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July 13, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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“How do you take your coffee?” she asked me. “Long and black,” I replied, deciding to forgo the classic “like I like men” gag this time. I was sitting in the living room of Alice and Josh, a couple devoted to Seventh-day Adventism, and judged it was better to let their etiquette prevail. They were, on the whole, lovely hosts with impeccable hospitality, but I couldn’t help feeling nervous.”

The first question they asked me, after pleasantries were out of the way, was: “Do you believe in God?” As they explained their religion to me, they peppered their conversation with nuggets of wisdom, some poignant (“For me, the quest for truth took a long time… but like my brother told me, when I found it, ‘It doesn’t matter which path you take, the summit of the mountain is always the same’”) and some scientifically dubious (“You know why people get bipolar disorder, don’t you? It’s the parents not controlling their kids and letting their emotions go wild! It’s God’s way of telling us that discipline is important.”)

They explained why they go to church on Saturday; why, when they fast, they don’t eat animals who shed red blood; how they volunteer for the community, and have done for 30 years. They were weird. They were lovely. They were human.


You don’t need a PhD in Religious Studies to realise that religions are complex institutions. They’re more adaptable than the unwavering strictures of their doctrines would have you assume. There are two main reasons why religious organisations are as prone to change as they are. One component of this is to attract new followers and converts; believers are the lifeblood, if you’ll excuse the pun, of any congregation, and the numbers are dwindling perilously – especially among youth. According to the most recent census, more New Zealanders than ever identify as atheists or agnostics, to the extent that they outnumber their believing counterparts. A cynic would note here that it’s important to get converts in order to attain more money for one’s church through donations.

The other reason is considerably more complicated. People on the outside of religion assume that religion’s main appeal is as a way of dealing with mortality, a means of providing to solace to those preoccupied with the inevitability and intractability of death. Equally as important on the inside, however, is the sense of community and belonging that joining a religious denomination fosters. Such is the importance of a perceived community that, as community beliefs change, religious institutions necessarily have to change alongside them.

In a cultural landscape where gay marriage is becoming increasingly accepted, while financially, many people are left struggling after the stock-market crash of the late noughties (ick), the Pope is reacting by easing up on the whole homophobia thing and famously lives an ascetic lifestyle which has won him acclaim and earned him the title of ‘The People’s Pope’.

The Pope’s supposed ‘progressiveness’ is, I believe, overstated – he is quite clear that he believes that acting on homosexual impulses goes against the word of God, and though he’s promised to “ask the questions as to why [gay marriage] has appealed to certain people,” that in no way entails comprehensive reform in the church. Using someone’s views on queer rights, too, is a substandard mode of determining their entire praxis – the Pope is still wary of anointing female priests and rigorously opposed to contraception. Yet it remains a notable step for the Catholic Church, especially in the wake of criticism targeting the church’s ingrained homophobia and its predilection towards largesse, pomp and ceremony. Shit, the Catholic Church of Northcote has recently swapped its eucharistic wine to a cheaper brand (not that it matters, considering that the white wine ‘Gewürztraminer’ is in vogue amongst the upper-class elite at the moment. Do try and keep up, you parvenu), symbolising a new-found restraint that is permeating the Catholic Church’s traditions.

I was curious, though, about whether this trend was correlation, causation, or just plain coincidence. In order to get some insight, I decided to canvass some leaders and followers of a variety of religious beliefs. This is how I found myself in the office of a rabbi much too early in the morning, trying not to say the word ‘Israel’.


Judaism is different to a lot of the major religions – Islam, Christianity, Buddhism et al. – in that it doesn’t actively seek new followers. If gentiles show an interest, then great! But as the code they adhere to, they’re not too fussed – they’re God’s chosen people by race, not belief, so there’s less pressure to adjust their religious doctrine to make it palatable to outsiders. And indeed, the New Zealand public’s increased interest in transparency does not seem to have much effect. Before meeting the rabbi, his exceedingly polite but stern secretary laid down some ground rules: “Don’t mention Israel. Don’t even allude to it. In your conversation, do not trespass into the grey area of politics.”

