Friday, January 21, 2011

Deconstructing Dogmas

One of humanity's greatest gifts - and perhaps its greatest challenge - lies in our ability to pass down wisdom from one generation to the next. This capacity enables us to rapidly advance as a species, because each new generation doesn't need to repeat the experiences of past generations. Instead we can build on what has been learned by our elders and use that vast platform of wisdom as a place from which to create new experiences for ourselves, as well as to attain ever higher levels of wisdom.

Where the challenge arises around this gift is the fact that what made sense for one era, and what has been passed down through generations as wisdom, may not make sense anymore in light of the changes that have occurred within our species and in our world. In these situations, what we've carried forward as "wisdom" may in actuality be "baggage" we must shed if we hope to evolve successfully as a species. But how, we must ask ourselves, do we discern which of our ancient teachings and beliefs should be reverently carried forward, and which should be released with thanks for the service they once provided, but provide no more?

The key, I believe, lies in our willingness to continuously and patiently examine our dogmas and to seek the real reasons WHY they became beliefs we held so tight in the first place. Where we have no written record of why a particular belief came into being, we must use our powers of critical thinking to apply our understanding of both life in that bygone era (as well as our understanding of the collective state of human consciousness at that time) to try and make some sense of why it exists. If we can discover why a particular belief was first adopted, we can then decide if those reasons still apply to us today.

One example of a dogma of dubious origin would be the Jewish blanket prohibition against the consumption of shellfish. When we examine the history of shellfish consumption, what becomes clear is that eating undercooked or raw shellfish can indeed be a dangerous pastime. We're told in the northern hemisphere that we shouldn't eat raw oysters during months that contain no "r's," because the warmer water temperatures in those summer months place us at higher risk of bacterial contamination and illness. It's not surprising then, that in the warmer Mediterranean and seafaring regions where Jewish law originated, the highly educated authors of Jewish law decided it was crucial to ban the consumption of shellfish to protect a mainly illiterate and childlike population from what must have been a common illness and freqent cause of death. They obviously had no direct understanding of bacteria and no cures for seafood poisoning, so by declaring shellfish "unclean" they were offering the best insight they were capable of at the time. Add to that the fact that the poorest and least educated of people in that region would have made their living from the sea. Presumably then, those poor fishermen would have sold the best of their catch at market and fed the "trash" of the sea - the shellfish - to their own families. The feeding of shellfish to the families of fishermen has gone on for thousands of years, which explains why a "po-boy" sandwich is made of lobster and why New Englanders put oysters in their stuffing. Clearly then, when we apply modern reason to the ancient dogma we begin to understand why such a regulation made sense in that bygone era. But does it make sense today for Jewish law to continue to prohibit the eating of all shellfish under any circumstances, when today we know how to prepare it and safely consume it?

As a non-Jew I won't presume to offer an answer to that question. It's for every thinking Jew to decide for himself. What I do know is while many of our religious dogmas may have made sense in ancient times, in different locales and for a different level of human sophistication, they've filtered out as largely unexamined biases into our secular society, often with disastrous consequences. The religious prohibition against homosexuality, for instance, can be reasonably examined in light of the fact that it arose during an era when child mortality was high, the construction of great societies was accelerating, and the need for labor and military forces was great. Homosexuals, however, weren't likely to reproduce and contribute new children into the social labor pool. Because homosexuality isn't a choice, the leaders who wrote religious canon must have realized (likely after some trial and error) that only way to suppress homosexuality was to shame the individuals into pretending to be what they weren't, and by threatening them with eternal damnation unless they behaved as obedient social repopulators. Today though, with child life expectancy as high as it is, the global population nearing seven billion and the need for physical labor giving way to the use of machines and technology, that urgent need for everyone to continually reproduce has not only declined, it's fast becoming a problem. Why ban lifestyles that effectively control our problematic population growth, when the reason for originally banning them no longer makes social sense? Not only that, but the policy violates our modern, more advanced understanding of the sovereign right of every adult individual to be exactly who he/she is so long as their behavior does no harm to others.

The difficulty with releasing our ancient dogmas arises precisely because they're so strongly held yet are critically unexamined. They're strongly held because the original reasons given by lawmakers for the belief weren't always the true reasons people were expected to hold them. The original reasons like, "if you practice homosexuality you'll go to hell," were made-up reasons that enabled lawmakers to accomplish social engineering in a population they felt was too ignorant to be effectively educated around the genuine reasons. Just like we sometimes "trick" our children into doing what we want, as in, "Stay in bed or the monsters are going to come out and eat you up," so too did early lawmakers trick an unsuspecting and childlike public into behaving in ways they believed best served society.

Part of our collective maturation process stems from separating the scary tricks that were played on our childlike ancestors to get them to behave in certain ways from the truth. Our longstanding fear of the scary tricks, which were well crafted to keep people in line at their time of origin, often pits our sense of reason against our attachment to those unexamined dogmas in a battle for the evolution of our personal consciousness. We were not only taught the dogmas, we were taught the fears as well.

To find the inner courage to step willingly into the process of examining everything we think we know but that doesn't really make sense, and then to try to make some sense of how it came to be so we can decide if we truly wish to hold those beliefs anymore may be the single greatest task we must accomplish as individuals. Our species can only advance itself to the level of the average human consciousness it contains, so the more of us who - childlike - refuse to examine our inherited dogmas and make way for personal growth, the harder it will be for humanity as a whole to move ahead. None of us can single-handedly change the belief system of an entire society, but each of us has the power - as well as a moral obligation - to ensure we're doing our best to help humanity evolve, by letting go of what doesn't serve us any longer.

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