After a 25-hour gaming marathon with my friend Angelo (we beat Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Megaman 9 on Saturday night and Zack & Wiki and Portal today), I was invited out to see Religulous with two other friends, Danny and Jack. Danny is a big Bill Maher fan and we would have gone to see the movie's opening at the Toronto Film Festival, but he accidentally slept in and missed the opportunity to buy tickets — oops!
So I thought today might be a good day to talk about religion.
Bill Maher refers to religion as a neurological disorder. I think that's an interesting idea, but I don't know if I personally agree. It's so universal to believe, or want to believe, in certain irrational things, that I think it's just an attribute of the human mind. It's a natural shortcoming that we all share.
I was trying to think of what the root of such an attribute could be. I'm sure it's many things. Fear of losing control, fear of the unexplained, desire for conformity, desire for community, intellectual triage on unsolvable questions…
I am a flaming atheist, myself. Worse, I'm an atheist who took philosophy in university. This puts me in the category of "exceedingly maddening atheists".
But there isn't really just one kind of atheist. "Atheist" just means "doesn't believe in god", which isn't really that descriptive, especially when you consider all the non-god possibilities for people to spend their brain cells on. Not only that, but almost no one is raised atheist, but are rather "born again" as atheists (ha ha ha), and the type of atheist you become is influenced by the culture that you spent your childhood in.
I was raised in a Jewish home. We keep kosher. I went to Jewish private schools from kindergarten through high school. I was bilingual with Japanese as a small child, but it was decided that the family would drop the Japanese as I got older, because my dad doesn't speak it, and because my schools were starting to introduce us to Hebrew as well as French. They thought four languages would be too hard for me. (biggest regret ever cough cough)
There were three factors that doomed my potential as a good little frum girl:
1. My dad's omnipresent skepticism.
2. I don't look like all those homogeneous curly-haired white chicks who went to my schools.
3. Mr. Bagola.
(1) When I was one, and we had our first Passover seder, my parents tore up the city looking for a hagaddah that didn't mention god. Getting god-talk from one parent and cautious silence from the other is not really sufficient reinforcement.
(2) I used to look in the mirror as a child, and actually feel surprised, because I looked so different from how I imagined myself.
The draw of religion in large part, I believe, is the sense of community. People can come together and know that they share a certain set of fundamental beliefs, a certain series of values. They share a vocabulary of ideas. They can manufacture an identity for themselves based on this.
Neither of those things are effective or useful to me. I just don't do community. I have "hybrid syndrome" or whatever, the deeply entrenched belief that I will never 'belong' anywhere. To Japanese people, I'm a Westerner. To Jewish kids, I'm "that Asian chick". My first strong sense of identity, at adolescence, was also my favourite word at the time: "non-conformist". I see this now as the way I tried to own my own difference. I sensed that it was hopeless to try to fit in at my school, and I responded by screaming, "well I never wanted to fit in anyway, because fitting in is for STUPIDHEADS!" It's a strong philosophy, and a tough one to shake, really.
I was already a precocious kid, and feeling like an outsider made me more willing to consider alternative possibilities than the one being presented by…
(3) Mr. Bagola. This douchebag — and I hope you're reading this, ya douchebag, because you're a douchebag — taught me basically "religious studies" in grade seven. He remains to this day the ugliest person I have ever fucking seen in my life. Imagine an enormously corpulent brown toad, with deep black circles under each eye, wearing the same white striped dress shirt every day, replete with yellow pit stains. Then put theatrical makeup on that toad to really bring out the sinking, leathery quality of his skin, the enlarged pores, the bulbous nose. And then imagine an overpowering chemical smell, like someone poured expired aftershave into running sewage and melted human fat in an effort to conceal their combined stink.
To our young minds, we imagined that Mr. Bagola was in fact unable to pass through the doorway of his classroom, since we never saw him outside of it, and no other teacher taught in that room. Probably because it fucking stank so badly.
Physical repugnance aside, the man's brain was made of rot.
When I first arrived in Mr. Bagola's classroom, I was newly transferred from my much smaller school to this seemingly huge branch. I was out of my wits with terror at meeting all these tough new kids. For real, I used to sit in class and suddenly realize that my nostrils were flared, like an animal on the savannah. In such conditions, I fervently believed in god. I was ripe for some serious fundamentalizing.
Mr. Bagola single-handedly showed me the light. Of atheism. By being a fucknugget. At that age, I had nothing but disdain for almost every teacher I met, but Bagola said more painfully obviously retarded things for me to raise my hand and argue about than any other teacher. Part of me wishes I could remember examples for you, but I'm sure the memories are blocked out for a reason.
Oh, and he hated me too, hated me very much. At parent-teacher interviews, he had only nasty things to say about me. He said that I was a "rotten apple" ruining the whole classroom. My parents were enraged by the way he talked to them, and the way he talked about me.
It was during his class that we would do our daily prayers. We each had cute little siddurim, and we'd been doing it all our lives. I used to love tfila time, because in the younger grades we would sing the prayers all together. I always loved to sing. It was the highlight of my day.
