Humanity (and Humility) Over Religion

Wednesday morning I met with the director of the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York City. We were discussing an upcoming trip I’m embarking upon to Budapest, discussing the arts and music scene so that I have things to write about while overseas. Our talk moved to the current state of New York City. He had lived here in the late ‘80s on a scholarship to the NYU film program; upon returning four years ago to assume his role at this newfound cultural center, he was shocked to find out how much the city had changed—essentially, how driven by money the city had become. (Those who live here understand that it was not only residents that are driven; the atmosphere itself changed, giving the architecture, the streets, the subways the same unfettered drive.) Given the current economic climate, he kept stating that the city is now in decline; a great city, still, but given the psychological shift now occurring, never again to be the same.

Decline, perhaps; shifting, certainly. Richard Florida’s recent cover story in the Atlantic points out that the city that is the current economic capital in the world may lose that coveted position over time, but will not completely be disabled by the monies problem. In fact, he writes, “When a place gets boring even the rich people leave. With the hegemony of the investment bankers over, New York now stands a better chance of avoiding the sterile fate.” The “sterile fate” being, of course, what any creative person dreads: the dominance of moneymaking over everything and anything else; the great urban spirit goes Disney.

We are also in the midst of a religious awakening of sorts. One recent CNN article, entitled “America becoming less Christian, survey finds,” points to this, although in a peculiar and somewhat unfounded manner. As one quote has it: “As the economy goes downward, I think people are going to be driven to religion.” The article states that eleven percent fewer people are defining themselves as Christians as in 1990—75% compared to 86%. In contrast, there is an increase in the amount of people defining themselves as not being religious at all.

Outside of the surveying process—how could calling a few thousand “random” people really account for the mind of a nation that boasts over three hundred million people as residents?—the way these surveys is phrased can be downright suspicious. For example, this article states: “The number of Jews in the United States is falling if the category includes only those who define themselves as Jews religiously, but has remained the same if the category includes people who consider themselves ethnically Jewish.” I understand; I’ve known many Jews who cling to the ethnic aspect while refusing or ignoring the ritualistic and dogmatic segments. This is probably more common than not, and not only for Judaism.

As we shift from a market-based economic society into one that is possibly more creative (and more gifting, if Lewis Hyde’s ambitions manifest), let’s throw the whole idea of “religion” out the door and focus on what really matters: the practice. As Richard Dawkins wrote, you are not your religion just because your parents said you are. This is also true if you observe a few rituals but do not adhere to the discipline of your “chosen” path—lip service and lifestyle are worlds apart. To live a religious life does not imply you need to “have” a religion at all. It means you’re practicing your humanity, an important extension of which is your humility. This is the “binding” force of religion in the first place, one that needs to be seen in a country in as uncertain a time as now. Our humanity is what unites us; our religion is a nice side project, but cannot be the focus of an emerging global population that is sharing its economy as well as its faith.

I do not “have” a religion, but I do practice yoga, and try my best to adhere to the principles—the yimas and niyamas; the limbs of Ashtanga, and so on. Because I contemplate Shiva often does not mean I’m Hindu, nor do I have any ambition to be. One need not be a Buddhist to practice compassion; one simply must exercise compassion. The same holds true for a person of any faith. To be faithful does not mean you must have any percentage of the population on your side; it simply means that your faith is strong.

So perhaps instead of surveying people about their Christianity, or their Judaism or Islam, maybe we can ask: Were you kind today? Did you smile? Did you contribute something to the world along your path? Or did you act out of malice, greed, suspicion, fear? These are the types of numbers I’d like to see, and if they’re a bit low, that’s the type of issue we can address, as individuals and as a nation. This is how the rebuilding process begins, when the destructive dance of Shiva has left savaged and plundered a nation and we are left to pick lotuses blooming from the rubbish.

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