As it turned out, Rabbi Altshul was chill as fuck, possessing a warmth and dry sense of humour that made me like him immediately. He apologised for not being able to talk about ‘more interesting’ things than Judaism, I assume in reference to the Israel issue. As for whether Judaism has changed in the past, say, 50 years? “Judaism hasn’t changed for the last 2500 years.” For dramatic effect, he called out to his receptionist in a nearby room: “MAREN. HAS JUDAISM CHANGED AT ALL IN THE LAST 50 YEARS?” “No, Rabbi.” “HOW ABOUT THE LAST 2500?” “Not at all, Rabbi.”

That was an – admittedly very slight – exaggeration. About 2000 years ago the Jewish people switched from animal sacrifice to prayer. 200 years ago, there was a schism in the Jewish orthodoxy that separated traditional Jews from their ‘liberal’ counterparts. Traditional Jews interpret Jewish lore and law, err, religiously. Liberal Jews are more relaxed about the whole enterprise.

What Judaism does is take Jewish doctrines, which are taken from the aforementioned Torah and a litany of ‘oral knowledge’ passed down from generation to generation, and apply ‘em to contemporary issues in what’s called a ‘dialogue’. For Judaism, it is not the tenets of religion that change, but the context in which they are practised.

The results of this rigid adherence to tradition have their drawbacks. Many followers are attracted to the wealth of history Judaism has accumulated, find solace in the antiquity it is steeped in; yet the Rabbi notes that temple attendance is down, and that “95 per cent of my congregation do not worship consistently… It’s a real problem, especially here in New Zealand. Followers just aren’t as devoted as they should be.” Like ‘fair-weather Christians’ – the kind who go to church on Easter and Christmas – some members of the Jewish synagogue are impenetrably resolute.


Ironically, the practice of adapting ancient scripture to modern circumstances is also prevalent in some sectors of Islam. Most recently, it has manifested itself in the debate over the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab or the burqa. In times of antiquity, it was used to invoke a Muslim woman’s modesty and morality; recently, young Muslim women have been using it as a way of expressing autonomy and rejection of secular society’s control of their bodies. Once again, we see an ancient and sacred lore being adapted to an entirely new scenario, without losing the context from which it originated.

Is it fair to assume that religions with inflexible doctrines are more likely to alienate worshippers than those who don’t? Or is a willingness to engage with secular issues through the lens of a doctrine enough? For most believers I asked, the latter sufficed. It’s true that a religious body owes it to its congregation to engage and evolve. This, I think, is true for all those in positions of power.

But the comfort derived from a sense of belonging and bonhomie compromises the desire to rock the boat too much; and if a given religion gives someone satisfaction and meaning, and they don’t infringe on the rights of others – who the fuck are we to scorn them? The youth demographic have, according to certain fearmongers, ‘turned their backs on religion’ in droves. Recent research conducted worldwide affirms this.

But essential tenets and comforts of religious faith permeate our lives anyway. We find something akin to the joys of faith in all sorts of things – political ideologies, friend cliques, collectives, even in a shared preference for a particular genre of music. We may no longer turn to religion for a moral code, but there are elements of belonging to a religious community that have hitched a ride with the societal shift towards secularism.

I don’t want to overstate the point, but I think it’s reasonably safe to say that everyone feels lonely and atomised sometimes. We all, on some level, ache for some kind of connection – spiritual, physical, somewhere in between. There’s nothing more human. Perhaps religion doesn’t need to overhaul itself to gain followers. As it is, religion makes people realise that they’re not – or don’t have to be – completely alone. God knows there’s something special about that.

It’s impossible to overestimate the security and comfort that being a member of a religious group provides. Certainly for Josh and Alice, it provides fulfilment. “God sent us to this church and these people. He willed it to happen. I truly believe that. I know that.” “God’s will and grace?” I quip impudently. Alice takes her husband’s hand, smiles, and looks me dead in the eye. “Exactly. His Will and His Grace.”


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  1. article | August 5, 2014
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