Friday, February 03, 2006

Quote of the Day: Religion as Theater

I don't think there's any difference between the pope wearing a large hat and parading around with a smoking purse and an African painting his face white and praying to a rock. --Howard Stern


(Disclaimer: not a big Howard Stern fan.)

Stern could just as well have said "I don't think there's any difference between [an Orthodox Jew waving a lulav and esrog | a Mormon wearing special underwear | a Pentacostal speaking in tongues | a Baptist dunking a baby underwater | a Muslim kneeling on a praying rug] and an African painting his face white and praying to a rock."

On this blog, we often debate creationism vs. evolution, divine revelation vs. the documentary hypothesis, and absolute vs. relative morality, but sometimes I have to just marvel in the sheer wackiness of religion.

Sometimes I just want to throw out all the arguments and just point and say, "Look how ludicrous this stuff is!" But everybody thinks their religion's unique and true. It's just everybody else who's crazy.

There's a more substantive point here, though, and that is this: religious ritual is theater. It's designed to produce an emotional reaction in the observer/audience. In and of itself, it's meaningless. Turn on your television one Sunday morning and watch a televangelist with his fire and brimstone and sing-song voice and emotional arguments disguising logical fallacies. It's simply a tool for the leader/entertainer to manipulate his/her audience.

How many people would believe in religion if their emotions weren't manipulated by calculated showiness? What if you had to sit down each potential convert (or ba'al teshuva) and explain logically what your religion was all about without any singing or kugels or fancy garments? How many people would become religious? People fall in love first with the rituals and the lofty promises; they accept the rationalizations later.

Children, too are raised into religion more by emotions than by reason. Some of this is unavoidable, of course. Children simply don't have the capacity to reason at an adult level. But look how much effort is put into directed emotional manipulation for religion. There's ritual and Bible stories and Left Beind movies and Santa for Christians and Elijah for Jews. ("Look! Can't you see the wine receding!") And how much is put into emotionally manipulating children into believing in the Big Bang or evolution or relativity? Basically none.

Perhaps we skeptics should fight fire with fire. Maybe we should make up a bunch of stories about science and skepticism to tell our children at night. We could a write a skeptic's Bible with stories loosely based on the destruction of the library at Alexandria and Marie Curie's discovery of radium. We should tell them that Einstein was ten feet tall and Newton lived until 200. Galileo could move the planets just by whispering some magical equations. Once, Mendel created a bean pod that was four hundred feet long!

It would be ironic, for sure, to teach science by manipulating their emotions, but maybe we need to look at the ends instead of the means. Maybe we should create rituals involving altars to Darwin and giant turtles as his priests. We should make bracelets in the form of the double helix and tell our children that Watson and Crick will protect them from evil. (Or maybe they'd say "WWW&CD?") Perhaps we should have a day of rememberence every year for the dinosaurs who went extinct. We can celebrate the equinoxes by wearing elliptical hats and tilting ourselves a little to the left for the day.

It's always just facts and skepticism, facts and skepticism, with us skeptics. It's boring and anyway you'd need to live in an ivory tower to believe in that stuff. We need to get with the program.

(**extracts tongue from cheek**)

33 comments:

Laura said...

"But everybody thinks their religion's unique and true. It's just everybody else who's crazy."

I personally think that every school should require a comparative religions class. Most people, especially those that live in homogeneous communities, don't realize that all religions have common themes, occasions, and rituals. Maybe we'd stop bickering about specifics, huh?

I have an idea for you JA: Evolution Chick Tracts! We can pass them out on street corners while wearing shiny green suits and holding a well-read copy of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason...

R10B said...

Or maybe you could just look around you at the state of our crumbling, post-modern society in which there are no moral truths and no ultimate meaning to life and gather your stories from reality. Certainly the fruits of godless ideologies are not so rare that you can find them only in your imagination.

R10B said...

people...don't realize that all religions have common themes, occasions, and rituals

Could it be that those common things represent a common need in humans to worship something greater than themselves?

...maybe we'd stop bickering about specifics...

