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David Segal: guest opinion

David Segal
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Recently I saw a poll that found religious affiliation in Pitkin County at just less than 19 percent. At almost one in 5 residents, we are well below the national average of 50 percent. For most readers, this low affiliation rate probably elicits pride or indifference, based on how often I hear people identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” But I feel that many people reject religion for the wrong reasons, and so here I offer a few reasons why religion is valuable to each of us, and to our world.

Spiritual discipline: Most people would agree that spirituality is good, although it’s difficult to define. I suppose it refers to a mix of inner peace, groundedness, clarity of purpose, values-based living, and a connection to something larger than oneself. Religion is a framework and discipline to develop precisely those qualities in us! So why do so many spiritual people reject it? It’s probably because they see “organized religion” (don’t worry, we’re not that organized) as hollow, cold and preachy. They don’t need religion to tell them what to do – they’ll be spiritual seekers on their own.

But consider this: Discipline, rules and limits are targets of scorn when associated with religion, but when it comes to developing any skill or quality, those are the only ways to improve. Imagine saying, “I love skiing, but I don’t want to practice or learn how to get better at it.” It’s nonsensical, but that is a common attitude toward spirituality and religion. The real task for those who care about cultivating spirituality is finding a religion – namely, a community and practice – that enhances it for them.



Existential insurance: Now that I have a son, I’m in the midst of making arrangements for life insurance and a will. Mortality is such an extreme and – we pray – distant disruption of our daily lives; we don’t want to leave our families unprepared. Religion can be a similar kind of preparation: Think of it as existential insurance. It’s an investment of time and resources to ensure enduring connection and meaning. Even more, being part of a religious community gives us a stake in the ritual and fellowship that form a spiritual safety net when mortality invades and pushes us to the edge.

Imagine yourself alone in a raft, thrust into whitewater rapids with no guide, no training and no oar. You might be able to make it through, but it’ll be a bumpy ride, and you’ll probably get hurt. Facing the death of a loved one without the support of community and tradition is like being unmoored in rough water. Of course we’d all prefer to think that it won’t happen to us, but tragedy doesn’t discriminate. You can give yourself and your family the blessing of religion – the comfort, connection and community that enrich our lives amidst joy and grief.



It’s not all about me: Our consumer culture, left unchecked, promotes narcissism and undermines the collective enterprise that has made America an exceptional nation. Religion is one bulwark against the steady creep of narcissism. It can cultivate a sense of responsibility for the common good, a capacity for empathy and humility, and an awareness that self-fulfillment is intimately linked to nurturing relationships with others.

Inoculation through moderation: Though many might be turned off, justifiably, by their experience of extremist religion, doing an about-face into total dismissal is counterproductive. Consider the experience of Russell Razzaque, a British Muslim scholar who encountered a radical Islamic Society on campus as a graduate student. He and his friends who had been raised by Muslim parents were more likely than their nonreligious classmates to reject the racist and extremist teachings of Islamic recruiters. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 2, 2011), “contrary to the insistence of some that religion is inherently divisive and harmful … research suggests that early-life exposure to moderate forms of religion may be a vital inoculator against the dangers of extremist recruitment.”

Turning your back on religion doesn’t make extremism go away. Quite to the contrary: disengaging cedes ground to extremists. So don’t just walk away.

It’s worth noting that nowhere in my case for religion did I defend it based on divine authority, i.e. “because God said so.” My complex beliefs about God surely merit their own column! But more to the point, beliefs of that magnitude are rarely influenced by argument, however eloquent. Personal experience is our best teacher. So when it comes to religion, don’t take my word for it: Join in and experience it for yourself.

Contact Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, at rabbi@aspenjewish.org or 970-920-2536. His column runs monthly in The Aspen Times.


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