I try to go to my gym at least four or five times a week. The idea is to keep the blood flowing through my 69 year old veins, so as to avoid another heart attack (I’ve had two). So far, it seems to be working pretty well.
The particular gym I go to is part of a local Jewish Community Center. I’ve heard that about half of the people who attend it are Jews, and the other half are not. So, when I overhear things while working out, I’m not normally particularly aware of who is saying what. However, not long ago, I did hear a conversation between two middle-aged women, both of whom, it soon became obvious, were Jewish. One of the women was telling the other that she and her family did not attend temple anymore. The other woman said she didn’t either, but both quickly assured each other that it was still important for them and their children to identify as Jewish, and in some sense to follow the traditions.
Now, I pretty much keep to myself while on the gym floor, and prefer not to stand around chatting. After all, that’s not why I’m there. So, even if I’d known these women, which I did not, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. Besides, I’m not Jewish, so in that sense what they were saying was none of my business.
Or was it? I began thinking later on what it meant to have a religious identity. These women, and presumably their spouses and children, clearly identified as Jewish, but they went on to say that they didn’t particularly believe in God anymore. That was interesting, I thought, because I think of myself as having no religion at all, and yet I do believe in God.
Once upon a time, in what now seems like the far distant past, I strongly identified as Roman Catholic. Indeed, specifically Irish Catholic, if that makes sense. For me at the time, what this meant was strict adherence to religious dogma, trust and reliance on the hierarchical model of the Church, and a strong belief in and reliance on some of the more devotional aspects of the Church, things like saying the rosary, prayer to the Blessed Mother and the saints, and attendance at such services as Benediction (the reverential viewing of the Eucharist, accompanied by set prayers and hymns, all in Latin at the time). In fact, these devotional practices somehow took on for me an even greater importance than the Mass itself or the sacraments. And I think that was not so unusual among old-fashioned Irish-Catholics.
What happened between then and now is a long story. But it involves a lot of anger and disillusionment on my part, disenchantment at what I came to see as the profoundly uncharitable nature of the Church, and recognition of its doctrinaire rigidity that brings so much unnecessary pain and suffering on so many people.
In the course of throwing off religion, I became for a while what I thought of as an atheist, although it soon became clear to me that this did not suit me very well. I still, by the way, admire atheists, inasmuch as for me at least they represent the utter no-nonsense view of life as it is lived in the here and now. I came to see that many atheists appeared to be more moral than some religious people, certainly than many dogmatists and religious fanatics, and that they were willing to face the ultimate questions with admirable honesty, courage, and directness. I don’t mean to say that I wish I were an atheist. If I wanted to, I would simply be one. Still, as I have said, I admired them, and still do.
Does it seem surprising that I – a professed “believer” – would admire someone who professes not to believe? I hope not, because doubt, and wonder, and an awe that, as it were, strikes one dumb, are basic to what I see as a belief in a Divine Spirit. And lots of atheist, I think, look at the world with awe and wonder, and yes, probably sometimes with doubt too. After all – or am I imagining it? – doubt is not limited only to religious believers. Absolute sureness, with never a moment’s hesitancy or uncertainty, is the property only of total blind faith. But in this sense, atheists too “believe in” their atheism and perhaps – like many of us – occasionally have their own doubts about what they believe. Faith does not eschew our need to question.
Still, it was interesting that the two middle-aged ladies in my gym continued to very much consider themselves Jewish, even though, as they averred, they had no faith in God. Of course, much has to do with people thinking of being Jewish not merely, or solely, as a religion, but as an ethnicity, as being part of “a tribe,” as it were. For me, too, I still think of myself as Irish-American, since believing or not believing should in principle have little to do with that identity. I still have an interest in Irish history, literature, mythology, and even, fleetingly, the Irish language. And yet, I have to admit to myself that something has changed for me, that in some sense I no longer feel quite as Irish as I once did. And I wonder if my gym partners, too, somehow were not protesting just a little too much about still feeling perfectly Jewish either.
I’ve come to my own conclusions about spirituality, and am convinced that it does not necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with religion. Religion is about organization and laws and rules, things of the earth, human things. Sometimes, too often in fact, it’s also about control of people, about power and authority. And in emphasizing these things, religion all too often leaves out that awe and wonder, that inability to define what is ultimately indefinable and unutterable that to me identifies what I think of as true spirituality.
But the wonder about religion, and about identity, has not left me. Nor the wonder about atheism either, because as I see it atheists are believers in the sanctity of the manifest world, while adherents of spirituality are believers in what is unmanifest. However, I do not see the two as all that different, because at least for me the Unknowable Unmanifest permeates, pervades, and informs all the known manifestation of the natural world.
So, why talk about all this in the first place then? Why wonder about religion, atheism, identity, or even spirituality? There may be as many answers to that as there are people who think about such things. My take on it is that there has to be some connection, some balance, between whatever your belief may be (and remember, I list atheism as a kind of belief) and how a person acts in the world. It’s no more enough to only sit in the forest and meditate than it is to go to a church, or simply to deny the existence of a God. In every case, we have bodies, we live in a physical world, and it is our duty to make the most of that. Making the most of it, in fact, means fulfilling our own potential as much as possible, and treating others, indeed treating the whole world (I mean the physical planet) respectfully, even reverentially. I hope no one misunderstands me: nobody has to be – or should ever be – anyone’s doormat. Neither should we go looking for trouble, and we ought instead to go about creating as little trouble in the world as possible.
I have the sense that behavior is more important than belief. Life is not easy for anyone. Who does not have trials and difficulties to face, everything from sickness and physical suffering to loss of those whom we love? Who among us can say there are no personal battles to fight, no wars to engage in, many of which are waged right within our own psyches? I often think of the Bhagavad-Gita in this regard, the great Hindu scripture, wherein at the beginning the blind king, Dhritarashtra, asks his seer to describe to him the scene on “the scared plain” before them. On one level at least, the Bhagavad-Gita is the story of a battle between two warring royal families. But metaphorically it describes the battles we all have before us on “the sacred plain” of our lives. No one, however fortunate we may think that person, escapes these battles. The Jewish ladies in the gym were talking about one tiny skirmish, but each of us has his own challenges, her own grief, great or small, at varying times in life.
So, belief may be a good thing, as long as we do not use it as a cudgel to beat other people up with. And, as I said, who does not believe in something, even in his right and ability not to believe?
As I see it, whatever it is you may believe, in the end there are a few essentials that should always be kept in mind: don’t behave badly, treat others with compassion and respect, and in whatever way possible do everything you can to leave this beautiful planet of ours a better place than you found it. What more can be asked of us? What more, in fact, can any of us do?