Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

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That’s mom, circa 1950

W.J. Astore

Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother.  She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer.  When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:

You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.

Excellent advice.  Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.

When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.  And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push.  “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.”  “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”

My mom was having none of that.  She also didn’t need church to do the right thing.  She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.

When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices.  Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses.  Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news.  When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.

That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.

Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in.  Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.

Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”

26 thoughts on “Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

  1. Well Lt.Col Astore, my advice to you would be to stick to geopolitics, not religion. You’ve shown me to be intelligent, but not wise. The Holy Bible is not a menu where you can pick and choose the parts you like. It is the one God’s inspired word and all of it is of importance. Being a good person is not perfection, therefore sin is a factor for all humans, including your mother.

    Your comments show a certain shallowness of knowledge regarding God’s word. I will keep you in my prayers.

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    1. The Christian faith teaches us only one human was perfect: Christ. So I agree with you.

      The Bible is incredibly complex. Are we talking Old Testament or New Testament? The Gospel (the words of Christ) or those of the apostles? And who gets to interpret the Bible? The one holy and apostolic church (the Roman Catholic hierarchy)? Various Protestant sects? Only the “holy”? As an individual, can I read Christ’s words and determine which of His teachings is most important? I might conclude, for example, that Christ’s two great commandments (to love God and thy neighbor) form the essence of faith, and the inspiration for good works. All else pales in significance compared to those two teachings, or so it seems to me.

      You say the Bible is not a menu where people pick and choose, but that is exactly what people have been doing for thousands of years. Consider all the Christian sects that exist, and all of them have slight (or major!) disagreements over what the Bible means.

      Thanks for your prayers. That is generous indeed! Most people pray for themselves, not for others. I recently saw a saying that was quite astute on prayer: God hears all prayers — and sometimes His answer is “No”!

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      1. The United States is a secular country and religion has no place in agency of the US Government. Should the Congress of the United States declare through the United Nations the end of all support for the State of Israel, then there could be peace in the international community. The United States emulates the Weimar Republic prior to the National Socialist German Worker’s Party assuming the control of the German Government. The United States Government must end any association with religion. Citizens can still pay their tithes and worship whatever they want but they can not receive tax exempt from the Internal Revenue Service.

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  2. When I left advertising, I opened a frame & furniture shop, and a client was Elizabeth Shoumatoff, portrait painter when FDR died. Though she already had America’s ‘1%’, in the palm of her hand, this Russian victim of the Bolshevik’s never left behind her strong Russian Orthodox beliefs. She was definitely the most truly religious person I’ve met, in a very abstract way, and I can’t remember her ever quoting the Bible, just, rarely, the Gospel’s. Hardly “sanctimonious”, her favorite word for those she made fun of, she joked about the local Orthodox Church she “did more maintenance than attendance”. Translation: She was an easy touch for repair bills and parishioners having financial/health troubles.
    She built a new fortune, out of an aristocratic hobby, first one being robbed, yet never gave herself credit, nor had bitterness: “It is my belief.” She must have been right, because she had a great sense of humor! So do her grandchildren I’m still in touch with! We laughed her love for staff, yet was very simple: “I can’t afford to wash the dishes!”

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  3. As far as concerns Mr Grimm and his “advice” to Professor Astore: namely, that the latter gentleman “stick to geopolitics, not religion,” I can offer no rebuttal more to the point than the following from someone who knew his religious history:

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” — Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814

    In other words, not to recognize historical religion as the principal political partner of tyrannical temporal despotism — and the Catholic (“Universal”) Christian church in particular as the very examplar of geopolitics — reveals a rather remarkable unfamiliarity with the millennia-long history of the Christian religion as actually practiced. In other words:

    “With the advent of Christianity, personal responsibility was given back to the external and supernatural, and the command of God and the Devil. Reason returned for a brief brilliant reign in the 18th century, since when Freud has brought us back to Euripides and the controlling power of the dark, buried forces of the soul, which not being subject to the mind are incorrigible by good intentions or rational will. ” Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly (1984 )

    Someone else who knows this history of political religion (pardon the redundancy), especially as concerns the intellectually imploding, contemporary United States of Amnesia has warned us:

    “The excesses of fundamentalism, in turn, are American and Israeli, as well as the all-too-obvious depredations of radical Islam. The rapture, end-times, and Armageddon hucksters in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollas, and the last two presidential elections mark the transformation of the GOP into the first religious party in U.S. history.” — Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: the peril and politics of radical religion, oil, and borrowed money in the 21st century (2006)

    So let us hear no further nonsense about politics having no connection to religion, especially as regards so-called “Christianity” in the United States: the greatest geopolitical threat to civilization since the Visigoths and Vandals sacked Rome not long after Emperor Constantine forced his loyal pagan subjects to adopt Christianity as the Imperial religion. It took centuries to recover from that catastrophy. We really shouldn’t go through that again, not when simply remembering our political/religious history would advise us to take a more secular, informed, and scientific course out of the darkness and into the light.

