As I stated on the “About This Website” page of this website, “First Amendment issues and tolerance of differences are of considerable importance to me…”. I believe that that’s true because of my ancestors who were persecuted (one even was killed) because people felt they had a religious/civic duty to destroy those they weren’t confident believed what they did. Yes, there are a variety of explanations for the Witch Trials in Salem in 1692, but, based on my own somewhat limited study, it seems to me that all of them revolve around the idea that these folks didn’t totally conform to all of the socio-religious-political norms of that rather theocratic society. And I think that may have a good deal to do with my difficulties with organized religion.
Now, I am NOT a religious scholar. As a child, I was introduced to religious ideas by my parents. They, for a time, attended a Unitarian church in Evanston, IL, where I grew up. I seem to remember having good experiences there, but I must confess that I don’t remember much about religion from those days. As a teenager, I was active in the youth group of the Covenant Methodist Church in north Evanston with a number of my friends and participated in that group’s activities. I was a member of the Boy Scout troop that church sponsored and eventually joined the Methodist Church, although probably more for social than truly religious reasons. I did take a brief, high intensity Comparative Religion course late in my college career, where we studied a variety of Eastern and Western religions, so I got some, quite limited, exposure to a variety of spiritual traditions through a somewhat “scholarly” approach, if at a somewhat superficial level.
And, of course, it is impossible to have studied the history and development of Western theatre and dramatic literature without being exposed to the religious beliefs and practices which had a profound influence on almost every aspect of Western thought for most of that development. After all, we are reasonably sure that theatre developed out of religious-based practices, to some significant degree, even before it became a formalized part of the worship of Dionysus in the Classical Greek period. While religious influence may have been somewhat lessened during the Roman-dominated era which followed, it does appear that there were religious aspects to at least some Roman theatrical events, and the early Christian Church was concerned enough about the influences of these “pagan” events (to say nothing of the fact that some Roman theatricals openly mocked Christian beliefs and practices) that the Church, effectively, banned theatre, and many other artistic influences, for several centuries (the “Dark Ages”) as the Church consolidated its power in Western Europe and beyond.
In what may be the most amazing about-face in history, however, the church eventually turned to what can only be called theatre as a means of spreading its message (the Quem Quaeritis trope and its adoption as a playlet) about 950 C.E. From that little “skit” (see the Regularis Concordia) developed the Mystery and Miracle plays of the Gothic era and the entire history of Western theatre, which has come down to us. That’s to say nothing of the influence the Church had on painting, sculpture, architecture, music, etc.
All of this is just to indicate that, while I lack much formal education in religion, it has been an integral part of the things I have spent my life doing, as it seems to me that it’s essential to understand the ideas and forces which create theatre and drama, if one is to understand that theatre and drama; and it seems essential to understand it, if one is to present it effectively.
A good part of what I have learned about religious beliefs in general is that: 1.) They are personal. They are just so many words unless they have a significant effect on one’s actual behavior. If one doesn’t ACT on those beliefs, they can’t really be called “religion.” 2.) The underlying principles of all religions seem to be very similar. They may express the ideas a bit differently, but all of them seem to espouse the ideas that we should be kind to one another, do good deeds whenever possible (do no harm), speak the truth, respect one another, forgive others whenever possible, try to do and be peaceful to others and one’s self. I can’t, and have no desire to disagree with these ideas. So what’s my problem?
I think that my difficulty with religion starts to develop not with overall beliefs, but with religious organizations -- churches. Okay, a “church,” in this sense, is a community of fellow believers organized along a set of common practices, beliefs, etc. If we are going to have an organization, then we, by definition, have members (who subscribe to the “rules” of the organization) and non-members (everybody else). I think that’s where my difficulty lies. If we start out by separating the world into “fellow members” and “everybody else,” we have established an automatic level of discrimination. We are the “members,” the right ones, the holders of the “real” truth, while everyone else, who might be of some value, are different, not right, not followers of the “real” truth. Of course, one could extend this down to the completely personal stage, “all are equal, but some are more equal than others, and none are equal to me,” but I won’t go there.
On the other hand, while this notion of “we’re correct” may be easy to understand, it, far too many times, leads to the notion that, since “we” are “correct” and “proper,” it’s our right to attempt to get other people to become one of “us, correct ones.” Whether you call it evangelizing, proselytizing, missionizing, or something else, what it boils down to is a belief that it’s right and proper for us (“correct” ones) to try to get others to become part of “us,” even when they are perfectly happy doing their own thing. And, of course, if their lives are less than perfect, by our definition of perfect, then we are supposed to “save” them by encouraging/requiring them to conform to our beliefs. I have a problem with that.
Not being strongly “church” oriented, I tend towards the idea expressed by the character Jubal Harshaw in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land that “A desire not to butt into other people's business is at least eighty percent of all human 'wisdom'...and the other twenty percent isn't very important.” I take this to mean that we are most likely to be wise, when we accept that others have the right to live their lives without us (or anyone else) telling them what they are “supposed” to do, think, feel, etc. By the way, that’s what I think the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”) is really all about. If one were to simplify it down to its absolute basics, it says to just leave people alone to believe, practice, and say what they wish, unless that somehow causes direct damage to the general society.
No, I don’t support human sacrifice, ritual rape, torture, etc., in the name of religion (although all have been justified on that score), nor do I advocate yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. On the other hand, virtually all wars for a good many centuries have been fought with God on both sides, at least if you ask the leaders, and the same is true today. Even within larger religious communities, wars have been (and still are being) fought over which particular set of beliefs are in fact the “proper” ones. As a consequence, Protestants (assuming that they can get along with each other, which hasn’t always been the case) mistrust Catholics (where, exactly Orthodox Christians fit in isn’t clear, but they are probably distrusted by both of the other major branches of Christianity); Shia don’t’ like Sunni Muslims; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews have various disagreements among themselves, and; when you consider the influence that religion has on politics, things get even more complicated and dangerous. That doesn’t even start to consider the notion of “the state as religion,” which seems to be the situation of a few nation-states (North Korea and China, come to mind as possibilities), and which at least has the potential of making things even more complicated and dangerous.
That’s not to say that I think organized religion is, in all cases, a bad thing. Religious organizations can, and have, done many good things from which society has benefited. Providing shelter, food, clothing for those in need is a good thing, as is the offering of spiritual comfort. See, I’m not against a willingness to try to help spiritually, but I’m not in favor of religion being forced on people in need. The Red Cross (and Red Crescent) provides much assistance throughout the world, but doesn’t insist that it comes with your willingness to pray with them. I think that that sort of attitude violates the thinking behind Matthew 6, 5-6 (a biblical passage I’m rather fond of) which suggests that public prayer is, really, its own reward and that real prayer should be in private.
Naturally enough, I think MY ideas are correct and that the world would be a better place if more people agreed with me. That’s probably an essential ingredient to being alive and self-aware (having an ego). However, while I think I would enjoy knowing more about others thinking about these sorts of things, I’m not really looking for supporters. At my age I’m not trying to start some sort of “movement,” political or religious. I’m just struggling to put into words some of the things which have been kicking around in my head for a while and which I thought I might help clarify by writing them out. If they are of any interest to anyone else, so much the better, if it leads to some dialogue and/or discussion, better still. After all, that’s the sort of thing which allows us to