By grade seven, we were doing the silent amidah on our own, aka Note Passing Time or Giggling Time or Making Faces Time. For Elana, it was Stare At The Wall And Think About Stuff time. I'd ponder questions like: "Mr. Bagola is so repulsive and stupid, but he's teaching us about religion. This means that anyone can teach anyone anything and call it religion. This is dubious." Or: "Jewish people are so very confident that they Have It Right. But so is everybody in every religion. How are we supposed to know which of us is right? They're all based on faith, not evidence, so it essentially becomes a problem of probability. Even if you only count the three biggest monotheisms, that's only a one-in-three chance that Judaism is right." Or: "Even within Judaism, there are disagreements about how to practise, or what is true and what is false. It's like every individual has a slightly different religion. That means that it's not even a one-in-three chance of getting it right. The probability is incalculably low! And then what about all the possible explanations that aren't a religion? Good god, there's no way anybody has it right!"
And as I'm thinking about this, Mr. Bagola would catch me with my eyes not in the siddur and reprimand me for not praying hard enough. And then I'd fix him with my most scornful thirteen-year-old look and say, "How do you know how hard I'm praying?" And then he'd send me to the office. And I'd march out of the classroom as though I were the one victorious. And I'd show up in the office and say, "Mr. Bagola sent me to the office because I wasn't praying hard enough." "Were you talking?" "No." "Were you passing notes?" "No." The secretary would be exasperated, and I would be delighted to sit in the office in a more comfortable chair and not standing in that oppressive silence.
The absolute kicker, the turning point, the singular moment that made me realize there was no fucking way that there was a god, was when Mr. Bagola came into class and explained to us that the Bible instructs us that all homosexual people should be stoned to death.
That was it. There's really no arguing with that. Nothing can be omniscient and good AND write something that fucking retarded. I was out. For good.
So that was my Born Again experience. I am an atheist, not out of rebellion from Judaism. I love Jewish culture. I almost wish I could undo the revelation I had and re-immerse myself in the blissful believing ignorance. It just got to the point where the evidence was overwhelmingly against any organized religion. It just doesn't make any sense that any of them should be more plausible than the other. They're all equally bullshitty. Occam's Razor is my new god, and he is a jealous god, and he thinks all the other gods are stupid and he beheads them.
It's hard being an atheist. Existential crisis is really shitty. Some very old posts in this LJ mention my struggle with existentialism, and the way I often turn to non-rational beliefs as a sort of "brain vacation" when the pressure gets to be too much. I've always had a soft spot for witchcraft, because it asserts that we can always gain some kind of control over our circumstances, even the things that seem completely impossible to control. And Wicca is of course among the crowned princes of crackpottery.
So I'm sympathetic to believers, I really am.
I also know that there are numerous ways to be religious without being stupid. There are lots of people who find ways to reconcile various holy books with the observations of science. Science and religion are not really mutually exclusive, not at the heart of them.
However, what I really can't stand — what really rocks me on my feet — is anti-intellectualism. And that, at the core, was what Bill Maher was attacking in his film. It doesn't have to be unique to religion; anti-intellectualism is the state of cleaving to one belief, dogmatically, and being closed to discourse that disagrees with it. It's often associated with a sense of entitlement to live in a society where there are no other people who could possibly disagree with you.
Basically, the evil fuckers who give all religions a bad rap.
Fortunately, Judaism has been around for too long and has seen too much to be very anti-science or anti-intellectualism. So Judaism and I have a truce. But some of these newfangled monotheisms — you know who I'm talking to — are still in their infancies (or maybe their raging adolescence) and have a lot of very, very unfortunate representatives, from the embarrassing to the violent.
In Religulous, Bill Maher speaks to a few absolutely godly (mind the pun) representatives from the Catholic church. I'll always have a weird fondness for the Catholic church, because when given a choice I'll always prefer whatever is oldest. As an archaeology student, the Catholic church just has a lot more objects and buildings of interest. They also tend to behave more like Jews in many respects, in their hierarchies and formal approach to answering theological questions. I really think this has to do with being an older religion. You have to know how to change with the times, how to be flexible without giving up too much. You have to have a much more subtle understanding of people and history.
Maher interviews the head astronomer for the Vatican (who knew?), and some random but awesome priest on the street in Vatican City. They were both brilliant, with a capacity to appreciate that the strength of Catholicism (or any religion) is the messages derived when they are interpreted non-literally. Reading the books literally, as a history book or as a science textbook, is just being an idiot. You miss all the good points and hang on to the nonsense trappings. "Literalism and fundamentalism are really a plague," the astronomer said. ("I love that guy," Elana said thereafter.) Those guys know how to rock the faith without being a fucking braindead douchebag. I admire that the way I admire any well-held convictions.
The problem with faith, really, is that it is synonymous with "not thinking", and not thinking disgusts me. Thinking is my highest value. It's really all I do of consequence. I think really hard, as much as I can. I try to know things, whatever I can know, I try. But the most I can really claim to sure of, is that I know nothing.
If you think you know significantly more than that–
I'm sorry, we can't be friends.