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Beyond Religion
December 7, 2010 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is a self-described holy rascal, with an often sarcastic twitter feed. His blog, Beyond Religion, has covered a wide variety of issues, both spiritual and political, from descriptions of God, the relationship between religion and science, the reality of Christian law, and the role of women in Israel. In today's post, he defines and defends the role of myth in religion: “Myth” is not the same as “falsehood.” Myth is a narrative structure used to convey some of the deepest truths we humans can glean. Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived."
posted by JustKeepSwimming (35 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
And atheist Rabbi? Now I have seen everything.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:26 AM on December 7, 2010


And = An plus a spastic typing style.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:26 AM on December 7, 2010


The text reads, “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason.” The sign saddens me.

Of course it does.

The sign - which not so long ago would have been unimaginable - fills me with the hope that religious myths - and indeed religion - have moved one step closer to the dustbin of history.

Your loss dear Rabbi. is my atheist gain.
posted by three blind mice at 11:27 AM on December 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


And atheist Rabbi? Now I have seen everything.

You're sort of new to Judaism, aren't you?
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:32 AM on December 7, 2010 [21 favorites]


"Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived."

He doesn't know any religious people, does he?
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:34 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


What I see being unpacked by most religious people these days is a jumbo sized can of ka-razeeeeee
posted by fleetmouse at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're sort of new to Judaism, aren't you?
posted by Astro Zombie


I'm pretty sure the views outlined in the descriptions of God link fall pretty far outside the mainstream, even for the most progressive Jews. Or maybe I'm totally wrong and Judaisms clerics are a bunch of non-believing radicals.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:47 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, he's one of these, "Oh, it's perfectly possible to be reasonable about religion, like I am, and all those billions who actually believe in these myths more-or-less literally LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR THEM", types. They always crack me up. I think it's mainly the way they tend to accuse us atheists of being blinkered about religion. Priceless, that.
posted by Decani at 11:53 AM on December 7, 2010


The views are not particularly out of the mainstream for progressive Jews. I've heard multiple rabbis say that their definition of god is something on par with "nature and science". I've heard rabbis say otherwise, too, but a god that doesn't directly intervene and isn't like the god that you see all over the Torah is actually a very common thing in modern Judaism, though perhaps not the Orthodox flavours.
posted by jeather at 12:06 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the views outlined in the descriptions of God link fall pretty far outside the mainstream, even for the most progressive Jews.

You'd be surprised at how divergent Jewish conceptions of God can be. It's certain different that the Kabbalists, who may not have thought God looks like this, but thought it represented him pretty well.

But what I meant is that there is a really long history of Jewish atheism. Sometimes it seems like there is nothing more Jewish than being an atheist. So are their atheist rabbis? There's Rabbi Sherman Wine, there's Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, there's the unnamed Orthodox Atheist Rabbi, and I am sure there are more than just happen not to have blogs.

Believe it or not, fellow atheists, it is possible to find meaning in a collective identity and myths, even knowing them not to be true. I am a devoted student of the classics, and I might not believe Athena actually sprung from the forehead of Zeus, but it is a sort of essential western myth, especially if you wish to understand and enjoy fine art, or literature, or theater, or any of the myriad other collective social expressions that draw from the well of myth.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:09 PM on December 7, 2010 [15 favorites]


It's a breath mint!
It's a candy mint!

Tastes Great!
Less Filling!

You got your chonklit in my beanut butter!
You got your peanut butter in my chonklit!

It’s a floor wax!
It’s a dessert topping!

Dan, you troglodyte!
Jane, you ignorant slut!


etc.
posted by not_on_display at 12:14 PM on December 7, 2010


And atheist Rabbi? Now I have seen everything.

A Jewish friend of mine, who says he is "next to an atheist", told me he had nonetheless always considered himself Jewish. He spoke to a rabbi about it, and the rabbi told him there is a long-standing tradition of atheism within Judaism.

Or what Astro Zombie said.

Incidentally, you can also be a atheist Quaker.
posted by orange swan at 12:16 PM on December 7, 2010


But I would change the tagline from “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason” to “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate the Imagination.”

It's a false dichotomy, I think. Our reason and our imagination spring from the same wonderful (dare I say miraculous) organ.
posted by muddgirl at 12:22 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


'But I would change the tagline from “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason” to “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate the Imagination.”'

I suppose the good rabbi is making the point that something does not necessarily need to be true in order to be significant symbolically. In that case, his redesigned ought to read:

YOU KNOW IT'S A MYTH, BUT SOMETIMES BEING SILLY TOGETHER CAN BE A BONDING EXPERIENCE.

or

YOU KNOW IT'S A MYTH, BUT TRUTH IS REALLY EXTRANEOUS TO THE POINT. BE NICE.

...But somehow these seem less than compelling on a "quest for inner peace" level. Quaint, but not spiritually persuasive.
posted by Construction Concern at 12:27 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived.

Myths are not believed in by atheist rabbis. Sarah Palin voters are a different matter.

