Sex & Love

Kiss Me, I’m Orthodox

Although I am not a believer in gods myself, I do have many religious friends from many different faiths. We who live in Western countries have the luxury of choosing our own level of observance. For the most part, we … Read More

By / September 4, 2009

Although I am not a believer in gods myself, I do have many religious friends from many different faiths. We who live in Western countries have the luxury of choosing our own level of observance. For the most part, we decide individually how strictly we want to adhere to any religious tradition–we can choose from any of them or make up our own, and in my case, we can even abjure these things completely. This isn’t a liberty to take lightly. In many other parts of the world (and throughout human history) this kind of freedom seems absurd and wrong. In fact, I think there are many parts of this country where people think there is too much religious freedom in America (you’ll have to check the comments section). Being able to freely choose a religion doesn’t mean that all religions are choices, however, or that everyone is being entirely honest about why they chose one.

To put it bluntly, are some people pretending to be more religious than they are to get laid? Or in larger, sociological terms, how many people are just going through the motions in order to belong to a group? (All of them, says the cynic). It’s what I think about if I’m ever at a religious ritual or ceremony. I know what the Hebrew prayers mean because I happen to have gone to a yeshivah when I was young, but I think most people who sing along at services don’t know what they’re actually saying, but they do have it memorized. When I was an activist helping organize anti-government protests with thousands of people in attendance, I definitely met guys who showed up at the rallies to meet girls, and vice versa. When I was a student I met people who got involved with extracurricular activities for the same reasons. I know people who have moved, taken jobs, changed careers, renounced their families, and so forth to in order to belong somewhere, to meet the kind of people they always wanted to meet and join the circles they’ve always wanted to be part of. Many of us still recall the great wave of women who came to Manhattan in the last decade intending to re-enact Sex and the City or the crowds of hippies from across the country who flocked to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. The urge to join and be part of something greater than yourself is natural. So how much of it plays into the reality of religious practice? Does it matter if your religious journey ends up at a popular resort, or does everyone have to hike through the woods?

I definitely went to synagogue long after I gave up believing in G-d to hang out with my friends. I even went to Hebrew school in order to hang out with friends and attend a Conservative summer camp (where I cut all the religious classes) with my friends. You can enjoy some of the benefits of religion without enjoying the religion: Richard Dawkins calls himself a "cultural Christian," meaning that he still enjoys Christmas food and presents even though he doesn’t particularly believe in Christ. We still call the days Thursday and Friday even though few of us believe in Thor or Freya.

The search for belonging is powerful indeed. I wonder how many people are just going with the flow because they’re lonely? Joining the army or the PTA or the IRA out of anything but true faith in their cause? As a parallel manifestation of this tendency, how many people never leave traditions because they fear anything unfamiliar? Maybe there are people who just like the fringe benefits, like the dentist on Seinfeld who converts to Judaism for the jokes. Certainly the Catholic Church wouldn’t turn someone away just because they have a Latin fetish.  There are all kinds of crazy cults and societies around the world who know this and have leveraged the need for acceptance in all sorts of ways. There are also those who choose an unfamiliar tradition because they make social connections within a new and restricted group. (I, on the other hand, adhere to Groucho Marx’s advice not to join any club which would deign to have me as a member.) I wonder if anyone keeps track on how many conversions happen for the sake of marriage vs. other motivations. You’d think somebody would have records. As a general rule, if you go through motions in the first place, you’ve either learned them from an existing practice or you’re just riffing it on your own. I’m really not seeking to offend true believers here, just wondering how many orthodox adherents–those who maintain a conservatism of faith–are actually orthopraxists, meaning those who maintain a conservatism in custom. I’d like to think of myself a neutral observer here, because I don’t adhere to any of the above (aside from some family holidays which I suspect I enjoy as much as Dawkins does his own). Motivations are complex, and there’s probably an element of both faith and the desire to connect with other humans in every religious choice. But I suspect there’s probably a lot of the latter for everyday people of faith.