Segal: The stories that bind
November 1, 2014
"Cord cutters" is how the industry refers to us. A few months ago, my family canceled our cable-TV subscription. Now we watch what we want when we want, through a combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Apple TV with iTunes. We have no regrets.
In our culture, customization is king. Increasing numbers of Americans are approaching religion and spirituality this way, too. I once heard a religion sociologist suggest in America, we are becoming a nation of 320 million people with 320 million different religions. Not content with inherited tradition, distrustful of authority and disaffected by institutions, more Americans are turning away from organized religion even as they remain spiritual seekers. Some seekers are trying to create new religious practices without any of the baggage of classical religion.
A loosely organized atheist group calling itself Syntheism is striving to create and practice an "open source" religion with no hierarchy, no dogma, no god and no gatekeepers. One of the group's founders, Tom Knox, says, "We can freely steal/borrow whatever ritual or concept we want, from any religion, or even fictional religion from books we like. It's not like any god is going to punish us for it" (Rick Paulas, "Can an Open-Source Religion Work?" Oct. 28, Vice.com). Knox and other "new atheists" are exploring the possibility that atheists might enjoy all the benefits of religious community without any of the doctrine.
The "Philosophy" tab on Syntheism's website, http://www.syntheism.org, speaks volumes: It's blank. Click on "Our Rituals," and you'll find some real substance: "At the heart of any religion lie its rituals. They build a sense of community and a shared purpose. We're social creatures. We're drawn to the idea of being part of something greater than ourselves. But the rituals aren't just fun and games. That's not what makes it a religion. It becomes a religion when the rituals are tailored to suit our spiritual needs; train us to work on ourselves or develop sides that make us into better people."
These Syntheists are on the right track. Rituals are at the heart of any religion, and they should help us cultivate our best versions of ourselves. I sympathize with their reluctance to accept religious dogma. Doctrine, if it exists at all, should be secondary to community. Syntheists are also justified in their distrust of religious authority. I don't need to list here the abuses that have been perpetrated by religious leaders. Even as there are new headlines about this every day, it's not news to anyone that leaders vested with authority and trust by their communities, who stand as symbolic exemplars of their faith traditions, sometimes commit egregious perversions of their sacred leadership roles.
What the Syntheists are missing, as are many of the "spiritual but not religious" folks who float from one tradition to another, is the power of sacred storytelling. Like many critics of religion, they confuse Scripture with science, Bible tales with facts. To be fair, some religionists make the same mistake, preaching their holy text as if it is historical and physical truth. Sacred myths are central to all religions because of the power of stories to engage our full attention and teach us about the world. Stories are "an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts" (Paul Zak, "How Stories Change the Brain," The Greater Good Science Center, Dec. 17, 2013).
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Rituals without a unifying sacred myth are like disconnected scenes without a compelling narrative arc. Rituals are not ends in themselves; they are sacred dramas that invite us into the stories we tell. For example, when Jews light Shabbat candles on Friday evening, we bring a story to life along with its lessons. God rested on the seventh day after six days of doing the work of creation; we too, must find time for intentional and deliberate rest in our lives. You can make a well-reasoned argument to someone about the need for taking time apart during the week for family reconnection and recharging, but you're more likely to make an impact by sharing a story about the power of rest and participating in a memorable ritual that reinforces it. This is all the more true for children, for whom storytelling and ritual can lay down neural pathways and habits that make them more resilient, thoughtful, imaginative and responsible.
So I applaud Syntheists and everyone else trying to create a nourishing spiritual life and a compelling community ethos without the suffocating hierarchies and dogmas of old-time religion. But I also urge them not to throw out the baby with the holy water, so to speak. Storytelling has always been central to religion because it speaks to an ancient and enduring place in the human psyche. If you want to capture people's attention, connect them to something greater than themselves and shape how they live and see the world, and you have to embrace the art of telling and retelling a good story.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.
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