Holy Books are great works of literature, and that is the extent to which they should be treated with respect if we do not want to encourage people to take them literally.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:29 PM on December 7, 2010


Right on. Literalists, whether atheistic or religionists, are an irritating bunch of humorless and unimaginative sourpusses, poking their sharp noses into places they do not belong. You will not reform humanity by telling them that, um, actually there is nothing to aspire to, sorry, and the exemplars of good conduct, well, they never actually lived.

Their preference to "believe" things that are not "true" (and the literalists' insistence on application of near-mathematical levels of truth and belief to the aspirational and prescriptive) does not mean they are insane, it means that they are humans, like ourselves. Every one of us, however strong in atheistic rationalism we like to believe we are, trails a long balloon-train of "ab-true", even untrue, beliefs. Such as that our partner loves us, that we enjoy living where we live, that we are a member of an online community who care about us, that we actually understand the things we profess to believe, even that our lives have any value. Follow down that last rabbit hole long enough in any given direction, and you won't find anything to support the value of life at all. The value of life is a purely, simply, entirely aspirational proposition that is chosen (albeit rocket-propelled by instinct and culture towards choice) to be believed. Pop those balloons at your peril.

If you seek to reform humanity, tell them a better story. Stories are one of the great sources of power. Literal description is how we as humans do things, stories (and myths are just a kind of story) are why. Not wanting to derail into politics--although it and religion are closely related--but this is why rationalist, evidence-based politics has failed for so long in the face of mythicist attack; the rationalists have ignored, even destroyed, the inspirational stories that actually move humanity. The other side shamelessly promises joy to the world, and we dryly cough and point to a chart showing a fourteen percent drop in real purchasing value. Now if we did promise joy to the world, we wouldn't achieve it either, but we'd at least be able to bring more joy to more of the world than they ever could, and it would be largely due to having promised it. If we only told a better story.

The throne may be empty, but the kingdom remains.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:31 PM on December 7, 2010 [34 favorites]


It never ceases to amaze, and depress, me that so many people believe that reason and religion are opposed.
posted by oddman at 12:39 PM on December 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


While I favorited aeschenkarnos, I also often wonder if our inability to function without a little satellite ring of myths spinning around us just means that consciousness was, in our case, definitely a mixed blessing.

I find atheism more honest, but much more difficult, than being a believer was. It is hard to see yourself in perspective of the whole of an uncreated reality and think "Yeah, it really matters whether I do anything today or not."

I don't know that I can do the atheist-who-defends-religion thing, but I can be sympathetic to the urge. If a vast indifferent and meaningless reality was easier to deal with, we would not be so invested in our coping mechanisms.
posted by emjaybee at 1:08 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm always amazed at how spectacularly religious moderates/nominalists fail to understand that different religions are often quite spectacularly different from one another, and that folks who are conservative practitioners of those religions have radically different and often incompatible ideas about the fundamental nature of the world as compared to other faiths. It is no wonder, then, that reason is also often incompatible with them.

The problem with "Religion-as-collective-story-that-ties-humanity-together-and-gives-us-meaning" is that there are some real shit-ass evil stories out there, and what tool do you use to differentiate the good from the bad, if we've muddied up the creation of meaning like this?
posted by Theodore Sign at 1:21 PM on December 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


He seems to proclaim that the culture war is a shame, and for that my hat is off to him. Too bad that even leading with "Beyond Religion" as a tagline won't stop some people who can't or won't let go of cultural warfare from rolling their eyes at him.
posted by millions at 1:30 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Myth is great, fiction is great, literature is great, picking your favorite tribal myths as metaphorical guides to how to live is great. Discouraging people from taking myth literally is also great, and I think this fellow's opposition is unfounded.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:31 PM on December 7, 2010


the exemplars of good conduct, well, they never actually lived.

Except for Mister Rogers.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:54 PM on December 7, 2010 [11 favorites]


The problem with "Religion-as-collective-story-that-ties-humanity-together-and-gives-us-meaning" is that there are some real shit-ass evil stories out there, and what tool do you use to differentiate the good from the bad, if we've muddied up the creation of meaning like this?

The same ones you use to decide whether to do A or B, every day. We (almost) all have brains capable of reasoning and judgment, so let's use them.

c.f. the Rabbi:
Good science should be used by good religion to free itself from bogus notions about reality: the sun revolving around the earth, creation being only 10,000 years old, etc; and bogus history: there is no evidence for the Jews’ enslavement in and exodus from Egypt, for example. Free from the burden of affirming what is bogus, good religion can then use the tools of comparative literature and mythology and psychology to find the wisdom articulated in the myths it used to mistake for fact. Good science frees good religion from irrationality.

posted by r_nebblesworthII at 1:56 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


And atheist Rabbi? Now I have seen everything.

You should see The Believer
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:49 PM on December 7, 2010


You're sort of new to Judaism, aren't you?
posted by Astro Zombie

I'm pretty sure the views outlined in the descriptions of God link fall pretty far outside the mainstream, even for the most progressive Jews. Or maybe I'm totally wrong and Judaisms clerics are a bunch of non-believing radicals.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:47 AM on December 7


In pretty much all variants of Judaism, belief is secondary to behavior and deeds.