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  4. All religions suffer from the same thing. The burning need to convert you to their way of thought no matter what. If you don’t, they all hope they can burn you at the stake. And take out your family and friends. None of them can mind their own business. They all want to mind yours. The best religion is no religion. If you need to believe in the tooth fairy to carry on and have a life, I should, but I don’t feel sorry for your ignorance.

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    1. The truly important question does not deal with religion, per se, but the inculcation of habits which will form the basis of our actions. The late-nineteenth-century scientist, philosopher, logician, and semiotician, Charles Sanders Peirce, explained all this in The Fixation of Belief, Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15, one of the foundational essays of the modern mind.

      In brief, we form habits which guide our future actions according to four methods: Tenacity, Authority, a priori Reasoning, and the Scientific Method. Religion relies on the first two of these, Theology the third, and the fourth should need no explanation in the twenty-first century — or any century after Galileo for that matter.

      Still, those who wish to utlize religion to coerce others into behaving credulously in the face of demands for their subservience to political and economic power will not rest until all doubt ceases to exist and with doubt’s demise, all studied and methodical inquiry into the nature of the real world in which we actually live. After all, the foundatonal myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition involves the “original sin” of simply trying to learn. Can’t have any of that …

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    2. Nowadays, I suppose I’m agnostic on organized religion. I was raised Catholic, and I appreciate the wisdom, beauty, and morality of the creed in which I was raised. It’s a part of me, even though I no longer believe (if I ever did) that the Church has a monopoly on truth and salvation.

      I don’t truly know if God exists, or if He doesn’t, but I admire the wisdom and morality of the teachings of Christ, and I admire the holiness of certain followers of Him. But then I admire all those followers of religion (broadly conceived) who demonstrate wisdom, generosity, humility, and kindness. And I also admire those who see no reason to believe in God or gods, if they demonstrate goodness and similar qualities. Faith and belief are ultimately deeply personal — as my mom said, my soul is my concern, not yours.

      I think it was Gandhi who said something like: I really like this Christ figure, but not so much those who call themselves Christians. That captures an important truth. It’s not what we call ourselves; it’s how we act, especially toward others, and most especially toward “outsiders,” those who are not “of the body.”

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      1. Your Mom was right! (Regardless of some of the above comments.)
        What your Mom said is separating worldly toils from Religion, yet religion, or decency for fellow humans must be part of life. You don’t have to go to mass etc.: just treat people fairly. That’s a good Christian! Or Hindu! Or whatever!
        That’s what I was trying to say with the portrait artist: her beliefs were very private: high money WASP clients with Russian icons when she got home. Great division! Between making a living and Religion. We all have a right to that separation between ‘making a living’ and our personal thoughts.

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  5. I am not religious but what really amazes me always is how different religions have inspired creation of some of the most beautiful places of worship, absolutely gorgeous and amazing music and fabulous art…. AND also have been the cause of
    massive death and destruction! Just can not comprehend it!

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  6. Lovely to read about your beautiful, wise and it would seem witty, mother on my mother’s birthday :-). She would have turned 113 if she were still alive. Roman catholic but not a regular churchgoer also for health reasons and while she would not make such a statement, she would have perfectly agreed with your mother and yourself on the vital basics : to love your fellow human beings as you claim to love God and to mind your own conscience rather than checking that of other people. She lived through two world wars including the Russian revolution, had a PhD in chemistry and a promising pre-war life with my father, who was a mechanical engineer and as such part of a navy commission which supervised the building of two submarines in Switzerland (engines) and Holland. After the war they again found themselves in Holland, this time as penny- and stateless refugees with two children, soon to be three when I was born. A small semi-detached house, no hot water let alone a washing machine, fridge or even shower. A coalstove in the living room and one for cooking in the kitchen, the rest of the house damp and freezing in winter. No more car, restaurants or holiday travel, but loneliness – in those times it was hard to become friends with highly educated people with well paid jobs when you barely managed to feed your own family, that has changed for the better nowadays – separated from family and old friends.
    She did all the shopping for five people on foot, washed our laundry by hand, cooked (which she hated) for us and the only thing she had for herself and loved was the small garden. I grew up on bland food 🙂 but always a lawn to play on surrounded by flowers. I have never ever heard her complain about fate having treated her badly.
    Nor my father for that matter, they had accepted the radical change in their lives for what it was and always were alert to the needs of those who were worse off, rather than being jealous of luckier people.
    As the most important part of children’s upbringing is the example of their parents’ behaviour, my brothers and I by and large have the same attitude in life. So I’ll drink (a glass of innocuous cider) to the memory of our wise mothers.
    Or rather parents, who in my case 25 and 44 years respectively after they died, still are a reference, as in some cases I wonder how they would have behaved in my place or even hear my mother’s mild and saddened voice saying :’that was not a nice thing to do, my little girl’. Having suffered from both nazi Germany and communist Russia, they never indoctrinated their children with hate against either and always differentiated between a nation and its rulers.

