Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Religious Knowledge vs. Religious Experience

Right on the cover of McNews this morning: "Americans ignorant of religion." Some surveys of basic knowledge of world religions showed that most Americans couldn't name at least half of the most basic tenants of faith -- their own, or anyone else's. Not even being able to name five of the Ten Commandments, or four out of seven sacrements . . . that's pretty disappointing, but hardly surprising. Americans haven't put any value on rote learning of any kind for decades.

Some of the pundits cited in the article blame modern attitudes towards religion, which puts an emphasis on experience and steals focus from real doctrinal knowledge. I have to admit that I think they're on to something. If people base their religion on a feeling of inspiration and hope, but don't have any grounding in explicit principles and rules, it's going to be pretty shallow. It leaves you open to manipulation by demagogues who will twist the religion to suit their own aims. And even if America is a fundamentally secular society, the rest of the world is not, and as we've learned in our recent wars, it pays to understand what the hell people are fighting about.

Unfortunately, nobody agrees on what it would take to fill the gap of religious knowledge. The people who take straight-up religious knowledge most seriously -- by definition, the fundamentalists -- are also the ones who most strenuously object to critical or analytical readings. Ironically, the preachers want you to be able to recite scripture by heart, but not start to question its true meaning, intent, or veracity. And the people with the most interest in open-minded approaches to religion are the ones most likely to brush past the details and gestalt the big picture. "Just groove on the message of Love, baby."

Ideally, we'd like to have the best of both worlds: a religion with flexibility and subtlty, but also with some spine. I am all for people being guided by their own conscience in moral matters . . . but a lot of pain and heartache could be avoided if people just took a few more "thou shalt nots" more seriously. I've been thinking of doing an SKS meeting along these lines: have them write down all the religious rules and doctrines they can remember, and then have them evaluate which ones they really believe in, and how much. What are the rules? Is anything sacred and inviolable?

I believe in rules. Maybe they are rules that you accept on faith from religious scriptures, or maybe they are rules that you carefully evaluate and formulate on your own . . . but there have to be some rules. And we might as well start with the ones that have been around for a few thousand years.



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