Agnostic Jewish Paganism—and Other New Religions

Agnostic Jewish Paganism—and Other New Religions August 21, 2016

Yes, I am all three of those; how I define them makes them compatible. That is no stranger than Alan Watts’ being both an Anglican mystic and a Buddhist. I will discuss them one at a time.

Agnosticism is philosophical. It consists of having to admit that there are important questions to which one can never know the answer, here defining knowledge as what can be learned by applying the scientific method. Science is not the accumulated products of that method. Science is pursuing truth wherever it might lead, by questioning everything. Dedication to that pursuit, because of one’s belief in the absolute value of truth, is sufficient to give one the functional equivalent of a religion. I will repeat a proverb I invented recently: “Desire truth so much that you can tolerate living with uncertainty.”

Science is the scientific method, period. As my dear friend Catherine once commented, as modern intellectuals, our deepest allegiance is to the scientific method. I foresee that any church whose religion is not compatible with the scientific method is doomed. One can see that process happening now

Jewishness is cultural, that is, social. It is membership in a tribe, a rather large tribe, that has a specific culture. That membership can be inherited or acquired, both by the rules of that culture, which in modern times has evolved into several varieties. Jewishness now does not depend on belief in the traditional Jewish religion, which was the only variety before the nineteenth century.   To an ex-Catholic boy, it seemed paradoxical that the red-diaper babies I knew considered themselves to be both Jewish and devout atheists; so it took a while before I could grasp how the Jewish sense of identity works. As my Dean, Tara Watson, has emphasized to me, Jewish culture is much bigger than the traditional religion. That religion belongs to the Jewish people; they do not belong to it.

I am joining the Society for Humanistic Judaism, for personal reasons described in earlier blogs. Rabbi Sherwin Wine founded the SHJ as a fifth branch in order to meet the social needs of secular Jews. I met him in 1990, while working for Jeremy Tarcher, because his agent, Susan Levine, brought me his book How to Stay Sane in a Crazy World.  I pushed for it, but it didn’t get published then, because Jeremy wanted to put a metaphysical spin on it—but Sherwin absolutely would have nothing to do with that idea.  So I had many long conversations with him over several months. He explained that he had founded the SHJ because many Jewish intellectuals cannot tolerate going to a Reform temple, where they have to mouth prayers that they simply don’t believe in, which violates their sense of personal integrity, and so lack contact with Jewish culture.

Sherwin, who was a real macher in the Humanist movement, created the SHJ in about the 1970s as focused on the reality of the Jewish people, leaving out any and all theistic or metaphysical beliefs. He constructed a gorgeous liturgy from the nontheistic sayings in the Pirke Avot and elsewhere in the Mishnah, such as Hillel’s “If you are not for yourself, who will be? If you are only for yourself, what are you? And if not now, when?” I can live with that.

Paganism is practical, and is also focused on what you do, not what you believe. Witches and Pagans obviously believe all kinds of things, and are generally skeptical about many things, but there is no one belief or doctrine one must subscribe to in order to be a member of the movement.  As a result, I know Witches like my old friend Delia Morgan, who knows the Gods exist because she has experienced them, and Witches at the other end of the spectrum, who are devout atheists.  And I have known many Jewitches—Margot, Judy, Deborah—my family has now pretty much decided that’s what we are.

I am free to have such a combination of values because of the philosophical revolution embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It provides that we are free not only to join any church we choose, but also to create any church or any religion we choose. As a result, more new churches and religions have been created in the US since 1789 than in most of the rest of world history. This freedom has now spread to most “Western” countries, of course, but our revolution, which was as much about religion and philosophy as about politics and economics, is what made that possible.  The “mainstream” churches have fought against new religions all along, screaming about “cults” and even committing crimes against humanity, as when the Methodists fomented genocide against the Mormons. (The BYU football team recently refused to play in Missouri until that law was taken off the books.)

I have proposed that the creating of new religions is the normal state for humanity, whenever the existing church or churches are failing to meet people’s needs.  This is obvious throughout the Classical world, until the Council of Nicaea, because the public religions of Greece and Rome were much like the current cycle of secularized holidays in America; they served various social needs, but were not deeply felt. The important religious practices were carried out by families in their homes, not in temples, as is still the case in India, or in the plethora of “mystery cults” that steadily evolved.  It was only when the Christian church was given governmental authority at Nicaea that it could begin to stamp out all the competition.  The “heresies” during the hegemony of Official Christianity were in fact new or other religions; heresies became more frequent as the monolithic church became steadily more dysfunctional—until it all exploded in the Reformation.

However, even the Christian church had evolved far from what was the “standard” model of societies before the classical era, the ones rediscovered by archaeology and now thoroughly studied by, for example, Toynbee. In those societies, church, state, politics, religion, economics, were all a single, integrated system. I doubt a citizen in such a society could have conceived of having a different religion. The idea that all the people should belong to the same church is a vestige of the stage of human history that ended with the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution.

The pollsters and the public have been hampered by not having an adequate vocabulary for discussing religion. When people respond to questions by saying, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” they do not mean that they have no religion, in the sense I have defined, that whatever beliefs enable us to make important (life) decisions serve us as the functional equivalent of a religion. What people mean, I am quite sure, is, “I have beliefs, but I do not belong to any church.”  The percentage of the “nones” who do not belong to any church,is growing steadily in all “Western” nations. And they are inventing new religions for themselves.

Why are churches shrinking? Because a church, a vestige of ancient empires, is obsolete technology, like sailing ships, windmills, horses, and even hand-written letters. Churches are no longer necessary, or even very useful, in our new age that derives its energy from inanimate fuel, not from plants and horses. Being social animals, we need community; isolation is the harshest of all punishments. But the community we each need does not have to be very large. Can a person have a religion, a set of beliefs, unlike that of anyone else? In theory, yes, but being that lonely does not meet our needs. Having just one other person, a spouse, an old friend, a colleague, with whom one can share one’s deepest beliefs, with whom one can be utterly honest, makes all the difference. In practice religion must always be social, even if it is a society of two.

How large a community might be optimal? The LDS guideline, worked out over decades of experience, is that a ward should consist of 200 families, within which there will statistically be a few dozen families who are the core group that does all the practical work; the ward constitutes what Witches would call their Outer Court. There are also family practices and small group work; LDS theology is very much focused on the primary importance of the family.  The Temple is then their Inner Court, where the “mystical” level of religion can be practiced—and Mormons are much better at keeping their Third-Degree Secrets than Witches are.

(I know the SHJ guideline is that a congregation should have at least 25 families as members, but I need to find out more about that.)

What about covens? Is the traditional size of thirteen viable? There were very probably about that many adults in a typical hunting and gathering band. I do not want to seriously invoke the concept of ancestral memory, but I am also not willing to deny that possibility. What I have observed is that many successful covens consist of two or three families plus their very closest friends. Each coven will typically have a larger circle of good friends, another dozen or so, who are welcome at open Sabbats. These constitute the Outer Court of the Craft. There are also covens, strictly for adults, that provide the intense training needed to practice the Inner Court. It is the Pagan festivals that function as the equivalent of Temples, several hundred people gathering at one of the eight points on the Wheel of the Year. If you have never danced naked around a bonfire or celebrated the Mysteries in other ways, well, you don’t know what you are missing.

I doubt that groupings of a thousand or more people are needed now to meet people’s real needs. The larger the group, the less important the individual persons will be for each other. If there is no pressure to conform to any institutional orthodoxy, then people’s individual creativity can operate freely to find out what works for them. The raw materials from the world’s cultures and religious traditions will no doubt be joined into surprising new paradigms.

The Roman Catholic Church, now the oldest surviving organization in all known history, does have a different phenomenology. I will watch with interest as Francis continues to midwife it through its seventh rebirth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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