TWA Flight 800, and all 1,836 people in Hurricane Katrina, and all 2,974 people in the 9/11 attack, and all 225,000 people in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and all 6 million people in the Holocaust, that God thought all of them deserved to die (of course, some evangelicals have argued just that – that these tragedies have all served some sort of divine purpose).

Don’t get me wrong: It’s nearly as tough for me to understand how someone can be an atheist, certain of God’s absence, as it is to understand how someone can be just as certain that there is a God (and even more incredibly, that they know what such a God is like). As far as I’m concerned, the Hudson River Airplane Miracle is no more evidence that God exists than the picture of the two towers above is proof that He doesn’t. But I’d venture to say that if you were to line up all the wonderful miracles that occur in this world alongside all the awful tragedies that happen, the list would be overwhelmed by the depressing side of the ledger.

But true believers have an easy, pat response when a seemingly incomprehensible tragedy occurs: “God works in mysterious ways.” I’ve heard people say that all the time to mourners who have watched their children die or suffered some other overwhelming loss, and the insensitivity of the sentiment astounds me.

If it gives comfort to you to think that there is a just and merciful God out there who has a plan for each and every one of us – a plan that we will never in our earthly existence fully understand but one that may at times require the deaths of innocent infants, the destruction of entire cities and the occasional systematic slaughter of millions of citizens – then who am I to take away your comfort and solace?? I cannot prove otherwise.

But as for me, I’ll stick with what I know. That life is usually short and sometimes sweet. It is precious and precarious. That bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. That for no other reason than there is already enough pain and suffering in this world, that I must do what I can to balance out the scales – by enjoying myself while I’m alive and able, by spreading joy and love to others, by being grateful for the blessings I have … and by celebrating happy moments like yesterday’s miracle, without ascribing to it some kind of divine meaning.

Fireflies and Mondays …

Ah, Mondays. Always such an unpleasant beast, a day only meant for enduring and muddling through in the best of circumstances, but sometimes gearing up for the workweek feels particularly difficult. I’ve just finished a relaxing weekend and I’m struggling to find my motivation mojo right now.

My weekend was enjoyably capped yesterday by my adorable three-year-old cousin’s birthday party, followed by a few fun sets of tennis with my brother, all done under perfect midsummer weather and in a Riverdale park that brought back memories of my Midwestern suburban upbringing.

It was the fireflies, really. Nothing signifies carefree childhood nights in the middle of a St. Louis summer like the presence of those luminescent creatures, and they were out in full force yesterday. I’m not a religious person – something I’m sure I’ll expound on at some point as the topic often goes hand and hand with questions of mortality – but there is something majestic, magical even, about a little nothing beetle that has evolved to exhibit such an impressive power. They don’t bite or sting or even buzz loudly; in my (undoubtedly human-centric) view, it’s as if they exist for no other reason than to provide a beautiful background and a bit of mood lighting for romantic late summer evening walks.

Maybe I just still have high oil prices on my mind, but watching the fireflies also made me wonder why we haven’t somehow harnessed that process for our own use. Did a little research and it turns out we do actually use the firefly’s chemical enzymes to search for life on other planets, to detect bacteria and even cancer cells in blood and urine (and to create the common glow stick, so it’s nice to see the firefly is also enhancing the drug-fueled trip of your average clubgoer).

I found myself reading a lot about the firefly (family name, Lampyridae) and the science behind the luminescence. As usual, science once again proved its limitations as an adequate substitute for good old religious mysticism (not to mention, childhood wonder). Frankly, some of the magic disappears when you find out fireflies use their light mainly for catching chicks and getting some action, and that the females of certain firefly species mimic the lighting pattern of other species in order to lure an unsuspecting male and then eat it.

Kinda sounds like some of my Mondays.


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