I doubt it. I think a vital component of religious pluralism among the masses (especially the Christian masses) is the fuzzy (very fuzzy) understanding of the differences. The more clearly you understand the claims each makes the more you must contend with the Law of Non-Contradiction. At that point you can 1) say with Whitman or the Hindu or Schroedinger's Cat that you can live with contradictions, 2) halt your study, try to forget what you've learned to avoid any internal conflict, or 3) make a decision.

Foilwoman said...

I think "What Would FoilWoman Do" has a nice ring to it. And Mac would do really nice illustrations. So this six foot tall skeptical chick . . . Oh, I give up. Life has no meaning other than what we give it, and if I have to kill a chicken/paint my face white/undergo female circumcision/wear a concealing dress/scarf/whatever/take a ritual bath/not touch men/remain pure (and sexless)/never enjoy sex/never dress comfortably/obey men/be modest/take part in meaningless but pretty rituals*/or anything else to be saveable, saved, holy or anything else, I'm not going to be those things.

*Don't get me wrong: I love Holy Week as practiced in Spain, Carneval, Weddings underneath a chuppah (sp.?) where the bride and groom sign the ketuba and then get danced around in the chairs, latkes, all the candles at Hannukah, the singing and the stories at Passover, Easter celebrations, the Eid al-Fitr (Feast of the Sacrifice, I think), and all those things. I just don't think they have significance other than nice communal events.

Jewish Atheist said...

Weddings underneath a chuppah (sp.?) where the bride and groom sign the ketuba...

You only feel that way because you don't read Hebrew. The Hebrew version includes the bride getting twice as much money if she's a virgin.

Laura said...

Rob said: "Could it be that those common things represent a common need in humans to worship something greater than themselves?"

No. But I do think those common things represent a common need in humans to explain the world around us. How we explain those things gives the world meaning, and that meaning determines how we treat each other. Take disease for example. Sick people are treated in very different ways, even today, depending on how people explain the illness.

Some people need fairytales to make sense of major life events. Some don't.

Foilwoman said...

JA: So the gal tells him "I've never done that before", he believes her (because guys really don't have that inborn virgin detect-o-meter), she gets the money, keeps her own name, puts the money in a separate account, and they both live happily ever after until he loses his mind and spends their kids' college education fund on a Mercedes E500- 4-Matic while she's on maternity disability. Oops, I think real life is bleeding over into this. So sorry. All cerebral, all the time. Yup, that's my motto.

Kyaroko said...

It's difficult for some to find beauty and excitement in the "mundane". They have to heap supernatural meaning upon it. My mother, for one, doesn't appreciate the beautiful flower that blooms every morning because it it is a beautiful flower responding to the sun's warming rays. To her it is a part of God's creation and it is God who pulls the petals of the flower open every morning and causes the bird to sing at the dawn. It's not enough to just have everybody over to celebrate the birth of a new baby. Extra supernatural meaning is heaped upon the event somehow in every culture that I know of.

Kyaroko said...

On the topic of using belief in the supernatural to explain that which we can't understand, there's a fascinating article in Feb.'s Smithsonian Magazine about the "John Frum" cargo cult on the island of Vanuatu in the south Pacific. Cargo cults sprang up all along these islands during the world wars as their way of explaining all the cargo that the white people brought with them on their ships, and that often fell from the sky during drop-offs. The article isn't available online yet, but the Smithsonian website is here: http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/
Cargo Cult info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I already thought we had unbelievable stories: the earth being ancient, dinosaurs, an asteroid that wiped them out, scales that evolved into feathers, we all came from the same rodent like mammal. Hey we can give him a name. Now there is an idea. How about Hermie the eomaia scansoria?

Laura said...

Bacon Eating Athiest Jew: Now that's just nonsense! Asteroids and dinosaurs and Hermid the eonia scansoria... Now you're just makin shit up! :P

asher said...

JA, please don't spread around false ideas. The bride does not get twice as much if she is a virgin. In fact, the ring given at a jewish wedding is supposed to be very plain to show it has value and not being schmalzted up with alot of possibly fake diamonds. The concept is that the groom is giving the bride a ring worth a certain amount and two witnesses are there to verify that she's not getting ripped off. The fact that it's some kind of purchase is another issue.

