Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Subjective Experience, Dogma and Community

As my four, maybe six, readers know, I attend the Unitarian Universalist church here in Idaho Falls. We're an eclectic group. Some of us are Budhist, some are pantheistic, some are pagan, some worship Norse gods and goddesses, some are agnostic, some are atheist (me, me, me!), some are new agey, and some I haven't talked to or figured out yet. But as I've said before, we disagree about where we come from, what we're doing here on earth, and where we'll go after we die. Put us in a room together to vote on anything from our seven principles to whether UUs should adopt a stance on war and peace, and we'll argue, cajole, debate, and get loud. But again, as I've mentioned in previous posts, we manage to make a loving, committed community in spite of these differences. What we generally have in common is our desire for social justice, peace, egalitarianism and deeper understanding of different circumstances. What's even more amazing is we manage to get things done both in our congregation and in the community at large.

What each of us brings to the community is our own subjective experience. Some of us have felt things or seen things or heard things that make us feel like there is some kind of higher power out there watching us. Some of us have never had any kind of experience like that. Some of us may have had these types of experiences, but written them off as emotional responses to beauty, fear, guilt, whatever. But we respect each others' subjective experiences. While most UUs hold very few things sacred, our subjective experiences are one of the things we do.

We also use different language to describe these experiences. Some people use words like revelation, blessings or spirit. Some use words like dream, gifts or connection. But each of us understands that these experiences, regardless of how biological or not they are, are meaningful to us. These experiences help us cope with the difficult elements of life. These experiences give us strength and healing. And for those of us who don't have these types of experiences, perhaps we scratch our head, but accept that the people we're talking with are sincere in their belief and entirely accepting of our own lack of belief.

And this brings me to dogma. I'm not writing this post to convince everyone to become UU. I'm done being a missionary. I will proselytize no more forever. I'm simply using my UU congregation as a microcosm to look at a broader issue I've seen in my larger community lately. Some of my close friends (one of whom even attends the UU congregation here on occasion) have been speaking out against religion and religious language in all its forms. They've been calling out religious liberals for their "irrational langauge," their "adherence to superstition", or their belief in "magic". Just today I was using the phrase, "kool-aide drinkers" in reference to people who accepted their respective faith without question. So I understand the ease of reductive language. But in the case of larger societal discourse, I find it unhelpful. I worry that we atheists are beginning to formulate our own dogma and display intollerance similar to the kind we criticize so vehemently in some religious sects.

I'm not saying that blind adherence to any ideal is a good thing. I'll continue to criticize religious sects or leaders who I feel are harming their members or certain groups of society. I'm not calling for a cessation in criticism, only for an examination of our own prejudices. I know many faithful, believing Christians and hippie, happy pagans who share my ideals of equality for women, the right to choose, equality for gay and lesbian citizens and tolerance and acceptance of beliefs that are different from but do not threaten their own or others' ways of life.

The source for their commitment to equality is their understanding of Jesus' teachings or their understanding of their place in nature just as the source for my commitment to equality is the realization that this life is all I've got and so I should try to make the most of it for myself and others. But ultimately, we're working toward the same goals. Why would I want to alienate myself from these kind, compassionate and motivated people simply because they hold a belief that I find baseless? Is their belief threatening me? No. Are they insistent that I accept their belief? No.

I understand that religion can be harmful. Boy do I understand. The religion of my childhood and adolescence caused me so much pain as I got older and realized that my goals in life conflicted with those prescribed for me by that religion. I'll be honest and say that I feel the higher-ups in many religions do take pains to control their membership with fear and guilt. But I'll also acknowledge that this is not everyone's experience of religion. For some, religion is nothing but a net positive. Religion has spoken to them and prodded them along the path of sharing and love.

So I guess what I'm arguing for is less dogma from either side. Call for questioning of assumptions. Call for questioning of authority. But don't stomp on someone's motivation for causes that you feel strongly about. Where religious liberals are concerned, we must search for common ground rather than getting hung up on differences in motivation. Even if everyone became Christian or pagan or atheistic, we'd still disagree about things. Why not work more on practicing a society who accepts and thrives on those differences (again, as long as those differences aren't harming people or groups) rather than one that insists on such strict conformity?


JohnR said...

Amen, Sister Lessie! :)

I've been thinking a lot about religious and political dogma/orthodoxy lately, and as we Quakers say, "this friend [i.e., you] speaks my mind." Lately I find myself challenging unthinking and/or dogmatic atheist, Quaker, liberal, pacifist arguments than religious, Mormon, conservative, hawkish ones. I am atheist, Quaker, liberal, and pacifist, but dammit, I'm going to examine and challenge all of those continually.

And I agree with you that we need to find more places to connect and create dialogue. there's way too much division in this country and in this world. We don't have to naively agree, but we can decide that it's possible to work together towards common ends, whatever those may be, and to not solely define ourselves in opposition to each other.

Vajra said...

Yup. I remember to say to myself every once in a while, "I'm a bigot...but for the Left." That is I have to acknowledge that my ability to see what is in front of my nose is just as limited as anybody else.

Nemesis said...

Well said. As an atheist I have always felt that others' beliefs are wonderful if they derive comfort and joy from them, and the faith is not used to harm another person emotionally or physically.

I feel no need to convert anyone to not believe. I try not to be derogatory to their beliefs in a discussion (although that is sometimes difficult).

Even atheists don't agree with each other, though...so I find it difficult to ascribe a form of dogma to them...

Josh Cogliati said...

I generally agree with what you are saying Lessie, but I sometimes wonder if there is always common ground. For example, I have had long discussions with a friend I have known since around second grade on many subjects, and I occasionally think that the primary result has been to discover how little common ground we have. I believe in
science, induction and logic, and he believes that the Christian bible is the literal inerrant word of God.

So sometimes our causes match, like we both thought that the Iraq war was a mistake. Other times these different motivations cause disagreements like over the age of the Earth. And the problem is that when the motivations differ at the root, discussions tend to dig up the differences and amplify them. In my opinion discussions between Unitarian Universalists work better because there are common root beliefs.

I don't know where to go with this. I know I have made mistakes in the past and will make mistakes in the future. I just think that most people have some beliefs that are hard to agree to disagree about.