Emerson and Religion Vs. Me and Religion

What is religion? What has itreally done for society? Many people would argue that religion has only served as another way for members of society to separate themselves from their neighbors. Religion has also been the underlying reason for wars and violence dating all the way back in history to the Christian Crusades up to now with the Israeli Palenstian War. Thousands of individuals have lost their lives for their religion, which ironically is supposed to save people.

On the other hand there are thousands of people that would argue that their religion has been their savior. Whether it is by helping them get through a rough patch in their life or even preventing them from committing suicide. In my opinion religion can be whatever you want it to be. For me religion has served as just another aspect of what makes me who I am. I would never say that I was religious per say in terms of celebrating all the holidays and observing all the rules (for the record I’m Jewish), but I would say that my religion has instilled a sense of morals and beliefs in me from the teachings, readings, and stories basically everything that Emerson argues is wrong with religion.

In his Self-Reliance, Emerson makes it very clear that he is against conformity and anything that restricts the individual from forming their own opinion. As he shares “ I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching” (Emerson, pg. 37). He likes the silence better than the preaching, because from what I know about sermons, both in Jewish and Catholic/Christian services, they are based on the preacher/ rabbi’s interpretation of the text. Emerson completely disagrees with this concept because he believes that an individual should interpret the text on his own.

This image of standing in an empty church reminds me of a prayer that is done in a Jewish service the Amidah or the silent prayer. While yet there is a routine associated with this prayer in terms of what you say when, what you say out loud, when you daven or bow, every service I have been too (given I’m reform) allows each individual to take this time to themselves to pray in silence- after all, who knows if your saying the right words your not saying anything out loud. For me this is my favorite part of the service because this is the time that I feel I truly have with just God and me. While this prayer provides me with some guidance in the beginning I’m also allowed to think and pray how I please.

Emerson on the other hand would disapprove of this. He disagrees with prayer and describes it as “ looking abroad and asking for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and meditorial and miraculous” and as “ diseases of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect” (Emerson, 40-1). In other words prayer is asking for something foreign rather than doing it on your own and ruining your intellect.

I personally disagree with Emerson and see nothing wrong in praying if that is what you personally need to do. If asking God or whomever for help or guidance or whatever is what makes you feel better, than who am I or society or Emerson to stop you. It’s your prayer, your decision. I also don’t think that being religious or believing in prayer makes you any less intelligent. Religion hasn’t forced my beliefs like Emerson would argue, but rather has served as an aid in me forming my own beliefs. Religion, in the eyes of Emerson may be a form of constriction, like how Tocquiville see it or a reason to cause wars or it can be a way to find yourself… Hell it it can be whatever you want it to be.

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10 Responses to Emerson and Religion Vs. Me and Religion

  1. erikamir says:

    I thought your blog post was very interesting. I also disagree with Emerson on his point on praying. Though I believe that it is important to have a personal relationship with God, rather than be in a church, but I think it is more important to have a relationship with God in whatever way you see fit, than to not have one at all. I know Emerson would disagree with my point. But what would Emerson say to the crack-head on the street that is struggling? He might need someone to deliver the word for them because building a relationship with God takes time and patience. Or what would Emerson say to a dying child in a hospital? Sorry, you can’t pray because you are conforming to society and don’t even dare let the pastor visit you. Personally I believe that in order to reach the state that Emerson describes you have to already be pretty happy, established financially and have really no real responsibilities or obligations to anyone but yourself. And for those of us who’s not, what do you do? You do whatever you need to do to make it through the day.

  2. eskylis says:

    This discussion on prayer is an interesting one. I think that a definition of “prayer” must be outlined before any condemnations—either of or by Emerson—occur. It seems clear that Emerson would condemn something like saying 5 ‘hail Marys‘, 7 ‘glory bes’ or 3 ‘our fathers’, certainly as an act of penance, but it isn’t as clear that he would condemn the sort of prayer described above in the Jewish tradition. As Emerson considers, there is no ‘ceiling’ between the god above and the god within. By consequence, the act of talking to god, in a dialogue (or monologue anyway) does not necessarily contrast with the idea advanced by Emerson.

    It then seems of vital importance that we define precisely what constitutes prayer. Does a heart to heart with ‘god’ fit this bill? What about a Buddhist in meditation, who might reach ‘ground luminosity’, or become a ‘Buddha’ themselves upon achieving enlightenment? Is this prayer?

    At issue then is exactly what constitutes prayer; it is not clear that Emerson would condemn all forms of prayer, or even the majority of ‘prayers’. It seems that Emerson is more concerned with the rigid structure imposed by institutionalized religion, and the ‘poems’ they have parishioners recite as prayer. I would argue that the idea Emerson champions that god is within us all suggests that he is only expressly opposed to institutionalized prayer. If this is the case, private time with god—if you consider this prayer or not—would not be condemned, and even may be championed by Emerson.

  3. brt001 says:

    I tend to agree with seeing prayer as a healthy thing. Looking at Emerson, he seems to believe that you can find God within yourself. Whatever, warped form of pantheism you might call this, I can’t help but get the feeling that it does, in fact, turn you into your own God if you follow it. Now, Emerson may claim that there is not a problem with the “being of God” residing inside your eternal soul. However, I find too many parallels to the concept of “God is all things.” It creates an atmosphere of self-worship, where your indistinct feelings and desires become preeminent. I find this to be a troubling aspect of existence. If I based my notions of good and bad on my vicissitudinous predispositions of my fickle human mind and heart, I daresay that my morality would practically shift with the wind.

    Connecting this all to prayer, I believe that asking something outside of yourself for guidance is easily the more reasonable than seeking it within yourself. If you have the need to ask, that implies that this is an answer you do not possess. For Emerson to claim that you can do your own seeking and finding, searching within yourself for enlightenment, is foolish. I don’t know who can legitimately argue that humans are not finite beings. Last I checked, I run into my basic emotional, intellectual, and spiritual limitations daily. Claiming to possess infinite is simply a falsehood. I pray to the God who saves because I know these limitations, and can come to Him in a position of weakness, a position where I’ve come to end of myself. I know I come to an end. Emerson seems to think that we can continue discovering truth within us. I believe that we must look at something that is outside our limits, outside us.

  4. jwpeace88 says:

    It is hard to deny that religion serves benign purposes at the individual level. It provides comfort and confirms a personal relationship with God, as many have already pointed out in their comments. However, I think what Emerson is essentially concerned with in relation to prayer, or “looking abroad and asking for foreign virtues”, is the effect religion has on society as a whole.

    Religion, especially monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is much more binding than any other social/cultural norms in terms of morality. Their absolute, infallible, and unconditional principles tend to influence the followers to become dogmatic and intolerant to different or conflicting ideas. Anyone who is well acquainted with history is aware of the destructive potential of religion, when it needs to be as such. Often times in the course of human history religion has worked as an agent of the powerful.

    You pointed out that religion has instilled in you a sense of morals and beliefs. What if those morals and beliefs are shaped by power-holders of this society? What if this set of beliefs is actually part of a grand scheme deliberately developed by the powerful in order to effectively govern and maneuver the masses in their favor? I’m not questioning the credibility of the teachings of religion. I simply want to raise an issue of credibility of the followers of religion. After all, it is the followers who interpret God’s messages.

    In my opinion, this is what Emerson had in mind when he said he was skeptical of taking in “foreign addition and foreign virtues”. Religion makes an individual much more susceptible and vulnerable to social influence fabricated by dominant force of society.

  5. krisskrosswillmakeyou says:

    Emerson is operating under the assumption that religion forces groups of people to accept the same exact ideals, morals and belief. thus impairing individualism is original thought. While this is true for many, religion is also often manipulated as well. For example, someone may believe themselves to be great Christians but then also believe that homosexuals are completely fine and deserve to be in heaven just as much as a straight Christian. When asked why they would believe this, when its clearly stated in religious text that homosexuality is unacceptable, responses vary from belief that the texts are just guidelines or aren’t meant to be literal. Essentially though, these people have taken their own interpretation of the their religion. If we view this this from a wider angle, we will likely see that most people have their own interpretation of a religion. Therefore, not every religious person is exactly the same. However, for people who are strict about every guideline they know of, religion can be seen as something that will create a tunneled thought process and would be the very thing that Emerson would fight against.

  6. brbarlog says:

    I think this blog post does a nice job trying to connect the aspects of conventional religious teachings and the ideas of Emersonian beliefs. I tend to agree with this blog post; in that I also disagree with Emerson’s belief that praying is misguided. I think the main aspect of any religion is to develop a personal relationship with the divine deity as well as to live a life which is morally sound; granted, it can be said that one can live a sound-moral life without attributing oneself to a religion. I also agree with the blog post that praying establishes self-worth. I think, at least in my opinion, praying allows me to look inside myself and to use self-retrospection about what I did during the course of the week and hopefully try to rectify mistakes.