Dennis Prager has said that when you hear about someone going to parochial school for their young lives you might refer to them as being religiously brainwashed. However, you'd never call someone secularly brainwashed if they only went to public schools and colleges. These rituals would have fallen away years ago if people didn't think there was some sort of value in them. For example, I have no doubt that the requirment of a child to say kaddish for their deceased parent for 11 months is an effort to get the child involved in the jewish community.

You still can't explain orthodox jewish scientists who leave work early on friday afternoons and have kosher food at their office parties. You can live in both worlds.

Besides aside from offending you, what harm comes from these religious practices?

oracle25 said...

"But everybody thinks their religion's unique and true."

So do you. Atheism is as much a religion as Christianity.


I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "unique" since every religion is unique.

"It's just everybody else who's crazy."

And yet in the previous paragraph you state: "but sometimes I have to just marvel in the sheer wackiness of religion.". Hmm.... engage in hypocrisy much?

Hrafnkel said...

Well, I sure as hell wouldn't use the WWW&CD example - we don't want the homosexual kids to feel unwanted...

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks for all the great comments, everybody.

asher: JA, please don't spread around false ideas. The bride does not get twice as much if she is a virgin.

She is promised two hundred zuzim (in the event of divorce) if she's a virgin and one hundred if she's not. Is that not true?

Kyaroko:

Great point about the cargo cults, thanks. I could have talked about the prayers for rain as well.

Yaakov said...

Brilliant! A series of children's books, perhaps?

dbs said...

Brilliant post. Of course, the level of agreement/disagreement which your readers will have will depend on their (emotionally inspired) beliefs. You can’t argue someone out of an emotion.

R10B said...

Though there is some evidence you can argue a person into one.

Jack's Shack said...

The question to me is so what. So what if there is show business involved here. That doesn't make a difference to me unless the religion is causing problems and is harmful to others.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

How many people would believe in religion if their emotions weren't manipulated by calculated showiness?

I've always been "low church". that is, there isn't a heck of a lot of "calculated showiness" in the way we practice our religion. The minister (who we address by his first name) doesn't wear flowing robes; there is no incense, no Latin.

There are only two sacraments (communion and baptism) instead of the Roman Catholic Church's seven. And neither is understood to possess any magical powers - in the end it all comes back to the individual's "walk" with God. Baptism is a symbol of the believer's burial and resurrection with Jesus - but only that, a symbol.

That's the norm for evangelical Christianity. (Not that I'm an evangelical, I just worship with them.) Not many bells and whistles to speak of.

As for hymns and passion when one talks about the core elements of one's faith - those things can be abused but surely it is legitimate for God to move us emotionally. A worldview that doesn't engage the emotional part of human nature isn't worth retaining.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

p.s.
Part of the issue here is that the religions originated in pre-literary cultures. Only a small part (10%?) of the population of Jesus' day, for example, would have been literate. Hence a need to rely on oral tradition (including neumonics and other aids to memory) and acting events out through ritual.

People had to carry away the message in their heads — they weren't going to access a text at home to remind themselves of complex theological formulas.

This is coupled with a conception of God as beyond verbal description; beyond finite human understanding, for that matter, hence calling for symbols as means to point us toward partial understanding.

It's easy for Stern and other ignorant folk to mock such things; but there's a big measure of cultural prejudice at play there.

Okee said...

Yes, many religions share the practice of the "ritual". And if someone was searching for more in life and wanted to choose a religion completely objectively, it would be difficult. What if they didn't want to be affected by the leader's showmanship or orative style? What if the beauty of the house of worship wasn't important to them? What if they decide to choose a religion based upon their mind and-yes-soul, but not their emotions? Then you'd get what every thinking religious Jew actively engages in every time he does a cheshbon hanefesh- an accounting of his soul. Yes, I am speaking from a very religious standpoint, but also from an intensely intellectual one. If you've investigated your religion to the utmost, and experienced it to the utmost, then why on earth would you ever settle for meaningless ritual? For showmanship? For style, not substance? One of the most important thing important things I learned in my education classes was the false brevity of inspiration. It can get the motor started, but it won't get you anywhere. Reality will.
Have a good night, everyone!

Chana said...

