Why Religion?

In Defeating My Anxiety – The New York Times this morning, writer J.L. Cowles tells about his recovery from severe anxiety with a combination of talk therapy, meditation and religion, along with small doses of clonazepam, also known as Klonopin. Cowles, an agnostic, returned to the religion of his youth, realizing that he didn’t have to “buy the whole package.” He goes on:

I started going to Catholic Mass every Sunday. I went because of the way it made me feel. I recalled happy days of early adolescence when I loved God….I was aware of the irony that I had taken control of my ability to choose to have religious feelings which, in turn, required me to relinquish control to the notion of a higher power. And a funny thing happened: I found joy in being part of the congregation, a group which I had previously not respected because I thought of them as mindless sheep being led around by a questionable liturgy. Now I was one of the flock. Relinquishing control felt wonderful.

Answering the question “Why religion?” for people who don’t believe in the God portrayed in the Bible is what I’m attempting to do with my blog.

Paradigm Sacred GeometryFrom Cowles’s description, I’m not sure whether he buys the whole package now or not. Many of us either stick with or return to the religion we grew up with but inwardly know we don’t buy it all. We stay for the community and for the family tradition. My story is different. I rejected Judaism in anger at age 18. What the rabbi and the congregation of my childhood did to me would not be repeated in a synagogue today, but I don’t see myself ever returning to Judaism.

Instead, in my mid 30s I decided I was missing something by not having a religion, and I found Unitarian Universalism, which doesn’t require adherence to any one set of beliefs. In UUism, we may define God as we decide to or reject the idea of God altogether, as long as we take our beliefs seriously, remain open to change, and encourage each other respectfully along our various paths. Or at least that’s the ideal we strive for in our congregations.

UUism encouraged me to turn my long-time fascination with Buddhism into something more meaningful, and for five years I considered myself a practicing Buddhist as well as a Unitarian Univesalist, While I’m still a Buddhist at heart, I’d no longer describe myself as “practicing” since, using Cowles’s language, I don’t quite buy the whole package. I have been ordained in the basic Buddhist precepts and take them seriously. My quibbles are over some of the bows and ribbons that decorate the package.

When I went searching for a religion in my 30s, I thought that human cultures had always had one. I now understand that to be wrong. According to many evolutionary psychologists, religion developed as an adaptation after humans began cooperating in groups larger than family units. The theory that there’s a particular God gene may be far-fetched, but the idea of subtle genetic shift that combined with environmental influences over time to make religion an important part of our lives makes sense. The evolutionary rationale, expressed simply, is the need to keep people honest as they work in larger groups — the need for a conscience.

Whatever the cause, I know that I feel that need — to be part of something sacred. After I found Unitarian Universalism, there was a time when a cantor participated in a service and sang some of the holy songs I remembered from childhood. That experience — hearing the religious music of my past in a space I considered safe — did a lot to make me whole. So in addition to encouraging my expansion my expansion outward to Buddhism, UUism helped me come to terms with my Judaism. Hallelujah!

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

6 Comments Add yours

  1. tiramit says:

    ‘religion developed as an adaption,’ now why does that phrase seem to be so meanngful to me and the development of the surrounding ideas? Must be the answer to a questiion I didn’t know was there – just the disappointment for years, the resentment too, with how things appear to be and it was this dissatisfaction that led me to the 4 noble Ts. Thanks Mel for an interesting post

    Liked by 2 people

  2. amiezor says:

    To answer the question “Why Religion?” is one large task, but I think it can be done. The noblest cause, Mel!

    There is merit and tools for the self within religion. If only others would step back and see it from this self-aware state that the NTimes author did – but without the severe anxiety to catapult you there, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lplobinske says:

    It sounds like you really found your home in UUism. I’m glad it helped you. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      UUism has been important to me, but it does have problems. Part of why I’m writing is to address those problems.

      Liked by 1 person

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