David Segal: Guest opinion
June 2, 2012
Last month in this column, I wrote a modest defense of religion. I based my argument not on authority or dogma but instead on the positive value religion can have in our lives by helping us cultivate discipline, meaning, humility and moderation.
The article elicited a wide range of responses, and I’d like to comment this month on one category of the critical feedback I received. The critique goes something like this: You should stop wasting everyone’s time with silly stories (the Bible) and words that no one believes (prayer). This critique of religion holds rationalism in such high esteem that very little can stand in its way. Since a literal reading of the Bible doesn’t stand up to historical or scientific verification, it must be rejected wholesale. So too does this critique reject the language and practice of prayer because in the eyes of reason, prayer is delusional and ineffective. People who engage in these practices and beliefs must be weak-minded; that they need the fantasy of religion reveals their inferior intellect.
I was reminded of an axiomatic version of this critique, that “religion is a crutch.” For those who need to rely on such things, so be it, but for those who can rise above it through the force of their independent thought and will, religion is just pablum for children. This attitude is in good company with the likes of Nietzsche, Marx and Ayn Rand, who shared a disdain for religion. Since they defined religion narrowly as an irrational dogma with outdated practices, it’s no wonder they saw it as something for the exceptional individual to transcend and as an “opiate of the masses.”
I shared this idea with my congregation a few weeks ago, and then I asked for a show of hands of those who had ever used crutches. At least 75 percent raised their hands, perhaps higher than the national average because of the bone-breaking lifestyles of valley residents. But then I pointed out, to many nodding heads, that crutches are incredibly useful! When you break a leg, you rely heavily on crutches to get on with your life. They help you get back into the world and to heal. They are a valuable tool to restore wholeness and to fix brokenness.
Those who say “religion is a crutch” as a criticism of religion have too low an opinion of crutches! Religion, like crutches, can be a valuable tool for bringing healing and wholeness. Anyone who has sought out pastoral support or a religious community in a time of grief or illness can attest to this. When we lose a loved one or struggle with our health, we need crutches to help heal the brokenness of body and brokenness of spirit that we experience in the wake of suffering and loss.
But religion is not only useful in times of illness and mourning. For as human beings, we are all broken in some way. Some of us struggle with addiction, some with complicated family relationships, some with feeling lost or purposeless. Where are you broken, in need of a crutch? Often, we keep this brokenness private, mistaken in the assumption that we’re alone. A religious community and practice can help heal those broken places and remind us that we’re not alone. In the day-to-day moments, as well as in moments of crisis, it’s a crutch we can depend on.
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In addition, anyone who has had to walk with crutches has no doubt gained a new appreciation for healthy, working legs. Religion, similarly, can increase our capacity for gratitude and joy. It can enrich our life experiences, in celebrating births, weddings, and other rites of passage. And it can deepen our ability to see miracles every day that might otherwise be obscured by routine.
Religious ritual, prayer, and storytelling are not silly or delusional. Rather, they speak to us as whole people in a way that reason alone cannot. Religion is not the only venue for finding community; clubs, teams, families, and friends can all perform this function. But none of these groups embraces the totality of human life – the joy and grief, crisis and celebration, brokenness and wholeness – as holistically as a sacred community can. Those who reject religion should not lose sight of the essential human need for community. They should spend less time tearing down the life-affirming practices of others, and more time contributing to the positive community of their choice.
I’d like to end with a quote by Kathleen Norris, shared with me by my friend and colleague Rev. Jane Keener-Quiat of the Aspen Community Church: “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.” Once we accept with humility that we don’t have all the answers, we can open our hearts to the possibility of being honest about our brokenness – and then find joy, comfort, and inspiration by leaning on the crutch of community.