Loving and Hating Religion – Some Reflections After Visiting Religious Communities

These reflections were written shortly after visiting four religious communities in New York City as part of The Humanist Institute, a leadership training program for people passionate about Humanism and who want to play a role in the movement. If that sounds like you, I recommend the course: it’s been invigorating and challenging for me, and the American Humanist Association offers a fantastic scholarship for those who would like to attend but cannot afford the fees. As part of a module on comparative religion, my class visited the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, a Won Buddhist temple, a Hare Krishna worship center (where we attended a Kirtan chanting session), and B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue. My reflections are immediate, gut-level responses to the experiences and discussions we had in each religious space, and should be read as such.

There are things I love, and things I hate, about religion. The field trips brought both to mind. Let’s begin with hate. The trip to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York – one of New York City’s largest and most influential mosques – was depressing, to say the least. Superficially, there was none of the aesthetic appeal often associated with religious spaces, and which was abundant in the colorful exuberance of the Hare Krishna worship center. The surroundings were drab, even a little shabby, in a way that, to me, betokened not the meaningful simplicity of the Won Buddhist temple, but a certain unkempt quality. It felt empty and forlorn, rather than sparse and precise. The prayer service lacked the sense of drama that my theatrical side sometimes thrills to during religious services. Entering the mosque I felt nothing: no uplift of spirit, no sense of wonder or awe, no warmth of community. And I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Worse, our discussion with Imam Omar Saleem Abu-Namous would serve to reinforce, rather than challenge, many atheists’ preconceptions regarding Islam. If the purpose of the discussion was to encourage greater appreciation of Islamic tradition amongst us Humanists, or to nuance our views of Islam as a faith, it spectacularly failed. Abu-Namous rattled-off platitudes and pieties from the Islamic tradition with a smile on his face which became increasingly frustrating. Backward social views – anti-gay, anti-woman – were intermingled with truly bizarre pseudoscience – about the way cells divide in the body, about multiple universes and their role in the creation of angels (yes, really), and about the old favorite, evolution.

Perhaps the best moment of the discussion was when Abu-Namous declared that Islam was entirely compatible with science, in response to which one of my classmates asked, politely, if that meant he believed in evolution. The Imam burst into laughter at the risible notion, looking around the group gurning with delight at the idea that he might accept one of the most important, powerful and well-evidenced scientific theories ever. But Islam is entirely compatible with science.

Oh, and he told me to my face hat I’m going to hell for being gay.

I left with a sore sense of disappointment. I had come in good faith, willing to learn, with a mind open to new experiences. I found instead a prominent religious leader of a major world faith spouting dangerous nonsense in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world. “Religion sucks”, I tweeted – and immediately got into a heated debate with another Twitter user.

But oh, OH, how things changed when we visited B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue. Entering this gorgeous old building was like walking into a palpable wall of love. You could feel the positive energy in the air, the sense of excitement for the upcoming Kabbalat Shabbat service. People were hugging, clasping hands and bodies together, staring into each other’s eyes like long-parted lovers. They wanted to be there.

Our guide – BJ (as it’s called, no joke) asks that visiting groups register before attending and offers a member to guide them through the service – was effusive about the value of the community, explaining its history and values with overflowing enthusiasm. Most striking was when I asked her what role the temple had played in her life: she rocked back on her heels as if I had pushed her, and tears sprang to her eyes almost immediately. “I…I…”, she stammered. “I would love to answer that question. But you’ll have to email me. I can’t…it’s too much.” She so loved her community that to think of it almost knocked her off her feet. That’s serious love.

The service itself was wonderful: a rich explosion of music (including plenty of nigun (wordless) chant for those who didn’t know the words), color, and even dance, as the audience leapt to its feet at one moment to snake around the auditorium, arms linked and feet tapping. It was awesome. And something for Humanists to learn from: very few Humanist groups could get hundreds of people to turn out regularly for a Friday night meeting, but that’s what BJ has achieved in a few short years. If I were a Jew I’d join in a heartbeat. I may still. I stepped out into the night and tweeted “I love religion” – an attempt to restore the Karmic balance.

The other visits lay between these two extremes: the Won Temple had a sparse simplicity to it which I appreciated, and I liked the social-engagement orientation of Won Buddhism, but I’ve never been one to meditate, and I am aesthetically more in-tune with the song and dance of BJ. The Hare Krishna Kirtan session was brilliant from an aesthetic perspective – it was fun to learn the Hare Krishna chant and to sing with the group, and the room was colorful and lively – but the faintly cultish air which has always surrounded Hare Krishna in my mind was not dispelled. There’s just something about the shining happy faces of all these beautiful shorn monks which strikes me as slightly creepy, and this sentiment (prejudice?) was reinforced by the distinctly woo-ish anti-gay nonsense with which we were confronted when we actually got to talk to the practitioners about their beliefs.

All in all the visits were a mixed-bag: one religious space I loved, another I hated, and the remainders were in-between. As a demonstration of the wide range of religious practices people engage in, and the range of different people they might appeal to, I found the visits valuable – I even came away with some ideas to improve my home Humanist community. Just don’t ask me to return to that mosque.

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