I’m with P.Z. Surprise!
The essay starts off strong with a condemnation of the Creation Museum. Hard to object to that!
Sadly, the essay quickly veers off into an all-too-familiar defense of the allegedly good sort of religion, as opposed to the simplistic kind represented by the fundamentalists. His message can be summed up as follows: “Sure, if you take religious claims seriously then of course you will think religion is pretty silly. But if you remove all of the supernatural stuff and take a going-through-the-motions approach to religious ceremonies and rituals, then you have something pretty good!”
Let’s consider some specifics:
Religious experience begins with an encounter, which is then given form by the imagination. We then turn this form into texts, prayers, rituals, and of course, myths. Communities gather around these stories and continue to use the religious imagination to keep them relevant. The very notion of being in communion with God, whether through prayer or ritual, in believing that a man died and was resurrected, or in eating unleavened bread for a week, is the least rational of endeavors. But this is where its power lies.
Skipping ahead a few sentences brings us to this:
Religion functions because we do and say the same things over and over again, not to prove them, but to keep them alive in a world that demands we respond rationally most of the time. Even the most fervent biblical literalist usually goes to the doctor when he or she gets sick, and is happy for the medicine offered, medicine that was discovered and developed with that old stick-in-the mud, science, the same discipline that helps us to understand our world in all its complexity. Prayer might make the ill feel less hopeless, but it’s reason that gets the healing chemical compounds into the bloodstream.
There is value in tradition, and if that is Bebergal’s point then I can go along with him, at least for a while. For example, sometimes I participate in Passover seders. I don’t really believe that God freed my ancestors from bondage in Egypt, and I definitely don’t believe that God sent ten plagues, or that the Jews fled so quickly there was no time for their bread to rise. I participate anyway. Partly this is because seders are fun; they are basically an excuse for having a big meal. But it is also because I see value in the fact that Jews have been participating in this ritual for centuries, and that by participating I am identifying myself as part of that community.
Of course, this has nothing to do with any desired release from the burden of rationality imposed on us by our day-to-day lives. I don’t know where Bebergal got that from. That notwithstanding, I suspect that a lot of religious people view their religion in precisely this way. The term “secular Jew” is almost as ubiquitous as “lapsed Catholic,” and it means roughly the same thing. For many people religious identity has far more to do with being part of a community than it does with getting right with God. I suspect this is a big part of the reason that religion thrives in small towns. There’s little else to do. If you are not active in the local church, you are likely to have almost no social life at all.
Here’s the thing, though. Religion as a basis for community and socialization only works if there are a substantial number of people within the community who actually believe the myths. It is one thing to have a few people participating in religious rituals without actually believing them, but if that is the dominant view within the community then the rituals will quickly come to seem rather silly. As Bebergal himself points out at the start of his essay, if the polling data is to be believed then a great many people take their religious myths and rituals very seriously indeed. It is for that reason that the question of their truth must be taken seriously as well.
Let us now consider the few sentences I left out between the two blockquotes above:
If the moments we commemorate through our rituals had simply occurred in history, there would be little possibility of giving them new meaning in the way, for example, the American slaves saw in the miraculous moments of the Jewish Exodus story a vision for their own liberation. When ritual is seen as the retelling of a mythological event, then its ability to function as a metaphor is enlivened each time. A purely historical event is static. While it might offer a moral lesson, there is nothing inherently symbolic about it. The mythologizing of events makes them part of our ritual and liturgy and allows us to reimagine them. But the religious imagination has been replaced by a need to rationalize religious faith. The motto of the Creation Museum is “Prepare to Believe,” but revelation is not the intent of the exhibits. The purpose of the museum is to prove that the Bible is truth, and to induce religious stupor it plays on an ignorance of science and what the doing of science really means.
This is mostly nonsense. A story does not lose its power to inspire simply because it is true. Quite the contrary. Why would the Jewish Exodus story be more powerful as a myth than as an actual historical event? The truth of a story does not stop you from seeing the parallels between what is described in the story and your own personal situation.
Bebergal puts great stock in the “religious imagination.” I don’t know what he means by this phrase. Since he sets the imagination in contrast with attempts to rationalize religion, I can only take him to mean that religion is more powerful when it is made up than it is when you come to believe the stories are true. I fail to see how this view of things is any improvement over the fundamentalists.
These quotes set the tone for the whole essay. Bebergal closes with:
The stories of giants, of heroes and angels, become metaphors for our relationship with the world, metaphors that point to its holiness. Whether tales are true or false is beside the point. And to try and make them true in the same way that archaeological evidence proves humans did not attach carts to lumbering brontosaurus is to maim–maybe even destroy–what their real value for us is.
The truth or falsity of the tales is beside the point only because they are false. If they were true their truth would not be beside the point. I take Bebergal to be saying here that religious stories have value even though they are false. But what is this “real value” of which he speaks? When I hear the story of God taking human form, living a sinless life, dying on a cross, and then being bodily resurrected three days later, the value of this story is to remind me that the world is holy? Seems a bizarre way of making the point.
Essays like this always leave me a bit conflicted. On the one hand the world be a better place if everyone viewed religion the way Bebergal views it. If more people started seeing their religious myths as stories designed to make a point as opposed to as the truth about our proper relationship with God, there would be a lot less conflict between rival religions.
But it really looks to me like Bebergal’s arguments are mere desperation. Religion used to provide cogent explanations of the world. Those explanations have been entirely superseded by science. We could either discard the old myths and find our inspiration in the vastly more impressive view of the world provided by science and reason, or we can desperately concoct an excuse for keeping religion around. I see little merit in the latter option.