I’m going to tell the story of how I lost religion. I had given up god some time before that. The god concept went out the window with science and philosophy. But religion seemed more of a practical matter. It was community, prepackaged ethics, and in the case of some religions, culture as well. But then I spoke to someone religious and gave careful thought to what was said. If you ask most atheists, this is the leading cause of leaving religion.
A little background first. I was raised as a Reform Jew. This is one of the more liberal branches of Judaism, and its central theme is adaptation. The four main types of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Orthodox is a strict form of the religion, frozen in time. Conservative is a compromise between assimilation and traditional rules. Reform is centered on engagement, revision, and adaptation of interpretations. Reconstructionist is all about forming community around shared concepts and values within Judaism, and codifying congregations around that. Reform is very much about letting people make choices for themselves, and not hold tight to any particular set of interpretations of law. Most Reform Jews don’t keep kosher, don’t wear yarmulkes in public, and don’t keep Shabbat. There’s a joke among Jews that The Orthodox believe the Torah1 was written by the hand of God, Conservative Jews that it was dictated by God and written by Moses, and that Reform Jews think it’s an old book with some pretty good ideas. Taking that as the tone of it’s strictness, how could anyone find it objectionable?
It went a little something like this. I was home from college and talking to one of my rabbis, back in the early aughts. I want to establish that at the time I was very active in Hillel and was considering Reform seminary, even as an atheist. A lot of what Reform Jews do is outreach and social justice projects. Even without god, these things seemed important. Also, this guy just happened to be my rabbi, but he’s also a great guy. Kindhearted , intelligent, and loves great music. He’ll wax poetic on The White Stripes’ folk roots while driving you to lunch to discuss a youth trip to help the homeless in New york City. Literally, he is that guy. So we were talking and the subject of same-sex marriage came up. After a bit of back and forth over the religious and historical context of marriage contracts, and how the definition and purpose of it has changed over time, his stance came out. He was all for marriage equality but refused to perform them himself.
And that’s when I gave up on Judaism.
Maybe not at that second, but I left the conversation with that concept stuck in my head. Why support it but not fully support it? Where was the conflict? I later realized what it was, and what the implications were. Morally,my rabbi accepted the basic rights of people to marry, regardless of their sexual orientation. Religiously, he couldn’t reconcile this, and therefore only met the right for the right half way. He was an ally, but only to a point. The more I thought about this, the more important this concept became. I saw that he was a good person who would not do a good deed in order to be a good Jew. This concept of religion, even as liberal and self-deterministic as Reform Judaism, stopping people from being as moral as they wanted to be isn’t an isolated incident. It’s an extension of the way religion itself is constructed. The power structure of most religions are from an infallible authority. Sometimes it’s a cult leader, sometimes it’s a god. The resulting concept of truth, though, is the same. It’s that there is an outside truth that needs to be revealed. Secular morality is usually formulated around developing a moral code based on the best way to reach an ideal, or at least better, social situation for the group. Religion seeks to follow an established and concrete truth. Secularism aims to build and refine a functional truth.
In the case of same sex marriage, my secular values and historical learning made me realize that marriage was no longer a contract regarding ownership of property or, later on, chattel. I also knew that the biblical prohibition against male-male sexual relations had to do with avoiding the Greek social systems of class and subjugation. Now that marriage is a social contract and spouses aren’t owned, there is no logical reason to prevent same sex marriage contracts. So that’s done.
But my rabbi still had that religious law locking him out of fully accepting an updated view of marriage. Humans of all orientations and genders deserve equality. He could see that, and lobbied on behalf of these rights. But he still couldn’t be a full ally. As a Jew, as a religious person, there were these outside concrete rules that have to be obeyed.
It’s these same paths of logic that get you only so far until religion will tell you to stop, or even turn back. I know a number of people have social hangups, to put it politely, that they can’t quite overcome. They believe that women have the right to control their bodies, but can’t quite bring themselves to proclaim their stance as pro-choice. Or they are feminists, but still fall back on placing value on a woman’s sexual modesty and even tacitly slut shame peers. On a larger scale, take a look at the Episcopal church. Sure, they’ve voted to to allow religious weddings for same sex couples, but only after the secular right has been established. It’s nice that they’re tagging along, but if that’s their stance, why wait until now? If there’s no religious prohibition, then what was stopping them from fighting for the recognition of the right that they now acknowledge same sex couples have? Or look at anything progressive that Pope Francis has done2. All of it has either been lip-service, or a long overdue recognition of what century we are currently living in. When supporters of Francis are faced with a long list of places the Catholic church is lagging in regard to basic humanity, the response is often “but look how far he’s come”. Even if he is a progressive individual, he’s fighting against the church in order to catch up to contemporaries. He’s still bound to this ancient, heavy machine when trying to call for reform. And that machine is his religion. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, it’s still good people not doing good, in order to be good followers of their faith.
I left spirituality, superstition, and magic behind with skepticism and scientific method. But years later I left religion behind because of morality. Looking around at the world; the way that rights are getting politicized, how with each minority trying to make a wave of nearness there is inevitably a backlash from the majority, how feminism is alternately regarded as four letter word or a prize to earn, depending on the last celebrity to say it in public, taking all of that into account and I wonder why anyone would hold themselves back from being better people. I personally don’t want to subscribe to concepts that make it more difficult to be a better person. I want to be an ally for the LGBTQ community, for women, and generally for everyone. Basic human rights are just that, rights for all people. But those rights shouldn’t be doled out on the condition that they are utilized the same way I utilize them. And I certainly don’t think that it should be in the context of arbitrary rules, written by long dead men, who’s core characteristics were defining justice, holding power, and ignorance of the natural world. Privacy, bodily autonomy, the ability to marry, and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t matter if someone else’s marriage is just like mine, or if someone else is willing to put aside rights over their bodies in deference to someone or something else. But once those rights are granted, that’s when the control over them stops. Religion’s aim has been, for thousands of years, to keep a strong hand on the right way to exercise rights. That is, fundamentally, a power that should not exist, and that is why I can’t reconcile positive, empowering morality with religion.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, consisting of: