Speaking to People About Religion

So, the tour for Nothing Sacred is underway. I’ve got a few dates in NYC and DC before heading out West.

Very intense, so far. So intense, that I’m thinking of softening my approach.

I’ve only spoken at a couple of synagogues and seminaries so far, but I’m fast learning that people are less willing to consider new ways of looking at their relationship to religion than, say, the Internet. In fact, many people don’t seem to understand that they have a relationship to religion, at all. They think it just is.

This is understandable, of course. We are much more likely to see our ways of approaching work, technology, conscious expansion or even raising a child (subjects I’ve toured about, before), as provisional. We understand that our approaches are mere models – that we’re just doing the best we can. It’s why people are generally open to hearing about ways to engage more mindfully in the creation and modification of these models.

Sure – there were always people who simply thought Microsoft makes the best damn software, period, and that the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ model of child-rearing yields the best results. But even the software engineers developing closed-source solutions could wrap their brains around the notion that open source had certain advantages, and a role to play in the development of technology.

People have much less room for entertaining doubt in their relationships to religion. (This inflexibility is called triumphalism) That’s probably because these relationships are always fraught with so much doubt – conscious or otherwise. Of course, engaging with different models of theology needn’t shake anyone’s belief that there is a God – only that we may not yet conceive of God exactly as God is.

In order to have a conversation about religion, people must be able – at least provisionally – to accept that it’s quite possible that their brain hasn’t yet processed the totality of creation and the supreme being, if it exists. In my book (subtitled ‘the truth about Judaism’) I propose that it is only by negotiating our collective truth that we’ll stand a chance of figuring out what’s going on here. The retort from a student rabbi? What about the people who don’t believe what you’re saying? How does your multi-perspective include the perspectives of people who don’t believe that we need multiple perspectives? That’s called Sophism.

I get why this happens. People take their understandings of religion quite seriously, and don’t always see the benefits of admitting how our conceptions of God or reality fall short of what might be going on in the big picture. Many Jews, especially, seem very threatened to consider whether the events at Mount Sinai actually happened as described in the Torah, whether God actually loves them more or differently than other humans, and whether their many commandments were conceived by sages rather than God, the separate being.

But only by engaging with questions like these can we continue the development of religions that better serve humanity’s needs. Ahh – again I run into trouble, because so many people will argue that this is mere “social justice,” and that the purpose of religion is actually to serve God’s needs. Then I come in with, “if God love people, then what’s the difference?” And we’re back in our debate stances.

It’s tricky. So what I’ve decided to do – especially after seeing a tape of (psychedelics-inspired) Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi the other night – is to lay on a bit of schmaltz. Like fatty gravy, schmaltz may help make some of this reconsideration and compromise more palatable. My attempts at clear, direct logic and iconoclasm might work at a conference of cosmologists or computer hackers, but not in a crowd of people who are already afraid to consider the opportunities for revising and softening their approaches to religious identity.

I’ve got another gig tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.