I've been in the study of religion for about 30 years and throughout all that time it has been relatively easy to avoid answering the inevitable personal questions that come up when people hear I work in a department of religion: Do you believe in God? Is American culture morally corrupt without religion? Isn't religion bad for society?
Today, it's no longer easy to avoid and evade, and the undeniable pervasiveness and unfathomable preposterousness of religion in our world requires more than a scholarly response full of magical hermeneutical formulas or transcendent critical deconstructions. I have tenure, I've published a bit, I'm over 50 and students keep calling me Professor even though I insist they call me Gary. It's time to lose all fear about offending people and breaking down the scholarly distance that, until recently, provided cover and legitimacy to claims of expertise and authority.
I was recently given the opportunity to experiment with this new openness and honesty about religion while visiting a wine bar in Santa Barbara, California, before a Jeff Tweedy concert. In a conversation with a young, aspiring actor who also has a semi-recurring role as a character's voice on a popular animated network show, I confessed that I taught in and was chair of a religion department. When he heard that the faucet turned on, and out streamed 20 minutes of monologue on the topic.
After hearing about his upbringing (reform Jew), courses he took at college in religion (philosophy of religion and Buddhism), and what his friends in LA think about it (lots are "nones"), he finally revealed that he had come to a conclusion about religion: It's all bad, all of it, and has caused awful destruction and violence throughout history. He then turned to me and asked the question I knew was coming, whether I liked it or not. "What do you really think about religion? Aren't we better off without it?"
Instead of my usual, strategically elusive and confounding, reply about definitions and etymology, I simply said what I genuinely think: "Yes, I do agree." When he heard that, my new friend nearly jumped out of his seat and hugged me. He seemed overjoyed, and more than just validated, that someone with a PhD in religious studies would support his new and radical view on religion. I felt great to be so unequivocal and precise. We toasted to religion's demise and left for the show.
Of course after we parted ways I immediately realized that the easy, simplistic, unambiguous answer was inadequate and wrong. The ambiguous truth was made especially clear during the show, which turned out to be a clear-cut religious experience. The ritual experience of imbibing spirits before the show, getting caught up in the collective effervescence inside the theater, listening to and losing myself in the otherworldly music, being riveted by the charismatic charms and talents of Tweedy, reaffirming my own identity as a tried and true fan of Tweedy's band, Wilco... you get the picture. It was religious, but without being a "religion."
Unfortunately, I didn't get to see my wine bar buddy after the show, which was too bad because I wanted to amend my earlier declaration. Religion is bad, no doubt, and a destructive force in human history and in world today. But that's not the whole story. I let down my guard in that bar and did not speak the truth of what I think after all these years in the study of religion.
Religion is complex and confusing. The real danger with religion is absolutist thinking, whether it's believing all religion is false and harmful, or believing that only one religion contains the truth. The messy middle ground is where the truth resides, a place that requires an open mind, a desire to learn more about religion's complexity and history, and an ability to accept the shifting sands of multiple truths that display the good, bad and ugly in religion.