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  7. I was born and raised a Catholic, attended 4 years of Catholic School (1958-62). The Nuns and Priests were very pro-civil rights and integration. I did not realize it at the time (too young) but this caused a lot of heart burn for some people in the church, who felt Nuns and Priests had no business injecting themselves into politics.

    I am spiritual or agnostic. Early in life I realized Science trumped Dogma- Noah’s Ark, Young earth, etc.

    I tend to follow Thomas Paine: All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

    Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble. Joseph Campbell

    “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
    ― Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor
    ==================================================

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    1. Good quote from Joseph Campbell, ML. I came across his writings while working on a master’s degree in religious studies at a small start-up Buddist college in Los Angeles where I worked for four years (1997-2001) as Coordinator of Computer Services. We didn’t have many students at first, so the school administration asked me to take some courses as part of my job. Since I got paid to study something instead of having to pay tuition, that seemed like an OK idea to me, as long as I only had to take courses in Buddhism and Sanskrit, two subjects in which I had at least some interest.

      At any rate, I came across several books in the library that I found quite useful in the study of primitive mythologies: the classic standard Mythology (1940), by Edith Hamilton; The Golden Bough – a Study of Magic and Religion (1922), by Sir James George Frazer; and three by Josepth Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Transformations of Myth Through Time (1990), and The Masks of God – Primitive Mythology (1959). Concerning your point about people confusing mythological metaphor with fact, Campbell wrote:

      “The two learned disciplines from which the lineaments of a sound comparative science might first have emerged were those of the classics and the Bible. However, a fundamental tenet of the Christian tradition made it appear to be an act of blasphemy to compare the two on the same plane of thought; for while the myths of the Greeks were recognized to be of the natural order, those of the Bible were supposed to be supernatural. Hence, while the prodigies of the classical heroes (Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, etc.) were studied as literature, those of the Hebrews (Noah, Moses, Joshua, Jesus, Peter, etc.) had to be argued as objective history; whereas, actually, the fabulous elements common to the two precisely contemporary, Eastern Mediterranean traditions were derived equally from the preceding, bronze-age civilization of Mesopotamia – as no one before the development of the modern science of archaeology could have guessed.” — The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1959).

      Comparing these late-Neolithic/Bronze Age tales as human-created works of literature, as Joseph Campbell did, would solve a lot of problems. People would still plunder and murder each other for money, fame, power, or whatever, but at least they might have to come clean about the viciousness and venality of their motives instead of blaming invisible “sacred” spooks for their depradations.

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  8. My widowed, working-class mother had a couple of pithy aphorisms about religion that she taught me in my youth. Regarding religious proselytizers trying to convert others to a different faith she would say:

    If you’ve got something good, you don’t have to sell it. Other people will steal it from you.”

    I took this to mean: “practice, don’t preach.” Mom had worked out her own personal religion early in life during the Great Depression. She had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, she said, which concerned only the two of them. No one else need try and butt in with their two cents. Later in life, I came to feel that mom’s admonition applied to American’s claiming to spread “democracy” abroad at the point of a gun while giving away more of their own dwindling freedoms at home every day. If Americans would only practice democracy in America, perhaps other nations would see the sense in that and grab a little for themselves. Not likely, I know, but …

    As concerns joyfully sinful people who convert to religion late in life and then proceed to boast of their own newfound convictions, mom would say:

    There is no one more sanctimonious than a reformed whore.”

    As Forrest Gump used to say: “Momma always had a way of explaining things to me so that I could understand them,”

    I sure miss my mom. How I wish that I could hear her say to me once more, about one of her favorite poems from Alice in Wonderland: “Come on, son. Let’s talk some more about the cabbages and kings.” Mom and I never agreed about religion, but then, we didn’t need to. As far as I could tell, she made it when she came and took it with her when she left. It didn’t concern anyone else anyway.