Even among the Orthodox, there are a lot of people who believe less than half of it, or very little, while being observant and perpetuating the religion, and it's not necessarily an existential problem for them in the way that being a Christian who doesn't believe in Jesus might be.
posted by knoyers at 4:59 PM on December 7, 2010


Good science should be used by good religion to free itself from bogus notions about reality.

Oh, well sure. I just don't think there is as much left over after you are done as Shapiro does.
posted by Theodore Sign at 5:50 PM on December 7, 2010


I think some people are missing the point about Myth. Myth encompasses much more than religion. As has been noted, Myth is about Story. A myth is the narrative we use to help define the world and people around us. For some people, their "mythology" is centered around empiricism, reason and evidence-based claims of reality. For others, its a belief in some variation on the Great Hairy Thunderer Supernatural God King. Do you believe in democracy? That's myth. Do you believe in progress? Myth. Science? Myth. Jesus? Myth. Evolution? Myth. Creationism? Myth. ANY assumption that guides your life and how you see the world is a Myth. Just because a Myth is or isn't true doesn't make it any less "real."

I don't think humanity will ever stop making myths, because without them there is nothing but random chaos. We want to sort and organize the chaos around ourselves, if for no other reason than to gather an understanding of ourselves in relationship to to the world around us. That sorting and organizing is Myth at work.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:35 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, myth is just an incredibly loaded word that doesn't work for as broad a definition as you are giving it here. I think this is just a rhetorical gesture used to deflect criticism, akin to "science is just another religion" talk. A pretty damn artless gesture, at that.
posted by Theodore Sign at 7:01 PM on December 7, 2010


In these discussions, I defer to the wisdom of Ulver.

Science is not another religion, and shouldn't be confused with atheism either. It's simply a rigorous way of describing the world through (hopefully) continually improving models. However, one could conceivably argue that rationalism/atheism et al has taken over some of the language of religion (i.e. proselytizing) in order to decry it.

The idea that we can somehow get rid of religion or faith or spirituality is flawed, I think. It seems to be a pretty consistent component of human society. And not an entirely negative one, in my opinion.
posted by Existential Dread at 7:53 PM on December 7, 2010


I was taught that religious myths were literally true when I was younger. I don't call them "falsehoods" now, I call them "lies". We are now in the thick of the annual season of religious lies. The "true meaning" of the holiday season are those lies. People will gather in houses of religion and hear a religious leader tell lies. I won't be among them.
posted by telstar at 4:48 AM on December 8, 2010


I think this is just a rhetorical gesture used to deflect criticism,

I assure, most people who are concerned with the subject of myth are not worried about whether a few jejune atheists online are going to unload a superhero in the sky criticism on them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:57 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you leverage the Myth concept like KingEdRa and Shapiro seem to want to, you defend yourself (and everyone else) from many more folks than just internet atheists. If creationism and the theory of evolution are both beliefs that have the same kind of value, then it becomes very easy to play devil's advocate in any argument involving, well, just about anything; to defuse and deflect criticism; to play the "can't we all just get along" card. What could be wrong with that, right?

I don't think humanity will ever stop making myths, because without them there is nothing but random chaos.

You see how much meaning you have to appropriate for "Myth" here in order for this statement to be true? You don't get to shove the sum total of all human endeavors into one concept (that just so happens to be the one you specialize in, natch), and have it function sanely.
posted by Theodore Sign at 1:05 PM on December 8, 2010


If creationism and the theory of evolution are both beliefs that have the same kind of value,...

They have different kinds of value. They are part of different narratives. Not all narratives are (pardon the expression) created equal, either. Some suck. The real question is, what do you have left when you remove all narrative? Don't answer within one.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:54 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Myth does not equal Religion and I never meant to imply that. To clarify my point above , I'm not saying that "science is another religion." What I'm trying to point out is a belief in the value of science and its accomplishments as a positive good (or any of the other examples I cited above) is a Myth. Science in and of itself isn't a myth (nor is it a religion), but choosing to live your life in accordance with scientific principles IS choosing to believe in the Myth of Scientific Progress. It's a factual Myth, grounded in empirical observation and reality, but a Myth nonetheless. It's the narrative engine that drives your story of yourself.
posted by KingEdRa at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2010


It never ceases to amaze, and depress, me that so many people believe that reason and religion are opposed.
posted by oddman at 8:39 PM on December 7


Funny old world, isn't it? See, if you added the word "not" between the words "are" and "opposed" in that sentence, I could have written it myself.

By the way, oddman, about five years ago you privately emailed me and asked me to explain my claim that a knowledge of science tended to erode religious belief. I responded to you at great length, didn't I? And you had no comeback; or at least you chose not to grant me the courtesy of a reply. So please realise that when I see your occasional no-content, anti-atheist, pro-religion, one-liner replies these days they really don't count for a goddamned thing. Ignoring rebuttals and mindlessly restating positions of blind faith does not impress.
posted by Decani at 2:09 PM on December 9, 2010


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