“I believe in one God, but then I believe in three. I’ll believe in twenty gods if they’ll believe in me.”
– Leonard Bernstein, “Mass”
Bob’s mother was very patient with me.
Yes, she said, you are supposed to wear the little cap. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t Jewish. And, yes, you should have some wine. It doesn’t matter that you are 14 years old. It’s a bar mitzvah. That’s what people do.
I’m sure that she, as one of the few Jews in that small city on the Plains, had to explain the rituals and beliefs to a lot of people. Bob’s bar mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony he had studied for, drew a congregation (is that the right word for the people who gather in a synagogue?) of many out-of-town relatives and a handful of his non-Jewish peers from school.
Bob’s uncle the rabbi came in from Chicago to speak. All these years on, in amongst all the things I didn’t altogether grasp and wasn’t cool enough to just take in my stride, what I remember was the rabbi’s basic message. A message mostly directed to the young man who was the focus of the day, though he let the rest of us listen in.
Your religion, he said, is there to give you comfort. Otherwise, it’s not of much use to you or to anyone else. Because it can be a discomforting world, to say the least, and humans need something to counter that.
And religion, faith, does provide a lot of comfort for a lot of people. But, because it is discomfort that makes news, it is the discomfort that is drawing all the attention.
Like the Catholics before them, today’s leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is beset by an ever-growing number of reports, accusations and lawsuits claiming that people who have had religious authority bestowed upon them have abused that power to take sexual advantage of non-consenting underlings.
These matters have nothing to do with any religion’s concept of heaven or hell, creation or resurrection, diet or dress. They are the same kind of abuse of personal power that plagues business, entertainment, government, education and any other walk of life.
Except the person abusing their power isn’t just the boss, the star, the person who can make or break your career. The abuser is getting away with it, to the extent they do, because they speak for God. And if that person is raping or groping or just leering and you don’t like it, too bad. It is God’s will. Or it is your fault for having tempted this holy person off the true path.
And, far too often, if anyone has the gumption to stand up and object, the reflex of the religious institution involved is to run the cover-up drill. Not just to avoid the expense of a lawsuit, but to maintain in the eyes of the church membership, and the public overall, the illusion that they are infallible, not only in doctrine but in behavior.
As women gain more power in society, and as sexual matters are less taboo in polite discussion, it has become more difficult for the abusers and their enablers to keep everyone in line. The fact that churches still try is a big reason why the number of people who follow organized religion continues to decline. And deserves to.
In the United States, much has been written about the rise of the nones, people with no religious affiliation (though not necessarily atheists) now making up about a quarter of the adult population. In Europe, organized religion is basically on its way out.
The surveys show that people have not necessarily stopped believing in a creator, in an afterlife, in morals. They are just no longer willing to sit still for religious structures that empower themselves at the expense of the weak.
The people who have left, for example, the LDS Church, sometimes in very public ways, aren’t quitting over disputes about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They are quitting because they can’t stomach the way the church leadership treats some people, mostly women and LGBT folk.
The people who run these religious institutions, not just the one with the big meeting this week in Salt Lake City, are going to have to decide if that’s the hill they want to die on.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, was told that his family gave up going to church when his grandfather had a difference of opinion with the local pastor. Something involving just how seriously one should take the church softball game, and a collision at second base. email@example.com