Whither the Canon? Wither the Group?

As I review the “successful” religions that have kept themselves alive through the ages, one thing that strikes me is the degree to which they demand that the believer “re-tell the story” and remind themselves of their beliefs.

It is a kind of literal religious “exercise.” Use it or lose it. (“No pain, No gain?”) I was raised Catholic, and mandatory weekly Mass attendance falls into this category, as do commemorative Saintly feasts on virtually every day. These are ways to constantly force members to spend precious moments of consciousness reiterating their beliefs and sectarian affiliation. It not only trains the mind, but the time spent fulfilling these obligations is time that cannot be spent otherwise… perhaps, exposing oneself to alternatives? Do Muslims REALLY need to pray 5 times a day? Idle hands, you know.
Mormonism, reputedly the fastest growing sect in the world, demands extensive devotion time throughout the week.

In fact, this “story-telling” is what keeps any group or community alive. Have you ever joined a group that didn’t have a compelling story, a raison d’etre, to draw you in? Have you ever remained in a group (even ones you were born into, like family or church) when the story turns sour or is not maintained? Have you stopped visiting blogs when no fresh material is posted? J

I lived for 2 years with an observant Kosher Jewish family while in grad school. I once asked them if they truly believed they would be punished for mixing milk and meat, or violating any of the dietary rules. The wife’s reply was a revelation to me: “No, we don’t really believe in the theology of the laws, but we do believe in finding a way to… EVERY DAY… to remind ourselves who we ARE.”

John Mellencamp put it colloquially that religious practice is essential to avoid becoming a feather in the wind…”You’ve got to stand for something, or you’re gonna fall for anything.”

While I argue that it does not make sense to perpetuate rituals upholding unsubstantiated, and unsubstantiatable belief systems, I think we imperil ourselves by too rapidly discarding entire cultural rituals without understanding what went into their creation. There is a lot of communal wisdom deeply hidden in many rituals. A lot of bollocks, too. Separating the wheat from the bollocks, so to speak, is our job as rational beings.

So, where are the non-theistic stories? Where the rational/humanist traditions? Is there an atheist curriculum? If you want to dump sectarian education and traditions, what course would you replace it with? I see this lack of story as a SERIOUS lack in building and maintaining a group dedicated to fostering secular, rational, naturalistic community.

The religionist may have a non-sensical set of beliefs, but man do they teach it, and repeat it, and integrate it into their schools, and proselytize for converts, and denigrate the alternatives, and…
… simply, where are the similar outreach programs from humanists, rationalists, atheists, etc., aiming to give the wayfaring believer structured education, a story to have “faith” in? In this regard – drawing and retaining communities — it is good to have a canon, and some practices (dare I say “sacraments”) by which community members give outward, visible sign to their beliefs. If we non-believers are unwilling to give public voice to our worldview, who will? How will those who seek communion with the like minded find us?

Copyright 2008, All rights reserved.


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