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    1. GREAT LINES! of your Mother! Haha! God knows I’m familiar with the 2nd quote, being in stressful businesses. Truth in Disclosure: I love the word “whore”! It’s far more expressive than it’s sexual history: you can meet one in a bank or grocery store, and yes a Church. An old friend calls it a “Whore mentality”. When you can identify it, you win. I have! The whores call me “cynical” – no, it’s just fair business.
      Many blogs on this subject; now we must give time to William J Astore to write on the HORRORS of what’s going on in the world. I’m not a “blogger”, but like McCoy, he has something to say.
      I love their content & reason!

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  9. People tend to accept without question the cultural environment in which they grow up. Consequently, they often fail to see how others who don’t share their cultural assumptions view them and their behavior. For example, while studying for my master’s degree in religious studies, I read about the difficult time Roman pagans had accepting Christianity — even when ordered to do so by their Emperor Constantine — because of the barbaric Christian practices that the civilized pagans found distasteful: like ritual cannibalism, for example:

    From The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion (New York: Collier Books, 1922), by Sir James George Frazer:

    Chapter L – Eating the God

    Homeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet

    “The reasons for thus partaking of the body of the god are, from the primitive standpoint, simple enough. The savage commonly believes that by eating the flesh of an animal or man he acquires not only the physical, but even the moral and intellectual qualities which were characteristic of that animal or man; so when the creature is deemed divine, our simple savage naturally expects to absorb a portion of its divinity along with its material substance. … The doctrine forms part of the widely ramified system of sympathetic magic or homeopathic magic.” p. 573

    “Again, the flesh and blood of dead men are commonly eaten and drunk to inspire bravery, wisdom, or other qualities for which the men themselves were remarkable, or which are supposed to have their special seat in the particular part eaten.” p. 576

    “It is now easy to understand why a savage should desire to partake of the flesh of an animal or man whom he regards as divine. By eating the body of the god he shares in the god’s attributes and powers. And when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body; when he is a vine-god, the juice of the grape is his blood; and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine the worshipper partakes of the real body and blood of his god. Thus the drinking of wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus is not an act of revelry, it is solemn sacrament. Yet a time comes when reasonable men find it hard to understand how anyone in his senses can suppose that by eating bread or drinking wine he consumes the body or blood of a diety. “When we call corn Ceres and wine Bacchus,” says Cicero, “we use a common figure of speech; but do you imagine that anybody is so insane as to believe that the thing he feeds upon is a god?”” p. 578

    Not long ago, I read where an ISIS jihadi “warrior” in Syria — armed, funded, and trained by the United States and its “allies” Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel — had executed a Syrian soldier, cut open his abdomen, torn out his liver, and eaten it. No doubt in my mind where that “religious” practice came from. Again, as Sir James George Frazer put it in The Golden Bough, a Study of Magic and Religion:

    This universal faith, this truly Catholic creed, is a belief in the efficacy of magic. While religious systems differ not only in different countries, but in the same country in different ages, the system of sympathetic magic remains everywhere and at all times substantially alike in its principles and practice. Among the ignorant and superstitious classes of modern Europe it is very much what it was thousands of years ago on Egypt and India, and what it now is among the lowest savages surviving in the remotest corners of the world.”

    “It is not our business here to consider what bearing the permanent existence of such a solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society and unaffected by the superficial changes of religion and culture, has upon the future of humanity. The dispassionate observer, whose studies have led him to plumb its depths, can hardly regard it as otherwise than as a standing menace to civilization.” pp. 66-67

    So eat all the crackers and drink all the grape juice you want, fellow Crimestoppers, but realize how easily and quickly the thin veneer of civilization can vanish and the adjective “ritual” disappear from in front of the noun “cannibalism.” The magical concept: “You are what you eat” has a far older and deeper hold on the human mind than any religious metaphor can disguise for long.

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    1. Far too many battles have been fought over whether it’s transubstantiation or consubstantiation.

      Christ’s Last Supper had great symbolic meaning. But must we believe we literally drink His blood and eat His flesh during “communion”? I was taught so, as a Catholic.

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  10. “When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.” Ya think? Well not to be too bitchy but Evangelical Christians account for a large swath of American Protestants. They are always going to push, it’s their thing. It will continue to be their thing.

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  11. “The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause of everything that happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance… Logic can be happily tossed out the window” Stephen King, The Stand

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