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January 5, 2013
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David Segal: Guest Opinion

Among the choices for describing one's relationship status on Facebook is "It's complicated," a surprisingly nuanced choice for the otherwise emotionally one-dimensional options normally available to users. According to observers of the changing American religious landscape, during 2012, "It's complicated" is the choice of a growing number of Americans to describe not their relationship status but their religious views.

According to surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute, almost one-fifth of Americans identify with no particular religion. But this collection of roughly 60 million Americans is far from uniform in belief or practice. About a third identify as atheist or agnostic, another 40 percent as secular and almost a quarter as "unattached believers."

This demographic group likely will continue to grow as a percentage of the population. At the same time, mainstream church affiliation is dropping, while more fundamentalist religious groups see their numbers continue to rise. This growing bifurcation results in a profound inability to communicate. The "religious" and the "unaffiliated" tolerate or ignore each other at best and dismiss or ridicule each other at worst.

I recently read a religion blog where a user posted this quote in the comments: "Religion is for the ignorant, the gullible, the cowardly, and the stupid, and for those who would profit from them." To be sure, religion has much to answer for, but so does secular society. The great horrors of the 20th century - wars, genocides, crimes against humanity - had few if any religious motivations.

It reminds me of a story:

It was a beautiful day when a rabbi and a soap maker decided to go out for a stroll. They both were enjoying the warm weather when the soap maker abruptly turned to the rabbi and asked, "What good is religion? Religion teaches all these highfalutin morals and all these lofty values and ethics, and yet look at this world!" Without giving the rabbi a chance to respond, the soap maker continued his rant, "The world is corrupt. It's filled with pain and evil and wickedness. So I ask you, Rabbi, what good is religion?"

Before the rabbi answered, he saw a young boy walking by. As the boy ran off to join his friends, the rabbi said, "Just look at that young child. He's absolutely filthy! And you're a soap maker, so I ask you, what good is soap? There's all this soap in the world, and that young boy is still dirty!"

The soap maker protested, "How can you say that about soap? You're a learned man, Rabbi, so surely you understand that soap is good only if it's used."

"Aha," said the rabbi, with a slight grin. "And so it is with religion. We can teach it, and people can say they've learned it, but until they've used it and truly understand the meaning of its lessons, the power of its teachings, and the weightiness of its laws, then - and only then - can religion make a positive difference in the world."

Rabbi David Rosen, who told this story in the collection "Three Times Chai," says he often is asked to justify the value of religion.

"People say they don't buy in to religion because religion is the source of so many wars. They say it's not a force for bringing people together. It's divisive; it's chauvinistic. The world would be better if it didn't have religion. ... My answer is always, 'Look, there isn't anything that doesn't have a bad side to it. Religion is a tool. It's a way to make the world better, but only if we understand its positive, constructive and valuable insights and use them in a way that truly resonates with the Holy One.'"

Religion is powerful, and as with any source of power, some will exploit it for corrupt ends. In the face of this challenge, moderate religious people and the unaffiliated should realize that they have a common enemy in extremists, be they secular or religious. We ought to make a pact, each with a role to play in addressing the problem.

The unaffiliated, for their part, should stop dismissively lumping all religion together. There is great diversity among religious people. For the vast majority of them, their religion guides them to find meaning, comfort and joy and to contribute to their community - and there should be no shame in that. Don't let the extremist minority distort your view of the reasonable majority. We share much more with you than you think.

Religious people, for our part, should stop letting extremists pretend to speak for us. We should be bolder about denouncing religious arrogance and bigotry when we see it. We should not tolerate hatred clothed as religious doctrine. Let us articulate and model a religious sensibility that affirms doubt and humility rather than certainty. A truly religious community should be inclusive and life-affirming, not judgmental. We don't do nearly enough to show the world how religion can be the engine for that kind of community.

If we can reach out across the religious-secular divide to embrace our common values, together forging a middle path that marginalizes extremists, then the future will be brighter and more peaceful for all our children, whether they believe in God or not.


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 5, 2013 09:14AM Published Jan 5, 2013 12:19AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.