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Can One Be Moral Without Religion?

Bangkok Wat--Temple

A recent editorial in the Washington Post by Kate Cohen, “Pete Buttigieg, Please Don’t Equate Religion With Morality,” touches on an aspect I wrote about in my blog post “Ambiguity: Faith and the Supernatural—Whom do You Trust?” Cohen makes the distinction between morality and religion, writing that people justify their own beliefs using the bible. She continues that either the political right or left, can find biblical passages to justify their particular beliefs: “Here’s the thing: People bring their morality to their religious texts; they don’t get their morality from them.” And I think the point here is that one can be a moral person without being religious.

My parents adopted me in 1946 when I was three months old and they told me from the beginning that I was adopted. I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska in the 1950’s and my friends were mostly of the Christian persuasion: Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Lutheran, or Christian Scientist. So, I was the little Jewish boy who didn’t quite fit. We were Reform Jews, which meant we didn’t follow the food laws or some of the other traditions that more conservative and orthodox Jews follow. In fact, my mother made excellent BLT’s and pork chops. I stopped going to Sunday school at our synagogue by the time I was in middle school, and I didn’t identify much with the few other Jewish kids I did know in Lincoln.

When I was probably 8 or 9 I watched an old black and white movie on tv one Saturday afternoon. Spencer Tracy, I think it was, played a Catholic priest, and I was so moved by his performance that I told my mother I wanted to become a priest. She laughed sympathetically and told me that because I was Jewish I couldn’t do that. I think that was my first experience with feeling different because of my religion and background.

From the beginning I wasn’t religious and that, along with being Jewish, made it even more difficult to fit in conservative Nebraska. My mother had always aspired to be an artist and poet—she was almost a beatnik or pre-hippy in a lot of her freethinking ways. She told me that I could be just as close to God if I were outside in nature; I didn’t need to attend church to be spiritual. That made an impression on me and I’ve never forgotten her words.

A funny thing happened in my senior year in high school and it is one of the things that helped to cement my religious viewpoint. Our homeroom teacher was our counselor and for the life skills class he taught he required all of us (who weren’t prohibited from doing this by our own religion) to visit a church service of a religion that was different from our own. [In retrospect this was a pretty progressive assignment for the time and place] My buddy suggested that we visit a “Holy Roller” tent service on the edge of town. This was the fall of 1963 and tent revival meetings were still held in the Midwest and Bible Belt.

We got approval from our parents to attend the tent service. When my friend and I arrived we found the tent at the edge of a large field that was filled with the cars of the people attending. There were a lot more cars than we figured there’d be—we were surprised. Unfazed, we parked at the edge of the lot. We walked up to the tent and the people at the opening, men wearing slacks and white shirts with ties, were extremely nice to us—I suppose they were excited at the prospect of a couple of young men, possible new converts, attending. So my friend and I entered. We chose to stand at the back up against the wall of the tent. The place was filled anyway, so there were few places on the benches where we could have sat down.

When the service began it was one of the strangest and most terrifying experiences I’d had to date in my short 17 years of life. The preacher stood on a raised plywood platform. He had a tiny loudspeaker system—really just a small amplifier that the microphone plugged into. With a little help from the amplifier, his voice boomed out, easily covering all in the tent. I remember him talking about the spirit of the Lord infusing us. My friend and I looked around as other people in the congregation began shouting, some screaming, and many spoke gibberish. I learned later that this was what they called “talking in tongues.” Not only did these people spout gibberish to the rest of us, but a few actually began shaking and several threw themselves on the ground twitching and writhing around in what I could only guess was the grip of the holy spirit. They really were “holy rollers.” My friend and I looked at each other—I know that my face was as devoid of blood as his. We were terrified.

I’m not sure which one of us suggested that we leave but we quickly turned and ran through the opening in the tent. A couple of the greeters yelled at us to stop, come back, and enter into the grace of the Lord. There was no way either of us were going back in that tent. We ran furiously through the cars parked in the field, jumped into my car and raced back into town, back into relative sanity.

It’s funny now, more than 55 years later, to recall that experience. It cemented in my mind my attitude toward religion generally. It also prepared me for experiencing the religious ceremonies I would see years later when I lived and worked in Asia. How do you explain “holy rollers?” How do you explain Thaipusam, the Hindu holiday, banned in India itself and practiced today only in Figi, Malaysia, and Singapore, where devotees puncture their bodies with spikes? How do you explain the Chinese holidays where they burn paper cars, houses, and false money (called hell money) so their ancestors will have affluence in the after life? How do you explain communion to a non-Catholic? Wine transmuted into the blood of Christ, the wafer into his body? Dude, that’s thinly veiled cannibalism. I know I’m not being fair, but if you really think about it . . .

Thaipusam in Singapore's Little India

As I matured I have found the various religions and their practices fascinating and I respect those who have the kind of faith and passion that I’ve seen in various religious practices around the world. But, I’ve never felt that faith or passion myself except when I’ve been in the mountains or by the ocean or watched a violent thunderstorm. I guess I have always been a little skeptical of people I knew who went to church every week but who were generally nasty people. Hypocrisy and contradiction I’ve seen all through religion and “religious” experiences. I subscribe to the notion that if Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha returned to earth today they would be appalled at what has been done in each of their names. I believe what they‘d say to people would be like the lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where the speaker says, “That is not what I meant at all. /That is not it, at all.”

I’ve heard people from the religious right call liberals “godless.” If one does not subscribe to their own particular brand of religion or religious beliefs then “that person” is godless, and will be damned to hell—at least he/she won’t get to heaven. The religious way is the only way—the participants believe they have cornered morality. Growing up as I did in conservative Nebraska I was exposed to radical right wing religious lunacy. The family of one of my friends on the swimming team was Christian Scientist. They tried to pray away his little brother’s stomachache, not taking him to the doctor because they “believed” that prayer would save him. He died when his appendix ruptured. Yeah, the power of prayer really fixed him right up.

I don’t care what people believe. Whether it’s Christ, Buddha, or Cozmic Muffin. I don’t care, as long as they don’t push their particular religious beliefs on me. I’m glad that religion gives a lot of people comfort. I’m happy that they have faith that it will all be okay. It’s good that they find relief in the words of their holy texts. But I’ve been all around the world and been in Jewish Temples and Synagogues, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Protestant Churches, Buddhist, Hindu, and Chinese Temples. I’ve been to Islamic weddings and funerals. In every case I’ve always treated the various religious practices with interest and respect. And in most cases the people I saw “practicing” their religions didn’t try to convert me.

Me in India with Holy Man--1978

I believe religion is and should be personal. One thing I do love about the Jewish religion is that we are supposed to have a private relationship with God. In Jewish plays and musicals the characters talk to God in quite personal terms. I like that. I believe that God (if there is one) understands my skepticism and my frustration with the hypocrisy and contradictions of the organized religions I have seen. I identify completely with a bumper sticker I’ve seen around: “I have no problem with God; it’s his fan club I can’t handle.”

In her editorial Cohen writes that the religious right finds justification for its views in the bible, and the religious left can do the same. But, morality is one’s own principles of right and wrong, not necessarily found in the bible. And from this Cohen forms her point that we shouldn’t find justification from religion. Cohen is an atheist and believes that one can be guided by moral principles without being religious. I completely concur.

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