Dear Rabbi, I just finished a Reader’s Digest book called the 13 Things They Won’t Tell You. The “They” are specialists in a number of fields. Sadly the book doesn’t include clergy. What are the thirteen things clergy won’t tell us?
While I’m sure different clergy will come up with different lists, here’s mine:
1. Religion is rooted in fear, especially fear associated with the afterlife. Every religion has a horrible vision of the afterlife (either some hell realm or terrible rebirth) that its clergy say can be avoided if you would but do what they tell you to do. While it may be coincidental rather than causal, the two largest religions—Christianity and Islam—posit the two most horrible after–life scenarios.
2. Clergy have no innate authority. This is why, if you don’t like what your clergy person says, you can reject her and find another one. The ideal clergy person is the one who says what you think, and who treats you the way you wish to be treated. When she or he fails to do one or the other, you move on.
3. We hold sacred what we are taught to hold sacred, which is why what is sacred to one community is not sacred to another. Jews are taught that the Hebrew Bible contains the word of God, while the New Testament does not. Christians are taught that the entire Bible contains the word of God, but the Qur’an does not. Muslims are taught that Allah’s revelations of Muhammad in the Qur’an are sacred but Allah’s revelations to Bahá’u’lláh are not. Social norms determine what is sacred, true, and worthy of reverence. Which means that in and of themselves none of these things are sacred, true, and worthy of reverence.
4. After–life and reincarnation scenarios are merely an extension of your ego. If you believe that you will go to heaven, the “you” that goes there must be the “you” you are now if going there is to have any value to you at all. The same is true of those you may believe are hell bound. If the person tortured for all eternity in hell isn’t the person you know on earth and whom you want to see tortured for all eternity in hell, the torture just isn’t all that satisfying. Similarly with reincarnation: if it isn’t you that comes back, reincarnation is essentially irrelevant to the “you” you are in this life. The truth as I see it is this: when you die the “you” you take yourself to be in this life dies with you. If anything survives it isn’t the “you” you imagine yourself to be.
5. The stories in our sacred books aren’t history, nor were they meant to be. The authors of these books weren’t historians but writers of historical fiction: they used history (or pseudo history) as a context or pretext for their own ideas. Reading sacred texts as history may yield some nuggets of the past, but the real gold is in seeing these stories as myth and parable, and trying to unpack the possible meanings these parables and myths may hold.
6. Prayer doesn’t work the way you think it does. You can’t bribe God, or change God’s mind by kissing God’s butt. Prayer doesn’t influence God, but it might influence you. What you pray for reflects your values, and imagining that your values are God’s values, reinforces these values in your life. Examine your prayers to see just what it is you value.
7. Anything you claim to know about God, even the notion that there is a God, is a product of your imagination. What you say about God—who God is, what God cares about, who God rewards, and who God punishes—says nothing about God and everything about you. If you believe in an unconditionally loving God, you probably value unconditional love. If you believe in a God who divides people into chosen and not chosen, believers and infidels, saved and damned, high cast or low caste, etc. you are probably someone who divides people into in–groups and out–groups with you and your group as the quintessential in-group. God may or may not exist, but your idea of God mirrors yourself and your values, and little else.
8. Nobody is born Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, etc. People are born human and are slowly conditioned by narratives of race, religion, gender, nationality, etc. to be less than human. Identity is not value–neutral. Identity narratives tell you whom to love and whom to hate; and whom to befriend and whom to fear. If you imagine you must do or think this or that based on identity, imagine you were adopted at birth, and that your birth parents belong to the very group you are taught to fear, hate, and avoid.
9. Religious truths are merely opinions backed by fear. If something is true, it need not be backed up with threats of banishment, shunning, excommunication, torture, or death for not accepting it. Because most religious doctrine is not true the people whose fortunes depend on you believing them rely on threats of banishment, shunning, excommunication, torture, or death to force you believe them (or at least acquiesce to them).
10. Theology isn’t the free search for truth, but rather a defense of an already held position. Why is it that no rabbi comes to the conclusion that the Hopi are God’s Chosen People? Why is it that no pastor comes to the realization that Krishna rather than Jesus is Christ? Why is it that no official Catholic theologian discovers the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva rather than the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Why is it that no imam recognizes Bahá’u’lláh as a Prophet of Allah? Why? Because theology is really apologetics explaining why a belief is true rather than seeking out the truth in and of itself. All theological reasoning is circular, inevitably “proving” the truth of its own presupposition.
11. Religious terrorists are no less religious for being terrorists. Claiming that Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist terrorists do not accurately understand the religions in whose name they commit their acts of terror is a matter of political correctness rather than religious accuracy. When millions of Muslims support jihad against the West (Christendom as many call it) they are not deluded about the teachings of Islam, they are merely choosing to follow those teachings that support their desire for global conquest. When Israeli Jews seek to occupy Palestinian lands based on their reading of Torah they are not misreading the text, but highlighting those passages that support their desire for a Greater Israel. If we ever hope to root out religious terrorism we must root out the evil within each of our religions.
12. Becoming more religious cannot save us. Religion is a human invention reflecting the best and worst of humanity; becoming more religious will simply allow us to perpetuate compassion and cruelty in the name of religion. Because religion always carries the danger of fanaticism, becoming more religious may only heighten the risk of us becoming more fanatical.
13. Becoming less religious cannot save us. Because religion is a human invention reflecting the best and worst of humanity; becoming less religious will simply force us to perpetuate compassion and cruelty in the name of something else. Secular societies that actively suppress religion have proven no more just or compassionate than religious societies that suppress secularism or free thought. This is because neither religion nor the lack of religion frees us from the insanity of being human.
14. A healthy religion is one that helps us own and channel the shadow side of human nature for the good of person and planet, something few clergy are trained to do. Clergy are trained to promote the religion they represent. They are apologists not liberators. If you want to be more just, compassionate, and loving, you must free yourself from the conditions that lock you into injustice, cruelty, and hate, and this means you have to free yourself from all your narratives, including those you call “religious.”