“Spiritual but not religious”

It’s pretty sad to think that the world could soon be without Christopher Hitchens. One of the great intellectuals of our time, he is gravely ill with cancer. I once heard him speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Shanghai, he spent the evening blasting holes in the idea of God and religion while sipping from a huge scotch and making wry comments like “Am I the only journalist in the room who has been to all three Axis of Evil countries this year?” This was either while he was writing God is Not Great or it had just come out, I can’t recall. But while I was in general agreement with his views of God and religion, I thought he went a bit too far.

You see I’m part of the vast mushy middle-ground that considers themselves “spiritual but not religious”. I feel somewhat squeamish about this, like I haven’t thought it through. But actually when I examine this it turns out I have pretty strong views, I just acknowledge the ambiguity between positions. Why subscribe to one school of thought so dogmatically when so many religions have good (and terrible) ideas? The same thing with philosophy: while I frequently battle existential dread-driven insomnia (with a Hitchens-like Scotch of my own) I don’t feel aligned with that school any more than I do any other.

I believe in God, sure, kind of like, well, The Force. I don’t think there is one human-like deity hovering above us in some celestial image. Whatever God is I think it’s beyond human comprehension. People’s attempts to organize themselves around holy texts are really no more than folk songs that have been passed around by different tribes, most telling variations on the same story, and reinforcing divisions that cause us to kill and hate each other. People across the world understand the idea of good and bad (even in China), and everywhere there exists a code of morality (even in Pakistan). We don’t really need religion for that.

I confess that I think that religion really seems to me a short-cut to thinking. This is driven in part by a close friend in high school who I “lost” to born-again Christianity. I have always felt like he gave up on life and just chose that path because it gave him some kind of answer to questions that frightened him but he couldn’t quite bring himself to grapple with. But maybe that’s what he needed. And I know that religion offers a great deal of comfort for people during trying times.

I have equally strong feelings about proselytizing as I do about freedom of religion. I can’t stand people trying to convert me and I deplore athletes, politicians and other public figures talking about God. It seems to me that your faith is something intensely private, I resent someone intruding on mine (usually in the form of the Lubavitchers ambushing me when I get out of the L train: “excuse me, are you Jewish”?) and I think it’s crass to put your faith out on display for everyone to see. But I also feel that someone’s right to worship as they want is a fundamental human right. That’s one of the reasons I get so worked up about the ethnic genocide that the Chinese government is perpetuating on the Tibetan people.

This leads me to another point: the relationship between ethnicity and spirituality. I’m Jewish but I have little or no feeling for the texts and orthodoxy of the religion. But I feel a strong identity as a Jew and an affinity for the history. I think these feelings merge into the spiritual domain when I look inside, at least in terms how I relate to the world and any sense of God. So while a government interfering with my right to worship (as the Chinese do in Tibet) might not change my day to day life, it would interfere with my spirituality and identity.

When I’ve mentioned the topic of the next Junta to people a few have asked me “do you pray?” The answer is yes. Every night before I go to sleep I remember those close to me, I think of those I know who are struggling, I think of global disasters and pray for those suffering, and I reflect on what happened to me that day and almost inevitably my mind turns to thanks to God for how fortunate I am. I don’t need a temple to do that or a holy text to remind me of it.

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