Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reason vs. religion

I've been reading a lot of Less Wrong (a site that tries to educate people on rationalism) lately. They love to hate on religion there.

Today in church I was thinking about why I was there. There are many decisions, like what to do with money and how to teach science in schools, that I think people should make rationally. But there are other decisions, like what to with your Sunday morning, that I think people should make without too much tizzy about what would maximize utility.

I think anti-theism people ignore some useful functions of religion. I like church for one of the same reasons I like social work: it gives people space to think and talk about important things. There are very few spaces where we are invited to do that. It's good to ask ourselves periodically, "Am I treating my loved ones well?" "Is the way I live my life consistent with my values?" "Am I focusing on what's really important?"

I don't think religiosity has much of an effect on most people's daily lives. Most people seem to act like they want to act, and then pick and choose from their religious traditions to explain it. But I think religion sometimes gives us tools to become better people. In social work school we're certainly taught to ask about people's spiritual life and play up any strengths that offers them.

When we pause for silent grace before dinner, many times I've refrained from a bitter comment by remembering the Christian meal blessing: Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Not because I actually believe in Jesus as the incarnation of love, but because I can imagine what it would be like to believe that. For me, it's less effective to think "I should be kind" than to imagine the god of love actually sitting at my table. And if that kind of imagination helps me be a kinder person, what's wrong with it? The need to take everything absolutely literally, and to rail against any thought that is not literally true, seems strangely inflexible to me.

I also think church broadens my view of who "us" is. I like that the liturgy includes praying for people with mental illness, homeless people, people getting divorces, people who are sick, people who lost their jobs. Society's usual method is to power on and pretend these problems don't exist. I like that in church we can acknowledge these as things that happen to people we know, people who are us. My defense mechanism is to pretend that I can somehow avoid any of these problems by living my life properly. The prayers remind me of reality: bad things happen to good people. Our response should not be to ignore it, but to stick together and help get each other through those bad things.

Lastly, group singing. And potlucks. Rationalists, how good are your potlucks? (There was a meetup in Cambridge this evening at a restaurant, but I didn't go because I don't consider most restaurants a rational use of money. Also, I thought you might be jerks.)


Mary Harvest Kitchen said...

I think this is my favorite post of yours ever. The last paragraph makes it.

Julia Wise said...

One thing I learned from your family is that some people do use faith as a tool to be better. Thanks for that lesson.
love, me.

Nisan said...

I've met Jim, Kate, and Dan of the Cambridge meetup. They're good and decent people.

Julia Wise said...

Thanks, Nisan. I do actually plan to go to the next meetup (which is not in a restaurant).

Jeff said...

Spot on. We're all totally jerks.

Do you donate money at your church? Social events cost money. So even if restaurants in general are a waste of money, restaurants on occasion for social gatherings might not be.

That said, I'm all for non-restaurant meetups.

Julia Wise said...

Jeff -
I put in a few dollars at church to pay for the upkeep on the organ and organist, if nothing else, because listening to that man is as good as a concert.

But in general, my budget doesn't have a lot of room for things on the order of restaurant meals. Most social events I go to don't cost that much money, if any.

Hm, maybe Boston needs rationalist potlucks.