Out of curiousity, what do you think of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik? What you write is exactly his point, as evidenced in many places (Out of the Whirlwind, Aaron Rothkoff-Rakeffet's books, other works.) He hates showiness and states that religion cannot be a "feel-good" assortment of rituals. That's actually his basis for his essay on Korah's rebellion in 'Reflections of the Rav,'- emotions and the mitzvot versus halakha.

Jewish Atheist said...

Jack's Shack: The question to me is so what. So what if there is show business involved here. That doesn't make a difference to me unless the religion is causing problems and is harmful to others.

One of my interests is what's true rather than what leads to good consequences. It seems clear to me that ritual and showiness can mask what's true, so it's of great interest to me.


Q:

Part of the issue here is that the religions originated in pre-literary cultures.

That's a good point. I'd take it even further -- a large segment of America is still more oral (or whatever television provides) than written. They can read, of course, but many don't read much.


Okee: One of the most important thing important things I learned in my education classes was the false brevity of inspiration. It can get the motor started, but it won't get you anywhere.

Interesting point. A cynic might point out that this is why people need to return to the church/synagogue/temple/mosque every week for a "booster shot" of inspiration.


Chana:

Out of curiousity, what do you think of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik? What you write is exactly his point, as evidenced in many places (Out of the Whirlwind, Aaron Rothkoff-Rakeffet's books, other works.) He hates showiness and states that religion cannot be a "feel-good" assortment of rituals.

I have a lot of respect for him. I think he was courageous and trail-burning in trying to reconcile the worlds of secular knowledge with Orthodox Judaism. I'll admit that I haven't read much of his work, finding (on a quickish glance) that it didn't really speak to me and that it didn't satisfactorily address the veracity of God's existence or the Torah to my liking. I probably should get around to really reading him, though.

The wikipedia page has this interesting and relevant quote from him:

"[many of my students] act like children and experience religion like children. This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. Sometimes they are even ready to do things that border on the immoral. They lack the experiential component of religion, and simply substitute obscurantism for it....After all, I come from the ghetto. Yet I have never seen so much naïve and uncritical commitment to people and to ideas as I see in America....All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist." (A Reader's Companion to Ish Ha-Halakhah: Introductory Section, David Shatz, Yeshiva University, Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute)

Juggling Mother said...

I have to agree with Q here (shock horror!). There are many religious communities that not only do not "perform", but actively eschew such showiness. Certainly my early years in (liberal) synagogue had nothing more than a hall with some chairs, and some bloke up front babbling away in foriegn - oh, and the occasional song:-) He even switched into English most of the time, so we could understand his babblings. JW are the same (bare hall, no uniforms), and a number of other religions. There is obviously more to belief than people being lured by theatrics.

Jewish Atheist said...

Mrs. Aginoth and Q:

I'm not saying that all religions use ritual and showiness, nor that ritual and showiness are the only ways to attract and keep people to/in a religion.

Chana said...

I actually have that quote up on my blog somewhere! But I don't know which entry...hmmm...It continues, though, stating that one cannot be a fanaticist or obscurantist if one uses one's mind and heart in the correct fashion.

He also wrote that many of his students regarded him as an apikores...

You might enjoy his views/ works- as you know, I do. :)

The Jewish Freak said...

The people convinced by logic will always be the minority.

David said...

JA,
When you set up a dichotomy between science and religion, you're assuming your conclusion.

Jewish Atheist said...

david,

While science doesn't inexorably lead to atheism, atheism owes a lot to science. In searching for mythological heroes for atheist children, scientists, even theistic ones are appropriate. Atheists reach different conclusions than do theists who believe in science, but we have more in common than we do different.

Besides, who would want to read a kid's book about Nietzhe, Russell, and John Stuart Mill?

Jewish Atheist said...

I guess what I'm saying is that the movement should be for skeptics, not atheists per se.

David said...

Skepticism is not an issue here. Neither scientists nor atheists are any more skeptical than theists. We're just each skeptical about different things. Maybe you mean materialists.

Jewish Atheist said...

Neither scientists nor atheists are any more skeptical than theists. We're just each skeptical about different things.

In America, a majority of the theists disbelieve evolution (although a majority of those believing in evolution are theists.) Many believe in astrology, etc. Refusing to look at evidence doesn't make you a skeptic. Refusing to believe in the absence of evidence makes you a skeptic.