Monday, February 06, 2006

I Give You My Onliness

This post is likely to be more stream of conscious than I am used to, but bear with me.

I have accepted the obvious conclusion that I am at a crossroads in my life with regard to religion. At this point, the secular version of life and meaning is trouncing the religion of my childhood. I think that a lot of "leaving religion" is really just a phase of maturation. We all reach the point in life when we realize that the candyland version of life we were taught as children is not an entirely accurate depiction of life on the Third Rock. (Of course one can argue that this is an ideal to which we should strive.) Making the leap from religious life to secular life is not all that different from transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and brings with it some of the same concerns. Childhood was something special (or at least was supposed to be), but as an adult you are a member of society with all the obligations of any other adult. For example, at some point, we stop coddling child tyrants and force them to conform to society's (reasonable) expectation of how we should behave. The obnoxious adult-child is not just another spoiled brat, but a deviant.

Is there a parallel with religion?

I started thinking about that this weekend. In Joseph Heller's Catch-22 there is a character named Major Major Major (alas, I do not currently possess a copy of this excellent novel, but I am working from memory). Major Major Major had a rough childhood and is comfortable with the camaraderie and fellow officers of the Army Air Corps. Unfortunately, once "an IBM computer with a sense of humor" (I think that's the quote) decides to promote Capt. Major Major Major to Major, making him Major Major Major Major, the brass has no choice but to make him his squadron's commanding officer. As a result he is no longer able to participate in the squadron basketball games, the one activity he enjoys, because the men are to deferential to his new rank and position. In order to get back into the game, he dons a Groucho Marx-type glasses and moustache disguise and joins a game. Much to his chagrin, instead of the men treating him as an equal, they begin to take advantage of a superior officer who sheds his badge of office- they begin by roughing him up in the course of the game, and end up flat out beating the stuffing out of him.

I think there is a parallel in leaving religion. Both my secular and Jewish-but-unaffiliated friends and co-workers treated me with respect for my religious beliefs (or, more accurately, practices). Once I leave that behind, I become any other person. My position does not demand any respect or deference. Orthodox Judaism (in stark contrast to Reconstructionism) puts a heavy emphasis on being separate and above the other nations. While I never did like this (look for a future post on this topic), I certainly did benefit from it. Despite what many religious Jews think, good people treat religious people with an added dollop of deference. Of course they also treat the rational with added deference.

And perhaps that is the lesson. Part of growing up is competing with your fellow man on an equal field. It is no contest to excel when your rivals are handicapped. To be first among equals is a far greater achievement. That is the essence of transitioning from a child to an adult.