    I also want to add an opinion about what was brought up in a comment above, as it relates to a preacher or priest. Every week, I sit in church anticipating what the priest has to say. I think too often, people take what they hear from a priest and do either one of two things: capitulate or completely dismiss it. I really think that sometimes, the public believes what a candidate in a presidential race says rather than their priest. This does not include the assumption that either one of them are correct, but that the media plays a great role in politics than in the church, for good reason.

  7. bradenburgess says:

    I read this blog post and it made me think again about Emerson’s religious views. We learned in class about how he gave the Harvard Divinity School address and how it caused such a stir. Certainly, for the 19th century Emerson’s religious views would have been seen as radical. His words clearly call into question the binding authority of religious leaders.

    Today, however, many people hold these beliefs. It is commonplace to question the binding authority of religious leaders. It seems that Emerson’s religious opinions have been very much accepted by a large portion of the population. When one thinks about it, it makes sense. Today, people are skeptical of anyone claiming to know “the truth”. After witnessing much scandal and abuse by leaders, religious and secular, people are hesitant about trusting anyone. In this way, our society has become very Emersonian.

  8. davehopkins2 says:

    I largely agree with the main opinion of the author of this post. I am also Jewish (conservative), and I have always loved the amidah, as it gives each individual a chance to reflect and to pray as they please. I think Emerson misreads the function of prayer. Prayer serves a function for both person praying as well as the relationship that the person praying feels he/she has with God. Since prayer has helped so many people to develop the confidence that they need in order to face the world as their own person, espousing their own unique beliefs, I was surprised to read what Emerson had to say about prayer. I also have a mixed opinion on his idea of the silent church. While it certainly is important to cultivate one’s own spiritual beliefs outside of those expressed on the bimah (or pulpit, for members of different faiths), many faiths offer sermons for the purpose of provoking deeper thought in the congregation. This is a large part of the reason I converted to Judaism. While I feel that the introspection undertaken in prayer is very important for spiritual health and development, the freedom to disagree with the interpretations of the rabbis is exactly what makes me feel liberated. This is precisely the opposite of the way in which Emerson feels religion shapes one’s beliefs. There are many people who rely on prayer and interaction with their religion to cope with the burdens that society often places on them. Who has the right to say that any of this strips them of their independent thought or spirituality? It may be the only thing that gives them this sense of individuality.

  9. emmasag says:

    Emerson’s condemnation of religion based on the argument that it doesn’t allow for free thinking is more than valid in my opinion. Ironically, I came to this conclusion after reading Emerson’s argument in Self- Reliance, and realizing that I didn’t agree with his fundamental points on religion. How so?
    Self-Reliance comments on a number of social issues, but Emerson’s viewpoints on religion to me were the most interesting. As someone who attended catholic school/church growing up (now non-denominational) with a devout interest in religion, I would personally describe myself as being a religious person, but not for traditional reasons such as attending church or following any specific churches’ doctrine. Attending a catholic school (k-8) in which catholic doctrine was taught as the way to enlightenment, has left me with a negative opinion towards many religions to this very day; however unlike Emerson, rather than despising all religions, I feel that this experience motivated me to look into other religions.
    Where I agree with Emerson is on the idea that religion handicaps many of its followers, who so easily subscribe to teachings that they take at face value. Sometimes this ‘face value’ is one that has been twisted and construed to support selfish intentions, such as Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. In the case of Emerson, his issue with religion stems from his firm opposition to the institution of slavery. Emerson states, “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies, and dead institutions…If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?” (29). This highly charged statement to me explains and even justifies Emerson’s critique of religion, as he couldn’t rationalize a religious and slave holding society.
    So can one really blame Emerson for having a negative opinion of religion given many of the evils it perpetuated specifically during his time? Throughout history? Perhaps. But I would say that even though some may disagree with Emerson’s conclusions on religion, it is fair to say that Emerson’s environment in mid- 19th century America, did much to form his religious beliefs.

  10. bkemeter says:

    Emerson’s ideas on religion were really interesting for me, as I agreed on some things but strongly disagreed on others. I definitely think that prayer is good for a person. There is something in talk to God that I think is very calming and helping spiritually. I think both structured and free prayer, depending on what I need has always been big for me.
    The idea of a silent church was the part I was up in the air about. Being Catholic, tradition is a big part of my religion. Learning from past understandings is how services go and it has really helped me personally. However, I do get the draw of a silent church. Looking with myself also helps me a lot. Personal independence in my beliefs have always had a draw for me. Looking to the past and the larger picture then applying it personally would seem like a middle ground that, like his theory on prayer, Emerson kind of leaves out.

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