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Christian? Jewish? Who Cares?

Michael Luo. "Reform Jews Hope to Unmix Mixed Marriages." The New York Times, February 12, 2006.

In this age of potpourri spirituality, Anique Olivier-Mason, 25, classifies herself generally as a Christian: she grew up Catholic and often attends a Presbyterian church near her home. But on a recent Friday night, she was attending Sabbath services at Larchmont Temple.

This article from the New York Times concerns the efforts of some Reform Judaism congregations to convert the non-Jewish spouses of congregation members, stemming from a fear that the religion is dying out due to extensive intermarriage. The principal targets of these efforts are people like the woman described above, who regularly attends synagogue with her Jewish husband.

However, it was not the shift toward proselytizing I found noteworthy - every religion must eventually drift into evangelism, or else die out. Rather, what drew my attention was the apparent indifference with which the targets of these efforts responded to them:

"We intend to instill in our children a feeling of spirituality in the sense that they can feel comfortable both in a Christian church and in a Jewish synagogue," Mrs. Olivier-Mason said.

...When I go to a Jewish service, I feel like, "This is really great; this is a very entertaining and spiritual experience," she said. "But do I feel comfortable enough to call it my own? I don't."


If making your children comfortable with Christianity and Judaism means that they will be tolerant of both, that is fine, and I have no objection. But this couple seems to have something more fundamental in mind; as the article put it, they intend to raise their future children "steeped in both religions". Does this mean that they intend to teach their children that both Christianity and Judaism are equally true in some way, or that they should identify equally with both groups?

The core absurdity of this is that at least one of these faiths must be wrong about the fundamental tenets of its belief. If Christianity is true and Jesus was divine, this conflicts with the Jewish beliefs that God is one and not a human being, and if Judaism is true, this implies that Jesus was not the messiah as Christians believe he was. The notion of being equally comfortable with both faiths implies that one is also equally comfortable with truth and falsehood, or at least that one does not care which is which. This mushy relativism is naive at best, and dangerous at worst.

If one end of the religious spectrum is fundamentalism, the stance that each and every statement in the individual believer's scripture or tradition is literally true, then the other end must be this attitude of cafeteria spirituality, where beliefs and traditions from many religions are freely mixed based on what the individual finds appealing. I realize that this approach has certain things to recommend it - for instance, it does not share the militant intolerance of fundamentalism - but it owes little to common sense. This is all the more true when the mingled beliefs directly contradict each other, as in this case.

I have said elsewhere that one of the reasons I oppose religion is that it drives apart people who could otherwise be happy together. In that sense, I think it is a good thing that these interfaith couples are able to live together peacefully. But they are doing it in a very strained and convoluted way - by adopting beliefs that are fundamentally at odds and then disregarding the implications of those beliefs. Would it not be far simpler and more rational to simply discard these beliefs altogether and live as happily married human beings, with no invisible supernatural wedges between you and your partner?

Of course, this does assume that people choose their religious beliefs based on the facts, and I am well aware that this assumption is largely false. Indeed, I have never met a religious person who carefully investigated several faiths and then made their choice based on which one they believed most likely to be true. Instead, people almost always choose their religion based on which one they grew up with, or which one is most prevalent in the area where they live, or which congregation makes them feel most welcomed. Evidence is rarely more than an afterthought, if it is presented at all. In such an atmosphere, when decisions are made primarily for emotional rather than rational reasons, the occurrence of syncretism should be expected - even syncretism among blatantly incompatible faiths.

Both fundamentalism and cafeteria theism thrive because most people elevate faith over reason as a basis for decision-making. If this method leads us to the truth, it can only do so by accident. And when it freely combines elements of incompatible belief systems, it cannot hope to do even that. Our society is searching for emotional comfort and belonging at the expense of the truth; but we have largely forgotten that the truth is itself valuable, and deserves to be sought, both for its own sake and for the more enduring comfort it brings us. Until our society stops choosing its religions based on whether they make us feel good, and regains the Enlightenment focus on what is true and real, we can never hope to find a solid and lasting happiness that is not the happiness of illusion.

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